If you would turn with me to Genesis chapter 50, that can be found on page 44 in the pew Bibles. And once you get there, if you would also look with me in the guide to the evening service in our bulletins. There’s a place there for the Heidelberg Catechism. As much as we throw around the word “catechism” you would think that a Presbyterian’s first words are not just “mama” and “dada” but “catechism” come shortly thereafter! That’s not true, but if you’re not familiar with that word, a catechism is simply a tool, it’s a teaching tool, made up of questions and answers to teach the basics of the Christian faith. The one that we typically look at and study is the Westminster Shorter Catechism, of course, but there’s also another one that’s very helpful – the Heidelberg Catechism. And that’s the one printed in your bulletin.
There are two questions there – questions number 27 and 28. And as we come to study our passage in Genesis chapter 50, I want to read through these just to prepare us for the reading of God’s Word, and because it’s somewhat of a long reading you can follow along there. The first question is 27 – “What do you understand by the providence of God?” And the answer is, “God’s providence is His almighty and ever-present power; whereby with His hand He still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures; and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed all things come not by chance by but His Fatherly hand.” And then question 28 says, “What does it benefit us to know that God has created all things and still upholds them by His providence?” And the answer is that “We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love, for all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will, they cannot so much as move.” Now those are sweet words and sweet truths to consider before we look at Genesis chapter 50.
I read those because they will give us our outline for our study tonight in Genesis chapter 50. Our two points tonight will be God’s providence and man’s benefit. And so with that in mind, let’s pray again and ask God to help us as we read and study His Word.
Our Father, we give You thanks that You are a God who has created all things and that You rule over all things by Your providence. We thank You that You have brought us here in Your wisdom and in Your grace to hear Your Word tonight. Would You also give us Your Spirit and help us as we study Your Word, that You would open our ears and our minds and our hearts to understand and to apply it deep down into our lives and to go out to live lives which glorify You. And we pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.
I’m going to read from Genesis chapter 50 starting in verse 14.
“After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.
When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’ So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, ‘Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.
The first thing we’ll see in this passage is God’s providence. Now if I could summarize the message of the book of Genesis in just a few words it would be – life, death, and the sheer promises of God. The Bible begins, as Cory told us just a little while ago, that God created the world out of nothing, that He brought all life into being by His power, by His Word, and He created man and woman in His own image. And it was all – what? It was all good; it was very good. But in Genesis chapter 3, with Adam and Eve’s sin, came death. And throughout the rest of the book of Genesis, we find that death is a constant refrain. In fact, Iain Duguid, in his book on the life of Joseph, he says this. He says that “At the end of Hollywood movies, the heroes ride off into the sunset. At the end of the Biblical stories, the heroes die.” And that’s true. The heroes die.
And we see that with the patriarchs in the book of Genesis. Genesis chapter 25 tells us that Abraham, “he breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and he was gathered to his people.” Ten chapters later, it comes to Isaac, “and Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days.” And if we were to look back just a few verses before what we just read in Genesis chapter 50, if we looked in Genesis chapter 49, we would find that it was Jacob. “He breathed his last and was gathered to his people.”
I heard a song the other day. It was a song from a father to a son and in it, the father sings, “Son, have fun with your life; it’s a drama. Just one period and all kinds of commas.” We know what he means by that, we understand that, but -it’s not really true. Is it? Because even death is not a period and God’s promises do not end at the death of His people. In fact, He will fulfill all that He has promised to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob. And He will continue to work out His plan of salvation even after they’re gone; His promises are certain. They will not fail. But this is a time of transition here, Genesis chapter 50, verses 14 and following. It’s a big comma. And with Jacob gone, Joseph’s brothers are fearful. They’re fearful that Joseph will not get revenge for all that they had done to him. He will get revenge and pay them back. And funerals can be that way. Can’t they? Funerals have a way of recalling past conflicts, of recovering old wounds. There’s the grief that a son or daughter may have caused to a father or mother. There’s a family tragedy that maybe the recently deceased has never fully recovered. Those things come up at funerals. They’re not talked about; they’re usually under the surface. They usually come up at a sideways glance or an awkward silence. It’s the elephant in the room oftentimes.
