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Joseph Imprisoned

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 2, 2000

Genesis 40:1-23

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Genesis 40:1-23
Joseph Imprisoned

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 40. As we have been looking these last few weeks in the life of Joseph it has struck us that in the overarching scheme of what God is doing in the life of Joseph, He is on the one hand telling us here in these passages, in these chapters, how it was that Israel would wind up in Egypt, and He's also showing us how He was going to make a great family, a great tribe, into a great nation. These are part of the overarching purposes of God in the life of Joseph.

As you look at these passages, one of the things that amazes you is how many things God is doing at once, how many things He is accomplishing by the very same specific individual action. Often times he will have five or six or seven or eight or nine purposes operating at once in the same specific event in the life of Joseph. Some of those purposes will be massive, huge things that Joseph could never, ever see in their outworking because they would actually come to fruition hundreds of years after his death. Others of those purposes he wouldn't have been able to see in the immediate instance, but would see come to pass later in his life. Some of the purposes actually worked out almost immediately as some of the things that we’ll read in the passage tonight. But we see the manifold wisdom of God even as we see Him able to use one event to accomplish multiple purposes, not only in the lives of individuals, but in the life of His whole people.

And so we said, though Joseph is the main character throughout these passages, God Himself is the central actor, and it's His providence which attracts our attention as we work through the passage together. Even in the story which was written down in Genesis 38. We saw the hand of God's providence and in Genesis 39 as we saw Joseph's career in Potiphar's house end in an almost disastrous way, we could say for Joseph, we see God's hand of providence.

So tonight we join Joseph in prison here in Genesis 40, verses 1-23: Let's hear God's word:

Genesis 40:1-23

Our Heavenly Father, all of us face perplexing situations in our lives, in our youth, in the help of the middle ages and in the challenges of our twilight years. We never know from one day to the next what turns will occur. And so daily as we face your providence, we are challenged with the challenge of faith. Will we walk by faith or by sight? As we consider Your providence in the life of Joseph tonight, we pray that You would teach us lasting lessons, and by Your Spirit enable us not only to understand them and something of the purposes of Your providence, but to embrace those things. To experientially own Your love and Your good purposes, to see Your wisdom, and to trust, oh Lord, in spite of dark providences. We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.

Now this whole episode recorded for us tonight is an example of God's circuitous providence. Sometimes God works in roundabout ways for specific reasons to accomplish His goal. And though when He does this it is hard to the point of impossible for us to unravel exactly what He is doing, especially in the midst of our trials, God is in fact accomplishing multiple purposes through His singular providence. And we see that in the life of Joseph, and specifically in this incident in the prison. You will remember, of course, that over this chapter and the next we see Joseph in the process of his responsibilities interpreting dreams. The second dream that he will interpret in chapter 41 will pertain to Pharaoh himself, king of Egypt. These dreams deal with officers of the court. Now I'd like you to look at this passage briefly with me tonight.

If you look at verses 1 through 4 we see Joseph imprisoned after being falsely accused. But God, in His goodness brings to him two high-ranking court officials. And this would very naturally give him hope for restoration as he had opportunity to speak to them. They themselves had hopes for restoration and so it would give him hope that he might be restored.

Then if you look at verses 5 through 8 God further, in His providence, burdens both of these men with dreams that they can't interpret and for which they have no access to an Egyptian diviner who can interpret for them. And so they are burdened, they are dejected, they’re sad because they are perplexed by the improper interpretation of these dreams. And again you see here God opening the door of His providence.

Then if you look in verses 9 through 15 you see Jacob being granted power by God to interpret the dream of the cupbearer. And, in fact, after giving him the interpretation, he makes a plea that upon its fulfillment this cupbearer would not forget him.

Then in verses 16 through 19 we see Joseph's interpretation of the dark dream of the pair. He interprets the chief baker's dream though the outcome of that story is entirely different from the story of the cupbearer. Joseph faithfully gives him an answer.

And the finally in verses 20 through 23 we see Joseph's interpretations both come to pass within three days but Joseph is forgotten. So let's walk through this passage and see God's messages of providence. And five things in particular that I'd like you to see as we look at it tonight.

