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Lesson 86: Epitaph Of A Truly Successful Man (Genesis 50:22-26)

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A successful businessman had what he considered to be his greatest stroke of luck: an angel visited him and promised to grant him one wish. The man asked for a copy of the business news one year in the future. As he received it and began to pore over the stock market pages, he drooled as he thought of the killing he would make with his insider knowledge of the future. Then his eyes happened to glance across the page to see his own name--in the obituary column! His perspective and goals for the coming year were suddenly changed as he realized his own mortality.

Our studies of the life of Joseph have helped us define true success. Joseph succeeded in a worldly sense, with his career. But more importantly, he succeeded with God. These final verses of Genesis give us the epitaph of Joseph, a truly successful man. They help us to refine our priorities as we think about the direction of our lives.

These verses that sum up the life of this truly successful man are striking for what they include as well as for what they omit. They include mention of his family, that he lived to see his great-grandchildren. Surprisingly, they exclude any mention of Joseph’s career and position of power in Egypt. They also include Joseph’s final words of faith and hope that he left with his brothers. The book of Genesis, which began with the majestic words, “In the beginning God ...,” and with the description of man and woman enjoying the beauty of the paradise God placed them in, ends with the rather unsettling words that Joseph was “placed in a coffin in Egypt.” It reminds us that any correct definition of success has to take into account the fact of death. This text shows us that:

A truly successful man is one who succeeds spiritually with his family.

Joseph’s brothers may have outlived him, since he gives his final charge to them (although verse 24 could refer to their children). A successful life is not measured by its length. Even though Joseph lived relatively long by today’s standards, he did not live as long as his father (who complained about the shortness of his 147 years) or his grandfather, who lived to 180. But Joseph enjoyed the blessings of God with his family, and he left them with his strong faith and hope in God’s yet-to-be-fulfilled promises.

1. A truly successful man is content with the blessings of family.

In summing up the life of this great man who had fame and fortune, who saved a whole nation from starvation, Moses only mentions the rather simple fact that he lived to see his great-grandsons. The phrase, to be “born on Joseph’s knees,” here is probably a way of picturing this old man joyously holding his newborn great-grandsons on his lap. In this somewhat subtle way, Moses underscores the fact that no matter how successful a man may be, the family is one of God’s greatest blessings. As someone has said, no one ever gets to the end of his life and says, “I wish I had spent more time on my career.”

Moses has woven this theme throughout the book of Genesis. His outline is to trace the generations of various families, beginning with the first family, as seen in the recurring phrase, “These are the records of the generations of ...” (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2). God began His work in history with families. At the flood, He saved one family and began over again with them. Then He singled out Abraham and promised to give him a son and through his descendants to bless all the people on earth. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, had 12 sons, and those sons are, at the close of Genesis, in the incubation period of becoming the nation from whom God would bring the Savior. Joseph lived to witness the beginning of God’s multiplying his family in line with His earlier promises. That’s what Moses emphasizes as he closes this book.

As you know, the family in America has become increasingly fragmented. There are many factors involved--the erosion of Christian moral and family values, higher divorce rates, more mothers in the work force, and more. The most popular TV shows of the 1950’s, when I grew up--”Leave It To Beaver,” “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show”--all portrayed what then were fairly normal families: working dad, mom at home, first (and only) marriage, and kids working through the normal struggles of growing up under the wise tutelage of their parents. Now, most people viewing those shows think, “How quaint,” or “How unrealistic!”

It would be naïve to think that these cultural changes have not affected the church. We are more affected by our culture than we care to admit. As Christians, we need to fight this cultural erosion of the family by redefining success in family terms, not in career or financial terms. If I could give you some practical advice, I would say to those of you with young children, do everything you can to have the mom at home during those child-rearing years. I encourage the men to be home with your wife and children as much as possible. Play with your kids, read to them, do things together as a family. Take a yearly vacation together as a family. You will not regret it! You can’t influence your kids with the things of God if you never spend time with them.

Christian author and speaker, Gary Smalley, reports that he interviewed 30 families across the nation that he chose because they all seemed to have close relationships. Their children, though many were teenagers, all seemed to be close to their parents and happy about it. He asked them, “What do you believe is the main reason you’re all so close and happy as a family?” Without exception, each member of the family gave the same answer: “We do a lot of things together.” Even more amazing was that all 30 families had one particular activity in common. Guess what it was? Camping! After he tried it for the first time, Smalley concluded that the reason camping unites a family is that any family that faced sure death together and survived would be closer! (If Only He Knew [Zondervan], pp. 135-137.)

