City of Refuge

by John Bradshaw

An Amazing Fact: On the Big Island of Hawaii rest the ancient ruins of Pu`uhonua: "A vast enclosure whose stone walls were 20 feet thick at the base and 15 or 20 feet high; an oblong square, 1,040 feet one way, and a fraction under 700 the other," wrote Mark Twain in his July 1866 "Letters from Hawaii." When a native Hawaiian broke a "kapu," a sacred Hawaiian law, the offender was automatically sentenced to death unless he or she could flee to the City of Refuge where the "Big Kahuna," or high priest, lived. Once inside the walls he or she was safe and protected from judgment. Later, the Big Kahuna would perform a rite of purification, declare forgiveness and innocence, and set the person free to begin a new life.

Early this century, a young Norwegian immigrant stood, heart pounding, on Ellis Island gazing in awe at the young Manhattan skyline taking shape across the harbor. New York City represented to him the chance for something that until now had been unattainable. A better life, greater opportunities, new possibilities, and a new start lay just beyond the shimmering stretch of blue water, a vision of loveliness to him and multiplied thousands before him. Surely this city would be a sanctuary, a haven, a city of refuge. Ninety years later I stood at Ellis Island where this young man once stood, his name now etched into a wall of remembrance honoring many of the immigrants who entered America via this famous gateway. And with me stood my wife, Melissa, Joseph Olsen's great-granddaughter.

Together we realized that if Melissa's great-grandfather had not made that journey across the Atlantic Ocean life would be vastly different for both of us. That city represented a gateway of hope that changed everything for a young immigrant seeking a new start. There, life began again. From the moment he arrived on that shore, nothing was ever the same.

Six Special Cities
The Bible talks about cities of hope and promise where people seeking sanctuary could realize the prospect of a completely new beginning. As New York City has been to the millions of immigrants that came to the United States in search of a better life, so were these cities to those wanting to start life over again. These biblical cities of refuge provide tremendous insight into the plan of salvation and the wonderful promise of redemption through our Lord Jesus Christ.

When God divided the Promised Land between the tribes of Israel, He apportioned to each tribe vast tracts of real estate. It was in this land that God's people would dwell, and it was from this land that they would derive their livelihood.

A notable exception, however, was the tribe of Levi. The Levites were the priests for the 12 tribes, so rather than giving them a single territory, God instructed that they should disburse their holy influence among the possessions of the other 11 tribes. God also gave the tribe of Levi 48 cities in which to dwell, evenly spread throughout the Promised Land. They were not to simply earn their living from working the land because God had called them to ministry, to hold the office of the priesthood, and to conduct the services of the sanctuary. As such, they were to be supported by the tithe (the plan which today remains as God's means for the support of His ministers).

Out of these 48 cities, God instructed the Levites to set apart six cities that would be distinctly different from the other cities and would serve a unique function. "Speak to the children of Israel," God told Joshua, "saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses: That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood" (Joshua 20:2,3).

Three cities were strategically located on each side of the Jordan River. In the east were Bezer in the territory of the Reubenites, Ramoth in Gilead, and Golan in the area of Bashan (Deuteronomy 4:43). On the west side of the Jordan were Kedesh in Galilee, Shechem in Ephraim, and Kirjath-arba or Hebron in the hill country of Judah (Joshua 20:7-8).

In Joshua's day, it was the accepted practice that, if a family member should be killed, revenge should be gained by taking the life of the one responsible for the family member's death. For example, a man's brother is in the woods chopping down trees with a friend. The friend's axe head slips off his axe and fatally strikes the other man. The dead man's next of kin, even without an intimate knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, would then be expected to take the life of the "slayer" in retribution.

It was God's plan to improve this primitive system of justice. What if the death had been nothing but an accident? What could be done to protect those who were completely innocent of any premeditated misdeed? God had Joshua designate these six cities so they were never more than a day's journey from anywhere in Israel and ensuring they would be easy accessibility to all. When anyone, Israelite or alien among them, accidentally caused the death of another, that person was to immediately flee to the nearest city of refuge for sanctuary so that his or her life might be spared.

Christ Our Refuge
It is not difficult to see some definite spiritual parallels in this divine system.

1. The city of refuge represents Jesus. "The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble" (Psalm 9:9).

"A man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land" (Isaiah 32:2).

2. The avenger of blood typifies Satan. The Bible says the devil is like a "a roaring lion," that "walketh about, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8). Satan also stands as the "accuser of our brethren, … which accused them before our God day and night" (Revelation 12:10).

3. The slayer is the sinner. We are all responsible for unintentional manslaughter of Jesus (Acts 3:14-17). Hebrews 6:18 says, "We might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us."

