The Church: A Place of Refuge - Joshua 20:1-9

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I think everyone has some place of refuge?  It is the place we turn to when life becomes a little overwhelming.  It may be a frustrating day, a threat from the weather, a physical setback, or a relationship problem.  Most of us have a place where we turn for refuge.

Some people turn to music.  Some find a quiet place where they feel safe.  Others turn on the television. Some call on that friend who always seems to know what to say.  Others will go for a run, bike ride or other kind of physical activity.  Still others will turn to alcohol or drugs.  This morning we are going to talk about places of refuge.

In our study of the book of Joshua we have arrived at chapter 20.  After the tribes of Israel were established in their land, God instructed Joshua to create Cities of Refuge where people could turn in times of crisis. This had always been a part of God’s plan for the new nation.[1]  Joshua was to designate six specific cities that belonged to the Levites as “cities of refuge”.  Three of these cities were to be on the west side of the Jordan River and three on the east.

In the Old Testament, God had established a simple principle: human life is of the utmost value and is sacred.  If you took the life of another person, you forfeited your own life.  Killing another person was not only an offence against society, it was also an offence against the God who created that person in His image.

The system that was set up was effective and immediate.  If one man killed another man, the closest relative of the man who was killed was to exact punishment on the killer.  He was the avenger. It was not only his duty to family to bring retribution (like it still is in gangs and more primitive countries today), it was also a religious duty.

These Cities of Refuge were set up to take care of the times when a person was killed accidentally.  Suppose you and a friend were out hunting.  As you were climbing a fence your gun discharges and you accidentally kill your friend.  In Old Testament law, the family members of your friend would be bound to come and take your life.  The Cities of Refuge were set up for situations just like this.

When you arrived at the designated city you would present your case at the city gate.  You would explain that you killed a man but that it was by accident.  The city leaders were to carefully examine the evidence and hear from witnesses.  They would examine what you did and what your relationship was with the person before the death (i.e. they would examine any motive). If it was judged that you did not take premeditated action against your friend, you would be admitted into the city.  In the city of refuge you would be safe from the avenger.  If you left the city however, you were fair game to your pursuer.

To remain safe you had to remain in the city until the Chief Priest died.  The “statute of limitations” ran out when the Chief Priest died.  At this point you could no longer be pursued. Some believe that the death of the priest effectively served as payment for the life that you killed.  The Jewish commentary on the law, called the Mishnah, has an interesting side note: “Therefore the mothers of the priests provide food and clothing for those [who are in the cities of refuge,] so that they will not pray that their sons will die.” (Makkot 2:6 I)  In other words the mothers of the priests helped take good care of these refugees to help protect their sons!

That’s the background of the passage.  Now lets take this information and look for the implications in this passage for us.


It Reminds us of The Value of Life.  This is a significant passage because it is an important reminder of the sanctity of human life.  The Bible encourages severe punishment for murder.  Willfully taking the life of another is seen as the worst crime and it is punishable by death.  This is why the Bible supports the death penalty.  It is seen as an act of justice and a deterrent to future such acts.

This sanctity of life is the reason hot button topics like abortion, doctor assisted suicide and medical cloning (or the cloning of people for “spare parts”), are opposed.  Any time any life is treated with disregard, all of life is devalued.  We need to ask: how do we define “life”?  Does life begin at conception? When there is a heartbeat? Or is it only when a child is actually delivered?  That is the crux of the abortion debate.  In other words, if life begins in the womb, then abortion is the taking of a human life.  There is currently a question at the other end of life. When does life end?  Does life end when we stop breathing, when brain waves cease, or when our quality of life has diminished to an unacceptable point?  And who decides what is “unacceptable”? These are tough questions and how we answer them as a society will determine our survival as a society.

It established a System of Justice.  Not all issues are black and white. The Cities of Refuge were really a forerunner of our own legal system.  Those who came to the city

Were given shelter until the facts were gathered  (innocent until proven guilty)

You were to be examined.  Witnesses were to be presented and consideration would be given to the evidence and a person’s mindset or motive.

Impartial judges would then decide the case.  You would either be turned away from the city (effectively surrendering you to the avenger), or you would be granted protection and allowed into the City of Refuge.

Our system of justice is based on God’s commands to Israel.


But there is a second application of this passage.  In Hebrews 6, the writer picks up this idea of refuge.  He says, “we have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us” (Hebrews 6:16). The image is similar to the Biblical story in 1 Kings chapters 1 & 2.  David’s son Adonijah wanted to be king instead of his brother Solomon.  Adonijah set up a plan to take the kingship but David made Solomon King before Adonijah’s plan could be carried out. Adonijah was afraid that his brother would have him killed (for treason) so he fled to the tent of the Lord and took hold of the altar.  Adonijah believed that the altar was a place of refuge; a place where he would be safe from harm.

Occasionally you hear of someone seeking refuge or sanctuary in a church.  These means they want the church to protect them from their adversary. In Hebrews the author tells us that our place of refuge is Jesus Christ.  It is through Him alone that we find refuge from the curse of sin and the trials of life. The parallels between the cities of refuge and Christ as numerous

The cities of refuge were appointed by God Himself.  In the same way, God is the One who has provided the way of refuge and forgiveness.

The cities were accessible to all (even non-Jews).  These cities of refuge were set up so that no matter where you were in Israel you would be within 30 miles of one of these cities.  In much the same way, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is available to everyone.  He is not far from you (even if you feel far from Him). 

It was a crisis that drove the people to one of these cities.  Likewise it often takes some kind of crisis to get a person to look beyond their own ability and put their hope and faith in Christ.

