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Lesson 65: Conformity With Corruption (Genesis 38:1-30)

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If the Bible were not inspired of God, Genesis 38 would not be there. It does not make God’s people, the sons of Jacob, look good. If this episode had happened to one of your family members, you’d want to keep it quiet (unless, of course, you were offered a lot of money to go on Oprah to tell about it!). Why hang your dirty laundry out for everyone to see? But God has a way of hanging in full public view things that we would cover up. Aren’t you glad that you didn’t live in Bible times, to have your embarrassing family secrets put in the Bible?

Hanging dirty laundry in public view is embarrassing not only for those whose laundry it is, but also for those who have to view it. When you’re around someone who shares intimate problems too freely, you feel awkward. You don’t know what to say, so you mumble something and try to change the subject. That’s the way many preachers and commentators approach Genesis 38. They skim it or skip it and move on to the life of Joseph, which is a bit more comfortable. But God saw fit to hang this dirty laundry in full public view. He put it here for our instruction.

Critics allege that some editor mistakenly put the chapter here, out of context. But that view is both arrogant and unnecessary. What at first glance looks like an interruption to the story of Joseph is actually crucial for a proper understanding of the “generations of Jacob” (37:2). This chapter shows us why Joseph, in God’s providence, had to be removed to Egypt: God’s covenant people were becoming conformed to the corruption in Canaan. It’s a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” glimpse of what was happening in Canaan during the 22 years from Joseph’s sale into slavery to Jacob’s family’s move to Egypt. To preserve His people from becoming absorbed into the Canaanite culture, God moved them into Egypt, where they became slaves. This forged Israel into a distinct people and prepared them for the later conquest of Canaan, when God’s time for judgment on that corrupt culture was ripe.

Two themes run through this chapter: The first is how quickly God’s people can become morally corrupt. Judah, marries a Canaanite woman and blends in completely with that corrupt culture. His corruption is contrasted with chapter 39, where Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar’s wife. The second theme is the holiness and grace of God. Those two qualities are always in perfect tension: God’s grace never negates His holiness, nor does His holiness nullify His grace. God’s holiness is seen when He strikes dead two of Judah’s sons for their sin. But God’s grace overcomes the gross sin of Judah and Tamar, so that their son, Perez, becomes a part of the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:3‑16). Thus we learn that ...

While God’s people are prone to corruption, God is marked by holiness and grace.

Since the major part of the chapter deals with the corruption of Judah, I believe that God wants us to take a sober look at how prone we all are to moral corruption.

1. God’s people are prone to corruption.

It would be great if being born into a godly family would somehow protect us from picking up the world’s moral corruption. But it doesn’t work that way. We’re like Pigpen in the “Peanuts” cartoon strip, who is clean after his bath, but who steps outside and‑‑Poof! He’s instantly covered with dirt. Judah, the son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac (who was still living during part of this time), great grandson of Abraham, a member of the chief family God was dealing with on the earth, lived just as the Canaanites lived. You may have been born into a godly family, as I was. Perhaps your grandparents were godly people. But Judah’s life shows that it is very easy for you to become as corrupt as our morally putrid culture. Judah’s corruption follows a progression:

A. Corruption begins when you distance yourself from God’s people.

We read (38:1) that “Judah departed from his brothers, and visited a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.” That didn’t happen accidentally. It involved a choice on Judah’s part. We don’t know the reason for his choice. Perhaps he saw the way Hirah and the people of Adullam lived and thought, “I don’t want to live a boring life like my grandfather Isaac or my father Jacob. I want some adventure, some excitement, some enjoyment out of life. I’m going to move near Hirah.” Even though his brothers at this point were not a godly bunch, Judah’s move signified a move away from the covenant people of God.

That’s where corruption often begins. Many times it happens in the teen years. A young person is attracted to the lifestyle of the popular kids at school. Perhaps he made a profession of faith as a child, but he’s not interested in the things of God. He thinks his parents must have migrated here from another planet. So at some point the teenager says to himself, “I’m going to hang around with that group at school and distance myself from the church crowd.” It won’t be long until he is just like them in his thought life, his language, and his morals.

But it’s not only true of teenagers. The Bible says to us all: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’“ (1 Cor. 15:33). We may think that we’ll stand our ground, but we’ll drift without knowing it. While we need to build relationships with pagan people for the purpose of leading them to Jesus Christ, to do so for the purpose of camaraderie will corrupt us, not convert them. At Dallas Seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks told us that the two factors which would distinguish us from our classmates ten years out of seminary would be the books we read and the friends we made. Corruption often begins when a person makes the choice to distance himself from God’s people and to build friendships with worldly people.

B. Corruption takes root when you marry outside of God’s people.

Judah saw a Canaanite woman, the daughter of a man named Shua (whose name probably means “riches”‑‑her name is not given), and “he took her [in marriage] and went in to her” (38:2). The emphasis is clearly on the physical, not the spiritual. Judah saw her, he liked what he saw, her daddy was rich, so he took her and had sex with her. That sounds like the basis for a lot of marriages in our day!

Judah and his wife had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. They grew up (marriage at 15 was not uncommon in that culture) and Judah took a wife for his oldest son, Er, named Tamar. So Judah, contrary to his great-grandfather Abraham’s strong warning, has picked a Canaanite wife for himself, and now for his son. Thus, it’s not surprising to read that Er was so evil that the Lord took his life. His sin is not mentioned, but he must have been a wicked man.

Then Judah told his second son to go in to Tamar and perform his duty as a brother‑in‑law to her. This is called levirate marriage (from the Latin, “levir,” meaning “husband’s brother”), a common custom in the ancient Near East which was later codified in the Mosaic Law (Deut. 25:5‑10). If a man died childless, his brother was to marry the widow and the first son was regarded as the heir of the deceased man. Onan apparently married Tamar, but he did not want to give his brother an heir, so he would interrupt the act of intercourse (which, by the way, is not a safe method of contraception). For his refusal to raise up an heir for his brother, God stuck Onan dead. He was not struck dead for practicing birth control, but for his selfishness in wanting his brother’s inheritance for himself.

Judah didn’t know why his sons were dropping dead. All he knew is, they married Tamar and died. So he wasn’t about to have his third son marry her. He told her to go back to her father’s house and wait until Shelah was old enough to marry, but he didn’t intend to go through with it (38:11). In Judah’s mind, Tamar was jinxed.

For centuries Satan has used intermarriage with ungodly people to corrupt those from godly homes, and it still works like a charm. Judah was a nominal believer at best, but when he married this Canaanite woman, it was insured that their children would be thoroughly pagan. She didn’t train them to fear the Lord. If God hadn’t struck them dead for their sin, these sons of Judah would have turned his descendants toward paganism. So if you’re single, it’s crucial that you wait on the Lord for a godly mate. Corruption begins when you distance yourself from God’s people. It takes root when you marry outside God’s people.

C. Corruption comes to fruition when you live in conformity to a corrupt culture.

Several years go by (38:12). Shelah is old enough to marry, but it’s becoming obvious to Tamar that Judah isn’t going to keep his word on the matter. Since she’s been twice widowed, her chances of finding a husband and having children are slim. Not having children was a disgrace, and as a childless widow, Tamar wouldn’t have been provided for when her parents died. So she concocts a plan to trick Judah into getting her pregnant so that she will be the mother of his heir.

Judah’s wife had died, he had mourned for her, and now it was time for shearing his sheep. This was a festive time, “when sexual temptation would be sharpened by the Canaanite cult, which encouraged ritual fornication as fertility magic” (Derek Kidner, Genesis [IVP], p. 188). So Tamar took off her widow’s garments, dressed up as a cult prostitute, with a veil, and sat in a conspicuous place where she knew Judah would pass by.

Sure enough, Judah saw her, assumed she was a prostitute, and solicited her services. (She probably disguised her voice. Not expecting it to be Tamar, Judah didn’t detect that it was her.) They negotiated the price (one kid goat) and she took some collateral so that he would pay later. But it was the collateral, not the pay, she was after. She took his seal and cord‑‑kind of like their Visa card. A man wore his special cylindrical seal on a cord around his neck, and when a business deal was transacted, he would roll it in hot wax to sign the deal. She also took Judah’s specially carved staff.

They had sex, Tamar conceived, went home and put on her widow’s garments again. When Judah sent his payment by the hand of his friend, Hirah, he couldn’t find this prostitute. This put Judah and Hirah in an embarrassing situation. If Judah reported the theft of his seal and staff by a prostitute, or pressed looking for her, it would become public knowledge that a prostitute had gotten the best of him. These kind of stories were swapped in jest all over town. So Judah decided to absorb his losses and move on.

Three months later, word comes that Tamar is pregnant because of harlotry. She is officially engaged to Shelah, Judah’s son. Even though Judah never intended to go through with the marriage (he thought Tamar was jinxed), he acts highly offended and calls for the death penalty. Tamar would be out of the picture and Shelah could take another woman as his wife.

Or, it could be that Judah’s harsh reaction reflected the common double standard. Men could go to prostitutes all they wanted, but women had to remain faithful to their husbands. So he hypocritically condemned Tamar for the same sin of which he was guilty. Of course, in condemning her, he was really condemning himself.

But Tamar had her bases covered. As they were taking her out to execute her, she calmly sent Judah’s seal and staff to him with the message, “I’m pregnant by the man to whom these things belong. Do you recognize them?” Judah was had. He admitted that he had been wrong in not giving Tamar to Shelah as he had promised.

The striking thing about this story is the way Judah was thoroughly conformed to the corruption of the Canaanite culture. He’s on his way to party with his pagan friend, Hirah, when he sees a prostitute. Without a thought of God, he turns aside to her. His readiness to do this and the calm way he handles the negotiations show that this wasn’t the first time he had done this. Tamar knew this also, or she wouldn’t have dreamed of trying it. When Judah finally gets caught, he doesn’t say anything about his sexual sin. He just admits that he had done wrong in not keeping his promise to give Tamar to his son in marriage. The final sentence of verse 26 may indicate a degree of repentance or it may simply be reporting that Judah didn’t marry Tamar.

We’re often shocked when we hear of Christians, especially Christian leaders, who fall into gross sin. But this story is here to warn us that we all are prone to moral corruption. If you think, “Why I could never fall into this kind of sin,” then you don’t know your own heart. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). It can happen to anyone who drifts away from the Lord and His people. We all must wage war daily against the lusts of the flesh. We live in a culture as corrupt as that of Canaan. And our enemy, the devil, is much more concerned to make Christians fall into sin than he is to bother with those who make no such claim.

But we don’t have to be conformed to the corruption around us. The story of Joseph in chapter 39 shows that moral purity is possible, even in the face of aggressive evil. The power for holiness comes from our God, who is both holy and gracious toward sinners. Our text shows not only how God’s people are prone to corruption, but also that ...

2. God is marked by holiness and grace.

A. God’s holiness means that He judges sinners and disciplines His people.

In our day, it is common to sacrifice God’s holiness on the altar of His grace. Christians excuse sin with the glib phrase, “We’re under grace.” But God’s grace does not exclude His judgment and discipline. Remember, it’s in the epistle which champions God’s grace that Paul writes, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:7‑8).

You may wonder, “Why did God strike down Er and Onan for their sin, but not Judah and Tamar?” The answer lies hidden in the inscrutable sovereign purposes of God. For reasons known only to God, He chose to make Er and Onan examples of His judgment, but Judah and Tamar the objects of His sovereign grace. But both cases show that God, in His holiness, judges sinners and disciplines His people. Although Judah wasn’t struck dead, he was disciplined by the Lord. He lost two grown sons. He would later go through the famine in the land and have to bow before his brother, whom he had despised.

But the real toll of Judah’s sin wasn’t in his own lifetime. As I mentioned earlier, this chapter shows the reason for the 400 years of slavery the nation had to go through. Judah’s descendants went through 400 years of hardship, in part, because of his sin. We may think we get away with our sin and that it doesn’t hurt anybody. But sin always exacts a toll. We reap what we sow, and our sin is often visited on our children to the third and fourth generation. God is a holy God, and that means He must judge sin and discipline His people so that they will share His holiness. But just as God’s grace doesn’t eliminate His holiness, so His holiness doesn’t negate His grace.

B. God’s grace means that on account of Christ, He shows favor to those who deserve judgment.

We see God’s grace here in that this morally corrupt Canaanite culture was allowed to continue in its sinful course for another 400 years, until “the iniquity of the Amorite” was complete (Gen. 15:16). During those 400 years, any Canaanites who had heard of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants probably mocked. Abraham’s descendants were in slavery in Egypt. Canaan and its godless, pleasure‑seeking culture was thriving. That’s always the danger, that during a period of God’s grace, sinners will mistakenly think that things will go on that way forever. They won’t!

But the real beauty of grace in this chapter is revealed in Matthew 1:3, where we learn that Tamar and her son Perez, born through this sordid affair, are included in the genealogy of Jesus. Judah and Tamar were living for themselves and for pleasure. Yet God used them to produce the ancestor of the Messiah. Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more!

Jesus Christ, the descendant of Judah through Tamar, was born without sin through the virgin birth, so that as the spotless Lamb of God, He could die as the substitute for sinners. Thus God is able to be both holy and gracious through Christ. He is holy in that all sin is punished. If a person rejects Christ, he bears the penalty for his own sin‑‑ eternal separation from God in the lake of fire. If a person trusts Christ, Christ’s death pays for that person’s sins. God is gracious in extending forgiveness apart from human merit to every sinner who will receive it. There is grace abounding for the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Jesus promised, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). Every sinner will find mercy at the cross.


The well-known writer, Ernest Hemingway, was raised in a solidly evangelical home in Oak Park, Illinois. His godly grandparents had graduated from Wheaton College. His grandfather, Anson Hemingway, shared a close friendship with the evangelist, D. L. Moody. Ernest’s physician father had wanted to be a missionary doctor, but his mother was too much of a city girl, and refused to go. But Ernest was raised in the church where he tithed his allowance, sang in the choir, and read completely through his King James Bible and passed a comprehensive exam on it.

After high school, he moved to Kansas City to become a reporter. He stopped going to church and began drifting from his upbringing. He enlisted in World War I, was wounded, and took to drinking to ease the pain. He once offered his sister a drink. When she refused, “he told her not to be afraid to taste all of what the world has to offer just because Oak Park had labeled it sinful and off-limits.” He married a worldly woman and moved to Paris to further his writing career. Totally alienated from his parents, eventually he would go through four wives. He was notorious for his drunkenness. In his late years, “he grew distant from everyone. He would not stand up straight and, he stopped communicating verbally.” A friend said that his “every hour was filled with the pain of being truly lost and alone.” Hemingway’s own description was, “I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.” Finally, on a sunny Sunday morning in Idaho, at age 61, Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. (Culled from, “Ernest Hemingway: Tragedy of an Evangelical Family,” by Daniel Pawley, Christianity Today [11/23/84], pp. 20-27.)

Hemingway’s tragic life did not have to go that direction. He made some bad choices: to distance himself from God’s people; to marry outside of the faith; to be conformed to this corrupt world. He could have availed himself of God’s grace and been conformed to Jesus Christ. His godly children and grandchildren could have followed in his steps. Instead, his beautiful, famous granddaughter took her life last year. His descendants are far from the Lord.

We all are prone to corruption. “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on [Christ]” (Isa. 53:6). We don’t have to be conformed to corruption. If we avail ourselves of God’s grace through the descendant of Judah and Tamar, the Lord Jesus Christ, He will keep us from the corruption of this evil world.

Discussion Questions

  1. In light of 1 Cor. 15:33, when should we pursue a friendship with an ungodly person and when should we drop it?
  2. How can we live in this evil world and yet avoid being corrupted by it?
  3. If D. L. Moody were to step into our century, at which points would he say the American church has become corrupted?
  4. How can we maintain God’s grace without licentiousness and His holiness without legalism?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Failure, Fellowship, Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Singleness

Lesson 66: Moral Purity in a Polluted World (Genesis 39:1-20)

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It’s not news that we live in a culture obsessed with sex. Of course, sexual immorality is nothing new. But it used to be hidden and generally viewed as wrong by our culture. Now it’s blatant and shrugged off as no big deal.

It would be wonderful if Christians had resisted this moral breakdown, but that’s not so. Many pastors (some famous, some not) have fallen into sexual sin. A Christianity Today ([10/2/87], pp. 25-45) survey reported that one out of eight pastors admit to committing adultery since being in the ministry! Among CT’s subscribers who were not pastors, it was one out of four! In answer to, “Since you’ve been over 21, have you ever done anything with someone (not your spouse) that you feel was sexually inappropriate?” 45 percent of lay persons and 23 percent of pastors answered “yes”. Remember, this wasn’t with Christians in general, but with subscribers to Christianity Today, a magazine aimed at church leaders.

With statistics like that, you begin to wonder, Is it possible to be morally pure in our polluted world? The story of Joseph in Genesis 39 says, “Yes!” If Joseph, a young man reared in a society as morally corrupt as ours, who had no Bible, no church, and not much parental training, alone in a foreign culture, could resist the direct proposition of his master’s wife, then we can resist sexual temptation.

We CAN be morally pure in a polluted world.

But it’s not going to happen accidentally. You don’t win wars without knowing your weak areas, knowing the enemy’s tactics, having a strategy, and being willing to pay the price. I want to give you four principles from our test that will help you gain and maintain moral purity in this polluted world.

1. Be aware of situations where you’re vulnerable.

The stage is set in verses 1-6. Joseph had been sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard. He was the security chief, also responsible for executing anyone Pharaoh didn’t want around. You wouldn’t want to get on Potiphar’s bad side!

Because the Lord was with Joseph, he did well under Potiphar. There is no mention of the struggles this 17-year-old boy must have gone through when he arrived. He was torn from his father, taken to a strange culture where he couldn’t understand the language, and sold as a piece of property to this powerful man. Yet with God’s strength, he adjusted to the situation. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, Joseph had been put in charge of everything Potiphar owned. Potiphar trusted Joseph so much that he didn’t even check up on him. And, as the NIV translates, “Joseph was well-built and handsome”. That sets the stage for the temptation that follows. Satan hits you with temptation when you’re most vulnerable. Joseph’s situation reveals four situations where you’re vulnerable.

A. You’re vulnerable when you’re in different circumstances, where no one else will know.

Joseph was a single man in his twenties, with the normal sex drive of any young man. He was a country boy in a sophisticated foreign capital, working in a home frequented by the rich and famous. He had no friends who shared his belief in God. As far as he knew, this tempting situation was private and would never be known to anyone else. He didn’t know that his story would be recorded in the world’s most-read book. He was vulnerable!

If you travel in business or if you find yourself alone in a different city where nobody will know if you give in to sexual temptation, be on guard! Satan will hit you. You may think that no one will ever find out, but the Bible warns, “…be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23). God knows everything. Sin is never private.

B. You’re vulnerable when you’re successful and attractive.

Success always opens up new temptations. We read, “after these events” (Joseph’s success) Potiphar’s wife looked with desire at Joseph (39:7). It wasn’t just his good looks, but also his success that attracted her.

