“Jehovah is redeeming the life of his servants; none of those taking refuge in him will be found guilty.”—PSALM 34:22.
1. Because of sin, how do many of God’s faithful servants feel?
“MISERABLE man that I am!” wrote the apostle Paul. (Romans 7:24) Today, many of God’s faithful servants feel discouraged and distressed as Paul did. Why? Because even though we want to please Jehovah, we all inherited sin and are imperfect. So we may feel bad when we fail to please him. Some Christians who committed a serious sin have even felt that Jehovah can never forgive them.
2 The Scriptures assure us that if we take refuge in Jehovah, we do not need to feel overwhelmed by guilt. (Read Psalm 34:22.) But what does it mean to take refuge in Jehovah? What must we do if we want Jehovah to be merciful toward us and forgive us? We can find the answers to those questions by learning about the arrangement for cities of refuge in ancient Israel. That arrangement existed under the Law covenant, which was replaced at Pentecost in the year 33. But the Law came from Jehovah. So from the arrangement of the cities of refuge, we learn how Jehovah views sin, sinners, and those who repent. First, let us find out why Israel had cities of refuge and how they functioned.
“SELECT FOR YOURSELVES THE CITIES OF REFUGE”
3. What did the Israelites have to do to a murderer?
3 Jehovah was very concerned when anyone was killed. If an Israelite murdered someone, the victim’s closest male relative, called “the avenger of blood,” had to execute the murderer. (Numbers 35:19) That way, the murderer would pay with his own life for the life of the innocent person he had killed. If the murderer was not executed quickly, the Promised Land could become polluted, or no longer holy. Jehovah commanded: “You must not pollute the land in which you live” by shedding human blood, that is, by killing someone.—Numbers 35:33, 34.
4. What happened when an Israelite accidentally killed someone?
4 But what happened when an Israelite accidentally killed someone? Even though the death was an accident, he was still guilty of killing an innocent person. (Genesis 9:5) In such a case, though, Jehovah said that mercy could be shown. The unintentional killer could run away from the avenger of blood and go to one of the six cities of refuge. Once he was allowed to stay in that city, he was protected. But he had to remain in the city of refuge until the high priest’s death.—Numbers 35:15, 28.
5. Why can the arrangement of cities of refuge help us to understand Jehovah better?
5 The arrangement for the cities of refuge was not the idea of a human. It came from Jehovah. He commanded Joshua: “Tell the Israelites, ‘Select for yourselves the cities of refuge.’” These cities were given “a sacred status.” (Joshua 20:1, 2, 7, 8) Jehovah decided that these cities should be set apart. So from this arrangement, we can learn much about Jehovah. For example, it helps us to have a better understanding of Jehovah’s mercy. And it teaches us about how we can take refuge in Jehovah today.
HE MUST “PRESENT HIS CASE” TO THE ELDERS
6, 7. (a) Describe the role of the elders in judging an unintentional killer. (See opening picture.) (b) Why was it wise for a fugitive to talk to the elders?
6 If an Israelite accidentally killed someone, he had to run to the city of refuge and “present his case” to the elders at the city gate. The elders had to welcome him. (Joshua 20:4) Sometime later, they would send him back to be judged by the elders of the city where the killing had happened. (Read Numbers 35:24, 25.) If those elders decided that the death was an accident, then they would send the fugitive back to the city of refuge.
7 Why did the fugitive need to talk to the elders? The elders would make sure that the congregation of Israel remained clean and would help the unintentional killer to benefit from Jehovah’s mercy. One Bible scholar wrote that if the fugitive did not go to the elders, he could be killed. He added that the fugitive would be responsible for his own death because he did not do what God had commanded. An unintentional killer had to ask for help and accept it in order to stay alive. If he did not go to one of the cities of refuge, the closest relative of the person he had killed was free to execute him.
8, 9. Why should a Christian who has committed a serious sin talk to the elders?
8 Today, to regain a good relationship with Jehovah, a Christian who has committed a serious sin needs to go to the elders so that they can help him. Why is this so important? First, it is Jehovah who arranged for the elders to judge cases of serious sin. (James 5:14-16) Second, the elders are there to help repentant sinners to regain God’s approval and to avoid repeating their sin. (Galatians 6:1; Hebrews 12:11) Third, the elders are authorized and trained to reassure repentant sinners and help relieve their pain and guilt. Jehovah calls such elders “a refuge from the rainstorm.” (Isaiah 32:1, 2; footnote) This arrangement is one way in which God shows mercy to us.
9 Many of God’s servants have felt the relief that comes from talking to the elders and receiving help from them. For example, a brother named Daniel committed a serious sin, but for several months he did not go to the elders. He said: “After so much time had gone by, I thought that there wasn’t anything the elders could do for me anymore.” Still, he was always afraid that someone would find out about his sin, and he felt he had to start each prayer with an apology to Jehovah. Finally, he asked the elders for help. Looking back, he says: “Sure, I was scared to approach them. But afterward, it seemed as if someone had lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.” Daniel could again talk freely to Jehovah. Now he has a clean conscience, and he has recently become a ministerial servant.
