Joke: Q: How do groups of angels greet each other? A: Halo, halo, halo.
“The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” (Proverbs 18:10)
There has been tension in the Middle East (ok, that’s not new) with a key Iranian military General killed, a passenger plane shot down and over 20 missiles fired at an American base. World War 3 was trending on twitter! This is part of what the Bible calls ‘Wars and rumours of wars’. As I write the numbers of those infected with the ‘corona-virus’ is sky-rocketing. Poor old Australia have horrific and devastating fires. And when it hasn’t been fires it’s been hail storms. And when it hasn’t been hail storms it’s been flooding. And when it wasn’t flooding it’s been dust storms. The Bible calls these things ‘birth pains’.
- How would we describe 2020?
- What were some of the most unbelievable things that happened last year?
This message is not however about those things. It is about Jesus as our place of refuge. With all that is happening people rightfully get concerned and many look for a place of safety. God, through His word, has shown where we are to look to find safety, refuge, meaning and hope. And He tells all of mankind to flee to that place and stay there. He has said this in many varied ways but one way that I have been looking at recently is pictured in the Old Testament concept of the ‘Cities of refuge’. No doubt you have heard of these but maybe, just maybe, you may not have taken the time to think about what God is trying to teach mankind through them. If that’s you, well, how fortunate you are because there are some important gems hidden within these cities!1 So we’ll look at:
The historical background (Joshua 20)
Let’s first look at a passage of scripture that gives an overview of these cities of refuge and discuss how they were used historically.
Jos 20:1-9 Then the LORD said to Joshua: (2) Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, (3) so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. (4) When he flees to one of these cities, he is to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state his case before the elders of that city. Then they are to admit him into their city and give him a place to live with them. (5) If the avenger of blood pursues him, they must not surrender the one accused, because he killed his neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. (6) He is to stay in that city until he has stood trial before the assembly and until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time. Then he may go back to his own home in the town from which he fled.” (7) So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. (8) On the east side of the Jordan of Jericho they designated Bezer in the desert on the plateau in the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan in the tribe of Manasseh. (9) Any of the Israelites or any alien living among them who killed someone accidentally could flee to these designated cities and not be killed by the avenger of blood prior to standing trial before the assembly.
We see that God instructed Joshua, as he had Moses before him, to setup six cities throughout the land of Israel that would have a special status as a ‘city of refuge’. So what does that mean? Well, in those days Israel lived under the law which incorporated the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’. If you murdered someone, then you would be put to death… plain and simple. But even if you killed someone accidentally the closest relative of the slain person could come for your life. The ‘closest relative’ in this case was known ‘as the avenger of blood’. They would come for justice over the shed blood of their brother or close relative.
So let’s say I’m building a wall and I unintentionally dislodge some large stones which come down, hitting a man and killing him instantly. What do I do? Run. Fast. I need to get to a city of refuge where I can be safe and have my case heard. Or maybe I’m chopping down trees and, having not really maintained my tools, my axe head flies off, striking a man and killing him. I need to get to the city of refuge. They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I have added a painting to the right.2 Here you can see one fleeing into the gates of the city of refuge with the avenger of blood, drawn sword in hand, hot on his heels. But the elder or priest of the city is there to meet the one fleeing and say ‘not one step further’ to the one in pursuit. Our accidental man-slayer has made it! He’s safe!
Cities of Refuge – The spiritual picture
Now all of this is also a picture of the provision ‘in Christ Jesus’ for the sinner who, whether they know it or not, needs a place of refuge. Each city of refuge speaks of Christ in some way. We will look at that but for now let’s first look at some general points from the passage in Joshua.
- Firstly we see that these places of refuge were from God. He initiated them. He wanted them. Right from the first sin of Adam and Eve God has always been the One who has sought to provide a place of shelter and security for the sinner. Now whether they would take that place is another matter, but the heart of God has always for the sinner to find safety and forgiveness.
- God placed them so you could make it. From the map on the right we can see that God wasn’t trying to make it hard to reach these cities. You didn’t have to run the entire length of Israel. Yes, you had to make an effort, but it was within reach for those that saw the seriousness of their need to flee. Some cities were in the north; some in the south. Three cities were placed on each side of the river Jordan. So if you were in Judah, you could flee to Hebron. If you were in East Manasseh you could flee to Golan. There was a place that was accessible 3. It’s the same today. A man doesn’t have to flee physically today to find a spiritual place. But they do have to come, in humility and faith in their hearts, to the King of Kings and ask for His refuge. And Christ is not far from those that come in such a way!
