Reading: Joshua 20:1-6; Deut. 19; Ex. 21; Numbers 35; Hebr. 6:18; Psalm 91:1-2.
The Levitical cities, scattered throughout the land, represent the heavenly and spiritual influences set up and maintained amongst the Lord's people to keep them always reminded that they are not of this world; they are a heavenly people and a spiritual people.
The cities of refuge speak to us of a spiritual reality in connection with the Lord's people when they have come into the land; that is (referring to the corresponding portion in the New Testament, the letter to the Ephesians) when they have come to recognise and by faith accept their place in the heavenlies in Christ. The important thing to recognise is that these cities of refuge are in the land, and they are something subsequent to conquest. It is true, as we shall see, that they have right at their heart a Gospel message in the more elementary sense, but the full message reaches on to people who have come into the inheritance, into the land, into the heavenlies, and that they are there by way of instruction and by way of governing things in the life of the Lord's own people. These cities speak of government, places of authority, of power, of influence (that is the meaning of 'city'). Everything comes under the shadow of the city. The city prevails over all the land round about. It always ought to be so in a properly ordered land.
These cities, speaking of government, authority, control and influence, speak of a certain spiritual factor which has ever to be predominant amongst the Lord's people, even in their fullest spiritual attainment. What is that spiritual factor? The Levitical cities speak of spirituality and heavenliness predominating amongst the Lord's people.
The cities of refuge speak of grace always in the ascendant amongst the Lord's people; grace governing, controlling, reaching out with open doors, always ready to give a hearing; never to prejudge, ruling out everything in the nature of prejudice; with a highway always clear. If you read the Lord's instructions, you will find they include this particular injunction: that the highways to the cities of refuge were always to be kept clear of obstruction so that the one who was fleeing to the city of refuge might have no difficulty in getting there. The people were to see to it that the highways were kept open and that no one would have his progress impeded as he was fleeing to the city, so that these cities speak of an open, clear way to take into account any situation and give it the fullest sympathetic understanding and consideration.
There is this other factor, that the cities of refuge were also included in the Levitical cities, so that they were Levitical cities. The two things are brought together. This is heavenly grace governing. These cities, being in the hands of the Levites, speak to us of the ministration of grace being in the hands of spiritually minded, heavenly minded people; the necessity for spiritual and heavenly mindedness ministering grace wherever grace is needed.
That is the general background and atmosphere in which we move when we consider the cities of refuge. There is very much more included in that, but we first of all have to get the spiritual implications of this divine provision and appointment.
They were six in all: three in the land of the inheritance and, strangely yet wonderfully, three on the other side of Jordan where the two-and-a-half tribes had settled down, declining to come into the land. This also speaks of grace to them that are within and to them that are without. Those people had not come into all the Lord's thought and intention for them. They had chosen something less full and yet God in grace reaches out to them. Whatever company you belong to, if you get any divine goodness at all it is of grace, in grace, not merit or works. People who come into the greater fulness do not come into it on their own merit; it is the grace of God which governs. Those who do not go on all the way will lose the inheritance, but they are under grace.
You will notice that when the Lord spoke to Moses in the first place, as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy about these cities of refuge, He said that three were to be appointed. In the first instance three only were mentioned. A little later He said that three were to be added to the first three. The original thought of God is not that there should be a full recognition of those two-and-a-half tribes yonder as being wholly in God's will. God does not, in the first instance, mention the six as though He had already fully and finally accepted that more outside position on the same ground as He has accepted the inside. And so He only mentions the three; but, having settled that, He says later that there are to be three added. He reaches out in grace. There is a deeper thought there. He reaches out in grace, but it is an additional thing, something extra of grace. It shows God going, as we should say, the second mile in grace. He would that three had been enough, but, inasmuch as they have not come in, He will reach out to them in grace. But it is an extra gesture. The Lord save us from being in the realm of His necessitated extra gesture of grace, and find us in the place where we are in the common grace, which is quite enough.
