Each city of refuge served as a beautiful type and shadow of our Savior, Jesus Christ. As Hebrews 6:18 says, “We who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”
Table of contents
- The Cities of Refuge (Deuteronomy 19:5-6 and Numbers 35:9-12)
- Christ Is Our City of Refuge (Hebrews 6:18)
- Pursued by an Avenger (Numbers 35:19)
- Refuge from Death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
- The City of Refuge Is Accessible by All (Numbers 35:15)
- The City of Refuge Is Near to All (Deuteronomy 19:3)
- Released from the City of Refuge by the High Priest’s Death (Numbers 35:25)
- Life Ensured in the the City of Refuge (Numbers 35:26-28)
- No Other Alternative
- Help for the Guilty
The twelve tribes of Israel were given a portion of the Promised Land as their inheritance to live in. The exception was the tribe of Levi: “The Levitical priests, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the Lord’s food offerings as their inheritance” (Deuteronomy 18:1, see also Numbers 18:23-24; Deuteronomy 12:12, 14:27; Joshua 14:3, 18:7). Instead, the Levites were assigned the duties associated with the sanctuary and religious activity of the nation, including being the nations’ priests: “The Lord your God has chosen [Levi] out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the name of the Lord, him and his sons for all time” (Deuteronomy 18:5). Even though they weren’t given an inheritance in the land, they needed places to live, so God assigned them areas throughout the nation. By providing cities for the Levites throughout the land all the people had access to them and their ministry:
The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasturelands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasturelands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts. “The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities.Numbers 35:1-3, 6
The Cities of Refuge (Deuteronomy 19:5-6 and Numbers 35:9-12)
The Levites were given a total of forty-eight towns to live in, and six of them were special, being called, cities of refuge. In the ancient world, there was no police force; therefore, it was up to each family to avenge murders. Under the Old Covenant: “If there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Exodus 21:23-24, see also Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 19:21). The nearest blood relative to the deceased was charged with the responsibility of executing the murderer, so there was “life for life.” But the nearest blood relative’s own emotions, passion might cloud his judgment. He could end up avenging his relative’s death by indiscriminately killing someone who wasn’t guilty of a capital crime. For example, what if the murder took place in self-defense, or even by accident. Here’s a description of such accidents:
When someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live, lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and strike him fatally, though the man did not deserve to die, since he had not hated his neighbor in the past.Deuteronomy 19:5-6
Imagine two men are working in the field and one man trips and falls in front of the other man’s plow and animals. Perhaps the injured man later succumbs to his injuries. Although the man plowing is innocent, the nearest blood relative might seek vengeance anyway. The cities of refuge provided a haven for the accused to flee to while the death was investigated, and guilt or innocence was determined:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment.Numbers 35:9-12
Christ Is Our City of Refuge (Hebrews 6:18)
The ancient world could be a terrifying place to live. Without the cities of refuge if people were accused of murder, it would seem like a hopeless situation. Where could they go for protection? Who could they look to for help? Police officers couldn’t be sought. Lawyers couldn’t be appointed on their behalf. Justice could be swift and lethal. The cities of refuge gave people feeling condemned the hope they wouldn’t otherwise have. The typology with Christ is established in Hebrews 6:18: “we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), the word for “fled for refuge” is the same word used of the cities of refuge. Let’s consider how the cities of refuge service as strong types of Christ.
Pursued by an Avenger (Numbers 35:19)
Numbers 35:19 says, “The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death.” The avenger wanted to put to death the accused, and Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). The avenger of blood pursued the condemned and we are pursued too. First Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:30). Unlike the avenger of blood in the Old Testament, we are pursued by an avenger who never sleeps, tires, or rests. Just as the accused finds refuge from the avenger, and Christ will find refuge from destroyer of our souls. Just as the city of refuge delivered the inhabitants from the wrath of the avenger, so too does Jesus “deliver us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
Refuge from Death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
Romans 3:23 says “all have sinned” and Romans 6:23 says “the wages of (or punishment for) sin is death.” Christ is our refuge from the punishment we deserve for our sin: death. First Corinthians 15:26 says, “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” Death is an enemy that Christ defeats for us:
So when this corruptible (referring to our earthly bodies) has put on incorruption(referring to the glorified bodies we’ll receive), and this mortal has put on immortality(when we’ve received eternal life), then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”First Corinthians 15:54-57
“O Death, where is your sting? (in other words, death can no longer hurt us)
O Hades, where is your victory?” (Hades is another way to refer to death)
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Death is many people’s greatest fear, but God gives us victory over this enemy through Christ. In most Bibles, the word Death is capitalized to personify it, so that it seems more like an enemy Jesus defeated. Showing just how clearly Death is defeated, Revelation 20:14 says, “Death [is] cast into the lake of fire.” When Christ is our city of refuge, God wants us so confident in over our victory Death that he sends it to hell!