Fear of Revenge
Well, there's a phrase here in Genesis in this story of Joseph, there's a phrase that's repeated several different times in this story before the brothers are united in the land of Egypt. And what Jacob basically says, is that he will go to his grave in grief. He says that his "gray hairs will go down in sorrow to Sheol.” He expected that because of what had happened to his son, Joseph. And he feared that because of what he thought might would happen to his son, Benjamin. But it didn’t happen. Did it? In fact, Hebrews chapter 11 tells us that Jacob, when he was dying, he blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. He worshiped at the end of his life, but it was that phrase about him dying in sorrow that really stuck in the minds of his sons. And many of us are familiar about what they had done to Joseph. Aren’t we? About how they had ambushed him, how they had ignored his cries for mercy. They threw him into a pit, they sold him as a slave, and then they covered up his death, they staged his death as if it had happened by a wild animal. And yet what did Joseph do to them in return? He showed kindness to them; he loved them. When they came to Egypt during the famine, he provided for them. And then afterwards, he gave them a place to live in the best part of the land of Egypt. But that’s all over now, at least that’s what the brothers think. That’s what they’re afraid of.
And we know how the saying goes, don't we, that "revenge is a dish best served cold." That's what they think. They think that the revenge will come after the anger has passed. Revenge is more satisfying that way. Revenge comes best when the other person is least suspecting it. That's what they're afraid of; that's what they fear. But notice how Joseph responds. When the brothers send him a message asking for forgiveness, verse 17, what does Joseph do? It says he wept when they spoke to him. He wept. And it is sad, isn't it? It's sad to think back all those years to when his brothers rejected him and the years in which he was separated from his father. It's sad to think that his brothers would still view him as someone who wanted to settle a score with them. After all of the good that he had done to them and all the ways that God had blessed them, and it’s sad that the brothers themselves, they’re still tormented by what they had done. They’re still unsettled by it, seventeen years after they have been reunited and brought back together in the land of Egypt. And so tears come down Joseph’s face when he hears this message.
What You Meant for Evil, God Meant for Good
And then a little while later the brothers come to him and they fall down before Joseph and Joseph says to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?” There’s an echo there. There’s an echo there back to Genesis chapter 3. Because what had Adam and Eve wanted to do? They’d wanted to take the place of God and to be able to determine good and evil. Joseph’s not going to take that place. And then there’s also the sense in which Joseph is saying, “You are not my servants; you are my brothers. And together we are servants of God coming to submit to His will for our lives.” And then he says in verse 20 those memorable words that we just read, “As for you, you meant evil against me but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are today.” What you meant for evil, God meant for good.
And that’s one of the clearest and the simplest statements of God’s providence in the whole Bible. And yet it’s not simple, is it? Because God’s providence is a great mystery. That God upholds all things by His power, that He works everything according to His will to accomplish His plan and to work out for the good of His people, and yet that does not eliminate man’s choice, it does not eliminate man’s responsibility for his actions. And it in no way identifies God as the author of sin. God’s providence is a mystery to us. And in some ways, we can do no better than to look to what God’s Word reveals to us. And to say, “the secret things belong to God, but the things that He has revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” And so we look at God’s Word and we read that “in His Book were written every one of our days when as yet there were none of them.” And that “the lot is cast into the lap but it’s every decision is from the Lord.” “In Christ we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will.” And then think back to what we studied a few weeks ago in Romans chapter 8. “All things work together for the good of those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
That’s exactly what we find in Joseph’s life. This man who was favored and then forsaken and then forgotten. He was his father’s favorite son, but he was hated by his brothers and he was thrown into that pit and sold into slavery in Egypt. And then when he was in Egypt you remember what happened. He was falsely accused and he was locked up into prison. When he was in prison, he interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh's cupbearer and he asked the cupbearer to remember him when he was released and sent back to Pharaoh that Joseph might be released from prison. And yet what did the cupbearer do? He forgot about it for two years. For two years. For two years, Joseph waited in prison, no end of his trials in sight. But then Pharaoh dreamed and then the cupbearer remembered him. And Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dreams and he was elevated to second in command in all the land of Egypt in order to provide for many people during the time of the famine, including his own family, to which he was reconciled and through whom God’s promises continued through that family. All of the evil that was done to Joseph, God was working for good, so that many, including those who had wronged him and harmed him, that they might be spared.
