Sermon on Joshua 20:1-9 – “Christ, Our Refuge”

Sermon on Joshua 20:1-9 – “Christ, Our Refuge”

Sermon for Sunday, December 11th, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Old Testament reading:

[Jos 20:1-9 ESV] 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. 4 He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. 5 And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. 6 And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.'” 7 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. 8 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. 9 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.

New Testament reading:

[Heb 6:13-20 ESV] 13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 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, 18 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. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

Gospel reading:

[Mat 11:25-30 ESV] 25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”


I want to tell you about one of the most remarkable things I have seen in my entire life. Some years ago I took a trip with my brother to the city of Boston. And there were naturally many sights to be seen in that historic and bustling city. But of everything that I saw, one sticks out in my memory. There, on a regular unassuming street I saw it. A Dunkin Donuts across the street from another Dunkin Donuts! Now that is convenience.

Most franchises of course will will want one store per city, or perhaps multiple stores spread out across a larger city. And the people can access the nearest location.

So it is that the Lord decided to have Cities of Refuge in ancient Israel spread out across the land. Not every city was a city of refuge. Nor did he have one such city right next to another. But rather six cities were chosen, and these six were spread out in a pattern which made them accessible to all people in the land. (For reference, I’ve put a map in the bulletin showing the location these six cities.)

I. The Cities of Refuge Chosen

Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan. The author of the Book of Joshua notes these cities in a counterclockwise manner. (That’s anticlockwise for the British.)

About these cities of refuge he Lord spoke to Moses (back in Numbers 35) saying “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.” And God told him that there shall be six cities of refuge, three beyond the Jordan (to the east) and three in the land of Canaan (to the West).

Now in the Book of Joshua this is fulfilled. Indeed not by Moses, but by Joshua. He does as the Lord commands him and the six cities are chosen.

II. The Avenger of Blood

But we need to step back a moment and look at the need and purpose for these cities of refuge.

The commandment “thou shalt not kill” is better translated and understood as “though shalt not murder.” This means, you shall not take a life unjustly. But this doesn’t rule out warfare (as God has been commanding the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites) and it is does not preclude Capital Punishment, death as a punishment for crime.

But you better make sure that the suspect is guilty!

The Lord says in Exodus 21:12-13 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee.”

Murder deserves the death penalty. But the one who has accidentally a killed another is not guilty of murder. He shall be spared.

But when a man is guilty, WHO shall carry out the punishment? [REPEAT: WHO shall carry out the death sentence.] In Ancient Israel the carrying out of that punishment was the responsibility of the avenger.

The important thing here to understand is that the avenger is not the bad guy. It is a role which God has established for that time for justice. It is not a role that continue today, but was for that time and place.

The Lord commanded (again in Numbers 35) “The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when meet him, he shall put him to death.”

Who then is the avenger? It is not a job that you are paid for, nor a position in which you are elected. The avenger is the closest of kin. So if a father is murdered, the son is to avenge his blood. If a man has no children, his avenger would be his brother or his cousin or his uncle, etc.

How do we know this? How do we know that the avenger is the relative of the deceased?

The Hebrew word here translated as “avenger” is “ga-al.” It is the same word elsewhere translated as “kinsmen” or “next of kin.” And, in fact, more often than not, the word is translated as “redeemer” for that was the job of the next of kin; to redeem, to purchase, to ransom one’s kin from their trouble.

So in our text it is translated “avenger” or “avenger of blood” because of the expansion of the phrase to “ga-al hadam” – “the avenger of blood.”

God established this role of avenger for justice in the nation. But you can quickly see a problem … what if the suspect is not guilty of the murder? What is he to do? He desires not to live his life constantly looking over his shoulder watching out for the avenger who will attack him.

So the Lord established cities of refuge.

III. The Proceedings

These cities of refuge — 3 to the east of the Jordan, 3 to the west — were spread out for convenience. And, each of the cities was on a high hill so that the one who was fleeing could see them from afar. Even in the dark, the light of the city on the high hill could be seen.

As Jesus said, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”

It is a beacon of light, of hope for the refugee who is fleeing from the avenger.

When the refugee arrives at the gate he explains his case to the elders of the city. Though the text does not say this directly, it seems that the elders of the city can say “go away” if they think the man does not have a case. But with a credible profession the refugee is let into the city. The avenger, however, is not allowed in. The refuge is safe. And a court proceeding begins. He “stands before the congregation.”

