Sunday, April 23, 2017

Can We Find a Man Like This? (Genesis 39-41)

We return today to our series on the Essential 100 passages of Scripture, and we pick up with the story of Joseph where we left off in Chapter 37. In our study of the Bible, we rarely encounter a man of Joseph’s caliber. Even in his own lifetime, his uniqueness of character was evident to those who knew him. Of all the people described in the book of Genesis, of Joseph (and Joseph alone) do we read that he was filled with the Spirit of God. Pharaoh declared, “Can we find a man like this in whom is a divine spirit?” (41:38). The Hebrew could be literally translated “the Spirit of God,” but the translators allow for a little ambiguity, given that the statement is made by Pharaoh, a man who considers himself one of some two-thousand or more deities in the Egyptian pantheon. But the point is clear enough. In all of Pharaoh’s dealings with people the world over, he’d never encountered anyone like Joseph, and what made him different was the presence of the Spirit of God in Joseph’s life.

The New Testament teaches us that this same Holy Spirit indwells each and every follower of Jesus. The New Covenant which was promised in the Old Testament and inaugurated by Jesus promised that the Spirit of God would be within the people of God (Ezek 36:27). Galatians 4:9 says God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into the hearts of those who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ because they have been adopted into God’s family. This indwelling of the Spirit is a one-time event that occurs at the moment a person is born again by faith in Jesus. The Holy Spirit comes into our lives and never departs. There is, however, an ongoing need for surrendering control of oneself to the Holy Spirit. This is referred to in Scripture as the “filling” of the Holy Spirit. Writing to Christians who are indwelt by the Spirit in Ephesians 5, Paul gives an imperative command for Christians to “be filled with the Spirit,” or perhaps more literally, “be always being filled with (or controlled by) the Spirit.”

Just as Pharaoh had never encountered a man like Joseph who was filled with the Person and power of the Spirit of God, so also many in the world today have yet to meet a person like this. Many have met Christian people who are indwelt by the Spirit, but they do not see evidence of the Spirit’s presence and power in the lives of those believers because the Spirit is “quenched” and not allowed to have full control of our lives. When we live as Spirit-filled people, yielded to His control, we will make the same kind of impact on others that Joseph did, and His presence within us will be made known in the same ways that He made Himself known through Joseph. So as we look at the manifestation of the Spirit’s powerful presence in Joseph’s life, we see how He may be manifested in our lives as well. So these are the marks of a Spirit-filled person.

I. The presence of God is the root of his success (39:1-6)

In our therapeutic culture, it has become commonplace for people to identify themselves as victims. Now, we want to be sensitive to the reality that there are a great many people who have been terribly victimized by the wrongdoing of others. No one denies this. However, it is one thing to be victimized, and it is another thing to make victimhood become one’s identity, and to allow the wrongs of others to shape and define our lives. If anyone in history could have identified as a victim and blamed all of his life circumstances on the evil deeds of others, surely Joseph could have done so. He could have blamed all of his problems on his father, his brothers, the band of traders who bought and sold him into slavery in Egypt, or Potiphar who purchased him and made him his servant. But in spite of all these unfortunate circumstances, Joseph did not allow the victimization he had experienced at the hands of others to define his life or become an excuse to be an underachiever. Neither did he become idle and wait for his circumstances to improve before applying himself diligently to make something better of his life than others had made for him. Our text says in verse 2 that “he became a successful man,” and it should be noted that he was still enslaved when he became a successful man. His success is stated as a result, and the cause is expressed in these terms: “The Lord was with Joseph.” Because the Lord was with him, he could become the person whom God wanted him to be, regardless of what others did to him.

The phrase, “The Lord was with Joseph,” occurs repeatedly throughout Chapter 39, and each time, there is an effect stated. Because the Lord was with him, he was successful, and “the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hand” (v3). He found favor and was shown kindness because the Lord was with him, and he was entrusted with great responsibilities because of the Lord’s presence in his life. Joseph knew that the Lord was with him, and others knew it as well. So Joseph could apply himself with all diligence, in the power of God’s Spirit, to whatever task was before him, knowing that ultimately it was this God who was present in his life whom he served.

In Ephesians 6, Paul writes to Christians about how they should conduct themselves in whatever station of life they find themselves. And some of those to whom he was writing were slaves like Joseph was. He says,

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.

In a similar passage in Colossians 3:22, Paul says, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” There is no room for a Christian to say, “I would do God’s will if I had a different job, or a different boss, or a different spouse, or a different set of circumstances.” The Spirit-filled believer knows that God is sovereign over his circumstances, and whether those circumstances be pleasant or unpleasant, they are a theater in which God desires to demonstrate His goodness and glory through the lives of His people as they yield control to Him.

God blessed Joseph and those around him in accordance with His promise to Abraham. God’s purpose in blessing His people is that He might bless others through them. We are blessed to be a blessing. Verse 5 says the whole household of Joseph’s Egyptian master was blessed because of the Lord’s presence in Joseph’s life. His diligent work in the power of the Holy Spirit and his success under God’s blessing became a radiant testimony to Potiphar and all in his house of the power of the presence of God.

I wonder, do the people in your home, in your community, in your place of work take notice of the fact that the Lord is with you? Do they see that He blesses the work you do? Do they experience those blessings overflowing from your life into theirs? Do they see you overcoming the difficulty of your disquieting circumstances and giving all diligence to whatever you do as though you were doing it for the Lord Jesus? These kinds of things become evident in the lives of Spirit-filled people because the Lord is with them, and that is the root of their success.

