Faith of Joseph Part 2 - 'But God' - The personal aspect

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Bible Studies on the Real Heroes of the Faith Hebrews 11

Faith of Joseph Part 2 - 'But God' - The personal aspect

by I Gordon

I recently came back from my first trip to the United States. On my first day back at work I came in the door, said hi to everyone, before noticing that there were quite a few peanuts on the floor. This is a little odd even by our standards. I then noticed that the peanuts led, like a Hansel and Gretel path, all the way down the hall to my office door. My door now had a picture of a squirrel on it and the words 'Welcome back to the nut house'. My office door was closed so I was thinking 'Ok... what have they done?' Upon opening the door I found that my entire desk was covered completely in squirrel pictures, my chair was covered with pictures of Donald Trump and the American flag, my keyboard had some kind of moss all over it and my mouse was encased in jelly. I quite like jelly... but not so much that I was game to eat my mouse free. So I thanked them profusely for their kind act in trying to ease me into my homecoming and told them that I'll repay their kindness... in full. They said that wasn't necessary but I insisted... 'Oh no, I will repay you. I'm currently in your debt but I will get even!' : )

Well I wanted to look at someone this morning who, unlike me, didn't feel the need to repay or get even though he was greatly wronged. I'm talking of course about the Biblical character of Joseph. We've been doing a series on the heroes of the faith from Hebrews 11 and the last time we looked at an overview of Joseph's life, concentrating on the prophetic implications of his life. That is, we looked at how God had arranged the events in the life of his servant Joseph in such a way that it actually teaches us about the life of someone else who was coming nearly 2000 years later - the Lord Jesus. Amazingly we saw how Joseph's life was not only a pointer to what Jesus would experience in His first coming, but it also shone light on the events that occur leading up to the return of Jesus Christ. So we've looked at the prophetic element of his life and now we will look at the personal aspect... specifically what we can learn from his last words and deeds before he died. Joseph led an amazing roller coaster of a life that saw him sold into slavery at one point and ruling over Egypt and the nations the next. But when the writer of Hebrews wants to emphasise the faith that Joseph had, he simply points to a simple request of Joseph's right at the very end of his life. So let's have a look at the very end of the book of Genesis, chapter 50.

The last words and actions of Joseph - What can we learn from this great man of God? 

Genesis 50:14-17 After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, together with his brothers and all the others who had gone with him to bury his father. (15) When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?" (16) So they sent word to Joseph, saying, "Your father left these instructions before he died: (17) 'This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father."

So first of all we need to begin with a little context. The passage actually starts with the death of their father Jacob. With their father's passing, there is only one thought on the minds and hearts of Joseph's brothers - 'What now will become of us?' Joseph's brothers are scared and you can imagine their thoughts... 'Does Joseph still harbor resentment for what we did to him?' 'Is he bitter? Angry? Are there feelings of revenge in his heart?' 'Maybe Joseph has been biding his time, just waiting for the death of our father Jacob, so that he can now repay us back for the evil we did to him 20 years ago?'

Now, looking at this purely from a human perspective it's not hard to see that Joseph had a lot to be bitter and resentful towards his brothers about. Older brothers normally look after their younger brothers. Instead of looking after Joseph, his 10 older brothers wanted to kill him. Below the surface, jealousy festered into hatred and hatred bubbled over into a steadfast resolve to get rid of Joseph. And we know how the story unfolded - They sold him into slavery, invented a series of lies and told everyone from that day onwards that he had died. And they carried this lie on for the next 20 years. So naturally speaking, Joseph had a lot to be grieved and possibly resentful over.

If this was a recent modern day story I'm sure Oprah Winfrey or someone like that would have had all the brothers in, sat them on the couch, and broadcast all the details while the audience groans, shake their heads, wave their fingers and gasps at what they are hearing. The full weight of the social media firing squad would have heard enough in the first few minutes and would be ready to unleash as much venom upon the brothers as they could. 'They deserve everything they get!' 'Pay them back are entitled to feel angry, you should be angry... look at what they did to you!' If you don't get 'em we will!' 'Karma's gunna get you brothers and you deserve it!' To be fair, that is all far too mild for what social media does to people today. So let's have a look at Joseph's reaction. Was he holding a grudge and thoughts of revenge?

Firstly, put God back in His rightful place

Genesis 50:17-19... When their message came to him, Joseph wept. (18) His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. "We are your slaves," they said. (19) But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God?

