Cities of Refuge

“Oh how great is thy goodness, which thou hast laid up for them that fear [reverence] thee; which thou host wrought for them that trust in thee before the sons of men! Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of man: thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues. Blessed be the LORD: for he bath showed me his marvelous kindness in a strong city.” —Psalm 1:19-21

GOD’S LAW REGARDING the shedding of blood was very clearly stated in his Word. In Numbers 35:33,34, we read, “Ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein [Margin: ‘there can be no expiation for the land’], but by the blood of him that shed it. Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell.”

The record concerning the cities of refuge is found principally in three books of the Bible—the 35th chapter of Numbers, the 20th chapter of Joshua, and the 19th chapter of Deuteronomy. When Israel went into the Promised Land, 48 cities were to be set aside for habitation by the tribe of Levi. This was because they received no inheritance in the land as did the other tribes. Of these 48 cities, six served a very special purpose in God’s arrangement—they were designated as “cities of refuge.” God’s purpose in setting aside these six cities was for the protection of anyone who might innocently slay another through accident or in self-defense, without enmity toward the one who was slain. Today it would be considered ‘manslaughter’.

The six cities were to be situated so that it would not require a person to make more than a half-day’s journey from any place in the land to reach one of them. Three were to be east of the Jordan River, and three to the west. Roads were to be constructed leading to these cities and they were to be well maintained. According to the historian, Josephus, they were to be clearly marked with signs reading, ‘Refuge’, pointing the way to the nearest city of asylum.

One who had taken the life of another could flee to any of these appointed cities and there plead for mercy in a trial before the elders of the city. Then, if he were found guilty of willful murder, he would be released and would be subject to death at the hand of his avenger. Under this arrangement it was the next of kin of the person killed who was legally permitted to avenge his death. However, if the individual was found to be not guilty, he was acquitted. Even so, he was not entirely free. He had to remain within the confines of the city until his own death, or until the death of the High Priest who was then in office. But after the High Priest died, all rights for the next of kin to legally gain vengeance upon this person ended.

The Apostle Paul stated that “those things which were written aforetime” (Rom. 15:4) were written for our instruction. In harmony with this he also wrote to the Colossians, saying that those things which were written aforetime “are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” (Col. 2:17) The margin says, “the substance” is of Christ. The ‘body’ mentioned here, is the object which casts the shadow. The Old Testament types and shadows expressed an image cast backward from the reality of the future. The future reality, or object, which cast the shadow backward, in this case, was Christ.

What are some of the lessons we can learn from this ‘shadow’—the cities of refuge? In Psalm 51:5 we read, “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” This scripture emphasizes our present undone condition. The Apostle Paul agreed with this when he said that “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” (Rom. 5:12) Again he declared that “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23) This particular type, or shadow, represents the position of the entire world of mankind who have been charged with sin. The avenger pictures God’s divine justice, which pursues each one of us to justly demand our death. We remember also, those familiar words, “As in Adam all die.”—I Cor. 15:22

Since we are all sinners unable to stand approved before God, how can we escape our just condemnation? The psalmist continued, in the remaining verses of this chapter, to describe how some at this time have sought asylum from the avenger, seeking to reach a haven of refuge. You and I would be pursued and destroyed but for this provision of God’s love which allows us to flee to the safety of the cities of refuge. We are among those who take part in the message of salvation, receive justification through the blood of Christ, and are seeking after the hope of the “high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”—Phil. 3:14

Trudging along the broad road to destruction (Matt. 7:13), suddenly our eyes behold with joy and hope the sign which reads, “Refuge.” This notice points out the way to the nearest appointed city of refuge. It is our Heavenly Father who guides us to Jesus, who, in turn, assures us with the comforting words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”—John 14:6

By following along the designated road we arrive safely at the gate to the city of refuge. We flee to Christ. He is our city of refuge and we find in him a covering for, or refuge from, our weakness and our ignorance. Indeed we have the assurance of a fair trial here, just as in the type. When we are given entrance into the city, we receive the good news that we had not been plunged into sin willfully, but by inheritance from our father, Adam, who was the violator of the divine law. We are offered a full refuge in Christ; as Romans 8:1 reads, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”

