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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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  • « On the Lordship of Christ | Main | Our Ongoing Need of Redemption as Christians »

    Images of the Savior (42 -- The Levitical Cities of Refuge)

    And Yahweh spoke unto Moses, saying, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them 'When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall appoint for yourself cities; cities of refuge they shall be for you, and the manslayer who takes any life unintentionally shall flee there. And the cities shall be to you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer might not die until he stand before the congregation for judgment. – Numbers 35:9-12

    As we saw previously, the book of Numbers opened up with an account of the census of Israel, just before they set out from the foot of Mount Sinai, to cross the wilderness and enter the Promised Land; and now, as we have come to the end of the book of Numbers, we shall see that it likewise concludes with a census of the people, after they have wandered for forty years in the wilderness, during which time the entire generation of Israelites who refused to enter the land were destroyed, saving only Joshua and Caleb alone. So the title “Numbers” is very appropriate after all, drawing our attention as it does to the significance of these two censuses: for we may learn, when we reflect upon them, that if God's people are faithless, and rebel, they will not live, nor ever experience the promised blessings of his grace; but this faithlessness of the people does not nullify God's own faithfulness (cf. Romans 3:3-4), for he will not allow his covenant to be broken, but will raise up in their place another generation that will know the grace that he had promised. Thus, even after killing all the Israelites twenty years of age or older, including 603,550 men able to go to war, from the eleven tribes excepting Levi (Numbers 1:46-47), he raised up in just forty years time another multitude, including 601,730 men of war (Numbers 26:51); and this was just a foreshadow of what he would do in later times, casting off the unbelieving nation of Israel, so that he might graft in by faith another generation of Gentiles, in order that his covenant should not be fruitless, but that they should inherit the blessings promised to Abraham (Romans 11). Only, we must learn from this not to be highminded, but to fear (Romans 11:20): for if this generation of Israel which heard the gospel did not enter into God's rest because of unbelief, neither will we, who have been given the same gospel, enter in if we do not persevere in true faith (Hebrews 4:1-2); so that, if we would learn from the example of the Israelites destroyed in the wilderness, we must not be as they, but looking unto Jesus, we must press on through every difficulty, hoping in his sure covenant, and so find his promised rest at last.

    Now, let us observe some of the things with which Moses draws up the conclusion to the book of Numbers, and some of the ways in which we can learn of the Savior thereby; and then we will finish our meditation with an examination of the Levitical cities of refuge, which testify most poignantly of the promised Christ.

    The first account we shall consider is that of the daughters of Zelophehad, who worried that their father's name and inheritance should be cut off from Israel, since he had no sons; and who therefore took their case before the Lord, and received the favorable answer that they were right, and that, provided they did not take their inheritance out of their tribe by marriage (cf. Numbers 36), the inheritance could come to them, and pass on through them to their offspring after them (Numbers 27:1-11). Now, in this case, we may obtain assurance that the gospel-inheritance which God has prepared for us does not come just to men and heads of the households alone, but women too, and slaves and children and all sorts of persons of inferior economic or social positions may be made full inheritors of all God's promises; and so the apostle later assures us that there is neither slave nor free, Greek nor barbarian, male nor female in Christ, but all are one in him, and of equal standing as it concerns the possession of his promises (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). And we must also mention, in passing, that this text provides a necessary and immovable legal foundation for the legitimacy of the Christ, in his claim to be the rightful heir of David and Abraham, and the one whom God promised to come from their line; for, although he came of woman's flesh alone, that is, he had no earthly father but was conceived of the virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:34-35), yet, because of this case, we may be assured that the promised blessing can pass through a woman's line, without any legal difficulties; so that, as we reflect upon this account, we may rest in the confidence that Christ is truly and legally our federal head and representative, the offspring of David and the promised Messiah from the line of Abraham, through the tribe of Judah.

