“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20)
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
This is the culmination of the series of messages given during the previous Sundays regarding the life of Joseph. The series is entitled Grace in Disguise. The message this morning is Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. Even so, this is still about grace in disguise. But this time, since we are now at the end of the story of Joseph, this is now about the unveiling of the disguise, and the revealing of the grace which was there all along from the very beginning of Joseph’s ordeal.
To summarize: Joseph, betrayed by his brothers, was thrown into a pit and eventually sold to the Midianites and eventually landed in Potiphar’s house. There he was betrayed again, this time by Potiphar’s wife; for which reason, he landed in prison, where he met Pharaoh’s cupbearer, whose dream he interpreted, with the request that the cupbearer remember Joseph and mention him to Pharaoh once he was restored into favor with Pharaoh. But once again Joseph was betrayed in the sense that the cupbearer forgot all about him, until two years later when Pharaoh had a dream that no one could interpret. It was then that the cupbearer remembered Joseph and mentioned him to Pharaoh. Joseph was brought before Pharaoh: he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and suggested what should be done in anticipation of the 7 years of famine which were to come. Pharaoh appointed Joseph governor of Egypt. It was in this capacity that Joseph revealed himself to his brothers who went to Egypt in order to buy grain because the famine had reached even Canaan. The brothers were understandably panic-stricken to learn that they were in the presence of their brother who long ago they planned to kill, but Joseph assured them, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” So, his family transferred to Egypt, including Jacob who was certainly overjoyed to see his favorite son, Joseph, whose face he never expected to see again. And later on, when Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers were afraid that Joseph would pay them back for all the evil they did to him. But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
And this leads me to the main truth that we shall seek to expound in the course of this message, that the story of Joseph is not really about Joseph: It is about God and his mysterious providences and wonderful purposes regarding salvation. The story of Joseph is really about God and the good news of salvation, that God cause all things, including the sufferings of his people, to work together for their good in order that they might be saved.
From the very beginning of this story God was there. When Joseph was searching for his brothers it is very interesting that the Bible mentions an unnamed man who points Joseph to where he could find them. Who was this man with no name? Why did he have to be mentioned? Many years ago, long before Joseph was born, his great-grandfather Abraham had three unnamed visitors, one of whom the Bible refers to as the Lord himself, with whom Abraham haggled with respect to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. The result of that encounter was the salvation of Abraham’s relative, Lot, and his daughters. Many years later, another unnamed man appeared to Joseph’s father, Jacob, and wrestled with him the whole night. We later on learn that it was God himself with whom Jacob wrestled. And the day after that wrestling match, Jacob was delivered from the hand of Esau, his brother whom he had cheated out of the inheritance. Although this might be nothing more than speculation, the intriguing thought has occurred to me that this unknown man who guided Joseph to his brothers was no one else but the same man who visited Abraham and who wrestled with Jacob. At any rate, had not this man pointed Joseph to his brothers’ whereabouts Joseph’s story would have turned very differently.
Whatever might be the truth regarding that unnamed man, the Bible is very clear that when Joseph was in Potiphar’s house the Lord was with Joseph and blessed him with success in everything he did, so much so that Potiphar himself entrusted all the affairs of his house to Joseph and worried about nothing save the food he ate.
In the same way, the Lord was with Joseph in prison and blessed him with favor and success, so much so that the prison warden entrusted all the affairs of the prison to Joseph.
And finally, when Joseph was in the presence of Pharaoh himself, the Lord was with Joseph, helping him to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and giving him the wisdom to advise Pharaoh what to do, so much so that Pharaoh exclaimed, “Is there anyone like Joseph in whom clearly is the Spirit of God!”
The story of Joseph and his sufferings is actually the story of God and his grace, the grace of his salvation, the gospel!
In the life and sufferings of Joseph, we learn that God is in control, that God is wise, and that God is good.