If you’re good-looking, be on guard! Only three men in the Bible are called good-looking: Joseph, David, and Absalom. All three were hit with sexual temptation; two failed. If God has given you good looks, you need to be careful not to dress seductively (that applies to men as well as women) or to use your looks to manipulate people.

Studies have shown that besides good looks, women are attracted to men who are financially successful, confident, competent, who have power and influence, and public recognition. Also, women are drawn to men who are compassionate, gentle and attentive listeners. Except for financial success, most of those factors fit many pastors. Men in ministry need to be on guard! Joseph didn’t let his success or good looks bring him down.

C. You’re vulnerable when you’re alone with an emotionally needy woman.

Potiphar’s wife was needy. Her husband was busy with his important job. Every time Pharaoh traveled, he was gone, sometimes for weeks at a time. Being a “macho” man, Potiphar probably didn’t excel in sensitivity to his wife. Her bitterness bleeds through when she blames her husband for her problem with Joseph (39:14. 17). This neglected wife longed for attention and intimacy. She mistakenly thought she would get it through sex outside of marriage.

Any time someone of the opposite sex begins sharing his or her marriage frustrations with you and telling you how kind and sensitive you are, look out! If you’re not careful you’ll think, “Why that no good brute she’s married to! She deserves better than he is. She just needs someone to be kind to her.” You’re vulnerable to sexual temptation.

D. You’re vulnerable when you’re emotionally needy.

Joseph must have felt lonely. His mother had died. He was separated from his father. His brothers had rejected him. He was a slave without any friends who understood or shared his background. Any normal young man desires the companionship of a woman. He might never be able to marry and have sexual relations. Potiphar’s wife could have met many pressing needs. But Joseph didn’t yield!

Sexual temptation is never just physical. There’s always the good feeling that comes from being desired by someone else. God designed marriage and sex within marriage to meet our needs. If we try to meet our needs through sex outside of marriage, we’ll have immediate pleasure but long term pain. We end up enslaved to sin.

If you’re married, you need to cultivate companionship with you wife. Don’t let emotional drift set in. If you’re single, pray for a wife! And use lonely times to deepen your intimacy with the Lord, while maintaining your commitment to moral purity. The first step to moral purity is to be aware of situations where you’re vulnerable.

2. Be aware of how temptation works.

First, as we’ve seen, the stage is set: A needy woman and a vulnerable man who is also a servant of God. Satan won’t leave that situation alone. Next, there is flattery and surprise, the direct approach: “Lie with me”. Probably she had dropped hints before, but now it hit him head on. Joseph must have felt strangely good: “This important woman desires me?” But Joseph said no and the problem went away. Right? He said no, but the problem didn’t go away.

The next stage was her persistence: “…she spoke to Joseph day after day (39:10). She tried to get him to reconsider, to wear him down by sheer repetition of the idea, the way TV advertisers do. That’s how Delilah caused Samson’s downfall.

The last step was her sudden ambush, where Joseph had to give in or flee. She waited until he was alone in the house. Concentrating on his work, Joseph probably didn’t realize that the two of them were alone or he would have taken precautions. But she knew. She grabbed him by the coat and again said, “Lie with me!” Joseph left his coat in her hand and ran outside.

That’s how temptation often works: You’re vulnerable; there’s a surprise opportunity which flatters you; if you resist that, there will be other opportunities, pressure to get you to reconsider; then, there will be the sudden ambush, where you hardly have time to think. You must act immediately, and your decision in that instant determines everything. Because of that, the third step toward moral purity is the most important:

3. Make a commitment to purity and develop a strategy before the temptation hits.

Joseph’s resistance wasn’t accidental or natural. He had made a previous commitment to moral purity and he had a strategy for resistance already in place.

A. Make a commitment to integrity in all of life.

Joseph was a man of integrity in all areas of live. Verses 4-6 repeat four times that all Potiphar owned was in Joseph’s charge. He could be trusted with Potiphar’s money.

Integrity affects all of life. If Joseph had been cheating on business matters, it would have been easier to cheat with Potiphar’s wife. Any time there is adultery, there is deception. If you’ll make a commitment to integrity across the board, it will be easier to maintain that integrity when the opportunity to cheat sexually comes knocking.

B. Make an up-front commitment to inner purity.

When Potiphar’s wife surprised Joseph with her offer, he just said no. If he had been toying with it in his mind, he could have yielded. He had thought about it and the answer was no. A lot of folks want to be delivered from temptation, but they’d like to keep in touch. But you’ve got to decide up-front that you want to be morally pure. It begins by confronting lustful thoughts. No one ever committed adultery who didn’t first entertain it in his mind.

Derek Kidner points out that Joseph’s arguments for refusal (39:8-9) are the same that another man could have used for yielding. His master trusted him, so he was free from close supervision; he had control over all matters except this one—why not take it too? Many men would view sex with a prominent woman like this as the path to social and political opportunity. Besides, she was his master’s wife. Shouldn’t he submit to her?

It’s easy to rationalize sin. With the same circumstances, you can construct arguments either in favor of obedience to God or against it. It all depends on your focus, on what you’re aiming for. You’ve got to decide beforehand that you want to be a man or woman of God and that you will say no when temptations to sexual immorality come, as surely they will.

C. Focus on your responsibilities, not your needs.

When Potiphar’s wife propositioned him, Joseph didn’t think about his needs; he pointed out his responsibilities toward his master, toward her, and toward God (39:8-9). If he had focused on his needs, he could have built a case for yielding.

I’ve found this helpful in dealing with sexual sin on the thought level, where it always begins. I am responsible as a Christian witness, as a father, and as a pastor. Even if you’re single, you never sin alone; your sin tarnishes the name of Christ. If I confront lustful thoughts, it stops right there. If I entertain them, rationalizing. “I’ve got needs,” I expose many others to Satan’s attacks. If I fail morally, I’m failing my family, my church, the lost, and my God. So I’ve got to be responsible to judge my lustful thoughts.

D. Consciously live in the presence of God.

Joseph was alone with Potiphar’s wife in Egypt, far from is family. But he knew that he was not alone, that if he gave in to her desire, he would sin primarily against God. Four times in this chapter (39:2, 3, 21, 23) it says, “The Lord was with Joseph.” Of course, being omnipresent, the Lord is with everybody, but that’s not what this means. It means that God was with Joseph in a special way. Joseph lived with an awareness of God’s presence. He didn’t want to trade that blessing for the passing pleasure of sin.

Ask God to give you a constant sense of His holy presence. All sin is done in His sight and is primarily against Him. If we covet God’s blessing in our lives, we will fear Him and flee temptation.

E. Call sin sin.

Joseph calls this “a great evil”, a “sin against God”. One of the ways Satan gets us is by swapping the labels on sin, so that it doesn’t sound quite so bad. How often in the press do you read about someone doing a great evil? Usually it’s called an affair or a fling. It sounds fun!

When you’re tempted, focus on the evil of the sin, not on its pleasure. All sin has its attractive side, or we wouldn’t give it a second thought. Adultery has a certain thrill. But it also wreaks destruction and tears apart families, not to mention the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, which can be fatal. When Eve was tempted, she focused on the attractiveness of the fruit and she fell. Joseph focused on the evil of adultery and stood firm.

F. Avoid the opportunity to be tempted.

We read that Joseph “did not listen to her to lie beside her or be with her” (39:10). This relates to the up-front commitment to be pure. If you want to be pure and you know that someone or someplace will tempt you, then avoid that person or place. If you’re tempted by pornography, don’t go into a store where it’s readily available. If a woman at work is flirtatious, avoid her as much as possible. Don’t lead her on by listening to her. Give strong signals that you’re not interested.

G. Flee when you need to.

When she finally went so far as to grab Joseph’s coat, he ran. The Bible never says that we should stand and pray and quote precious verses when sexual temptation hits. “Flee immorality!” (1 Cor. 6:18). Resist the devil (James 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:9), but flee youthful lusts (2 Tim. 2:22). As one of my older professors in seminary said, “Men, they aren’t just youthful”. You’ve got to flee them all your life. You won’t yield while you’re running the other way.

So, Joseph ran away and God rewarded him for his righteousness. Right? Not quite. That leads to the final step toward moral purity in a polluted world:

4. Be willing to pay the price for your convictions.

Potiphar’s wife was humiliated by Joseph’s refusal and her humiliation quickly turned to rage. As the poet wrote, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned”. So she framed Joseph and he spent the next few years in prison.

There is reason to think that Potiphar didn’t believe her story. If he did, he would have executed Joseph that day. The text says that his anger burned (39:19), but not that it burned against Joseph. He could see his wife’s flirtatious ways. He knew Joseph’s integrity. But he had to do something to get her off his back. He would lose a servant who had brought him great prosperity, but he couldn’t let it slide. If he believed Joseph over his wife she would have made life difficult for him. Potiphar couldn’t have missed the way she blamed him: “This Hebrew slave, whom you brought to us, came in to me to make sport of me…” (39:17). She was blaming Joseph and her husband.

Because the world is so polluted, you can expect to pay a price when you take a stand for purity. People will slander you. They’ll blame you for their sin. You could even lose your job. Joseph had plenty of time sitting in prison to replay the scene and think about what he would do if he had the chance again. Satan always comes to you after you’ve done the right thing and gotten stung for it and whispers, “Next time just give in and all this won’t happen. See how your God takes care of you”.

But Joseph still had the presence and blessing of God, even in prison (39:21-23). It wasn’t worth trading that, even with prison, for the fleeing pleasure he would have enjoyed with Potiphar’s wife.


An old priest was asked by a young man, “Father, when will I cease to be bothered by sins of the flesh?” The priest replied, “I wouldn’t trust myself, my son, until I was dead three days”.

The battle for moral purity in a polluted world is a lifelong war. But it is winnable if you’ll be aware of situations where you are vulnerable and be on guard; be aware of how temptation works; make a commitment to purity and develop a strategy before temptation hits; and, be willing to pay the price that purity in a polluted world has cost every disciple of Jesus Christ.

If you’ve already defiled yourself with sexual sin or you’re presently ensnared by it, Christ will deliver you and give you victory if you turn to Him. No sin is beyond His Grace. To every sinner who comes to Him, He says, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more: (John 8:11). Let’s commit ourselves to be men and women who are pure in thought and deed!

Discussion Questions

  1. To what degree should we try to shelter ourselves and our kids from sexually explicit movies, TV, books, magazines, etc.?
  2. Discuss this statement: No one ever falls into sexual sin without first entertaining it in his or her mind.
  3. Where do we cross the line between temptation and sin?
  4. Is “sexual addiction” a disease? Is it proper to refer to it by that term? Why/why not?

Copyright, 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Marriage, Sexual Purity, Sexuality, Singleness, Spiritual Life

Lesson 67: True Success (Genesis 39:1-23)

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Each of us wants to succeed in life. But if we want true success, it’s crucial to work out a biblical definition of the term. Otherwise, you’ll be like the guy who climbed the ladder of success only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall. You’ll waste your life pursuing the wrong goals and making wrong decisions. If our target is wrong, we will fail even if we hit it.

Our American culture defines success primarily in financial terms, throwing in, perhaps, the ideas of power, fame, and the elusive quality, “happiness.” As Christians, we can easily see the fallacy in defining success in those terms, and yet often we are influenced by our culture more than we care to admit. Many pastors succumb to the prevailing definition, thinking that if you pastor a large church, or gain national recognition through writing a book or speaking at important gatherings, you are successful. Christians reveal their skewed definition of success when they rush out to buy the latest story of some celebrity who has made a profession of faith, or when they parade famous athletes before the church as if they were spiritual authorities. So we need to bring into sharp focus the biblical answer to the question, What is true success?

Genesis 39 is a rags to riches to rags story. At the beginning of the chapter, Joseph is at the bottom, a slave sold into a foreign culture. But God prospers him and he rises to the top in the house of Potiphar, security chief to Pharaoh. Life was about as good as a slave could expect at that point. But then Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. When he refused her demands, she falsely accused him. He ended up in the dungeon, seemingly worse off than when the chapter started.

There are some parallels between Joseph’s rise to the top spot in Potiphar’s house (39:1‑6) and his experience in the prison (39:21‑23):

*Verse 2: “the Lord was with Joseph”

*Verse 21: “the Lord was with Joseph”

*Verse 4: “So Joseph found favor in [Potiphar’s] sight”

*Verse 21: “the Lord ... gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer”

*Verse 4: “[Potiphar] made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge”

*Verse 22: “And the chief jailer committed to Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it”

*Verse 6: “with [Joseph] there he did not concern himself with anything except the food which he ate”

*Verse 23: “The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph’s charge”

*Verse 3: “[Potiphar] saw that the Lord was with him and how the Lord caused all that he did to prosper”

*Verse 23: The chief jailer also put Joseph in charge because he saw that “the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made to prosper.”

Clearly, Joseph was truly successful, whether he was in Potiphar’s house or in the prison, because God’s hand was on him. I believe that is the biblical definition of true success:

True success is to have God’s blessing on your life.

If you have God’s blessing, you have everything, even if you’re poor and unknown; if you lack God’s blessing, you ultimately will have nothing, even if you’re rich and famous now. But, we need to be careful to think biblically about what God’s blessing means.

1. God’s blessing is not necessarily related to favorable circumstances.

Was Joseph more blessed by God or more successful when he was at the top of Potiphar’s household than when he was in the dungeon? Clearly not! They were just different phases of God’s training program in which He was preparing Joseph for the job He had for him under Pharaoh. We are mistaken when we think that if everything is going well, God is blessing us, but that when trials or problems hit, He has withdrawn His blessing. His blessing isn’t necessarily related to favorable circumstances.

Joseph’s circumstances in the prison were anything but favorable, at least at first. Psalm 105:18 gives us a glimpse of reality when it states, “They afflicted his feet with fetters, he himself was laid in irons.” The NIV translates, “They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons.” The dungeon was most likely beneath Potiphar’s house (Gen. 40:3), probably with no windows, a dark and unpleasant place, especially if you had irons on your feet and neck!

For a while, Joseph must have wondered what was going on. He had been obedient to the Lord in resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He knew that God had spoken to him in his dreams years ago, about how the sun, moon, and stars would bow down to him. But where was God now? Why was this happening? He must have felt like Tavye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” who says, “Lord, I know that we are the chosen people.” But as he considers the trials the Jews have gone through, he looks up toward heaven and pleads, “Couldn’t You choose someone else for a change?” Most of us have felt like that: “If this is God’s blessing, what must His curse be like?”

But God’s blessing often comes through trials. Every person God uses must go through times of training and testing, where character is refined. You see it in Moses, who was the most competent, gifted man you could have chosen to lead Israel, a man trained in all the knowledge of the Egyptians. But he had to spend 40 years in the wilderness in order to be trained in the ways of the Lord before he could lead God’s people to Canaan.

You see the same thing in David, the man after God’s heart. He was a teenager when the prophet Samuel anointed him as the future king. He was still in his teens when he slew Goliath. Yet he had to spend his twenties running as a fugitive from the mad king Saul before he was ready at 30 to lead the nation.

You see the same thing in the apostle Paul. When he was converted, he was a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. In our day, we probably would have him teaching in a seminary within a few years. But God sent him into Arabia for two or three years and then into obscurity in Tarsus. It was about ten years after his conversion that he finally began to minister with Barnabas in Antioch, where the Lord began to use his mighty gifts. If you’ve read his epistles and the book of Acts, you know that the training didn’t end there. Throughout his ministry, Paul was continually trained in the school of Christ through many trials.

You can even see the same thing in the life of the Lord Jesus, who, though he was the perfect Son of God, learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb. 5:8). I marvel when I think of the fact that Jesus was 30 before He began His public ministry. If there ever was a competent, godly young man, ready to minister at 20, Jesus must have been the one. In terms of modern standards of success, we would have to admit that Jesus didn’t make it. He alienated the religious leaders. He only ministered for three years and left behind a ragtag band of confused followers. If God’s blessing means favorable circumstances, large numbers, and everything going your way, Jesus wasn’t blessed.

We each need to recognize that God is using our circumstances to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. We don’t know what He has ahead for us. He may elevate us to a position of prominence, as He did with Joseph. He may use us in a quiet, behind-the-scenes ministry which never gains attention. But in Joseph’s story, it’s obvious (to us, not to Joseph) how God was using these trials to shape Joseph into a mature man of God who could handle the success which later would be thrust upon him.

But what if Joseph hadn’t submitted to God’s hand in these trials? What if he had sat in jail, complaining, “It’s just not fair! If that’s how God is going to treat me when I obey Him, then I’m not going to obey Him!” If Joseph had responded like that, he wouldn’t have been ready for the job God had for him a few years down the road. I think that Joseph must have clung to God in faith while he was in that dungeon, praying, “God, You promised me through my dreams a position of importance. I don’t understand how this dungeon fits in with that, but I trust that You know what You’re doing.”

That’s how we need to trust God when we’re in the dungeons of life. Someone has said, “Interpret your circumstances by God’s love, not God’s love by your circumstances.” It’s crucial that each of us learns to turn to God, not away from Him, in a time of suffering. Just because you’re going through trials doesn’t mean that God has withdrawn His blessing. It means that He is training you to become like His Son.

You may be thinking, “Well, if God’s blessing isn’t necessarily related to favorable circumstances, how can I know for sure when I’m experiencing it?”

2. God’s blessing is related to personal integrity in every area of life.

If you have come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, and thus know that your sins are forgiven through His blood, and you’re living with a clear conscience before God and man, then you can know that His hand is on your life. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t more that you could be experiencing from the Lord. Nor does it mean that if you maintain your integrity, you can demand God’s blessing as your due. Even when we’ve done what we ought, we can only say, “We’re unworthy slaves” (Luke 17:10).

We see this in Genesis 39:21, where it states that the Lord ... “extended kindness to [Joseph], and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer.” “Kindness” and “favor” both point to God’s unmerited favor, or grace. Even though Joseph walked uprightly before God, he could not demand God’s kindness and favor as his right, but only accept it as undeserved grace.

It’s important that you catch this distinction, because it has everything to do with your attitude when you’re treated unfairly. And the right attitude is central to integrity. If you think, “I’ve been good, therefore, God must bless me by sparing me from harsh circumstances,” you’ll develop a bitter attitude when that doesn’t happen. But if you think, “As far as I know, I have confessed all my sin and there is nothing between me and God or between me and any other person. But even so, I’m still an unworthy sinner, and I can’t demand anything from God. Any goodness He bestows upon me is due to His mercy and love.” Then, you’ll maintain your integrity before God and experience His blessing, even in the midst of trials.

Let’s face it, Joseph could have developed a rotten attitude. He had been terribly mistreated by his brothers. After a few years, he had finally overcome that by rising to the top in Potiphar’s house. He obeyed the Lord by resisting Potiphar’s wife, only to be thrown in this dungeon. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine him being a difficult, disagreeable prisoner. Yet I believe that Joseph was an agreeable, cheerful prisoner who did his duties with a positive attitude. If he had been disagreeable, the jailer wouldn’t have promoted him as he did.