The judgment is to be well-considered, not quick and hasty. The truth is to be determined. This is done, as is explained elsewhere in the Bible, by the convergence of 2 or 3 witnesses. The accusations must be independent and they must match.

While the text does say that the “congregation” judges the case this can hardly be the entire population of a city. It may be something more like a jury trial with a number of persons chosen for the judging. If they find the man guilty, they do not carry out the punishment, but banish him from the city so that the avenger might carry out the punishment.

But the text emphasizes the case where the manslayer (not a murderer) is innocent and the city of refuge is his safety. He finds protection there.

And then, when the high priest dies, the manslayer (the one who has accidentally someone else) is set free from the city. And at first this seems a bit confusing. Wouldn’t this put him out of the safety of the city and therefore dangerously in the hands of the avenger?

Well, no. The death of the high priest was expiatory – his death was to be regarded as a death for the sins of the people. And thus the avenger is to be satisfied, placated in the death of another, the high priest. The refugee is then allowed to go back to his hometown. And if the avenger were to strike him, then the avenger would be at fault, guilty of murder himself.

IV. Parallels to Christ

The parallels in this account to Christ and the Gospel are plentiful.

A. A Light on a Hill

One writer says: Those cities were built on high hills or mountains so that those seeking asylum there would have no difficulty in keeping them in sight. So the servants of Christ who hold Him up, are likened unto “a city which is set upon a hill” (Matthew 5:14).

Christ is as a light on a hill, beckoning, calling all to flee to him. Calling all to flee to the cross of Christ, to cling to the cross.

B. Deliverance from the Avenger

In Jesus Christ we are saved. And I emphasized this in sermons a couple years ago in the Gospel of John and in lessons from Romans. I emphasize the answer to this question – saved from what?

In Jesus Christ we are saved from the Wrath of God. God himself is the avenger, the one who is to carry out divine justice.

But in Jesus Christ there is deliverance from the avenger of blood.

C. The Greater High Priest

The death of Christ, the great high priest, is truly expiatory, forgiving the sins of His people.

While the death of the high priest settled accounts for a time, the death of Jesus Christ settles accounts for all time. He is the better high priest.

D. Our Refuge

In Christ we find refuge. We have safe passage.

Run to that place of refuge.

When it rains we seek shelter. And we don’t casually walk to shelter, stopping along the way. We run. We flee. We get there as soon as possible. So it is with Christ – we are to run to Him. Flee into His arms, and we are to do it in haste. Whenever I conduct a funeral — and I have one tomorrow in Franklin NJ — I say this “Seek the Lord while you are able.” In essence, seek the Lord now, not later.

Many times in the Psalms, God is called our refuge.

– Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

– O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge.

– The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

– God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

– Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord!, I have fled to you for refuge.

Of course this means — and this primarily means — have faith in the Lord.

But it also means that we are to flee to Christ for refuge – in faith – in all circumstances. We are to seek the will of the Lord in His word. We are to find refuge in His answers, not our own. So in whatever difficulty comes your way, you are to answer or respond in light of Biblical revelation, taking refuge in his directives. Not worrying about the pragmatic results, but ever careful to obey the Lord.

And not only do we flee to Christ for refuge. We stay there. We do not leave the city. Leaving the city is dangerous, bringing the threat of death upon the refugee. So in Christ we are to stay with him, for He alone provides protection.

Those then are four parallels – A light on the hill, deliverance from the avenger, the greater high priest, and our refuge. But there is a great difference in our case. In ancient Israel the manslayer was innocent. We are guilty. We deserve not to be let into the city. We deserve nothing but death, for our many sins.

So much greater then is the mercy of God, upon us who are guilty. We give Him glory because his salvation is not what we have deserved, but what has been graciously given to us.

That is great Gospel message, we learn that Christ’s blood was shed on our behalf. The justice of God was satisfied in the death of His son who is our refuge and our salvation.

So we are called to flee to the cross of Christ. To cling to Cross. And to invite sinners to the true refuge, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Psalmist declares “On God rests my salvation and my glory: my mighty rock, my refuge is God.” Let us ever look to the Lord for refuge. Let us pray.