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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.”

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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

Lesson 75: God’s Abundant Provision (Genesis 45:16-28)

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It has been rightly observed that heresy is often truth out of balance. A person can take a legitimate biblical truth and emphasize it so much that he ignores other biblical truths that balance it. For example, a popular author and Bible teacher emphasizes the truth that we are saints, but he takes it to the extreme of saying that we are not to see ourselves as sinners, not even as sinners saved by grace, but only as saints who occasionally sin. That’s truth out of balance.

Another doctrine that has been pushed out of balance is the truth that God provides abundantly for His people. It is a precious truth, taught throughout the Bible. But certain men have taken that teaching and combined it with greed and materialism so that they teach that wealth is the God‑given right of every believer. This has been called the “health and wealth” teaching, because they also teach that it is always God’s will to heal. It is also referred to as the “name it and claim it” teaching, because they say that all we must do is name what we want and claim it by faith and it’s ours. If we lack some material blessing or if we suffer from sickness, it’s because we have not claimed it by faith. All you have to do is read your Bible to see that this teaching is in error. Some of God’s greatest men of faith were destitute and suffered from sickness (Heb. 11:35‑38; Phil. 2:25‑27; 2 Tim. 4:20). They all died, as do those who teach this false doctrine.

But the pendulum can swing to the other extreme. Whenever there is a false teaching, there is the danger that we will overreact by neglecting the true doctrine which has been carried to an extreme. For example, when heretics emphasize the humanity of Jesus to the point of denying His deity, there is the danger that we won’t teach about His humanity at all, for fear of falling into their error. When false teachers say that health and prosperity are the divine right of every Christian, there is the danger that we will neglect the comforting truth that God does provide, not just the minimum, but as Paul expresses it, “exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).

Genesis 45:16‑28 shows us God’s abundant provision for His people. God provides for Jacob and his sons far beyond what they had ever dreamed. Jacob had reluctantly sent his sons down to Egypt to buy more grain so that their families could survive the famine. He hoped that his beloved son Benjamin would return safely to him and that his son Simeon would be released by the stern Egyptian governor. He hoped that this man would accept the returned money which his sons brought back from their first trip and the extra money they took, and sell them more grain. That was the limit of his hopes. He would have been a happy man if these things had happened.

So the old man sent his sons off with the sigh, “If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (43:14). A week went by, and Jacob thought, “They should be in Egypt by today. Two weeks, and he thought, “They should have completed their business and be headed home by now.” A few more days went by, and he sent one of his grandsons to watch from the hilltop nearby for any sign of them on the horizon. Nothing yet. And then one day, the boy came running out of breath with the news, “Grandpa, I think they’re coming!”

The old man rose to his feet and took his staff in one hand, leaning on his grandson with his other, and hobbled to the dusty road. In the distance, he could see the cloud of dust, but he couldn’t see well enough to count how many were in the party. “Can you count them, son? How many are there?” “I can count eleven, Grandpa.” “Eleven! Then Benjamin and Simeon must be with them!” “And there are a bunch of carts, Grandpa, and a herd of donkeys besides.” Jacob’s face fell. “Oh, then it must not be them, because they didn’t leave with any carts or with extra donkeys.”

But it was them! Benjamin and Simeon were there. They had come back with all their original money, with not just a little grain, but with carts full of provisions. As they came closer, Jacob could see that each of them was wearing fine new clothes. And then came the most stunning news of all, which Jacob couldn’t even believe at first: “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.” It shows how

God graciously provides exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think.

There are four lessons here about how God provides:

1. God provides abundantly for all our needs.

As our loving Heavenly Father, God knows and abundantly provides for all our needs‑‑material, emotional, and spiritual.

A. God provides abundantly for our material needs.

To get the flavor of this story, you need to put yourself into the Canaanite culture of Jacob’s day. When you think of a wagon or cart, you probably associate it with poverty. You may imagine some poor peasant farmer taking his produce to market on a rickety old wooden wagon, drawn by a donkey. But that’s the wrong image.

In Jacob’s day, no one in Canaan had carts. You traveled by loading your donkey or camel and walking beside it. And these weren’t just common old carts. These carts were provided by Pharaoh. They were the top of the line, right off the showroom floor. They were probably elaborately carved and painted, fit for a king. For Jacob’s sons to arrive back in Canaan with all these carts loaded with provisions would be like driving into a poor Mexican village in a fleet of limousines. Jacob’s first thought must have been that his sons had knocked off another village.

But there weren’t just all these wagons. There were the clothes. These guys had left in poor shepherds’ clothing. They returned in the latest Egyptian designer apparel. Each brother had at least two changes of clothes, and Benjamin had five, plus 300 pieces of silver (45:22). In addition there were ten male donkeys for Jacob, loaded with the best things of Egypt, plus ten female donkeys loaded with grain and bread and sustenance. Remember, this was in a time of famine! The neighbors’ eyes must have bulged out as they saw these brothers pull in.

We do not have a “divine right” to prosperity, as some have falsely taught. But neither do we need to feel guilty about the material things God provides for us. We should hold these things lightly, remembering that they belong to God, not to us. We’re just managers for Him, not owners. To whom much is given, much shall be required (Luke 12:48). We need to be careful “not to be conceited or to fix [our] hopes on the uncertainty of riches,” and, “to be generous and ready to share,” storing up treasure in heaven. But when God blesses us materially we can thankfully enjoy the things He has richly supplied (1 Tim. 6:17‑19).

B. God provides abundantly for our emotional needs.

Jacob was emotionally needy. He had lost his favorite son, or so he thought. For over 20 years he had grieved for Joseph. Now he feared that he might lose his other sons, especially Rachel’s other son, Benjamin. His beloved Rachel had died in childbirth with Benjamin, leaving a gaping hole in Jacob’s life. Jacob and the other sons didn’t have a close relationship. A number of things between them over the years had caused tension. He had always suspected that they knew more than they had told about Joseph’s disappearance.

