In recent years, there has been no small debate in the media over what have been called “sanctuary cities”—that is, those cities scattered throughout the United States in which illegal immigrants have been allowed to live without fear of extradition. Whatever we may think of this concept in our current political climate, the reality of such “sanctuary cities” carries echoes of the “cities of refuge” mentioned in Joshua 20.
After Joshua led Israel to take possession of their promised inheritance—having given God’s people physical rest from their warfare—the Lord told Joshua to appoint cities of refuge which would serve as safe-havens for anyone who unintentionally took a life (Joshua 20:1-6).
It is not immediately clear what to make of these “safe-havens” for the accused. However, it begins to make sense as we put together several details unfolded in the passage. What it says is this: an individual who has been accused of murder—and who is either merely accused or guilty of unintentional bloodshed—can flee to a city of refuge. The elders of the city shall then protect the accused party from the wrath of the avenger of blood (usually a relative of the one who has been murdered). The guilty party needs to then remain in the city until the death of the High Priest, after which he can return to his home in peace and safety.
The hinge on which this entire passage turns is that the death of the High Priest is regarded, in some sense, as an atonement for the blood that was shed. The accused party is set free by the death of the High Priest.
Sinclair Ferguson sums up the gospel significance of this so well when he says, “Jesus, who has the same name as Joshua, provides us with a city of refuge in which we can hide from the consequences of the guilt of our past actions, and not only a city in which we can hide but an open door into liberty and life because He is the High Priest—the High Priest beyond all other High Priests, who has died in order to deal with our sins.”
God not only gave Israel a partial rest in the promised land, a type of the eternal rest to come for believers. He also gave them this law to remind them that guilty sinners need rest from the guilt of their sin. Just like those who fled to the city of refuge for that rest, so now we flee to Jesus to find rest from the guilt, condemnation, and judgment of our sin.
We flee to Christ and we are safe.
Written By Nick Batzig