    Then, in the circumstance of Moses' dying before his entering the promised land, according to God's judgment in the matter of his striking the Rock twice, upon which we touched before, and his commissioning Joshua to take his place (Numbers 27:12-23), we may discern a type of Christ's ascension and subsequent outpouring of the Spirit upon the apostles he had chosen to continue his work. For at that time Moses, being about to pass up to the presence of his God, laid his hands upon Joshua, and God filled him with his Spirit, to empower him to lead the people into the possession of the Promised Land. So too Jesus, when he was about to pass up into heaven, breathed upon his disciples, filling them with his Spirit (John 20:21-23; cf also Acts 1:7-8), so that they might conquer the world, and cause the Kingdom of God to spread to every corner of the earth; just as Joshua caused the typical kingdom of Israel to spread to every corner of Canaan.

    Immediately thereafter, Moses gives a summary of the Law which should rule Israel when she entered the Promised Land, and touched upon some obscure points, as the matter of a woman's vows, when she is under her husband or father (Numbers 28-30); which we do not have time now to discuss, but will only mention that it speaks of the central position that the Law has in the establishment of the people of God through covenant grace, and confirms what the apostle has declared, that the gospel of God's grace does not nullify the Law, but rather establishes it (Romans 3:31). And we must likewise pass over the account of the utter destruction of Midian (Numbers 31), as a reward for her opposition to Israel, and Israel's plundering of her riches, only mentioning in passing that in the same way God always causes his Church to triumph over all her foes in Christ, who will one day return to give us rest and the riches of an eternal inheritance, when he judges the world with a flaming and eternal vengeance (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

    Now, moving on, we must treat briefly of the account of Reuben and Gad's suing for the possession of their inheritance on this side of the Jordan, which was an account that first angered Moses; but when they explained their solemn intent to pass first over the Jordan with their brothers, and to drive out the Canaanites from the Promised Land, he was satisfied, and consented to give them this inheritance, if only they should do as they said. In this matter, we may learn several lessons, first, that the Promised Land of the presence of God, although for a time centered in the borders of which God spoke to Abraham and his descendants, on the other side of the Jordan, would nevertheless one day be expanded, and swallow up the whole earth, as it were, in a Kingdom where our Immanuel will ever dwell with us. Thus, the meek followers of Jesus will not just inherit Palestine, but the earth (Matthew 5:5), and in fact the New Heavens and New Earth, where the Lamb dwells among his people, about which we read in Isaiah 65:17-25 and Revelation 21:1-22:5. And so as well, Paul speaks of the promise to Abraham, not just that he should possess Canaan, but that he should possess the whole world (Romans 4:13). This truth may be derived from this account here, for already, even at the very beginning of the shadow-fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, and before Israel had even entered the land at all, we see its borders expanded beyond the Jordan, in anticipation of how they should one day be expanded over all the earth, in the days of the Messiah.

    But then, we must also learn that we may not enter our inheritance in any case without entering into the struggle against the world; even as Reuben and Gad were not to be given their portion until they had first crossed the Jordan, and had fought with all their brothers against the Canaanites. How many people foolishly suppose that they might live their lives as they see fit, and by the means of a “deathbed conversion” still enter into heaven? But in this, they are acting as if they would have their portion without fighting with all Israel against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and they have forgotten that no one enters the Kingdom without passing through much tribulation (Acts 14:22). It is true that God sometimes grants deathbed conversions, as he did in the case of the thief on the cross, to accentuate the freeness of his mercy; but all they who spurn the need to be sober and vigilant, and presume upon God's mercy, will be utterly destroyed without mercy. And we may also glean these further truths, that we will not enter our final inheritance until after our death, which is symbolized by the Jordan River; and that, even though we may be divided from our brothers and sisters in Christ by time or the geographical and national borders of the earth, yet we are still all engaged as brothers in the same struggle, and must labor for and with each other as one people; for those who have entered their rest now encourage us by their examples and their witness to press on in faith (Hebrews 12:1); and those who believe in Christ while dwelling in one nation may rise up and cross the seas to the uttermost parts of the earth, to help God's Church wherever she might be found, which is a great inducement to the cause of the world mission of spreading the Kingdom of Christ to every place on earth.