But now they came back as different men. God had broken them through their dealings with Joseph. They had confessed their sin before God and had been reconciled to their brother. And now, in explaining that Joseph was still alive and the ruler of Egypt, they would have to admit their sin to their father. The truth had to come out. And so, although the text does not report it, there must have been a healing of the relationship between Jacob and his formerly treacherous sons. And what emotional healing must have come when Jacob heard and finally believed the news that Joseph was really alive! To see his son once more became his only goal before he died (45:28).

Just as God provided for Jacob’s emotional needs, so He provides for us. He wants us to be emotionally whole. He doesn’t always do it instantly or when we think He should. He often does it by bringing healing to relationships with family members and others who have hurt us. But even if they never respond, the Lord teaches us how to forgive and to have our emotional needs met in Him. The fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) describes an emotionally whole person. Fruit takes time to grow, but every believer who walks in the Spirit is promised that fruit of emotional wholeness.

C. God provides abundantly for our spiritual needs.

God’s ultimate goal is always spiritual. He always has a spiritual reason behind any material blessings He supplies or withholds. In this case, His chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, who were to be His channel for blessing all nations, were in danger of being polluted by the corrupt Canaanites. God had even prophesied to Abraham that his descendants would become strangers and slaves for 400 years in a land that was not theirs, until the iniquity of the Amorite was complete (15:13‑16). So this famine and the move to Egypt‑‑seemingly ordinary circumstances‑‑worked out God’s spiritual purposes for His people which He had spoken of almost 200 years before.

Things don’t just “happen” to you. God is shaping you to be His channel to convey His blessings to lost people. To do that, He has provided abundantly in Christ for all of your spiritual needs, even when you’re not aware of them. I’m sure that neither Jacob nor his sons could see God’s reasons for removing them from Canaan at this time. Israel as a nation in slavery in Egypt for the next 400 years probably often wondered why God was allowing that trial if they were His chosen people. But God knew that they needed it to be shaped into a people for His own possession, a light to the Gentiles. In the same way, God works through trials to mature us spiritually.

God provides abundantly for all our needs‑‑material, emotional, and spiritual. But some of you may be thinking, “That’s a nice sermon, to say that God provides abundantly for all my needs. But to be honest, He hasn’t done that for me. I’m in need of more income. I’m emotionally needy. Spiritually, I don’t feel close to God. So how can you say that God provides abundantly for all our needs?” That leads to a second lesson about His provision:

2. God provides for our needs in His timing, not ours.

The day before Jacob’s sons returned from Egypt with their wagons loaded with provisions, with a new walk with God, and with the great news about Joseph, Jacob had been a lonely, grieving, almost destitute old man. He had seen his sons off thinking, “I may never see them again.” Jacob wondered if those who remained behind might starve. He was at a point of despair when his sons returned with their good news. The word “revived,” used to describe Jacob when he finally accepted the good news about Joseph (45:27), is translated in the Greek Old Testament by a word that is used elsewhere of stirring up dying embers which have almost been extinguished under the ashes. Jacob’s spirit was almost extinguished when his sons came back with their message of hope.

That’s how God often works. He lets us come to the point of lowest despair, where we are beginning to wonder, “What happened to God?” Then He comes through. Right at the time Jacob was complaining, “All these things are against me” (42:36), God was working all these things together for good for him.

Shortly after Dallas Seminary was founded in 1924, it came to the brink of bankruptcy. The creditors were going to foreclose at noon on a certain day. That morning the founders of the school met in the president’s office to pray that God would provide. One of the men present at that meeting was the well-known Bible teacher, Harry Ironside. When it was his turn to pray, he prayed, “Lord, we know that the cattle on a thousand hills are Thine. Please sell some of them and send us the money.”

While they were praying, a Texas rancher strode into the business office and said, “I just sold two carloads of cattle in Fort Worth. I’ve been trying to make a business deal go through, but it won’t work. I feel that God is compelling me to give this money to the seminary. I don’t know if you need it or not, but here’s the check.” The secretary knew how critical the need was, so she took the check and knocked on the door of the president’s office. Dr. Chafer took the check and saw that it was for the exact amount of the debt. When he looked at the signature on the check, he recognized the name of the Fort Worth cattleman. Turning to Dr. Ironside, he said, “Harry, God just sold the cattle.” (Told by Howard Hendricks, Elijah [Moody Press], pp. 19, 20).

Why does God so often take us right to the brink? One reason is that we often don’t recognize our total need for Him until we are in such desperate straights. At that point, we know that if He doesn’t come through, we’re doomed. So we trust Him more than we do when we’ve got our own resources to fall back on. The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians of a time when he was burdened excessively, beyond his strength, so that he despaired even of life. Why did God let Paul get so low? Paul explains, “Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8, 9). God abundantly provides for our every need, but He doesn’t necessarily do it just when we think He should. He does it in His timing, often letting us come to the very edge, so that we will learn to trust in Him.

There’s a third lesson about God’s provision:

3. God provides in ways we would never expect.

For Jacob’s sons to return with these fancy wagons, loaded to the hilt with all the finest things of Egypt, and then to be provided for by this foreign king, given the best of his land‑‑it was beyond imagination! But the last thing in the world Jacob expected to hear was that Joseph was alive, let alone that he was the ruler of all Egypt. Never in his wildest dreams did Jacob expect that. But as a loving Father, God delights to surprise His children in ways they never would expect.

The best gifts are usually the unexpected ones, aren’t they? At Christmas, I like to wrap the gifts I buy for Marla and the kids in boxes that don’t fit the gift, so that they can’t guess what it is. Sometimes I add something heavy to the package to throw off their guesses. I write mysterious clues on the label. It’s more fun when they are surprised and, hopefully, delighted by the gift.

