Message: Last but Certainly Not Least | Scripture: Joshua 20-21 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Every year at this time, I find myself somewhat frantic, and I think this is something that’s true for all of us. Given the incredibly condensed nature of the American holiday season, it’s easy to get lost in the preparations to see friends and family, prepare the right meals—to be overwhelmed by the details. But, in Canada, that busy season is extended because Thanksgiving and the holidays begin in October—I learned the truth of this from my parents.
My dad, as many of you know, is a pastor, but what may be new to you is that he is also the family chef. So, not only was my dad constantly dealing with the busyness of the season at church, he was dealing with its busyness at home. He was the one who cooked the turkey—perhaps the best turkey you’ll ever eat, and he would cook not only one but two every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas—both of which took about 48 hours to fully prepare and complete but even more time when you factor in all the other dishes we made, the people we would invite, the cleaning that would take place, and even all the emails that would have to go out.
My mother, on the other hand, was a hospital pharmacist, and while that may mean very little to you in the months of October to December, they mean a lot to me because it’s a pharmacist’s busiest season. It’s the season when people are most sick—when they need the most medication. I remember those nights because we spent many of them sitting in the car waiting for her to leave work due to an emergency at the hospital.
On top of that, she was also the family baker. And every Thanksgiving and Christmas she would make our favourites. Cherry cobbler that stands as my favourite even until this day, a lattice apple pie that made you melt when paired with vanilla bean ice cream, and a flourless chocolate roll cake that is a dessert that my wife dreams about regularly.
In the midst of all of that fell my, my brother’s, and my father’s birthdays. So, you can imagine that while our home was a happy home, it was also an extremely busy home, especially in the fall. And while I’m sure they enjoyed the pleasure we derived from it, I know that it often stressed them out and made the actual experience, for them, more about obligation than about the joy. If I could counsel them, now, I would have simply reminded them not to miss the joy of it all—to stop doing what they were doing long enough to appreciate all that had been done by them, by others, and especially, by our God.
And I know this is easier said than done, but I honestly believe that proper enjoyment—proper appreciation and gratitude—to have this kind of attitude is a discipline. It’s something you have to train not only your mind in but also your heart to do—to rest long enough in your striving so that you can properly appreciate all that’s already been accomplished. It’s easy to get caught up in busyness—to feel like what you’re doing is the most important thing to be doing, but our text today wants to remind us—always—that the most important work has already been done, and it’s not work that’s been done by us. We’re to let our hands and our worries and our busyness rest long enough so that, in every season, we might appreciate and take in everything that’s been done by our God. It’s a discipline we must train ourselves in, to slow down in a world that constantly tells us to keep moving, and I want to outline the basis for that discipline—why we ought to practice it regularly. And the first reason why we ought to rest long enough to appreciate what’s been done for us is because God requires it—he requires that we find refuge in him:
1) The Requirement for God’s Refuge
Read along with me from Joshua 20:1-9. TWoL: 1 Then the LORD said to Joshua, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, ‘Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, 3 that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. 4 He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. 5 And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbor unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. 6 And he shall remain in that city until he has stood before the congregation for judgment, until the death of him who is high priest at the time. Then the manslayer may return to his own town and his own home, to the town from which he fled.’” 7 So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, and Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8 And beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, they appointed Bezer in the wilderness on the tableland, from the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead, from the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan, from the tribe of Manasseh. 9 These were the cities designated for all the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them, that anyone who killed a person without intent could flee there, so that he might not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, till he stood before the congregation.
We’ve come now to the end of the distribution chapters in Joshua. You may have thought chapter 19 was the end since it literally concludes with, “So they finished dividing the land,” but chapters 20 and 21 serve sort of like an appendix because there is still the tribe of Levi that needs to be dealt with. And while they do not receive a separate allotment, they are to receive portions of land from each of the tribes of Israel for their needs—pasturelands for their animals, a place to live, and other considerations. These Levites are not to be forgotten, and the rest of the tribes of Israel are required by command and by simple ethical duty to ensure that Levi’s lineage remains intact not only because they are family but because they serve a vital function within the people of God.
Yet, before we discuss what that function is, and what, as a result of that function, they are to receive, the author of Joshua interrupts us with the passage that we just read setting aside parts of the land as cities of refuge. I want to note that the command for the cities comes from Numbers 35:9-34 and Deuteronomy 19:1-13, and part of the command was previously fulfilled under Moses when he designated 3 locations within the allotment that belonged to the 2 and ½ tribes east of the Jordan. Joshua is to appoint 3 cities here on the west side.
