Jesus our City of Refuge - Safety from the avenger of blood

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Jesus is our cities of refugeBible Study Lessons

Jesus our City of Refuge - Safety from the avenger of blood

by I Gordon

"The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe." (Proverbs 18:10)

Well, a whole new decade has begun and we're off to a bit of a doozy! There has been tension in the Middle East (ok, that's not new) with a key Iranian military General killed, a passenger plane shot down and over 20 missiles fired at an American base. World War 3 was trending on twitter! This is part of what the Bible calls 'Wars and rumours of wars'. As I write the numbers of those infected with the 'corona-virus' is sky-rocketing. Poor old Australia have horrific and devastating fires. And when it hasn't been fires it's been hail storms. And when it hasn't been hail storms it's been flooding. And when it wasn't flooding it's been dust storms. The Bible calls these things 'birth pains'.

This message is not however about those things. It is about Jesus as our place of refuge. With all that is happening people rightfully get concerned and many look for a place of safety. God, through His word, has shown where we are to look to find safety, refuge, meaning and hope. And He tells all of mankind to flee to that place and stay there. He has said this in many varied ways but one way that I have been looking at recently is pictured in the Old Testament concept of the 'Cities of refuge'. No doubt you have heard of these but maybe, just maybe, you may not have taken the time to think about what God is trying to teach mankind through them. If that's you, well, how fortunate you are because there are some important gems hidden within these cities!1 So we'll look at:

Jesus our city of refuge outline
  • The historical background (Joshua 20)
  • The spiritual picture before us
  • The position of those who will not flee
  • The role of those who help others flee
  • The safety and hope for those who make the city!

Cities of refuge location in IsraelThe historical background (Joshua 20)

Let's first look at a passage of scripture that gives an overview of these cities of refuge and discuss how they were used historically.

Jos 20:1-9 Then the LORD said to Joshua: (2) Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, (3) so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. (4) When he flees to one of these cities, he is to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state his case before the elders of that city. Then they are to admit him into their city and give him a place to live with them. (5) If the avenger of blood pursues him, they must not surrender the one accused, because he killed his neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. (6) He is to stay in that city until he has stood trial before the assembly and until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time. Then he may go back to his own home in the town from which he fled." (7) So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. (8) On the east side of the Jordan of Jericho they designated Bezer in the desert on the plateau in the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan in the tribe of Manasseh. (9) Any of the Israelites or any alien living among them who killed someone accidentally could flee to these designated cities and not be killed by the avenger of blood prior to standing trial before the assembly.

We see that God instructed Joshua, as he had Moses before him, to setup six cities throughout the land of Israel that would have a special status as a 'city of refuge'. So what does that mean? Well, in those days Israel lived under the law which incorporated the concept of 'an eye for an eye'. If you murdered someone, then you would be put to death... plain and simple. But even if you killed someone accidentally the closest relative of the slain person could come for your life. The 'closest relative' in this case was known 'as the avenger of blood'. They would come for justice over the shed blood of their brother or close relative.

So let's say I'm building a wall and I unintentionally dislodge some large stones which come down, hitting a man and killing him instantly. What do I do? Run. Fast. I need to get to a city of refuge where I can be safe and have my case heard. Or maybe I'm chopping down trees and, having not really maintained my tools, my axe head flies off, striking a man and killing him. I need to get to the city of refuge. They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I have added a painting to the right.2 Here you can see one fleeing into the gates of the city of refuge with the avenger of blood, drawn sword in hand, hot on his heels. But the elder or priest of the city is there to meet the one fleeing and say 'not one step further' to the one in pursuit. Our accidental man-slayer has made it! He's safe!

Cities of Refuge - The spiritual picture 

Now all of this is also a picture of the provision 'in Christ Jesus' for the sinner who, whether they know it or not, needs a place of refuge. Each city of refuge speaks of Christ in some way. We will look at that but for now let's first look at some general points from the passage in Joshua.

Spiritual types / pictures in the city of refuge
  • Firstly we see that these places of refuge were from God. He initiated them. He wanted them. Right from the first sin of Adam and Eve God has always been the One who has sought to provide a place of shelter and security for the sinner. Now whether they would take that place is another matter, but the heart of God has always for the sinner to find safety and forgiveness.

  • God placed them so you could make it. From the map on the right we can see that God wasn't trying to make it hard to reach these cities. You didn't have to run the entire length of Israel. Yes, you had to make an effort, but it was within reach for those that saw the seriousness of their need to flee. Some cities were in the north; some in the south. Three cities were placed on each side of the river Jordan. So if you were in Judah, you could flee to Hebron. If you were in East Manasseh you could flee to Golan. There was a place that was accessible 3. It's the same today. A man doesn't have to flee physically today to find a spiritual place. But they do have to come, in humility and faith in their hearts, to the King of Kings and ask for His refuge. And Christ is not far from those that come in such a way!