I. God's favor to Joseph.
First of all, as we look at verses 1 through 4 we said before that Joseph is here in prison falsely and yet the Lord brings to him these two high-ranking court officials who had fallen out of favor with Pharaoh. And this would naturally give him some hope of restoration. And we see here God showing His favor to Joseph in bringing him into close contact with potential rescuers and by favoring him in the sight of his captors. The cupbearer and the baker were high-ranking and valued officials in ancient courts. You remember that Nehemiah was a cupbearer, and he had great influence in the land where he served. And Moses makes it clear here, if you look at verse 1, it might not show in your English translation, but it says that they had offended the King of Egypt. This doesn't just mean that he was subjectively offended. Moses is telling you here there was an objective basis. They had committed an offense. In other words, he wasn't just arbitrarily displeased with them as we learn in verse 2, but there was a basis, a literal basis in some action that they had taken that had caused that displeasure. Moses doesn't tell us because it really doesn't matter. Whatever they had done was serious enough to land them both in prison. And naturally they were put in the royal prison. And interestingly, they’re placed in the same prison with Joseph and this time because they are such high-ranking officials, it's not the warden of the prison who assigns to them the person who will be in charge of them. It's actually the captain of the bodyguard. Now you've met him before. His name is Potiphar. Potiphar puts Joseph in charge and in care of the cupbearer and the baker. Now this is an interesting thing. Either Potiphar has softened in his anger towards Joseph, or he has begun to suspect that perhaps Joseph wasn't, in fact, guilty of the things which his wife had charged him with. Whatever the case is, the fact that Joseph is placed in charge of these high-ranking officials is a sign of God's favor on Joseph even in the midst of the prison.

You know last week, we speculated on what Joseph's mindset might have been in prison. And I want you to see that God, even in this little instance of favor, is actually drawing near to Joseph in his providence and encouraging him. Think of what some of Joseph's thoughts might have been as he passed idol hours in the prison. He could have thought, 'Lord, why did You cause my mother to die an untimely death? Lord, though my father loved me, why have You caused such strife in my family. Why is it that we can't even speak to one another? Dad's relationship is strained with most of my brothers. My brothers resent him, they fight amongst one another, they hate me, they’re jealous of me. Why was it, Lord, that You allowed them when I was simply doing what my father told me to do, and I actually tried to go out of my way to accomplish what he had assigned me to do, why did You allow me to be captured by them and imprisoned and then sold into slavery into the hands of Midianites and Ishmaelites? Why was it that You allowed me to be taken away from my home country and brought into the land of Egypt? And Lord, why in the world did You allow me to go into this household; why was it in Your providence You ordained that I would serve faithfully in the household of the high-ranking official and then would be falsely accused? Lord, what's the purpose of all this? Why are these things happening? And Lord, why would I be left in this prison tending to those who were in prison here but forgotten, with no prospect of getting out. What in the world are You doing? And I wonder if you have questions like that about God's providence in your own life. What are You doing, Lord?'

And I want you to note that throughout, Moses does not use a favorite tact which is often suggested to Christians by Christian leaders today. There are many Christian leaders who say the way to find comfort when things are going on in your life like that is to recognize that God is not in control. God doesn't want those bad things to happen to you. God isn't in control of bad things that happen to good people. He really wishes that He could help, but He can't. And the sooner you understand that He's not in control of bad things, He's only in control of good things, the happier you will be. I want you to see how absolutely depressing such advice and comfort that is. If God isn't in control of the bad things in this fallen world, then He's not in control of most things, and He's not in control of the most important things that impact our lives; because the bad outweighs the good in this fallen world. And the mysterious and perplexing is far more numerous than the things which are good and happy and totally without difficulties and problems. And Joseph doesn't resort to that kind of thinking. And Moses isn't pressing us to think that way. Moses wants us to look right into the face of God's mysterious problems and recognize that His hand is as much behind Joseph's imprisonment as it will be Joseph's exaltation later. He has reasons for what He is doing. Those reasons are wise, they are good, they are comprehensive. They will declare His glory, they will do Joseph good, and they will ultimately accrue to the benefit of all the people of God, not only in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament. And that means you and me tonight.

And that's why it's so important for us to remember the words of The Shorter Catechism. If you haven't memorized question number 11 of The Shorter Catechism, turn with me to page 870 which asks, "What are God's works of providence." And maybe we should memorize this together over the next weeks. What's the answer? Let's read it together. "God's works of providence are His most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions." And we see precisely that hand of providence at work in this story with Joseph.

And I want you to see that in what God is doing here in the first four verses, He is drawing near to Joseph in his hour of need. Listen to what Calvin says about this. "God, before He opened the door for His servants’ deliverance entered into the very prison to sustain Him with His own strength." In other words, Calvin is saying,"In the favor that God ordained Joseph to be shown by Potiphar in the position and the status that Joseph was given in charge of these important royal officials, God was giving him tokens of His love and concern for him as if he were drawing close to Him in his prison and saying, 'Joseph if the world has forgotten you, if your brothers are delighted that you’re gone, I have not forgotten you, and I have a plan for you.'"