How would Joseph react you ask? Well, he just cried. He wasn't harboring bitterness or thoughts of revenge. God had done a deep work in his life and all he desperately wanted was to be fully reconciled to his brothers. They had never asked for his forgiveness before. Look again at what he says - 'Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God?' So the first point that we can learn from the great man of God is that he had God in his rightful place. He gave room for God's will and God's work, and he wasn't going to take God's place. Joseph had the power to say 'Guards, take these men away and bury them up to their necks in the Egyptian dessert' and that is what would have happened. But He knew God and practised, even in the Old Testament, what is written in the New:

 Romans 12:17-21 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. (18) If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (19) Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. (20) On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." (21) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

Each of us needs to be careful because our human nature easily holds grudges. We become offended by something that someone has said or done when we think they shouldn't have. We get the pip over something that someone has not said or not done when we thought they should have. Churches have splits over such things. Christians lose their testimony in the world by acting on the impulses of their fallen human nature, while refusing to give God His rightful place to deal with situations. And there is a personal price to pay as well... what about the impact on a person's health by holding onto bitterness and unforgiveness?  [1]  So the first thing that we learn here from Joseph, in his wisdom that came from old age and a life time of following God, is that he didn't hold grudges or ill-will but simply gave God His place to deal as He saw fit. 'As much as it depends on you', the Bible says, 'live at peace with everyone.'

The all-important 'but God...' Have you learnt to say that? 

But how? How could Joseph be so forgiving to his brothers after all they had done? It is expressed in the next statement which is one of the best in the entire book of Genesis:

Gen 50:20-21 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (21) So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

'You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good...' What an amazing perspective and one that only a Christian can have. The unbeliever doesn't have God. When someone tries to hurt them they don't have the 'but God' part. They only have 'you intended to harm me.' Then there is a full stop. Then it often heads south from there. But what a difference God makes in a person's life! It actually makes for a great Bible study to just stop for a while and explore those two words - 'But God'. 'But God' times are moments where God steps in to help us. And they are very precious and important in both scripture and our lives.

  • In our stupid actions!: 'Now Abraham said of his wife Sarah, "She is my sister." Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her. But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, "You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman." (Genesis 20:2-3)
  • When requiring protection: 'David stayed in the desert strongholds and in the hills of the Desert of Ziph. Day after day Saul searched for him, but God did not give David into his hands.' (1 Samuel 23:14)
  • When all seems lost - Concerning the life of the Lord Jesus Peter said on the day of Pentecost: '... you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him (Jesus) to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. (Acts 2:23-24 )
  • In the temptations of life the Bible says 'No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able...' (1 Cor 10:13)
  • When we need comfort, Paul wrote: 'we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within. But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us...' (2 Corinthians 7:5-6)
  • And most important of all is our salvation as Romans tells us: 'One will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.' (Romans 5:7-8)

What a difference God makes. We are not talking about religion. We are not talking about being good or turning over a new leaf. We are talking about having the living Lord Jesus in your life. Joseph could say 'Yes, you meant to harm me, but God...'. He wasn't under any fairy tale illusion of what his brothers tried to do. He wasn't saying 'Oh you guys... you jokers... you never really meant to sell me into slavery!' No. It is a very real 'You meant to harm me...' I'm not sure whether Joseph did a dramatic pause there or not, but he certainly didn't end there. 'But God intended it for good. Don't be afraid.' Being able to say 'but God' makes all the difference. Have you learnt to say that? Do you know the Lord well enough that His presence and being makes the difference in what you face in your life?  [2] 

A short personal testimony

I was thinking about this 'but God' statement for my own life and my family's life and the difference God has made. God brought forgiveness and reconciliation to Joseph's family and he did the same for us. When my Dad died my brother, my sister and I all spoke at his funeral. My brother got up and said up until 1990 we had been a dysfunctional family, but God changed our family and lives. And that is true. Our Dad was a very hard man to live with growing up. The medication that he was on for a good part of his life to try and control his epilepsy didn't help either. They had to take that off the market because it was found to cause psychotic episodes. With Dad it was always the little things, the insignificant things, that would set him off. Get in trouble at school, or with the police, or crash the car and not one word would be said.  [3]  But use too much dish washing liquid when washing the dishes, or not having the water hot enough, or put two pieces of toast on when he thought you should only have one, or just have one piece of toast but with too much peanut butter on it, and look out. That was fairly much life for all of us growing up. In 1990 I went off for my first year at University in Hamilton worried how mum was going to cope alone with Dad. Fraser, my brother, had already left home a few years earlier after having a punch-up with Dad, so he was living with Fiona, my sister. Neither Fraser, Dad nor I were Christians at this stage. 'But God' had plans... for all of us! I became a Christian first just through reading the Bible and without knowing one other Christian in the city I was in! It was simply through being convicted of my need of salvation as I read the Gospels. But God wasn't finished yet for round the same time He was working on Fraser's hard heart as well, totally independent of what was happening to me. Fraser was saved later that year and then, miracles of miracles, Dad was as well in the same year. Again, not because of me or Fraser. No one... but God! When you take the time to reflect on what God has done we all have an incredible amount to be thankful for.