Parallels in Jesus’ Life
You see the parallels with the life of Jesus, don't you? Jesus is the beloved Son. He made Himself of no reputation and came in the form of a slave. He was falsely accused, He was arrested, He was betrayed and forsaken by His closest friends and condemned to death on the cross. And yet after three days, He was raised. And sometime later He was exalted into glory in order that many, all those who believe in Him, might be spared. Might live and not die. And that includes, that includes those who caused His pain, those whose sins He bore on the cross. What man meant for evil, God meant for good. That's why Peter can say in Acts chapter 2, he said, "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." You see, it was man's evil and lawlessness that crucified Christ, but it was God's power and plan to bring about eternal life and salvation to all who believe in Him and place their faith in Him.
You know sometimes it feels like our lives are chaotic. It seems like they’re out of control. Other times it may seem like everything is dark and murky and we do not know what is coming up next. Other times when we just feel stuck and we’re desperately wanting a change, how much do we need to remember that “what man intends for evil, God intends for good”? How much do we need to remember the providence of God?
Ravi Zacharias tells a story about how he reconnected with an interpreter who had ministered with him in Vietnam in 1971. This man called him seventeen years later and told him what had happened after they had last seen each other. This man’s name was ———–. He was a Christian in 1971, and after Ravi Zacharias had left, he was arrested because he had been befriending Americans and helping Americans. He was arrested and thrown into prison. And while he was in prison, he faced a constant barrage; he was constantly made to read communist writings in French and Vietnamese and his faith was challenged. He was constantly exposed to the denial of the Bible and the denial of Christianity. And one day, all of those lies took their toll on him. And he decided that day that he was not going to pray anymore. He wasn’t even going to think about his faith.
But then the very next day he was assigned to duty, to clean up in the bathroom of the prison. And while he was in the bathroom, he found a piece of paper and it had a little bit of English written on it. It was in a garbage can full of toilet paper. And so he was curious and he picked up that piece of paper. He cleaned it off and he took it back to his room and he read it later that night. And it was a page from the Bible. It was Romans chapter 8, the sister passage to what we’re reading tonight is Romans 8:28 – “All things work together for good to those who love God and who are called according to His purpose.” It was that verse that kept him from giving up at the very moment that he had decided to give up. And what he found out, was that an officer was actually using the Bible for toilet paper and discarding it in that wastebasket. And so each time he went to clean the bathroom, he would find a piece of the Bible, clean it off, and take it with him to read. He would not have had the Bible in prison any other way, and yet by God’s providence, he was encouraged and nurtured in his faith because of that.
Amazement of God’s Providence
Now, what does that say about our own accessibility of God's Word, of the Bible, and yet our oftentimes neglect of it? But what does that say about the amazement of God's providence? In the headlines and in the fine print, God is working all things to fulfill His good designs for His people. In all things – headlines and fine print. That meant for Joseph – who was the king of Egypt and what were the changes of the weather patterns? It also meant the lies of his master's wife and it meant the dreams of the pharaoh's cupbearer. For us, that means that God is working through the person who's elected and in natural disasters, but also in the appointments that we write in our calendars and the results that come back from the doctor's office. God is at work in all of those things for the good of those who trust in Him.
And just think about how the book of Genesis begins and ends. Cory talked about it a little while ago. The book of Genesis, Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And then we get here like a bookend to Genesis chapter 50 verse 20, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” How does God work? He works in creation and He works in providence. You see, the God who made all things and who sustains all things works in all things for the good of His people and for the glory of Christ. And like the Heidelberg Catechism said, that we read a little while ago, we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father. You see, to know that God has created all things and still upholds them by His providence that is a great benefit to us. That’s a great benefit to His people.
So let’s consider that for a few minutes – man’s benefit, second point tonight. It says in verse 21, if you look back there, that after Joseph had spoken to his brothers, it says, “Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” What Joseph said to his brothers about the providence of God was a great comfort to them. I went back this week and looked at some old systematic theology notes from seminary, specifically to see what Dr. Thomas had said about the providence of God. And what everyone loves about Dr. Thomas’ classes is that he teaches with a pastoral heart. And now some of you may think that systematic theology could only be a comfort for insomnia. But the truth of the matter is, when doctrine is applied and when truth is put to use, it is a great comfort for all of life. And Joseph and his brothers find that to be true. After all, think about what was at the heart of their concern at the beginning of these verses. At the heart of their concern is doubt. They may not have expressed it this way, but when Jacob died and they fear that Joseph will bring revenge, what they were doubting was that God would bring about His promises. They were displaying a lack of confidence in the promises of God. Because God had promised to Abraham that He would make of him a great nation. God had promised to Jacob that his offspring would be as many as the sand of the sea or the dust of the earth. Here are his offspring, and they’re doubting their own wellbeing. What they’re doing is they are doubting that God will bring about His promises and He will work out His plans for them.
