Many of us have felt the discomfort of exclusion, of being left outside of something or somewhere we desired to get into. Throughout the Scriptures, beginning with Adam and Eve’s exit of Eden, we are taught that spiritual exclusion is one of the major consequences of sin. God has illustrated that to us in a variety of ways.
In the Law of Moses, the Israelites received many instructions about leaving their encampment under certain circumstances. For example, a person who developed leprosy was considered ceremonially unclean and had to make his dwelling “outside the camp” for as long as he had the disease (Leviticus 13.46). That became relevant when Moses’ sister Miriam was struck by God with leprosy as punishment for opposing Moses. She was shut “outside the camp” for seven days until she was healed (Numbers 12.15).
The law also dictated the location of executions: “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him” (Leviticus 24.14). We have examples of this happening. In 1 Kings 21, an innocent vineyard owner (Naboth) was killed on the orders of the queen because her husband coveted Naboth’s property. After false witnesses lied about his guilt, the people “took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones.” The same thing happened in the New Testament to Stephen in Acts 7.58, after he preached Jesus to the Sanhedrin council.
In the sacrifices the Israelites offered, the same practice applied. For example, during the annual day of atonement, the high priest performed rituals for the sins of all the people. In the course of that day, the bull and goat for the sin offering had to be carried “outside the camp” and burned (Leviticus 16.27). This was symbolic of how the sins of the people were taken away from them through the death of animals. While these ancient laws might seem unnecessary (and even detrimental) to a modern mind, they taught an immensely important principle: if people want to be close to a completely pure God, they have to be pure themselves. Defilement cannot coexist with holiness.
All of this helps us better appreciate the sacrifice of Jesus. The Christ suffered on a cross outside the borders of Jerusalem (John 19.20). Although innocent of sin, he suffered a sacrificial death of exclusion that mirrored the predicament we found ourselves in. The writer of the book of Hebrews aptly picked up this thread and wove it into his rallying cry: “so Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Hebrews 13.12-13). Are we pursuing personal comfort and shunning the hard work of Jesus’ kingdom, or are we willingly speaking and suffering for Jesus because of what he did on our behalf?