- Note also that it was for everyone. Young, old, male, female, slave, free, Israelite, Gentile. Vs 9 says ‘These were the appointed cities for all the sons of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them, that whoever kills any person unintentionally may flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood.’ This is one of those ‘whosoever’ verses. The greatest is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (Joh 3:16) Whosoever… rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, male, female, king or peasant. The invitation is available to all and all should take advantage of it!
- When the High Priest died, the perpetrator of the crime could go free and had no fear. ‘The Talmud argues that the death of the high priest formed an atonement.’4 The Jewish Rabbis of old argued that because of the righteousness of the High Priest, his death could act like an atonement that caused those who had fled into a city of refuge to go free. The High Priest’s death atoned for their mistake the said. And how correct they were without seeing what God was pointing to! They saw that but failed to see that the ultimate High Priest, Jesus Christ, is the real One whose death would set us free!
- It is worth noting that in this passage all of it pictures Christ in some way (apart from one person) – The innocent one killed is a picture of Jesus for he did no wrong. The city of refuge that provides shelter and safety for the one fleeing pictures Christ. The High Priest as previously mentioned pictures Christ in that His death sets those in the city free! Even the avenger of blood is a type of Christ for at the second coming Jesus comes with justice and in righteousness He judges and wages war. He is the avenger of blood for those that have not sought refuge.
There is only one in this picture that is not a type of Christ and that is the one who has committed the crime and is fleeing. That is a picture of you.
Those who will not flee
So what of those who decide not to flee? They have unintentionally killed a man but decide to just stay where they are. What becomes of them? In these cases there was no safety outside of these cities. If the nearest kinsman was upset and out for blood then justice was coming. Would it be today? Tomorrow? In a week? Next year? Who could tell? But the avenger of blood was coming at some stage and the perpetrator was simply living on borrowed time. What a horrible position to be in.
I remember when I first saw this for my own life. As I read the Bible for the first time in my first year of University I saw that I was in trouble. Big trouble. I saw the need to flee. Not ‘flee’ as in leave the city I was in (though as a city it did give some strong reasons to do that as well!) But like Christian in Pilgrims Progress I saw I was living, spiritually speaking, in the City of Destruction and if I stayed there what would become of me? I might be ok for a day, a week, a year… who knows. But I saw I was living on borrowed time and that I needed to find a place of safety and forgiveness in Christ if I was ever to have rest. It took me 6 months of reading the Bible and agonizing over what I need to do… but I got there. Some people never come to see this. Most don’t. They continue to live like they have forever. They live like the avenger of blood won’t ever come. When is he coming? Who can tell? But justice is coming and no one knows how long they have got.
So what does the Bible say of those that have a place of safety but do not use it? It calls them fools. There is an interesting example of this during the days of King David. As a quick background, after the death of King Saul, David was anointed King but the house of David and the house of Saul continued to battle. David’s general was Joab and Saul’s was a man called Abner. Joab’s brother Asahel (who was said to be as fleet footed as a wild gazelle) chased Abner and wouldn’t turn aside even though Abner told him to several times. In the end Abner, in self-defense, killed Asahel. Joab of course, wants revenge. And so we read:
Now when Abner had returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside in the gate to speak with him privately, and there stabbed him in the stomach, so that he died for the blood of Asahel his brother. (2Sa 3:27)
And the king sang a lament over Abner and said: “Should Abner die as a fool dies? (2Sa 3:33)
David was sad for Abner’s death but he said that he died as a fool. Why would he say that? What was Abner’s foolishness? Well, it is hidden within the text in 2 Sam 3:27. The writer of the passage makes note that Abner was in Hebron. As we have seen above, Hebron was a city of refuge. You couldn’t just go in there and kill someone. So Joab tricks Abner to come to the gate of the city. Outside, Abner is not safe and there he dies at the hand of Joab. Abner’s foolishness was in knowing where the place of safety was but in not staying there. He died as a fool as do many others who have heard of their need to flee to Christ but choose not to.
Have you not fled to Jesus yet? Then see the precarious position of your life! The avenger of blood is coming. God loves you but He is also a God of justice and He cannot leave sin unpunished. Someone must take that punishment. If you will not flee to Christ for refuge then you will pay for your own sin. Be wise, not foolish, and flee to Christ!
Have you fled to Christ for refuge? Then rejoice in all that He is for you and tell and help others! Have strong encouragement as the word says is proper for those that have fled for refuge in Christ:
Heb 6:17-18 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.
Think also of your role, as a Priest before God, to help others find the way. Remove obstacles where you can. Point the right direction for those wanting to flee. This is right and proper for those that know the way.