Genesis 50:15-21 “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’ So they sent word to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father left these instructions before he died: This is what you are to say to Joseph: “I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.” Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’ When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. ‘We are your slaves,’ they said. But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
So Jacob, the last of the three great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the father of magnificent Joseph was no more. The last living link with Abraham – they lived together as grandfather and grandson for fifteen years – was dead and had been buried as he requested in Canaan. It was then, at that time,that some of his sons began to express doubts they had felt for a long time, that the wall of protection that had surrounded them while their father was alive had been demolished. They felt increasingly exposed to the threat of retaliation from their younger brother Joseph whom they’d terribly mistreated when he was a teenager, deciding to kill him, but then, considering it was better not to shed his blood but to get some money, they sold him into slavery in Egypt. All through their years together in Egypt there was the guardian presence of their father Jacob, but now he was gone, and who would protect them from the righteous wrath of Joseph who ruled the land in the name of Pharaoh? Do you see what they did?
i] Some of them became obsessed with their vulnerability and the threat of Jospeh. This is what they dwelt on in the days after the funeral. How increasingly helpless and exposed they felt, and what morbid imaginations they had about Joseph. What would Joseph do now? Let me remind you where your sins come from? James tells us, “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). Sin always starts in our hearts. So what is the pattern of our sinning? It is this, James tells us; “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14&15). David’s murder of Uriah began in his heart. Peter’s cursing and denial that he knew Jesus began in his heart. Demas’ love for the world and his abandonment of the gospel all began in his heart. The crucifixion of Jesus began in the hearts of the priests and Pharisees. The brothers’ united decision to sell Joseph into slavery began with envy filling their hearts. So from what we read here we know that something bad was again going on in the hearts of these 11 brothers, and their thoughts became words which they spoke to one another.
ii] Some told their fears to the others and they wound one another up drawing one another into another plot; little private meetings at first where they said “‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”(v.15). They were accusing Joseph of harbouring a hatred of them in his heart all these years, and the only reason he hadn’t acted and killed them was this; he was held back by the presence of their father Jacob. “Now that Dad is dead Joseph will want his pound of flesh,” they muttered. None of that was true. Joseph had dealt with his grievance against them. He had found help and strength from God. He had forgiven his brothers. He’d had plenty of opportunity to hurt them, but that was banished from his mind. Pay-back time was far from Joseph’s thinking. But some of the brothers were sowing seeds of gossip and bitterness in the minds of others. “What if . . .” they said, “What if he feels like this and what if he acts like that? What if this should happen and what if that should happen? Then we would be in a real state.” It happens in churches today. “What if he did this . . . what if she did that . . .?” Nothing is happening. Nothing will happen, “but what if this person behaves badly, what if . . . what if?” It is a reprehensible and dangerous attitude. Nothing has happened but we are judging and shunning people for what they might do. These brothers didn’t understand grace, did they? They had been with Joseph all those years in Egypt and they still did not understand the grace of God that had wonderfully delivered them and blessed their family life. God’s love and power had shrunk in their eyes and they were clinging to human personality and leadership. And that leads to another sin . . .
iii] Then they sent a messenger to Joseph bearing falsehood. “Your father left these instructions before he died: This is what you are to say to Joseph: ‘I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’” (v.). Of course once again it was totally false. There was no instruction from Jacob to his 11 sons as to what they were to say to Joseph. They were trying to save their skins by deceit. The fear of man brings a snare, and they were caught. You see how one sin that began in the hearts of some of them was spread and how it captured them all. Then they sent a man to tell an open lie in the name of their own father, the revered Jacob. They tarnished his reputation days after his death and they even invoked the name of God. “We too are the servants of the God of your father Jacob,” they reminded him, as if he ever doubted that.
There doesn’t seem to be a note of contrition here for what they’d done. They are simply afraid of their own futures. Joseph had worked so hard to get them to a spirit of repentance. His imprisonment of one of the brothers was in order to bring them to repentance. His insistence that they brought the youngest brother to Egypt was to bring them to repentance. His order to hide his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack was done in order that they be humbled and confess that they had acted abysmally years earlier in selling him into slavery and lying to their father, breaking his heart. That plan of Joseph was successful. In their despair they did acknowledge that these distresses must have been happening to them because of their earlier evil. They did acknowledge the wickedness of selling him into slavery.