The City of Refuge Is Accessible by All (Numbers 35:15)
Numbers 35:15 says, “These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there.” The cities weren’t just available to the Israelites, but all people. So too, God’s offer of salvation in Christ is not just available to the Israelites, but to all people: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Just as no one needed to fear being turned away from the city of refuge in their time of need, no one needs to fear being turned away from Christ in their time of need. As we sing, “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
The gates of the cities were always open and unlocked, and there is no time Jesus is inaccessible to us. We don’t need to discover any secret, spiritual insight with him. There are no religious locks and keys.
Access to the cities was taken so seriously the roads leading to them:
- Had ordinances to ensure proper maintenance , such as inspections and repairs every spring after the heavy rains.
- Had bridges built over every ravine so the accused did not have the hazard of descending and ascending.
- Were to be clearly designated by signposts at crossroads marked Miklat (Refuge).
- Were made twice the normal width of other roads and were to kept clear of debris.
The Jews went to these lengths because they could mean the difference between physical life and death. Spiritually speaking, so too is it an issue of life and death with Christ: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14). Just as the cities were open to all who fled to them for safety, Christ is open to all who come to Him for refuge from sin.
The City of Refuge Is Near to All (Deuteronomy 19:3)
The cities were placed in such a way they ensured everyone was within thirty miles of one, making them near to all:
“Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses. So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, till he stood before the congregation.Joshua 20:2, 7-9
Just as the cities of refuge were near to everyone, so to is salvation in Christ near as Romans 10:6-9 explains:
The righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
It isn’t necessary to ascend to heaven to bring Christ down from above, or necessary to descend into the abyss to bring Christ up from the dead. Instead, the salvation Christ provides is as near as having the necessary words in our mouths and in our hearts, because it is by confessing Jesus is Lord and believing in our heart God raised Him from the dead that we are saved.
Released from the City of Refuge by the High Priest’s Death (Numbers 35:25)
Numbers 35:25 says, “The congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.” Freedom for the accused came only with the high priest’s death.
Similarly, Hebrews 2:17 says Jesus is our “merciful and faithful high priest,” and his death provides our freedom. John 8:36 says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Just as the high priest was “anointed with oil” prior to his death, less than a week before Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary anointed Jesus at Bethany (John 12:1-8).
Life Ensured in the the City of Refuge (Numbers 35:26-28)
The city of refuge became a place where the accused lived. Those fleeing didn’t come to visit the city and then leave:
If the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the boundaries of his city of refuge to which he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the boundaries of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood. For he must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest, but after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession.Numbers 35:26-28
Just as the accused needed to remain in the city, we must remain in Christ. Just as being outside the city of meant judgment, being outside Christ means judgment as he said: “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6). If the accused were in the city their futures were ensured, and the same is true for believers in Christ: “[Jesus] will sustain you to the end, guiltless” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
The cities were well stocked with supplies so the accused had everything they needed to possibly stay for many years. The same is true for believers in Christ in that we have all we need: “[we have been] given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). In Christ we are, “Blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3).
No Other Alternative
There was no other alternative for the accused. It was these cities or judgment. Similarly, Christ is the only way to be saved from judgment. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Psalm 46:1 says, “God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.” More than 15 other times, the Psalms speak of God as being our refuge. Have you found refuge in Christ? The Cities of Refuge offered the only protection for those in need, and without them they faced death. Likewise, Jesus is the only refuge for sinners. People in the Old Testament would have to be fools to ignore the free and wonderful provision these cities offered, and the same is true today, but the foolishness of those who ignore the refuge found in Christ is even greater, because of the infinitely greater punishment. Those in the Old Testament who neglected the Cities of Refuge faced physical death, but those who ignore the refuge found in Christ face spiritual death and eternal condemnation.