Now, before I get ahead of myself, I should answer the question of what—what is a city of refuge? And the simple answer is that it’s a place where people could go to find protection if they committed what is equivalent in our time to the crime of manslaughter. For you lawyers in the room, it’s not a one-to-one likeness. What we consider manslaughter today is more nuanced, but the general understanding of manslaughter is pretty straightforward, namely, it’s the act of killing someone without the requisite, subjective intent to kill them. The test language we’re given in verse 5 is twofold: (1) they unknowingly caused the death, and (2) they had no underlying reason—no prior hatred of the person who died.
It was very important for God through Moses and Joshua to provide this barebones test for what manslaughter was because we have to remember that the form of government at that time, in that land, was primitive to non-existent. Also, not everyone in the land could have both the necessary access to justice nor the expectation for justice to be dispensed within a reasonable time like we do now, which is why, if someone killed a family or clan member, and formal justice was too slow, most nations allowed you to take the life of the killer on your own. Thus, primitive governments need primitive, yet reliable forms of protection for those who are too quickly judged for their misdeeds, and it had to be easily accessible, which is why both Moses and Joshua strategically set one up in each major section of Israel—2 in the north, 2 in the center, and 2 in the south. This answers the question of what a city of refuge was.
But the next question we need to answer is why—why is this text on cities of refuge here, and I’ll note for you that it’s quite interesting how the author gives it to us because not only does it seem out of place but also its order from how it’s given to us in the book of Numbers is reversed. In Numbers 35, the command to assign pastureland to the Levites is recorded first, and only then are the commands about the cities of refuge provided because these cities of refuge are linked to the Levites. It’s this tribe that is tasked with the responsibility for these cities and the people who come to dwell within them.
So not only are we asking why the text is here, but also why it’s recorded this way. And I think both “why’s” can be answered firstly because God inspired the author to write it this way. But my working theory based on the what this book is about is that it’s here because Israel had just come out of a war—and so the concepts of justice and the sanctity of life among the people might have been loosened, and they needed to be restored not only to their right senses, but also in their relationship to one another as Israelites—as a nation set apart in its conduct from the world.
What we can rightly assume given what we know about other ancient near east nations at that time was that peace was a tenuous thread—peace would only exist between nations and between men on a superficial level. Where one man felt subjectively that he had suffered injustice, there was very little recourse to prevent him from committing an injustice in return.
But God’s people were to be different. They weren’t to be swayed so easily by their passions. Why? Because God is not a fickle God—Israelites who had suffered the hands of injustice—who themselves had wrought injustice—and yet, were delivered from their enemies and from their own wickedness out of great mercy and grace—they were to be a holy nation—set apart. The establishment of these cities of refuge were meant to ensure the continuity of peace among the people of God in an extraordinary way.
Everything short of murder was to be resolved as amicably and objectively as possible. Taking the life of another person unintentionally was the highest form of that possible tension. Murder was the worst—and there was a primitive and effective punishment for that crime. But everything that was lesser in severity, from manslaughter downwards, Israel was to be distinguished in both its mercy and justice. They were God’s people, and thus, they were accountable to him above all and not just to themselves.
Now, before we move on to our next point, we have to answer one more question, and that is the question of “so what? What does this have to do with us?” And my answer to that is that it has everything to do with us because, firstly, it displays for us the height of God’s concern for the sanctity of life. God cares that no life be lost unnecessarily. Just because war has been waged, just because the nations rage, it does not mean that such things are a necessity, especially in the place where God’s people dwell—especially where God dwells. His house will not be a house divided! They shall be unified because God is unified in himself, and he has unified them to himself.
But the inclusion of this passage here is also secondly and infinitely important for us because it shows us that God has not only provided us with the means to live in unity with each other, but he has also provided the means by which that unity might persevere. Look at verse 6—what does it say? It gives us two conditions upon which the manslayer, if found to have killed someone unintentionally—two conditions upon which, in their being met, a manslayer can be released and return to his town.
The first is that he has been formally absolved in trial—simple enough. But the second is that he must remain in that city until the death of the man who serves as the high priest at that time. And what this shows us is that this manslayer is both under the provision of God’s protection while at the same time liable, at least in a limited way, for the grievousness of his actions. There may not have been subjective intent, but there is objective suffering. Life has been lost. Blood has been spilled needlessly—it has polluted the house of God, and there must be satisfaction for that life.