I’m just an earthly father, and my resources and creativity are limited. But Our Heavenly Father has infinite resources and unlimited creativity. You can’t usually guess how God is going to work, because He delights to provide in ways we never would expect, so that we will revel in His abundant goodness. God provides abundantly, in His timing, in ways we never would expect. The final lesson is,

4. God provides for us through grace, not through merit.

Why did Pharaoh provide so abundantly for Jacob and his eleven sons? It certainly wasn’t because they were wonderful guys. If Pharaoh knew anything about them, he knew that they had sold their brother into slavery. Joseph may have protected them by not telling Pharaoh exactly what had happened to him. But even so, Pharaoh knew that these men were a bunch of Hebrews from the sticks. There was nothing in them which commended Pharaoh’s favor.

So why did he treat them with such abundant kindness? It was for Joseph’s sake. Pharaoh knew and appreciated Joseph, so he poured out these blessings on Joseph’s family for his sake. If anything, Jacob should not have been blessed because of his doubting, negative attitude. Jacob’s sons should not have been blessed because of the way they had treated their brother and their father. But they were blessed anyway, apart from any merit on their part, because of their relationship with Joseph. God even took their act of sin, selling their own brother into slavery, and made it the means of their deliverance from the famine.

You can see the parallel, can’t you? God doesn’t bless us because we’re such deserving people. He blesses us because of His Son, Jesus. If we’re in Him, then we’ve got connections in high places! He provides blessings for us often when we haven’t been trusting Him as we should. He blesses us sometimes even when we haven’t obeyed Him as we should. Why? Because of our relationship with Jesus. God even took our sin, which sent Jesus to the cross, and used it as the means of our salvation. Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more (Rom. 5:20)!

Conclusion

A few years ago some tourists from a remote, undeveloped Middle Eastern desert country visited a large American city. One thing that impressed them in their hotel was the seemingly endless supply of good water that flowed from the faucets. Where they came from, water was scarce and expensive, so to be able to turn on a tap and have all you wanted was quite a luxury. When it came time for them to go, they were found with wrenches in their hands, prepared to remove the taps and take them back to the desert with them. They thought that if they could just get those faucets back to the desert, all their water problems would be solved. They didn’t realize that faucets are useless unless they are connected to an abundant source of water.

In Jesus Christ, God has provided all that we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). Just as Joseph went into the dungeon and was then raised up to Pharaoh’s right hand to save his brothers, so Jesus went into the grave itself, but was raised up and seated at the Father’s right hand to save you from God’s judgment. Jesus is God’s greatest gift to you: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). All the promises of God are yes in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). If you’ll trust Jesus as Savior and Lord, you’ll find that He is the way to God’s abundant supply for your every need.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it wrong to enjoy the material things God gives us when there are such great needs in the world?
  2. Is it too simplistic to say that a Christian can have deep emotional needs met in Christ apart from psychological counseling?
  3. Benjamin received more than his brothers. Must God deal equally with His children? If not, is He unfair? Why not?
  4. How do we explain His abundant provision to a person who seemingly didn’t receive it when he needed it?

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, Discipleship, Establish, Grace

Lesson 76: Experiencing God’s Provision (Genesis 45:16-28)

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An old woodsman decided to go modern and buy his first chain saw. He had used an axe all his life, but he kept hearing that these chain saws could cut a cord of wood in a fraction of the time he could do it with his axe. So he went to the store and bought the top model.

But a few days later he came back and complained to the sales clerk that his saw wasn’t any good. He said, “I can cut more wood with my axe than I can with this thing.” The clerk looked the saw over carefully. He checked the oil level, he examined the chain to make sure it was secure, he looked at the spark plug. Everything seemed okay, so he pulled the starter cord and the saw roared to life. The old woodsman jumped back in alarm and exclaimed, “What’s that noise?”

The old woodsman had all the power he needed in that saw, but he couldn’t use it because he didn’t realize that it was available and he didn’t know how to use it. Many Christians are like that. God has provided “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3), but they don’t experience it because of hindrances in their lives.

Perhaps some of you desperately need something from the Lord. It may be a financial need, a physical need, a need for healing in some relationship, or a spiritual need. God may have withheld it simply because it is not His time or because He knows that ultimately it would not be good for you. He may want you to learn His sufficiency in your weakness. But He may not be providing it because something in your life is blocking it.

As we saw in our last study, Genesis 45:16‑28 is a beautiful illustration of God’s abundant provision for His people. Through Joseph, God provided abundantly beyond what Jacob and his other sons ever could have expected. We saw how God provided for all their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, in His timing, not theirs, in ways they never would have expected, and through grace, not through merit. I want to look at these verses again to point out some things that could have hindered Jacob and his sons from experiencing God’s provision through Joseph and to see how we can experience God’s abundant provision for us in Christ.

To experience God’s provision, we must remove any hindrances and look beyond the gifts to the Giver.

1. To experience God’s provision, we must remove any hindrances.

Our text reveals five hindrances that can keep us from experiencing God’s provision:

A. Quarreling can hinder us from experiencing God’s provision.

As his brothers are about to depart, Joseph warns them, “Do not quarrel on the journey” (45:24). Why would Joseph say this to his brothers? Because he knew them and he knew human nature. These men had become instantly rich. They went down to Egypt as shepherds, hoping to buy enough bread to survive the famine. They returned with wagon loads of provisions, dressed in the finest clothes of Egypt, with the promise of all they needed for the future.

Whenever people get money, they can easily get greedy, especially when one gets more than another. Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother, received five changes of clothes and 300 pieces of silver. The other brothers easily could have said, “This isn’t fair. Let’s kill Benjamin and take his things for ourselves.” Or they could have pressured Benjamin into dividing his things among them. Quarreling on the way home was a danger that could have resulted in their never returning to experience all that Joseph had to give them.