The second mark of the Spirit-filled life that we see in Joseph is this …

II. Reverence for God is the fuel of his integrity (39:6-12)

A couple of Sundays ago, April 9, marked the 72nd anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian pastor executed in a Nazi concentration camp. Bonhoeffer wrote a profound little booklet entitled Temptation. In it, he writes,

In our members (that is, the members of our body), there is a slumbering inclination towards desire which is both sudden and fierce. With irresistible power desire seizes mastery over the flesh. All at once a secret, smoldering fire is kindled. The flesh burns and is in flames. It makes no difference whether it is sexual desire, or ambition, or vanity, or desire for revenge, or love of fame and power, or greed for money, or finally, that strange desire for the beauty of the world, of nature. Joy in God is in course of being extinguished in us and we seek all our joy in the creature. At this moment God is quite unreal to us, He loses all reality, and only desire for the creature is real; the only reality is the devil. Satan does not here fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God. … The lust thus aroused envelops the mind and will of man in deepest darkness. The powers of clear discrimination and of decision are taken from us. … It is here that everything within me rises up against the Word of God.[1]

This is a proven and effective strategy of Satan that all of us should recognize from our own experiences with temptation. Joseph was not immune to temptation because of his spiritual strength. In fact, it seems that Satan often targets those who have significant spiritual influence all the more. When a believer yields full control of his or her life to the Spirit of God, a war is declared on Satan, and that Spirit-filled individual becomes a target for spiritual attack. Joseph found himself in the crosshairs of one of the most deadly weapons in the devil’s arsenal – that of sexual temptation.

Throughout Scripture, some of the strongest warnings about temptation are reserved for those of a sexual nature. Sexuality is a gift of God designed for His purposes and for man’s pleasure when it is expressed in God’s defined boundaries of the marriage of one man and one woman. Temptation beckons people to pursue the gift of sexuality in ways that defy the Giver’s boundaries. Because human beings are created by God with the capacity and desire for this gift, the temptation is all the more powerful to resist. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find Satan employing this tactic so frequently and effectively against the people of God. But we are not without defense mechanisms. We see that in Joseph’s life here in our text. Because He was a Spirit-filled man, his reverence for God fueled his personal integrity in the face of sexual temptation.

Verse 6 tells us that Joseph was a handsome man in form and appearance, and the fact didn’t escape the notice of Potiphar’s wife. In verse 7, we read that she “looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, ‘Lie with me.’” This was not a subtle seduction. Now, here is a man, and a woman who is attracted to him, practically throwing herself on him. But because Joseph is a Spirit-filled man, his reverence for God fuels his integrity. Notice his response in verse 8. He says, essentially, “My master trusts me with everything in his house, and I am not going to betray his trust.” But moreover, the ultimate reason for his refusal is found in verse 9, “How then could I do this great evil and sin against God?” Because of Joseph’s reverence for God, he is aware that there is never a moment of life in which “no one has to know” what went on. God always knows, and God is always present, even when the master of the house is not.

He said his peace, and testified to his faith in God in maintaining his integrity before Potiphar’s wife. But the story doesn’t end there. Verse 10 says that she continued to lure him “day after day,” but Joseph never gave in. He “did not listen to her to lie beside her or be with her.” He found avoidance of the situation altogether to be a good strategy for dealing with the temptation. But on one occasion, she trapped him. Verse 11 tells of a day when he went into the house to do his work, and no one else was around. Verse 12 says that “she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me.’” The Hebrew words here indicate that she was forceful. But Joseph fled from her grasp so decisively that he came out of his garment and left it in her grasp. As Wiersbe says, “Better to flee and lose your garment than fall and lose your character.”[2]

Joseph knew better than to hang around and try to reason against this temptation. Three New Testament passages are instructive for us in our battle with severe temptation: Romans 13:14 – “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” Though he was no longer wearing his outer garment, Joseph was wearing the integrity of his faith in God and giving no room to any illicit desire that may arise in his heart. First Corinthians 10:13 – “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” This means that there is no such thing as an irresistible temptation, because God, in His faithfulness to His people, will make a way for you to escape the situation or stand strong in the midst of it. And sometimes, as in the case of Joseph, the way of escape is to run as fast as you can away from the situation. And that brings us to the third New Testament passage – 2 Timothy 2:22, which says simply, “Flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness.” That is exactly what Joseph did. In his pursuit of righteousness, fueled by his reverence for God through the filling of the Holy Spirit, he fled from youthful lusts, as we all should.

Now, it should not escape our notice that in his flight from this situation, he left behind some evidence that would be used to frame him under a false accusation. Just as his brothers deceived their father with his coat of many colors, so Potiphar’s wife deceived her husband with his outer garment that he left behind. She accused Joseph of trying to force himself upon her – the exact opposite of what happened! And for this, Joseph was imprisoned. Frankly, he got off light, because the prescribed penalty for these charges was death. But the point here is this: Integrity fueled by reverence for God does the right thing, no matter the consequences. To withstand such intense temptation and endure the trial of being falsely condemned is something that is not within our nature. It requires us to be controlled by the supernatural power of God that His indwelling Spirit provides. 

We are considering Joseph as a case study of being Spirit-filled. We have seen that the person filled with God’s spirit experiences success because of the presence of God; and he or she lives with integrity because of his or her reverence for God. So thirdly we see…

III. Dependence upon God is the source of his wisdom (40:8; 41:16, 25, 28, 32-33)

Joseph is the kind of guy that you just can’t seem to keep down. No matter how far down he gets knocked, he just rises up by God’s gracious blessing on his life. And it happened in prison, as we see in Chapter 40. It did not take long for the chief jailer to see that Joseph was unique, and that God’s hand was on him. So, the jailer puts him in charge of everything and everyone. Pretty soon, Joseph was joined in prison by the royal cupbearer and the royal baker. We don’t know what the charges against them were, but they were obviously pretty serious. To the many other virtues that we could list about Joseph, let us not overlook his compassion for others. Verse 4 says that Joseph “took care of them.” Since “they were in confinement for some time,” they probably got to know each other pretty well. And one morning when Joseph came in, he noticed that they were “dejected” (v6), so he asked them, “Why are your faces so sad today?” He took a special interest in their well-being and was concerned for them. Well, it just so happened that the night before, they had both had dreams, and they didn’t know if there was any significance to their dreams, or if there was, what meaning the dreams could possibly have. Dreams, you say? That just happens to be something Joseph knows a thing or two about. God had revealed His truth to Joseph in dreams before. But Joseph did not depend on his own experience or expertise. He depended on the Lord for his wisdom.  