Let us seek to get more deeply into the meaning of these cities, and we must get to the deepest point of all, just as far as we have light. We must get to the back of the illustration, to the great spiritual reality and take the elements and the factors which go to make up this whole situation.
The first and pre-eminent factor in this whole matter is life. It is a question of life. God has given life. God's will is life. God alone is the Author of life, and life is God's own peculiar property. Life is always reserved to God. It is sacred to God - God alone gives it, and God alone should take it. He claims the absolute Sovereignty in the matter of life.
The next thing is there is an enemy to life; one who is against God, and who is therefore against that which is pre-eminently God's right, God's prerogative, God's gift. A murderer, a slayer, a destroyer. That one is active. He lies in wait. He rises up and smites. You notice these are the things said about the one who does not slay inadvertently, unwittingly, but lies in wait and then rises up and smites. There is one doing that all the time. He has done that on a very large scale in God's family. There is therefore the necessity on the part of God of dealing with him, and the murderer (not the unwitting slayer) is taken into view here, and there is no hope for him; there is no chance for him, he must be slain. Why? Because loss has been suffered, and that loss has to be made good because there has been a diminishing of God's thought and intention, and that has to be recovered and made good. God's plans have been upset and God is a God of equity and will have everything equal. Nobody is going to prosper at the expense of another; that is the law of God running through everything.
The grim side of this is satisfaction by the destroying of the destroyer. Take the case of the family: the avenger, who really has got the murderer (not the unwitting slayer) the man who thought of it, and waited his opportunity, was lying in wait, and then rose up and smote; the avenger, the one upon whom rests the responsibility for restoring the balance, gets the murderer, and he is absolutely justified in slaying the murderer and it is not blood-guiltiness. Now the grim feature of that is this, that absolute satisfaction is found along that line. A relative has been slain! What satisfaction can you get? Your satisfaction is got by slaying the slayer. You say: Grim satisfaction! But trace the principle at the back of that. Life has been appropriated; therefore the balance must be restored by forfeiting life. The principle is the balance of life before God. That murderer is represented as having possessed himself of a life that is not his own. Inasmuch as he cannot give back that life, his life must be forfeited for it. Robbery is murder; murder is robbery according to the law. He that is guilty of one is guilty of the other. Hatred is murder. There is a fulness, a balance, about divine law. The grim satisfaction is in having slain the slayer because of the principle which lies behind, that life must be equalised.
Take the other side before we follow that through further; the unwitting slayer, the man who has slain in error, without malice, without forethought, without intention, and without hating, by accident. The Lord gives an illustration. He says: "As when a man goes into the forest with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetches a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the helve, and lights upon his neighbour, that he die". It was inadvertent. Yes, but the man is dead, life has gone; how is that going to be made good? One lives, the other is dead, and a family has been robbed of a father, a son, a brother. Is there no way of restoring the balance, even in the case of an accident? The effect is just the same as though it were intentional. That is just the point. Away to the city of refuge must that man go. It is no use saying: I did not mean it, I did not intend it, there was no malice in my heart. He must get to the city of refuge. He must get to the altar and get hold of those horns. His case must be investigated. The avenger of blood is not taking any put-up case; he is in hot pursuit, as though it were murder. And he is right, he is acting still on the principle that life must be maintained in balance.
The avenger of blood reaches the city after the man-slayer. The man-slayer is there; he has taken hold of the horns of the altar; and the avenger reaches him too late to overtake him on the way and has to stand back; and his question is: "What about the recompense? Have I to be cheated of the balance?" The slayer's case is investigated, and found to be a right case; the congregation, with spiritual discernment, determine the man is not guilty of murder because it was not intentional but unwillingly done. Is the avenger to turn round and walk away, a disappointed man, a man of loss, as though God's very law had cheated him? No! This is an established thing and the attitude of the avenger has to be: "That man did not mean it; it is quite clear, the case is a sound one; he had no malice, no hatred, no bitterness, no thought of evil. There was no murder in his heart, it was an accident. I recognise that. I accept that verdict." What happens? We ought to know what happens! If we forgive one another, even as God for Christ's sake forgave us, there is no loss in that. Grace makes good everything.
