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 (Manna 96: Spiritual Nurture: Prayer)
Cities of Refuge
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KC Tsai—Toronto, Canada

Editor's note: The cities of refuge foreshadowed the protection of Christ for sinners (see Manna 69, "The Christ in the Book of Numbers—Part 7: Cities of Refuge"). This article looks at the lessons we can draw for the true church today from these cities and the process in which they were established.


Retribution: Blood for Blood

After the flood, Noah and his family of eight left the ark. Thus began a fresh, new era in the history of humankind. At that point, God wanted to establish a covenant that would include everyone who disembarked from the ark: humans, birds, cattle, and beasts. The rainbow would be the sign of this everlasting covenant. God said, "Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Gen 9:11). Under the protection of God's covenant, human life would never again face the threat of total annihilation by floodwaters.

At the same time, God conferred the blessing of protection on Noah and his sons (Gen 9:1), as well as all humankind, saying:

"Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man." (Gen 9:5–6)

Before the flood, such retaliatory punishment for murder was not evident. When Cain—the first offspring born to man—killed his brother, Abel, God told him:

"So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth." (Gen 4:11–12)

But God put a mark on Cain lest anyone finding him should kill him. In other words, Cain did not have to pay for his murderous act with his life (Gen 4:8–15). Subsequently, an even more violent man named Lamech emerged. Worse, he had the temerity to brag, "For I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me" (Gen 4:23b).

With successive generations, the violence worsened in intensity and pervasiveness. The earth was corrupt before God and filled with violence; all flesh had corrupted their way (Gen 6:11–12). So egregious was the state of the world that God finally declared to Noah—the sole righteous man left—that because the earth was filled with violence, He would destroy humankind and the earth (Gen 6:13).

Man was originally created according to God's image of true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24). Killing another person when not in a time of war (1 Kgs 2:5) would be contrary to such holiness and righteousness. Respect for life—whether of our own or others—is a paramount manifestation of our reverence and fear toward God. But after the fall of our first ancestors, man, with his sinful nature, had shown that he was unlikely to refrain from violence without a severe deterrent. Therefore, in the post-flood world and world order, God decreed that it would be blood for blood, and a life for a life. However, the holy and just God is careful to differentiate between deliberate and accidental killing.  

Refuge: Flee to Safety

Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai. Here, God gave them the Ten Commandments so that they would be His people among the nations, a holy nation of priests. Included in the laws and ordinances given to them was the instruction:

"He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbour, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die." (Ex 21:12–14)

God's clarification to Moses specified that manslaughter (accidental killing) would be treated differently from murder (premeditated killing). Those guilty of the former and fearing retribution could seek sanctuary.

While Moses was the physical leader of the people, God said that He bore them on eagles' wings and brought them to Himself (Ex 19:4). Similarly, in the true church of God today, while God's ministers are the ones who physically pastor and guide His people, in the Spirit, it is God who removes all the obstacles in the believers' way and guides them back to Him. 

In the era of the kings, God’s altar was the ultimate refuge for those fleeing for their lives. But not everyone who fled there was spared. Adonijah, the fourth son of King David, born through Haggith, plotted to usurp the throne when David was old and in failing health (1 Kgs 1:5–9). However, honoring an earlier promise, David made Solomon the king instead. When Adonijah realized that his plan had failed, and his life was in danger, he fled to God's tabernacle and took hold of the horns of the altar. King Solomon sent men to bring him down from the altar and spared his life on this occasion (1 Kgs 1:50–53).

Joab was the commander who sided with Adonijah in the latter's failed attempt to usurp the throne. When Joab learned that King Solomon had stripped Abiathar, the priest, of his priestly duty for supporting Adonijah, he fled to the tabernacle of God and took hold of the horns of the altar. This did not save him. King Solomon sent men to kill Joab because the latter had murdered Abner (commander of the army of Israel) and Amasa (commander of the army of Judah). Since these killings were not done on a battlefield but during peacetime, they were cold-blooded murders—the shedding of innocent blood (1 Kgs 2:5, 28–35). And thus, Joab had to repay with his blood.

The example of Joab demonstrates God's righteous will. There is no refuge for premeditated killing. The murderer would still be seized and put to death even if he were to run to God's altar. Not only would he be without God’s protection, but he would be condemned to death by God’s commandment (Num 35:30–31). This was necessary because the land would be defiled when one killed and shed the blood of another; only the punitive shedding of the murderer's blood could redeem and cleanse the land. God said:

"So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it except by the blood of him who shed it. Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel." (Num 35:33–34)

Knowing that accidental killing could and would occur, God appointed a place for those who committed manslaughter to flee to save their lives (Ex 21:13). Although killing was a direct violation of the Ten Commandments, the all-righteous God mercifully provided a way of escape for those who accidentally committed such a serious sin. In our context today, God desires to save man from punishment and inevitable spiritual death, but man must flee according to the way God provided.