Let’s not forget that God didn’t design our families to be ends in themselves, so that we are simply to enjoy one another. One of the main messages of Genesis is that the godly family is to be God’s channel for blessing those who are separated from God and alienated from one another. We are to pass God’s blessings on within the family, to our own children and grandchildren, but also beyond the family to lost people. And the church is the extended family of God. We are to reach out to lonely, alienated people, showing them how to be rightly related to God and to one another. The church is to model for the world what caring, loving relationships are like.

So the first unusual thing about this epitaph of this great man is that it singles out the blessings of his family life. After all his impressive accomplishments, Joseph was content to see the births of his great-grandchildren.

The second unusual thing about this epitaph is what it omits. If an American reporter had researched and written this story, it would have told about Joseph’s meteoric rise to power and to the fact that he held onto his high government position for 80 years. He was respected by all, no small feat for a politician! But Moses completely skips what we would emphasize the most!

2. A truly successful man is unimpressed with worldly success.

It’s somewhat risky to make a point out of what the text is silent about. But it seems to me that in this case, it’s an awfully loud silence, glaring by its omission. To me it’s saying that a man who is successful in God’s sight is not impressed with what the world labels as success.

Think of who Joseph was: The Prime Minister of the most advanced, civilized nation on earth in his day. Not many men can handle that kind of power and fame for even a short while. Yet Joseph remained in his position for 80 years, through the reigns of at least three Pharaohs. And it never went to his head.

Often Christians relate to the world in one of two unbalanced extremes. Either they separate so much from the world that they are too detached to have any impact. Granted, not too many Christians are like this, but there are a few.

The other extreme is Christians who buy into the world completely. They seek after the money and status symbols the world offers. They live for the same goals the world lives for. There’s no observable difference between them and the world, except that sometimes they go to church on Sunday mornings.

But Joseph maintained that fine balance of being in the world, but not of it. He held a difficult and important position in a pagan government and did his job well without compromising his faith in the one true God. He was married to an Egyptian wife whose father was a well-known priest in the Egyptian religion. He had to interact socially with the upper crust of Egyptian social circles. Yet when God blessed him with sons, Joseph named them with Hebrew names which gave testimony to his God. And when it came time to die, he did not want to be buried in a fine Egyptian tomb but, rather, he chose to be identified with the unsophisticated, unimpressive covenant people of God. It would have been so easy for Joseph to have groomed his sons for worldly success. But instead, by his dying wish, he communicated that the things of God are far more important than the things of this fleeting world. Joseph was unimpressed with worldly success and acclaim.

George Washington Carver stated rightly that the only advantage of fame is that it gives you a platform for service. The same is true of money for the Christian. If God grants you either fame or money, you have an increased responsibility as His steward. But don’t fall into the common trap of being impressed with worldly success. Instead, like Joseph, identify yourself with God’s people and use any fame or fortune God gives you as a platform for greater influence for His kingdom. Joseph’s epitaph shows us that a successful man is content with the blessings of family and unimpressed with worldly success. Finally,

3. A truly successful man leaves his family faith and hope in God’s promises.

As Joseph was about to die, he left his family the greatest inheritance any man can leave--not money, but faith and hope in God’s promises: “‘I am about to die, but God will surely take care of [or, visit] you, and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.’ Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones up from here’“ (50:24-25).

That’s a remarkable final charge to his family in light of Joseph's position in Egypt and the fact that he had lived there for the last 93 of his 110 years! The author of Hebrews thought so, because out of all that he could have chosen from Joseph's godly life, he chose this incident to commend Joseph: "By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones" (Heb. 11:22). In light of all the space allotted to Joseph in Genesis, it seems a bit strange that this is the only thing for which the New Testament remembers and praises him. It focuses us on the fact that Joseph was a man of faith and hope.

A. A truly successful man leaves his family faith in God’s promises.

Two little words in verse 24 reveal Joseph’s faith. They are words that almost always reveal faith, the words, but God. Jacob, from his deathbed, had said the same thing to Joseph over 50 years before: “I am about to die, but God will be with you, and bring you back to the land of your fathers” (48:21). Joseph could have thought, “That wasn’t true. God didn’t bring me back, as my father said.” But rather than doubting God’s promise, which is not always fulfilled in our timetable, Joseph, from his deathbed, by faith assured his family, “I am about to die, but God will surely take care of you [the Hebrew is emphatic], and bring you up from this land to the land which he promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.”

As a proof of that faith, Joseph gave the unusual instructions that he was not to be put into one of the pyramids or some Egyptian tomb. But instead, his body was to be kept accessible enough that when Israel went back to Canaan, they were to carry Joseph’s bones with them! Bible scholars are divided on the chronology, but it was between 200 to 400 years later when Moses finally led Israel out of Egypt. They had to leave in haste, two million people heading out through the desert with all their belongings and livestock.