Joseph said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please” (v8). He pointed to God, not himself, as the One who could make sense of their dreams. Over the course of the rest of the chapter, they related their dreams to Joseph, and he told them what God was revealing to them by their dreams. Good news, bad news. For the cupbearer, the good news was that he was about to be restored to his position. For the baker, the bad news was that he was about to be executed. And these things happened “just as Joseph had interpreted to them” (v22). Now, before the cupbearer was released and restored, Joseph asked for a favor from him. So confident was he in the interpretation of the dream he had provided, he said, “Keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house” (v14). But, the cupbearer “did not remember Joseph, but forgot him” (v23). A full two years went by before the cupbearer’s memory was jogged concerning Joseph. It happened when Pharaoh became troubled by a mysterious dream. That is the focus of Chapter 41.

Pharaoh was so troubled by his dream that he summoned his magicians and wise men and asked them to interpret the dream for him. They could not. At this point, the cupbearer says, “Well, I happen to know a guy ….” And Pharaoh had Joseph brought before him. Pharaoh said, “I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it” (41:15). Again Joseph is again quick to demonstrate his dependence on the Lord. He says, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (v15). So Pharaoh told him the dream, and Joseph interpreted it, saying three times in his explanation that God was giving Pharaoh a clear message that a severe famine was coming very soon.

Now, we see here that because of Joseph’s dependence upon God, he had wisdom to understand God’s truth. He alone in all of Egypt was able to hear the dreams of the baker, the cupbearer, and the Pharaoh, and respond by saying, “This is what the Lord is saying to you.” Now, as we mentioned before in our study of Joseph, it is a rare thing for God to communicate today by dreams and visions. We do not dare say that He cannot or will not, but the He usually does not. That is because we have God’s Word recorded for us in the Bible. He cannot and will not reveal anything to anyone by any other means that is contrary to anything that He has revealed in His written Word. But the need of the present hour is the same as it was in Joseph’s day. All around us there are people who are dejected and troubled, unable to make sense of their life circumstances. What they need is a person with the wisdom of God to come into their lives and say, “This is what the Lord says.” And we do that most effectively, not by offering them our own personal opinions and conjectures, but by showing them and telling them what God has spoken to us all in His Word, the Bible. Because Joseph was dependent on the Lord, he had the wisdom to understand God’s truth. And if we are similarly dependent on the Lord, we will have the wisdom of Scripture to share with those who need to hear a word from God as well.

But I want you to notice that Joseph’s wisdom was not merely seen in his understanding of God’s message, but in his application of it also. He had the ability to answer the question, “What does God have to say?” And he had the ability to answer the question, “So what? How does that affect me, and what should I do?” Joseph was able to do that for Pharaoh. In 41:33, he says, “Now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.” He gives Pharaoh a precise plan for how to prepare for the coming drought so that the nation can survive. Pharaoh needs a wise and discerning man to carry out the plan. And one is standing right in front of him. Because of Joseph’s dependence on the Lord, his wisdom and discernment is evident, and Pharaoh exalts Joseph to the second most powerful position in Egypt. The nation of Egypt was saved, multitudes from other nations are saved, including Joseph’s kinsmen – the fledgling nation of Israel. God furthers His purposes in the world through His Spirit-filled people.

When we live our lives under the control of the Holy Spirit, when we are Spirit-filled, we will be dependent on the Lord and this will give us wisdom to understand and apply His word to the needs of our own lives and the lives of others. They may not always respond as favorably as Pharaoh did with Joseph, but in the course of their lives, they will come to understand that God’s Word never returns void, and they will recognize at some point that they encountered His truth in the words that we have shared with them. And many will be saved! Many will turn to us seeking a word from the Lord because they will know we are people of the Book. God will further His purposes in the world through the wisdom of Spirit-filled Christians.

Now finally, I want to share one more mark of the Spirit-filled person that we see in Joseph, and hopefully we will see in our lives as well….

IV. Hope in God is the cause of his perseverance (41:45-57)

At any point in Joseph’s story, we would not have been surprised to find that he had abandoned hope in God. He could have identified himself as a victim, and given up on ever being more than that. Verse 46 tells us that he was 30 years old when he stood before Pharaoh. That means that 13 years had elapsed since he was sold into slavery by his brothers. That’s a long time. But he never forgot the dream that God had given to him, that he would be exalted above his brethren and play a fundamental role in God’s purpose for his family, the descendants of his people, and the world. He trusted in God to deliver on that promise, and that caused him to persevere.

Joseph gained an Egyptian position, an Egyptian name, and an Egyptian wife. But when his children were born, he gave them Hebrew names that showed where his trust and hope were anchored. The first one was named “Manasseh,” which means “forget.” He said, “God has made me forget all my trouble and my father’s household.” This doesn’t mean he forgot where he came from. It means that he put the past behind him, and when he thought of his own people, he did not wallow in the hardships he endured at the hands of his brothers. He could forget all of that and focus on the promise and purpose of God for his people, that began to unfold with the promise given to his great-grandfather Abraham to bless all nations through his seed.

The second son was given the name “Ephraim,” which means “fruitful.” He said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Joseph was the second-most powerful man in Egypt, and had the authority of the Pharaoh himself at his disposal. He lived in Egyptian luxury at this point, but Egypt still was not home. Egypt represented affliction for Joseph. It was a place where he was isolated from his family, where he was alone in his faith, and where he had suffered unjustly as a slave and a prisoner. But his trust in God did not waver. He could look beyond all the trials and treasures of Egypt and know that his real home was elsewhere. That is why, when Genesis comes to a close and Joseph is dying, he “made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones up from here” (50:25). Egypt was a lot of things to Joseph, but it was never home, and his hope in God’s promise and purpose enabled him to endure and persevere through everything he experienced there.