Do you read God's providences in that way? Even when you see mysterious and strange and inexplicable events at work in your life, do you receive them as if they are the whisper of your loving Heavenly Father in your ear saying, "I have a purpose for you. And though it makes no sense to you right now, you need to understand its Me working in these events." And that's exactly what God is doing. In the favor that is shown Joseph in prison, it's an overture of God, whispering in Joseph's ear, saying Joseph, My plan is still working out for you. It makes no sense to you right now. You don't know what's going to happen on the other end of it; but I am at work because I love you, and I care for you.

II. Joseph interprets dreams.
And then if you look at verses 5 through 8, you see God in His providence burdening both of these officials with inscrutable dreams on the same night. And we see here God in His providence always keeps in view the purposes of His own glory. Even as He's teaching Joseph, God is also glorifying His own might and power in what's happening here. Dreams were common we know in Egypt and in Babylonia. So common as ways of learning the future, that both in Egypt and in Babylonia a professional class of interpreters of dreams grew up. So if you had a dream, you went to one of these professional diviners of dreams who would explain and interpret. And they built books of dreams which contained interpretations of past dreams and the way they would interpret what your dream meant is they would go back to these books, they would find out how these particular symbols had been interpreted in the past, and then they would tell you what your particular dream meant.

But there was obviously no diviner available to these two men while they were in prison and so they were downcast. They were dejected. They had had these dreams, but they didn't understand them. Egyptians believed that the gods gave you the dreams, but they didn't give you the interpretations, and they didn't have anywhere they could go to get an answer as to what they meant. So God provided an opportunity not only for the sake of Joseph and his future, but for the sake of revealing His own glory.

It's interesting isn't it, that Joseph and Daniel are the only two Israelites in the Old Testament who were known as interpreters of dreams. It's interesting, when Joseph's dreams come, nobody in Joseph's family in Israel in Canaan needed an interpreter to know what they meant. Joseph's brothers immediately knew what they meant, and they didn't like it. But here in Egypt an interpreter is needed, and with Daniel, as he serves a pagan king in Babylonia, an interpreter is needed. And so God uses this as an opportunity to display His own glory.

And so Joseph, and you’ll see it especially in verse 8, says to them, don't you know that interpretations belong to God? To my God, to the one true God. Interpretations don't come from diviners. They come from God.

What has God just done? He has given Joseph the opportunity to testify to His glory. Now in no matter what circumstance we are in, in God's providence, God has a purpose to display His glory to the nations. And we have an opportunity to either participate in that or actually to cause that to be obscured. When we are facing providences that we don't understand, we can either display our trust in the sovereign God or we can display our doubt in the purpose of the sovereign God. As we display our trust in Him, God's glory is born witness to, even in the midst of the nation. If we doubt, we give an account that we really don't believe the things that at we say that we believe. Joseph here has the opportunity in the face of this dream to show these people that it's the one true God who is the one who holds the future and thus reveals it.

III. God's providence and responsibility.
And then as you see verses 9 through 15, you see Joseph interpreting the cupbearer's dream and making to him a plea based on his fulfillment. And here you learn that God's providence does not mean that we are not to act with responsibility. You know, so often people say, if you believe in God's providence, it's going to lead to passivity, to laziness, to indolence. You know, if God's in control, why should we do anything? If God's sovereign, why pray? If God's sovereign, why witness? If God's sovereign, why do anything? And so you have this logical conundrum that somehow, if God's ordained everything, then surely it means that we don't need to do anything. This is never the logic, however, that enters into Joseph's mind.

Some commentators criticize Joseph in this passage, for after he interprets the dream of the cupbearer, asking him to remember him to Pharaoh. But what Joseph is doing is perfectly appropriate. This is an opportunity that's been placed before him in God's providence, and Joseph is so confident that God's interpretation of that dream is going to come to pass, that he says, look, when you’re freed, please remember me to Pharaoh. It's a very measured request. He doesn't demand that he get him an audience with Pharaoh. He says would you remember me before Pharaoh and help me get out of this place. So he makes a simple request that is perfectly appropriate. And so you see Joseph acting and taking responsibility, being active in his pressing for release even as he trusts in God's providence. And, of course, Joseph himself has already made it clear that his interpretation of the dream is not due to any power in himself. It's God who's the interpreter of dreams, and again isn't it interesting that that's the same thing that Daniel does when he is asked to interpret the dreams in Babylon. He says, I'm not the one who is able to interpret the dreams. But I know the one who able to interpret dreams, and I can ask of Him and He can reveal it.

IV. The baker's dream.
And then if you look at verses 16 through 19, Joseph also goes on to interpret the baker's dream. Now the baker's dream has a very, very shocking and brutal interpretation. In fact, even the way that Joseph shares with him the interpretation of this dream is a little bit surprising. It almost seems insensitive. But think about it. How could you sensitively share the message of the interpretation of this dream? There's no way to do it. The minute that you share the content of the dream, any ability to ease a person into embracing this interpretation is gone.