Bring this down to the simplest everyday application. "Beloved avenge not yourselves, but give place unto the wrath of God, for it is written: Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord". You feel that an injury has been done to you; in the presence of God, in the presence of the Cross the deepest truth has been uncovered, not with real malice or hatred, not with intention, but overtaken, accidentally "overtaken in a fault", a loss caused, something unexpected, unprepared for. It simply happened, it came out; and you suffered. In the presence of that Cross you see the love and the grace of God. You see in that altar a testimony which speaks of One Who in infinite grace forgave to the uttermost; and you enter into the spirit of that Cross, and seek the grace of God in relation to that injury and that injurer, and you forgive. You, for Christ's sake, overlook and do not store up in your heart bitterness and revenge. Let it go for the Lord's sake. Do you tell me that you have lost? We know quite well that every such attitude brings an abundant reward in the heart, a satisfaction; you feel, you know, that you have gained more than you lost, that you are not impoverished. Grace has come out and you have entered into the grace of God, and that is your reward for every bit that you have suffered at the hands of others. Even as God for Christ's sake forgave us, forgive...
There is gain in that. Because to attain unto the grace of God in that way, by a triumph, by a victory, by a deliberate facing of the situation in the presence of the Cross, and saying: "Well, if I am revengeful I put myself outside of the realm of grace, and then supposing the Lord deals with me as I deal with others! I will have a difficult time... I must deal with others as the Lord has dealt with me." There is a ministration of life to us, the grace of life. We thus make an increase of Christ. It is a way of attaining to greater fulness in Christ. It is victory. There is no loss in that. Leave everything else with the Lord: "Vengeance is Mine" said the Lord. You say: "Are these people - who perhaps acted intentionally, deliberately, and if they had been a little more careful it would not have happened - to be let off?" You must take a higher place and you find that that is gain. Put it this way, and say: "If when you are buffeted for wrong you suffer it, what do you more than others? But if when you do good and are buffeted for it and take it patiently, this is grace with God." Grace is always favour, blessing, enrichment.
Coming back again to the cities of refuge, do you notice the introductory words concerning their appointment? "When you are come into the land, and the Lord has subdued all your enemies, then appoint these cities; make provision for people who are faulty, who make mistakes. You are in such a wealthy position, you can surely afford to do that. It is an entering into the appreciation of your inheritance in Christ. The Lord has subdued all your enemies, Calvary is universal victory. Can't you afford to show grace to people who are blundering around you, people who are perhaps hurting you and injuring you? You are in such spiritual elevation that surely you can do things like that!"
If really we have come to any kind of spiritual appreciation of the greatness of the thing the Lord has done for us in the Cross - brought us into His own fulness and subdued all our enemies - we cannot be a mean people, we cannot be small and petty, we must be generous because of the greatness of our position in Christ. It simply works out in this way: the larger our apprehension of what the Lord has done for us in His Cross, the more generous we ought to be to others - the more longsuffering and forbearing, the less ready to quickly return evil for evil, more ready to bear and to suffer wrong. It must be a very limited apprehension of Calvary when we very swiftly snap at one another for things that we feel are wrong. There has to be a very great deal of overlooking, a great deal of generosity, grace has got to triumph by reason of the exalted spiritual place: the elevation of our position in the heavenlies. These cities must rule, grace must predominate in the heavenlies.
There is provision made for mistakes, even when you get to the heavenlies in Christ. It does not look like sinless perfection. It does not look as though all the faults and the mistakes and the blunders and the injuries have ended, even when you come into the heavenlies. It looks as though grace will still be necessary to bear with things that go wrong. There must be some wrong, then, even when we get spiritually to that position. The Lord says that there is grace for that.