Even though Joseph’s admonition strikes us as humorous, there is a warning here for us who are brothers and sisters in the Lord. It’s easy to envy the possessions or the situation in life of other Christians who have more than we have. It can lead to quarrels and block us from experiencing what God wants to give us.

Often such quarrels are between family members, as was the danger here. Childhood sibling rivalry carries over into adult life. Just watch a family scramble for their share of the inheritance when the parents die. There are brothers and sisters who don’t even talk to one another for years because they’re angry about who got what after their parents died.

I chuckle when I read Luke 12:13-15, where a man in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” I would think that Jesus, being fair, would have said, “Bring the scoundrel to me,” and would have rebuked him for his greed. But instead, Jesus said to the man with the complaint, “Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbiter over you?” And then He pointedly warned him and the whole crowd, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” It wasn’t just the brother who grabbed the inheritance who had a problem with greed. The brother who wanted his fair share also was greedy, and it led to this ongoing quarrel. Quarreling, especially because we’re greedy, can hinder us from experiencing God’s provision.

B. Guilt can hinder us from experiencing God’s provision.

When Joseph told his brothers to go home and tell his father about his splendor in Egypt and to bring him and all their households down there, it meant that they would have to admit to their father how they sold Joseph into slavery and deceived Jacob all these years. This also could have led to quarreling on the way home, as Reuben could have said, “I told you not to do it” (42:22), and Judah said, “Remember, I’m the guy who saved Joseph’s life when the rest of you wanted to kill him.”

What if the brothers had decided, “We can’t tell dad the truth about Joseph”? What if they had not been willing to admit their sin to their father? They would have missed all that Joseph wanted to provide for them in Egypt. Experiencing Joseph’s provision hinged on their willingness to confess their sin. Otherwise, their guilt would have hindered them from the many good things Joseph wanted to give them.

In the same way, guilt can keep us from experiencing what God has provided for us in Christ. When you’ve wronged someone and feel guilty, do you want to be around them? Of course not! If you see them coming, you duck the other way and hope that they didn’t see you. And if you feel that way toward God, you try to hide from Him, like Adam and Eve in the garden. But you can’t receive what God wants to give you when you’re hiding from Him. The only way to experience His abundant blessings is to confess all your sin, knowing that He is faithful and righteous to forgive your sin, and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

C. Doubt can hinder us from experiencing God’s provision.

Jacob’s sons returned home and said, “Joseph is alive and is ruler of all Egypt!” And Jacob said, “Praise God! That’s great news!” No, Jacob “was stunned, for he did not believe them” (45:26). I can understand why the old man would be inclined to doubt them. After all, Jacob’s sons didn’t have a great track record for honesty. But what if Jacob had continued to doubt them? What if he had said, “You’re up to no good, as usual! You know that Joseph died over 20 years ago, and now you expect me to believe that he is alive and well?” If Jacob had continued to doubt, he would have missed God’s abundant provision through Joseph.

Apart from the previous unreliability of Jacob’s sons, why did he doubt their words? There are three reasons. (I’m indebted here to Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan, 1956], 1:292‑294.)

First, Jacob doubted his sons because what they said was contrary to everything he had believed for the past 22 years. For all those years he had thought, “Joseph is dead ... Joseph is dead.” The news, Joseph is alive didn’t fit into his grid. He had programmed himself to think in a certain way, so he couldn’t accept this contrary idea as true.

Isn’t that just like some people who reject the gospel? For years they have believed a set of false propositions concerning God and the Bible. They have thought, “The Bible is just a bunch of myths. Science tells us that evolution is true. How can anyone believe in miracles?” They have believed this way for so long that these things have become fixed assumptions in their minds. So when a Christian comes along and says, “There is a God who created the universe and you can know Him through the risen Lord Jesus Christ,” they scoff. What they’re really saying is, “It can’t be true, because I have believed differently for so long.”

Second, Jacob doubted his sons’ report because it sounded too good to be true. Joseph alive? That would have been the best thing Jacob could have imagined. But after all, this is the real world, not a fairy story. Everyone doesn’t live happily ever after in real life. Joseph had died; how could he possibly be alive, let alone be ruler of Egypt? In spite of all the evidence to the contrary (which we’ll consider in a moment), Jacob couldn’t believe it. It was just too good to be true!

Many reject the gospel for the same reason. It’s just too good to be true. If you tell people that the way to God is to try harder and resolve to be a better person, so that through determination and good works, you’ll get to heaven, they’ll believe you. That’s what every cult teaches, and people flock to them. But if you say, “God has provided everything through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. All you can do is come to God just as you are and accept the free gift of eternal life He offers you,” people say, “It can’t be! That’s just too good to be true.”

But it is true! The good news is that Christ died for our sins. He paid the penalty we deserve. God has done it all. No matter how great your sins, all you can do is come to Christ just as you are and receive His forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift.

The third reason for Jacob’s doubt was his tendency to believe the bad news above the good news. Jacob, the perpetual pessimist, was more inclined to believe that all these things were against him than to believe that God was for him. When he sent his sons to Egypt, he was sure that he would never see any of them again. He was always looking for and believing the worst case scenario.

Some of us are more inclined to pessimism than others. But pessimism isn’t compatible with faith in our good God. We put up our umbrellas of gloom to block out His sunshine and then complain about how shady it is! Satan’s original strategy with Eve was to get her to doubt the goodness of God. He still uses that ploy to keep many from experiencing all that God has for them.

D. Difficulties can hinder us from experiencing God’s provision.

Jacob was an old man. There were no commuter flights or even paved roads between Canaan and Egypt. To make this move to Egypt with all his household was a major thing for a man Jacob’s age. It meant a new, threatening living situation in a foreign country. There were all his belongings to pack and transport. There was a lot of uncertainty, risk, inconvenience, and hardship involved in this move. But if Jacob had allowed these difficulties to hinder him, he would have missed all that Joseph wanted to provide.