The Six Cities

Our study has taught that the names of persons or places given as types in the Scriptures frequently hold significant descriptive meanings for us. For example, in our lesson today we find that the names of each of these six cities of refuge describe various characteristics of Christ or of his work.Six Cities of Refuge In the Book of Joshua, chapter 20, where we find the six cities of refuge named, we read in verses 7 and 8, as follows: “They appointed Kedesh in Galilee in Mount Naphtali, and Shechem in Mount Ephraim, and Kir-jatharba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah. And on the other side Jordan by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness upon the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.” Authorities generally agree upon the meaning of these names, and so by taking a look at these definitions, perhaps we can get a better understanding of Christ and his work.

Let us look at the inset map of the Promised Land. We will consider these cities, starting from the southeast. First we have the city of Bezer, which is the southernmost city of refuge. Bezer, we are told, means ‘gold’—‘gold, before it is wrought by fire or the hammer’. This brings to mind a text of scripture which concerns not only our Lord Jesus, but also ourselves as part of the anointed Christ class.

In I Peter 4:12 we find this text: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.” Just exactly what kind of fiery trial is this scripture speaking of? The reference is to a smelting process, and the followers of Christ are depicted as gold refined in the fire. (Mal. 3:3; Rev. 3:18) Here we have a pledge that although we have found refuge in Bezel, and our experiences may still be difficult—just as was true with our Savior—these vicissitudes of life are not evidence that we have lost favor with God. Our dross is merely being purged out and our gold refined, by way of the fiery experiences of life—if we are rightly exercised by them.

Traveling north from Bezer, we find the city of Ramoth, in the central part of Israel, also on the eastern side of Jordan. Ramoth means ‘something high in value’. It is not hard for us to imagine what connection a title such as this would have with our Lord Jesus or the hope that is set before us. The meaning, ‘to be lifted up’, or ‘some precious thing’, brings our minds almost automatically to the precious blood of Christ which redeemed not only us, but all mankind. Then we think of those priceless promises which picture the hope set before us and which will all be fulfilled in Christ. Ramoth pictures the place where we lay up our treasure and we know that is in heaven.—Matt. 6:19

Then the third city on the eastern side of Jordan, still farther to the north, is Golan. Today the Golan Heights are often mentioned in the news, and so we are familiar with this name. It means ‘captive’ or ‘exile’, usually with the connotation of disgrace. How is this meaning apt as a picture of Christ, his church, or his work? We think Jesus’ words in John 15:18 fit this very well: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.” Those who walk in the footsteps of Jesus are “pilgrims and strangers on the earth,” and their honor and glory must wait until the future, just as is true with the faithful men of old, some of whom were listed in Hebrews, chapter 11.—vs. 13

Now let us go to the west side of Jordan, where the northernmost city of refuge was Kedesh. This means, ‘to make or to pronounce clean’, or, ‘to consecrate or to be regarded as holy’. This makes us think of the righteousness of Christ, the robe of righteousness with which we, as Christians, have been covered. (Isa. 61:10) The Prophet Isaiah tells us that our own righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), but you and I have now been clothed with the garments of salvation. (Isa. 61:10) How we thank our Heavenly Father for this wonderful provision he has made for us!

The central city on the west side of Jordan, Shechem, means ‘ridge’, ‘the neck, as between the shoulder’, or ‘a place of burden’. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 11:28: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” and so saying he invites us to take his yoke upon us and to learn of him. He continues, “for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”—vss. 29,30

Finally we come to the southernmost city, Hebron, also on the west side of Jordan. And Hebron means ‘seat of association’, or ‘a society, a fellowship’. This reminds us of our fellowship with those of “like precious faith” (II Pet. 1:1), with our brethren. The Scriptures also speak of “the fellowship of the Son,” “the fellowship of ministering to the saints,” and “the fellowship of the mystery.” (I Cor. 1:9; II Cor. 8:4; Eph. 3:9) We have the “fellowship in the Gospel,” the” fellowship of the Spirit,” the “fellowship of his sufferings,” and then finally, “fellowship with the Father.”—Phil. 1:5; 2:1; 3:10; I John 1:3