So Joseph could see this very thing. He could see the hand of God throughout his life. Yes, his brothers had tried to harm him, but God had turned it all around, even using the negative parts of his life for good. Who but God can do such a thing? Maybe, just maybe, you can look back and see that in your life as well.

Resting in the God that cares 

Genesis 50:22-24 Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father's family. He lived a hundred and ten years (23) and saw the third generation of Ephraim's children. Also the children of Makir son of Manasseh were placed at birth on Joseph's knees. (24) Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

So if I've worked it out correctly, Joseph lived to be a great, great, grandfather. And that's not just saying he was a truly spectacular granddad! But we can learn from the confidence in God that Joseph had here. You can imagine his brothers and family being a little scared about what will happen to them once Joseph is gone... just as the disciples were concerned when Jesus starting talking about the fact that His death was imminent. But Joseph reminds them that it isn't him that is looking after them... but God. God will look after them. He will be faithful. God will remain faithful to His promises to restore them to the Promised Land. 'You'll be ok' Joseph tells them. 'God is faithful. Rest in his promises.'

Trusting and resting - a recent example

We all have to learn this in both large and small events in our life. I recently had a small example. It is only a wee example, but God often wants us to learn from the small things. Before flying out to America I mentioned to my sister Fiona that I only had just over an hour between changing planes and terminals, going from an international to domestic flight (and vice-versa coming home). She said 'that's not enough time!' Being a little naive on international travel matters, I said 'argh... what?' And then proceeded to get a little worried! I ended up changing my flights for going over but decided to be a little wild and risk it when coming home. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? So coming home I prayed briefly in the morning about the travel, committing my day to Him, and set off. I had to fly from New Jersey to San Francisco and then had just over an hour to get from the domestic terminal to international to catch my Air New Zealand flight home. So when I got to Newark airport in New Jersey, I saw that my flight was delayed by 55 minutes, but they told me that they would fly a little faster to try make up the time, so that was fine. Then the board changed to a delay of 1 hr 15 minutes. Then 1 hour 30 minutes. I was starting to pray a little more by now. But each time I prayed I got a sense of 'You'll be ok. Rest. Trust.'. By the time we left it was 1 hour 45 minutes late. The captain gave a message saying they had taken more fuel on board and would try make up some of the time. And they did. They landed in San Fran at 7:10 pm and my boarding for my next flight ended at about 7:40. 'I should be fine' I said to myself... 'You'll have to move quickly but all should be well.' Then the Captain gives a message over the intercom saying 'well folks we tried to get you here as quick as we could but someone else has taken our parking spot so we've been instructed to wait in the dog box while they sort it out'. I silently start to pray again. The whole airport / delayed flights / no time to catch other flights thing can be a tad stressful I've now found! But as I prayed I got the same sense... 'It's ok. Rest'. But I couldn't help watch the clock. 7:15, 7:20, 7:25 and no sign of any progress... Every time I started to worry I'd have to remember 'God's telling you to rest so... rest! It is what it is and you can't change anything. Rest!' Finally at about 7:30 the plane was parked in its exit slot leaving 10 minutes to get to the international terminal and I was stuck down the end of the plane with scores of people in front of me. All I could do was start pushing forward, asking politely if they will let me through. And once off the plane I just ran... fast... without knowing exactly where I'm going but looking for signs! And it was a long way... I got out of the domestic terminal I was in, and just got to the start of the International terminal when I heard 'Air New Zealand flight 7 to Auckland - Iyan Gordon... Final call for Iyan Gordon. Boarding will be closing following the commencement of this message.' That made me run even faster, thinking 'I'm coming! Don't shut the gate!' But I couldn't even see my gate yet. Well... to cut a longer story short, I made it. Dead last onto the plane... Sweating... Not my prettiest moment.  [4]  But very thankful!

The morale of this silly whoop-de-do story is that God wants us to remember, just as Joseph reminded his family, that God is the One in control. Joseph would be gone soon. He knew that. But God won't be. We are to rest in that even when circumstances make it look like the opposite... whether they are big or small events. We aren't generally restful people by nature, 'but God' makes the difference as we trust.

What's the big deal with moving bones after you've died? 

(25) And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place."