Full and Free
Let's consider what other spiritual lessons appear in a study of the cities of refuge.

First, the only hope for the slayer was to get to the city of refuge. He was in a desperate situation and had absolutely no hope, except what was offered him through the wisdom of almighty God. Exactly the same is true today for every inhabitant of planet Earth.

The Bible tells us "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and our only hope is in the one name "under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). This elementary fact is the core of the gospel. Salvation is full and free through Jesus Christ alone. The sinner's only hope is Jesus Christ. "The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe" (Proverbs 18:10).

It is worth noting, too, that the slayer had no time to lose when he realized his condition. Immediately he "runneth" to the city of refuge. Only eternity will reveal the multitudes of lost men and women who might have been saved had they responded to the call of Christ when it first rang in their hearts. Tragically, many allow the voice of the Holy Spirit to become dim and faint, and fail to repent when that golden opportunity presents itself.

An Appeal to the Elders
Second, the slayer was not admitted to the city of refuge until after he had declared his cause "in the ears of the elders of that city" (Joshua 20:4). He had to confess his misdeed and own up to his mistake.

Likewise, modern-day believers must confess their sins to God and experience genuine repentance before they can be admitted into Christ, the great spiritual City of Refuge. Thankfully, God has given us the assurance that He is anxious to forgive the sins of the truly penitent. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

Remember that confession of sin is not only a legal requirement, but it is also an essential part of spiritual growth for all Christians. God is omniscient. He doesn't need us to fill Him in on our rights and wrongs, as if He were unaware of our actions.

But we do need to recognize ourselves for exactly what we are-guilty sinners-and recognize the just claims of the mighty law of God. We need to realize the awfulness of sin, the sin that cost the life of the Son of God. Surely until we realize the hatefulness of sin and the magnitude of Jesus' great sacrifice in our behalf, we are not ready to enjoy the eternal companionship of the redeemed.

Real Repentance
Confession to the elders, however, did not guarantee passage into the city of refuge and a permanent haven therein. "But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and he fleeth into one of these cities: Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die" (Deuteronomy 19:11, 12).

A fake repentance for a premeditated murder did not gain the slayer any safety whatsoever. The same is true in the spiritual sense for the sinner today. It is not lip service, but heart service that Christ desires. The Bible speaks of godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Psalm 66:18).

Jesus made it abundantly clear that at the last day many would be lost while claiming to be saved, having done wonderful things in the name of the Lord (Matthew 7:21-23). They flee to the city for refuge but it is all pretense. A faith that "justifies" sin but does not justify the sinner is not a saving faith and will never see a person into the heavenly city of refuge.

A Stumbling Block
The fourth point is of great interest to Christians everywhere. God instructed His people to prepare a way to the cities of refuge (Deuteronomy 19:3). While the condition of the roads in ancient Palestine was generally deplorable, the roads leading to the cities of refuge were to be kept in pristine condition at all times. There would be no point in telling an innocent fugitive to run for his life if the roads were impassable. Imagine if you were running for your life, only to sprain your ankle by stepping into a giant pothole while someone determined to kill you was in hot pursuit!

Just the same, the way to Jesus is to be kept clear at all times. Like John the Baptist, real Christians are road workers maintaining the highway to our King. "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Mark 1:3).

"Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth" (Luke 3:5).

Remember the crippled man whose friends lowered him into Jesus presence through the roof of a crowded meeting hall (Mark 2:1-12)? Why was it necessary for his friends to do something so radical as to crash the gathering via the roof? The Bible says that they could not get to Jesus any other way, because of the crowd that was surrounding Him (verse 2).

The crowd was made up, for the most part, of the followers of Jesus. It was the followers of Jesus that were preventing the people with the greatest needs from getting to Jesus.

Sadly, we have probably all heard someone say, "Well, if that's how Christians act, I don't want to be a Christian!" God says of His people, "Ye are my witnesses" (Isaiah 43:10), and Paul called Christians "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:20). As followers of Jesus, we must often ask ourselves whether or not we are directing people toward Jesus by our witness or away from Jesus by obstructing their view of Him.

The Final Judgment
Another startling truth we learn from the biblical cities of refuge is that being admitted to the city didn't necessarily settle the final fate of the fugitive. After having been admitted, the slayer stood in judgment, and his case was carefully investigated. In like manner, we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

The prophet Daniel wrote of the judgment being set and the books being opened. Those who "overcometh" through the grace of Christ will have their names retained in the book of life (Revelation 3:5). Truly, it is not only the profession of Christ that will save a person, but the possession of Christ that redeems.

The good news is that Christ is more willing to save us than we are to be saved, and all who come to Him He will "in no wise cast out" (John 6:37). Possessing Christ, we can face the judgment with implicit faith in His power to save.

