The Cities of Refuge - Part Three
THEME: The Divine Source of True Justice
This week’s lessons teach about the priestly cities of refuge, and how they point the way to our own refuge found only in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Yesterday we talked about the first important thing from the creation of these cities of refuge, which was the great value on human life, rooted in God’s revealed law. The second thing about them is also quite interesting, and it’s based on what’s mentioned here in Joshua 20:9 about who was welcome to flee to those cities: "Any of the Israelites or any alien living among them who killed someone accidentally could flee to these designated cities." Most societies, just in order to exist, have to have some code of law by which to measure justice. But it has often been the case, and still is in many areas of the world today, that one kind of law applies to the citizens of the country or the resident of that particular area, and quite another standard applies to those who don't belong to that people. You treat residents fairly while you basically treat foreigners or aliens anyway you want.
But that was not true of Israel. The Jews, perhaps more than any other ancient people, had a very strong sense of their own unique identity. They knew that they were brought into existence by God, and were given a special law by God. They also recognized that they were chosen people with a unique mission. Yet the Jews at the same time, because they had been given knowledge of the true God who was the Creator of all men, also had a special sense of the value of all life, even the lives of foreigners. So in the law you find again and again regulations that specify what applies to the Jew also applies to the alien.
I can suggest we’re in danger of losing that in our own time because in our pursuit of justice, we are losing sight of the fact that there is one God who is the Creator of all. Yet that’s why there must be an equal and universal justice. God has made you, and God has made me. God has made the ones who are born in a particular country and speak our language, and God has made the one we call the foreigner, the one who doesn't speak our language. God has made those who are above us, and those who are below us. God has made them all. They’re all answerable to God. And they all stand before the bar of His justice in the final sense. And if you remove the knowledge of the true God, then law degenerates to relativism.
In Israel, all their laws related to God. There was a religious base for everything. Francis Schaeffer talks about this in his commentary on Joshua. Here’s how he relates civil law and the relativism of our day to these cities of refuge:
The cities of refuge were levitical cities, that is, they had something to do
with God. The person taking refuge had to stay in the city until the death
of the high priest so he would be reminded that the civil laws were related
to God. They did not just exist in a sociological vacuum. Unlike modern
man, the people of the Old Testament and of Christian communities after
the Reformation did not view civil law as basically sociological. To them it
was not founded primarily on a social contract. Civil law was related to society,
but not only to society. It was ultimately related to the existence and character
of God. This is important. Law which comes from God can provide something
fixed. Today’s sociological law is relativistic.
When we begin to think along those lines, these cities of refuge and the laws that are given to describe how they were to function say something very profound and very practical to our own legal system. But, you know, when I think of these cities of refuge, the point of greatest practicality to me is that they provide us with an illustration of what it really means as a sinner under the judgment of God, facing spiritual as well as physical death, to flee to the Lord Jesus Christ for refuge. You see this idea in some of our hymns. I think of the line from Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”: “Other refuge have I none, hangs my helpless soul on thee.” That’s a reference to this thing. We find as Christians refuge in Jesus Christ.
Now the illustration isn't perfect because the parallels are not exact in every instance. For one thing, these cities of refuge were for the innocent—those who had not intentionally killed another. That can’t be said of us, because when we talk about fleeing to the Lord Jesus Christ for refuge, it’s not because we’re in danger of losing our lives unjustly. We are justly condemned for our sin before the bar of God’s justice. And when somebody in ancient Israel found themselves in a dangerous situation like this and had to flee, it might have taken them many hours, and perhaps days, and certainly many anxious moments, before they could get from where they were to one of these cities. But when we talk about the Lord Jesus Christ being our refuge, He’s never far away. He is here. Refuge in Him can be found in a moment.
- What is the second important point about these cities? How is this different from other societies’ application of justice?
- What does Dr. Boice say causes law to degenerate into relativism? How are we seeing this shift today?
Pray that the Lord would give you clear opportunities, even this week, to tell others who do not know him where real justice and mercy are found.
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