I. GOD IS IN CONTROL.
It is astonishing to reflect on the incidents of Joseph’s life, how one thing led to another. But they all had to happen in the precise way and at the precise time that they did; otherwise, if just one piece of the puzzle failed to fall into place when it needed to, the nation of Israel would have perished in the famine, the Savior of the world would never have been born, and there would be no salvation for anyone! What if the unnamed man never pointed Joseph his brothers? What if he was never thrown into the pit? What if the Midianites had not passed by at the time they did? What if Potiphar’s wife had not lied about Joseph? What if Joseph had never landed in prison? What if he had never met the cupbearer? What if the cupbearer had mentioned Joseph to Pharaoh before Pharaoh had his dream? Everything would have turned out differently! And the probability is Egypt would have perished during the famine. Israel too. And, as already pointed too, had Israel perished there would be no Savior and there would be no salvation for the world.
But what is staggering are the following statements that fell from Joseph’s lips when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams: “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do…. And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.” (Genesis 41:25, 32) The thing is fixed by God! The sovereign God had determined that this famine would come about. And knowing that this famine would affect his chosen people, he made preparations beforehand: He made sure that Joseph would be there in Egypt as Governor to save Israel when the famine occurred. And Joseph realized this. That is why in Genesis 45:4, 5, he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” And in verse 8, he makes this conclusion: “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” It was not you; it was God! God was in control all along. All the tragedy ended wonderfully because God was in control.
That is what we should remember in all our circumstances, whether they be tragic or wonderful: God is in control There are no accidents in the lives of God’s children. Everything is going according to plan, whether you realize it or not, whether you understand it or not. God is causing all things to work together for good towards his children. They are the ones who love him because he loved them first. And because God is in control, no matter what happens we are safe because the sovereign God who is in control of everything is also our loving heavenly father who will not allow even a single hair of our heads to perish unless something infinitely good and wonderful would come out of it.
II. GOD IS WISE.
Human as he was, there must have been times that Joseph cried out to the Lord asking, “Why did you allow these things to happen to me?” “What have I done to deserve such a fate?”
But we know what his brothers said when they discovered that the money they paid for the grain they bought in Egypt was put back into their sacks. Genesis 42:28 says that one of the brothers “[s]aid to his brothers, ‘My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!’ At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, ‘What is this that God has done to us?’”
That is how they interpreted their circumstances: “God is punishing us!” God was not punishing them; God was actually blessing them! But they did not have the wisdom to understand the truth about their circumstances because they could see only the present. God, on the other hand, knows not only the past, not only the present, but also the future – how everything will turn out. In the next chapter, verse 22, they learned how hasty they were in judging God: Joseph’s steward said, “Peace to you, do not be afraid. Your God and the God of your father has put treasure in your sacks for you.”
Jacob reacted in the same way. Having already lost Joseph, he was now about to lose Benjamin as well. And in Genesis 42:36 we find him crying out: “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All these things are against me!”
Oh, how wrong you are, Jacob! How hasty you are in judging your circumstances. All things are not against you; all things are working together for your good! You cry out to high heavens bewailing your misfortune, but in just a little while you will discover that, not only will you not lose Benjamin, your son Joseph, whom you took for dead, will be returned to you, not only alive and well, but as Governor of Egypt and Savior of your family.
That is why I plead with you my brothers and sisters, no more judging of God. No more hasty censuring of his providence, no more ill words of accusation against God. Never say that he is selfish, or that he is not good, or that he does not care. He is too wise to be mistaken; he is too good to be unkind. And someday we will realize that God was right all along and that it is we who are mistaken. We will realize soon enough that the misfortunes and tragedies we so dreaded were the best things that could have ever happened to us.
III. GOD IS GOOD.
“You meant it for evil, God meant it for good.”
What is the good that God had in mind when he started the wheels of providence rolling in the case of Joseph? Salvation. That is God’s great purpose. Not our convenience or our comfort but the salvation of our souls. This is the most important thing of all, and God would rather that you undergo the worst sufferings than that you lose your soul. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?
