What was done outside the camp of Israel mattered to God just as much as what happened inside the camp, and that becomes a point of significance in helping us understand a subtle yet important nuance of Jesus’ own ministry.
As part of God’s conditional covenant with Israel (often called the Mosaic Covenant or Mosaic Law), God placed emphasis on activities being done outside the camp. For example, the burning of the sacrificed sin offering was to take place outside the camp (Exodus 29:14). Moses also set up a temporary tabernacle (or tent of meeting) outside the camp so that, when the Israelites sought the Lord, they would do so outside the camp (Exodus 33:7). Even the ashes of the burnt offerings were to be taken to a clean place outside the camp (Leviticus 6:11).
It would seem simple enough that these activities would be done outside the camp for practical reasons. But there were other reasons evident as well. When Nadab and Abihu were killed by God for violating His sacrificial laws, their relatives were told to take their ashes outside the camp (Leviticus 10:4–5). If someone had leprosy, he was to dwell outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45–46). If a person was to be stoned to death, it was to happen outside the camp (Numbers 15:35). More than just for practical reasons those things that were unfit for normal dwelling inside the camp were taken outside the camp—it was the home of that which was unclean.
While at first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything vitally important about how the outside of the camp was used in Israel’s law and culture, the writer of Hebrews brings to our attention an important nuance in the ministry of Jesus Christ. First, the writer reminds readers that the bodies of animals sacrificed under the Law of Moses were taken outside the camp and burned (Hebrews 13:11). The writer then explains that Jesus, in order to sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside of the city gate (Hebrews 13:12). Matthew recounts that, after Jesus’ injustice of a trial, He was taken outside the city to a place called Golgotha (“place of the skull”) and crucified there (Matthew 27:33).
In Hebrews we understand that Jesus was taken outside the city to bear reproach—to be treated as an unclean criminal unqualified to remain in the city. We are then to go to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach (Hebrews 13:13) and knowing that we do not have a lasting city here; rather, we are seeking that which is to come (Hebrews 13:14). Jesus died the death of a criminal, outside the city, so that we might all be qualified through His blood to have righteousness and eternal life and to be part of His coming kingdom. As Isaiah explains, the Messiah would be despised and forsaken and not esteemed by men (Isaiah 53:3). In a remarkable irony, this Savior would carry humanity’s griefs and sorrows, and yet humanity would look at Him as if He were the one “punished by God” (Isaiah 53:4). All our iniquity would fall on Him (Isaiah 53:6), and by His sacrifice we would be healed (Isaiah 53:5).
Paul puts it this way: Jesus was fully God and worthy of glory, but He allowed Himself to be stripped of His glory, became a man, and was humbled to the point of death as a criminal on a cross (Philippians 2:6–8). John adds that Jesus did this so that by believing in Him we could have life in His name (John 20:31). That Jesus died outside the city or outside the camp just adds to the humiliation He was willing to undergo in His love for us. How can we not respond to such a One with trust, love, and thanksgiving? No greater love exists than the kind He showed for us (John 15:13).