Conquering the Land
“The Cities of Refuge”
This morning we continue with our series in the book of Joshua. As I mentioned last week the first half of the book of Joshua (ch.1-12) focuses on the new generation of Israel entering the Promise Land and their conquest of Canaan while the second half of the book (ch.13-24) focuses on the tribes of Israel receiving their inheritance of the land. The last verse of chapter nineteen reads, “These are the inheritances which Eleazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun, and the heads of the households of the tribes of the sons of Israel distributed by lot in Shiloh before the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting. So, they finished dividing the land.” (19.51)
Each of the tribes of Israel had received a portion of land as their inheritance except one, the Levites. You see the tribe of the Levi was the priestly tribe who were responsible for the tabernacle, its furnishings, and all the ceremonies. The Levites were not given a portion of the land as an inheritance because their inheritance was serving the Lord as Joshua described to the seven stagnant tribes in chapter eighteen, “For the Levites have no portion among you, because the priesthood of the Lord is their inheritance.’ (18.7) Instead of a portion of land the Levites were given forty-eight cities scattered throughout the Promise Land to assure that the people would be instructed in the things of God. We will talk more about the role of the Levites and the Levitical cities next week but for now it is important for you to understand that of these forty-eight Levitical cities, six of them were designated as Cities of Refuge.
The Cities of Refuge are described for us in Joshua chapter twenty. Let’s begin with verses one through four as we seek to gain an understanding of the purpose for these cities of refuge.
Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘Designate the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who kills any person unintentionally, without premeditation, may flee there, and they shall become your refuge from the avenger of blood. He shall flee to one of these cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and state his case in the hearing of the elders of that city; and they shall take him into the city to them and give him a place, so that he may dwell among them. (20.1-4)
Cities of Refuge
The law of Moses stated that anyone who committed murder was to be put to death. (Ex.21.14) The definition of murder was clear. Murder is the willful, deliberate, intentional, and premediated act of taking another person’s life. The reason for the strict penalty against murder is because all humanity is to be respected and honored because every person is created in the image of God. (Gen.9.6)
When a murder occurred a representative of the victim’s family called an “avenger of blood” was to chase down the murderer and make sure that justice was carried out against the murderer. But what about a person who accidentally or unintentionally kills another person? Is that person to suffer the same penalty? No! As a matter of fact, the Lord has always made provisions for those who were involved in the accidental death of another. (Ex.24.13; Num.35.6, 11-14; Dt.4.41-43, 19.2-9) As you look at the book of Joshua, the tabernacle was established in its permanent place in Shiloh (18.1), the tribes had taken up residence in the allotted of their inheritance (19.49), and now God’s justice and mercy is made permanent in the Cities of Refuge.
The six cities of refuge were strategically located throughout Israel. Three were on the east side of the Jordan and three on the west side. These cities were located so that a City of Refuge was no more than a day’s journey from anywhere in the country. Israel kept the roads leading to these cities in good condition eliminating any barriers or hinderances in reaching the city. (Dt.19.2) Along the way there were signs that read, “refuge” enabling the offender to gain confidence that he was getting closer to safety and security.
The names of the cities are listed in verses seven and eight of chapter twenty of Joshua. The meaning of the names of these cities are very special. Kedesh means holiness. Golan means joy. Ramoth means exaltation. Shechem means shoulder. Bezermeans stronghold. And Hebron means fellowship. Each name reflects an aspect of what the cities of refuge meant to the offender. The city of refuge was a holy place where instead of experiencing fear the offender experienced joy. The city of refuge created a sense of exaltation because the burden of guilt rested on the shoulder of others. The city of refuge was a stronghold where the offender enjoyed fellowship and peace.
The Process of Admittance into a City of Refuge
The process for admittance into a city of refuge is outlined in several different passages of Scripture. Allow me to summarize the process.1. When a person accidentally or unintentionally kills another person, the offender was to flee to one of the six designated Cities of Refuge and there receive provisional safety from the “avenger of blood.” (Num.35.6, 12) 2. The elders of the City of Refuge, which was comprised of Levites (priests), would listen to the offender’s confession of guilt and determine if the confession was sincere and legitimate.3. If the priests determined the confession was legitimate, then Levites would mediate for the offender and send him back under protection to the scene of the incident so that the offender could give his confession to the elders of his hometown. (Josh.20.5) Levites were mediators between the Israelites and God and as such they would have been gifted to calmly mediate between the offender the victim’s family, and the hometown elders creating peace.4. Upon the confession of the offender and the testimony of two or more witnesses a determination was made of whether the incident was murder or an accident. (Num.35.31-32)5. If it was determined that the incident was accidental, the offender was to receive sanctuary in the City of Refuge and remain in the city for the rest of his life or upon the death of the high priest. (Num.35.25)6. Upon the death of the high priest the offender could return to his own home free from any retribution or judgment. (Josh.20.6)
The Cities of Refuge were to promote God’s justice and mercy. The process of admittance into the Cities of Refuge taught the people how to exercise justice with mercy without denying the law. When the offender was proven to be innocent of murder, he was protected from the punishment served on murders. But he had to remain in the City of Refuge for the rest of his life or until the death of the high priest. With this verdict both mercy and justice were accomplished. As the Psalmist declared, “Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed.” (Ps.85.10) One of the first things we are confronted with when considering God’s establishment of the Cities of Refuge is God’s insistence to break the pattern of sin. Through the establishment of the Cities of Refuge God is saying that in His kingdom there was not going to be a vendetta for vengeance. If there’s an accidental killing, as terrible as that is, we are not going to allow vengeance to be visited generation after generation after generation. Justice is going to be done, but we’re not going to play the family vendetta game. We’re not going to play a blood feud that goes on for centuries and centuries.’ No! In God’s kingdom justice will be done as well as mercy.