  • Note also that it was for everyone. Young, old, male, female, slave, free, Israelite, Gentile. Vs 9 says '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.' This is one of those 'whosoever' verses. The greatest is John 3:16  "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (Joh 3:16)  Whosoever... rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, male, female, king or peasant. The invitation is available to all and all should take advantage of it!

  • When the High Priest died, the perpetrator of the crime could go free and had no fear. 'The Talmud argues that the death of the high priest formed an atonement.'4  The Jewish Rabbis of old argued that because of the righteousness of the High Priest, his death could act like an atonement that caused those who had fled into a city of refuge to go free. The High Priest's death atoned for their mistake the said. And how correct they were without seeing what God was pointing to! They saw that but failed to see that the ultimate High Priest, Jesus Christ, is the real One whose death would set us free!

  • It is worth noting that in this passage all of it pictures Christ in some way (apart from one person) - The innocent one killed is a picture of Jesus for he did no wrong. The city of refuge that provides shelter and safety for the one fleeing pictures Christ. The High Priest as previously mentioned pictures Christ in that His death sets those in the city free! Even the avenger of blood is a type of Christ for at the second coming Jesus comes with justice and in righteousness He judges and wages war. He is the avenger of blood for those that have not sought refuge.

There is only one in this picture that is not a type of Christ and that is the one who has committed the crime and is fleeing. That is a picture of you.

Those who will not flee

So what of those who decide not to flee? They have unintentionally killed a man but decide to just stay where they are. What becomes of them? In these cases there was no safety outside of these cities. If the nearest kinsman was upset and out for blood then justice was coming. Would it be today? Tomorrow? In a week? Next year? Who could tell? But the avenger of blood was coming at some stage and the perpetrator was simply living on borrowed time. What a horrible position to be in.

I remember when I first saw this for my own life. As I read the Bible for the first time in my first year of University I saw that I was in trouble. Big trouble. I saw the need to flee. Not 'flee' as in leave the city I was in (though as a city it did give some strong reasons to do that as well!) But like Christian in Pilgrims Progress I saw I was living, spiritually speaking, in the City of Destruction and if I stayed there what would become of me? I might be ok for a day, a week, a year... who knows. But I saw I was living on borrowed time and that I needed to find a place of safety and forgiveness in Christ if I was ever to have rest. It took me 6 months of reading the Bible and agonizing over what I need to do... but I got there. Some people never come to see this. Most don't. They continue to live like they have forever. They live like the avenger of blood won't ever come. When is he coming? Who can tell? But justice is coming and no one knows how long they have got.

So what does the Bible say of those that have a place of safety but do not use it? It calls them fools. There is an interesting example of this during the days of King David. As a quick background, after the death of King Saul, David was anointed King but the house of David and the house of Saul continued to battle. David's general was Joab and Saul's was a man called Abner. Joab's brother Asahel (who was said to be as fleet footed as a wild gazelle) chased Abner and wouldn't turn aside even though Abner told him to several times. In the end Abner, in self-defense, killed Asahel. Joab of course, wants revenge. And so we read:

Now when Abner had returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside in the gate to speak with him privately, and there stabbed him in the stomach, so that he died for the blood of Asahel his brother. (2Sa 3:27)

And the king sang a lament over Abner and said: "Should Abner die as a fool dies? (2Sa 3:33)

David was sad for Abner's death but he said that he died as a fool. Why would he say that? What was Abner's foolishness? Well, it is hidden within the text in 2 Sam 3:27. The writer of the passage makes note that Abner was in Hebron. As we have seen above, Hebron was a city of refuge. You couldn't just go in there and kill someone. So Joab tricks Abner to come to the gate of the city. Outside, Abner is not safe and there he dies at the hand of Joab. Abner's foolishness was in knowing where the place of safety was but in not staying there. He died as a fool as do many others who have heard of their need to flee to Christ but choose not to.

Those who help others on their way to the city of refuge

It is also interesting to put yourself in the shoes of those who helped make the way to the city of refuge as easy as possible. This was one of the roles of the Levite priests. They would ensure that the roads were well marked, sign-posted and all obstacles that might prevent someone from reaching the city of refuge are removed. The Believers Bible Commentary says that according to Jewish writings:

Jewish insight into the city of refuge

(a) the roads leading to the cities of refuge were always kept in thorough repair, and required to be about 32 cubits (about 48 feet) broad;
(b) all obstructions were removed that might stay the flier's foot or hinder his speed;
(c) no hillock was left, no river was allowed over which there was not a bridge;
(d) at every turning there were posts erected bearing the words 'Refuge,' to guide the unhappy man in his flight;
(e) when once settled in such a city the man-slayer had a convenient habitation assigned to him, and the citizens were to teach him some trade that he might support himself.

Road to city of refugeHow does that speak to us today you ask? Believers today are both those that have fled and found refuge, as well as the priests of God who then assist others to find that same safety. As priests we are the ones that put up the signs saying 'this way', 'refuge here'. Unfortunately there are many other signs saying 'find freedom in the New Age here.' 'Save the planet, hug a tree and save your soul here'. The voices and signs are many and varied but we have a need to point to the true city of refuge, Jesus Christ.

