“We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.” Hebrews 13:10
According to statistics, more and more people do not attend church regularly. Many do not even identify as a Christian or to any religious philosophy at all. The reasons vary. Some have experienced church hurt. Others have been led to believe their sin is beyond grace. And some have walked away from the faith (or even considered joining it) out of confusion because of rituals, ceremonies, and false doctrines that make no sense leaving them to wonder if Christianity is a farce.
The writer of the book of Hebrews addresses this issue head-on, attributing it to what he calls “strange doctrines.” Often, these strange doctrines drive people away from Christ. Others are afraid to move at all for fear of offending God.
However, the Bible makes it clear that the church needs to learn how to go “outside the camp,” or else we risk being caught in the doctrine’s snare. The result not only affects our walk with Christ but also keeps us from fulfilling the Great Commission.
Beware of Strange Doctrines
Hebrews 13:9 tells us, “For it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not with ritual foods, which have never benefited those who participated in them.” In verse nine, the writer also says we should “not be carried away with various and strange doctrines.”
What are the strange doctrines? Paul dealt with this issue extensively in his ministry. Almost every church he established came under spiritual attack in the form of strange doctrines. These doctrines were introduced and perpetuated by various false teachers and those who did not entirely understand the gospel. The result was idol worship, disruptive and boisterous women, and rampant sexual immorality.
The writer of Hebrews is telling us we need to look to Jesus first and be strengthened by His grace rather than look to ceremonial rituals because they are completely worthless. Grace is the beginning of faith.
Today, we still confront false teachers and church leaders who do not fully understand God’s word. They unyieldingly hold fast to their belief in strange and false doctrines. They purport rituals and ceremonies are necessary to our salvation. Others promote the false theology that we achieve eternal life through good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Paul warns us of this in Galatians 3:3.
“Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
God tells us otherwise. We are to be strengthened alone by God’s saving grace and trust in Him, not by engaging in doctrines that run contrary to His word. It is foolish to believe our spiritual growth could come from slavish behavior.
So, how do we know if a strange doctrine is misleading us? If we are, what do we do about it? It begins by remembering how our Christian walk first started.
The Root of Faith
It is astonishing (dare we say) how many Christians involve themselves in strange doctrines. It is even more amazing how many church leaders and teachers purposely lead their congregations down these false paths, whether knowingly or not. The people then become like sheep gone very far astray.
It is vital we read the Bible every day. We must know God’s truth, or else we put ourselves at the mercy of others’ theologies and ideologies.
The first truth we must remember is how we came to know Christ in the first place. Did we earn His favor somehow? Did we offer Him something in exchange for His grace? Absolutely not. God gives His grace freely to all who ask for it. So, if we have accepted His gift of grace, our Christian walk should also be based on His grace. Everything we say and do must be rooted in God’s grace.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8 that we can engage in ritualistic eating to idols or for the sake of ceremony, but it will do us no good. It will do nothing to further our faith or help us to mature spiritually. Instead, it weakens our witness, and we sin against God because we could cause our brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:9).
The basis of our faith must be the grace we received from Christ as a result of His sacrificial death on the cross and not because of any rituals, ceremonies, good works, or weekly homages.
“Do not be carried away with various and strange doctrines. For it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not with ritual foods which have never benefited those who participated in them.” Hebrews 13:9
Stumbling Over Strange Doctrines
The writer of Hebrews then goes on to remind us of something very significant in verse ten.
“We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp.”
First-century Jewish high priests had to make regular and repeated sacrifices both for their sins and the sins of the people. But then Jesus came, and He took on the sins of the world, which negated the need for any more animal sacrifice. Jesus was the ultimate atoning sacrifice, but the Jews continued to reject Him.
Suppose we as believers engage in strange doctrines of rituals and ceremonies as the ancient Jews did (as well as many other modern faiths), believing it will somehow ensure or insulate our salvation. If we do, we essentially reject what Jesus did for us. We deny that His death was once and for all.
“For such a High Priest [i.e., Jesus} was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as high priests, to offer up sacrifices, for His own sins then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.” Hebrews 7:26-27 (my addition)
If we genuinely base our faith on Christ’s work on the cross, on His all-sufficient “once for all” sacrifice, on a single historical event on a hill called Golgotha, then we must reject the strange doctrines others try to impose on us. They cause us to stumble and keep us from the altar of Christ. As we read in verse ten, these people have no right to eat from the altar or demand we participate in any rituals.