Let me ask, “How is your attitude when you’re treated unfairly at work, at home, or at school?” You have a choice: You can either become sullen and disagreeable, angry at God and at the world. Or, you can think, “God doesn’t owe me anything but judgment, yet He’s shown me so much mercy.” And you can be cheerful and agreeable, doing your work with gladness in your heart as unto the Lord. As Paul instructed slaves, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Col. 3:23).

Note, too, that Joseph didn’t seek his own advancement, but rather sought to prosper his master, whether Potiphar or the jailer. These men noted that and advanced Joseph. That’s a key principle in any situation, whether at work or at home: If you seek to make the one over you prosper, God will see to it that you’re advanced in due time. That is directly opposite to the ways of the world, where you sabotage the guy over you so that you can grab his spot.

So live with integrity, which includes having the right attitude and maintaining your purity, as Joseph did, and you’ll experience God’s blessing, even in the dungeon times of life. There’s a third principle here related to success and God’s blessing:

3. God’s blessing should be used as a witness to others.

God never gives His blessing to be bottled up or squandered on ourselves, but only to be channeled through us to others. And the greatest blessing He gives is not material wealth, but the contentment that accompanies godliness. Joseph had something which both Potiphar and the chief jailer lacked. Both men were fairly successful in worldly terms, which Joseph was not at this point. But Joseph, like Paul, had learned the secret of being content whether he was living in splendor or in squalor. That is far better than worldly success! I’ve heard that John Muir, the famous naturalist, was a Christian. On one occasion he claimed that he was richer than a wealthy business tycoon because, as Muir explained, “I have all the money I want and he hasn’t.”

It’s obvious that Joseph didn’t hide the source of his attitude, his competence, or his purity. Verse 3 states, “Now his master saw that the Lord was with him and how the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hand.” He didn’t just see that Joseph prospered, but that it was the Lord who prospered him. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he didn’t just give her the impression that he was a moral guy. He said, “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” (39:9). The implication of verse 23 is also that the jailer recognized the Lord’s hand on Joseph. He didn’t hide the source of his moral purity, cheerful attitude and competent work.

Both Potiphar and the jailer recognized God’s hand on Joseph because they saw it in his work habits. I doubt if he announced his prayer and quiet time in front of them. They were impressed by the results in the workplace. When they commented on that, then Joseph was careful to give the glory to God, not to himself. All too often, we’re quick to tell people that we’re Christians, but the results on the job are a bit shabby. So the employer thinks, “If this guy is a Christian, give me a pagan anytime!” But Joseph’s life teaches us that we need to be cheerful, diligent and faithful in our work, even when we’ve been mistreated, so that others will ask, “How can you be so happy and hard‑working when you’ve been treated as you have?” Then we have a platform to tell them about our Savior.

We ought to view any promotion or job success as a platform for greater witness, not as a means to gratify ourselves or promote our personal welfare. William Carey, the great missionary to India, became deeply concerned by the attitude of his son, Felix. He had professed to be a believer and had promised to become a missionary, but he reneged on his vows when he was appointed ambassador to Burma. Carey requested prayer for him in these words: “Pray for Felix. He has degenerated into an ambassador of the British government when he should be serving the King of kings” (in “Our Daily Bread,” Spring, 1979). God blesses us so that we can be a channel for witness, to bring His true blessing of salvation to others, not just to make us happy or give us a better lifestyle. If God gives you a promotion or a position of influence, ask Him to show you how to use your position to bear witness for Jesus Christ, both by your character and your words.

Thus true success is to have God’s blessing on your life. His blessing is not necessarily related to favorable circumstances. It is related to personal integrity in every area of life. And God’s blessing should be used as a witness to others of His grace. So the bottom line is,

4. God’s blessing should be sought above all else.

Whether we succeed in business or not, whether we have material prosperity or not, whether we become well‑known or powerful or not, what counts when all is said and done is that the Lord is with us. Four times this chapter repeats, “The Lord was with Joseph” (39:2, 3, 21, 23). True success is not where you are, but whether God is with you where you are. Worldly success is fickle. Potiphar and the chief jailer were riding high, but one little change of circumstance could have plunged them into the dungeon, as the cupbearer and baker could testify (chapter 40). But success with God goes with you from Potiphar’s house to the prison. Success with God is the only success worth striving for.


Watchman Nee has a sermon which I’ve come back to repeatedly in my life and ministry. It undergirds my prayer life and is a driving principle in all I do. It’s called, “Expecting the Lord’s Blessing” (in Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], vol. 2, pp. 48-64). The sermon is based on the Lord’s feeding of the 5,000. Nee makes the point that everything in our life and service for the Lord depends on His blessing. With reference to the needs of that hungry multitude, he states, “The meeting of need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply.... It is of fundamental importance that we realize this. Whether our loaves be few or many is of little consequence. If man’s hunger is to be satisfied one thing is needful. That one thing is the blessing of the Lord” (pp. 48‑49).

Nee later defines God’s blessing as a working of God not based on and all out of proportion to our working (p. 58). If we calculate that a certain amount of effort and activity should bring in a certain amount of results, and it happens, that’s not God’s blessing. But when the results are far beyond what we might reasonably expect, that is God’s blessing!

I covet that for myself. I’m not satisfied that I have it yet, so I continually ask God to reveal any wrong attitudes or actions in my life which would hinder it. I ask Him to give me His blessing. I want each of you to covet God’s blessing for yourself. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we all should say, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen. 32:26). You can live a comfortable Christian life, serve in the church and succeed in worldly terms. But if you lack God’s blessing on your life, you’ve missed true success. True success is when it can be said of us, whether we are in Potiphar’s house or in prison, “The Lord is with that man or woman.” Being blessed by God, we then will be used as His channels of blessing the nations through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some ways the American view of success has filtered into the church? How can we fight this?
  2. Is it wrong to seek to be successful in our jobs? How do motives fit in? How can we sort out whether our motives to succeed are selfish or for God’s glory?
  3. Is there a proper place to “fight for your rights” when you’re mistreated on the job? Should Christians be in labor unions?
  4. How can a Christian know how aggressive to be in verbal witness on the job?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Evangelism, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 68: High Hopes, No Hope- But God (Genesis 40:1-23)

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We all struggle with disappointments in life. The most difficult disappointments to deal with are when you have prayed about something for a long time and it looks like finally God is going to answer. But then it doesn’t happen and your hopes are dashed. At times like that, it’s hard not to be disappointed with God. It’s easy to feel like God is playing a cruel game with you. Why did He make it look like He was going to answer, only to dash your hopes? If it happens more than once, to protect yourself from further hurt you may stop praying and hoping at all.

Joseph could have been there in Genesis 40. When his brothers had sold him into slavery in Egypt, there was no hope on the horizon for Joseph. But, through his hard work and integrity, with God’s hand on him, Joseph had risen to the top spot in Potiphar’s house. Things were looking up. Then, for refusing to yield to Potiphar’s wife’s advances, Joseph was unfairly thrown into prison. His hopes were dashed. There, as God’s hand on his life became evident, the jailer put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. His hopes rose again and Joseph prayed that God would get him out of there.

We don’t know how much time passed, but after a while, two new prisoners joined Joseph: Pharaoh’s cupbearer and chief baker. These were important men in Pharaoh’s court. The cupbearer was more than the man who tasted the wine before Pharaoh drank it, to make sure he didn’t get poisoned. He was always with the king and was one of his advisors and confidants. The baker insured the quality of all food served at Pharaoh’s table. These men had offended Pharaoh and ended up with Joseph in the dungeon.

Then one night, both men had a dream. By God’s help Joseph interpreted their dreams. The cupbearer’s dream meant that in three days he would be restored to his position. The baker’s dream meant that in three days he would be executed. Joseph appealed to the cupbearer, “When all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison” (40:14, NIV). Three days later as Joseph’s predictions came true, you can picture the cupbearer giving Joseph thumbs up as he headed out the prison door, saying, “Don’t worry, friend! You’ll be out in no time!” Joseph’s hopes were the highest since he had been sold into slavery by his brothers. Finally, it looked like God was going to answer his prayers.

Maybe he folded up his bedroll and collected his few things as he thought about how great it would be to see the sunshine and feel its warmth on his back. He imagined running to his father’s tent and feeling his embrace as they would weep in each other’s arms, his ordeal over at last. But night came and there was no word from the jailer about his release. He unfolded his bedroll, thinking, “Maybe today was too busy. Tomorrow the cupbearer will mention my situation to Pharaoh.” But the next day came and went with no word about Joseph’s release. Perhaps Joseph asked the jailer, “Haven’t you heard anything about my situation yet?” “No, nothing yet. Not a word.” A week went by, then a month. Joseph’s high hopes were dimmed and finally extinguished as he realized, “The cupbearer forgot me.” Joseph went from high hopes to no hope‑‑but God alone. This story teaches us how ...

God uses disappointments to bring His servants to the place where their only hope is in Him.

It’s a painful process, but God must strip us of every human hope, even of the people whom God can use, until our hope is centered on Him alone. We’ve got to come to the place where we know experientially that God alone is to be trusted, that He alone is our hope of salvation. To do that, He uses disappointments, where we go from high hopes to no hope‑‑but God Himself.

1. Disappointments begin when high hopes for answers to our problems are not met as we expect.

Most of us come to Christ with high hopes for answers to life’s problems. The gospel promises a lot: Peace, joy, restored relationships, forgiveness for all our sins, emotional healing, meaning and purpose in life, and much more. We hear stories about other Christians and how God miraculously answers prayer. So we begin to pray that God would deal with the major problems in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones. It’s not that God doesn’t deliver, but rather that we assume (or are led by other Christians to think) that these things come quickly, miraculously, and painlessly.

No doubt Joseph prayed daily that God would get him out of prison. He had high hopes that God would answer that prayer. After all, it was based on the dreams he had when he was a teenager, which he knew were from God. So when these two men were put in the prison and had these dreams and Joseph interpreted them, his hopes soared. This was the way God would get him out of prison! Finally, an answer to his prayers! So he touchingly appeals to the cupbearer, saying, “Remember me ...” when you get out (40:14). Some think that Joseph was wrong to appeal to him in this way. But I see no reason to think that. Joseph probably saw this as the means of God’s provision to his prayers. He had high hopes. That’s not wrong, since we serve a God who does mighty things on our behalf. We should be people of hope. But, disappointments begin when our high hopes are not met in the way we expect.

2. Disappointments can move us either to despair or hope.

Our text does not indicate what happened in Joseph’s heart as he waited in vain day after day. It just ends with the bleak words, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (40:23). Then notice the place in your Bible between that verse and the next. It’s a white space, a chapter break. But that little break represents two years in Joseph’s life, two years in a dungeon, two years out of his twenties, the prime of his life. That white space in your Bible represents the maturing of Joseph, when he dealt with his disappointments and moved, not into despair, but into hope in God alone.

I say that because of the product we see coming out at the other end. We don’t see a cynical, angry man, but rather a godly, mature man who is able to handle the heavy responsibilities thrust upon him. Psalm 105:19 says of this time that “the word of the Lord tested him.” Those two silent years in the dungeon after his disappointment with the cupbearer were a time of learning to hope in God.

But probably there was a transition between Joseph’s high hopes for release and his readjusted hope in God, a time when he had no hope. There almost always is that time of despair, however brief, during a trial. David felt it when he was running from King Saul. Even though God had promised him the throne, at a low point he said to himself, “Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul” (1 Sam. 27:1). The apostle Paul, though a great man of faith, said of the trials he went through in Asia, that he was burdened excessively, beyond his strength, so that he “despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8).

Even though Joseph, I think, was trusting in God, not in the cupbearer, he probably had to fight off feelings of despair. The man had let him down. Whenever you’re disappointed by people, it’s a short step to grow disappointed with God: “Lord, You could make him remember me! Please bring my situation to his attention so that I can get out of this prison.” But two long, difficult years dragged by with no answer from God.

Disappointments like this almost always involve flaky people. This incident shows how vain it is to put your trust in people. The only consistent thing about people is that they will let you down. You can be sure that the cupbearer didn’t forget in the sense of not thinking of Joseph. He forgot in the sense of not wanting to risk bringing up his past by mentioning Joseph to Pharaoh. Joseph easily could have moved from disappointment with this flaky man into disappointment with God. But Joseph processed his disappointment so that it didn’t lead to crippling despair, but rather to hope in God alone.

3. Hoping in God alone is the key to overcoming disappointment and despair.

The disappointments strip us of hope in ourselves and in others. The only thing left is to hope in God. Joseph, by faith, clung to God, who did prove Himself faithful in His time. You ask, “How do you know Joseph hoped in God? How can you tell when your hope is in God?” My experience has been that sometimes, even when to the best of your knowledge your hope is in God, He will test you to prove it. But there are three signs in Joseph’s life that he was hoping in God, signs which can help us check ourselves.

A. If your hope is in God, you will not be focused on self‑pity, but on serving Him by serving others.

If we were in Joseph’s situation, most of us would be so consumed with self‑pity that we wouldn’t give any thought to the needs of others. But Joseph was sensitive to the needs of these two prisoners. He observed the dejection on their faces the morning after they had their dreams and he was concerned enough to ask them about it (40:6, 7). If he had been self-absorbed, he would not have noticed.

You can also see Joseph’s consideration for others in his plea to the cupbearer (40:14, 15). In defending his innocence, Joseph could have run down his brothers, Potiphar’s wife, and Potiphar for the way they had mistreated him. But Joseph tactfully says that he was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews and that he had done nothing to deserve being thrown into prison. He wasn’t having a pity party, blaming everybody else for his trials, even though in this case everybody else really was to blame.

B. If your hope is in God, you will have a positive, not a cynical, attitude.

I’m not talking about Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking,” which is not biblical; but rather, about the joyful hope that comes from trusting in God and His promises. Joseph could have become a total cynic by this point in life. When these men mentioned their dreams, he could have sneered, “Yeah, I used to believe in dreams. Look where it got me!” But instead he had a positive, cheerful attitude, saying, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please” (40:9).

Having a positive attitude means that you focus on the things you can do in a situation, not on the things you cannot do. Joseph could have thought, “What’s the use of telling these two characters the meaning of their dreams? That won’t get me anyplace.” But instead, he focused on what he could do for them, and did it cheerfully.

During this time in prison, as he did in Potiphar’s house, Joseph was building a reputation through the little things he did. It wasn’t a pleasant task to tell the baker that he would be executed in three days, but Joseph spoke the truth. It was no big thing, but it fit the overall pattern of integrity which marked his life. The cupbearer finally did tell Pharaoh Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and his integrity in telling it like it was, not only to him, but to the baker as well. The jailer also would have vouched for Joseph’s personal character and cheerful spirit.

You can’t control many of the things that happen to you, but you can control your attitude in response to the things which happen to you. If your hope is in God, you will have a positive, cheerful attitude. That doesn’t mean denying reality or overlooking problems. The Bible never does that. But we will have the kind of hopeful joy that the apostle Paul exudes in Philippians, in spite of his circumstances.

Adoniram Judson, the great pioneer missionary to Burma, had been thrown into a horrible prison run by the toughest Burmese prisoners. The torture was awful. He had almost no fruit to show for his years of hardship in Burma. He wasn’t sure whether or not his years of translation work would be destroyed. In those conditions, suffering from fever and weakness, he received a letter from a friend who asked, “Judson, how’s the outlook?” He replied, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God.” It always is. There’s a third test to measure your hope by:

C. If your hope is in God, you will be quick to include Him in dealing with problems.

As soon as these men mention their dreams, Joseph responds, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.” He wasn’t being arrogant, but as Donald Grey Barnhouse puts it, his reply was rather “the simplicity of a child who knows just where his father is and how to reach him” (Genesis [Zondervan], 2:175). Joseph walked so closely with God that he automatically mentioned His name when these men told him their problem. And he had such trust in God that his answer assumed that God would reveal to him the meaning of the dreams.

If your hope is in God, He will be the first thing you think of in a crisis, not the last. So often, we try everything else and then finally say, “Well, we’ve tried everything else. Now all we can do is pray.” Often you can do more after you pray, but you should never do more until you pray. Calling on the Lord ought to be the first thing that comes to mind when a problem comes up. What a great way to witness to lost people, to tell them, “ I know God and He has an answer to your problem. I’ll pray for you.”


There are five practical lessons here to remember:

(1) God is always sovereign, even when it seems He has forgotten you. It’s obvious that God was sovereign in all these events, even down to the petty quarrels of a pagan king. He put these two men in the same prison as Joseph. He gave them their dreams. And even though it seemed like the timing was wrong, in that He “wasted” two years of Joseph’s life, God gave Pharaoh his dream at precisely the right moment. As the master weaver, God was bringing all these strands together so that all was working according to His schedule. Nothing is outside of His sovereignty, even though it seems like it to us as we sit in a dungeon for two more years. Never doubt God’s sovereignty. But, coupled with God’s sovereignty, we also must remember:

(2) God is never unfaithful or cruel, even when circumstances seem otherwise. God’s people down through history have gone through terrible trials. A skeptic might say that God is cruel to allow such things. But a skeptic doesn’t have God’s eternal plan in view. A skeptic doesn’t understand how God lovingly disciplines His people to share His holiness. As the psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word. You are good and do good; teach me Your statutes” (Ps. 119:67‑68).

In Psalms 42 & 43, the psalmist is taunted by his critics, “Where is your God?” He answers with that great refrain, “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance, and my God.” When the enemy taunts us by saying, “Look at your circumstances and you will see that your God is unfaithful or cruel,” we need to say to our soul, “Hope in God.” None who have hoped in Him have ever been disappointed. Don’t doubt His goodness when He is lovingly purifying your faith through trials.

(3) God’s promises are true in His timing, not ours. If Joseph had been released at this time, he never would have been appointed as second in the land to Pharaoh. God’s way and timing were clearly best, although Joseph had to take that by faith until years later when he could look back on how God worked it all together for good. Like it or not, there are certain lessons, such as patience and endurance, which we cannot learn except through waiting on God.

I read of a young woman who dedicated herself to serving Christ in India. Through repeated tragedies, she was forced to remain in the United States to care for her disabled mother and then for her dying sister. After this she had to care for her sister’s five children when their father suddenly died. Regretfully she set aside her plans, and for 15 years she devoted herself to meeting their needs. Three of those five children headed for service in India where 20 years before she had longed to serve. In God’s time, His better plan made sense.

But we need to remember that sometimes we won’t be able to discern God’s timing until eternity. We’re so quick to judge things by our temporal perspective rather than by His eternal perspective. As someone has said, “God judges things at the end of the age, not at the end of the meeting.”