The cities were clear and well marked.  Tradition says that the roads leading to these cities were always kept in repair and they were required to be wide roads.  They were free of obstructions, there were bridges over all the rivers and there were signs that were checked regularly that had the word “Refuge” to point the person in the right direction.  Every hindrance to the city was removed.  In the same, believers are charged to make the way to Jesus clear and unencumbered.  Paul argued that many of the “requirements for salvation” put up by a group called the Judaizers were actually hindering the way to Christ our Refuge.

The doors were never locked.  We can come to Christ at any time.

The city of refuge was stocked with food.  It was a sufficient refuge.  Jesus has promised to meet our needs.

Finally, if the killer did not flee to one of the Cities of Refuge there was no hope or protection for him.  So it is with Christ.  The person who will not come and put their trust and confidence in the death and resurrection of Christ; the one who will not grab hold of the forgiveness offered in Christ and the new life offered by the Spirit of God; that person has turned away from their only hope.  Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”


I think there are some further implications of these teaching for the church today.  Since Jesus is our refuge and since we as the church are supposed to be the body of Christ, it only follows that the church should be a place of refuge.

Jesus welcomed all kinds of people.  Many of these people put their trust in Christ even though the world had cast them aside.

the demon possessed

the physically disfigured





even religious hypocrites

Jesus never condoned the sinful behaviors of these people but He still reached out to them in love.  I believe this is what Jesus wants the church to do as well.  He told us to love one another as He has loved us.  The church should be a place where class distinctions are gone.  It should be a place where people can find grace no matter what lurked in their past.

The problem is that the church too often becomes a place of conflict, egos, and foolish (and I believe sinful) party division instead of being a place of refuge.  As a result, people are pushed away from the gospel.  One man recounted the time his child was born with a fatal brain defect and the parents knew they had precious little time to show love to the child.  Their heartache was made greater because (in their ignorance) people in the church did not want this baby in the Nursery with their children. 

In another situation a Pastor lost his wife to disease and then was told by the church  he had to leave his post because the church did not want an unmarried Pastor! Some strange things happen in the place that is supposed that is supposed to be the body of Christ.

Let’s do a little self-evaluation. How would you (how would our church) respond to someone who

was covered with tattoos or body piercings?

who recently had an abortion

Is a member of planned parenthood?

Is a member of the ACLU

Is a junkie

Is an anti-war protestor

Doesn’t believe in God

Was a liberal political activist

Had connections to the Taliban

Or even someone who has a different theological slant or experience than you do

If we are honest, we admit that we might recoil from some of these people.  They might very well face the cold shoulder of the church rather than the warmth of God’s love.  the question is: Why do we reject such people?  Is it because Jesus doesn’t love them?  (He does) Is it because we are “too good” for such people?  (We are sinners just as they are). Is it because a person’s past (or even present) disqualifies them from God’s grace? (It doesn’t and we should all be grateful).  Are we afraid of being compromised?  (Maybe they are equally afraid of you).  When you really think about it, such distinctions don’t make any sense.

The challenge for the church today is to stand for the truth while also standing as a place where sinful people can find a place of refuge.  I believe God wants the church to be a place where people can find mercy instead of judgment. Where people will look past the surface and see a person the way Jesus sees them.  The church should be a place where the truth is proclaimed in love rather than with hatred or ridicule.


I truly believe that when God established the Cities of Refuge He had more in mind than just providing a place for people who killed someone by accident to go for protection.  I believe God’s intent was to affirm life, establish justice, to point to the true place of refuge at the foot of the cross of Jesus, and to give the church a vivid picture of what He wanted us to be.

So where do we go from here?

First, we must confront our own prejudices.  Why do you dismiss or shy away from certain people?  Why are you glad to see some people in worship but are troubled when others show up?  Confront those feelings by asking, “How would Jesus treat these people?”

Take an objective look at our church.  If you see areas where we are building walls instead of bridges, point these things out. We want to be a place of refuge rather than a place of condemnation.

Re-evaluate your position on contemporary moral hot topics by examining them from the perspective of the value of human life.  Remember as you discuss these topics with others that the person you debate is one of those lives that IS valuable to God. We must always show respect even (especially) to those with whom we disagree.

Be intentional about looking for ways to point the way to the place of refuge.  Look for opportunities to tell people about the One who forgives even though we don’t deserve it.  Be a friend to a person who is hurting.  Deliberately reach out to the people who you find on the fringe of life.

Finally, if you are here today and you are running from your past; if you have come into this place feeling that life is pretty hopeless; let me tell you that there is someone who can help you.  His name is Jesus.  He has done something that will blow your mind.  He has given His life as a payment for your sin.  Because of His death on the cross, you can be forgiven of your past rebellion and sin.  Most of the people in this room have experienced that very forgiveness.  The others have questions just like you do.  There is no one here who is perfect.  There is no one who is superior.  We are all sinful people who have been cleansed and made new by a marvelous grace.

Jesus has given His life for your sin.  He has risen from the grave to prove that His promise is true.  Now He wants to help you begin again.  He wants to make you new.  He wants to lead you in a new direction.  All you have to do is ask and then trust Him to do what He promises.

You can begin that relationship with God right now.  With confidence in God’s promise, confess your sin before God and ask for His forgiveness and new life.  Tell Him that you believe that Jesus died for you and that you are willing to trust Him to make you new.

If you mean that prayer you will become part of God’s family.  When you encounter the hostile forces of life you’ll have a new place to turn for refuge. You can turn to the Lord, and hopefully to His people, who are called the church.

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