"Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee."
In the Hawaiian Islands, on the Kona coast of the Big Island, there is a tourist attraction known as the City of Refuge. In the old days when tribes constantly fought each other and even offered human sacrifices, it was the one place a person could flee and avoid molestation. The idea did not originate with the Hawaiians, though, but in the mind of God. He had six cities of refuge in the Old Testament for His people. In the New Testament, he has a world-wide city of refuge he calls the "church."
In the Old Testament, each family had an "avenger1 of blood." It could be any blood relative -- a brother, uncle, cousin (Leviticus 25:48-49). His job was to take the life of one who killed a family member (Numbers 35:12), to receive restitution for crimes against a deceased relative (Numbers 5:7-8), buy back property lost to the family (Leviticus 25:25), redeem a relative who sold himself into slavery (Leviticus 25:48-49) or marry the widow of a relative without sons and perpetuate the family (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
In Old Testament times, if you killed someone, then that family's avenger could hunt you down and kill you. (This sounds like the "wild west days" of our country.) The avenger did not take into consideration the motive for the killing. Suppose, for instance, you were cutting wood with a fellow Israelite and the axe slipped from the handle and fatally wounded him (cf. Deuteronomy 19:5). What could you do? The avenger of blood would come looking for you. For such events, God instructed Moses to set up six refuge cities to which a manslayer might flee and be protected. These cities were strategically located so a person might reach one from any part of Canaan in less than a day's travel.
The New Testament uses this as a figure of a sinner fleeing from the avenger of death (Satan) to Christ. We "have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us" (Hebrews 6:18). Refuge cities provided sanctuary for those in danger of losing physical life; the church of Christ offers salvation to those in danger of eternal hell fire (Mark 9:43; Revelation 14:11; 20:10). There are many parallels between the cities of refuge and the body of Christ. In fact, each city seems to have a characteristic of the church.
In northwest Canaan, a manslayer could flee to Kadesh. Kedesh means "holy" and holy suggests something "set apart." This city was set apart twice -- once by being selected to be one of forty-eight Levitical cities and again when chosen to be one of six refuge cities. The church is a holy institution (1 Peter 2:9). Church (ekklesia) literally means "the called out" (Colossians 1:13-14). Those who are members of it have been called out of the place where sinners may come and be made spotless (Zechariah 13:1; 1 John 1:7). We are washed in the Lamb's blood (Revelation 1:5) when we are baptized (Acts 22:16). The lesson Kadesh teaches us is that those who flee for refuge must keep themselves holy. "And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure" (1 John 3:3). The church is in the world but is not of the world (John 15:18-19; 17:14-16; Romans 12:2). The highway to heaven is such that the "…unclean shall not pass over it" (Isaiah 35:8). Why be called out of the world if we are not going to stay out (2 Corinthians 6:17; 2 Peter 2:20-22)? Only these who are "without blemish" will be presented unto Christ when he comes again (Ephesians 5:27).
In west central Canaan, a manslayer could flee to Shechem. Shechem means "shoulder." This city in the hill country of Ephraim was the first capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. It was built on the slope, or shoulder, of Mount Ebal. Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal and there led the people to renew their commitment to Moses' law (Joshua 8:30-35; cf. Deuteronomy 27:12-13). "Shoulder" may bring to mind "rest" (as a wife rests her head on her husband's shoulder). The church is a place of rest for the weary. Jesus offered, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:28-29). Rest2 here means "to permit one to cease from labor in order to recover and collect his strength; to keep quiet, calm…" The Lord promised those in his refuge temporary rest now and eternal rest later (2 Thessalonians 1:7; Hebrews 4:1). "Shoulder" may also bring to mind "support" (as in, "Put your shoulder to the wheel," or "shoulder this responsibility"). The government is upon Christ's shoulder (Isaiah 9:6). The church is the "support" of the truth. Paul called it the "pillar and ground of the truth"3 (1 Timothy 3:15). "The seven candlesticks … are the seven churches" (Revelation 1:20) expresses the thought (a candlesticks supports a candle). The church is where the truth is supported and where men find support to "prop up" weak faith.