(4) We are not responsible for others’ behavior, but we are responsible for our own behavior and attitudes. Joseph could have become very angry toward the cupbearer, and let his resentment burn into bitterness and revenge. Let’s face it, he had good cause to be angry. The cupbearer wasn’t willing to risk his neck enough to talk to Pharaoh about Joseph until it looked like it might gain him some advantage. But in spite of the flakiness of the cupbearer, Joseph had to deal with his own attitude. Later, when he was number two under Pharaoh, he never sought revenge against the man, nor against his brothers.

People may have mistreated you and disappointed you because they were being selfish, uncaring jerks. You have a choice: You can grow bitter and angry, blaming them for your troubles. Or, you can trust in the sovereign God and rejoice in His grace toward you. They will give an account to God for how they sinned against you. But you will give an account for your attitude and behavior in response to their sin against you. When you walk in the Spirit, you will be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, and kind (Gal. 5:22).

(5) God’s grace is always sufficient if we will receive it. Joseph came through these trials stronger, not weaker, gentle, not bitter, because he hoped in God. Even though he was in prison, the Lord was with him. Even though the cupbearer forgot him, God never did. Joseph experienced what Paul and every other believer undergoing trials has experienced, that God’s grace is sufficient for our need, if we will just receive it.

The 19th century British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, was riding home after a heavy day’s work, feeling weary and depressed, when suddenly the verse flashed into his mind, “My grace is sufficient for you.” He said, “I should think it is, Lord,” and he burst out laughing. It seemed to make unbelief so absurd.

He said, “It was as if some little fish, being very thirsty, was troubled about drinking the river dry, and the river said, ‘Drink away, little fish, my stream is sufficient for you.’ Or, it seemed like a little mouse in the granaries of Egypt after seven years of plenty fearing it might die of famine, and Joseph might say, ‘Cheer up, little mouse, my granaries are sufficient for you.’ Or it was like a man up on a mountain saying to himself, ‘I fear I shall exhaust all the oxygen in the atmosphere.’ But the earth might say, ‘Breathe away, O man, and fill your lungs; my atmosphere is sufficient for you.’” You can’t exhaust the grace of God to meet your need in every trial.

Some of you are in the middle of some difficult disappointments. Maybe it’s a marriage that’s gone sour. It could be a child who has rebelled and turned against you. It may be the loss of a job, a serious health problem, a friend who has maligned you, or some other serious situation that hasn’t turned out as you wanted it to. You had high hopes, but now you have no hope. Ah, but you do have hope! There is God! Hope in God, and you shall again praise Him, the help of your countenance, and your God.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you counsel a Christian who was disappointed with God? What steps should he take?
  2. How would you answer a skeptic who said that hoping in God is just “pie in the sky when you die” wish fulfillment?
  3. How can a believer who has a consistently negative, cynical attitude develop a proper joyful attitude?
  4. How can a believer who has been through a terrible tragedy, such as the loss of his family, keep from doubting the sovereign goodness of God?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 69: Coping With Success (Genesis 41:1-57)

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Today I’m going to talk about something purely theoretical: How to handle success. Often before I preach on a subject, the Lord will take me through an experience similar to what I’m going to preach about, but I’m sorry to report that He didn’t do that with this topic! I have never experienced anything like Joseph’s meteoric rise from the prison to the palace.

I titled my message, “Coping With Success.” Usually “coping” goes with “failure,” but it should be coupled with the word “success.” It is often more difficult to handle success properly than it is to deal with failure. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist, said, “Affliction is bad; but for every person that can handle prosperity, there are a hundred that can handle adversity.” We need to learn to cope with success.

Maybe you’re thinking, “This message is purely theoretical for me, too. I’ll never be successful like Joseph was.” But even though not many of us will experience the dramatic success that God granted to Joseph, we all can learn much from his story. He didn’t know exactly what God had for him until the day it happened. That day in the dungeon began the same as every day had for the past two or three years for Joseph. And yet by day’s end, he was second in the land to Pharaoh. But that couldn’t have happened if Joseph had not been prepared for it. He had walked with God and had developed godly character which shone through in his work. That made him ready for the success God eventually granted him. Because Joseph honored God and was diligent in his work, he was able to cope successfully with success. His life teaches that

To cope with success, honor God and be diligent in your work.

In New Testament terms, make God look good by your life (glorify Him) and do your work heartily, as unto the Lord.

1. To cope with success, honor God.

The Lord says, “Those who honor Me I will honor” (1 Sam. 2:30). Joseph had honored the Lord, whether in Potiphar’s house or in prison. Now the Lord greatly honored Joseph. And Joseph, for his part, continued to be careful to honor the Lord in four ways which we should imitate:

A. Honor God by remembering that He is the source of all success.

Pharaoh had these dreams about the fat and lean cows and the plump and lean ears of corn. When his magicians could not interpret them, the cupbearer, whose dream Joseph had interpreted in prison two years before, ventured to mention to Pharaoh Joseph and his ability to interpret dreams. So Pharaoh called for Joseph. After getting himself presentable, Joseph was ushered into Pharaoh’s presence.

Imagine how Joseph must have felt on this occasion! From a dreary existence in the dungeon, a few minutes later he is standing before the most powerful monarch in the world. I would think it could be a bit threatening! If it were me, I’d probably want to be very polite, not make any waves, and hope like crazy that somehow I could use the opportunity to get out of prison.

These human factors make Joseph’s first recorded words to Pharaoh all the more impressive. When Pharaoh says, “I hear you can interpret dreams,” it would have been easy for Joseph to say, “Aw, shucks, it’s nothing really. Just a little hobby I’ve developed over the years.” But instead Joseph boldly says to this pagan king, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (41:16). Joseph was clear on the source of his success. He didn’t let the splendor of Pharaoh and his palace make him forget, “Without God, I’m nothing. He is the source of any ability I have to interpret dreams.”

When someone compliments you on your ability or on something you have done, it’s fine to accept it simply by saying, “Thank you.” The person is trying to encourage you, and it can come across as false humility if you always respond with, “It wasn’t I; it was the Lord.” But, even when you say “thank you,” you had better be thinking to yourself, “Thank You, Lord, for Your grace in enabling me to do that.” If you sense that the other person is attributing something to you where God alone deserves the credit, then you need to be bold to honor God as Joseph does. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Remembering that God is the source of our success will keep us from pride.

B. Honor God by bearing witness of His enabling in all you do.

Joseph didn’t just think to himself that God was the source of his ability to interpret dreams; he told Pharaoh about it. That wasn’t easy, because Pharaoh worded his sentence about Joseph’s ability (41:15) so that the easiest thing would have been for Joseph to keep silent and let it pass. Joseph could have thought, “For the time being, keep quiet. Later I’ll tell him about God.” But instead he boldly let it be known up front that God was behind his ability.

Pharaoh’s magicians were probably astrologers, trained in incantations and magic formulas to discern the future. I believe the only reason that they couldn’t come up with some explanation of Pharaoh’s dreams was that God darkened their minds on this occasion. But probably they had come in before Pharaoh and chanted their magic words and performed all their impressive rituals, but nothing worked.

But Joseph was different: No hocus-pocus, no razzmatazz! He just says, “God will reveal the meaning of your dream.” He listens to it, and then gives Pharaoh the straight stuff. In the process, he mentions God four more times (41:25, 28, 32). And Pharaoh got the point! Even though he was probably filtering things through his polytheistic grid, he acknowledges that there is a divine spirit in Joseph and that God has informed him of all these things (41:38‑39).

There is a danger that as a Christian in a pagan culture, people will think of you as a good person and attribute your goodness to you, not to God. I first learned this in a message Dr. Haddon Robinson preached in chapel at Dallas Seminary years ago. He and Dr. Bruce Waltke had been in a bank together and the teller gave Dr. Waltke too much change. Dr. Waltke pointed this out to the girl, but was quick to explain to her that he didn’t do it because he was an honest man, but rather, because Jesus Christ was his Lord. He didn’t want the woman to think that his honesty stemmed from his own good nature (which it didn’t).

Since that time, I’ve had numerous situations like that when my Christian character opened the door for witness. Usually it’s when someone undercharges me and I go back to pay the difference. I confess, the more they undercharge me, the greater the temptation to let it slide. But the truth is, the more they undercharge me, the greater the potential witness when I go back to make it right. I try to make it clear that if it was up to me, I would have ripped them off. But Jesus Christ is my Lord, and because of Him, I want to pay what I owe. If I can, I give them a gospel tract.

If you live as a Christian on the job, you’ll have opportunities to bear witness to the Lord as the explanation for your behavior or job performance. But honoring God must be uppermost in your mind, or you’ll miss the chance. H. C. Leupold observes, “After twelve years and more of injustice Joseph’s first consideration is not deliverance but to take care that his relation to his God be entirely upright” (Exposition of Genesis [Baker], p. 1026). If glorifying God through your life is your daily aim, then you’ll be quick to speak for His honor when opportunities arise.

C. Honor God by bearing witness of His sovereignty over all.

Three times (41:25, 28, 32) Joseph tells Pharaoh that God has determined what is going to happen and that it will happen because God has decreed it. Even though Pharaoh was the most powerful man on the face of the earth, he was nothing in comparison to the sovereign God. So in a subtle, yet unmistakable way, Joseph is letting this mighty king know that he is nothing in the sight of the God who is able to send prosperity and famine.

The sovereignty of God is a major theme that runs through the whole story of Joseph. It’s obvious that God had His hand on all the events of Joseph’s life: his dreams as a boy, his brother’s selling him into slavery, his being sold to Potiphar, his imprisonment and eventual release. The characters were only bringing about the will of God for His chosen people, even though those who sinned were totally responsible for their sin. Joseph, for his part, had a big view of God as the sovereign God who not only could send prosperity, but also famine. And he wasn’t afraid to let Pharaoh know about it.

Don’t be afraid to tell lost people that the God of the universe is sovereign. I sometimes hear Christians apologize for God’s sovereignty by explaining away a tragedy: “God didn’t cause it, He just allowed it”--as if that gets God off the hook somehow. You don’t have to get God off the hook. The Bible plainly teaches that God is in sovereign control of all things, but at the same time, sinful men are responsible for their evil deeds.

I don’t have any problem saying that God not only allows tragedies, He sends them (Isa. 45:7). Does that mean that we sit back passively and don’t do anything to alleviate human suffering? No. Joseph’s knowledge that this famine was coming led him to make preparations to alleviate its effects. But in the process, he bore witness to a sovereign God who is in control of the universe.

D. Honor God in your family life.

Pharaoh elevated Joseph to the number two spot in the land so that he could oversee the preparations for this famine and he gave him an Egyptian name (the meaning of which is uncertain) and an Egyptian wife. It would have been easy, in the process, for Joseph to have forgotten about God’s promises to his forefathers, and to have blended in completely with the comfortable Egyptian lifestyle he was now enjoying.

For that reason, it is especially significant that when his two sons were born, Joseph gave them names which testified of God’s faithfulness. Manasseh means “forgetting,” signifying that God made him forget the pain of his youth. Ephraim means “doubly fruitful,” testifying that God had made Joseph fruitful in the land of his affliction. No doubt these Hebrew names would have raised some eyebrows in Egypt. People would have asked, “Why did you name your kids that?” No doubt, Joseph told them. He honored God with his family life, even in this foreign, pagan culture.

Some are bothered by the fact that Joseph took an Egyptian wife. Perhaps he was wrong, although under the circumstances, he didn’t have much choice. Pharaoh was honoring him by giving him a bride from a highly regarded family in Egypt. Also, it’s clear from the names given to their two sons that Joseph didn’t allow his wife’s pagan background to influence him but, rather, he influenced her toward the true God. Furthermore, throughout this story Joseph is a type of Christ. There are many striking parallels: Christ was rejected by His own, suffered and died, and was then exalted as the Savior of the world, at which time He received the name above all names and a Gentile bride (the church). Even so, Joseph, rejected by his brothers and given up as dead, was later exalted as the savior of the world from famine (41:55, 57). So his receiving a new name and a Gentile bride fits the type.

Another factor is that God’s heart was always broader than just Israel. His covenant with Abraham was that through his seed, all the nations would be blessed. But Israel often forgot its missionary purpose and hoarded its covenant blessings. Through the fact that two of their tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, were half Egyptian, God was saying to His people, “Don’t get proud about being Hebrews. I chose you to be the channel of blessing to all nations.” Joseph’s Egyptian wife should have kept Israel humble about their race and reminded them of their missionary calling. In any case, Joseph’s taking an Egyptian wife in this situation does not provide an excuse for a Christian entering into marriage with an unbeliever, which is clearly forbidden in Scripture.

To come back to my point, remember to honor God by your family life, especially if He prospers you. All too often in our culture, career success means sacrificing your family. I admire men like a friend of ours in Dallas, who said no to a promotion because it would have meant too much time away from his family. In a culture like ours, where families are falling apart at the seams, a successful man who honors God with a godly family life will be greatly used to bear witness to His name.

So when God gives you any measure of success, be careful to honor Him by remembering that He is the source of all success, by bearing witness of His enabling and His sovereignty, and by your family life. But Joseph’s story includes a second important ingredient:

2. To cope with success, be diligent in your work.

Both Joseph and Daniel stand out in the Bible as men who served God in important government jobs in foreign lands. To do that well, without compromising your faith and integrity, is a tough assignment. But both men were faithful and God used both of them greatly.

Note also that Joseph wasn’t afraid to help a pagan king and a pagan nation to prosper. His plan saved Pharaoh’s reign from failure and saved many people from starvation. Some Christians are so otherworldly that they withdraw from involvement in solving the problems of this world. I have some relatives who belong to a Christian group whose members don’t vote or get involved in any constructive way with this world, because they’re “citizens of heaven.” But for the time being, we’re also citizens of earth. The most effective place for Christian witness is when believers get involved in solving some of the problems confronting our world, and yet maintain their purity and integrity.

There are two ways in which you need to be diligent in your work when God opens the door of success:

A. Be diligent to keep character above career.

Joseph was diligent to develop and maintain godly character and to let God take care of promoting him. It’s amazing that when he finally gets his chance before Pharaoh, after years in the dungeon, he doesn’t even mention his desperate need for freedom, but instead he honors God and then interprets Pharaoh’s dream. I can’t help but think that if this had been Jacob, the schemer, standing before Pharaoh, he might have said, “I’ll interpret your dream if you promise that I’ll get out of prison.” But Joseph did the right thing and trusted God to take care of his promotion.

Even when he proposed that Pharaoh find a discerning and wise man to oversee the storage and distribution of grain, Joseph never dreamed that he would be picked for the spot. He was a foreigner, a slave, and a prisoner at that. He probably hoped he would be set free, but the thought of being promoted to second in Egypt was far from him.

There are people who go through life hoping for a lucky break, where suddenly their fortunes will be reversed. But Joseph’s promotion was no lucky break. His godly character, forged through his consistent walk with God and his submitting to God in difficult trials, where it would have been easy to have grown bitter, was at the core of why he was promoted in Potiphar’s house, why he was able to resist Potiphar’s wife’s advances, why he was promoted in the prison, and why he was able to interpret the cupbearer’s, the baker’s and, later, Pharaoh’s dreams. All these things were built on years of diligence in walking with God and developing godly character qualities.

Are you doing that right now where you’re at? Maybe you are a teenager. That’s when Joseph started. You may be in a dungeon of circumstances. That’s where Joseph kept at it. If he had grown bitter, complaining about how unfair life had been, he wouldn’t have been ready for the promotion when the time came. You don’t move overnight from being a self‑centered, negative, grumbling person to being a joyful, competent, successful one. Joseph’s overnight change of position didn’t involve any change of character. Rather, it was built on years of godly character development. Be diligent to work on godly character. Let God take care of the career promotions.

B. Be diligent to keep competence alongside character.

Joseph was not only godly, he was good at what he did. He proposed a wise plan of action and he had the skill to carry it out. His plan involved collecting a fifth of the harvest each year for seven years, so that they had enough surplus not only for Egypt, but also for surrounding countries hit by this famine. It would have taken skillful administration and a lot of discipline to make this happen on a national scale. No doubt Joseph caught a lot of flak from people who wanted to use all the harvest and not save it for the future. But he was good enough as a leader to pull it off.

A lot of Christians think that character is enough on the job. They expect that God will get them the promotion because they’ve been faithful to have morning devotions. They sit around praying for the promotion instead of developing competence on the job to go with their Christian character. You need both. As a Christian, you need to be godly, but you also need to be good in doing what you do.


No doubt God will have different ways that each of us needs to apply this portion of His Word. Some of you have not been honoring God on the job or in your home life. You need to confess that to Him and begin to live consistently as a Christian. You may need to confess that you have chafed under His sovereign dealings with you, rather than submit to Him, as Joseph did in the dungeon. You need to let go of your rebellious spirit. God may have put His finger on the fact that you have put your career above your character. You need to make the commitment to walk with God first in your life.

Perhaps you have never personally put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior from the penalty of your sin. Just as the whole world had to come to Joseph during the famine for bread, so now every person must come to Christ, the Bread of Life. Without Him, you will perish. You must come to Him and receive the gift of life He offers. Just as God delivered Joseph in one instant from the prison to the palace, so He will deliver you from the dungeon of your sin and give you eternal life the instant you call out to Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. When (if ever) is it proper for a Christian to accept honor, and when must we defer all the honor to God?
  2. How can a Christian harmonize career success with biblical values? Is it wrong to seek career success?
  3. How can a man putting in the hours necessary to succeed in his career honor God in his family life?
  4. Is it wrong for a Christian business owner or employee to pursue the company’s “bottom line”? Is this serving mammon?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship

Lesson 70: When Your Conscience Says “Ow!” (Genesis 42:1-28)

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Armando Valladares spent two years being tortured in Cuban prisons as a political prisoner. Yet he maintained his faith in God and refused to grow bitter toward his persecutors. In his book, Against All Hope (cited in Reader’s Digest [7/87, p. 213]) he writes,

Gen. Enyo Leyva, First Vice Minister of the Interior, came to see me in the hospital one day. He greeted me with a smile and said, “I think that book of yours exaggerates some things, Valladares.”

I smiled right back. “It’s not my book, General. It’s our book. After all, your side furnished the plot.”

He laughed. “That’s good ... Well, now we’re going to take you to a real hospital for treatment. You can’t say we beat you or torture you now. Why don’t your write a book about that?”

“I will, General, just as soon as the Revolution writes one of its own, telling how we were beaten, tortured and murdered ....”

The General didn’t bat an eyelash. “Look,” he said, “I’m two years younger than you are, but you look much younger. We couldn’t have treated you so badly.”

“The way I am inside has a lot to do with the way I look, General. It comes from having a clean conscience. You probably don’t sleep as well as I do.”

The General stopped smiling.

At that point, the General’s conscience said, “Ow!” Everybody has a conscience, that still, small voice inside us that is sometimes too loud for comfort. We can suppress it and try to ignore it. For a while it may seem to be dead and gone. But then something happens to reawaken it. The “faults alarm” goes off and it says, “Ow!”