And God’s solution for it is incredible—and something only realizable within Israel because knowing that this manslayer’s life is tied to the life of the man who he has killed unintentionally—that the manslayer’s blood is owed because the innocent blood of another was shed—because he has violated the character of God through the destruction of his creation—God binds the penalty of this man’s life and crime to the life and righteousness of the High Priest.
This is made that much more incredible when we remember who the High Priest is—he is the man who makes intercession—he is the mediator between God and man. By the High Priest’s words and actions, God will either condemn his people or allow them to continue living. In other words, he is the chosen representative for God with his people while simultaneously being the representative of the people to God.
So, what’s happening here with the manslayer is—remembering that the manslayer owes his life as a ransom for the life that was lost—God not only ties the life of the manslayer to the High Priest, he also ties the life of the slain man to the High Priest so that the High Priest becomes representative for both the life of the manslayer and the life that the slain man ought to have lived. Thus, when that slain man represented by the living High Priest dies, so too does the bloodguilt that the manslayer owes to God. And as a result, the manslayer—the one who has desecrated the very image of God by his negligence—is able to walk away free.
Do you see now, TCCBC, why this passage about the city of refuge is so important not only for this book, but for the whole trajectory of the Bible? Do we not see the incredible witness of the gospel in it? That Christ, our High Priest, came to live the life that we ought to have lived, and he died the death that we ought to have died, so that by our trust and identification in him—in his death—in his righteousness—in his representativeness—we might walk away free. And what makes this passage that much more astounding is in the fact that he, our mediator, didn’t die by accident. He was no victim of simple manslaughter. No, our Christ was murdered, and we, sinners, are counted as those who murdered him. And yet, what more can He say than to you He has said, “To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”
Brothers and sisters, this is why this text is here—this is why this text is so utterly important and crucial to us—because our refuge has not only been established, but our infinitely worse bloodguilt has been satisfied in the death of our Saviour. And we must not miss the words in verse 9 because there, God doesn’t just make provision for Israel but for the sojourner too—for the man and woman who would not have, otherwise, someone to protect them. This is how true and permeating the provision of God is for his undeserving people—that he might protect those who do not have any right to his protection.
What God did for his people, Israel, under Joshua, he has done in greater measure for us in Jesus. So, make sure, dear church, by every means possible—as a matter of regular discipline, that you stop doing whatever it is that you’re doing and rest long enough in every season—every day—to appreciate what God has done for you.
2) The Pervasiveness of God’s Priesthood (we can rest and appreciate what God’s done for us not only because he has given us a Great High Priest as our required refuge but also because he has made that representation pervasive in the world).
Read along with me in Joshua 21:1-8. TWoL: 1 Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites came to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. 2 And they said to them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, “The LORD commanded through Moses that we be given cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for our livestock.” 3 So by command of the LORD the people of Israel gave to the Levites the following cities and pasturelands out of their inheritance. 4 The lot came out for the clans of the Kohathites. So those Levites who were descendants of Aaron the priest received by lot from the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin, thirteen cities. 5 And the rest of the Kohathites received by lot from the clans of the tribe of Ephraim, from the tribe of Dan and the half-tribe of Manasseh, ten cities. 6 The Gershonites received by lot from the clans of the tribe of Issachar, from the tribe of Asher, from the tribe of Naphtali, and from the half-tribe of Manasseh in Bashan, thirteen cities. 7 The Merarites according to their clans received from the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad, and the tribe of Zebulun, twelve cities. 8 These cities and their pasturelands the people of Israel gave by lot to the Levites, as the LORD had commanded through Moses.
What I didn’t point out in our previous section is that here is another reason why the text about cities of refuge comes first in this book, and it’s to show us why it’s so pivotal that the Levites be given not only cities to live in but cities that are located throughout Israel’s inheritance. Because not everyone needs a city of refuge, but everyone needs forgiveness and atonement of sin—everyone must find refuge in another for their wickedness, and unless there are priests who are pure and undefiled and who can provide that atonement, Israel’s inheritance will not and cannot last.
I assume everyone in this room has heard of Taylor Swift in some form or fashion. She’s a music artist who entered into the spotlight at the age of 16 when she was labeled a songwriting prodigy. Now, at the age of 32, her albums have sold over 42 million units worldwide. Her concerts are constantly overcapacity. She has 51 platinum singles (2 mill sold), 7 multiplatinum albums (2 mill sold), 2 diamond albums (10 mill), and so many more accolades.
