Jesus as The Cities of Refuge in Deuteronomy

27 Apr

Read Joshua 20:1-9, Deuteronomy 19:1-13, Numbers 35:9-28

Where can a guilty person flee? Most of us haven’t been on the run from the law, but we have felt consciousness of guilt over something we’ve done wrong. Sometimes we feel we just need a bit of time to think it through so we can explain our side of the story better. As it stands, we look guilty and will surely be punished. Other times, we really are guilty and fear punishment.

The purpose of the cities of refuge that God established for the children of Israel was to provide a place to flee while awaiting a fair trial.

Say Reuben is chopping wood one day. He is in the rhythm of the swing, feeling his muscles burn with the physical activity, while he is reducing his trees to kindling. His neighbour, Amos heads over to invite him to dinner. The axe head accidentally flies off and kills his neighbour.

Well, Reuben knows how this could look. It happened on his property. His axe head is buried in his neighbour, who is very clearly dead. Someone must pay. It’s the duty of Amos’ nearest relatives to exact justice on behalf of their dead relative. As soon as his body is discovered, they’ll put the facts together with the absent Reuben, and a manhunt will ensue.

What to do? Where to go? There were no legal aid clinics, no police stations, and no 9-11 to call. Reuben’s only option: Drop the axe handle and run. As fast and as far as he could. Possibly never see his family again.

But God is gracious. He designed six cities of refuge into the plans for the Promised Land. They were spread throughout the land, three cities east of the Jordan, and three cities west of the Jordan, so that there would always be one within a day’s journey.

The purpose of it was to give the person a chance to have his day in court (Josh.2:6). It saved him from the “avenger of blood”, the near relative of the dead person, so that he could tell what happened, instead of just being presumed guilty and summarily executed. The place of asylum was used in cases of manslaughter, or accidental death. The facts of the case needed to be determined. That would make all the difference in sentencing. The alleged killer could remain in the city of refuge, safe from all reprisals, until his trial or the death of the high priest. At that time he could return to his hometown. The Mishnah stated that traditionally, the High Priest’s mother would supply clothing and food for the asylum seekers, so they wouldn’t wish for the death of her son.

Christ is our city of refuge. You and I aren’t falsely accused. We really are guilty. We are guilty of a capital crime. We are responsible for the death of the King’s Son. Our situation could not be worse.

Yet the King Himself provides sanctuary for His enemies. We flee to the very One we have wronged. When we look up into His face, what do we find? Censure? Condemnation? Wrath? Oh no, we find forgiveness, shelter, safety, security. What we deserve is everlasting punishment. What we receive is pardon, and the benevolent protection and care of the very One we have wronged.

When the fugitive arrived at the entrance to the city, he was required to state the facts of his case. Since it was not a trial, they were required to admit him and provide a dwelling place for him. They were not to turn him over to his pursuers. Doesn’t Christ also take us in and provide for us? He never turns us away, even after He’s ‘heard our story’. The gates of the city were open day and night. We can also flee to Christ for refuge at any time. Once we are safe in Christ, He will not turn us back over to our enemies. However, if we leave our refuge, we have no hope. (Heb. 6: 4-6)

The cities of Refuge were not for the Israelites alone, but for any foreigner who lived in Israel. This prefigured the inclusion of the Gentiles in the gospel. God is no respecter of persons. Over time, small changes were made so that it was even easier to access these cities. The road to it was required to be smooth and clearly marked. Similarly, we find no impediments to Christ in the Gospel itself. The preachers of the gospel point the way to the only Refuge.

In the book, Lords of the Earth by Don Richardson, he tells of a tribe in Irian Jaya that had sacred areas set out in the jungle which no one could trespass. The penalty was death. One day a little girl innocently stepped into the unmarked area. There was no place of refuge to which she could flee. The law was clear; she must die. It fell to her uncles to dispense judgment because the father couldn’t bring himself to do it. They took her in his arms and carried her through the jungle. All the while she talked to them, asking  where they were going. They told her they were going to get something to eat. They had her go close to the edge of the cliff so she could see the river. She clung to his leg and said she’d be afraid if he wasn’t with her. He was torn, but knew what the law demanded. They picked her up and threw her down into the rushing waters below.

We have transgressed God’s laws, going where we should not go, doing what we should not do. We may not think what we’ve done is so very bad, like the little girl crossing an imaginary line. But we’ve crossed a real line, and the penalty is clear. We must die.

Yet, unlike the tragic story above, we have a place to flee. Christ is our city of refuge. There we are safe from those who desire our destruction. There we have life, liberty, and well, the pursuit of happiness, or rather, holiness. We flee to the Only One who can be our Protector, the One who designed the place of Refuge into His plans from the beginning. Because of the death of this High Priest, we are free.

Prayer– “Father, sometimes I fail to see how guilty I am before You. I claim innocence or ignorance of Your law. Yet I am still guilty, and I can run, but I can’t hide. You bid me come to You for refuge. Help me to see that You are not unwilling to receive me, but welcome me with open arms.”

Questions– Do you tend to excuse, defend or downplay your sins? Do you see yourself as a condemned criminal, with no hope if not for Christ? Do you fear punishment? Do you doubt the goodness or sincerity of the One Who calls you to flee to Him for refuge?

“…not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. ” 2 Pet. 3:9
“Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’Ezekiel 33:11

 Response– Research prison ministries, like the Elizabeth Fry or John Howard Society.  How can you be a comfort to someone who is in jail? How can you help their families, or minister to their families?


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