The old advice, “Let your conscience be your guide” is only partly right. Certainly no one should violate his conscience, although we all have done so. But living by your conscience is not enough. The conscience must be shaped and nurtured by the Word of God, which reveals His holy standards of right and wrong. If we disregard the conscience long enough, or if we don’t train it properly, it can be seared to the point that we can commit atrocious crimes without a twinge. When we suppress our guilty conscience, God has to awaken it to bring us to repentance so that we can share His holiness.

In Genesis 42, God is awakening the sleeping consciences of Joseph’s brothers. They were a hard bunch. Years before, under the leadership of Simeon and Levi, they had deceived a village, slaughtered all the men and taken the women and children captive in retaliation for one man’s violating their sister. Reuben, the oldest, had slept with his father’s concubine. Judah had two sons so wicked that the Lord took their lives. He himself had gone in to his daughter‑in‑law, Tamar, thinking her to be a prostitute. All of the brothers, except Benjamin, had sold Joseph into slavery and then crushed their father’s heart by deceiving him into thinking that his son was dead.

Now it’s 22 years later. They’ve papered over their guilty consciences. Joseph was out of sight, out of mind. Life in Canaan was comfortable, although they were blending in with the paganism around them. To awaken the consciences of a tough bunch like this, God has to use some rather severe measures. The famine in Egypt extends into Canaan. Slowly their supply of grain dwindles to nothing. They’re facing starvation. Jacob hears that there is grain in Egypt, so he sends his ten sons (minus Benjamin) down there to buy grain. In the process, their sleeping conscience awakes. Their story shows us how

God uses severity and grace to awaken our consciences and bring us to repentance.

God gets pretty tough, and yet the whole process is shot through with His grace. We see, first, how ...

1. God uses pressure to awaken our consciences.

Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, so he started talking it up with his sons. But every time he brought up the subject, none of his sons would look him in the eye. They just stared at one another. Reuben looked at Simeon, Simeon glanced at Judah, Judah’s eyes darted over to Levi. Jacob said, “Why are you staring at one another. Get down to Egypt and buy us some grain.” For Jacob, Egypt was a neutral word. But for his sons, the word Egypt went off like a bomb in their guilty consciences. They could hear again the clink of the silver coins they received from the traders as they sold their brother into slavery. They could see him begging for his life as he was being dragged off. They remembered the terrible expression of horror on his face. Egypt! Donald Barnhouse says, “The word Egypt in their ears must have sounded like the word rope in the house of a man who has hanged himself” (Genesis [Zondervan], 2:187).

All this time they had promoted the lie that Joseph was dead. They had said it so many times that it just rolled off their lips. When they unknowingly talk to Joseph they say, “... we are honest men, ... twelve brothers in all, the sons of one man in Canaan; and behold, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more” (42:11, 13). They almost believed their own lie‑‑but not quite. When a trip to Egypt was mentioned, they dreaded the possibility of passing by a gang of slaves and perhaps seeing the hollow eyes of their brother.

For 22 years these brothers had tried to silence their nagging consciences. But when God applied the pressure of famine, coupled with the word “Egypt,” the sleeping giants stirred. Time doesn’t erase a guilty conscience. You can brush your sin under the rug and hope that enough years will take care of it. But one day, perhaps years later, God will apply some sort of pressure in your life and your conscience will stir. Maybe it will be a single word, spoken inadvertently by someone. “Egypt!” Your sin flashes as vividly in your mind as if it was yesterday.

But God has more tools to stir our sleeping consciences:

2. God uses reciprocal treatment to awaken our consciences.

F. B. Meyer (Joseph [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 72) proposes that Joseph repeated with his brothers the exact scene that had happened to him at the mouth of the pit 22 years earlier. We can’t be certain, but it is plausible that when he went to his brothers to check on their welfare, they may have accused him of coming to spy on their corrupt behavior. Now he accuses them of being spies. No doubt he had protested that he wasn’t spying, just as they now protest. They would have answered him roughly and without any basis for their accusation, just as Joseph now answers them. They threw him in a pit, just as Joseph now throws them in the dungeon.

The parallel between their treatment of Joseph and the treatment they were now receiving was a powerful stimulant to their sleeping consciences. Shortly after they are released from the prison, with no mention of their past behavior, with 22 years of silence and cover up of their sin, they say to one another, “Truly, we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us” (42:21). Being on the receiving end caused this Rip Van Winkle to wake up screaming.

We treat someone wrongly and over the years we manage to put it out of our conscious thoughts. Then someone else treats us just as we wrongly treated that person years ago, and our guilty conscience is aroused. It’s the old law of sowing and reaping, with the added factor that when we reap, it causes us to recall those seeds that we forgot we had sown.

3. God uses time for thinking about our pasts to awaken our consciences.

Joseph’s brothers probably hadn’t given much thought to what it felt like to be a captive in a pit until Joseph put them in the dungeon. He may have put them there both to give them time to think as well as to buy some thinking time for himself. As Joseph thought through his original plan, of keeping all but one in confinement, he realized that it might be more than his aged father could bear. So he changed his plan and decided to keep only one in confinement.

But the effect of three days in the dungeon got his brothers’ attention. They began to think about their lives from a spiritual perspective. They thought about their own sin and the fact that sin has consequences. Before this they had shrugged off their sin as if there were no future reckoning with God. But now, sitting in prison for three days, they made the connection.

Thorough repentance often takes time. It’s not always quick, easy, and over with. A popular Bible teacher when I was in college used to teach that confession of sin doesn’t require any feelings of remorse. In fact, he discouraged any feelings. Rather, he said that we simply had to name our sins, claiming 1 John 1:9. I always felt that he was too flippant toward sin. If sin grieves the Holy Spirit, it ought to grieve me. While God’s forgiveness is always based on His grace, not on my working up feelings of remorse, thorough repentance often takes enough time for me to think about what I did to the point that I grieve over my sin.

At this point, Joseph’s brothers’ consciences were just stirring from a long sleep. They were still a bit groggy, as I am early in the morning. They had a gnawing sense of guilt, but it hadn’t yet focused on God. In fact, Joseph is the first to mention God when he brings them out of the prison and gives them a glimmer of hope by saying, “Do this and live, for I fear God” (42:18). The brothers don’t mention God until verse 28, when they discover that one man’s money has been put back in his sack. It’s a significant reference, because in all the previous chapters dealing with the history of Jacob and his sons, these men have never mentioned God until now. It was Joseph’s kindness in returning the money which caused them to be afraid and to exclaim, “What is this that God has done to us?” It shows us that ...

4. God uses grace to temper the whole process and bring us to repentance.

Romans 2:4 says that the kindness of God leads us to repentance. Through Joseph’s kindness, for the first time in their lives these crusty, worldly brothers saw the hand of God. But note that their first response to this act of grace was not joy, but fear. Verse 28 says that “their hearts sank” and they trembled. This same word is used of Isaac’s trembling when he discovered that he had been deceived in the matter of Esau’s birthright (27:33). It means to tremble with terror. When the men discover that each one has had his money returned (42:35), they were frightened (NASB = “dismayed”). In John Newton’s words, “‘Twas grace that caused my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

Some think that Joseph was being vindictive in his harsh treatment of his brothers. I don’t agree. He knew that they were hard men, and he had to find out where they were at with God and what their attitude was toward their father and Benjamin. Robert Candlish (Commentary on Genesis [Zondervan reprint], 2:182) argues that if Joseph had been left to himself, he would have revealed himself to his brothers immediately. But when they did not recognize him and he remembered his dreams from years before (42:9), he perceived that this was no coincidence. God was in this and God restrained him so that He could use Joseph to bring these men to repentance. We see Joseph’s heart when he has to turn away from his brothers and weep (42:24).

Joseph’s actions toward his brothers parallel how God brings us to repentance. Notice four ways in which grace shines through:

A. God’s grace shines through when we are not treated as harshly as we deserve.

While Joseph’s treatment of his brothers paralleled their earlier treatment of him, it was not nearly as harsh. They intended to kill him and did sell him into slavery, resulting in years of hardship. Joseph only put them in prison for three days. While at first he threatened to keep nine of them in jail and send one back, he softened that to keeping one in jail and sending the nine home, so that they could carry enough food for their households (42:19). While the brothers had been ruthless in ignoring Joseph’s cries for help (42:21), Joseph was kind to help them as he did. I think his motive was to see them broken before God, which he knew from experience to be the only place of blessing.

If you know the extent of your sin and have any inkling of the holiness of God, you’ll exclaim with David, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! ... He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:1, 10). Even when God’s discipline seems harsh, it is never anywhere close to what we deserve.

B. God’s grace shines through when He makes us become what we profess to be.

The brothers tell Joseph that they are honest men (42:11). That’s a bit ironic, because honesty hasn’t been one of their noticeable virtues to this point. They deceived the Shechemites. They deceived their father with Joseph’s bloodstained coat. Judah led Tamar to believe that she would get his third son in marriage when he had no such intention. And even here, in their next breath they tell Joseph that their one brother “is no more,” when they don’t know that for sure. They do know that they last saw him heading for Egypt very much alive. Yet they claim to be honest men! So Joseph puts them to the test, to see whether they are indeed honest men (42:16, 19). If they’re honest, they can return with the other brother they have talked about.

Sometimes we claim to be Christians when we know well and good that our lives are anything but Christian. But do you know what? Though God could justly abandon us, He graciously holds us to our words. He says, “You say that you’re a Christian, do you? Well, let’s put that claim to the test. Let’s make you into what you claim to be.”

C. God’s grace shines through in His compassion which underlies His discipline.

Joseph gives his brothers a glimmer of hope when he tells them, “I fear God.” They would not have expected this from this seemingly harsh Egyptian prime minister. But there was enough hope of fair treatment in those words to keep them from despairing and to reveal some tenderness underneath the harsh exterior of this man. If he hadn’t been harsh, he wouldn’t have gotten their attention. If he hadn’t shown them a glimmer of grace, he would have crushed their spirits.

Note the contrast in verse 24. Joseph’s compassion is seen in that when he overhears his brothers’ conversation about their past sin, he is so overcome with emotion that he leaves the room to weep. But when he returns, he binds Simeon in front of them. They saw the binding, but not the tears. They must have thought this man to be very harsh, when in fact he was acting out of the deepest feelings of love.

There’s a good chance that it was Simeon who had been the ringleader in throwing Joseph into the pit where his intention was to kill him. He had been the leader in the slaughter of the Shechemites. In Jacob’s final words to his sons, he refers only to Simeon’s violence and anger (49:5-7). By putting Simeon in prison, Joseph would prevent his wrongly influencing the others on the return journey and would also hope that the time in prison would break his hardened heart. George Bush observes that Joseph “bound [Simeon] in prison, but he did it to set him free from the far worse chains of his own fierce passions” (Notes on Genesis [Klock & Klock], 2:305).

In all this, Joseph reflects God’s tender but firm discipline toward us. Just as Joseph didn’t reveal himself to his brothers until he saw their repentance, so the Lord won’t reveal Himself to us in the trials resulting from our sins until we demonstrate a broken heart. Just as the brothers didn’t know that Joseph understood their discussion, since there was an interpreter between them, so many unrepentant sinners don’t understand that God knows the very thoughts and intentions of their hearts. Knowing this, His motive in discipline is never cruel. It is always designed for our good. F. B. Meyer writes,

It is thus continually in life’s discipline. We suffer, and suffer keenly. Imprisoned, bereaved, rebuked, we count God harsh and hard. We little realize how much pain He is suffering as He causes us pain; or how the tender heart of our Brother is filled with grief, welling up within Him as He makes Himself strange, and deals so roughly with us” (p. 76).

God knows just how much each of us needs to be broken before Him, and He lovingly takes whatever means are necessary to do it. Until we are broken, He seems very harsh. But if we only knew, like Joseph’s heart toward his brothers, God’s heart toward us is always filled with compassion. He disciplines us as a loving father disciplines his children, that we might share His holiness.

D. God’s grace shines through when He blesses us when we know we deserve punishment.

Joseph’s brothers didn’t deserve any kindness, but Joseph secretly put each man’s money back in his sack and gave them extra provisions for their return journey (42:25). I think his motive was simply love. I doubt that he knew that it would scare them as it did. They panicked because they figured that when they returned for more grain they would be accused of stealing this money on the first trip.

People who have not yet come to repentance before God don’t understand grace. They fear God’s judgment for the things they know they’ve done and not confessed. Knowing they deserve judgment, they have trouble accepting God’s undeserved favor.

And yet, as I’ve said, it was when they first experienced grace by discovering the returned money that they first recognized the hand of God in their lives. Grace had now taught them to fear; it later would relieve those fears and teach them the joy of knowing that their sins were forgiven.


If God’s hand seems harsh and heavy against you right now, you need to know that His purpose is to rescue you from sin and the character traits which ultimately would destroy you and damage many others. When you yield to Him and draw near in repentance, you will discover His great compassion and grace.

Mark Twain’s character Huck Finn observed, “A man’s conscience takes up more room than all the rest of his insides.” If your conscience feels like that--if it is saying, “Ow!”--don’t turn away from God in denial of your sin. Turn to Him in genuine repentance and you will experience the sweet taste of His abundant grace.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a Christian develop and maintain a good conscience? Can one’s conscience be too sensitive?
  2. If we have confessed our sin but still have a troubled conscience, does it mean that Satan is accusing us or could there be the need for deeper repentance?
  3. Discuss: Can repentance without any feeling of remorse be genuine?
  4. Is there a difference between God’s discipline and punishment? Does He punish Christians?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Confession, Discipleship, Grace, Spiritual Life

Lesson 71: When Everything Goes Against You (Genesis 42:29-43:14)

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One of the spoof advertisements Garrison Keillor used to do on his “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show was, “Worst Case Scenario.” It’s a telephone service where you can call a pessimist named Ralph and he will tell you the worst that can happen to your proposed plans.

In one segment, a guy calls Ralph to ask what the worst case scenario will be if he takes his wife to the movies that night. Ralph replies, “You want the worst case scenario? Your wife will ask you to go out to the snack bar and get her something to drink. On the way back to your seat, you’ll trip over someone’s feet and spill your drinks on the people in the row in front of you. They’ll sue you for all you’re worth. You’ll lose your house and car and job. Your wife will divorce you and take the kids with her. You’ll start drinking and end up on skid row.” The caller says, “Hey, thanks! I’d never thought about it that way. I guess I’ll stay home tonight.”

“Worst Case Scenario” is a practical service designed to help you apply Murphy’s Law in specific situations. The general law is, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” We laugh at Murphy’s Law because we’ve all had times when it seems like everything is against us. Of course, it’s never very funny at the time it’s happen­ing, especially if the things against us are of a serious nature.

Instead of Murphy’s Law, it should have been called Jacob’s Law. Jacob lived before Murphy and he summed up the principle in Genesis 42:36, when he said to his sons: “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me.” But before we scold Jacob, we need to admit that we’ve all been right where he was at.

1. There are times when things seem to be against you.

To review, Joseph, whom Jacob thinks is dead, has been promot­ed to the number two spot in Egypt after years in prison. He’s in charge of the plan to save up grain in the years of plenty and distribute it during the years of famine. The famine had spread into Canaan, so Jacob sent his ten other sons (minus Benja­min) to Egypt to buy grain. They stood before Joseph and didn’t recognize him in his Egyptian appearance after these 22 years, though he recognized them. He treated them harshly, accused them of being spies, and put Simeon in prison until the others could return with their younger brother, Benja­min, to prove their honesty. In all these things, Joseph was testing his brothers to see where their hearts were at, and to lead them to repentance.

On the way home, one of the brothers opened his sack to feed his donkey and discovered that the money he had used to pay for the grain had been returned. The brothers feared that they would be accused of stealing when they went back to get Simeon out of jail and to buy more grain. But, for the first time, they also recognized God’s hand in their lives and ex­claimed, “What is this that God has done to us?”

They returned home and reported everything to Jacob. As they finished their story and emptied their sacks, they discovered, to their horror, that not just one, but each man’s money, had been returned. It’s at this point that Jacob wailed his version of Murphy’s Law: “All these things are against me.” It’s as if he called “Worst Case Scenario” and Ralph said, “Yep, Joseph is dead, Simeon is dead, and Benjamin will die, too!”

Reuben steps in at this point and makes an extreme offer: He will be responsible for Benjamin; if he doesn’t bring him back, Jacob can kill two of Reuben’s sons. It’s an absurd offer, but Reuben has been on his dad’s bad side for a long time, and he’s trying to change that. He committed incest with his father’s concubine. Being the oldest, he had been responsible for Joseph’s safety. He had blown that one, and Jacob wasn’t about to give him a chance with his favorite Benjamin.

So Jacob digs in his heels and says, “No way! I’ll starve first.” Okay! The next verse (43:1) says, “Now the famine was severe in the land.” But Jacob holds out, thinking, “Maybe this stupid famine will let up.” But it doesn’t. It only gets worse, and his sons and their families are getting hungry. Finally, he sees that his back is to the wall so he says, “Go back, buy us a little food.” Did you catch how he phrased that? Why buy just a little food? Jacob’s hope was that if they just bought a little bit, the harsh governor in Egypt wouldn’t require Benjamin to go down with his brothers. But Judah confronts his father with reality: “The governor said that we would be wasting our time in coming if our younger brother is not with us.”

But Jacob still isn’t willing to make the hard decision to send Benjamin. So he starts blaming (43:6): “Why did you treat me so badly by telling the man whether you still had another brother?” Isn’t that true to human nature? When we’re boxed in by circum­stances, we want to blame others. “I’m a victim! Why weren’t you omniscient? Then this wouldn’t be happening to me!” Can’t you feel his frustration?

But in spite of Jacob’s irrational blame, Judah stays calm and reasons with his father. The plural (43:7) indicates that the other brothers joined the discussion at this point. They said, “The man questioned particularly about us and our relatives, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Have you another brother?’ So we answered his questions. Could we possibly know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?”

Now Judah makes a more rational proposal than Reuben’s earlier extreme idea. First, he appeals to the severity of their situation: “Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, we as well as you and our little ones” (43:8). Then he proposes to become surety for Benjamin, so that if anything happens to him, Judah will bear the blame before his father forever. This may have been a willingness to be cut out of his inheritance. He then points out the result of Jacob’s obstina­cy: “For if we had not delayed, surely by now we could have returned twice” (43:10). It’s a nice way of saying, “We wouldn’t be in this mess if you weren’t so stubborn.”

Jacob’s back is to the wall, so he reluctantly agrees to let Benjamin go. (By the way, Benjamin is not a toddler; he’s about 23 by now.) But Jacob’s still got one last scheme up his sleeve: Put together a gift for the man down in Egypt. It had worked with Esau (even though it was unnecessary); maybe it would work again. In the end, he sends Benjamin with the hope that God Almighty (“El Shaddai”) would grant him compassion and that Simeon would be released. But finally, he resigns himself to the ultimate worst case scenario: “If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” If the man kills them all, that’s the way it goes! Everything seemed to be against Jacob.