    After this, Moses gives a last historical accounting of the forty-two journeys of Israel, in her wanderings through the wilderness, and exhorts the people now to cross over the Jordan, and to drive out every foe from before her (Numbers 33-34); and in this, we may derive a lesson for the preacher, that he should remind the people of God always of her history, and the mighty things that God has done for her, and the redemption he has accomplished in the past; and on that basis alone exhort her to cast out every enemy, struggle mightily against every sin, and hope in Christ for success. So likewise does the apostle very often explain who we are in the Lord, and only then command us to live lives worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27); as when he reminds us that we are in fact light in the Lord, and then most passionately exhorts us to live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8), that is, in accordance with what God in his redemptive mercies has already done in our midst and in our hearts.

    But now, before we close, we must take care not to miss this final instruction of Moses, before he concludes the book of Numbers, in which he holds forth the mercy of our Savior through the types of the cities of refuge, by which this Promised Land which he was exhorting the people to enter was above all characterized. Let us note, concerning these cities, first, that they were to be the possession of the Levites (Numbers 35:6-8); second, that anyone who had shed blood unintentionally might flee there for refuge from the avenger (Numbers 35:11-12); third, that those who had thus fled would be put on trial, and if they were truly innocent, they might be allowed to remain (Numbers 35:24); and fourth, that the persons thus seeking refuge had to remain at all times in the city until the death of the high priest, who had been anointed with oil (Numbers 35:25-28).

    In these four things, we may derive the following lessons: first, that the place of refuge for sinners, all of whom are subject to the avenger of blood, belongs only to the Levites, that is, those who are set apart especially to God's service. Let us note that, according to God's gospel promises, we who had been Gentiles were chosen by God to be priests and Levites (Isaiah 66:19-21; 1 Peter 2:9), and his refuge from the punishment we were subject to now belongs to us. Second, that we may be freely forgiven of our sins and bloodguiltiness of we flee to God's appointed place of refuge, which is the cross; but let us be sure that, if we sin presumptuously after we have come to the knowledge of the truth, we will henceforth find no more place of mercy, but even as Esau sought mercy with bitter tears of repentance and was refused (Hebrews 12:15-17), so we will find only severe and eternal punishment (Hebrews 10:26-31); and this is answerable to the fact that the presumptuous murderer would find no mercy at all in the cities of refuge, but would surely be put to death. Third, that, even after we have fled to the cross for refuge, yet, if we have done so insincerely or hypocritically, and have deceived ourselves and others, we will be judged and found out, and sent into outer darkness. Then will Jesus say, “I never knew you; depart from me you that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:23) for, having assayed to enter his marriage feast, we will have been found without the true wedding garments of Jesus blood and righteousness (cf. Matthew 22:1-14). And let us be certain that God, who knows all the secrets of men (Romans 2:16), will judge in truth and not according to appearance. Oh, let us search our hearts and cast far away from us all presumption! Fourth and finally, even as the anointed high priest sealed the promised pardon of the manslayer with his own death, so that, after he had died the sinner might be free to go where he pleased without fear of reprisal, so Jesus, our last and great High Priest, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit, has forever sealed our pardon by his death on the cross, so that we might never again fear punishment or the penal wrath of God the Father, which he has fully satisfied with his own blood.

    O poor, trembling, bloodguilty sinner, God's avenging wrath is bearing down hard upon you, and will swallow you up in eternal torment and shame if you find no place of refuge! And where can you go to escape his pursuing vengeance? Will you go to the depths of the pit? But there he will find you. Will you take the wings of the morning and fly across the seas? But there is his holy presence as well (cf. Psalm 139:7-12). There is only one place where refuge can be found, and that is because God's wrath in all its infinite greatness has already fallen there and been exhausted; and that is our true city of refuge, the cross of Calvary: ah, let us flee thither and plead for release; for the Christ, our anointed high priest, has already sealed our pardon with his blood, and we will surely find mercy, if we run to him in faith. Jesus' cross is our city of refuge, and there alone will we find freedom from the Law and absolution from all our bloodguiltiness.

    Posted by Nathan on January 30, 2009 10:29 AM

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