Sunday, March 19, 2017

Joseph and Jesus

Good Morning - this morning, we’re going to return to our series of sermons on seeing Jesus in the Old Testament. As you recall, we started with Adam, then considered Abraham and then before taking a break for a few weeks, we looked at the scapegoat ritual, and how it prefigured Jesus. And this morning, we’ll be turning to Joseph, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham.

Joseph is, without question, one of the most important figures in the history of the Jewish people. Without him, the people of Israel would never have survived. Of course, without that survival, they would never have been put into slavery in Egypt. But on the other hand, without that slavery, there would never have been experienced God’s miraculous deliverance, and with it, freedom and recovery of the promised land. Life can be complicated, can’t it? Well, Joseph’s life certainly was complicated. Let me remind you of his (most remarkable) story (which can be found in Genesis 37-50):


Joseph was the beloved favorite son of his father. And Joseph had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong, which unfortunately resulted in his tattling on his brothers when they weren’t behaving well -- and that didn’t go over so well. Joseph was also given special treatment by his father -- famously receiving a “coat of many colors” -- and his brothers didn’t like that, either. Joseph was also a dreamer. And not just one of those dreamers that you can roll your eyes at and safely ignore. No: Joseph was one of those dreamers who thinks that you, too, must participate in his dreams. And one day, when Joseph was seventeen years old, his father sends him off to find his older brothers. He needs to go on quite a hike, because they had moved the family sheep around to greener pastures. But he eventually catches up to them, and this is what we read (Genesis 37:18-20):

But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
“Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”


He came unto his own, but his own did not receive him. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Jesus was killed by his own, and it certainly seems that Joseph might also have been killed -- his brothers only changing their mind at the last minute because some slave-traders came along and his brother Judas, I mean Judah, convinces them to sell Joseph for a few pieces of silver. So Joseph received a second life, but ended up being hauled off to Egypt at the end of a slaving caravan.

Now some people, having just been mugged and sold as a slave by your family might be a tiny bit bitter about the whole experience. Some people might even have blamed God for it all. And since he was only human, it likely took Joseph a while to be able to handle the whole slavery thing. But we know that he eventually came around, and concluded that if God was with him, and he was in Egypt, then God was also in Egypt, too.

Now being a slave has never been fun, and being a slave in Egypt no different. Joseph was sold to a guy named Potiphar. That was a good thing: Potiphar was wealthy and powerful, so he could afford to treat his slaves well – especially the good slaves. And Joseph turned out to be one of the very best slaves that Potiphar had. That’s already a good indication that Joseph was trusting in God. When we trust in God, God often helps us do our work better, even when it could so easily be getting us down. So after a while, Joseph’s life wasn’t so bad.

But just when Joseph was about to get comfortable, Potiphar’s wife comes along. Now I told you that Joseph was a tattle-tale. But there are two types of tattle-tales: the first type tells those things that you’d prefer to be kept secret. That’s the kind of tattle-tale that Joseph was with his brothers. But Potiphar’s wife was the other kind of tattle-tale: she made up lies to tell Joseph’s master in order to get him into trouble. And who is Potiphar going to believe, this slave he bought from the camel traders, or his wife? Well, he believes his wife, and Joseph gets thrown in a dungeon.

Now some people, having been thrown into a dungeon because someone made up lies about them might be a tiny bit bitter about the whole experience. Some people might even have blamed God for it all. And since he was only human, it likely took Joseph a while to be able to handle the dungeon smells. But we know that he eventually came around, and concluded that if God was with him, and he was in a dungeon, then God was also in that dungeon, too.

Can you imagine? Joseph gets thrown into a well, sold as a slave, wrongfully accused, thrown into a dungeon… Joseph might have been tempted to imagine that God had abandoned him altogether. But the Bible says that God was with Joseph this entire time. And since the Bible story almost certainly comes directly from Joseph’s telling of it, it is remarkable that Joseph recognizes God in the depths of his suffering.

But that’s an important lesson, isn’t it? Just because we don’t think that God is around to look after us, doesn’t at all mean that he has left us alone. When God says “I will never leave you, I will never forsake you,” he doesn’t sneak in some fine print “as long as you do such and so.” As long as we live, God is there watching out for us, and showing his grace to us. The Bible says, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “in Him all things hold together.”