You’ve been there, haven’t you! Maybe, like this “harsh” man down in Egypt, some difficult person was against you--a difficult person at work or difficult family members who seemed to be against you--husband, wife, parents, children, or in-laws. Perhaps it’s your past which you think is against you. Jacob thought that his past was against him: Joseph was dead, Simeon too, he complained. He didn’t know that; in fact both state­ments were false. But it’s easy to read the trials in your past so that you think that circumstances always have been against you.

It’s also easy to think the worst about the future. Jacob is cer­tain that if Benjamin goes to Egypt, he will never see him again (42:38). All his sons might perish (43:14). I’m not being too hard on Jacob, because when he finally stands before Pharaoh, he sums up his life: “Few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained to the years that my fathers lived” (47:9). In other words, “My past has been against me and the future, too, because my fathers outlived me.” How does he know that? He doesn’t know how long he’s going to live! And why would he want to live longer than his fathers if life is that unpleasant? Poor Jacob saw himself as a victim of cruel fate.

You can even take good things that happen to you and run them through a negative grid and they come out against you. When his ten sons returned with plenty of grain and all their original money returned, you would think Jacob would have rejoiced. These were tough times. Look how God had provid­ed! But Jacob complained that it only meant that he’s going to lose Benjamin: “All these things are against me” (42:36).

What should you do when it seems that everything is against you? The answer is, you should do the opposite of what Jacob did. When things seem to be against you,

2. Trust in the God who is for you.

As we’ve seen all through this story, God’s hand was always behind the scenes. It was God who sent Joseph into Egypt. It was God who put him in Potiphar’s house, then into the prison. It was God who sent the baker and the cupbearer to prison with Joseph and gave them their dreams which he inter­preted. It was God who gave Pharaoh his dreams and who gave Joseph the interpretation so that he was raised to the second spot in Egypt. It was God who was behind all these things confront­ing Jacob. Even though he couldn’t understand why God was doing all these things, Jacob needed to trust in the sovereign, loving hand of the God who had promised to bless him.

But Jacob wasn’t trusting God. Here I differ with many com­men­ta­tors who admit that Jacob wavered momentarily, but paint him as a great man of faith. I’m not trying to pick on Jacob, in that we’re all much like him. But I argue that if you want to trust God, you should look at Jacob here as an example of how not to do it. Ten things in Jacob’s life here tell you when you’re not trusting in the Lord. Let’s take it as a quiz. I’ll tell you in advance that the correct answer each time should be “no.”

(1) Are you governed by irrational fears? Jacob was governed by the fear of losing Benjamin. So he was overprotective, even though Benjamin was 23 years old! He didn’t send him down to Egypt with his brothers the first time because he thought, “I am afraid that harm may befall him” (42:4).

Jacob’s fears weren’t irrational in the sense that they were far­fetched. Benjamin could have died on the trip. His fears were irrational because he was trying to protect his son from circum­stances which were beyond his control and his fears forced him into ridiculous behavior. Benjamin could have died of some disease or accident at home. Life is risky. But when it comes down to sending Benjamin or starving, he opts for starving the whole extended family. Even if Simeon rots in prison, Benjamin isn’t going to Egypt!

Taking needless risks just for the thrill of it is not good steward­ship of our lives. Christians should not be daredevils. But we’ve got to entrust our kids and loved ones to the Lord’s keeping. Irrational fears indicate that you’re not trusting in the Lord.

(2) Do you have a negative, pessimistic attitude? As we’ve seen, Jacob was pessimistic about his past (42:36) and about his future (42:38). He was convinced he would go to his grave in sorrow if Benjamin went to Egypt with his brothers, when in fact, letting him go was the way Jacob would experience the greatest joy of his life, his reunion with Joseph.

I’m not advocating Norman Vincent Peale’s “Positive Thinking,” which is man‑cen­tered and not biblical. But how can you focus on the Lord and the blessings He has promised to those in Christ and be negative and pessimistic about life? The Bible is realistic about our enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is realistic in showing the trials that God’s people often endure. A biblically positive attitude doesn’t deny or gloss over these problems. But it does affirm that God is good and that life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ is full of great joy.

(3) Are you selfcentered? The Hebrew of 42:36 reveals Jacob’s self-focus: “Me you have bereaved; ... against me are all these things.” You see the same thing in 43:6, when he tips his hand that he’s more con­cerned for himself than even for Benjamin. Jacob sees the threat against Benjamin primarily in terms of how it will affect his own happi­ness.

A self‑centered parent plays favorites and uses his favorite child for the parent’s fulfillment. Jacob loses Joseph, so he picks Benjamin, his other son from his favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob cares more about his own happiness through Benjamin than he does about his son Simeon in prison in Egypt. He tells the other nine, “... his brother is dead, and he alone is left” (42:38). How would that make you feel? You’re not trusting God when you use your children to fulfill your own needs.

(4) Are you blaming others for your problems? Jacob blames his sons for depriving him of Joseph and Simeon and, next, Benjamin (42:36). He wasn’t sure what role the brothers had in Joseph’s disappearance, but he suspected, based on their track record, that they had done some­thing. But Simeon and Benja­min weren’t their fault. It wasn’t their fault that they answered the man’s direct questions about their family (43:6). Jacob was blaming his sons, but he was really blaming God, who was using all these events to deal with this family. If you’re blaming others, complain­ing about the unfair treatment every­one gives you, you are not trusting the sovereign hand of God.

(5) Are you stubbornly refusing to admit you were wrong? Here’s where pride gets in the way. Jacob makes a foolish, adamant decision: Benjamin isn’t going to Egypt! Perhaps he felt good about his strong leadership. But then the famine got worse and the grain ran out. Then what? “I gave you my answer, Benjamin isn’t going, even if we all starve!” Jacob was being foolish, not strong, in his leadership. He was really wrestling against God, stubbornly refusing to admit his error until the last moment.

If, when his sons had returned, he had said, “Men, we’ve got to seek the Lord for His wisdom about these things. Let’s commit Benjamin to His keeping and pray that Simeon will be freed,” he would have seen Joseph months sooner and he would have spared his family the crisis they now faced. Stubbornness isn’t strength in leadership, nor is it trust in the Lord.

(6) Are you reluctantly yielding because you have to? Jacob finally says, “If it must be so, then ...” (43:11). He’s grudgingly yielding to what has to be, but his heart’s not in it. He’s saying, “There’s a gun to my head; what else can I do?” That’s not faith. Faith should flow from a willing spirit of submission to our loving Heavenly Father.

(7) Are you excluding God from the events of your life? When Jacob sends off his sons, he instructs them to take back the money that had been returned, explaining, “perhaps it was a mistake” (43:12). Just one of those freak things that “happens”! Even Jacob’s worldly sons saw it as the hand of God when they exclaimed, “What is this that God has done to us?” (42:28). But to Jacob, it’s just a mistake. What does God have to do with it?

There are three different views of adversity in these chapters about Joseph. Joseph views adversity as coming from the loving hand of his sovereign God (45:5‑9). Joseph’s brothers view it as punishment from an angry God who is getting even with them for their sin (42:21‑22, 28). But Jacob views adversity as due to the fickle hand of fate, or to the stupidity of his sons (42:36‑38; 43:6, 14). Only Joseph’s view is correct. Jacob needed to see the hand of the loving, sovereign God in his adversi­ty. You’ll be able to submit in faith to God in your trials only when you see His loving hand in the common problems that happen each day.

(8) Do you rely on human schemes rather than the grace of God? Even though things are against him, Jacob rallies to try to manipulate things for his own advantage with a gift. He did it with Esau, who brushed it aside. He does it here and Joseph ignores it. G. Campbell Morgan observes, “He always seemed to think that the great end was to gain something, and evidently he believed that this was the motive of the Egyptian governor, and that, therefore, he might be bribed into complacency. How often we but reveal ourselves in our estimates of others!” (The Analyzed Bible, Genesis [Baker], 244.)

There is a deep‑seated human tendency to pay our own way. We have trouble accepting grace, undeserved favor. If somebody gives us something, we feel we need to give them something in return. And so we often try to add to God’s grace all sorts of human schemes to get what we want. But God only works through grace.

(9) Do you resort to God last, as a hope, but not in prayer? This is Jacob’s high point, but even here he falls short. After he’s done everything else, Jacob sends off his sons with the hope, “May God Almighty grant you compassion in the sight of the man” (43:14). I say “hope” rather than “prayer” because in prayer you talk directly to God. In prayer you say, “O God, based on Your promises to me, do such and such.” And it shouldn’t the last thing you think of, but the first.

(10) Are you stoically resigning yourself to fate? Jacob finally sighs, “And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (43:14). Again, many commentators see this as a fine example of faith. But I see it more as a resignation to fate. Jacob is saying, “What will be will be. You can’t fight it, so you may as well give in to it.” But that kind of stoicism isn’t faith in the living God, who sovereignly orders the affairs of this world for His glory.

Paul expressed the kind of active faith in God we should have when he wrote, concern­ing trials, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.... If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:28, 31‑32).

How can everything be against us when God says that He is for us? The best Jacob could hope for in his troubles was that Simeon would be released and Benjamin spared. Little did he know that God would do far more than he could ask or even think (Eph. 3:20)! He’s promised to do that for us, as well! So the bottom line is,

When things seem to be against you trust in the God who is for you.


Three things have helped me do that:

(1) Put God into the equation. You have to stop and ask yourself, “Is God in this or not? He is! Then, “Is God for me or against me?” He’s for me! “Am I going to believe, then, that God is and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him?” (Heb. 11:6) You have to make the deliberate choice to trust in the unseen God.

(2) Put your situation into historical perspective. View your situation in light of God’s dealings with His people in the Bible and in church history. That helps me to see that “I am not the last of God’s prophets left, and they’re seeking my life.” Others have suffered and endured in the cause of Christ before me. Reading biographies of Martin Luther, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and others who have over­come severe hardships helps me to trust God in my puny trials.

(3) Put down selfish, unbelieving thoughts. You can’t allow yourself the luxury of a pity party. You can’t surround yourself with reasons why everything is against you so that you have excuses for not believing God. You can trust God! You can take unbelieving thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ! When things seem to be against you, you can trust in the God who is for you!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know whether a trial is from the Lord or if the devil is against us?
  2. How can we realistically look at all the problems in the world and yet be genuinely positive?
  3. It would be fairly easy to trust God if you knew His specific will in advance. Since we don’t, how do we trust Him? Is, “If it be Your will,” a cop out?
  4. Some would say that Jacob’s gift was a prudent measure in line with prevailing customs. How can we know when prudent plans cross the line into wrongful scheming?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Faith, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 72: How Grace Leads To Repentance (Genesis 43:15-44:17)

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Years ago, a leading pastor’s journal ran an article by an anonymous pastor who described his losing battle against lust and his “addiction” to pornography. I did not read the article because Marla read it first and told me that it was too gross for me to read. But based on her comments, I wrote a letter to the journal in which I expressed my concern that the man’s approach for dealing with his problem was not in line with Scripture, and I outlined a more biblical approach.

Five years after the article appeared, the same anonymous pastor gave an update on his struggle. As Marla read the update, she said, “Hey, he quotes you!” Sure enough, he quoted from my letter, saying that I could not identify with his struggle and that I was offering him “stern advice, mostly consisting of admonishments from the Bible.” The implication was that to tell him what the Bible said was not compassionate and not much help in coping with this terrible “addiction.”

On other occasions I have been accused of not understanding or not preaching grace because I often preach against sin and call people to holy living. The current common evangelical notion is that grace means having a hang-loose attitude, and, above all, not coming down too hard on sin.

The grace of God is a crucial theological concept to understand. Grace is at the heart of salvation, for we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8‑9). Grace is essential for holy living, because Paul says that sin shall not have dominion over us, because we are not under law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14). Grace is the motivation for serving God, because Paul says that by God’s grace, he labored even more than the other apostles; then he adds, “yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).

So in light of the prevailing idea that grace implies being easy on sin, and because of the pervasive influence which God’s grace has on the Christian life, it is crucial for you to think clearly about grace. Properly understood, grace does not lead to tolerance of sin, but to the fear of God and to turning away from sin (Ps. 130:3-4; Titus 2:11‑14). This is illustrated in our text, the story of Joseph’s second meeting with his brothers, which portrays the truth of Romans 2:4, that “the kindness of God leads [us] to repentance.”

Joseph’s brothers have finally convinced their father, Jacob, that he must part with Benjamin if they want to buy more grain from the harsh man in Egypt, who is holding their brother, Simeon, in prison. So the brothers took the present Jacob prepared, plus their original money which had been mysteriously returned to them, plus enough to buy more grain, and Benjamin, and returned to Egypt.

Quaking in their sandals, they stood before Joseph, who didn’t speak to them, but said something to his steward. The next thing they knew they were taken to Joseph’s house. The brothers feared that he was going to enslave them on account of the money that had somehow been put back in their sacks on their first visit. So they explained matters to the steward, who told them, “Relax! Your God and the God of your fathers has given you treasure in your sacks; I had your money.” Then he brought out Simeon. The next thing the brothers knew, they were treated to a lavish feast. When they were seated according to their precise birth order, they got an eerie feeling--what did this man know? And it seemed strange that Benjamin was given five times more food than anyone else.

But the next morning they were sent on their way; everything was fine. As they left the city and headed out for Canaan, they were giving each other “high fives.” Simeon was freed; Benjamin wasn’t taken hostage; they had enjoyed a great meal; and, they had their sacks stuffed with more grain. They could hardly wait to get home and tell their father the good news. They were relieved to be through dealing with this powerful, mysterious Egyptian. They hoped the famine would be over before they had to come back again.

Suddenly their happy chatter came to a halt as they were overtaken by Joseph’s steward, who accused them of stealing Joseph’s silver drinking cup. They protested their innocence. After all, they had been honest enough to bring back their money from the first trip, as well as their younger brother. How could he accuse them of such a thing? But a search discovered the cup in Benjamin’s sack, where the steward had planted it as Joseph had directed. The shocked brothers returned to Joseph, where Judah spoke for all by saying, ““What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants” (44:16). He goes on to plead that he may become a slave in Benjamin’s place, which leads Joseph finally to reveal his identity to his brothers.

In all of this, Joseph has been testing his brothers, to lead them to repentance for their sin of selling him into slavery 22 years before. He is finding out their attitude toward their father, toward Benjamin, and toward God. When he sees that they are truly repentant, he reveals his identity. His actions toward his brothers parallel God’s action in leading us to repentance. The story shows how ...

God’s grace leads us to repentance by revealing His great love and our great sin.

Joseph’s love for his brothers motivates all that he does, even the things which seem to be harsh. His actions show how ...

1. God’s grace leads to repentance by revealing His great love.

This isn’t the first time that the brothers have encountered Joseph’s love for them. When they returned home from their first trip and each discovered his money returned, it was because of Joseph’s love. I doubt if he intended for them to panic.

A similar thing happens on this second journey. The brothers arrive and Joseph tells his steward to take them to his house for lunch. His intention is simply to treat them to a good meal and to find out any news from home, as well as to discern where their hearts are at. But the brothers panic and think that he is going to take them as slaves. Shakespeare wrote, “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind” (“Henry VI”). Here, the brothers’ longstanding guilt is still haunting them. When Joseph had put them in the dungeon on the first trip, even though it had been over 20 years since their crime, and there had been no mention of it, they said, “Truly we are guilty because of our brother ...; therefore this distress has come upon us” (42:21). Now their guilt makes them suspicious of Joseph’s love.

A. Guilt causes us to fear God’s love.

As John Newton wrote in “Amazing Grace”: “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” When you know you’re guilty, God’s undeserved favor makes you feel uneasy. What’s the catch? It sounds too good to be true.

So, what do you do? You try to pay your own way. That makes you feel better about the arrangement. So when the brothers get to Joseph’s house, they spend their time waiting for him to come by arranging the gift that they’ve brought to placate him (43:25). After all, their attempt to return their money hadn’t made the impression they had hoped for. So everything was riding on this gift. “Reuben, do you think the almonds should be given first?” “No, I think we should save the almonds for last. Let’s give him the pistachio nuts first.” They were counting on this gift as their hope for acceptance.

That’s typical of sinful man’s attempt to approach God with his own efforts. A man is nervous about his sin when he approaches a holy God, so he says, “Maybe if I give some money at church, God will accept me. Maybe I’ll add some other good deeds, too.” So we bring our pistachio nuts and almonds to placate our guilty consciences and hopefully be accepted by God. But God’s response is the same as Joseph’s: He completely ignores our gifts! Joseph doesn’t even comment on their elaborate present.

There is a good reason, of course, for us to be afraid of approaching God: We are guilty; He is absolutely holy. He has the power to do to us whatever He wants, just as Joseph could have sold his brothers into slavery if he had chosen to do so. If that were all we knew of God, we would never dare to approach Him. But there is another side, God’s kindness and grace, which encourages us to relax a bit and join Him at His table.

B. God’s grace relieves our fears‑‑almost!

“‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Joseph’s kind treatment of his brothers allowed them to enjoy this sumptuous meal (43:34). But they still have not dealt with that nagging, deep-down guilt, so their fears are not totally relieved at this point. You sense that they really relax only after they head for home.

Note the many signs of Joseph’s love for his brothers. First, there is the steward’s great reply when the brothers express their concern about the money in their sacks (43:23). Coming from an Egyptian steward, it must have stunned these men. “Be at ease” is literally, “Shalom!” “Peace to you, don’t be afraid. Your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks; I had your money.” He’s saying, “I received your money, but somehow your God returned it to you. Take it as a gift from Him.” It shows that Joseph had been talking to his steward about the true God. Returning their money was a sign of Joseph’s love for his brothers.

Next, Simeon was returned. They didn’t know but what he was long gone, on some chain gang building the pyramids. My guess is that he had put on a little weight during his stay in prison. His healthy return to his brothers was another sign of Joseph’s love. Then, the steward brought out water to wash their feet and provided fodder for their donkeys (43:24). They weren’t being treated roughly, as prisoners, but with the respect given to honored guests.

When Joseph arrived home, he asked them (still using an interpreter) about their welfare, and especially about their father. Then Joseph saw Benjamin. He had seen him from a distance earlier in the day (43:16), but now he could see him better. Joseph was 16 years older than Benjamin, his only full brother. Benjamin had been only a year old the last time Joseph had seen him. As he gazed upon Benjamin, thoughts of his family and his mother, who died giving birth to this child, flooded over him. He managed to say, “May God be gracious to you, my son” before he was overcome with emotion and left the room to weep.

Then, he treats them to this great feast. Joseph, being the master, sat at a table by himself. His Egyptian servants sat at another table, not wanting to defile themselves by eating with these Hebrews. They must have wondered why in the world Joseph would invite these hicks from the sticks to eat in his home. Then, even more puzzling, why did he keep giving them portions from his table, a sign of special honor? Benjamin got five times as much, again due to Joseph’s special love for his own full brother. Some think he was testing the other brothers, to see if they would be jealous.