Romans 8:28 tells us that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love him, to those who are called according to his purpose.” But is the next verse which tells us what precisely this good is: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” So, the good towards which God causes all things to work together is conformity to the image of his Son. But the context will show that this conformity to Christ has to do first of all with the redemption of our bodies (see verse 23). During the resurrection we too will have glorified bodies in the same way that Christ was raised from the dead with a glorified body. But surely conformity to Christ not only involves the redemption of our bodies so that they will be the same as that of Christ, it also involves the transformation of our character so that we too might be holy even as Christ is holy. For without holiness no one will see God. In other words, conformity to Christ (both bodily and spiritually) is equivalent to salvation, because salvation is holistic: it is salvation of both body and soul.
In the case of Joseph and his family, the good God had in mind was not only physical (i.e., deliverance from famine and preservation of the existence of Israel as a nation), it was also spiritual: the transformation of the characters of those involved so that they might become more holy.
In the case of Jacob, by allowing him to temporarily lose Joseph and even Benjamin, God was weaning him from his inordinate love for Rachel. His love for Rachel was excessive, well-nigh idolatrous. Needless to say, it was this inordinate love for Rachel, which was later on transferred to Rachel’s children when Rachel died, that fueled the resentment of Joseph’s brothers, which led to Joseph’s being sold to Egypt. Through the events in this story, God was teaching Jacob a lesson and cleansing his heart from idolatry.
As for Joseph’s brothers, God used these events to expose the wickedness of their hearts and eventually to lead them to a level of repentance which they would never have reached had they not sinned so greatly in the first place. Judah is a case in point. It was Judah who suggested that Joseph be sold to Egypt. Even though they avoided murdering Joseph on the spot, selling Joseph to Egypt was still equivalent to passing a death sentence upon their brother, with the difference that they did not have to personally perform the dastardly deed. In fact, it appears that they believed he was already dead at the time they stood before Joseph (whom they did not recognize) since we find Reuben in Genesis 42:22 saying, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”
But in the end, it was this same Judah who pleaded for Benjamin. “Take me instead; let the child go.” This Judah who once upon a time sold his brother to what he thought would be his death, was the very same Judah who was willing to give up his own life so that his brother – Joseph’s brother by the same mother – might live. And it was when Joseph saw the genuineness of Judah’s repentance – the man who sold him to Egypt – that he finally broke down, cried out with a loud voice, wept and wept, and revealed himself to his brothers, “I am your brother, Joseph.”
And as for Joseph, the good that his sufferings did for him was immeasurable. Never mind that later on he became governor of Egypt. The spiritual profit that he gained from his sufferings is more important. He started out a self-centered and boastful boy. But through his sufferings he learned humility, responsibility and spirituality, for no one could forgive the way he did unless he had been radically changed in his spirit by the grace of God. Had he not suffered the way he did, he who would not have become the spiritual giant, not to mention the successful man, he eventually became.
I will close now not with Joseph but with one like him and at the same time greater than him. Centuries upon centuries later, someone like Joseph, but far greater than him, was also thrown into a pit. That pit is this dark world of sin. The difference was this greater Joseph voluntarily left his glorious home in heaven in order to live in this dark world. And just like Joseph, he too was betrayed and thrown into prison. But the prison he was thrown into was far worse. To use the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended into hell.” And just like Joseph, after suffering so much he too was exalted. And just like Joseph, he suffered that others might live. Just like Joseph, he was sent by God. Ironically, this greater Joseph is a descendant of Jacob, but not through Joseph. He was a descendant of Israel through Judah. Yes, the same Judah who sold Joseph into Egypt. Oh, the wonder of God’s ways and wisdom! How great is his grace and mercy! Through Judah, Joseph was sold to Egypt, as a result of which Joseph later on was able to save Judah and their family from famine. And through Judah, came the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ.
And, therefore, I shall end this message not with Joseph but with Jesus. For at the end of the day the whole point of Joseph’s life and sufferings is this: that we might be saved by Jesus Christ, the greater Joseph. Acts 16:31 says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” In the same way that his brothers bowed down before Joseph in order that they might be saved, let us bow down before the greater Joseph in order that we might be saved.
(Manuscript basis of the messaged preached to the congregation of Ikthus East, Bacolod City, Philippines on 17 November 2019: Thanksgiving Sunday)