In this world, we will experience many things – some good, some bad. But we have to remember that this world is not home. It is, above all else, a land of affliction. But we persevere through it in confident hope as we trust in God to fulfill the promises that He has made to us in Jesus Christ. By faith in Him, our citizenship is in a kingdom that is not of this world. But while we are in this world, He has indwelt us by the Person of His Holy Spirit, and as we yield control of our lives to Him, we will be able to serve Him wholeheartedly with great effectiveness, we will be able to live with integrity, we will have wisdom to understand and apply His truth to ourselves and others, and we will persevere to the end. And when we live that way, the world around us will say, “Can we find such a one as this, in whom is the Spirit of God?”

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Temptation (New York: MacMillan, 1953), 116-117.
[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, Chapter-By-Chapter Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 41. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Always Springtime and Never Easter (1 Corinthians 15:12-26)


In C. S. Lewis’ beloved story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we learn early on about the curse of the White Witch. She is said to have “all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas!” At the sound of these words, the young girl Lucy can only say, “How awful!” Imagine it! Christmas, we might say, makes winter all the more bearable. But what if, instead of always winter and never Christmas, our world were cursed with the condition of being always springtime and never Easter? Oh, there would be plenty of mild weather and bright flowers to enjoy just the same. But a world without Easter? I suggest to you that many people live in just such a world. I suppose that they have the cultural trappings of it all, you know, the eggs and the bunnies and the baskets and the bonnets. But these things are not Easter. They really have nothing to do with Easter! Easter is the celebration of our Lord Jesus’ victory over sin and death by His triumphant resurrection from the dead!

Many have not heard that good news. Many have heard it and do not believe it. Many even profess to believe it, but it makes no evident impact on their lives. They live as though it is always springtime, but never Easter. And yet Easter represents the most important event in the history of the world! The only way it can be unimportant or irrelevant to any of us is if the story of Jesus conquering sin and death by His resurrection is not true. If that event did not happen, then all this season represents to any of us is that the flowers are in bloom, and there is something going on that has to do with egg-laying bunnies. This is just another mundane day of our mundane week in our mundane year. Hit the snooze button, roll back over in the bed, get up later and have brunch and smell the flowers in bloom, because nothing else of any significance is going on.

I want to invite us to consider a world in which it is always Springtime and never Easter – the world in which so many people live because of their ignorance of the story of Easter, their unbelief in it, or their practical indifference to it. In the 15th Chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul spends a lot of time and attention discussing what it would mean for us if Christ had not risen from the dead. So, these are the characteristics of a world in which it is always springtime and never Easter.

If Christ has not been raised …

I. Our Preaching is Vain.

This is what Paul says in verse 14. The word “vain” means “empty” or “hollow.” Paul is saying that if Christ is not risen from the dead, then nothing he has ever preached, nothing that any of the other apostles of Christ preached, and nothing any Christian preacher of the last two millennia has preached has any form or substance to it whatsoever. Every Christian sermon ever preached in every church all over the world has all been an enormous pile of lies. As verse 15 says, “We are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised.” If Christ has not been raised, then all Christian preaching has just been a tremendous waste of time and words.

Consider that the Church of Jesus Christ was born under the preaching of the Word of God. Acts 2 records the birth of the Church on the day of Pentecost as the first Christians were filled with the Spirit of God and began proclaiming “the mighty deeds of God.” Before that time, all of the committed followers of Christ were able to be gathered into one room. Acts 1:15 says there were about 120 of them. But on the day of Pentecost, as an innumerable multitude of people from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast, Peter began to preach under the power of the Holy Spirit. And the focus of His message on that day was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Peter says in Acts 2:22-24,

Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know – this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him 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.

Then Peter turned the attention of the people to Psalm 16 and recited the words of David, and demonstrated that David could not have been speaking of himself as he said, “You will not abandon My soul to Hades, nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay” (Ac 2:27; Psa 16:10). Peter said, “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (2:19). But Peter said David was looking ahead and speaking of the resurrection of Christ, and he said, “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.” And he concluded by saying, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36).

Notice that the weight of his entire sermon on that day rested on the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. It is the resurrection of Christ that brings about the fulfillment of Scripture and establishes the claim that Jesus is both Lord and Christ. And when that crowd heard these words, “they were pierced to the heart,” and they began to ask, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter’s response was, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:37-38). It is the resurrection that is the basis of our faith in Christ, and the resurrection is what promises us the hope of being forgiven of our sins. Three thousand people put their faith in Jesus that day on the basis of this proclamation of the risen Lord Jesus, and the Church of Jesus Christ was born.