The final expression of Joseph’s love is seen when he tells his steward to fill each man’s sack with as much food as they can carry and to return each man’s money again to his sack. He didn’t want them to have to pay for their food, but wanted to supply it freely because he loved them.

To this point the story is a marvelous illustration of what theologians call “common grace,” which is God’s undeserved kindness shown to every person. Like Joseph’s brothers, who had sinned terribly against him, every person has sinned against God. If He gave us what we deserve, we would all go straight to hell. But as Jesus said, “He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35). He grants us the many blessings of life when we deserve His judgment, so that we will turn from our sin.

Romans 2:4, asks: “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” If you have not turned from your sin to faith Christ, you are shrugging off the kindness of God. The next verse warns, “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” In other words, now is the time when God has graciously shown you His kindness so that you may turn to Him. But if you shrug it off, the day of judgment lies ahead.

I said that God’s grace relieves our fears‑‑almost! What I mean is, at this point in the story, before the brothers have acknowledged their sin, the kind treatment they have received from their brother whom they have wronged has almost taken away the fear caused by their guilt--almost, but not quite. When they sit down to this meal, to their astonishment they are seated in the exact order of their birth. And, contrary to custom, the youngest is given the most. This made these brothers a bit nervous. They had the feeling that this man had some uncanny power to know things which they had not revealed.

As you begin to warm up to God’s love, your fears due to your guilt are almost relieved. Almost, because you begin to sense that this One with whom you have to do is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of your heart, that all things are laid bare before Him. It’s a bit disturbing! And you begin to see that He doesn’t deal with you as the world does, with the privileges going to the strong. Rather, the weak are the objects of His grace. He doesn’t let you keep drawing near to Him based on your strength, while you cover up past sins. His grace peels back layer after layer, until you stand naked and defenseless before Him.

Even so, Joseph wouldn’t let his brothers skate away without getting to the bottom of their sin, which they must bring to the light. So he planted his special drinking cup in Benjamin’s sack and sent them away, only to bring them back ready to admit their guilt and sin.

2. God’s grace leads to repentance by revealing our great sin.

Joseph’s final test, of placing his drinking cup in Benjamin’s sack, revealed whether or not his brothers were truly repentant over what they did to him years before, because it gave them the chance to treat Benjamin just as they had treated Joseph. They could have left Benjamin in slavery in Egypt, told their father what happened to his favorite son, and moved on with their own lives. But there had been a change in their hearts. They would not abandon Benjamin, even if it meant their own slavery, and they would not return to their father without him.

There are different views of Joseph’s “divination” cup. I think it was part of his continuing disguise. He identifies it to his steward as “my cup, the silver cup,” but then instructs him to tell his brothers that it is the cup his master uses for divination (44:2, 5). The steward wouldn’t have thought of it this way, because Joseph didn’t practice divination. But he tells his brothers (44:15), “Don’t you know that such a man as I can indeed practice divination?” because he wanted them to think that he was an Egyptian with the power to know their secrets until they confess their sin. But their tendency, like ours, was to cover it.

A. Our inclination is to extol our innocence.

When the steward overtakes the brothers and accuses them of stealing Joseph’s cup, they protest their innocence. Of course, they were innocent of this charge. But it’s kind of like nailing a mafia guy on a sting operation where he’s innocent of this crime, but he’s done the same thing and worse many other times. The steward, knowing exactly where the cup is, begins with the oldest and works down the line. As each sack comes up empty, the brothers self‑confidently nod their heads, saying, “See, there’s no cup. You’re wasting your time.” But then he comes to Benjamin’s sack, pulls out the cup, and the brothers are in big trouble.

God used this to strip these brothers of their self‑confidence and cast them upon Joseph’s mercy. He has to bring us all to the place where we give up trusting our own integrity and our gifts that we bring to gain acceptance, so that we fall before Him and seek His undeserved favor. F. B. Meyer writes (Joseph [CLC], p. 86.),

There is a stolen cup in your sack, my respectable, reputable, moral friend. You are probably unconscious of it. You pride yourself upon your blameless life. You suppose that Christ Himself has no controversy with you. But if only you knew, you would see that you are robbing Him of His own. You use for yourself time and money and talents which He bought with His own precious blood, ...

B. God’s intent is to expose our iniquity.

Even though the brothers knew they were innocent of taking this cup, they also knew they were guilty of a whole lot more. Judah speaks for them all in saying, “God has found out the iniquity of your servants” (44:16). True repentance doesn’t make up a defense for the small area where you’re innocent, but rather admits the larger sphere where you’re guilty.

Joseph twists the knife when he says, “I’ll keep as my slave the one who took the cup; the rest of you, go in peace to your father” (44:17). How could they go in peace to their father if they left Benjamin as a slave? When they stick with Benjamin, Joseph knows that they have fully repented of their sins. That leads him to reveal his identity to them.


God’s grace should lead us to expose our sin, not to cover it. God’s grace doesn’t paper over guilt. His grace means that Christ bore our guilt so that we could go free. That should lead us to repentance.

During the Korean War, a South Korean Christian man was arrested by the Communists and ordered shot. But when the young Communist leader learned that the man was in charge of an orphanage, he decided to spare him and kill his son instead. So they took this man’s 19 year-old son and shot him as the man watched in horror.

Later, the same young Communist leader was captured by the UN forces, was tried and condemned to death. But before the sentence could be carried out, the Christian whose son this man had killed came and pled for the life of the killer. He argued that this Communist was young, that he really did not know what he was doing. The Christian said, “Give him to me and I will train him.” They granted the request, so this father took the murderer of his son into his own home and cared for him. Today, that man who was shown such unusual kindness is a Christian pastor. Grace led him to repentance.

Like Joseph with his brothers, the Lord already knows about your sins, but He wants you to confess and forsake them, so that He can reveal Himself to you. The Lord Jesus Christ suffered and died to rescue us from the penalty of our sins. When we see His great love and our own great sin, the only proper response is to turn from our sin to His loving arms.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are grace and obedience opposing concepts? How do they fit together?
  2. Do we emphasize God’s love: a) too much? b) not enough? c) about right? What about His wrath and judgment?
  3. How do repentance and faith fit together? Is repentance necessary for salvation or is faith alone sufficient?
  4. Discuss: A false concept of grace in our day has led many Christians to be too sloppy about sin and too “chummy” with God.

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Confession, Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Love, Spiritual Life

Lesson 73: Approaching God (Genesis 44:18-34)

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Have you ever thought about the fact that our American form of democratic government hinders us from understanding how to relate to God? Don’t misunderstand: I love our country and its form of government. But a system where we can vote our own minds gives us a lousy model of how to relate to a supreme authority, such as a king. And God is the King of kings and Lord of lords, the supreme, absolute, sole authority in the universe that He created. We cannot relate properly to Him unless we learn to submit to an absolute Sovereign. And our form of government leads us astray on that matter.

Americans cherish their individual right to challenge authority. If we don’t like a leader, we’ll vote the turkey out of office. The American spirit is summed up in the Revolutionary flag with a snake on it with the motto, “Don’t tread on me.” Nobody’s gonna push us around!

If we’re not careful, as American Christians we tend to bring that same defiant spirit into our relationship with God. This was pictured in a “Frank & Ernest” cartoon, where the two bunglers are approaching the Pearly Gates. A frowning Saint Peter is looking at Ernie, who is wearing a T-shirt that says, “Question Authority.” Frank whispers, “If I were you I’d change my shirt, Ernie.” If God’s Word says something that we don’t like, our attitude is, “I don’t have to obey that!” If a pastor teaches something we don’t like‑‑never mind if it’s in the Bible‑‑we’ll find another church more in line with our tastes. The concept of being in submission to church leaders sounds cultish to us. “If those church leaders don’t do what I want, I’ll either vote them out of office or take my money to another church!”

You may be wondering, “What does all this have to do with the story of Joseph and his brothers?” As we’ve seen, Joseph’s actions in dealing with his brothers parallel God’s actions in dealing with us to bring us to repentance. When his brothers stood before him, seeking to buy grain, and did not recognize him, Joseph immediately could have said, “I’m Joseph, you’re forgiven, and everything is wonderful!” But everything would not have been wonderful, because these brothers needed to repent of their terrible sin of selling Joseph into slavery before they could be restored. So Joseph put them through a series of tests to bring them to repentance, culminating in the incident of accusing Benjamin of stealing Joseph’s silver cup (44:1‑17).

Now the brothers have returned to face Joseph, falling before him (44:14). Judah, speaking for them all, reflects their repentant, broken spirit, when he cries, “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants” (44:16). He then tells Joseph that they all would become his slaves. But Joseph gives them a final test, an opportunity to take advantage of Benjamin by saving themselves, when he says, “I’ll only keep as my slave the one in whose sack the cup was found; the rest of you can return to your father in peace.”

In reply, Judah gives this eloquent, impassioned speech, called by some the most moving speech in the Bible, in which he pleads with Joseph on behalf of Benjamin. Luther called this speech a perfect model of prayer. I suggest that Judah’s broken, contrite approach to this powerful monarch is a model for how we as sinners are to approach our God, the King of kings.

Sinners approach God by submitting to His authority, owning up to their sin, and appealing to His compassion.

There are three elements in Judah’s appeal: 1) An attitude, namely, submission to Joseph’s authority; 2) An action, namely, repentance, a change in Judah’s behavior in which he is willing to offer himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place; 3) An affection, or emotion, seen in the heartfelt appeal to Joseph’s compassion, where Judah sets forth the devastating effect which Benjamin’s slavery would have on his aged father, Jacob. These three elements show us, as sinners, how to approach our omnipotent, holy, sovereign God.

1. Sinners approach God by submitting to His authority.

When the brothers return after being caught with Joseph’s cup, even though they are innocent of this particular crime, they fall down before him (44:14). Never once do they question Joseph’s absolute right to do to them whatever he chooses. Judah begins and continues with total submissiveness: “Oh my lord, may your servant please speak a word in my lord’s ears, and do not be angry with your servant; for you are equal to Pharaoh” (44:18). Even though he is dealing with what probably seemed to him an injustice, Judah puts himself completely at Joseph’s mercy and doesn’t presume that he even has a right to speak to him. From verse 16 to verse 34, Judah refers to himself or to Jacob as “your servant” 14 times, and 9 times he refers to Joseph as “my lord.” This illustrates two things about God’s authority over us:

A. God’s authority is a rightful authority.

God can do whatever He pleases, because He alone is God. He is the only self‑existent Being. All others, including Satan and all the angelic beings, are created and finite. God alone is uncreated and infinite. He spoke into being all that exists in the universe. All things serve His purposes. If He chooses to afflict a righteous man like Job as a demonstration of His glory to Satan, God doesn’t have to give an account or explanation to anybody (see Job 38‑42).

Can you imagine where Judah would have gotten if he had swaggered up to Joseph and said, “You can’t pull this kind of trick on us! We’ve got our rights! I’ll call my congressman!” And yet that’s how some people approach God, challenging His rightful authority over them.

B. God’s authority is an awesome authority.

Joseph was equal to Pharaoh. If he had given the word, he could have shipped these guys off to work on the pyramids or thrown them in a dungeon where they’d never see daylight again. He could have lopped off their heads. He could have refused to sell them grain and they would have gone home to watch their families slowly starve to death. Joseph had awesome power!

God has even greater authority over His creation. And just as Joseph’s brothers had sinned against him, so every person has sinned against God. None of us has a leg to stand on if we dare to challenge God’s awesome authority to do to us what He righteously could do. That’s why Jesus said, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4‑5). Since God’s authority is a rightful and awesome authority,

C. Our submission must be a complete submission.

So often we’re like the little boy whose mother disciplined him by making him sit in a chair and he said, “I’m sitting on the outside, but I’m standing on the inside.” His submission wasn’t complete, because he had a defiant attitude. But it’s not enough to submit on the outside while you’re seething with resistance on the inside.

Judah could have approached Joseph with anger and self‑ justification. After all, Joseph had framed them by planting his cup in Benjamin’s sack. Judah could have said, “This isn’t fair! We didn’t steal this lousy cup and we didn’t put the money back in our sacks. We don’t want your help or your money. We just want fair treatment and then we’ll be on our way.”

That’s how a lot of people approach God. They take pride in their righteous conduct: “God doesn’t have a right to treat me this way! I haven’t stolen any cup. All I ask for is fair treatment.” They’re defiant, challenging God’s rightful authority over them. They’ve never come to the place of brokenness before God, where they have yielded completely to Him and said, “Lord, You alone are righteous and wise! You alone are the Creator and Sovereign of the universe! I am a guilty sinner, who has rebelled against You, and I yield to Your right to do to me as You please.”

Have you come to that place of total submission to God? I don’t mean that you deny your feelings. We’ve all had times when we’ve been angry at the Lord, and we shouldn’t pretend that we are not angry when we are. But at the same time, there is a right and wrong way to express anger to the Sovereign Lord! If one of my kids is angry at me, I don’t mind if they express their feelings as long as they are not defiant. But even if they have good cause to be angry at me, I won’t allow them to have a defiant spirit. So, check your attitude. You approach God in submission to His rightful, awesome authority over every area of your life.

2. Sinners approach God by owning up to their sin.

Judah doesn’t protest his or his brothers’ innocence or try to justify them in any way. He doesn’t offer any excuses or extenuating circumstances. Rather, he freely admits their guilt before God when he says, “God has found out the iniquity of your servants.” God always does, by the way.

Judah’s confession wasn’t just cheap talk. It’s easy to say, “I’m sorry,” but then to go on living just as you were. But there is an action on Judah’s part, a turning from past sin. Not only did he own up to it, he demonstrates throughout this appeal a change of heart, a willingness to live differently than he had before, even at great personal cost. That’s true repentance, when we not only confess our sin, but when we feel deeply enough about it that it results in a change in our attitudes, feelings, and behavior.

To appreciate what’s happening here you must remember where Judah is coming from. He probably had joined Simeon and Levi in slaughtering the Shechemites after Dinah’s rape. He’s the one who suggested selling Joseph rather than killing him. But he didn’t say that to spare Joseph’s life as much as he did to spare their consciences from murdering their own brother and to make a few bucks while getting rid of him. Judah stood there fingering his silver, unaffected as Joseph cried for help as the slave traders carried him off. Then Judah joined his brothers in deceiving their father into thinking that Joseph was dead and then in pretending to comfort him. Judah also took a pagan wife and had two sons who were so evil that the Lord killed them. Then he went in to his daughter‑in‑law, thinking she was a prostitute, as readily as we might pull into McDonald’s for a hamburger.

But now he’s a different man. The cocky man of Genesis 38 now humbles himself. The greedy man is willing to become a slave so that his brother can go free. The man who lived a sensual, pleasure‑oriented, self‑centered life now offers to deny himself any pleasure, any rights, any personal freedom, in exchange for his brother’s freedom. The man who had closed up his heart against his brother’s anguish and against his father’s grief says here that he cannot bear to see the pain that his father would go through if Benjamin did not return with them.

There are two ways you can tell that repentance is genuine: First, there will be the absence of any blame, except toward yourself. Judah could have blamed his father for this whole mess. Jacob still loved Benjamin more than Judah. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t matter so much that the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. Jacob would have been sad, but it wouldn’t have been the catastrophe that losing Benjamin was. Judah could have bitterly blamed his father for the favoritism which now meant that he would have to become a slave. But there’s no blame here.

He could have blamed Joseph. In verse 31, Judah could have told this stern governor, “If Benjamin doesn’t return with us, you will bring the gray hair of our father down to the grave in sorrow. It will be your fault!” But instead, he admits that it will be his and his brothers’ fault. He could have blamed Benjamin: “You idiot, why did you have the cup in your sack? You’re crazy if you think that I’m going to pay for your crime.” But there’s no accusation of Benjamin. Judah could have blamed God: “Why are You letting this happen to us? We don’t deserve this!” But there’s no blame. That’s the first mark of genuine repentance, when a person says, “I have sinned. I take full responsibility for what I have done.”

The second mark of genuine repentance is that it always affects your relationships, both with God and with others. Judah here sees that God is behind all these circumstances: God put the money in his sack; God has found out his iniquity. This change in Judah’s relationship with God resulted in a change in his relationship with others. The bitterness toward his father and his father’s favorite sons is gone. Instead of hardness, there is tenderness and sensitivity as he thinks about how his father will feel if Benjamin doesn’t return home. If you have repented of your sin toward God, it will show in a change of heart toward those who have wronged you. Instead of bitterness, there will be a concern for their feelings and an absence of concern for your own feelings. Judah never complains about what will happen to him as a slave, because his focus is on what would happen to his father if Benjamin becomes a slave.

Judah’s appeal is encouraging because it shows us that change is possible when we are willing to own up to our sin with genuine repentance. Judah the hardened sinner becomes Judah the compassionate son and brother, willing to sacrifice the rest of his life, as far as he knew, on behalf of his father and brother. The key element in this change is Judah’s submission to God and his accepting full responsibility for his sin.

Do you want to change? Be careful before you quickly answer yes! There’s a high price tag, as you can see. Are you willing to give up the rest of your life to become a slave? Remember, Judah didn’t know the rest of the story yet. He didn’t know that his repentance would lead to great blessing, not to enslavement. If you want to change, then submit yourself to God and own up to your responsibility for your sin. Quit blaming others, even if they’re still sinning against you (Jacob still was sinning against Judah). Make sure that your repentance affects your relationships, so that you begin to deal with others with regard for their feelings, no matter what that means with regard to your own feelings. True repentance is the key to being a changed person.

There’s a third element in Judah’s appeal to Joseph which shows us how to approach God:

3. Sinners approach God by appealing to His compassion.

The first element is an attitude, submission to God’s authority; the second is an action, owning up to one’s sin; the third is an affection, or emotion, a heartfelt appeal to God’s compassionate nature. We miss the flavor of Judah’s appeal if we fail to see the deep feelings being expressed. It was logical, but it was also an impassioned plea. It shows us how we should approach God.

We should approach God with all our hearts. Judah’s whole address is shot through with feeling. He threw himself into it with a passion that left no doubt about his sincerity. He wanted Joseph to grant his appeal. He didn’t say, “You wouldn’t want to free my brother and take me as your slave, would you? ... No, I didn’t think so. Sorry, Benjamin.”

Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries martyred while attempting to take the gospel to the fierce Auca Indians in Ecuador, wrote in his journal at age 19 that he lacked the fervency, vitality, life in prayer which he longed for. He observed, “Cold prayers, like cold suitors, are seldom effective in their aims.” (Shadow of the Almighty [Zondervan], p. 44.)

When we approach God, our hearts need to be in it. If, like me, you are often ho-hum about your prayers, you need to shake off the lethargy and ask God to remind you that eternal matters are at stake. God is sovereign, and yet, though I don’t totally understand it, He is pleased to respond to the heartfelt appeals of His children. As Jesus applied the parable of the woman who kept bugging the unjust judge, “Shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will bring about justice for them speedily” (Luke 18:7, 8).