Now at the death of Jacob some of the brothers should have spoken up and said, “We have confessed our sin to him and he has freely forgiven us. We must trust what Joseph is and what he has done for us.” But they didn’t do that. Their problem was a failure to believe the promise of complete forgiveness that the servant of the Lord had already offered to them. We are just like them. Troubles come into our lives, sickness and disappointment and money worries, and we think, “I am being punished for my old sins.” We doubt what God has said: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I Jn. 1:8). Christ is faithful. Christ forgives our sins. He will purify us from all unrighteousness, and one of the ways he’s purifying us now is in allowing this trouble that we’re passing through to affect us. Our present troubles have nothing to do with some decision to punish us for past sins. No. A trial happens in order to keep us from future sins. The hymnist says that the Lord “sanctifies to us our deepest distress.” The Lord is saying, “You trusted me when you first met me. You believed I could help you then. So don’t stop trusting me now when you no longer have a husband or a parent to protect and keep you, when things are darker than they used to be. Keep trusting me.”
You see Joseph’s response to their message to him, that he wept. Why did he weep? Was it frustration at their continually mistrusting him? Seventeen years of kindness to them had reinforced his declaration to them that he had forgiven them completely, yet they still doubted his sincerity and they thought that finally he would send his soldiers in and wipe them out. He wept because they’d clumsily invented a tall tale and put it in his father’s mouth. Then they came to him, and they fell down and abased themselves, face down in his presence. They said, “We are your slaves.” In other words, Joseph had nothing to fear from them. They would do whatever task he gave them. How did Joseph respond? There is a magnificent statement which he makes.
- JOSEPH POINTED THEM TO GOD THE ULTIMATE JUDGE.
He gave them a double-edged word, first that we all have to answer to God. Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” (v.19). “You don’t answer to me ultimately, or I to you. We must all appear before the judgment seat of God.” God will right all wrongs and vindicate the innocent and also he will condemn those who have escaped just condemnation during their violent lives on earth. Joseph was the second most powerful man on the face of the earth, a man who could have given the command and had his brothers imprisoned or executed with no questions asked, but Joseph hadn’t forgotten that he was not set up to act in God’s place. He assumed his proper place which was under the all-seeing eye of God. Joseph’s question is a good one to ask yourself when you’re tempted to withhold forgiveness or to seek vengeance against someone who has wronged you: “Am I in God’s place?” Joseph was powerful in the eyes of all Egypt, but he knew he was never big enough to take God’s place. Take your place before God. In other words, acknowledge God as the one who evaluates and assesses every single life without exception. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay: (Roms. 12:19). He alone is competent to judge; he alone knows every thought and intention of the human heart. Most men want God’s justice for the people who stole from them, but they want God’s mercy for themselves. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves and so we are to plead for God’s mercy on those who have distressed us and abused us. Joseph acknowledged that he too had to answer to God, and his only plea would be, “God have mercy on me.” He had no claims against God. We are not in the place of God; we are in the place of the publican in the temple with our heads bowed saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” So God reminds them that the only being who is fit to judge us is Almighty God because he knows everything without any bias at all, and judge the world he will.
2. JOSEPH POINTED THEM TO THE SOVEREIGN GOD OF PROVIDENCE.
He said “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (v.) Now that is a mysterious and beautiful statement. It is surely one of the classic statements on the doctrine of the divine providence in the Bible. It was obviously a mighty comforting truth to Joseph, what the Puritans called a divine cordial. You remember that Joseph has said something very much like this a few years earlier to his brothers in the 45th chapter of Genesis and verse 5, “it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” Joseph believed that God had sent him to slavery in Egypt. Again he repeated that conviction again in verse 7 of chapter 45, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” And here again, after the death of Jacob, he is repeating that conviction that God had brought him to Egypt to these same men his brothers. True sermons need to be repeated; for the hearers it is good and safe. Here was the practical application of the sovereign providence of God; it came from the lips of Joseph in order to reconcile a family in danger of tearing itself apart. “Now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves because you’d sold me into slavery, for God sent me before you to preserve life, a remnant in the earth. Listen again very carefully, it was not you who sent me here, but God;” The brothers did sell him into slavery in Egypt, of course, but behind their decision was the work of God.