Now, if you live in a world in which it is always Springtime and never Easter, you have to imagine what the world would be like if it had not been for the birth of the Church. I know that today it is fashionable to point out all the flaws and embarrassments of the Christian Church, and to blame the world’s ills on the Church, but consider how the Church of Jesus Christ has impacted the world for good over the last 2,000 years. A vast majority of the world’s most important scientific discoveries were made by Christians. Many of the world’s most beloved works of art were produced by Christians and depict images of Christian religious significance. Everywhere in the world that the church has spread, it has established schools for children and adults alike, and in most cases, they were the first to establish schools in those places. Societies have been established on law and order that is rooted in the Christian understanding of right and wrong, justice and mercy. It was the Christian Church which transformed how the world viewed women, children, the poor and the disabled. It was the Christian Church which was, and still is, the world’s most outspoken voice against the evils of slavery. It has historically been Christians who have established the most far reaching efforts of charity in the world. In many places, there would be no health care at all if it were not for Christian Churches sending doctors and nurses and establishing clinics and hospitals. None of these accomplishments and advancements would exist in the world apart from the Christian Church, and the Christian Church would not exist apart from the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It has been the preaching of that message through the centuries that has called sinful men and women to repent and invited them to be transformed by God’s grace. And those transformed individuals have gone out into the world as ambassadors of heaven, catalyzing change for the good of the world everywhere the church has gone. This is instructive for those of us who do believe this message. If we have come to believe in the proclaimed message that Jesus has conquered death, what good are we doing in the world? If we are not, then the preaching of the resurrected Christ may as well be in vain, because it is having no impact on the world! And we are also cautioned by this statement about what we give our attentive ears to hear. Any preaching, any sermon, that would still be true if Jesus Christ has not risen from the dead has absolutely no place in a Christian pulpit. Take it to the synagogue or to city hall or wherever else, but when a man stands in this pulpit to preach, you need to expect, demand, and insist that the words he speaks are grounded in the victory of Jesus over sin and death by His resurrection. Otherwise, he is wasting time and words with vain preaching.

Now, related to this is the second characteristic of a world in which it is always Springtime and never Easter.

II. Your faith is vain.

Christian faith and Christian preaching are inseparably connected to one another. All true preaching calls for a response of faith, and all true faith arises under the proclamation of God’s Word, and particularly the Word concerning the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 10:17 says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. In the very first verses of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul began by saying that the Gospel message (the good news) is grounded in the historical facts that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (15:3-4). He says that this is the gospel “which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast to the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain” (15:1-2).

So, see what Paul is saying here – the gospel that I preached to you will save you if you believe it – unless you believe in vain. That is, unless your faith is artificial and meaningless. And there are many people who have this kind of hollow faith. Christianity, to them, is not so much a personal abiding trust in the person of Jesus as it is a set of rules or rituals – an outward demonstration that is not tethered to any genuine internal reality in their soul. It is like playing a game of dress-up. Paul says if you believed the gospel with that kind of faith, your faith is meaningless. But moreover, notice that he is saying here in verse 14 that if Jesus has not risen from the dead, then ALL faith is meaningless! If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain because we have no gospel to announce which can save, and therefore anything you put your faith in as a response to vain preaching is vain faith.

Now, you might say, “Well, there are still faiths that exist apart from Jesus.” In a sense, that is true. But when we proclaim Jesus as risen from the dead, we are not merely setting out an alternative to a variety of equally valid faiths. If we want to talk about putting your faith in the teachings and moral example of someone who lived and died a long time ago, I suppose we could produce a number of commendable historical figures as being somewhat equal to one another. But when we proclaim Jesus and call people to put their faith and trust in Him, we are proclaiming an exclusive and superior kind of faith – faith, not in a person who lived and died, but in a person who said of Himself, “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Rev 1:18). There is not another person in the history of humanity that can make that claim. In fact, it is so absurd, no one would even dare to make that claim. He speaks of death as something He experienced in the past tense, and something that He is now eternally immune to! The resurrection, if true, puts Jesus in an altogether different category of beings! Christianity becomes, not just one alternative in a catalog of competing belief systems, but a lighthouse beckoning to safety all who are lost and adrift in a turbulent sea of myths, fairy tales and lies!

A few years ago when we were in Dubai, we took part in a dialogue with some Islamic leaders. They were very hospitable and kind and focused our conversation on the things which Christians and Muslims hold in common – and there are a number of things on which we can agree. But the dialogue broke down when the Islamic scholar said, “So, you see, the difference between us is merely like that of an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 5s.” My pastor friend who was with us retorted, “Well, no actually, the differences between us are more like that of an iPhone 5s, and two tin cans tied together with a string!” Choosing Jesus over an alternative faith claim is not like choosing between chicken or fish for dinner. It is like choosing whether or not you will eat and be filled! For if this Jesus has risen from the dead, then nothing or no one can compare to Him. And if He hasn’t risen from the dead, then He is just one more dead corpse occupying a piece of yet undiscovered real estate somewhere in the world today. And if He isn’t risen, and you’ve put your faith in Him, well, your faith is vain. It is empty and meaningless.

Think of the consequences of that. Paul says in verse 17, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” If He is not risen, then He did not die for your sins. Oh, He died sure enough, but not for your sins. He can only die for your sins because He has no sins of His own for which to die. But if He is not risen, then He is most certainly a sinner – a deceptive charlatan who lured people into errors by lies. He said repeatedly during His earthly life things like this: “The Son of Man (which is how Jesus most frequently spoke of Himself) is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later” (Mk 9:31). He said that kind of thing all the time. And if it didn’t happen, then let’s forget about speaking of Jesus as a good man or a good teacher. He’s a deranged, egomaniacal liar. He got what He deserved on the cross; good riddance; rot away in the tomb and be feasted on by worms! And isn’t it amazing that no one – no one anywhere in the world – dares to speak of Jesus in such a way. He did not die for His own sin. He died for yours, that He might bear the penalty that you deserve and that I deserve, so that our sins could be fully punished under the wrath of God in Him as our substitute. And dying for our sins, He has defeated our sin and its fatal penalty by His resurrection. We can be forgiven of all that we have done if we trust in Him because of His victory over sin and death. But if He did not rise, then we have no hope of forgiveness. If we have no hope, then the best advice we can give to someone who is plagued by a guilty conscience is, “Good luck with that!” Because offering them faith in Christ is complete vanity unless He is risen from the dead.