Freedom to Live
The city of refuge may have seemed like captivity for the fugitive. As long as the high priest lived, the slayer had to remain within the walls. If he ventured outside its walls at any time, the avenger of blood was free to take his life. Therefore it was in the best interest of the fugitive to stay securely inside the city.

Yet inside the city was freedom, freedom to live. Have you ever heard anyone say that living a Christian life is too restricting or that church standards are too high? What such statements overlooks is that "He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life" (1 John 5:12).

The person waiting patiently inside the city wasn't fretting about the loss of his former freedoms, but was rejoicing in his freedom to live! Outside the city of refuge was freedom also, freedom to die. In Christ there is freedom, while outside of Christ there is an angry devil ready to fill every life with misery and hopelessness. As Jesus said, "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:36).

Under the Influence
Another interesting point is that where people live has a great impact on nearly every aspect of their lives. A person born and raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., will dress a lot differently from someone born and raised in Suva, Fiji. Someone from New Orleans, La., would likely eat different foods than someone from Rhinelander, Wis. (You won't find gumbo or grits on the menu at too many restaurants in northern Wisconsin!)

I can assure you that someone in Jackson, Miss., talks a lot differently than someone from Auckland, New Zealand. Not only are their accents different, but they discuss different subjects because they are familiar with different things. (For example, I grew up in New Zealand wearing a "jersey" in winter, lived in England where it was mostly called a "pullover," moved to Australia where it became a "jumper," and finally came here to the United States where it's called a "sweater"!)

In the same way, the Christian surrendered to Jesus Christ, dwelling in Him, the spiritual City of Refuge, will enjoy a life that is constantly being molded after His divine pattern. A life in Christ is a life where every fiber of the being is under the influence of the Spirit of God. The Christian is to "say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust" (Psalm 91:2).

And how long was the fugitive to stay in the city of refuge? According to Joshua 20:6, "until the death of the high priest," after which he was free to return to his home without threat of revenge or retribution on the part of the dead person's family.

Does this mean we should remain surrendered to Jesus until he dies? Obviously not. What is Jesus doing now? According to the Bible, He is making intercession for us, as our Advocate, as our High Priest (1 John 2:1; Hebrews 7:25; 8:1, 2.)

Will Jesus remain our High Priest forever? No, because one day He will lay off His priestly robes and return to the earth as a conquering King (Revelation 19:11-16).

The wonderful news for people everywhere is that Jesus is coming soon! One day the waiting will be over, sin and death will be no more, the "avenger of blood" will be gone, "and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

Surely it often felt as though the time of freedom might never come for the fugitive waiting inside the city of refuge. There have been times when Christians have cried out within their hearts, "How long, Lord, until you return and take us home to be with you?"

Eternal City of Refuge
But every day that passes is a day closer to the return of Jesus. One day, sooner than we may think, the eastern sky will explode with light and Christ will return riding down the grand corridors of space! The waiting will be over. Eternity will have begun. Forever with Christ in glory, the blessed hope indeed! Christ is now in the heavenly city, preparing mansions for those who have learned to dwell in Him, the only real City of Refuge, while here on earth.

Today, Ellis Island is a museum, preaching silent sermons about times past when people flocked to a bustling New York City in search of a new start and a better life. Yet there is another city on which the attention of the world must now be focused, not New York, but New Jerusalem. Just as New York was, and continues to be, a magnet for people from all over the world, so those of "every nation, kindred, tongue and people" must be directed to the wonderful place of refuge in Jesus Christ. He offers more than the perishable pleasures of this temporal world. In Him are unfathomable riches that will never fade away. By dwelling in Christ, we can live without fear of the "avenger of blood," and have the assurance of a blessed eternity with Christ Jesus our Lord.



When you post, you agree to the terms and conditions of our comments policy.

If you have a Bible question for Pastor Doug Batchelor or the Amazing Facts Bible answer team, please submit it by clicking here. Due to staff size, we are unable to answer Bible questions posted in the comments.
To help maintain a Christian environment, we closely moderate all comments.

  1. Please be patient. We strive to approve comments the day they are made, but please allow at least 24 hours for your comment to appear. Comments made on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday may not be approved until the following Monday.

  2. Comments that include name-calling, profanity, harassment, ridicule, etc. will be automatically deleted and the invitation to participate revoked.

  3. Comments containing URLs outside the family of Amazing Facts websites will not be approved.

  4. Comments containing telephone numbers or email addresses will not be approved.

  5. Comments off topic may be deleted.

  6. Please do not comment in languages other than English.

Please note: Approved comments do not constitute an endorsement by the ministry of Amazing Facts or by Pastor Doug Batchelor. This website allows dissenting comments and beliefs, but our comment sections are not a forum for ongoing debate.