Joseph could say, “It was horrible, of course, being taken so far against my will from everyone I knew, and being bought by Potiphar and that ugly, vindictive, violent wife of his. And all those years in prison were deadly, difficult, lonely years. It was so unjust. I never laid a finger on that woman, but looking back now on all those years of pain and suffering, and then the years of being taken out and exalted to the blessings that came to me in serving Pharaoh, and having my own family, and being given rank and position – I can see in everything that God’s hand was upon me day by day in everything, in your selling me, in the slave-traders taking me down to Egypt, in my purchase by Potiphar, in the lust of his wife, in the forgetfulness of the butler, in my knowledge of Pharaoh’s dreams, in your coming when you did to buy wheat – I can see that God was in and before and behind every event in my life. I believe that it was all planned for me by God. God had sent me ahead of you – I’ve told you this before and I will say it to you again. God’s purpose in doing this was to preserve a remnant in famine years, and preserve the seed of Abraham and the seed of the woman and the Messiah who one day shall come. I take no credit for my present position and power and wealth. It was God who sent me here for all of this. I am clay in the hands of the Potter. My life has never been my own
. I have sought to trust God in this land of many gods, and now I can look back and I say to you, “Jehovah led me every step of the way. I couldn’t have come any better way than the way God led me, slavery and prison and all.”
Do you grasp what Joseph believed? Jehovah his God was in charge of all that happens to his elect, when it happens, how it happens, why it happens, and even what happens after it happens. This is true of all events, in every place, and from the beginning of time. God does this for our good and his glory. Yet, please be assured of this, that this does not make God the author of sin. All the sinful actions of the brothers and the slave-traders and Potiphar’s wife were their actions, not God’s actions. He is not responsible for the sins that hurt us so terribly, shattering our lives; men and women are! Yet he can make our evil serve his purposes. He does not violate our own wills in doing this, yet our wills, when we determine to do atrocious things, serve his purposes. God can even use the devil’s plots to serve his purposes. This is the biblical, historical, Christian position on God’s providence as it has been believed and confessed over the centuries.
Do you understand? Let me explain it. The person who stood behind the brothers as they first put Joseph in the empty cistern and then had a meal together ignoring his cries to deliver him, and then selling him into the hands of the Midianites was really the Lord God. “You sold me,” said Joseph, “They said 15 pieces of silver, and you demanded 30, and you compromised at 20 pieces, shook hands and they tied me to a camel and took me away. But I am saying that I believe it was God who sent me, and so I can forgive you.” Now the Bible is full of this. In the New Testament in John chapter 18 in verse 11, we read that the Lord Jesus said to Peter, “Put that sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given me, shall I not drink it?” Who gave the cup of Golgotha with all its suffering to Jesus to drink? It was the Father who determined our Lord would die that death. Again in the next book of the Bible, in Acts, chapter 2 and verse 22 of the book of Acts Peter is preaching one of the greatest evangelistic sermons ever preached. At the end of that sermon 3,000 men had repented of their sins and were baptized, and this truth of God’s sovereign providence even over our evil actions was clearly preached. Peter said, “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, [was] a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through him in your midst, just as you yourselves know. This Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death.” Godless men, wicked men put our Lord to death. The killing of Jesus is the greatest evil ever committed in the history of the universe. There should be no question about that. Men crucified the Lord of glory, and yet Peter preached in Jerusalem at Pentecost that Jesus of Nazareth had been delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.