Help for the Guilty
When it was determined that the accused was guilty, he was handed over to be punished. For example, David’s general Joab was a violent and ruthless man who murdered two men: Abner and Amasa (2 Samuel 3:37 and 20:10). Before David turned the kingdom over to Solomon, he ordered him to punish Joab (1 Kings 2:6). When Joab heard, he fled and tried to seek shelter, but Solomon commanded him to be killed anyway because he was guilty (1 Kings 2:28-34).
The Cities of Refuge can only help the innocent. Jesus is greater in that he helps the guilty: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Spread out for Ministry
Under the New Covenant, we might believe there’s no high priest, temple, sacrifices, or priesthood, but there’s still a:
- High Priest: “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God (Hebrews 4:14).
- Temple: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple?” (1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19).
- Sacrifice: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).
And there is still a priesthood. Just like New Covenant believers are the temple and sacrifices, we’re also priests:
You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
Just as God spread the Levitical priest throughout the land in the Old Testament, the same principle is at work in the New Testament. New Testament believers are priests and God has spread us out to minister to those around us. Unfortunately, sometimes Christians think pastors are responsible for the work of the ministry, but Ephesians 4:11-12 says, “[Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Pastors, as well as the other offices listed, are supposed to equip other Christians to do ministry themselves.
Currently I work full-time as a pastor, and the majority of my time is spent with believers. Previously I was an elementary schoolteacher and the majority of my time was spent with unbelievers. Every day was filled with opportunities to share Christ with others. If pastors (shepherds) are spending most of their time shepherding their flocks (as it should be), then the flocks themselves need to be out working to bring others into the fold. This is God’s plan in the Old and New Testaments alike.
Are We Welcoming?
Priests inhabited the cities of refuge welcoming with open arms those fleeing for their lives. Cities of refuge don’t exist today, but because all Christians are priests, we have the same responsibility to be loving and welcoming to others looking for similar refuge from judgment. All believers are refugees who have found safety in Christ, their city of refuge. These refugees then find themselves in a new “city”, a community of fellow refugees known as the Church. Just as the priests welcomed people into the cities of refuge do we welcome people into the church? Do we exemplify Christ in such a way people around us feel welcome coming to us?
Are We Content with Christ?
God called David a man after His own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). What made David worthy of such a title? Some of it had to do with the sufficiency he found in the Lord. He wrote, “O LORD, You are the portion of my inheritance and my cup; You maintain my lot” (Psalm 16:5). No matter what David had or didn’t have, God was enough for him. Early in hiss life, he was forced to flee from Saul, relegated to living in caves, leaving behind his home, friends, family and even his wife. During this time, he wrote, “I cried out to You, O LORD: I said, ‘You are my refuge, My portion in the land of the living’” (Psalm 142:5). When David had nothing else in the world, he was still content because he had God.
For some of us, our contentment is decided by our circumstances and possessions. We have so little relationship with God that He could leave our lives, and as long as we lost nothing else we would feel the same.
God was enough for Asaph to be content. He wrote, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).
Just as the Levites (priests) received the cities of refuge, as New Testament priests we receive Christ our city of refuge. Consider for a moment that you’re a Levite, and for generations the story of the Promised Land had been passed down to you, would you be disappointed to find out you don’t receive an inheritance in the land like all the other tribes? You receive the news that the Lord Himself is your inheritance. Are you content? Do you feel slighted? Is the Lord enough for you? If God chose to take your finances, health, spouse, or children from you, would your relationship only with Him be enough to leave you content? If you had nothing else in your life, would you be satisfied with only Christ?
Do We Recognize Your Guiltiness?
We could say Jesus came to be a city of refuge for the guilty, but it would be more accurate to say he came to be a city of refuge for those who recognize they are guilty. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). Jesus wasn’t implying that there are righteous or “spiritually healthy” people. He was making the point that it is only those who recognize their sinfulness or “spiritual sickness” that he came to save.