Change isn’t easy, especially the older we get. It’s easier to stay set in our ways, enjoying our familiar surroundings. But we can miss the blessings God wants to give us because we refuse to go through the difficulties involved in changing ourselves or our geographic location. If God says, “Go to the mission field” and I say, “Lord, I’m too old. It’s too hard for me to change at this point in life,” I’ll not experience His full provision for my life.

Sometimes our possessions become a difficulty in disguise which keep us from experiencing God’s better provision. The King James Bible translates verse 20, “Regard not your stuff.” Pharaoh is telling Jacob’s brothers not to worry about bringing all their things, since he will provide them with the best of the land.

Suppose God says to me, “I want you to go serve Me in China” and I reply, “But, God, I can’t do that. What would I do with all my stuff?” My stuff would be keeping me from God’s will for my life, which would hinder me from experiencing His abundant provision. I never want to be so tied to my stuff that it keeps me from obeying God. Sell the stuff! If God wants me in China, I’d be happier there without all my stuff than I would be in America with it. Finally,

E. Despair can hinder us from experiencing God’s provision.

Jacob was at a low point when the news of Joseph reached him. He had sent his sons off with the fatalistic comment, “If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (43:14). As far as Jacob was concerned, Joseph was dead, Simeon was probably dead, and he may never see Benjamin again. In fact, the others may never return and he and the rest of the family might starve to death. As I said last week, the word used to translate “revived” (45:27) in the Greek Old Testament is used of stirring up dying embers which are almost extinguished. Jacob’s spirit was almost gone. But if he had persisted in his despair, he would have missed God’s provision through Joseph.

I realize that some people are more prone to depression because of their brain chemistry. They may need medical help. But I’m convinced that much depression is due to wrong thinking about the things that happen to us in life. When disappointing things happen to us, we have a choice about how we process it. We can think the worst, that God has forgotten us, that everything is against us. Or, we can choose to believe God. We can look at the evidence of His faithfulness and we can look to the Lord Himself and say, “It is not true that God has forgotten me. He cares about me.” Thinking those thoughts, we then can seek the Lord and we will experience all that He wants to give us.

Jacob did that here. He heard the testimony of his sons. He heard what Joseph had said. He looked at the gifts which Joseph had sent. And his spirit revived, so that his consuming purpose in life now was to go and see Joseph. In the same way, once we have dealt with the hindrances of quarreling, guilt, doubt, difficulties, and despair,

2. To experience God’s provision, we must look beyond the gifts to the Giver.

A. Look to the evidence of His faithfulness.

What changed Jacob’s despair into hope? Three things: First, he heard the eyewitness testimony of his sons (45:26); then, he heard the words of Joseph (45:27); finally, he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him (45:27). Those tangible evidences changed Jacob’s doubt to faith, so that he was able to experience the abundance which Joseph wanted to provide for him.

Perhaps today you’re doubting God. Circumstances have overwhelmed you with despair. You say, “I’d like to believe what you say, that God wants to provide for all my needs. But so many terrible things have happened to me. I just can’t believe in God.” But God offers you the same evidence of His faithfulness which He gave to Jacob.

First, there is the eyewitness testimony of those who were with the risen Savior. The apostle John was one of them. He wrote (1 John 1:1‑4):

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life‑‑and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us‑‑what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.

John and the other New Testament writers were intimately acquainted with Jesus Christ. They saw Him and spent time with Him after His resurrection. You can believe what they tell you. But maybe, like Jacob with his sons, you have trouble believing at this level.

Then look to the second level: The words of Jesus Himself. Jacob’s sons reported to him all that Joseph said. They told how Joseph recounted the providence of God in all that had happened to him. They related the kind words which Joseph had spoken of his father. As Jacob heard these things, he thought, “That sounds just like Joseph.” The words had the ring of truth.

The New Testament, especially the Gospels, report to us many of the words of Jesus. Read them and see if they don’t have the ring of truth. Surely, no one could invent such a character in fiction. Jesus tells us about God as One who had been with the Father. He speaks wise words of grace and truth which penetrate to the very core issues of life. If you are doubting God, read the words of Jesus.

Third, there are the visible evidences of Christ’s faithfulness to you. After Jacob heard his sons and the words of Joseph, he saw the wagons full of provisions (45:27). And if you will look, you will see abundant evidence of God’s care for you. Look at your possessions. You have food and clothing, plus many luxuries. Look at the family and friends He has given you. If you say, “But my family has rejected me and treated me terribly,” I say to you, “Look around this church. Here is your family, brothers and sisters who love you and care for you.”

Look at your health. Perhaps you are ill or even dying. But God has given you life for these years. Life itself is an evidence of His mercy. And even now, He is giving you the opportunity to respond to His love, to receive the gift of eternal life which He provided for you at great cost to Himself. Every good and perfect gift comes down to us from God.

But Jacob didn’t say, “Look at these wagons! Look at all this stuff! This is great!” He didn’t even mention the gifts. Instead, when he believed that Joseph was alive, that was enough. Forget the gifts; Jacob wanted only to go and see Joseph. Even so, we should never become enamored with the gifts God provides as evidence of His faithfulness. Rather, we should ...

B. Look to the Lord Himself.

All Jacob wanted in life now was to go and see Joseph. I’m sure he appreciated and used the provisions Joseph had supplied. But Jacob’s consuming passion in life now was to see his son who had “died” and now was alive again.

God’s purpose in providing for us is not that we would get caught up with His provisions or gifts. God wants us to be enamored with His Son, who died and is alive forevermore. Look to the gifts God gives as evidence of His faithfulness, but remember, they’re only a means of getting us to look beyond to the face of the Giver. Our consuming passion in life should be to see Christ and be with Him.