Likewise, we cannot continue engaging in such rituals. We cannot continue repeatedly going back to the altar of false doctrine if we truly believe Jesus died once for all and that He settled the debt of sin for us.
By His atoning death, Jesus established only one altar for us, that of Himself.
Going Outside the Camp
Continuing in Hebrews 13:10, the writer reminds us the high priests made their sacrifices “outside the camp” in keeping with Mosaic Law (Leviticus 4:21, 16:27).
An anointed priest sacrificed a young bull as a sin offering anytime someone discovered the “whole congregation of Israel” (including the priest) unintentionally sinned. He sprinkled the bull’s blood in the tabernacle and on the altar, and he burned the bull’s fat as a peace offering. He then took the rest of the bull outside the camp and burned it. Only then was the sin forgiven.
The bull had to be burned outside the camp because it was dirty and, therefore, symbolically sinful. By going outside the camp, the priest kept sin away from the purity of the people. In a similar manner, Jesus was sacrificed outside Jerusalem’s gates.
By hanging on a cross, Jesus took our place and assumed all our sins. He bore our punishment of death, and He endured all the Father’s wrath. Those who come to understand this and accept the fact He opened wide the Holy of Holies and invited us all in should understand an important reality:
Those who continue to insist we engage in rituals or ceremonial meals, or that a church must have what one good pastor termed “God stuff,” or that we need to confess our sins to a man and not Jesus as our only High Priest (Hebrews 4:14), they do not understand the gospel. Or, they have either never heard the message or fully accepted it.
The Gospel Message
The gospel message is not only Jesus died so we may experience His grace. He also died to make us holy. He desires to make us more like Him and less like the world. But too often, many of us are stuck inside the camp, which is the world. We get hung up on rituals and make sure we only attend churches with the proper “God stuff,” such as a cross hanging on the wall, a steeple on the roof, and an altar upfront.
But remember, in the early churches, there were no altars, sacred rooms or buildings, or even a Bible. All they had was the gospel message. For this, the Pharisees commonly labeled the early Christians as atheists and sinners.
People today do the same thing. If we don’t have the “God stuff” or behave as they think we should, we must not be Christians, which is why we must remember Hebrews 13:10.
“We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.”
Our altar is Jesus. Those who influence us away from Him have no right to eat with Him.
Follow Jesus, Not Doctrines
If we truly reject or escape strange doctrines, we must be willing to go outside the camp of the world. We must be willing to follow Jesus outside the gate and become more like Him.
“Therefore, let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.” Hebrews 13:13
We cannot become godly unless we stop participating in worldly behaviors and rituals. We must boldly abandon Old Covenant laws and Pharisaic systems and live out our faith based on God’s grace alone.
Many people, including church leaders, want us to stay inside the camp where everything is nice and neat and cleanly structured. They want us to remain in a place where things are ordered and feel familiar to us. But God invites us to go outside the camp with Him, into a very messy world, taking the gospel message with us so we can make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).
Why would we give up everything we have come to know in our church and follow Jesus outside the camp? The Bible gives us two reasons: (1) We cannot fully follow Jesus unless we deny ourselves and pick up our cross (Luke 9:23), and (2) the world as we know it will one day pass away (Matthew 24:35). The writer of Hebrews mentions this next in verse fourteen.
“For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”
One day, true believers will be raptured to heaven just before Jesus destroys Satan forever in the Tribulation. The earth will then pass away, but we have the hope of a new city called New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2), where we will dwell with the Lord forever. We do not know when that day will come. It could happen at any time, so we must be ready. And we must go outside the camp to help others to be ready.
As for sacrifices, God still only requires two—praise and doing good.
“Therefore, by Him, let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for, with such sacrifices, God is well pleased.” Hebrews 13:16
It’s Time to Go
As followers of Christ, we cannot continue to remain inside the camp. We must first reject the world’s strange doctrines of useless rituals and ceremonies, not to mention false teaching, and follow Jesus outside. He calls us to be bold and determined in living out our faith based on His grace alone and sharing that Good News with others. We cannot do that if we are unwilling to step out.
Jesus spent every single day of His ministry wandering around Israel telling everyone He met about a new covenant with God, one of grace and not rituals. Our witness should not be any different.