After wandering in the wilderness for thirty-nine years, the Israelites arrived at the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan, in the fifth month of the fortieth year (Num 33:38, 48). The Lord God told Moses:

"Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: 'When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall appoint cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person accidentally may flee there. They shall be cities of refuge for you from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation in judgment. And of the cities which you give, you shall have six cities of refuge. You shall appoint three cities on this side of the Jordan, and three cities you shall appoint in the land of Canaan, which will be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be for refuge for the children of Israel, for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills a person accidentally may flee there." (Num 35:10–15)

The steadfast God had promised them the institution of the cities of refuge at the beginning of their journey in the wilderness (Ex 21:12–14). At the end of the forty-year journey, God did not forget to instruct them on where to set the cities up, for whom to set these up, and how man could preserve his life through the cities of refuge.

Location of the Cities of Refuge

After the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, they were led by the Commander of God's army (Josh 5:13–15) to defeat thirty-one kings in that land (Josh 12:24). They took over their land and besieged their cities. God's army was the people of Israel (Ex 12:41), and the Commander was God Himself. When Joshua was advanced in years, the Lord said to him:

"You are old, advanced in years, and there remains very much land yet to be possessed. …them I will drive out from before the children of Israel; only divide it by lot to Israel as an inheritance, as I have commanded you." (Josh 13:1b, 6b)

At this point, the Israelites had not yet taken over all the cities and land God had promised to give them. But God's specific instructions on the division of the land indicate His expectation that they should have absolute faith in His words. As His church and army today, we should similarly have this absolute belief and trust in God's words and go forth to proclaim His faithfulness (Rom 3:3).

Eleazer the priest, Joshua, and the leaders of the Israelite tribes gathered before the Lord in front of the tabernacle at Shiloh to cast lots to divide the land among the twelve tribes of Israel. Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph's two sons, were considered separate tribes and were thus each allotted a portion of the land. The Levites received no land. Instead, God would be the Levites' inheritance, and He allocated the heave offerings from the Israelites to the Levites (Deut 10:9; Num 18:23–24). The Levites could dwell in cities given by the rest of the children of Israel, and the latter would also give the Levites common land for their cattle, herds, and all their animals (Num 35:1–5). The Lord also said:

"Now among the cities which you will give to the Levites you shall appoint six cities of refuge, to which a manslayer may flee. And to these you shall add forty-two cities. So all the cities you will give to the Levites shall be forty-eight; these you shall give with their common-land. And the cities which you will give shall be from the possession of the children of Israel; from the larger tribe you shall give many, from the smaller you shall give few. Each shall give some of its cities to the Levites, in proportion to the inheritance that each receives." (Num 35:6–8)

Among the Levitical cities were six special cities that would function as a place of refuge where those who were eligible would be safe from harm. Today, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Ps 46:1). God bestows true peace to man through the church. The city of refuge prefigures the spiritual true church mentioned in the Bible. The True Jesus Church—the dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph 2:22)—is the place where man's life can be protected from sure death (Rom 6:23).

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—(For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.) (Rom 5:12–14)

Although humankind—Adam's race—did not eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, all fell under the sin Adam committed and were doomed to destruction (Rom 5:15–21). The only way to survive is to seek and enter the city of refuge. But Adam's sin also put a barrier between man and God, rendering man unable to turn to the holy and Almighty God without fear. Thus, God became flesh (1 Tim 3:16), bore man's sins, and was crucified on the cross for these sins. This is how Jesus fulfilled the work of salvation.

The church is the body of Christ (Eph 1:22–23); it is the stairway leading to heaven (Gen 28:12–19; Jn 1:51). Through the church, man can be reborn through water and the Spirit (Jn 3:3–5), enabling man to return to the heavenly Father. So the true church is the city of refuge for man before man's body is redeemed and returns to the heavenly Father (Rom 8:18–23).

Distribution of the Cities of Refuge

The Levites lived in forty-eight cities across the territories allocated to the twelve tribes of Israel. As the cities designated for the Levites' dwellings were distributed throughout the land, the Israelites could set up the cities of refuge in strategic locations. This meant that any person—no matter where they hailed from—could flee quickly to a city of refuge.