In a world where it is always Springtime and never Easter, our preaching is vain, and your faith is vain, but thirdly …

III. There is no hope for humanity

Death is the great equalizer. No matter how rich or poor, how loved or despised, how intelligent or ignorant, how successful or unsuccessful a person is, death puts every human being on level ground. Well, we might say, “under level ground.” The fear of death has given rise to all sorts of myths and rituals the world over. We think of the Pharaohs of Egypt who were buried with treasures that they would take with them into the afterlife. And their tombs were sealed and protected by a curse on anyone who may enter, lest someone go in and find that all that stuff was still there! Indeed, almost every religious or philosophical system of thought tries to business at some point with the reality of death and the fear it produces. Christianity, however, is different from all the rest. Christianity, like many other belief systems, claims that death is not the end of existence, but there is life beyond death. Unlike every one of those other systems, however, Christianity claims to have proof of this. The proof is found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Because Jesus died and rose again, we believe that He will bring with Him those who die having faith in Him. His life after death is the evidence of His promise to grant that everlasting life to His followers. But, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then we have no hope to offer anyone in the face of death.

Verse 18 of our text says that if Christ has not been raised, “then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” Paul has a fondness for using this metaphor of sleep as a reference to death. It speaks of death as something temporary, followed by an awakening on the other side. But if Jesus is not risen, then all of the believers in Jesus who have died, or “fallen asleep in Christ,” have nothing to look forward to beyond this life at all. At best, death will mean the extinguishing of life altogether into state of non-existence. At worst, it means that death will mark the entry into a place of eternal judgment for the sins we have committed in this life. Those who have lived believing that Christ will carry them through the valley of the shadow of death to the other side have nothing to look forward to except disappointment. If Christ is not risen, then there simply is no remedy for the fear of death.

Now, if those who have died in Christ have perished, then this means that the promises we have cherished throughout our lives are lies. John 3:16 is probably the most beloved passage of Scripture in the world. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Paul says here that if Jesus is not alive after His death, then this is a lie. God, if He exists at all, doesn’t really love you all that much, and is seemingly content to let you rot in the grave at best, and perish eternally in hell at worst. Don’t ask me to preach your preach your funeral, because if Christ is not risen, then I have nothing to say except, “I’m sorry for your loss, and I hope you can get over it soon.”

Here is where critics of the Christian faith will make light of our beliefs and say, “Oh, you poor Christians! You lost your pie in the sky by and by!” Well, as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “either there is pie in the sky or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced.” But I suggest to you that more is at stake here than our slice of pie in the sky. If death is the end of existence, and there is no hope of heaven, we give up far more than just the idea of eternal happiness. That would be bad enough by itself, but there is more that gets jettisoned with it. If those who have died in Christ have perished, then that means that there is no hope of justice to come. It is our faith in the risen Christ that assures us that there is coming a day when all wrongs will be made right. All of the injustices of the world will be inverted by God’s perfect justice. In the words of Tolkien, “everything sad is going to come untrue.” Notice how Paul connects the dots of this coming judgment to the resurrection of Christ in Acts 17:31, saying that God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” But if there is no resurrection of Christ, then there is no judgment to come, no justice to be found, no redemption from the evils of this world, no victory to be had, no glory to experience. When this hard and cruel life comes to an end, all there will be is perishing. If Christ is not risen, then there is no hope for humanity.

Finally, we see one more characteristic of a world in which it is always Springtime and never Easter.

IV. Christians are to be pitied.

Some years ago, a very popular gospel singer released a song that said, “But if heaven was never promised to me, neither God’s promise to live eternally, it’s been worth just having the Lord in my life.” That’s sweet, isn’t it? Well, compare that to what Paul says in verse 19 of our text: “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” This notion that walking with Christ has been worth it even if there is no heaven to gain from it is nonsense to the Apostle. This world is filled with troubles and trials. Our own bodies are at war with us, and dangers lurk around every corner of this planet! Every nanosecond of our lives are lived within a single heartbeat of death! And if this is all there is, then frankly, it is pretty awful! We walk by faith in Christ because we believe that there is something better beyond this world and this life. We believe that there is a world and a level of existence that has been promised to us in Jesus Christ, where God Himself will “wipe every tear from their eyes; and there will be no longer any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev 21:4). And we are not interested in any consolation prizes of having some kind of happier perspective on this sin-wrecked globe. We hold this conviction by faith with confidence because we have the assurance of it through the resurrection of Christ from the dead. But if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then the whole world should feel sorry for us more than for any other class of people.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul speaks of being whipped five times, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, robbed, going hungry and thirsty and exposed to all sorts of dangerous and deadly conditions because of his faith in Christ and service to Him. The writer of Hebrews speaks in Chapter 11 of those who were tortured, mocked and scourged, enchained and imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, and put to death by the sword (Heb 11:35-37). Historians record for us the persecutions of the maniacal Caesar Nero, who eventually ordered the execution of Paul and Peter and untold multitudes of other Christians. Tacitus tells of how they were sown into the hides of wild beasts and thrown to dogs to be attacked and killed by them. He tells of those who were crucified and those who were impaled and set on fire to be used as lanterns in Nero’s gardens as he raced his chariot around in the dark. And history is replete with countless other examples of those who embraced the persecutions and punishments thrown at them by the world for their faith in Christ. It is estimated that some 70 million Christians died as martyrs over the last 2,000 years. And some 45 million of those, well over half, were martyred between 1990 and 2000. Last Sunday, as Christians gathered to worship on Palm Sunday in Egypt, ISIS suicide bombers caused explosions in two churches, killing over 40 and injuring over 120 Christians.

Why do I rattle off these statistics? Because this long and gory trail of blood that has marked the spread of the church through the world since the Day of Pentecost testifies to the unshakable faith of Christians in a life beyond death that has been promised to us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we could ask the millions of martyred Christians if they thought it’s been worth it to just have the Lord in their lives even if there was no heaven promised or a promise to live eternally, they would likely laugh at the mere suggestion. But if Christ is not risen from the dead, then the world should laugh at them with condescending pity. What a silly, stupid, suicidal lot of fools to embrace death on the promise of everlasting life beyond, if Jesus is not risen! What an absolute waste of life and death! This world is as close to heaven as the believer in Christ would ever experience, and as close to hell as the unredeemed of the world would ever experience. Paul will say in later verses in this chapter that it is our belief in the resurrection that drives us to embrace risk, to live for Christ in the face of persecution and peril. If Christ is not raised, he says we may as well eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Nothing else matters. That is what it would be like to live in a world where it is always Springtime and never Easter.