In southwest Canaan, a manslayer could flee to Hebron. Hebron4 means, "alliance" and conveys the idea of fellowship or partnership. The church is a place of fellowship for the homeless (1 John 1:7) and partnership for brothers. "Fellowship"5 in the Old Testament was used to express ideas such as a shared house (Proverbs 21:9), "binding" or "joining" (Exodus 26:6; Ecclesiastes 9:4), a companion (Ecclesiastes 4:10) and even a wife (Malachi 2:14). It was used in a technical sense for a member of a Pharisaic society. Pharisees tended to form close associations with one another in social, religious and even business affairs. A most important dimension in the life of these heberim (Pharisees) was sharing in the study of Scripture and law. In the New Testament, the word fellowship (koinonia) is used in three senses: (1) Joint-participation (Philippians 1:3-5; 4:15-16; cf. Exodus 17, Moses, Aaron and Hur). It was Paul's favorite word to describe a believer's relationship with the Lord and the benefits of salvation which come through him. On the basis of obedient faith, believers have fellowship with the Son (1 Corinthians 1:9) and with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14). (2) Association (Acts 2:42, 46). We share fellowship in the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:23; Philippians 1:5) and in Christ's sufferings (Philippians 3:10; Colossians 1:24). (3) Contribution (2 Corinthians 8:1-4). Paul believed that Christians were to share with one another what they had (Galatians 6:6).
In southeast Canaan, a manslayer could flee to Bezer. Bezer means "strong" or "fortress." The church is a strong fortress, a fortification against the power of evil. Jesus promised that all the gates of hell could not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Satan has been trying to destroy it now for twenty centuries, but still it stands! In Christ and his church, we have refuge from the ravages of the tempter. It is impossible for the fiery darts of the devil to penetrate us or the combined forces of evil to injure us if we abide in his Word (Ephesians 6:13-17). In Christ and his church, we have refuge even from the sting of death (1 Corinthians 15:57; cf. Revelation 14:13). Bezer reminds us of our responsibility to "…be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might" (Ephesians 6:10).
In east central Canaan, a manslayer could flee to Ramoth. Ramoth means "height" or "elevation." The church of Jesus Christ occupies a high and exalted position ("heavenly places," Ephesians 1:3; cf. Matthew 5:14). Isaiah saw it as being established in the "…top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it" (2:2). When people entered it, they had to go "up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob…" (2:3). The church is a refuge for the downtrodden (Titus 1:2; Romans 8:28). In the words of an old song, "I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, but love lifted me." No institution on earth is so elevated in God's estimation as the church. There are many organizations commercial, political, social and religious of international prestige, but the church has the exalted favor and affection of Almighty God himself! There is no honor as great as being a humble citizen in the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:11). Yet, all can attain to, and maintain, this position (Matthew 11:28; Revelation 22:17). Many have gone to the top of Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. As one ascends to its top, he can look down on the beautiful capital city and the magnificent scenery along that stretch of the Potomac. The church affords a view of life like that. It lifts us up from the low, hopeless and degraded world's view. It is our "Ramoth" or "elevation."
In northeast Canaan, a manslayer could flee to Golan. Golan means "circle." A circle expresses completion, and in Christ we are complete. "And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power" (Colossians 2:10). Complete6 here literally means "to fill to the brim." The church is the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23), and in Christ is the fullness of God (Colossians 2:9). Hence, in Christ's church, we have the fullness of God and of Christ. "If we abide in the doctrine of Christ, we have both the Father and the Son" (2 John 9b). In Christ, we have every virtue, principle and truth to be found in any other organization. We don't have to belong to this or that fraternity to have every principle of good, for we are complete in Christ. We have everything in Christ to equip us as Christians (Ephesians 1:3). We can be made "perfect" or complete. Paul wrote: "…that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (Colossians 1:28; cf. Ephesians 4:13; Philippians 3:15).
Have you fled for refuge in Christ? To be in Christ is to be in his church and we get into it by faith, repentance, confession of Christ and baptism (Galatians 3:27; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Colossians 1:18). The door stands open.
1 Avenger comes from goel, which means “to redeem,” and is sometimes translated kinsman redeemer.4
2 anapauo; KJV -- rest 4, refresh 4, take rest 2, give rest 1, take ease 1; 12
3 This phrase is translated in different ways: the KJV margin has “pillar and stay,” Goodspeed has “pillar and foundation,” and Moffatt uses “pillar and bulwark.” Pillar (stulos, for stuo, to stiffen; KJV -- pillar, 4) refers to a “column.” The word translated ground (hedraioma) is found only here in the New Testament and means “a stay, prop, or support."
4 Smiths Bible Dictionary has “league or confederacy” and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia uses “company."
5 This is from the Hebrew stem hbr. Interestingly, we find no place in the Old Testament where the Hebrew root hbr is used to describe ones relationship with God.
6 pleroo. KJV fulfil 51, fill 19, be full 7, complete 2, end 2, misc. 9; 90.