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Hebrews 13:10–12

“We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”

Having warned about false teaching related to foods (Heb. 13:9), the author of Hebrews transitions to a food-related thought in today’s passage. We are not to be led astray by teachings that certain material foods can give us spiritual strength (v. 9), but that does not mean there is no eating and drinking in the Christian life that can fortify us spiritually. As we read in Hebrews 13:10, believers have a particular altar from which they can and must eat. This altar and food are not available to those who “serve the tent”— to those Jewish priests in the author’s day who rejected Christ.

Verses 11–12 make it clear that the altar from which we eat has to do with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and to understand the author’s larger point, we must look at these verses in light of their Old Testament background. Today’s passage has as its background the Day of Atonement, which was observed once a year under the old covenant. According to Leviticus 16, the high priest of Israel sacrificed a bull and a goat on the Day of Atonement to atone for the sins of the Israelites and the Israelite priesthood. The blood from these animals was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place, and the bodies of these animals were burned outside the camp of Israel. Hebrews 13:11 refers explicitly to the sprinkling of blood, and verse 12 likens Jesus to the animals by noting that He suffered outside the camp to sanctify the people, much as the bodies of the animals offered for atonement were destroyed outside the camp. Jesus, of course, died outside the gate—outside the city of Jerusalem, which was the holy camp of Israel (John 19:16–20). Critically, no part of the offering on the day of the atonement could be eaten, not even by the priests, for its blood was taken into the tabernacle (Lev. 6:30).

Taking all this together, we see the author’s point: no one could eat—fully partake—of the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement. As good as it was, it could not be received in full and thus could not finally sanctify God’s people. However, we may eat from the altar of Christ. We partake of Him fully, just as in eating we fully consume food—though the author of Hebrews is talking about feeding on Christ spiritually, not carnally. We feed on Christ spiritually by believing in Him, by coming to Him in faith (John 6:35). Because we partake of Him fully, we benefit from Him completely. He truly and finally sanctifies us—makes us holy unto the Lord.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

Today’s passage once more argues for the superiority of Christ to the old covenant order. Christ and Christ alone sanctifies us, and we can add no altar, no food, no work of ours, no devotional practice or anything else to Him. In trusting in Him, we feed on Him and fully benefit from His perfect work on our behalf. John Owen comments, “The altar that we now have is Christ alone and his sacrifice.”

For Further Study
  • Deuteronomy 12
  • Luke 22:14–20
  • John 6:41–59
  • 1 Corinthians 10:18

Diverse and Strange Teachings

Going Outside the Camp

Keep Reading Time

From the September 2020 Issue
Sep 2020 Issue