These cities of refuge are an illustration of how we find salvation in Jesus Christ. Now it is not a perfect illustration. This appointment of the cities of refuge was for people who were innocent of any real crime. We’re not innocent, we’re guilty of sin. Furthermore, although these cities were spaced throughout the land at convenient intervals, a person who had accidentally killed somebody else nevertheless had to scramble to get to one of them. They might be overtaken on the way. But salvation is never like that. We don’t have to scramble to find Jesus Christ. He is there with open arms, inviting us to come to Him. Not only that, but He actually pursues us. It’s not we who pursue Him. But even with these important differences, this illustration still makes some good points for us.
First, we see that it was the Israelites’ duty to indicate to individuals the way to the cities of refuge. Deuteronomy 19:3 commands that roads were to be built to these cities so it would be easy to get to them. Extra-biblical Jewish sources tell us that they also built bridges over ravines so that the fugitive wouldn’t be slowed down. They had to repair the roads every year. Whenever there was a crossroads, there had to be a sign pointing to the city of refuge so people knew where to go.
We have a responsibility to do this where people who are perishing in sin are concerned. Apart from Jesus Christ, the sinner is a dead man or a dead woman. Who is going to help them? Our duty as Christians is to point the way. We are to say, “Jesus Christ is the refuge. Don’t hesitate along the way, but flee to Him.”
Second, these cities of refuge would always be unlocked. That was an unusual thing in the ancient world because cities were for protection. At night and during times of war, the city gates were always locked. But the gates of the cities of refuge were never locked. They were always to be open, just as the arms of Jesus are always open to anyone who will come.
Third, if an accidental manslayer did not flee to one of these cities for refuge, there wasn’t any hope for him. There was no other provision in the law of Moses by which he could be saved. The same thing is true of us. If we in our sin will not flee to Jesus Christ the Savior, there is no hope for us because there is no other way of salvation. The Bible says “For there is one God and there is one mediator, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). If you are to find salvation, it has to be in Him.
If you’re a person who is not in Christ, you are being pursued by a deadly enemy, an avenger of blood. That enemy is death. You may live a long, long time, but sooner or later, that avenger is going to catch up with you and you are going to die. The only hope for you is that you find life in Jesus Christ before that happens. And that’s what the Gospel is. The author of Hebrews may have been thinking of these cities of refuge when he wrote of those “who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us” (Heb. 6:18). That’s the challenge for you. Flee to Jesus and find salvation there. It’s the only place it can be found.
We are not just studying Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We are looking at Moses, and my applications have reflected this. We could hardly end here without going back to what I said at the beginning, namely that Moses was faithful in persevering with what God had given him to do and he did it to the very end. He had been told he was about to die, but he had not given up. Rather, he kept on working, knowing that he had work to do, until God finally took him to Himself.
That’s the same with you and me. We can retire from our secular work, but we can never retire from our spiritual work. The best Christian workers I have known are people who have been retired from their secular work. They give themselves to the Lord, and they carry on to the very end. That is the challenge for you and me, as well.
When he was dying from tuberculosis, the great American pioneer missionary David Brainerd, a friend of Jonathan Edwards, was trying to teach a small Indian boy to read and write. He said he counted it a blessing that even though he didn’t have enough strength to go out and preach, there was still one small thing that he could do for his Master.
We’re not retired from serving Jesus Christ until God Himself retires us permanently by taking us to be with Him.