One of the Puritans put it in this memorable way, “What God sovereignly decrees in eternity, man will always demand in time.” What did God eternally decree in eternity? That his Son should bruise the serpent’s head and in the process his heel would be bruised. God decreed that his Son would be the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. What did sinners vehemently demand in time? That Jesus of Nazareth be put to death. It was God who planned this murder of Jesus Christ, the most wicked act in the history of mankind. It was men who freely determined to kill him. What is the only thing that could satisfy the character of a righteous sin-hating God? The shed blood of his Son Jesus Christ. What was the only thing that would satisfy the hate and passion of that crowd? The shed blood of Jesus Christ. What God sovereignly ordains in eternity man will choose by his own free will in time. It is God who was responsible for the death of Christ in the ultimate sense. That’s the cup that the Father had given him. Should he not drink it? Should you not bear the pain and grief that God has brought into your life through wicked hands? What would keep the line of Jacob alive through the famine and put them in a place where they could increase in numbers and be prepared to enter the Promised Land? That they would go to Egypt and be kept safely there for 400 years. What did God do? He sent Joseph to Egypt to arrange all of that through the hatred of his brothers.
Scriptures make this teaching of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereign work of providence so very clear. Let’s turn one more time to the fourth chapter of the book of Acts and the 27th verse. “For truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy purpose predestined to occur.” Now there is no question about who was responsible for killing Christ. They are all named by the Holy Spirit, Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the Jews. They cried out “Away with him! Crucify him!” God didn’t shout that out or pick up the sledge hammer and nail him to the cross. The Bible says they were wicked men who put our Lord to death. They are responsible for their act, but at the same time God predetermined that certain things should take place, that that wickedness should take place, and many other passages of the Scripture speak the same thing. “It pleased the Lord to bruise him,” prophesied Isaiah. Golgotha did not take place as a fearful surprise to God. God was there on Calvary forsaking his Son as he had always planned to be and do. The hymnist says, “Jehovah lifted up his sword, O Christ it fell on Thee.” So what we have in the Christian religion is a plain statement of God’s providence over everything, even over evil, and that evil is used by God for good purposes, although it does not proceed from his being, for he is a holy God.
Divine providence includes preservation, the preservation of Joseph when men falsely accuse him, when he is thrown into prison, when he is the only servant of the Lord in a lonely dark country. The providence of God includes the preservation of all persons and all their actions in all things in God’s universe. It includes also God guiding and governing his world. He is the one who makes or moves all things toward the certain conclusion of his plan. In other words, God’s attention is concentrated everywhere in this universe. He is not just a person who sits in his office and when someone comes running in and says, “There is trouble in Bow Street,” that he rushes out and fixes things. He is not like that. His attention is concentrated on everything everywhere. He is in control of all that is going on. There is not one rogue molecule in the universe that can act independently of God. Some men don’t believe that God has numbered even every head, but God has numbered even the hairs of our heads. Everything in this universe is under his control. He works all things according to the counsel of his own will, the Bible says.
We once had Elizabeth Elliot visiting us in Aberystwyth with her third husband. Her first husb
and was murdered in cold blood by spears and bows and arrows in the hands of the primitive people he was trying to reach for Christ. Her second husband died of cancer. Elizabeth wrote this, “The experiences of my life are not such that I could infer from them necessarily that God is good, gracious and merciful. To have had one husband murdered and another one disintegrated, body, soul and spirit through cancer, is not what men would call proof of the love of God. In fact in our experience there are many times when it looks like the very opposite to God being loving. My belief in the love of God is not by inference or instinct. It is by faith.” How are things with you? Are you grumbling about circumstances, or about the people who have mistreated you? If you do then are you in submission to the sovereign providence of God? You may not think you’re grumbling against God. You are saying that you’re angry with the person who did that horrible thing to you, but you have to go back to the First Cause. You are angry against God for allowing it to happen. You have to deal with your attitude before God or you may die a bitter, unforgiving woman or man. You are being called today to come and stand in solidarity with Joseph and say, “Those people mean it for evil, but God meant it for good, and I submit to him and trust his purpose in it all.” And I am always looking for the good that is certain to come from it. One day we will understand things better.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs and works his sovereign will.
Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain.
God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain. (William Cowper)
- LESSONS TO LEARN FROM JOSEPH’S WORDS.