Ah, but, thanks be to God, this is not the world in which we live. As Paul says in verse 20, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” Because He has risen, we who belong to Him by faith will rise as well. Sin has been dealt with in His death, and death itself has been vanquished by His resurrection. Jesus really has risen from the dead, then nothing in our lives or in the world can ever be the same! Death has had a hole kicked into it, and a conquering King stands on the other side of it inviting all who trust in Him to follow Him through it to life everlasting!

All around us people are living in a world where it is always Springtime and never Easter. But the Christ of Easter sends us into that world as His ambassadors, beckoning those imprisoned souls to be set free and to come into the power and glory of His Kingdom, to become citizens of an everlasting Kingdom in which every day is Easter. Every day is a celebration that our King has conquered all of His enemies and laid them in subjection under His feet, including death, which He has defeated on our behalf.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The King Comes Weeping (Luke 19:28-48)

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week on the Christian Calendar, and the day that commemorates Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem for the final time during His earthly life and ministry. As Jesus came into the city, He was fulfilling a centuries old prophecy, delivered through the prophet Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zech 9:9).

This day derives its name, Palm Sunday, from how the people responded to Jesus as He entered the city. The gospel writers tell us that multitudes were waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna!” This Hebrew word means, “Save us now!” And they were singing, “Blessed is the King who comes in the Name of the Lord!” But, in the midst of their rejoicing, did they notice that the King came weeping? Luke tells us that Jesus did two things as he drew near to the city: He saw it, and he wept over it. With tears in His eyes, He said to Jerusalem – the city of peace – “If you had known this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.”

I wonder, when we see our city, and when we see the major cities of the world, does the heart of Jesus break within us and cause us to weep as He did? Did you know that 3 out of every four people in North Carolina live in one of 8 major metropolitan areas? In the first decade of this century, the growth rate in these urban centers was over 22%. Our state is becoming more and more urban. Not only this, but our cities are becoming more and more diverse. Over 75% of North Carolina’s non-white population lives in these major metro areas. Our cities are becoming larger, they are becoming more diverse, and they are becoming more lost. Of the top 100 areas of highest concentrations of non-Christian people in North Carolina, 97 of them are in the cities. Across the state, there is approximately one North Carolina Baptist Church for every 1,300 people. In the cities, that figure skyrockets to one North Carolina Baptist Church for almost every 3,000 people.[1] Within our city of Greensboro, the top ten unreached people groups represent some of the most unreached peoples in the world. And the top ten geographic concentrations of lostness encompass the same zip codes that many of you call home, including one that our church facility falls in the middle of.

These statistics and demographics are not unique to Greensboro or to North Carolina. What we see happening here is a microcosm of what is happening worldwide. In 2010, for the first time in history, over half of the world’s population lived in urban centers. By the end of this century, it is estimated that 80% or more of the world’s population will live in cities, and in the United States, the figure already exceeds that. The world’s 25 largest cities by population all have populations over 10 million, and some more than double or triple that. In the United States, 29 major metro areas are less than 5% evangelical Christian. The unreached peoples of the world are rapidly becoming, not those who live on the other sides of oceans, jungles and deserts. They are the multicultural multitude that are living side-by-side in the world’s major urban centers.

Major cities are places of great need: poverty, greed, homelessness, crime, corruption, addiction, violence, and alienation. Certainly Greensboro is no exception. As soon as these doors open at the conclusion of the service, you can see all of the above. Now we must ask, are these problems caused by life in the city? No, these problems flow forth from the hearts of depraved humanity. They are expressions of human sinfulness. As bad as this news may sound, it is actually good news, for the problem of human sinfulness is the very problem that Jesus Christ came into the world to solve. D. L. Moody once said, “Waters run downhill, and the highest hills in America are the great cities. If we can stir them we shall stir the whole country.” If we can bring the good news of salvation from sin into the city, we can bring it to the whole world.

So, on this Palm Sunday, as we look at Jesus coming into the city with tears in His eyes, I want to challenge each of us to look at the city like He did: to see it, and to weep over it.

I. Consider what He saw.
As Jesus crossed the Mount of Olives and drew near toward Jerusalem, He saw everything there was to see. He saw the contrasts of the city: its beauty and ugliness, its glory and shame, its joy and sorrow, its wealth and the poverty, its righteousness and sinfulness. He saw the beautiful place of worship, and the monuments of depravity. He saw the piety of true worshippers, and the perversion of those who sought to profit off of them. These contrasts are present in every city, including our own, as a writer of a bygone century has put it, “heaped and huddled together, with nothing but a little carpentry and masonry between them.”

Not only did He see the contrasts, He saw the conditions. He saw those whose lips might be used to sing the praises of God if their mouths weren’t full of cursing. He saw those whose energies might be used for ministry if they weren’t exhausted by addiction, perversion, and wasteful existence. He saw prisoners bound for hell who might otherwise be pilgrims journeying to heaven. He saw the multitude praising Him with Hosannas on Sunday, knowing that many of them would be crying out “Crucify!” by Thursday.

I wonder, when we look at our city, and the great cities of the world today, do we see what Jesus saw? Do we see these contrasts and conditions? Do we recognize them for what they are? We see the problems, but do we recognize that they are but symptoms of a greater root issue? Society sees the symptoms and spends countless dollars and immeasurable energies trying to remedy them, without considering the underlying disease. More prisons are built, more shelters are built, more clinics are built, and more cemeteries are built. Dialogues and debates are held. Awareness is raised, and emotions are excited about it all. But there is no lasting change. That is because the symptoms are only remedied as the disease is treated. The disease is the corruption of the human heart because of sin. And the only cure for that disease is the good news of Jesus Christ.