Conclusion

A wealthy man once lost his wife when their only child was young. He hired a housekeeper to care for the boy, who lived only into his teens. Heartbroken from this second loss, the father died a short time later. No will could be found. Since there were no relatives, it looked as if the state would get his fortune.

The man’s personal belongings, including his mansion, were put up for sale. The old housekeeper had little money, but there was one thing she wanted. It was a picture that had hung on a wall in the house‑‑a photo of the boy she had loved and cared for. When the items were sold, nobody else wanted the picture, so she bought it for just a few cents. Taking it home, she began to clean it and polish the glass. As she took it apart, a paper fell out. It was the man’s will, and in it he stated that all his wealth should go to the one who loved his son enough to buy that picture. (“Our Daily Bread,” Summer, 1983.)

God’s abundant resources belong to all who trust and love His Son. The promises of God are all yes in Christ. If you’ve never come to Him, put aside any hindrances, look at the evidence of His faithfulness in your life and in His Word, and look beyond to the person of Christ Himself. Trust in Him and you will experience God’s provision for all your needs.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is greed is a major or minor problem for American Christians? How can we deal with it in ourselves and in our children in this materialistic culture?
  2. What are some bench marks by which we can gauge whether we are too caught up with our stuff and not enough with Christ?
  3. How can a pessimist become an optimist? Should he?
  4. How can a person who has suffered many hardships honestly believe in the 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: Character of God, Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 77: Should I Move, Should I Stay? (Genesis 46:1-30)

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What is the longest you have ever lived in one house? If it’s more than five years, you’re above the national average. One out of five Americans moves every year. We are a transient nation. My father had an uncle who lived and died without ever traveling more than 50 miles from the place where he was born. In that day and before, generations often would stay in the same small community. Our frequent moving has fragmented the extended family. A few years ago a survey of American undergraduate students revealed that three-fourths of them could not give the first and last names of all four of their grandparents.

Sometimes I’ve been surprised at how quickly American Christians will move their families from one location to another without much thought or prayer. There are always reasons--they got a better job offer, they like the area, they want to get away from the crowded city and the crime, they want a better place to raise kids, etc. Some of those factors are worth considering, of course. But at times it seems that Christians hardly consider the Lord and His purpose. The local church and our ministry in a particular church ought to be important factors when considering any move. Of course there are times when God wants us to move. The question is, “How can I know whether God wants me to move or stay?”

In Genesis 46:1-30, Jacob moves his whole extended family down to Egypt. It was not an easy thing for a 130-year-old man to do! There was a famine in Canaan and his son Joseph had promised them the best of Egypt. Jacob desperately wanted to see Joseph, whom for 22 years, he had thought was dead. But Jacob knew that his grandfather, Abraham, had gotten into trouble in Egypt. God had forbidden his father, Isaac, to go there during another famine (26:2). Jacob knew that God’s promise involved Canaan, not Egypt. So he stopped in Beersheba to seek the Lord and did not move on to Egypt until the Lord gave him a green light. One of the main reasons Moses included this section was to show how this move out of the Promised Land fit in with the covenant plan of God. This story gives us some factors to consider when we are faced with a move:

When considering a move, seek the Lord and His perspective above all else.

Our text falls into three sections: (1) The move to Egypt (46:1-7); (2) The people who moved (46:8-27); and, (3) The reunion of Jacob and Joseph. I’m going to glean one principle from each section in relation to the matter of God’s guidance when facing a potential move.

1. Put a brake on your emotions and seek the Lord.

When Jacob finally believed his sons’ report that Joseph was alive and ruler of all Egypt, going to see Joseph became the consuming passion of his remaining life. Joseph had invited Jacob and the whole family to move to Egypt, where he would provide for them through the famine. So Jacob had his sons load the wagons and the whole extended family set off for Egypt.

The first night they arrived at Beersheba, at the southern end of Canaan. Beersheba stirred up many memories for Jacob. More than 40 years before Jacob’s birth his grandfather, Abraham, had made a covenant with Abimelech, king of the Philistines, there. He had planted a tamarisk tree and called on the name of the Lord (21:31-33). It was at Beersheba that Jacob’s father, Isaac, had seen the Lord, who had reconfirmed His promises to bless him and multiply his descendants (26:23-25). Isaac had dug a well there. It was at Beersheba that Jacob had tricked his father by stealing the blessing from his brother, Esau, and fled north to escape from his brother’s anger (27:30-28:10).

So now, as the old man sat under his grandfather’s tamarisk tree and drank water from his father’s well, he was flooded with the memories of a lifetime. As he reminisced about these things, Jacob probably grew a bit uneasy about his move to Egypt. He desperately wanted to see his beloved Joseph. But in light of God’s past dealings with him, his father, and grandfather, did God want him to make this move?

Egypt was quite different than Canaan. Both were thoroughly pagan, but Egypt was sophisticated, noted for its prosperity and technology. It was the most civilized and developed nation on earth at that time. Jacob and his sons had spent their lives in the country, taking care of livestock. What kind of effect would Egypt have on his family, who had been so easily lured by the evil ways of Canaan? Then there was the trouble his grandfather had gotten into in Egypt and God’s warning to his father not to go there. After all, God’s promises had never mentioned Egypt, but only Canaan. Was Jacob making a fatal mistake to take his family to Egypt?

So Jacob did a great thing: He stopped in Beersheba “and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac” (46:1). He put a brake on his emotions, which were moving him toward Joseph, and he sought the Lord. I believe that Jacob was primarily looking for guidance, but he did it through this act of consecration and worship. It’s important to understand that we can never know the will of God unless we are growing to know God Himself and we have yielded ourselves totally to Him. That’s what Paul says in Romans 12:1-2, that by presenting our bodies to God as a living and holy sacrifice we will prove what the will of God is.