It is common for people today to claim that there is too much suffering in the world to believe in God. Strangely, this claim often seems to be inversely related to the amount of suffering that the person making the claim has actually experienced. Joseph, having experienced incredible injustice and suffering, knew that God was there beside him.


And so as a picture for us, as an illustration of His love that we can learn from almost four thousand years later, God came and rescued Joseph. It only took thirteen years from the time that he was thrown in that old well. Thirteen years! How did it happen? It was all about dreams.

Joseph found himself between two criminals in that dungeon. Both of them had dreams. Neither understood what their dream meant. Joseph interpreted their dreams for them. One of the dreams meant that Joseph’s companion would be executed. The other dream meant the deliverance of the other criminal beside him. Almost like Jesus on the cross, who famously told the criminal beside him, “you will be with me in paradise.”

So the butler was reinstated to the coveted position of waiting on Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Years later, when Pharaoh had some troubling dreams, the butler remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh that this guy in the dungeon could interpret dreams. So Pharaoh hauled Joseph out of the dungeon and asked for the meaning of his dreams. The dreams indicated that the whole land was going to have seven years of good crops followed by seven years of famine. And Pharaoh was so pleased with Joseph for the warning he provided, that he made him the ruler of the entire land. And it was a good thing, too, because Joseph had the people store away food before the famine, they had enough to survive when the famine came.

One day, long before, Joseph left his father's house wearing his fancy coat, but he ended that day with his coat stripped off him and having been thrown into a pit, to begin thirteen years of slavery and abuse. But on this day, he woke up in a pit (the Hebrew for dungeon and pit are the same), , but he ended that day wearing royal robes in charge of the greatest civilization in the world at the time. If that isn’t a picture of resurrection, nothing short of coming back from the dead could be!


After those seven years of bountiful harvests, the famine came to Egypt and all the surrounding area. It was so bad that people from all over came to buy food from Joseph. And one day, ten men arrived from a long distance away to buy food. Joseph recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him (it had been twenty years, after all). That’s right: it was his brothers who had come to ask for food. You can picture it: here is a ruler in the greatest kingdom on earth, flanked by squads of guards. And his enemies come groveling before him. These are the same enemies who had come “this close” to killing him the last time they had met. Instead, they just sold their own brother as a slave. Now Joseph is the boss, and they are nobodies. But Joseph ends up being really kind to them, and talks the entire family into staying in Egypt (where there was food). And Joseph makes sure that they live in the best part of the entire country.

In Romans chapter five, we read that Christ died for us, and elsewhere, we understand that this death meant life for us. But we are told that Christ died not when we were already God’s friends, but while we were still his enemies -- while we were still sinners. Similarly, Joseph took a punishment he didn’t deserve; he suffered remarkable hardship; but by the powerful intervention of God, he is raised up to sit on a throne in order to provide life and peace for his enemies, and turn them into his family.


So everyone lives “happily ever after,” more or less. But the best part of the lesson of the story comes a little later on. When Joseph’s father Jacob became old and died, Joseph’s brothers all got together and came to Joseph, and the Bible says that they threw themselves down before him, expecting that he would deal with them harshly now. But listen carefully to what Joseph says in reply. He says two things, and both are so important. First, he says, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” Now Joseph is, of course, implying that “no, of course not, he is not in the place of God.”

It is so easy, so convenient, and so seductively empowering to take the place of God, isn’t it? And it all goes back to the Garden of Eden. What did the serpent say to Adam and Eve? He said, “if you eat of the fruit, you will become like God, knowing good from evil.” This is the most primal of human temptations – it always has been and it always will be. We want to be in the place of God. We want to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. We want to judge, we want to be in control. But we all need to come to the place that Joseph came to, where he knew that it was not his place to judge, it was not his place to decide what is right and what is wrong. He was not in the place of God, and neither are we.

But here’s an interesting twist: the Pharaohs of Egypt were actually given god-like status. Their absolute rule was the grounds for the practice. And Judah explicitly says that as far as they are concerned Joseph was “like Pharaoh himself (44:18).” So by the custom of the land, it would have been natural to have treated Joseph as God. But here he is humbly acknowledging that he is by no means God. As we read in Philippians chapter 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not cling to equality with God, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

How very much like Joseph, who also did not aspire to equality with God. And Joseph also was highly exalted and given a name second only to Pharaoh, just like Jesus has been and will be exalted:

9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The second thing that Joseph says is found in Genesis 50:20, as his brothers are groveling before him after the death of their father, Joseph says to his brothers, “Even though you might have meant it for evil, God meant it for good.”