Is that something you try to do with those around you? We are also the ones who try to remove obstacles that stop others from finding safety. As an example, I had a letter come in to the website where the lady was hitting an obstacle... One that seems relevant to what we are speaking of. You may have noted above that the cities of refuge were for unintentional acts ONLY. For premeditated, defiant serious sins the law demanded death. One lady, reflecting on her background, wrote in really worried about this saying:

'I would like ask a question. I was saved at 36 years of age and prior to my conversion I lived a very immoral lifestyle. Which included abortion, adultery and a bisexual lifestyle. There is not a single commandment that I did not break in thought or deed. It was brought to my attention that the sacrifices offered in the OT were a shadow of what Christ would come to do, right? Ok. Except... there are no sacrifices offered for the things that I did. Without exception they were simply punishable by immediate death, no redeeming yourself with a sacrifice... I'm in a bit of a tailspin over it. So I guess my question is if the old sacrificial system was a shadow and Christ is now our perfect lamb how are certain sins covered or forgiven if they were not before? ' 

Now that is a fair enough question and one that presented a great obstacle on her path! It was a roadblock.

Thankfully I was able to share5 that the book of Hebrews tells us that compared to the Mosaic covenant, believers in Jesus have a 'better covenant' based on 'better promises' and a 'better sacrifice'. One, as Paul spoke in the book of Acts, that can free everyone from everything!

Act 13:39 Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.

Those that find their way to refuge

So what of those that make it to the city of refuge? What of those who find safety in Christ... What do they find? Good question!

God chose the cities of refuge for they speak of what we have 'in Christ'. We can glean from what these cities mean. So let's look at each in order from north to south.

City and Meaning Spiritual Application
Kedesh 'Sanctuary' Kedesh is the sanctuary, the refuge and place of rest. Rest, safe from fear, guilt, punishment, daily worry and the burden of continually not measuring up. The Old Testament speaks of God as a refuge and rest and this was offered to us by the Lord in the New Testament:

 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust." (Psa 91:1-2)

 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Mat 11:28-30)
In the city of Golan there is joy. Who doesn't want joy? Often the troubles of this life get us down. But we have joy in the Lord and should always remember what is to come for it is joy overwhelming!

 You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psa 16:11) 

 Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, (Jud 1:24) 

In Ramoth we find that those who were guilty and low, are raised and lifted up in the Lord. Like Mephibosheth of old, even spiritual cripples can be invited up to feed and dine with the King! He has lifted up to heights unimagined (even if we don't see it!)

 He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. (Psa 40:2)

 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:6-7)

In Shechem we find the strength of the Lord and that He is able to carry a lot on His shoulders! Both people and the whole world if needed. He is caring enough to go out and find one lost sheep and put it on His shoulder and carry it home. And strong enough to rule the entire world in the coming kingdom where the whole government will be upon His shoulders.

 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luk 15:5-7) 

 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6) 

'Fortress (defence)'

In Bezer we find that Christ is the strongest of all fortresses. No enemy can thwart Him or ultimately defeat those that are His. Believers are hidden 'in Christ' - they are in the most impenetrable fortress! It is the safest place to be. In fact, it is the only safe place to be. 

 The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Psa 18:2) 

'Communion, fellowship,

 In Hebron, the city of refuge, we find fellowship and even friendship... with God! Crazy thought! And not only that, we find that there are a whole lot of others dwelling in that city that have seen their guilt and fled for forgiveness and safety as well. We find fellowship and friendship with them too!

 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2Co 13:14) 

 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Act 2:42) 


Have you not fled to Jesus yet? Then see the precarious position of your life! The avenger of blood is coming. God loves you but He is also a God of justice and He cannot leave sin unpunished. Someone must take that punishment. If you will not flee to Christ for refuge then you will pay for your own sin. Be wise, not foolish, and flee to Christ!

Have you fled to Christ for refuge? Then rejoice in all that He is for you and tell and help others! Have strong encouragement as the word says is proper for those that have fled for refuge in Christ:

Heb 6:17-18 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.

Think also of your role, as a Priest before God, to help others find the way. Remove obstacles where you can. Point the right direction for those wanting to flee. This is right and proper for those that know the way.

  1. Ok, I'm making it sound like we've found a city of gold with hidden treasure that will make us all rich. Hmmm possibly over stating it a little! But there are gems and treasures of the spiritual variety waiting to be dug up here! So no, this study won't pay your bills. But it may enrich your soul! ↩

  2. Illustration by Charles Foster, The Story of the Bible, 1884.

  3. I have read that the furthest away from a city of refuge that you could be, while still within the land of Israel, was 50-60 Km. This is probably a 2 day walk for a healthy person. But note that they might have gone a tad faster cos their life was on the line!  

  4. From  &#↩

  5. The Q&A is here if interested