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The Cities of Refuge

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Joshua 20–21

When God rules among His people, they will desire to seek God’s wisdom and counsel. They will also desire justice and want others to put their faith in the Savior who has paid the just penalty for their sins. Some divinely ordained cities point to these priorities.


The promised land has now been divided among the tribes, and God’s people are settling into their allotted portions of the land. Here in Joshua 20, the Lord gives Joshua a fascinating command to establish two types of cities for the nation. One type of city will be for legal refuge, and the other type will be for spiritual refuge. These cities become a picture of Jesus Christ, who gives us forgiveness and refuge and spiritual rest.


Joshua chapter 20 begins with the Lord’s instructions:


The Lord said to Joshua, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a 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 explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past.’” (verses 1-5)


So, this first type of city, then, is a place of legal refuge. We will look at this more in a moment. 


The other type of city is a place of spiritual refuge. These cities are designated in chapter 21where we read this account in verses 1-3: 


Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites came to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua . . . And they said to them at Shiloh . . . “The Lord commanded through Moses that we be given cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for our livestock.” So by command of the Lord the people of Israel gave to the Levites the following cities and pasturelands out of their inheritance.


Let me first deal with these cities of spiritual refuge—they are often referred to as Levitical cities. The Levites were chosen to serve in the Lord’s sanctuary and to teach the law (Deuteronomy 33:8-10). They were not given a specific portion of the land, but God designated forty-eight cities scattered throughout the land as their inheritance. You could call this plan of God “Operation Saturation,” because God wanted to literally saturate the land with the Levites.


I have read estimates that no one in the land would have lived more than ten miles from one of these cities of spiritual refuge. So, no matter where you lived, there would be a least one Levite nearby who was trained in the law, capable of teaching, preaching, and counseling any Israelite who needed it. 


Let’s go back to the cities of legal refuge in chapter 20. We know from Scripture that six of the Levitical cities also were established as these cities of refuge. They were designated to protect those who unintentionally killed another person. 


The avenger of blood was someone appointed by the family or tribe to track down the killer; he was an Old Testament bounty hunter. This was not so much a matter of vengeance as it was vindication in this ancient system of carrying out justice. 


The one who had killed someone accidentally had one chance to stay alive—he must flee to the city of refuge and there present the facts of his case to the elders of the city. If they confirmed the death was accidental, he could live there. If he was guilty, he would be handed over to the avenger of blood. 


The cities of refuge were an important part of Israel’s system of justice. And again, let me remind you that these cities set the stage for God’s provision of the Redeemer—our eternal refuge and Savior, Jesus Christ. And that’s where I want you to run today.


Let me point out some key analogies here. 


First of all, the cities of refuge were appointed by God. Just as God provided the city of refuge, so God appointed His Son to die so that He could be an eternal refuge for those who flee to Him by faith.


Second, the cities provided safety. I can imagine in that day a man running for his life, constantly looking back over his shoulder for any sight of that bounty hunter following his tracks. He’s not going to stop to eat or sleep; he’s running for his life. 


Let me tell you, all who run to Jesus Christ are running for their lives. Outside of Jesus Christ you are not safe from the avenger of death and judgment. The only safe place from Satan, death, and the grave is the city of refuge, the Son of God. 


Third, it was the responsibility of the Israelites to clearly mark the path to the city. Deuteronomy 19:3 seems to indicatethat roads were to be built leading to these cities. They were to make it as easy as possible for someone to reach the city of safety. 


We know from Jewish historical sources that the citizens of a city of refuge, built bridges over ravines and rivers; at every major crossroad, there was a sign pointing the way to the nearest city of refuge, and on the sign was one word: refuge. It is stated that these signs were large enough that a man running at full speed would not miss that word in the Hebrew language: miqlatrefuge


According to history, many of these cities of refuge posted runners along the way. Whenever they saw a hunted man obviously running toward their city, they would run alongside him to guide, encourage, and protect him.


If you’re a Christian, that’s your role today. You are to be running alongside people, guiding them and encouraging them toward the Savior; and you are the signpost, pointing them in the right direction.


Finally, the cities of refuge were available for anyone. In Joshua 20:9, we’re told that not just the Israelites could enter, but anyone living among them could run to and find safety and protection in these cities. What a picture of the gospel this is! It’s for anyone and everyone—Gentile, Jew, black, white, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, the honored, and the homeless. 


Let me tell you that if you are without Jesus Christ, you are not safe. You might not know it, but you are being hunted. There is a kingdom of darkness hunting for your eternal soul. The only hope you have is to run to the city of refuge. Death itself is pursuing you and will eventually catch up to you. The Bible says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). 

Run to Jesus Christ right now. Your only hope is in Him. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).


Pray with me right now: “Oh Lord Jesus, I’m that sinner who has been running away from You; and now I want to run to You. I repent of my sin and receive You as my Lord and Savior right now. Please save me from my sin and from eternal judgment. I trust in You, Lord Jesus, alone.”


If you sincerely prayed that prayer, I can assure you that you are now eternally safe. The Bible says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). You have found your City of Refuge, your Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 


Let us know that you have placed your hope and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

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