But it's interesting, too, isn't it that Joseph, as a faithful messenger of God simply must report what the actual interpretation of the dream is. And Calvin pauses, and I think gives some very helpful advice here. He meditates on the job of the preacher and the prophet. He says: "The job of the preacher and the prophet is to tell you the truth as God has told it to them, even when it's unpleasant." Joseph didn't make up the interpretation of the dream. He didn't make up God's providence. He simply reported it. Ideally that's what the minister of God does. He doesn't make up the word of God. He doesn't make up God's response to you and to your situation. He simple reports it. And though usually when the messenger bears bad news, the bad news of the message is blamed on the messenger, the messenger still must be faithful.

What does that mean for you and me? One thing it means is that all of us, as we sit in the pew, should desire messengers who will tell us the truth even when it's uncomfortable for us. Even when we don't like the message. Messengers who will speak to us about our sin, about our responsibility, about our obligations, about the things which are difficult for us to do are doing us no good, because they’re sharing with us God's word. And so all of us ought to pray that the Lord would raise up messengers who will speak the truth no matter what.

Joseph, very bravely, shares a message here that this man undoubtedly did not want to hear. In fact the only way this man got up the courage to share him the dream in the first place is good report that was given to the cupbearer. And you can imagine the level of his particular disappointment. Joseph himself would have been reluctant to share this kind of a message. But he does it faithfully.

V. Joseph's interpretations come to pass.
And then finally we see Joseph's interpretations brought to pass in verses 20 through 23; but Joseph himself is forgotten. And I want you to just think for a few minutes. Think of what God is doing. We've talked already this evening about God accomplishing many things with one particular action. By Joseph being forgotten, God is doing at least three things simultaneously.

First of all, God is strengthening Joseph's faith by causing him to have to learn patience and endurance. Listen to what Calvin says about this: "Thus, when God might have delivered the holy man directly from prison, he chose to lead him around by circuitous paths. The better to prove his patience and to manifest by the mode of his deliverance that he has wonderful methods of working hidden from our view. He does this that we may learn not to measure by our own sense, the salvation which He has promised us, but that we may suffer ourselves to be turned hither or thither by His hand until He shall have performed His work." What did we just sing in God Moves in a Mysterious Way? Look back at Hymn 128 at stanza 4, "Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace. Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face." God is strengthening Joseph's faith by teaching him not to judge his purposes by his senses, but to trust Him for His grace, and to believe in the goodness of His providence. Furthermore, Calvin even hints at it in the very passage we just read. The passage also indicates that God is furthering His own glory by delaying the answer to Joseph's desires to get out of this prison. If God had gotten Joseph out of prison through the cupbearer's initial pleas Joseph would have been tempted to think of the cupbearer as his rescuer. By delaying the answer to Joseph's prayers, God made it clear that He and He alone would come to Joseph's rescue.

How often in our own experience have we hoped for some instrument to be the means of our salvation, to be the means of our rescue from some circumstance that we're in, and that instrument looks plausible. "Boy, that looks like an answer to my problems. If only this would happen, then I would get out of this fix." And it doesn't turn out. And the very delay teaches us that it's God Himself who comes to our rescue and aid, not even the instruments that He appoints in His providence.

And finally, in this very act of delaying the answer to Joseph's desires, God is establishing His plan for the salvation of Israel. You see, the salvation of Israel depends upon Joseph's exaltation to the right hand of Pharaoh. If Joseph is freed from prison through the mere appeal of the cupbearer at this point, he never gets the appointment in the house of Pharaoh. If he doesn't get the appointment in the house of Pharaoh, Israel is undone, even as Egypt is in its time of famine. No, God had a better plan and a better purpose and that plan meant waiting, and it meant being frustrated, and it meant being perplexed and it meant being patient. But whatever our God ordains is right. And Joseph is learning that just like we are. May God bless us to believe it in our own circumstances tonight. Let's pray.

Our Heavenly Father, even as the storm begins to rage outside, we acknowledge You as the sovereign One who governs Your creatures in Your own most holy, wise and powerful providence in all our actions. We pray, O Lord, that we would learn to embrace that truth in the face of situations which stretch our ability to understand and even endure. Thank you, O Lord, for the many saints in this place who have already endured in their walk with you things that would have crumpled lesser humans. But because of their own trust in You, they have endured with joy, and they themselves will see the King of glory as the gates of paradise lift up their hands to praise Him. And they will cast their crowns before Him, and praise You for Your providence. And we pray, O God, for the rest of us as we continue to walk as pilgrims in a strange land that we would remember the wisdom of Your providence and trust You, resting on faith and not on sight. We ask it in Jesus' name, Amen.

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