Chapter twenty concludes stating, “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 until he stands before the congregation.” (20.9) Notice that the Cities of Refuge were not only for the benefit of the Israelite but alsofor the stranger who sojourns among them. God’s justice and mercy is for all without partiality.
The Cities of Refuge are a Picture of God’s Grace
The Lord uses the word “refuge” as a picture of His grace many times in the Scripture. As the Psalmist declares, “Trust in Him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before Him;
God is a refuge for us.” (Ps.62.8) I can imagine a father waking with his children down one of those well-kept roads that led to a City of Refuge and his children asking, “Daddy, what is the City of Refuge and who lives there.” I can imagine the father trying to explain the difference between murder and accidental death as well as trying the describe the process of admittance. It wouldn’t take long for the children to become confused and disoriented. So, the father quickly says, “the City of Refuge is a picture of God’s grace and the people who live there are people who have received an abundant portion of God’s grace.” Listen children, “God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” (Ps.46.1; 2.12b)
“Wow, Daddy! That sounds like a very cool place!” Yes, it is but always remember that our God is our rock in Him we take refuge. He is our shield and the horn of our salvation, our stronghold and our refuge, our savior because He has saved us from violence. (2Sam.2.2.3) Remember, the Lord is our God in whom we have taken refuge. He has saved us from all those who pursue us. (Ps.7.1) Don’t forget, the Lord wondrously shows His lovingkindness to those who take refuge in Him. He saves us from those who rise up against us. (Ps.17.7)
The Cities of Refuge are a Picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
Brothers and sisters, I want you to see that the Cities of Refuge are more than a picture of God’s grace. The Cities of Refuge are a picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let me explain. God’s Word tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom.3.23) Our sin might not be malicious as the next guy but that really doesn’t matter. The fact is we are guilty. We are an offender against God’s law, and we need to find a refuge.
Christ is our City of Refuge. Christ says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Mt.11.28) So, we flee for refuge in Christ. Christ has eliminated all the barriers and hinderances so that I might have easy access. Upon my arrival at the city gates, I confess my guilt and plead for His mercy. I confess my sin, believing that He is faithful and righteous. He listens to my petition and judges the sincerity of my heart. As my priest welcomes me in and offers me protection. He pleas my case in the presence of my accusers and makes intercession for me. He calls me to confront my transgression by making truthful and honest confession of my guilt to others. He graciously grants me admittance into the city and allows me to live in the boundaries of His justice and mercy.
And if all of that wasn’t enough the true high priest, Jesus Christ dies in my place, atones for my sin, becomes my substitute, and issues me a full pardon to enjoy the fullness of life. Thanks be to God! Brothers and sister, Christ is our City of Refuge just listen to these verses:
Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom.5.2)
we who have taken refuge have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. (Heb.6.18b)
There is one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. (ITim.2.5)
Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. (Heb.7.25)
Christ became a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that He might make atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb.2.17)
Christ is my City of Refuge!
Brothers and sisters, Christ is my City of Refuge! Christ Jesus is my Kedesh. He is my righteous, holiness, and redemption. Christ is my Shechem. My guilt rest on His shoulders.
Christ is my Hebron. Though Him I have fellowship with the Father. Christ is my Bezer. He is my stronghold and my fortress.Christ is my Ramoth. My boast is in the Lord. Christ is my Golan. He is the joy of my salvation. “We who have fled to Him for refuge—have a strong consolation.” (Heb.6.18)
The Cities of Refuge are types of Christ, in whom sinners find a refuge from the penalty due for sin. Just as the guilty person sought refuge in the cities set up for that purpose, so we flee to Christ. I am guilty and know that only Christ can provide me refuge, so it is to Him alone that I must run. I must confess my guilt and plead to Christ for His protection. Just as the cities were open to all who fled to them for safety, so Christ is open to all those who would seek refuge in Him.
What I what you to see this morning is the beautiful picture of the Gospel seen in the establishment of the Cities of Refuge. Only Christ has fulfilled God’s justice, as my great High Priest humbles Himself in obedience to the Father to the point of death, even death of a cross. Only Christ has fulfilled God’s justice by His humble obedience to the point of death, even death of a cross. The sacrifice of Christ atones for all of my mistakes no matter how terrible their outcome. And since Christ has fulfilled the justice of God only through Him can we find God’s mercy. Come to Christ today! He is your City of Refuge!1