So what are the lessons we learn from these words of Joseph? We are approaching the end of Genesis and the words of Joseph are the theme of this whole book.
i] Believing in the providence of God can free us from bitterness. This is clearly the message of Joseph. If ever any man had the right to pay back time it was Joseph. We get bitter because we doubt God’s goodness and we don’t see his invisible hand at work in our lives. We think God isn’t involved in our situation and that’s why we get angry and try to get even and hurt the person who has hurt us. If you really believe God is at work in your situation, you can just stand back and let God do whatever he wants to do. The just Almighty will take care of it.
ii] Believing in providence can give us a new perspective on our tragedies. That perspective might be stated this way: God is involved with us even in the worst moments of life. I believe that in the great issues of life we will generally not have an answer to the question “Why did this happen to me?” That is, we won’t know why our child has learning difficulties, or why we lost our life savings, or why God didn’t intervene when we were being sexually abused. Most of the time we are simply left trusting that God knows why these things happen. It is a groaning world, and shouldn’t Christians groan too? Haven’t we all caused other people pain? Who would dare to say to a woman, “This is why your child was stillborn”? Or to another mother, “This is why your son has a brain tumour”?
It is at such points that God’s providence is so crucial. It doesn’t tell us everything we would like to know about the mysteries of life, but it does assure us that God is there and that he cares for us. He is somehow in control even in our darkest moments in a way we cannot see—and probably wouldn’t understand even if we could see it. Because of God’s providence we can keep believing in God even when things happen that make no sense to us. He can bear the burden of all our unanswered questions.
iii] Believing in providence gives us courage to keep going in hard times. Because God is there, we know that he cares for us, even when life is tumbling in all around us. You know the phrase, “Life is hard but God is good.” You know Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” Let’s believe these truths. God’s providence doesn’t answer every question, and it doesn’t make our problems go away. It doesn’t give us an easy road. But it does tell us that there is a pattern to the seemingly random events of life, and that God is designing something beautiful out of what now seems to be only a chaos of clashing colors. Life is hard – make no mistake about that – but God is good. Both those statements are true all the time for all of God’s children.
iv] Believing in providence constrains us to live by faith. Elizabeth Elliot had to trust in God’s wisom, power and love. The Bible teaches us that and we believe it. The older we get the more we understand that faith is choice, not a feeling. Many times we won’t feel like believing in God. But faith is a personal commitment we make to believe that God is in charge – “Our God reigns” – is good and that he can be trusted in every situation. Faith rises above feelings to choose to believe even when our circumstances may argue against it.
There is a poem and the author says,
My Father’s way may twist and turn, My heart may throb and ache
But in my soul I’m glad I know, He’s making no mistake.
My cherished plans may go astray, My hopes may fade away,
But still I’ll trust my Lord to lead, For He does know the way.
There’s so much now I cannot see, My eyesight’s far too dim;
But come what may, I’ll simply trust And leave it all to Him.
For by and by the mist will lift And plain in all He’ll make,
Through all the way, tho’ dark to me, He made not one mistake. (A.M. Overton)
In the end that will be the testimony of every child of God. When we finally get to heaven, we’ll look back over the pathway of life and see that through all the twists and turns and seeming detours that “He made not one mistake.” I don’t know why our friend and brother Ron Loosley should be chosen by God (I can think of no other way to put it) for his present affliction. I cannot think why it should have been him and not me, or him and not any of us elders. It could have been any of us, or all of us, or none of us. We pray that Ro
n and Rose might glorify God in everything that happens in Cytir, and that even in these years, Jesus might be magnified through this suffering.
For Ron and for the rest of us, the best is yet to come. We will all someday stand in the presence of Jesus, maybe swapping old stories, telling tales of long ago, recounting God’s amazing grace to each of us. In that glad day Ron’s mind will be sharp and the confusion all gone, once and for all. Until that morning comes we move on convinced that life is hard, but God is good. And in the end we will say with all the children of God as we look back on our earthly pilgrimage, “He made not one mistake.”
22nd January 2012 GEOFF THOMAS