“HE MUST FLEE TO ONE OF THESE CITIES”
10. To be forgiven, what did an unintentional killer have to do?
10 To be forgiven, it was urgent for an unintentional killer to flee to the nearest city of refuge. (Read Joshua 20:4.) His life depended on getting to the city and remaining there until the death of the high priest. This was a sacrifice for the fugitive. He would have to leave behind his work, his comfortable home, and his freedom to travel.* (See footnote.) (Numbers 35:25) But it was worth it. If he left the city at any time, the fugitive would show that he did not care that he had killed another human, and he would put his own life in danger.
11. How can a repentant Christian show that he is very thankful for God’s mercy?
11 A repentant sinner today must also do certain things to be forgiven by God. He must stop his sinful acts. This includes avoiding anything that might lead to serious sins. The apostle Paul described what repentant Christians in Corinth did. He wrote: “What a great earnestness your being saddened in a godly way produced in you, yes, clearing of yourselves, yes, indignation, yes, fear, yes, earnest desire, yes, zeal, yes, righting of the wrong!” (2 Corinthians 7:10, 11) So if we do all we can to stop sinning, we will show Jehovah that we are very concerned about our situation and that we do not think that we automatically have his mercy.
12. What might a Christian need to give up in order to continue to receive Jehovah’s mercy?
12 What might a Christian need to give up in order to continue to receive Jehovah’s mercy? He must be ready to give up even things that he enjoys if they could cause him to commit a sin. (Matthew 18:8, 9) For example, if your friends influence you to do things that displease Jehovah, will you stop associating with them? If you find it difficult to control how much alcohol you drink, will you avoid situations that might tempt you to drink too much? If you find it difficult to control sexually immoral desires, will you avoid movies, websites, or activities that might cause you to have unclean thoughts? Remember, any sacrifice we make to obey Jehovah’s laws is worth it. There is nothing worse than feeling that Jehovah has abandoned us. And there is nothing better than feeling Jehovah’s “everlasting loyal love.”—Isaiah 54:7, 8.
“THEY WILL SERVE AS A REFUGE FOR YOU”
13. Explain why a fugitive could feel safe, secure, and happy inside the city of refuge.
13 Once he was inside the city of refuge, the fugitive was safe. Jehovah had said about those cities: “They will serve as a refuge for you.” (Joshua 20:2, 3) Jehovah did not require the fugitive to be judged again for the same case. Also, the avenger of blood was not allowed to enter into the city to kill him. When the fugitive was in the city, he was safe under Jehovah’s protection. He was not in a prison. He could work, help others, and serve Jehovah in peace. Yes, he could have a happy and satisfying life!
14. Of what can a repentant Christian be sure?
14 Some of God’s people who have committed serious sins still feel guilty even after they repent. Some even feel that Jehovah will never really forget what they did. If you feel that way, please be assured that when Jehovah forgives you, he does so completely. You do not need to feel guilty anymore. This is what happened to Daniel, whom we mentioned earlier. After the elders corrected him and helped him to have a clear conscience again, he felt great relief. He says: “I didn’t have to feel guilty anymore. Once the sin is gone, it’s gone. As Jehovah said, he takes your burdens away and puts them far away from you. You will never have to see them again.” After the fugitive was inside the city of refuge, he did not have to be afraid that the avenger of blood would come and kill him. Similarly, after Jehovah forgives our sin, we do not need to fear that he will bring it up again or punish us for it.—Read Psalm 103:8-12.
15, 16. How does it strengthen your trust in God’s mercy to know that Jesus paid the ransom and that he is our High Priest?
15 In fact, we have even more reason than the Israelites to trust in Jehovah’s mercy. After Paul said that he felt “miserable” because he could not obey Jehovah perfectly, he exclaimed: “Thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25) What did he mean? Although Paul was fighting against sinful desires and had sinned in the past, he had repented. So he trusted that Jehovah had forgiven him based on Jesus’ ransom sacrifice. Because Jesus paid the ransom, we can have a clean conscience and inner peace. (Hebrews 9:13, 14) As our High Priest, Jesus “is able also to save completely those who are approaching God through him, because he is always alive to plead for them.” (Hebrews 7:24, 25) In ancient times, the high priest helped the Israelites to be sure that Jehovah would forgive their sins. With Jesus as our High Priest, we have even more reason to be sure that “we may receive mercy and find undeserved kindness to help us at the right time.”—Hebrews 4:15, 16.
16 To take refuge in Jehovah, then, we need to have faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. Do not think that the ransom applies only to people in general. Have faith that you benefit from the ransom. (Galatians 2:20, 21) Have faith that because of the ransom, Jehovah forgives your sins. Have faith that the ransom gives you the hope of living forever. Jesus’ sacrifice is Jehovah’s gift to you!
17. Why do you want to take refuge in Jehovah?
17 The cities of refuge help us understand Jehovah’s mercy. This arrangement from God teaches us that life is sacred. It also shows us how the elders can help us, what it means to be truly repentant, and why we can be completely sure that Jehovah forgives us. Are you taking refuge in Jehovah? There is no safer place to be! (Psalm 91:1, 2) In the next article, we will see how the cities of refuge can help us imitate Jehovah, the greatest example of justice and mercy.
According to Jewish scholars, the close family of the fugitive evidently came into the city of refuge to be with him.