There is another thing we want to see. The New Testament is very much concerned with the inadvertent and unwitting slayer, recognising that it is slaying after all, though it be unwittingly. It speaks like this: "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, you which are spiritual restore such a one in the spirit of meekness". And then it speaks about the weak brother and our causing the weak brother to stumble. The latter chapters of the first letter to the Corinthians - the eleventh chapter and round about there - have to do with the weak brother and our causing the weak brother to stumble; not because the thing which we do is in itself wrong, but because it may have a detrimental effect upon another if we do it and our doing of it has got to be in the light of how it may affect the weak brother. We are not going to argue for the right or the wrong of very moderate drinking, for instance. I may have quite settled views about it, but I do remember a man who was rescued from the life and the tragedy of an evil life of a drunkard, whose children were almost naked, whose wife had a life of martyrdom, whose home was stripped of every comfort. And that man was wonderfully saved, so much so that within a few weeks his whole personal appearance changed, his children changed, his wife changed, his home began to see things becoming comfortable. It was a marvellous transformation. Sometime after he was invited to supper with an officer of the church, who had just a glass of beer for supper and he was offered the glass of beer and took it; and all the work was undone. He went back to the old life and tragedy came in again. The argument as to whether that church officer ought to have a glass of beer or not is not the point for the moment. The point is that that man ought to have taken his weak brother into consideration and that night, at any rate, have left that out. He became a man-slayer, not intentionally, not by any forethought. He had a loose axe-head, and he ought to have taken care of it.
There is a responsibility, apart from any deliberateness, to see that your axe-head is not loose. You may find yourself involved in a very difficult situation of responsibility before God, in a kind of in-between position; whether, on the one hand, there was any murder in heart, or, on the other hand, whether it was a pure accident. You should have had a look at your axe-head. The New Testament takes such a position into account.
That applies to how we may speak. Our axe-head may be in the way of our loose tongue injuring our brother. It may be in other ways. It may be our loose temper. Oh! for more of the government of grace in our hearts... forgiveness, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven; forbearance, watchful care and mutual love. It all comes within the compass of the meaning of the cities of refuge.
Going back to what we call the grim side, I can see One Who took the place of those who had become infected with rebellion and heart-murder. (It is not always the act, as the law makes clear, but it is the very fact that it is in the heart, apart from the act or the execution, which makes a murderer.) When the truth is known, we are at enmity with God. The most religious person, subjected to a severe enough test, will be found to be at heart at enmity with God; even those who naturally, apart from any kind of religious up-bringing or training or profession, would repudiate any suggestion that they are against God. If they were subjected to certain tests and trials, where God was putting them through fires, it would be discovered that inwardly there is a hidden fire of revolt against God. At the heart of every man and woman there is murder. It takes the Cross of Calvary to bring all that out. We who have had the Cross applied deeply in our lives know quite well something of our own hearts which we would never have believed before. We would never have believed the possibilities of this evil nature of ours. I see One Who took our place and was slain for us so that we should not be destroyed as the murderer.
It is an awful and terrible thing even to hint at, to suggest that the Lord Jesus took the place of the murderer, but I see no other explanation of the serpent lifted up than that. The serpent is the final word, the serpent is the symbol of what is of the devil; and you will notice that the serpent is always related to life and death. He took the place, therefore, of the spirit of murder, voluntarily, and:
"Jehovah lifted up His rod,
Oh Christ, it fell on Thee."
We understand why the Father had to turn His face away at that moment, because the Lord Jesus was there, not in the devil's place (do not misunderstand me), but in the place of the fruit of the devil's work in the race - that which is of the devil in the Adam race - He took the place of that. The Father had to smite that, destroy that, in order that you and I might escape. The altar speaks of that.