“God meant it for good.” Being thrown in a well? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Being sold as a slave? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Being wrongfully accused? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Being thrown in the dungeon? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Now it is one thing to recognize God’s work in your life when He has picked you up and dropped you on the throne of the greatest civilization in the known world, but it is quite a different thing to recognize God’s work in your life when you are still in the dungeon. But this trick here is just this: if Joseph wasn’t able to recognize God’s work in his life while he was in the dungeon, God never would have elevated Joseph to the throne in the first place.

Now when Joseph says that God meant it for good, it shows that he understood God. One of the greatest of all human experiences is simply to be understood. And I expect that God appreciates being understood, too. Joseph understands that God’s purpose is to turn evil into good. And if we let him, God wants to be with us, too, and similarly redeem our lives from destruction. The most vivid illustration of this in history, is, of course, the cross. We meant it for evil. God meant it for good. The greatest act of injustice ever committed -- the greatest punishment ever imposed on the one who deserved it the least. Yet God used this event for the good -- in order to bring many children to glory, in order to provide life and peace for his enemies and turn them into his family.


So Joseph’s life is central to the story of the people of Israel. In fact, his story spans almost one quarter of the entire book book of Genesis. Almost as much ink is devoted to Joseph’s story as is given to the story of Abraham. But strangely enough, mention of Joseph is almost absent from the New Testament. Abraham is featured again and again in the writings of Paul - almost seventy times! but Paul never mentions Joseph at all!

Mentions of Joseph in the New Testament are usually references to other people: Joseph the husband of Mary, Joseph Barnabas, or Joseph of Arimathea. Apart from the final address of Stephen the Martyr in Acts chapter 7, the only mention we have of Joseph the son of Jacob in the New Testament is found in the famous eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the Hall of Faith, or the Faith Hall of Fame. And this is what it says (11:22):

By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

Say what? Joseph, the man who trusted God in the pit, who trusted God as a slave, who trusted God in the dungeon, and who was raised by God to the highest earthly position. And what does he get commended for in the New Testament? Instructions about his bones. It is a reference to one of the final acts of Joseph (at the end of the book of Genesis -- 50:24):

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will deal with you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” 25 Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely deal with you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”

And, sure enough, the people of Israel took this vow very seriously. From Exodus 13:19 :

And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had made the children of Israel swear, saying, God will surely visit you; and you shall carry up my bones from here.

A story that came to its conclusion in Joshua 24:32:

And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, were buried in Shechem....

This clearly was a big deal. But what is this telling us? Two things. First, God is primarily interested in what we’ve done for him lately. Sometimes it might be tempting to imagine that past service is of some importance, or a prayer prayed in the past is enough. But that isn't the model of the Christian life the Bible presented to us. In Colossians 2:6 we are told that "in the same way that you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in him." The Christian life is a continual present business. Considering that it is only the very last thing that Joseph did in his life is called out as an example for us, let’s plan our lives to end well, starting even today. Let’s get in the habit of faithful commitment to his word today, so that we’ll not be taking chances with the future.

But second, let’s also take God’s promises really seriously. This is what made Joseph insist that his bones be returned to the land of Israel, wasn’t it? He had heard from his father, and perhaps even from his grandfather, that the land of Israel has been promised to his family. He was certain that God was going to keep his promise, and he wanted his bones to end up in the right place.

And if we want to end up in the right place after we die, we, too, would do well to follow Joseph’s lead and pay close attention to God’s promises. After all, in Joshua 21:45, we read:

Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

And if God’s promises were good to the rebellious house of Israel, how much more will he keep his promises to his beloved children. That’s why Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:1:

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.

But the promises of God don’t just drive us to purify our lives, they enable our purification:

2 Peter 1:4 [Jesus] has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

What promises are these? Well, this book is full of them. Let me encourage you to find them for yourself. And not just find them, but apply them to yourself. Take them seriously. Take them personally. It could change your life.

But I’ll close with one example, from the book of Isaiah, God promises (41:10):

Fear not; for I am with you: don’t be dismayed; for I am your God: I will strengthen you; I will help you; yes, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness. - Isaiah 41:10

You could take a lifetime taking a promise like that seriously. And that might, in fact, be exactly what God intended. Let God mean this for good in your life this morning.