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God’s New Testament City of Refuge, Part 2

The list of blessings found exclusively in the church includes:

      •Salvation (2 Timothy 2:10; Ephesians 5:23);
      •Redemption (Colossians 1:13-14; Ephesians 1:7);
      •Forgiveness (Colossians 1:13-14 Ephesians 1:7);
      •No condemnation (Romans 8:1);
      •Sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:2);
      •All of God's promises (2 Corinthians 1:20; Ephesians 3:6);
      •Reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 2:16);
      •Being made new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17);
      •Treasures (Colossians 2:2-3);
      •Spiritual life (1 John 5:11-12);
      •Completeness (Colossians 2:10).1

Can people be saved without these blessings? Obviously they cannot. Since this is the case, they must get into where the blessings are, and that is in Christ, in His body, the church.

The church offers no permanent refuge for the guilty. Under Moses' rules, a murderer might have found temporary safety in a city of refuge, but soon he would be found guilty and denied further protection. Similarly, Jesus offers no forgiveness to presumptuous sinners. If we sin willfully, there remains no more sacrifice for us (Hebrews 10:26). Those that flee to Christ from their sins shall be safe in Him, but not those that expect to be sheltered by Him in their sins.2

If we "continue in sin" (Romans 6:1), grace no longer abounds. One who comes to Christ addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, cursing, or lying must leave these practices outside the gate. One that comes to Christ living in adultery must put away the illicit mate in order to find true harbor in the city of refuge (Matthew 19:9). No one can bring a pet sin into the city of refuge without jeopardizing his salvation (Hebrews 12:1-2). None of this implies that Christians do not struggle with temptation, addiction, and bad habits (cf. 1 John 1:6-10), but it does mean that penitent people put away a love of sin and do not turn a blind eye to it (cf. Romans 1:32; Ephesians 5:11).

The church cannot allow itself to become a harbor for sinners, either. Paul instructed that willful, impenitent Christians must be "delivered to Satan" (1 Corinthians 5:5, 13; 1 Timothy 1:20) by the faithful withdrawing fellowship from them (2 Thessalonians 3:6). If one keeps such sin covered on earth, the asylum is still temporary since the omniscient Judge Jesus will handle the hypocrite's case on Judgment Day (John 5:22; Hebrews 4:13) and will expel him from the holy city with the words, "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matthew 7:23).

Cities of refuge (congregations) should be accessible from every point on earth. The land of Palestine was divided into two equal parts (from north to south) by the Jordan River. At times during the year, the Jordan is swift, deep, and dangerous.

If God had put cities of refuge only on one side, imagine a manslayer reaching the river's edge while fleeing for his life. He stops and looks at the raging torrent. There is no bridge; he has no boat; he cannot swim it. There, perhaps within sight of a city of safety, he might die as the avenger catches up to him.

God avoided this problem by putting cities of refuge on both sides of the river and evenly distributed among the tribes (Numbers 35:11; Deuteronomy 19:2, 6). On the west of the Jordan was Kadesh, in Naphtali, Shechem, in Mount Ephraim, and Hebron, in Judah. On the east of Jordan was Golan, in Bashan, Ramoth-Gilead, in Gad, and Bezer, in Reuben. A city of refuge was within easy reach of any place in Canaan. The Jews said that a city of refuge might be reached from any corner of the country in half a day.

In a sense, of course, God is near every one of us all the time (Acts 17:27). We could not flee His presence even if we wanted to (Psalm 139:7-12; cf. Jonah). We do not have to ascend to heaven or go down to the deep to find Him (cf. Deuteronomy 30:11-14). Wherever we are, He is a refuge at hand, a very present help. The door into Christ—like the city of refuge—is never closed (Isaiah 55:6-7; John 6:37; Revelation 3:7). He is always ready to receive -a penitent soul at any moment (Luke 15:17-24).

In a more literal sense, Christ intended for His church to be within reasonable physical distance of every soul on earth. While the internet, television, radio, and direct mail have "shrunk the world," there is still a need for the church to be physically present throughout the world. Practically speaking, it does little good for a sinner if the church exists in a city that is a five-hour drive away. Not many will even find the gospel in a church building on a back street two counties away from where they live and work. In spite of the fact that churches of Christ rank first among all religious groups in the nation in distribution of congregations, and fourth in the total number of congregations, there are still about 700 counties in the U.S. that do not have a church of Christ.

Instead of allowing the light to go out in communities (we lost 192 congregations between 2003 and 2006, according to the most recent data available3, mostly due to liberal congregations becoming community churches or sound churches merging), we need to work harder to help mission congregations to thrive. Stronger congregations can send workers to assist with VBSs, gospel meetings, and other outreach efforts. Faithful families who live within driving distance can volunteer to attend with them for twenty-four or thirty-six months and assist with the Bible school, song leading, and evangelism. Work funds, preacher's salary, and literature can be donated. Moral support and good elders' counsel can be offered.

Glad Tidings of Good Things
Volume 14 July 10, 2008