1 Then the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood.
Many people pay very little attention when reading through the latter part of the book of Joshua. After all, it’s all maps and land allotments and stuff like that, isn’t it?
Second Timothy 3:16 tells us that all scripture, not just some scripture, but all scripture is inspired by God and useful. That means that the end of Joshua is, according to God, useful to us to help us to grow in him. So we want to be careful not to glaze over when reading through something that is unfamiliar to us, because we might miss something important.
Now, take a look at the verses above. Here we see Joshua setting aside the cities of refuge. These cities, as the scripture describes, are places where a man who has unintentionally killed another person can run so as not to be put to death by a relative of the person he accidentally killed. That man would flee to the city, present himself to the elders of that city, and ask to be protected there from the one who would come to do justice on him.
How much is this like a picture of us before God? Really, there is one striking difference, we have sinned against God intentionally, not unintentionally. However, the rest is quite similar. All of us have sinned against God (Romans 3:23). All of us are guilty, and we deserve to die because of our sin (Romans 6:23). And, if you understand scripture rightly, we all are being pursued by an avenger—God himself—who rightly should punish us, pouring out his wrath on us for our sin against him (Ephesians 2:3).
Where shall we run? There is no town of safety, but there is something much like a city of refuge for us. While we were sinners, guilty before God and deserving his wrath, God chose to make a way for us to be forgiven. God sent his Son, Jesus, to be the sacrifice for our sins (Romans 5:8). If we will run to Jesus, like a city of refuge, and plead with him for shelter, admitting all the while that we are guilty of our crime, he will take us in and put us under his protection (Romans 10:9-10, 13; John 3:16). We cannot pretend that we do not deserve God’s wrath. We cannot pretend that we are not guilty of our crimes. We cannot pretend that there is anything that we can do that would ever make us worthy in God’s sight. All we can do is run to Jesus, our refuge, and take shelter under his care.
The amazing thing is, when we get to the city of refuge, we will find that the one who set up that city for our protection is the very God we have so offended. God set up a refuge for people he knew would sin against him and deserve his wrath. Why did he do this? He is glorious, loving, merciful, and just. He chose to pay our penalty himself and offer us a way to be rescued, saved.
Next time you are reading through the Old Testament and come across the city of refuge, perhaps it would do you good to pause and think about the fact that we have our very own city of refuge, the Savior, Jesus Christ. He shed his blood so that our souls would be saved. He is kinder than anyone we have ever met. He is worthy of our praise. He is truly glorious.
And if you do not yet know Jesus, I urge you to realize your condition. You are guilty before God. You have committed sin against God that places you under his wrath. He has established a refuge to which you can run. Fly to Jesus, confess your sin, place yourself under his protection, and commit yourself to live in him for the rest of your life. He will forgive all who come to him seeking his grace in truth. He will be a city of refuge for guilty sinners like you and me.