The godly George Muller warned against rushing forward in self-will, thinking that you are following God’s will. He said, “Seek to have no will of your own, … so that you can honestly say, you are willing to do the will of God, …” (George Muller of Bristol, by A. T. Pierson [Revell], p. 450).

The Lord spoke to Jacob in “visions of the night” saying, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph will close your eyes [in death]” (46:2-4). God wouldn’t’ have said, “Don’t be afraid” unless Jacob had been afraid. So God calmed his fears and reconfirmed His promises to him. Jacob was able to go on to Egypt, sure that God was with him in this move. What a comforting assurance from God!

What Jacob did here was not easy because his emotions were running so high over the prospect of being with Joseph. What if when Jacob sought the Lord, He had said, “Don’t go”? That was a risk, wasn’t it? But Jacob realized that if God wasn’t in it, he wouldn’t be happy in going, even if it meant not seeing Joseph. So he put the brakes on his emotions and sought the Lord.

It’s easy to get excited about a move. Maybe life has been a bit boring and a move is an adventure. That’s U-Haul’s motto, “Adventure in Moving.” If you’ve ever driven a U-Haul, you know what that means! Maybe you’re tired of your problems in a job or locale and you’re ready to trade them in for a new situation. Maybe the move means more money, a greater challenge at work, a bigger home, a more desirable place to live. But if God isn’t in it, don’t do it! Put the brakes on your excitement long enough to yield yourself fully to Him, to seek Him, and to pray.

What you need, above all else, is to be sensitive to and to hear from the living God. By “hearing from God,” I do not mean an audible voice. God does that so rarely that you should not expect it. I’m bothered by people who go around saying, “The Lord told me.” You also need to be cautious about subjective impressions. It’s easy to be mistaken. But if you are walking closely with the Lord, if you seek godly counsel, and if you apply the wisdom from God’s Word in prayerful dependence on His Spirit, He will often give you a strong inner sense of whether a move is from Him or not. I have also found fasting to be helpful as I consider a major decision. I admit that the process is a bit subjective. But knowing the will of God is always connected with knowing God. So I must seek not only God’s will, but God Himself. Put a brake on your emotions and seek the Lord Himself.

2. Put thought into God’s purposes and obey His leading.

The second section of our text (46:8-27) consists of a long list of names of people we know nothing about. It’s not even useful if you’re looking for names for your baby, unless you want something like Muppim, Huppim or Ard. But God saw fit to include it in Scripture and we need to think about the reason why.

We need to remember that to the first readers of this book, these names meant something. This is a list of every tribe (and every major family group within that tribe) that later formed the nation Israel. Every Hebrew knew his family ancestry. The division of labor, the organization of the army, and the parceling of the land all were based on the tribes. Even the coming of the Messiah was through the particular tribe of Judah.

God’s way of working is to call individuals to Himself, just as He called Abraham. Through those individuals, He calls families, and through those families, nations are called to obedience to the Savior. God’s plan is to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham. That’s why, in verse 1, the text says that Jacob offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac, and in verse 3, God identifies Himself to Jacob as “the God of your father.” Why not Jacob’s God? Because this is covenant history, the story of God’s dealings with His people. There is a corporate flavor, a sense of continuity between the generations, of God’s moving from the individual to the family to the nation in His working.

One of our major blind spots as American Christians is our individualistic approach to the Christian life. I’m not suggesting that we do not need an individual relationship with God. Of course we do! But we have made Christianity so personal that we have lost the sense of belonging to the church as God’s covenant people, His extended family, just as Israel was His people. Because we don’t know church history, we don’t have a sense of continuity with those who have gone before us. We join and leave a church according to our personal likes and dislikes. So many people attend a church for years, yet hardly know the others who attend. This lack of belonging makes us vulnerable to the enemy.

These lists of boring names meant something to Moses’s readers because this was family. Their identity was tied up in being of a certain family, of a certain tribe, of the nation descended from Israel. They saw themselves as a distinct people, set apart unto God. That’s why verse 10 singles out a son of Simeon whose mother was a Canaanite woman. That was both unusual and wrong. God’s people were not to intermarry with the pagans. They were to be distinct.

The way this applies to us in considering a move is that we never ought to make a move without considering our relationships with the family of God. If our identity is really bound up with this family of God in this locale, then to sever that connection by moving somewhere else ought to be done only after the most careful, prayerful consideration. Why does God want me to move from this expression of His family to another? Is there a solid Christian church in the new community where my family and I can grow and serve? If not, is God calling me to help establish such? If not, why am I going there? If it’s just for a better job or lifestyle, am I really seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness? God’s purpose through His church ought to be at the heart of any decision to move, whether you’re in “full time” ministry or not.

This list of names would have reminded Moses’s readers of their identity as God’s people in fulfilling His purposes. Also, it would have reminded them that the outworking of God’s purposes takes time, but it is absolutely certain. When Abraham was 75, God told him that He would make of him a great nation. Abraham was 100 before Isaac was born. Isaac was 60 before Jacob and Esau were born. Now Jacob was 130, and the “great nation,” after 215 years, consisted of these 70 descendants of Abraham. That’s not a quick start. But in the 400 or so years from Jacob to Moses, the number had mushroomed from 70 to over two million!

What God promises and purposes to do, He does, even though from our perspective it takes a long time. Our lifetimes are too short to measure God’s purpose. Our task is to understand God’s missionary purpose for the world (to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed) and to devote our lives to seeing that purpose brought about, even if it seems as if God is slow about His promises (see 2 Pet. 3:3-13).

