If you visit the claimed site of Jesus’ crucifixion today, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it once would have been like. To visit, you must go into the bustling Old City of Jerusalem, and then inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, as you dodge between crowds of pilgrims and swinging Greek Orthodox oil lamps, you’ll see a white rock poking up under an altar. It’s here, the church claims, that Jesus was crucified. Surprisingly perhaps, most archaeologists agree.
Of course, Jesus didn’t go into the Old City to Golgotha. He went out of the city. All the gospel writers emphasise that Jesus was taken outside the city to be crucified. Unlike today, in 30 AD, the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was outside the city walls.
You may be wondering why that is so important. It matters because Jews associate holiness and purity with places. So it was outside the city where the unclean was dealt with (e.g. Leviticus 14:33-45).
A holy city and a holy God
The holiest place was, of course, the temple. But Jerusalem itself was considered to be a holy city (Nehemiah 11:1, Isaiah 52:1, Matthew 4:5, etc.). That meant that certain things shouldn’t take place within the city’s walls. Everything impure should be done outside or taken there. At the time of Jesus, some Jews (the Essenes) even forbade defecating within the city. They had to go 3,000 cubits outside the city, which is nearly a mile. And we think having a privy in the garden is difficult!
It’s tempting to write the Essenes off as obsessed. But there is a biblical mandate behind their practice. Deuteronomy 23:12–14 tells those on the Exodus that they should ‘designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself.’ Crucially, the biblical text also explains why that’s necessary. It’s not merely for hygiene, but it’s because ‘the LORD your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you.’
God’s presence is the reason why the Israelites had a concept of holy ground. It’s not simply that they wanted to remove uncleanness away from themselves. They believed that God would turn away from them if they allowed uncleanness among them. So in order to protect themselves from God’s wrath, they made sure that all uncleanness was removed far away from them.
Outside the camp
We can see this throughout the Bible. Sacrifices were taken outside the camp after they were killed (Leviticus 4:12). The idea seems to be that the sin was so serious, that the body of the animal that was sacrificed as a sin offering had to be not only destroyed, but removed: killed, burned, and then the ashes taken outside the camp.
In the days of the Exodus, those who were ceremonially unclean were sent outside the camp (e.g. Numbers 5:1-4). That’s also where those who disobeyed God’s law were executed (e.g. Numbers 15:32-36), a custom that lasted at least until New Testament times (Luke 4:29, Acts 7:58). Even today, Jews are buried outside Jerusalem. One of the most striking sights, as you look away from the city, is the vast Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. There, just outside the city, up to a quarter of a million Jews are buried, with some graves dating back to the biblical period.
No cleansing for the city
But the people repeatedly fail to take advantage of God’s provision to keep their city pure. In Ezekiel 24:13 the Lord says to Jerusalem that he ‘tried to cleanse you but you would not be cleansed from your impurity’, and as a consequence, ‘you will not be clean again until my wrath against you has subsided’. The result is the exile, where Jerusalem herself is destroyed. Jeremiah explains, ‘Jerusalem has sinned greatly, and so has become unclean’ (Lamentations 1:8). What used to happen to those sacrifices has now happened to Jerusalem and the temple itself. She and her people have been killed, burned, and now taken away — to Babylon.
A better sacrifice
That’s why, unlike almost all other Jews, Jesus didn’t consider the temple (or even Jerusalem) to be a holy place. It was a den of robbers. While other Jews thronged to the temple to get close to God, Jesus made a habit of praying in remote places, far away from the city. And when he needed to pray on the night before his crucifixion, he quite deliberately left Jerusalem in order to do so (even today, Gethsemane is just outside the city).
In the Old Testament, the sacrificial animals would be killed in the holy place (the tabernacle, or temple), which their blood would then purify (Exodus 29:21, Leviticus 8:15, Hebrews 9:22). Their carcasses would then be removed from the city to remove any remaining impureness. But the temple was no longer a holy place, God’s presence was no longer there. In fact, Jesus was the temple (John 2:19-21), he was Immanuel, God come down.
When he was taken outside the city, the Jewish leaders thought they were cleansing the city of blasphemous impurity. But the reality was far more significant. As Jesus was taken out of the city to be crucified, he was taking their impurity on himself, and so deflecting God’s wrath away from God’s people and on to himself. The writer to the Hebrews draws the parallel with the ritual where the carcasses of sacrificed animals are taken outside the city, especially on the day of atonement.
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:11–13).
The message to the Jewish Christians is unmissable. Jesus has taken the place of those Old Testament sacrifices, and his crucifixion outside the city proved that. But if they are to share in his sacrificial death, they too must turn their back on the temple and all that Jerusalem represents, and bear the disgrace that Jesus himself bore. Because Jesus is the new temple, there is no salvation to be found within the sacrificial system, but only in him.
And for us? We also find it tempting to cling to the things of this world. But just as Jesus was not at home in Jerusalem, so we are not at home in this world. We are looking for a better city, still to come — the ‘holy city, [the] new Jerusalem’, which is completely pure, ‘prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband’ (Revelation 21:2). It’s only because Jesus bore our sins outside the city, that we can go into that holy city.