Now remember - this verse is what the author of Hebrews focuses on. This, according to Hebrews 11, is a statement of great faith worthy of mention. Not seeing it? Not many of us think about what is going to happen to our bones after we die. Why would that make any difference? We are dead and gone. I recently had to renew my driver's licence and on it they have a tick box for whether you will be an organ donor. I happily ticked it. If someone thinks they can get some benefit out of this old body after I've stopped using it then great... I've got a whole new body to look forward to and this one isn't in my long term plans. So why was Joseph worried about his bones after he died? And why did God commend this act by speaking about it in the book of Hebrews? Three main points come to mind:

  1. Firstly Joseph had tremendous confidence in the promises of God. God had said that He would bring the Israelites to the Promised Land so that settled that for Joseph. If you think about it the same goes for God's people today. We have been given tremendous promises that await especially at the return of Jesus. God's is pleased when we take those seriously!
  2. Secondly, I think Joseph is commended because he wanted to be associated with the people of God, not the pomp and pageantry of Egypt. He was a super-star down in Egypt. He had saved the nation and brought great wealth to the Pharaoh of his day. He would no doubt be embalmed and buried alongside the kings. But that didn't interest him. Being part of God's plan pleased Joseph.
  3. Thirdly, Joseph believed in a future resurrection where he would be raised physically and wanted to be in the land promised to his forefathers when that happened. 'You swear an oath' he said - 'You take my bones to the Promised Land.' This pleased the heart of God.

There is a sense in which the removal of his bones from Egypt to the Promised Land also pictures that which was still to come. It is a type of Christ, whose body and bones would not remain in the world (Egypt) for He was raised from the dead and went to the Heavenly Promised Land. And it also pictures us, believers, who have been given the promise that our bodies will not lie forever in the earth but we will be raised, receiving a new body, to meet the Lord in the air when He returns to take us home. So it is a repeated pattern playing out throughout scripture and history.


So what have we learnt from the last words and actions of this man Joseph?

  1. Firstly he didn't try to take God's place and get even. In fact, just the opposite, he desired and sought forgiveness and reconciliation with his brothers even though they had harmed him so.
  2. We saw the reason for this. 'But God'. He could see the bigger picture. He could see the hand of God in both the difficulties and blessings of life. He knew that God had used is all for good and that made all the difference.
  3. We saw that he was someone that could rest in the fact that God cares and is in control and wanted others to experience this as well, encouraging them with this fact.
  4. Finally we saw that he cared and thought a lot about the promises of God even for the future. Even those that would take place long, long after he died. He made the sons of Israel swear an oath that they would take his bones to the Promised Land and bury them there. He wanted to be associated with the promises and people of God, not the pomp and pride of Egypt. This is also our challenge.

(26) So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Here is the final verse and what a strange way for the book of Genesis to end. Genesis starts with the wonder of creation, a miracle that God, yet ends with a coffin in Egypt. And therein lays a picture of your life and mine as well. What started with the wonder of God's creation will end, should the Lord Jesus not return, with our body being placed in a coffin. But death is not the end. There is a one final 'but God', where God steps in, that changes everything, even in death.

 Psalms 49:10-15 For all can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others. (11) Their tombs will remain their houses forever, their dwellings for endless generations, though they had named lands after themselves. (12) But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. (13) This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Selah (14) Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions. (15) But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself. Selah 

In this passage there is 1 'but man', 1 'but God' and 2 Selah's. Selah = stop, pause, and think. And it does well for everyone to stop and think about the two points raised here. The first selah comes after stating the fate of those who trust in themselves. Despite their riches, despite their earthly success, they will perish the Bible says. The Bible specifically says to stop and think about that and there has to come a point in our life when we seriously consider that for we will all die. The second selah comes stating the fate of the believer, one who has put their trust in God. And it introduces the final 'but God', even from death. 'But God will redeem my life from the grave. He will surely take me to Himself.' Selah. Stop, pause and think about that!

But God makes all the difference. An aged Joseph could look back over his life and see that and I hope you can as well.

[1] ↩  A few months back I watched this series on health that was on TV. The host went through everything... eating well, juices, gut heath with kefir and probiotics, exercise, the importance of sleep... it was a long series that touched on everything I could think of and more. As it got near the end of the series, he said that in the last two episodes he would talk about the remaining 60% of good health. 'The remaining 60%' I thought to myself? 'What might that be? He has gone through everything!' The last two episodes, the remaining 60% of good health as he put it, was all about the impact on our health of unforgiveness, bitterness, harbouring malice and wrong thoughts. It was quite an eye opener.

[2] ↩  Joseph I guess had the benefit of age and time here. He had come to the end of his life and could look back over the many peaks and valleys that now lay behind him and see the hand of God in it all. Could he have said 'but God' while languishing in an Egyptian prison? I'm not sure. But therein lays the challenge and the process that we go through and learn in.

[3] ↩  I'm really talking about things my brother Fraser did here. Well, I crashed the car... into another car... on my first driving lesson. Mmmm, didn't really go as well as I hoped. But nothing was said or happened if it was anything big.

[4] ↩  I'm pretty sure the lady who was meant to be sitting next to me went and sat somewhere else! But thankful to God and happy to add my name to the list of great New Zealanders like Peter Snell, John Walker, Nick Willis and others who have run a sub 4 minute mile. And I did mine wearing jeans and a jacket with a back pack on!