David Livingstone, the great pioneer missionary to central Africa, was criticized in his day for being more of an explorer than a missionary. But Livingstone understood what many of his contemporaries did not, that Africa could only be opened to the gospel as trade routes were opened to the interior and as the slave trade was stamped out. He said that he would never live to see the fruit of his labors for Christ, but that in 100 years, the difference would be seen. He was right. Africa today has a strong Christian witness, thanks in large part to Livingstone’s foresight. He saw God’s purpose for Africa and he obeyed God’s leading for his life.

Not many of us are Livingstones. But we do need to consider God’s purpose for the nations when we think about a move. Maybe He wants you to work in a foreign country that is closed to traditional missionaries. There are many Christian “tentmakers” in our day who are deliberately moving to “closed” countries to work and witness as Christians. If God wants you to stay in the U.S., He still wants you to think in missionary terms. Which people does He want you to reach? So many Christians want to move to get away from people. Why do that when God’s purpose is to use us to reach them with the gospel?

Before I go on to the third point relating to a decision to move, I need to mention that there are several problems with this list. Some of the names here vary from other parallel lists (in Numbers 26 and 1 Chronicles 2-8). Some of these can be explained as variant spellings or as different names of the same person (a common practice). There is no reason to think that there are errors.

Another problem is that Benjamin is listed here as having ten sons, although he was only in his early twenties. In Numbers 26:40, some of these sons are said to be his grandsons (the Hebrews didn’t distinguish as carefully between the two terms as we do). When Moses writes that these 70 went down to Egypt, we need to understand the statement from the Hebrew perspective. He is writing covenant history, aimed at showing the roots of the Hebrew nation. His purpose here is to list the men who eventually became the heads of the twelve tribes and the sons and grandsons who became the founders of the major clans in Israel. What he means is that shortly after Israel and his sons came to Egypt, perhaps during Joseph’s lifetime, these 70 fathers, from whom the various clans of Israel descended, were born. Not all 70 had to be in the caravan from Canaan to Egypt to fit into Moses’s way of thinking and purpose. The fact that they were “in their father’s loins” means that they could be counted (see Heb. 7:9-10).

Another problem concerns the fact that Moses lists 70 persons, whereas Stephen, in his sermon before the Jewish council, says 75 (Acts 7:14). Stephen was quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which includes some people the Hebrew text omits. So it is a matter of whom you count. Stephen quoted from that version because it was the popular text of his day. For Moses, 70 was a significant number. Seven is the number of the divine covenant, ten the number of completeness. So these 70 names represent the completeness of God’s covenant promises to the fathers (so Keil, Leupold). This list is a confirmation that God’s promised blessing was intact.

To return to our theme, we have seen that seeking the Lord and His perspective above all else is the key to God’s will concerning a move. Put a brake on your emotions and seek the Lord; and, put thought into God’s purposes and obey His leading. Finally,

3. Put a premium on family relationships and enjoy God’s blessings.

I derive this point from the emotional reunion of Jacob and Joseph (46:28-30). Words could never describe the emotion of this scene. Thus it is told in the briefest manner: The old father and his son whom he thought dead, who hadn’t seen each other for these 22 years, fall on each other’s neck and weep for a long time. Jacob says, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive.” He means, “In seeing you, I have experienced everything I want in life.”

Real joy in life comes through relationships, not through where you live or what you own. God has given us the family as the primary place to nurture those relationships. You can climb to the top of your career, even a “Christian career,” and have all the goodies that go along with success. But if you neglect your family to get there, you’ll come up empty.

I like reading biographies of great Christians. Other than Calvin’s Institutes, I have learned more through such books than through any other book, except the Bible. But one of the sad things I’ve learned is that some of the great men of God neglected their families in order to pursue their ministries. Of course, they didn’t have jets to take them across oceans in a matter of hours. They believed that they were obeying Christ’s words about not loving family members above Him. I’m not questioning their motives or love for Christ. But the bottom line is, they would be gone from their families for months, in some cases years, at a time. In many cases, their families suffered because of it.

That bothers me. If God has called me to have a family, then He wants my family life to be a priority. That’s a qualification for being a church leader. If He has also called me to be an itinerant missionary, then I’d better take my family with me as much as possible. Children often think that an absent father has rejected them, no matter how much he may love them. There is no way you can make up for not being there those few short years your kids are growing up. I don’t view being gone from your family for great periods of time as a sacrifice for the Lord. I view it as a neglect of a man’s primary responsibility of modeling his faith in his home.

So before you make a move, ask yourself, “How will this effect my family relationships?” Will it give me more time to be with my family, to teach them the Lord’s ways, to model before them what it means to walk with God? Will it give us as a family a better platform to serve the Lord together? Or will it simply foster my career at the expense of my family relationships?

Conclusion

The late Senator Paul Tsongas, then 43, shocked the political world when he announced in 1984 that he would not seek reelection because he was suffering from cancer and he wanted to spend more time with his family. His cancer was treatable, and he could have pursued his career. But he said, “One night my children went to sleep with my arms around them and I realized that for seven years this might rarely happen again. I used to walk my kids to school and think about reelection. Now I walk my kids to school and think about them. My life is richer.” He adds, “Someone wrote me, ‘No one on his deathbed ever says he wished he had spent more time on his business.’” (Reader’s Digest [9/84, pp. 163-164].)

To my knowledge, Mr. Tsongas was not a believer. So while he got his family values right, he still didn’t have his overall priorities straight. What I’ve been saying to you is, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). When considering a move, put God and His purposes first. That will bring everything else--your family, your ministry, your career--into proper focus.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree that American Christians are too individualistic? What are some signs of this?
  2. When we’re seeking God’s will how can we know whether an inner sense of peace is from Him or not?
  3. Should every Christian be focused on fulfilling the Great Commission? If not, what does Matthew 6:33 mean? If so, what are the implications?
  4. Do you agree that fathers should not be absent often from their kids? Should a man change his job if it requires this?

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 Home, Christian Life, Discipleship, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Wisdom

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