Second, we should approach God with all our minds. Judah didn’t cast reason to the wind. While he was fervent, he was also logical. He had caught glimpses of this man’s compassion. The man had given the brothers many hints that he was just and reasonable. On their first trip, he had sent the nine home and only kept one in custody because he cared about them taking grain for their families. He had treated them kindly at the meal and had stuffed their sacks with grain and returned their money twice. Knowing this, Judah appeals to his heart by telling him what Benjamin’s slavery would mean to his aged father. And he bases his appeal on Joseph’s word that one of them would be his slave. Judah offers himself instead of Benjamin.

That’s how to approach God in prayer. Appeal to Him as a lawyer carefully sets forth his case. Argue your requests based on what you know of the character of God and His promises, as revealed in His Word. You know Him to be compassionate toward His children, promising not to withhold any good thing from them. You know that you can come to Him based on the merits of His Son. So come and present your case, casting yourself completely upon His grace.


A little boy had a sister who had the same disease that he had recovered from two years earlier. She needed a blood transfusion from someone who had previously conquered the disease, and since both the boy and his sister had a rare blood type, he was the logical choice for donating his blood. The doctor asked the boy, “Would you give your blood to Mary?”

Johnny hesitated. His lower lip started to tremble. Then he smiled and said, “Sure, for my sister.”

Soon the two children were wheeled into the hospital room--Mary, pale and thin; Johnny, robust and healthy. Neither spoke, but when their eyes met, Johnny grinned. But as the nurse inserted the needle in Johnny’s arm, his smile faded. He watched the blood flow through the tube. With the ordeal almost over, his voice, slightly shaky, broke the silence. “Doctor, when do I die?”

Only then did the doctor realize why Johnny had hesitated, why his lip had trembled when he’d agreed to donate his blood. He had thought that giving his blood to his sister meant giving up his life. He was willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice so that she could live. (Leadership, winter, 1984, from Robert Coleman’s Written in Blood.)

Judah’s offer to become a slave in place of Benjamin was also a noble thing. But even so, Judah was guilty of great sin, so he could never say that he was getting something he didn’t deserve. But there is One who did something far greater than Judah on your behalf. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was without sin, and yet He offered Himself to take the penalty you and I deserve for our sin. He bore God’s wrath so that we who are sinners could go free. Have you accepted His loving offer on your behalf? It is the only way to approach God, because Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6). The only way we can approach God is by submitting to His authority over us, by owning up to our sin, and by appealing to His great compassion as demonstrated in the sacrifice of His own Son on the cross. If we approach Him on that basis, He will never turn us away.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a person who has been deeply hurt cultivate an attitude of submission to God? How can we root out bitterness?
  2. Are we ever justified to blame others for problems we face? Is it ever emotionally or spiritually healthy to blame? Why/why not?
  3. How can we repent if we don’t feel deep sorrow over our sin? Is sorrow necessary? How do we get it?
  4. How can a lukewarm Christian become fervent about spiritual things? How can we shake off spiritual lethargy?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Confession, Hamartiology (Sin)

Lesson 74: The Key To Reconciliation (Genesis 45:1-15)

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Whenever I go to the airport, I enjoy watching when passengers get off an arriving flight. I don’t know anything about the people or their relationships, except what I see there, but it’s always moving to watch people craning their necks for a glimpse of their loved ones. I overhear them saying to each other, “No, I don’t see him yet. No, he hasn’t gotten off yet.” Then suddenly, one of them exclaims, “There he is!” You’d think that the President himself was getting off that plane. If there are children waiting, they make a break through the crowd like a halfback who sees a hole in the line and they’re the first to reach Grandpa or Dad or whoever it is. Soon the whole family is embracing and exchanging greetings. Often there are tears of joy, as loved ones are reunited after a long separation. It’s a joy to watch. It’s the joy of relationships.

It is not an exaggeration to say that relationships are the most important thing in life, because the two greatest commandments in the Bible have to do with right relationships--first toward God and then toward one another. Whenever you see broken relationships toward God or in the family or in the church, you know that it is not pleasing to God. God is in the business of reconciling broken relationships.

There is perhaps nothing so moving as witnessing a fractured family being reconciled and reunited. That’s why Genesis 45 is such a moving chapter. We are allowed to look in on the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers after 22 years of separation and estrangement. After Judah’s impassioned plea on behalf of Benjamin and their father (44:18-34), Joseph saw that his brothers had truly repented of their terrible sin of selling him into slavery. So he let himself go in a torrent of emotion, telling his brothers through his tears, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” He knew that his dad was alive, but he wanted to hear it again, just to make sure.

Imagine the rush of confusion and horror which swept over Joseph’s brothers when they heard this Egyptian governor say, “I am Joseph.” Judah had just finished his appeal when the governor’s chest began to heave with emotion. The brothers wouldn’t have known whether he was angry or what. Then he shouted something in Egyptian and all his attendants rushed out of the room. Then this man broke into prolonged loud sobbing. The text compresses the story, but as you know, it takes several minutes for someone who is sobbing to calm down enough to talk.

Then, of all things, he spoke in Hebrew! Until now he had spoken only in Egyptian through an interpreter. For 22 years they had spread the rumor that Joseph was dead, to the point that they believed it themselves. To hear Joseph speak was like hearing a corpse talk. And to hear this powerful ruler now say, “I am Joseph,” after what they had done to him, their blood ran cold. The word translated “dismayed” (45:3) means to be terrified. It is used to describe the feeling which swept over a group of men in battle when suddenly the enemy turned on them and they realized they were doomed (Judges 20:41). Joseph’s brothers thought, “This is it! We’ve had it!” They were struck speechless. In fact, up to verse 15, Joseph does all the talking.

The brothers’ shock over who this man was could only have been increased by what he said. So far as they could tell, there was no anger or bitterness. They would have expected him to say, “You guys treated me like dirt. For 22 years I’ve been waiting for this moment. Now you’re going to get it.” But there was no hint of revenge. Instead, Joseph spoke kindly to them and showed every intention of treating them well. He promised to provide for them and their children through the coming years of famine. He finished by kissing not only Benjamin, who hadn’t been a part of their treachery against Joseph, but also each of his brothers, weeping on their shoulders. It must have blown them away. Finally, they were able to talk, and what a conversation it must have been!

Joseph shows us the key to being reconciled to those who have deeply hurt us, whether they are family members or friends:

The key to reconciliation is your attitude and the key to your attitude is submitting yourself to the sovereign God.

The remarkable thing about Joseph’s life was not his brilliance. It was not his administrative ability, although he was gifted there. It was his attitude, especially in response to unfair treatment. And the reason for his attitude was his relationship to the sovereign God.

1. The key to reconciliation is your attitude.

The right attitude is at the center of good relationships. As you think about people who are easy to get along with, are they grumpy, negative, angry, bitter, vindictive, sarcastic, touchy? Of course not. They’re pleasant, positive, relaxed, forgiving, kind, not quick to take offense or hold a grudge. These are attitudes. Reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers never would have taken place if Joseph had harbored a rotten attitude. His forgiving, kind, loving, caring, pleasant attitude, in spite of the horrible rejection and harsh treatment he had received from his brothers, opened the way for them now to be reconciled to him.

As hard a pill as it is to swallow, the key to being reconciled to a family member or friend from whom you are estranged lies in your attitude. I know what you are thinking: What about his or her attitude? I’ll talk about that in a moment. Obviously, at some point their attitude also has to change for reconciliation to be complete. But often the key to bringing them to change is when they see how you have responded to the wrong things they have done to you. Often it is the offended person, like Joseph here, who must take the initiative in reconciliation.

When someone wrongs you, you have some choices to make. You may not think so, since your initial response is usually visceral. Usually you feel angry. But after you cool down, you have some important choices to make. Many in Joseph’s situation would have allowed the hurt feelings to grow into a monster which dominated their lives. They would become angry, bitter, hostile people. If they ever met these rotten brothers again, they would be gunning for them. Or at best, they would never let them forget what they had done, and that they were the cause of the person’s own sufferings.

But there’s another choice: You can respond as Joseph did. It may have taken him some time to work through things. It usually does. But he didn’t stew about it for years. If he had, his bitter spirit would have precluded him from rising to the top in Potiphar’s household and in the prison. He must have dealt with his attitude early on. The sooner you get to work on it, the better, because the Bible calls bitterness a root (Heb. 12:15), and as you know, a root is easier to pull out when you don’t let it grow for years.

Joseph made a choice before God to forgive his brothers and to trust God to deal with them and to right the wrongs. To forgive means that you choose to absorb the pain and loss caused by the other person and they go free, even when they don’t deserve it. Forgiveness is costly for the one doing the forgiving. When God forgives our sins in Christ, it doesn’t mean that He brushes them aside. It means that Jesus Christ paid the penalty so that we could go free. Jesus said that just as God has forgiven us, so we must forgive others from our hearts (Matt. 18:21‑35).

So the key to reconciliation is your attitude. Ask God to give you His love and forgiveness toward the one who has wronged you. You’ve got to focus on your attitude, not on the other person’s behavior or attitude. It’s clear that Joseph had forgiven his brothers long before they came to a place of repentance.

You’re probably thinking, “But I don’t feel forgiving toward that person. If I’m honest with my feelings, I’d have to say that I want that person to pay for what he did to me. How can I have a forgiving attitude when I feel like inflicting revenge or at least praying that God would inflict revenge?” The key to reconciliation is your attitude. And,

2. The key to your attitude is submitting yourself to the sovereign God.

One of the most noticeable characteristics of Joseph throughout these chapters is the centrality of God in his life. This is such an important concept, if only we could grasp it in our daily lives. So often, even for Christians, God is a part of their lives, but He’s not at the center. He is a spoke in the wheel of life, but He’s not the hub. But for Joseph, everything centered on God.

When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he immediately thought of God: “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” (39:9). When Joseph was in the dungeon and the cupbearer and baker had their dreams, Joseph’s response was, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (40:8). When he was called before Pharaoh, who said, “I hear you can interpret dreams,” Joseph said, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (41:16). And in giving Pharaoh the interpretation, Joseph used God’s name four times to underscore to Pharaoh that it was God who was telling Pharaoh what was about to happen (41:25, 28, 32).

When Joseph’s wife bore him two sons, he gave them names which bore witness to God’s faithfulness. He named the first Manasseh, saying, “God has made me forget all my trouble ...”; and he named the second Ephraim, saying, “God has made me fruitful ...” (41:51, 52). When Joseph’s brothers came to buy grain, even though Joseph wanted to disguise himself from them, he could not hide his relationship with God. He told them, “Do this and live, for I fear God” (42:18). When they returned with Benjamin, Joseph, still disguising himself, said to his brother, “May God be gracious to you, my son” (43:29). Joseph’s steward had told the worried brothers concerning the money returned to their sacks, “Your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks” (43:23). Obviously, Joseph had told the steward to say that.

At the end of Genesis, when Joseph’s brothers feared that he would pay them back now that their father was dead, he replied, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (50:19, 20). Just before his death, Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will surely take care of you, and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (50:24, 25).

From the first to the last, the sovereign God was at the center of Joseph’s life. Notice this emphasis in our text: “... for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5); “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth” (45:7); “Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh ...” (45:8); “Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, “God has made me lord of all Egypt”’“ (45:9).

Some have wondered if Joseph’s telling his father of his splendor in Egypt was pride on Joseph’s part. But in light of his relationship to God, I think not. Rather, by emphasizing his position and wealth, Joseph was trying to get his brothers and father to see that God had worked everything out right, so that they would trust in God and be reconciled to one another. And, he wanted Jacob to hear of his circumstances so that he would praise God for His ways, which had worked together for good. That’s why God is the subject of Joseph’s first sentence to his father (45:9). He wanted his father to know what God had done.

There are two practical lessons for us which flow from Joseph’s relationship to God:

(1) You must learn to relate God to every event in your life, whether good or seemingly bad. Joseph had some things happen to him which were very unfair and unpleasant at the time. He went, in obedience to his father, to find out the welfare of his brothers, only to have them sell him into slavery. He resisted Potiphar’s wife and maintained his moral purity only to be falsely accused and thrown in prison. He was kind and sensitive toward the cupbearer and baker in interpreting their dreams, only to have the cupbearer forget him for the next two years. And yet Joseph related God to all these unfair events.

To do this, you’ve got to look past what seem to be the primary causes, to God who is really the primary cause. It looks like somebody mistreated you; but really, it is God disciplining you as a loving father disciplines his child. The apostle Paul did this. To all outward appearances, it looked like he was a prisoner of Caesar. But he never referred to himself that way. Rather, it was always, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Yes, Rome had wrongly thrown Paul in prison; but it wasn’t Rome‑‑it was the Lord! Even if it’s Satan who is causing you problems (which is relatively rare), he can’t do anything which God hasn’t allowed him to do. God’s purpose in all the things which seem to be against you is to bring ultimate glory to Himself and good to you as you trust Him. That leads to the second lesson. Once you see that God is related to every event, then ...

(2) You must submit to God’s sovereignty in every event in your life. This is a matter of the heart, where you trust that He is good and that He is in control, even when it seems otherwise. Your only other option is to believe that what happens is a matter of chance. That’s the evolutionist’s explanation for life: We’re here as the product of chance plus time. Maybe we can pull some of our own strings to improve our lot, but some things are just due to chance. But many Christians, who would deny evolution, live as if it were true when they complain about trials as if they’ve been dealt a bad hand in the game of life. When things go wrong, they don’t stop to acknowledge that God is dealing with them and to submit to His sovereignty.

I’m not talking about a blind resignation to events, where we blame God for our own irresponsibility. We are responsible for our actions, and yet God is sovereign over all and we must submit to Him. Each person is responsible for his own sin, and yet God overrules even the sinful things people do and uses them to accomplish His purpose. When you submit to God’s ultimate sovereignty, you can say with Joseph, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” The key to reconciliation with those who have hurt you is your attitude, and the key to your attitude is relating every event in your life to God and submitting to His loving sovereignty in those events.

I still haven’t answered the question, “What about those who have wronged me? Don’t they need to change? Can there be true reconciliation if they don’t repent?” For there to be complete reconciliation, all parties concerned must come under the lordship of Jesus Christ. If Joseph’s brothers had refused to repent of their sinful ways, there could only have been a strained truce, at best. We live in a sinful world, where God has given people freedom of choice. Sometimes, in spite of our having the right attitude and being rightly related to God, those who have wronged us continue in their sinful ways. Not every relationship will work out neatly or quickly. But when it does, it’s worth all the time and effort expended to make it right.

But whether it works out or not, we each are responsible for our own attitude before God. When my attitude is right and God is the center of my life, often it will motivate the one who wronged me to deal with his sin before God. When he sees that I harbor no resentment or bitterness for what he did to me, often he will be drawn to the God who has given me such grace. Assuming you have a right attitude before God, I conclude by giving two action points on how to deal with the one who has wronged you.


1. Express your forgiving, loving spirit, first nonverbally, then verbally, at the proper time. Joseph forgave his brothers in his heart long before he expressed it to them. He waited to see their repentance before extending forgiveness, but he didn’t wait to deal with his bitterness and to forgive them in his heart. That’s an important distinction! God has made provision for the forgiveness of sinners before they repent. But He doesn’t extend forgiveness to them, and there can be no reconciliation between God and the sinner, until the sinner repents. Since we are to forgive as God has forgiven us, it seems to me that we must maintain that distinction.

So what do we do until the other person repents? Do we sit with our arms folded, thinking, “When he comes crawling to me, begging for forgiveness, I’ll do it, but not until then!” If that’s your attitude, you haven’t forgiven the person as God wants you to. If you’ve forgiven him, you won’t make him pay, because you absorb the cost of his wrong. If you’ve forgiven him, you won’t be hoping he gets zapped, but you’ll be praying and earnestly desiring that he will come into a right relationship with God. You’ll have the joy and peace of Christ in your heart, and you’ll want the same for him.

So what do you do while you wait for him to repent? Are you ready for this? You look for opportunities to do kind things for him. Remember, it’s the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men (Luke 6:35). Just as Joseph was kind to his brothers by returning their money, stuffing their sacks with extra grain, feeding them, talking kindly to them, and now, promising to provide for them and their families, so we must do kind things for those who have wronged us.

Josephine Ligon (“Your Daffodils are Pretty,” Christianity Today [3/2/79], p.18) tells of a family named Parsons in the town where she grew up who preached and practiced forgiveness. Once Josephine and several of her third grade friends put a handful of pencil shavings into the Parsons girl’s sandwich, just to be mean and to make her mad. But she didn’t get mad. Instead, the next day, without any sign of repentance from her persecutors, the Parsons girl brought everyone in the class a large, delicious, hand‑decorated cookie which said, “Jesus loves you.” Over 40 years later Josephine Ligon still remembered that demonstration of forgiveness more than any sermon.

When the time is right and the person seems to be sorry for what he’s done, express your forgiveness verbally. You need to do it privately, as Joseph did. You shouldn’t paper over the offense or pretend that it wasn’t serious. Twice Joseph states their crime of selling him (45:4, 5). But his focus wasn’t on their crime, but on how God overruled things. He wanted to help his brothers trust in the sovereign God who can even use our past sinfulness for His glory.

Also, express your feelings, not just words. Joseph openly wept and he hugged and kissed each of his brothers (45:14, 15). People need to feel that they’re forgiven, not just to hear it.

2. As God gives opportunity, help the estranged ones to see God’s perspective. Joseph explains to his brothers how God was at work in this whole process (45:5‑8). If he had explained things earlier, they would not have been teachable, but now they are ready to listen. This may involve more pain for you as you wait for God to deal with them. While Joseph waited for God to deal with his brothers, he also waited to see his father, which he badly wanted to do. Like Joseph, you may have to wait for years before the person comes to repentance or before there can be a face to face meeting. But then, when God works it out, you can help him to interpret the past events from God’s perspective.

You may even have the joy of leading the one who wronged you to personal faith in Jesus Christ. The good news is that though we all have wronged God, through Christ’s death on the cross He paid the penalty we deserved. As you model His love and forgiveness, it could open the door for the one who wronged you to experience God’s forgiveness, which is his greatest need. God has given to us “the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18‑19). If you will deal with your attitude by forgiving those who have wronged you and by submitting yourself to the sovereign God’s dealings with you, He will use you as His agent of reconciliation to those who have wronged you. And you will know the joy of restored, loving, God-centered relationships.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we forgive when we don’t feel forgiving? How can forgiveness move from the mental to the emotional level?
  2. While we should be quick to forgive in our hearts, the act of extending that forgiveness verbally should be delayed until there is evidence of repentance. Agree/disagree?
  3. Is it hypocritical to do something kind for someone who wronged you if you don’t feel loving toward them?
  4. Does God’s ultimate sovereignty make Him responsible for sin? Does it mean that sinners can excuse their wrongdoing?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Fellowship, Relationships