“You shall prepare roads for yourself, and divide into three parts the territory of your land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, that any manslayer may flee there. …and if you keep all these commandments and do them, which I command you today, to love the LORD your God and to walk always in His ways, then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three, lest innocent blood be shed in the midst of your land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, and thus guilt of bloodshed be upon you.” (Deut 19:3, 9–10)

Moses specifically told the Israelites to prepare roads towards the cities of refuge and add more cities of refuge to facilitate access for manslayers. Preparing roads involves clearing away all obstacles on the way and setting up road signs and milestones so that those fleeing for their lives may run on the right path, in the right direction, and eventually enter the city of refuge. In the same way, the true church today must have pure doctrines according to the Holy Bible, the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and the spiritual virtues of believers as clear road signs for those seeking salvation, so that those who seek God and God's house may walk on the right path, recognize the true church, and yearn to enter it.

So they appointed Kedesh in Galilee, in the mountains of Naphtali, Shechem in the mountains of Ephraim, and Kirjath Arba (which is Hebron) in the mountains of Judah. And on the other side of the Jordan, by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in the wilderness on the plain, from the tribe of Rueben, Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwelt among them, that whoever killed a person accidentally might flee there, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood until he stood before the congregation. (Josh 20:7–9)

In obedience to God's instruction given through Moses, the Israelites divided the land to the east of Jordan and the west of Jordan into three parts, namely north, central, and south. A city of refuge was established at the center of each part, such that the distance between any point in the entire land of Israel from a city of refuge was less than fifty kilometers, which was a day's journey, "lest the avenger of blood, while his anger is hot, pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and kill him, though he was not deserving of death, since he had not hated the victim in time past" (Deut 19:6).

We can imagine the ensuing chaos and panic at the scene when a man is accidentally killed. The avenger of blood (e.g., the victim's relatives) may be so furious that they want to pursue the manslayer and kill him on the spot. The congregation must then adjudicate. If the congregation judges the killing to be accidental, the congregation is responsible for delivering the manslayer to the city of refuge (Num 35:24–25). While delivering the manslayer from the hand of the avenger, the congregation would have to protect him, provide him with food and water, direct his path, and even accompany the fugitive on his journey.

Besides the children of Israel, the cities were also meant to provide refuge for the strangers and the sojourners among them—anyone who has accidentally killed a person may flee there (Num 35:15). In today's context, the church is a place of refuge for believers. However, we should also extend our hospitality to truth-seekers (strangers and sojourners). We, as God's chosen congregation, should be sincere and keen to share information on our faith and provide care and help for daily and spiritual needs. Critically, walk with such "refugees" on their journey of belief so that they can enter into the Lord's salvation.

Some people believe that magnificent church buildings are necessary to glorify God and attract people. They thus invest vast sums of money in grand church-building projects. However, it is often difficult to disentangle our motivations: are we really doing this to glorify God or ourselves? In fact, there is a very thin line between such thinking ("big is better," "beautiful churches show that God blesses and abide with us") and the goals of the people building the tower of Babel. While there is nothing wrong in providing good facilities and amenities for people to come together to worship the Lord, let us always examine our personal motivations (Prov 21:2–3) and strive to let our beautiful deeds of love glorify God and edify man (Jn 13:35).

God divided the land into six parts, setting up six cities of refuge. This indicates His desire for the gospel to be preached to all the world and for His church to be easily accessible. If our "cities of refuge" are few and far apart, those seeking peace and eternal life may be dampened in their determination to draw close to God and eventually may give up because the journey is too far.

Outside the Cities of Refuge

In the city of refuge, the manslayer is safe from being killed by the avenger of blood. To stay safe, he must not leave the city of refuge.

"But if the manslayer at any time goes outside the limits of the city of refuge where he fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood" (Num 35:26–27)

Christ is our refuge, and the church is His body (Heb 6:18; Eph 1:22–23). Today, the true church is the city of refuge that protects life. Once a person enters the true church, he must not turn apostate and leave the church. If a believer leaves the church, it is usually because his faith is immature (Eph 4:14), his faith has yet to be rooted (Col 2:6–7), he loves the world (2 Tim 4:10), or he has some disagreement with or bitterness towards other believers. Should we find ourselves in similar unhappy situations, we should not be quick to blame ministers and other believers or label the church as "cold and lacking love." Introspect to see how we ourselves may have contributed to the problems. Most importantly, do not allow these grievances to cause us to leave our city of refuge.    

