City of Refuge
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“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.”—Hebrews 6:181
A friend recently mentioned that in the Bible, Moses designated “cities of refuge” for criminals—specifically those who had unintentionally killed someone.2 I was intrigued to hear about the cities of refuge and decided to read up on them.
In the Old Testament, six cities were put under the charge of the tribe of Levites and were designated as cities of refuge. Moses himself set up three of these cities: Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan.3 Later on, Joshua established three more: Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron.4 The cities were easily accessible to all the people, and were set aside as safe havens.
The purpose for these cities was so that someone guilty of accidental manslaughter could run to a city of refuge and receive asylum. In Deuteronomy 19:5 God gave an example of the type of situation that could fall under this clause. It says, “For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life.”5 These six Levitical cities functioned as a safe zone, or a buffer, to protect the criminal from anyone who might be out for revenge.
Cities of refuge provided the accused with an opportunity for a fair trial, where, if they were proven innocent, they could have a fresh start. Even the city’s trade was regulated in such a way that prevented the wrong people from discovering fugitives and taking revenge. To receive asylum, the criminal basically had to leave everything behind—job, home, possessions, etc.—and flee as quickly as possible to the nearest city of refuge and present himself at the gate. On arrival, he had to admit that he had committed a crime and then throw himself at the mercy of the city.
As I read about the cities of refuge, it brought to mind salvation and how it could be likened to a city of refuge—a place where sinners can run to and find safety and forgiveness. Of course, the cities of refuge described in the Bible were only for those who had committed a certain type of crime, whereas salvation is offered to all, no matter what crime or sin or evil deed. The comparison between the two is not identical, but it did help me to see the beauty of salvation in a new light.
A verse that comes to mind is Proverbs 18:10: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower.”—A tower that we can run to and be saved. Through salvation, Jesus has provided us with a strong tower, a city of refuge, where we can find forgiveness and a fresh start, a brand-new life. However, it’s a choice that we each need to make between remaining in our current state where we carry the weight and shame of our sin, or running to the city of refuge that Jesus has promised us, where we can throw ourselves on His mercy, confess our sins, and receive His forgiveness.
Whether our sins loom large and dark over us or they seem fairly insignificant and petty, sin is sin. And when we sin, we deserve punishment. Paul said that the payment for sin is death, but God’s gift to us completely overcomes that through the promise of eternal life.6 Jesus puts Himself between us and the punishment we deserve. He stands in the way to intercede for us.
God, in His love, has provided a way to be saved and forgiven, and once we’ve chosen to run to His city of refuge—to open our lives to His gift of salvation—we’re safe and secure forever. Once in, forever in. King David said in Psalm 62:2: “[God] alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will never be shaken.”7
This picture of salvation as a city of refuge is also something to think about when it comes to our witness to others. Jesus has made a city of refuge for all through salvation and He wants everyone to know about it, so that He can offer them protection and eternal life. Through telling others about Jesus and His love, we are in essence leading them to this beautiful, protected city of refuge through the door of salvation. Whether they enter or not is fully up to them. It is their choice. It is our job to show them, but it is their job to decide.
But imagine what their joy will be like once they do decide to enter and live in the refuge city of salvation. Imagine the forgiveness they will experience and the incredible relief as they come to the realization that all records of their wrongdoings and sins are washed away by Jesus’ sacrifice, and they’re free to start a new life with a new perspective and purpose.—Marie Story
Cities of refuge were placed across the land of Canaan so that anyone might reach one within half a day at most. In a similar fashion, the Gospel is always near us, for the way to Jesus is short, requiring simply a renunciation of our own merit and to take hold of him as our “all in all.”8
God’s Word tells us that the roads to the cities of refuge were strictly maintained, with every river bridged and every obstacle removed, so that anyone who fled there would find easy passage to it. And once a year the elders of Israel were to examine the roads so that nothing would impede anyone who was fleeing for refuge, causing him to be overtaken and killed. Likewise, the promises of the Gospel graciously remove stumbling blocks from the path of sinners.
Whenever there were intersections or forks in the roads, signs were in place with inscriptions directing people to the city of refuge. This is nothing but a foreshadowing of the road to Christ. It is not some maze of roads of following the law, demanding that we obey this, that, or the other; it is simply a straight road—believe and live! It is a road so … easy that everyone who admits that he is a sinner can easily find his way to heaven.
And as soon as a fugitive reached the outskirts of the city of refuge, he was safe, for it was not necessary for him to fully enter within the city walls. Thus, just as the suburbs themselves were sufficient protection for him, simply touching “the edge of [Christ’s] cloak”9 will make us whole; taking hold of him with “faith as small as a mustard seed”10 will make us safe.
“A little genuine grace ensures
The death of all our sins.”
Divine appointment was the only thing which made the city of refuge secure. Jesus Christ is the divinely appointed way of salvation. Whosoever amongst us shall make haste from our sins, and fly to Christ, being convinced of our guilt, and helped by God’s Spirit to enter that road, shall, without doubt, find absolute and eternal security. The curse of the law shall not touch us, Satan shall not harm us, vengeance shall not reach us, for the divine appointment, stronger than gates of iron or brass, shields every one of us “who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” in the Gospel.—Charles Spurgeon
Jesus, our refuge
When the tribes of Israel came into the Promised Land, God divided the land among them, with the exception of one tribe that did not receive a territory—the Levites. The Levites were to be priests and act as mediators between the Israelites and God, so they were given forty-eight cities throughout the Promised Land within all the other tribes’ territories.11 The cities of refuge were six of those forty-eight Levite cities. … Because the Levites were the God-appointed mediators in Israel’s relationship with Him, they were particularly equipped to be mediators in these legal matters and to protect those who sought refuge.
These cities of refuge foreshadowed God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. As we recognize our guilt, we flee to Jesus as a refuge. As Psalm 34:22 says, “The LORD redeems the life of His servants; none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned.” Turning to God and taking refuge in Him for forgiveness of our sins is what gives us freedom from the threat of eternal death. Second Corinthians 5:19 and 21 say, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them … so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus’ work on the cross allows us to be protected from the threat of eternal death if we take refuge in Him.—From compellingtruth.org12
Published on Anchor October 2020. Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.
2 Deuteronomy 19:1–5.
3 Deuteronomy 4:41–43.
4 Joshua 20.
6 Romans 6:23.
8 1 Corinthians 15:28.
9 Matthew 9:20.
10 Matthew 17:20.
11 Numbers 35:7–8.