What’s more is that for the past 16 years, since she was given the spotlight, I have refused to listen to a single song willingly or voluntarily, and yet when certain popular songs of hers come onto the radio or play in a coffee shop somewhere, for some reason, I am able to sing not only the melody of those songs but I find myself sometimes mouthing the exact lyrics to them. It gets worse when I tell you that I’ve even found my knee or or my head bopping along to it as I sing.
And what this tells me is not only that her music is terribly catchy but also that she has woven herself into the very fabric of our culture—of our world. It’s safe to say that her influence upon us, whether we like it or not, is and has been pervasive.
This is what God is doing with the Levites in the land. He is making his presence through the priesthood among them pervasive so that whether they want to be near him or not—whether they want to acknowledge his presence or not—they have no choice. And by doing this, he is ensuring the perpetuation of his people. Right? He knows their hearts. He understands that they will fall away into their sinfulness if he, himself, does not draw near, just like I will not listen to Taylor Swift unless radio hosts and coffee shops blast her music into my unwitting ears and passively force my mind to memorize her lyrics. God is ensuring that Israel does not forget to whom they belong and to whom they owe their worship.
What I want us to notice, however, is that God cannot just dwell in their midst uninhibitedly. Otherwise, they’d all instantly perish from the earth. There must be something that inhibits his direct presence from theirs particularly because they are sinful and because they need atonement. This is why Levi exists—they function as living, breathing veils that protect and mediate the fellowship between unholy vessels of wrath and the holy presence of God.
We see this theme throughout the Bible, don’t we? This is the function of the ark of the Lord. This is the function of the gold-plated cherubim. This is the function of the tablets. This is the function of the temple. This is the function of the veil itself. All of these things are meant to keep sinners separate from God while also enabling them to draw near to him.
And the cost to ensure this is kind of fellowship is great because Levi doesn’t get their own land. They don’t get to live with their own people. They are, instead, forced to live as strangers and sojourners in the midst of sinners, and yet they pay this price—they sacrifice their comfort in the world—for the urgency of maintaining this bond.
Do you hear it, church? Do you hear the gospel ringing out in the Old Testament as Jesus Christ comes to tear that veil in half, as our Great High Priest, as our new law, as one greater than the angels, as one who is God himself and who has the fullness of God dwelling in him, to bring us into the completeness of his fellowship, and to reconcile us, once again, as his beloved children? And he does it at great cost to himself—as the sojourner—as the possessor of an alien righteousness. Levi might be the last tribe to be dealt within Israel, but it is certainly not the least because, in their distribution, we receive a shadow of the greater glory that we have received now in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, it is through Christ that we have received the pervasive gift of the Holy Spirit so that we might become the true priesthood, so that we might, now, pay the price, go into the world as sojourners, declare that the fellowship of God among men has been restored, call sinners to repentance and belief, and await our eternal and final inheritance. And this would be a very sad part of the sermon—my voice ought to be far more depressed—if our waiting was in vain—if this was not great news for us. But brothers and sisters, this is great news for us because our hope is not ultimately in sinful, fallible, and weak men like the Levites, but in the perfect, abiding love of our Saviour crucified upon a cross in our stead.
Has not God accomplished this all for us, and are we not called, then, to put on hold all those things, which we think are worthy of our effort, to regularly rest in this truth and in his presence by acknowledging and appreciating him for all that he’s done? If you have answered yes to both of these questions, then I have one charge for you this thanksgiving, TCCBC—that you be faithful to answer the call—not only to acknowledge and appreciate what he’s done for you with your mouths, but to do it with your lives—to do it in your homes—to do it in the world. Rest long enough to appreciate God for what he’s done for us to bring us to himself in the perfect, mediating work of his Son.
3) The Fulfillment of God’s Faithfulness
Read along with me, lastly, in Joshua 21:43-45. TWoL: 43 Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44 And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
These last few verses are a summary of everything that’s taken place up until this point in Joshua, and it gives us a simple message—one that I’ve been trumpeting throughout the entirety of this sermon—stop and see the great, unwavering, and perfect faithfulness of our God, which he’s shown us more fully, now, in the light of his Son. He has done the impossible by giving us his refuge and ensuring it through his High Priest. He has fulfilled his promises with zeal and permeated our presence with his Spirit. He has crushed his enemies. He has raised up a kingdom for his own dwelling place, and he has called us to dwell in it with him forever. Nothing that he said has returned to him empty. All of it has and will come to pass, as he promised. So great is our God, and worthy is he to be praised.