Yet in all that confusion, after all those years, we read in Exodus 13:19 that Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. During all those years of slavery and oppression in Egypt, Joseph’s bones stood as a witness of faith in God’s promises to Israel: “We’re not going to stay in Egypt forever. Remember Joseph’s bones!”

Who do you suppose got the job of carrying Joseph’s mummy out of Egypt? If their wagons were like our car when we leave on vacation, I can’t imagine anyone telling Moses, “Sure, we have some extra room. Just stuff that mummy right here by the sleeping bags!” Do you suppose some Hebrew family was grumbling, “Here we are taking off across the desert with everything we own, and Moses insists that we haul along this mummy!”

But the significance of that mummy was that it said to Israel, many of whom were unbelieving grumblers, “God can be trusted to keep His promises.” It may take 400 years, but you can count on it. If God promised, that should be enough for our trust. But when God promises on oath, then what excuse do we have for not believing Him?

Joseph’s family had leaned on him for support. But he taught them to look beyond himself to the living God who would support them after he was gone: “I am about to die, but God ....” That’s a great thing to leave to your family—”but God!” Teach your family that in the little problems as well as in the major crises of life, we have the God of Jacob as our refuge and strength (Ps. 46). We can go to His Word for wisdom and go to Him in prayer to make our requests known to Him. Leave your family faith in God’s promises.

B. A truly successful man leaves his family hope in God’s promises.

Faith and hope are closely related. As Hebrews 11:1 [NIV] puts it, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Hope is not an uncertain, vague wish. It is certain because God promised, but it’s not yet realized. Hope involves an attitude of patient expectancy as we wait for God to do what He has promised.

Hope is often displayed against the backdrop of severe trials. Joseph’s descendants would be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years before God visited them with deliverance in Moses. Even then, God seemed to be in no hurry, from a human perspective. He set Moses aside in the desert for 40 years of additional training before he was ready to lead Israel out of bondage. During those 400 years there is no record of the Lord appearing to any of Israel’s descendants. It’s interesting, by the way, that in spite of Joseph’s godliness, there is no record of God appearing to him as He had done to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So during all those years of oppression, when God was silent, His people had to hang on to the hope of God’s promise made to their fathers hundreds of years before.

The book of Genesis ends on this note of hope, that God will surely visit His people. He did, as the book of Exodus makes clear. But that wasn’t a final visitation. The Old Testament ends with the Lord giving the hope of the coming of “Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” ... (Mal. 4:5-6). But then there were 400 more silent years, when God’s people languished under the oppression of foreign rule, with no word from God. Then Zecharias, the father of that second Elijah, John the Baptist, prophesied, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people” (Luke 1:68).

Zecharias was prophesying of Jesus Christ, born in fulfillment of God’s promises that had gone unfulfilled for almost 2,000 years. Jesus Christ provided salvation from God’s judgment for all who will accept His death on the cross as God’s free gift. But after His death and resurrection, He did not remain to set up His kingdom on this earth, but returned to heaven. As He ascended, the angel told the apostles, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

And so the final book of the Bible ends by looking forward in hope to that great event: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). And now, almost 2,000 years later, we know that His return is near. We are to be looking for His coming in holy conduct and godliness, with expectant hope (see 2 Pet. 3:3-13).


Are you leaving your family a legacy of faith and hope in the promises of God? So often, as adults we grow cynical, negative, and unbelieving. Let’s face it, there’s a lot in life to shove us in that direction. But if you’re always grumbling, if you have a cynical attitude, you’ll poison your family toward God.

A six-year-old boy found a penny and excitedly showed it to his grandmother. Like many adults who have lost the simple perspective of children, she said, “What’s so great about finding a penny? You can’t buy anything with it.”

“Oh yes, you can!” the boy shot back. “You can buy a dream in a wishing well.”

There’s a big difference, of course, between a dream in a wishing well and the sure promises of God. But the boy’s spirit of expectancy was right. As men, ordained by God to lead our families and to pass on to them the legacy of God’s promises, we need to convey to them that even after we’re gone, they can trust and hope in the living God and He will not disappoint them.

Put yourself in the place of that businessman who saw his own name in the obituary column. You’ve only got a year to live. What do you want to leave your family: a successful career or faith and hope in the promises of God? True success is succeeding spiritually with your family.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some forces that have served to tear apart the American family? How can we fight against them?
  2. Is it wrong for a man to strive for career success? If so, how can he endure work? If not, how can he keep his priorities straight?
  3. Is it wrong for a Christian mother to pursue a career? Why/ why not?
  4. What are some practical ways Christian parents can instill faith and hope in their children?

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

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

Related Topics: Christian Home, Discipleship, Fathers, Mothers, Parenting

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