How blessed we are that God through his mercy provided access for all to the typical cities of refuge. They were not a refuge for the Israelites alone, but also for aliens and strangers—sojourners in the land. Paul’s testimony in his writings stresses that God is not a God of the Jews only. The way of salvation is designed equally for both Jew and Gentile. Furthermore, in his due time, God is going to have all men to be saved and to come to an accurate knowledge of the Truth.—I Tim. 2:4

Paul wrote: “Remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: but now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”—Eph. 2:11-22

Paul set down these wonderful words for our instruction, for our edification and encouragement! He asks us to particularly remember that we were at one time separated from Christ and from God, having no hope in him, and that we were strangers from the covenants. Here he is speaking of the covenant of the promise God made to Abraham, “In thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Gen. 22:18) The same apostle tells us in the third chapter of Galatians that the “seed of Abraham” is Christ. Then he continues, in verses 28 and 29 to point out that if we are Christ’s, we, too, are Abraham’s seed and heirs of the same promise to have a part in the blessing of all the families of the earth.

In Galatians 4:8 Paul says that when we did not know the one true God, we were in reality in bondage to false gods. First and foremost, this includes “the prince of this world,” Satan. (John 12:31) Unknowingly, he was one of the gods we formerly worshiped. But Paul tells us that although then we were without Christ, now we are near to God through the precious blood of Christ.

Paul confirms that the Law was the partition which divided the Jews and the Gentiles. When the Law Covenant was abolished at the time that Jesus nailed it to the cross, he made the two—Jew and Gentile—into one new man in Christ. Finally, as the apostle explained in Ephesians 2:18, both have access by one Spirit unto the Father, it follows that we are no longer aliens in a foreign land.

But what is our position? Just this—we share citizenship with the saints and we are members of God’s household. In fact we are told that our citizenship, or our community, is in heaven. (Phil. 3:20) This is why Paul instructed us, “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”

Our City of Refuge

Now Jesus’ footstep followers are pictured as dwelling in a city of refuge. Surely the greatest desire of a refugee would be to return home, even though he was dwelling in safety in the city of refuge. Paul must have been thinking about this very thing when he expressed his desire in these words: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor: yet what I shall choose I know not. For I am in a strait between two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you [brethren at Philippi]. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of [the] faith; that your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again.” (Phil. 1:21-26) Just as the faithful apostle longed to go home to be with his Lord beyond the veil, this is the yearning of those refugees like ourselves. This is our earnest hope.

There were tragic consequences to a refugee who left the protection of the city of refuge before he met the established legal requirements for release. He would find himself once again at the mercy of his avenger. And we have this principle brought down to our day, the Gospel Age. Basing his logic upon the present justified and spirit-begotten condition of the church, Paul said, “If we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ Law died without mercy under two or three witness. How much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”—Heb. 10:26-31

The Israelites who left the city of refuge before they were legally cleared would fall into the hands of their avenger—they would be at his mercy. You and I, brethren, would be in that same condition if we were to go out from under the blood which sanctifies us, leaving our refuge behind us.

When may we, then, legally return home from our present haven of safety? We would answer that when the church, Christ’s body, is complete, and has been raised and glorified beyond the veil, then divine justice will have no more claim against us, and we will be free to go to our new home in heaven. In the type, the High Priest represented Christ, who entered beyond the veil before us, showing us the way.—Heb. 6:19,20

When we arrive at that glorious heavenly home we shall, in association with our Lord Jesus, implement God’s grand program for the blessing of all the families of the earth during Christ’s thousand-year kingdom reign. Surely, brethren, all indications—particularly the fulfilling of prophecies before our very eyes—suggest that the church is now nearly complete and very soon shall be released from their city of refuge to go to their heavenly home. But for the time being we are so grateful that God is our city of refuge, our strength and very present help in trouble. May we more fully appreciate the loving protection and care which has been offered to those who are faithful to him, expressed in these beautiful words:

The Apostle Paul said, “Let us hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” (Heb. 3:6) And the Apostle John spurs us on with these words, “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” (I John 5:4) And again, Paul adds his words of encouragement, saying, “Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”—Gal. 6:9

Dawn Bible Students Association
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