For the one who now is faulty, imperfect and makes mistakes, there is an altar and a city of refuge, and he comes and lays hold or the horn (the strength) of the altar and that declares that the whole thing has been done in a Substitute. It has all been carried out on this Altar in the case of One Who represented you, and you are delivered!
Mark you, if we reject what has been done in the Substitute, and still allow the element of the devil to remain as not under the Blood of the Lord Jesus, not having come within the compass of the substitutionary work, we are held responsible. God's sword will light on us, because, as the apostle puts it: "We have counted the blood of the covenant an unholy thing".
We need to go a long way into Hebrews to understand the cities of refuge. There we are represented as those who have fled to take refuge, to lay hold of the hope set before us. What is that? It is the escape in the day of judgement, when the great corporate murderer, the spirit of murder, as expressed in Christ's rejectors, has the sword of God brought against it. We shall escape because we have fled to the refuge. What refuge? Christ, our Substitute! "He that dwells in the secret place of the Most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty"; "I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge".
The man who fled had to stay in that city until the death of the High Priest. He had to become a citizen of the city of refuge for the duration of that High Priest's tenure of office. Blessed be God, we have moved out of the Aaronic economy into the economy of Melchizedek. Aaron's priests died; our Priest lives for ever. We abide under Christ, for He will never die. We are citizens of a heavenly city. We have come under His High Priesthood, and we abide there until He dies, and that will never be, "Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come" "Our citizenship is in heaven". It is of grace, grace abounding.
The man of all men who ever lived who appreciated the city of refuge more than any others, was Paul. Paul seems to be very much occupied with the blessed reality of the city of refuge. What did Paul say about himself? That he was a man-slayer; he slew Stephen, he slew the saints, but he said; "I did it in ignorance". What was the result? Wonderful grace to the man-slayer. Paul was never tired of dwelling upon the blessings of the city of refuge, that he, a man-slayer, yet unwittingly, had entered into the grace of the Lord Jesus which was declared in his ears when he was acting as a slayer: "...and Saul was consenting unto his death", and that man Stephen was saying; "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge". That was an echo of Calvary; "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do". Why? They were doing it in ignorance.
The city of refuge was opened for Saul of Tarsus in the very moment that he was acting as a man-slayer. You say it was deliberate! Yes, but in ignorance. Peter said to the Jews at Pentecost: "I know, brethren, that you did it in ignorance." The cities of refuge were open for the Jews, and three thousand entered in that day. "I did it in ignorance", said the apostle, and entered into such an appreciation of the grace of God that you are not surprised that Paul is always talking about grace; and you are all the more impressed when you see that the cities of refuge are in the land, in the heavenlies, by the place that grace occupies in the letter to the Ephesians. Go through the Ephesian letter again, and mark all the references to grace, and you will be wonderfully impressed. "According to the riches of His grace" is where you begin in the first chapter. "The exceeding riches of His grace" you will find in the second chapter. "By grace are you saved..." "the dispensation of the grace of God..." "According to the gift of that grace..." "Unto each one was given grace". So that grace is not just for conversion, grace carries you into the heavenlies; grace must be predominant in the heavenlies. The cities are in the land.
Let the accumulative effect of this rest upon our hearts; that we are what we are by the grace of God, and that the call is that grace must be predominant amongst the saints in their relationships with one another. We must take that to heart. It is so easy to allow law to govern among the saints in our relationships. It is so easy to become legal, hard, judging, criticising, but grace is to predominate in the heavenlies.
We have not touched on all the elements in this matter. The heart of it all is grace triumphant in all relationships, contacts and activities; and if we inadvertently, unintentionally do hurt someone else or injure someone else and touch their life so that that life is cut - and we do that sometimes - we must go back to the Cross, go back to the altar and lay hold and not allow ourselves to come under Satanic domination, but see there is grace. We must go back to the place of the testimony in confession, repentance and in faith.