Text: Joshua 20, 21
Proposition: Refuge is not only shelter in crisis it is a place of justice that demonstrates the grace of God in Christ Jesus.
Introduction: Have you ever given refuge to someone? Have you ever had to take refuge? Mehdi and Shila became refugees when they were caught up in a government sweep at a university where he was starting to take his masters degree in languages in Iran. One moment they were an average young couple, apartment, car, friends, family and within three months they were on the run for their lives in a foreign country just because he happened to walking by a political rally on the university campus. For the next two years they lived hand to mouth, were treated poorly and had little hope. Refuge for them became a last ditch attempt to try to get to Canada. You see refuge is not only about shelter in crisis it is also a place of justice that demonstrates the grace of God. Refuge was something that was on God’s mind when Israel was coming into the land of Canaan. Last week we looked at Joshua 12 to 19, eight chapters that detailed the division of the land, we talked about the importance of follow through and how Israel fell short in doing that. In Joshua 20 we see God directing Israel to setup cities that would be there for people who were on the run for their lives, cities of refuge. Turn with me to Joshua 20.
I. God Makes the Distinction Between Manslaughter and Homicide.
In verse 1 and 2 God gives this instruction, “Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 'that the slayer who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.” The reference to Moses speaks to a time in Moab, perhaps 10 years earlier. It’s recorded in Numbers 35 and gives the details for what constitutes a murder or homicide and what constitutes an accidental death or manslaughter. The difference between the two was primarily whether it was done with premeditation or whether it was done by accident. In Numbers 35:33 God says this about bloodshed in an act of murder, “So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.” In other words the only means for dealing with premeditated murder is capital punishment, otherwise the land where the people dwell will be defiled, spiritually damaged. The blood is considered to be where life is sustained, life that belongs to God, life that is precious and is meant to glorify God. Premeditated murder takes that which belongs to God. The only way to atone or expiate for the sin of that is that the murderer forfeits his own life. Otherwise the land is polluted by the blood of the victim and the ongoing presence of the murderer. The deterrent of life for life underlined the importance of human life and reemphasized the Fifth Commandment. That’s what Numbers 35 is saying. So God makes a clear distinction between homicide and manslaughter. The cities of refuge are for those who have committed manslaughter only, not for those who commit homicide. Not only does God do that, He expects government to do that. The Elders at the gate of the city of refuge were to hear the case of the person being accused and make the decision of whether it was homicide or manslaughter. If manslaughter they allowed the person sanctuary, if homicide they refused entrance and the ‘goel’ or ‘avenger of blood’ would bring justice. That’s the context of Joshua 20, based on Numbers 35, in the establishing these cities of refuge.
II. The W5 on a City of Refuge. (What, Where, When, Who, Why)
The cities of refuge were scattered out over Israel, there were six of them and the idea was that within a day almost any person could get to one. These cities were specifically appointed to be safe havens, they were places not only of refuge but also of justice. As long as the accused stayed within the walls of the city they would be safe but they would have to remain there for the rest of their lives. The only exception to this was if the high priest over all the land of Israel died, then they would be free to return home. This refuge was for Israelites and for strangers living among them, no distinction was made as to who could access this sanctuary in regards to ethnicity. When a person who committed manslaughter was granted access into a city of refuge they were to be considered as one of the citizens of that city. They had a new home, new rights, a new authority over them that would defend them and keep them safe. Israel would eventually have a series of Judges who would arbitrate the various legal issues but the cities of refuge were a concept given to Moses at the same time as the Ten Commandments, they were reiterated when Moses led the people to the edge of the Promised Land and they were to be an ongoing institution in Israel. But recognize that the cities of refuge were God’s idea, they were meant to be not only shelter in crisis but also a place of justice that demonstrated the grace of God, specifically the grace of God in Christ Jesus.
III. The Parallels Between Cities of Refuge and Jesus Christ.
Likely you’ve already been thinking about how this refuge that God ordained pictured an even greater refuge in Christ for us all. We all need refuge because of sin. All have sinned, there is none righteous, no not one, all we like sheep have gone astray, for the wages of sin is death… you know these verses that basically indict us with a death penalty because of sin and not only death but also the judgment of the wrath of God against all sin in an eternal hell. Is it just possible that when God was establishing the idea of cities of refuge that He had in mind the greater refuge we would all one day need in Christ Jesus? Consider these parallels:
1. Cities of refuge were to be close to all, easily accessed in time of need.
Jesus Christ is close to all who will access Him by faith, “But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Rom 10:8,9
2. Cities of refuge were open to all peoples, Gentile and Jew.
Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all mankind, whosoever will may come.
3. Cities of refuge were a place of safety as long as you stayed within the city.
‘In Christ’ is the phrase that describes our security. In Him we have forgiveness of sin, “in Him we live and move and have our being’ says Paul in Acts 17.
4. Cities of refuge entitled the person to be accepted as one the city’s own people.
In Christ we too gain not only the acceptance of God and those in the church but we also are considered citizens of His kingdom. We are adopted into God’s family, we become co-heirs with Christ. We can come boldly before the throne of grace bringing our concerns and petitions before Jesus Christ.
5. Cities of refuge were the only place a person with a death sentence could go to.
Jesus Christ is the only One to whom we can go to get our death sentence atoned for or expiated. John 14: 6 declares that only Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that no one can come to the Father but by Him. He is our refuge.
6. It was only the death of the high priest that freed a person from all charges.
Jesus Christ is our High Priest, His death on the cross is what was pictured in the cities of refuge. His death pays the price of our transgressions, it pays the price of our sin in all it’s expressions and existence. The death of Jesus has taken place for the specific purpose of the redemption or purchasing of our lives. But it must be accessed by faith in Christ, agree with God about the reality of sin in you and seek His forgiveness for your sin, believe in the absolute sufficiency of His death, it’s paid the price in full, know that justice has taken place in that a life has been given to pay the death sentence, the life blood of Jesus Christ has set you free. Jesus Christ is our refuge.
Refuge is not only shelter in crisis it is a place of justice that demonstrates the grace of God in Christ Jesus. We are called to seek that refuge, to receive that shelter and justice and grace. Then we are called to offer refuge in the name of Jesus, to demonstrate the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Let me take you to the epilogue in this. Joshua chapter 21 is all about the cities that were allocated to the Levites. The tribe of Levi was the only tribe that received no inheritance of land. Their inheritance was to be the sacrifices of the burnt offerings, the Lord God was their inheritance. They were given 48 cities to live in, cities that were in every one of the other twelve tribes land area. They were dispersed through all the land of Israel. Interestingly, every one of the 6 cities of refuge was also a city of residence for the Levites, this people who had no land but rather their inheritance was God Himself. Of all the tribes of Israel the tribe of Levi most resembles the church today. Theirs was the call to serve in worship, to be dispersed into the world, to serve God, theirs was the call to be a place of refuge demonstrating God’s grace.