God Keeps His Word
And that's really one of the most basic messages of the book of Genesis, especially since the time of Abraham. That it is God who keeps His Word. Because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they believed, but they failed spectacularly. And they are completely incapable of bringing about the things that God had promised to Abraham – a great nation, the land of Canaan, the presence of God, and a blessing to all the nations. They would and did mess that up at every step of the way. There is no place whatsoever in the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph for self-reliance. There's no place for it. But God is faithful and God is sufficient and He will fulfill His promises to His people. This is His work and it’s a work of grace. It’s not a work of merit or worth.
But then because of their doubt, we see that they are afraid. Joseph’s brothers are fearful about their future. When Joseph says to them two times, “Do not fear” – look at verse 19 – “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?” Verse 21, “Do not fear, I will provide for you and your little ones.” You may have heard it said before that fears are liars. That’s certainly the case here in this passage because contrary to what God had promised, contrary to what Joseph had said to them, and contrary to what Joseph had done to them, Joseph’s brothers still fear that the worst will come their way. That’s what fear does. Fear is believing in the certainty of a negative outcome in the future and then living in the present as if that bad thing had already happened. And many times, that’s living based on a lie. We just sang that a little while ago. “God moves in a mysterious way. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take the clouds ye so much dread, they’re big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.” Fears are liars but God is true and God is gracious. And the only thing that we can know about the future is what God says will happen in the future. And if God says it, then we can depend upon it. It’s guaranteed. And if what man means for evil God means for good, then do not fear. He is working all things today for your good – for your good today and for your good tomorrow.
And then there’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of the main themes also in the story of Joseph. But one of the things that really stands out when we think about forgiveness in the story of Joseph is that it’s hard to know when forgiveness actually took place. The case could be made that forgiveness, actual forgiveness took place right here in this passage, in these verses, because this is the first time when his brothers actually ask and request forgiveness from their brother. Joseph had been in a posture of forgiveness to them, he was willing to forgive them and he was kind and gracious to them, but they do not seem to be released from their guilt until this moment. And then that barrier in the relationship is removed. Whatever the case, it’s complicated. And forgiveness is that way, isn’t it? Oftentimes it’s complicated. It’s not black and white. And it can take a long time.
I’ve noticed recently what seems like a rise in articles about forgiveness. I’ve just seen several recently in recent days about forgiveness. I’ve seen several that have been about forgiveness and about the story of Joseph. It’s because that’s a constantly relative topic, isn’t it? We live in a time in which people are quick to take offense and our past sins can be brought back to life through social media. And we live in a time in which marriages are so fragile. Forgiveness is relevant; it’s a relevant topic. And God’s providence paves the way for forgiveness, because if God uses even man’s evil for our good, then can’t we be ready to forgive others who have injured us and even take steps to restore that relationship with them? And can’t we be generous in granting forgiveness when others ask to be forgiven? It really doesn’t get any more important than we find it right here. And right here in our own lives. Because Joseph and his brothers are God’s people; they are the church. And God is working all things for their good. He’s working all things for our good. And we know that because He has sent His Son Jesus Christ to make us His and that He would be ours and to give us all of the blessings of Christ in the heavenly places.
How does God’s providence benefit His people? In this passage we see that it answers doubt, it casts out fear, and it fuels forgiveness. Think about those three things again – doubt, fear, and the need of forgiveness. What is that? We’re being pointed to faith, hope, and love. Faith, hope, and love. That’s what we see here in this passage. Faith, hope, and love are the essentials of the Christian life, and Paul writes about them over and over again in his letters about the importance of faith, hope, and love for the Christian life. And here we have it, we could say 44 pages into our Bible, and we see God’s providence leading to Jesus Christ and God’s providence leading to faith, hope, and love – the essential virtues of life in Christ. God’s providence. Man’s benefit. Let’s pray.
Our heavenly Father, we give You thanks for Your Word and for Your great providence, the work of providence in our own lives. We know there are some here tonight that are experiencing failure, going through suffering, are engaged in conflict. And we pray that each of us would believe Your Word, whether it’s for the first time or for the thousandth time, and that through Your Word we would see Your faithfulness to us in Christ. And that through Your faithfulness in Christ we would produce in our own lives faith, hope, and love to Your glory and to the glory of our Savior, Jesus. We pray this in His name, amen.
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