From the time of creation, the mystery of God was hidden in Himself. But the mystery and wisdom of God has been made known to all through His true church (Eph 3:9–10). God's true church takes an essential place in the history of salvation—she is the bride waiting for the Lamb to come and take her as His wife. She is worthy of honor and submission from all man. Sadly, some believers overlook the honor and sanctity of the church. They regard the church as a platform to realize their personal ideals, demanding compromise from the church. By doing so, they are exalting themselves above the church. Little wonder then that some such believers eventually choose to leave the church.

"For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt." (Heb 6:4-6, ESV)[1]

Just like the manslayers who must not leave the cities of refuge, once a person has believed in the Lord, received the truth of salvation, and entered into the true church, it would be impossible for him to be restored to repentance if he forsakes the truth, falls away, or even attacks the church (Heb 6:4–8).

If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death. (1 Jn 5:16–17)

What Is Sin Leading to Death?

Now behold, one came and said to Him, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" So He said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments." (Mt 19:16–17)

Since one has to keep the commandments to enter into life, it implies that by intentionally violating the commandments, one would be committing sin, leading to death. If we are unable to enter into everlasting life, the only place we are heading towards is eternal death. When the young man asked Jesus which commandments he had to keep, Jesus answered:

" 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' " (Mt 19:18–19).

These commandments are none other than the Ten Commandments God gave to His people on Mount Sinai. The Lord is not teaching the people to keep half or part of the commandments. James, the brother of the Lord, warns us, "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all" (Jas 2:10). Therefore, not serving the only true God, worshipping idols, taking the name of God in vain (including using God's name to achieve our personal agenda), not keeping the Sabbath (despising the Sabbath and consistently refusing to observe it), or intentionally going against the other commandments are all sins leading to death. The true church that is saved highly esteems the Ten Commandments and leads her members in striving to keep them.

The Lord Jesus said:

"Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." (Mt 12:31–32)

Blasphemy against the Spirit is also a sin leading to death. Such sins will not be forgiven, be it in this life or the life to come. Blasphemy against the Spirit is the act of intentionally defaming the Holy Spirit, such as claiming that the work of the Holy Spirit is the manifestation of the evil spirit (cf. Mt 12:24). As the true church has the abidance of the Holy Spirit, her believers speak in tongues when praying, and there are wonders and miracles as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. These must not be carelessly vilified.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit also includes the act of sinning intentionally, sinning against one's own body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:18–19). He who wilfully sins after receiving the knowledge of the truth has "trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace" (Heb 10:26–29). For such a person, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins. One who has already entered the true church but willfully sins and remains in sin will lose the chance of salvation.


Death of the High Priest

So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and he shall remain there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. …But after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession. (Num 35:25, 28b)

The avenger of blood shall not kill the manslayer after the death of the high priest; otherwise, he will be guilty of the sin of shedding another man's blood. God redeemed the lives of the manslayers with the death of the high priest, so that they may return to the land of their possession to start a new life, free from anyone seeking revenge. In effect, they were free from the threat of death because of the death of the high priest (Josh 20:6).

God appointed the Old Testament high priests without an oath (Heb 7:21). If the death of a human high priest was able to redeem the lives of those deserving death, what more the eternal high priest who was made priest with an oath by God (Ps 110:4; Heb 7:22).

Jesus, our Eternal High Priest

The Lord Jesus has entered the Presence behind the veil, having become high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb 6:19–20); He is the minister of the true tabernacle in heaven erected by God (Heb 8:2). The tabernacle on earth erected by man was imperfect and impermanent. The high priest entered the holy of holies once a year, bringing with him blood to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people and himself. However, the sacrifices offered could not make him who performed the service perfect with regard to the conscience (Heb 9:9).

In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus offered His own body as the sacrifice. He entered the true tabernacle in heaven and fulfilled in Himself, the eternal high priest, all the burnt and sin offerings offered up in the tabernacle on earth. "Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption" (Heb 9:12). Jesus Christ, the high priest, offered up one sacrifice for sins, and perfected forever those who are being sanctified (Heb 10:12–14).

Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly await Him for He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. (Heb 9:28)

Jesus will come again and receive us to the place He prepared, which is the everlasting inheritance in heaven (Jn 14:1–4). Therefore, the apostle Peter writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you. (1 Pet 1:3–4)

Just as those who were in the city of refuge received grace, those who are in the true church today have a living hope and are waiting for the redemption of their bodies (Rom 8:18–23; 1 Cor 15:35–54). We are going to receive an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32). This inheritance is reserved in the spirit, in heaven, for those who have repented, believed in the Lord, and been baptized; and receiving the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of their future inheritance (Eph 1:14). May we always treasure and preserve this blessing.

[1] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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Author: KC Tsai