The church of Jesus Christ must look with His eyes and see the city as He saw it, with all of its conditions and contrasts. And then we must stop waiting for others to apply their futile efforts to the problem, and begin to distribute the cure. The cure is the gospel, and it is distributed as God’s people live for Him and speak for Him to those around us, calling them to repentance and faith in Christ. There is no civic or governmental agency that can do that. Only the Church can do that. By and large, we have not yet done so, and it is because we have not seen the city as Jesus saw it.

Not only must we consider what Jesus saw, but we also must …
II. Consider what He did.

Upon seeing the city, Jesus wept over it. He did not weep as a politician longing for the votes of those in the city. He did not weep as a merchant desiring the money of the consumers. He did not weep as a sentimental patriot, longing for a return of the good ol’ days of peace and security. He wept as only He could: as a Savior who could rescue those people from their sins if only they would turn to Him. He wept not only for what that day held, but for a future day when they would face judgment because they Had not received Him. As He wept He said, “If you had known in this day … the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.”

When you look at the city around you, do you weep? Do you weep as Jesus wept? Do you weep at the fact that the streets are filled with people who live most of their lives giving no thought to God and to His grace? Do you weep at people who are hustling and hurrying through life only to find hell awaiting at its end? Do you weep at the number who drive and walk by the open doors of the church en route to psychics, cults, and other systems of false hope? Do you weep at those consumed with worry over so many needs, and whose hearts are indifferent to how Christ can meet their greatest need? Jesus wept as He saw these things, but He was not content to merely weep in despair. His tears drove Him to action.

He went first to the temple and drove out those who had made it into a den of thieves. God’s desire for that place was that it would be a house of prayer for all nations, and Jesus went to set things aright. Where would He go first in our city? Would He go to the courthouse or to city hall? Would He go to the campuses or the corporations? I believe He would go first to the churches and begin a massive overhaul. Lutheran Pastor Herman Prange who served a church in inner city Minneapolis in the early 20th Century put it this way:

If Jesus were here with his whip of scourging … He would drive out all those who teach the commandments of men in place of the oracles of God; who have forsaken the fountain of living water, and who direct men to the broken cisterns which hold no water; who feed their flock with the store of human opinion and wisdom, instead of the Bread of Life, Christ crucified, the power of God unto salvation. He would cast out men who are saints on Sunday and devils during the week. He would drive out the man who teaches in the Sunday School and swears at his clerks in his office. He would drive out the man who praises God with a loud voice as he sings from his well-bound book during divine service, and who during the week grinds the face of the poor. He would drive out the woman who comes to church to show her finery and spends the week debauching the young by setting an example of vanity. In a word – He would drive out all men and women who are simply whitewashed, without being washed clean.

As Peter says, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the Gospel of God?” (1 Pet 4:17). Should Christ come first to condemn the world for not being more like the church, when the church has become so much like the world! In a nearby community, I regularly pass by a historic church building that has a large sign out front which says, “Help Save Our Church.” There is a website and contact information for passers-by to contact and make donations to save this church building. Can we not see how upside down this idea is? It is not the job of the world to save the church with its financial resources, but the job of the church to save the world by its spiritual resources in the gospel. How many church buildings in the cities of the world are hollow shells of their former selves? How many have become historical markers and museums of ancient history? We say, “Well the world has changed.” I don’t think it has changed nearly as much as the church has changed. We have lost the mission and passion of Jesus. We have stopped weeping over our cities and therefore we have stopped reaching out to our cities with the good news that is the world’s only hope.

Jesus wept and His tears drove Him to action, purifying the faith and practice of the religious community in the city of Jerusalem. So must we also get serious about the testimony we present to our city through our words and through our deeds. When this city looks upon the church as representatives of God’s people, my hope is that they do not weep in despair over our contrasts and conditions, but rather see that we are a house of prayer for all nations, where they might find the soul-saving remedy for their sinful condition.

Jesus did not stop with the cleansing of the temple. He continued on teaching daily in the city. This is what the city needs. It needs the presence of Christ and His word directing them to salvation. Our city needs to see His presence through us as we present a consistent witness to those within our sphere of influence on a daily basis. There are seven days in the week, and the city is bustling with activity, some good but much evil every day. We cannot undo that with one hour on Sunday. We must labor in this place daily for Christ as witnesses to His life-changing power. Like Jesus, we must be out in our city making His good news known daily!

But Jesus did not stop there. At the end of that week, He laid down His life for the souls of that city and died for their sins on the cross. And the message of the cross is the only hope for first century Jerusalem and 21st Century Greensboro. We must proclaim that message, and we must live that message, willing to endure whatever personal sacrifice is necessary for the salvation of the city’s multitudes. Then we will see lives changed. And as lives are changed this city will be changed. And as this city and others like it are changed, the world will be changed by the power of God and for the glory of God. But it will not happen unless we see the city as Jesus saw it, and weep for the city as Jesus wept for it, and allow our tears to move us to embrace His task of reaching our cities for Him.

The story is told of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. When he had sent two women out to begin a new mission in a new city, they met only frustration and failure. They sent word back to Booth after a few years saying that they were ready to just give up, because no matter what they tried, nothing seemed to be working. According to one report, their message said, “Would you kindly move us to another station? We are so tired and disheartened. We’ve tried everything … We’ve tried preaching on street corners, beating drums, passing out tracts, and nothing works. Please move us to another location.” Booth replied with a two-word telegram: “Try Tears.”

Have you tried tears? Have you seen your city and wept with Jesus over it? The Word of the Lord has promised us, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Our King came weeping. Let not our eyes be dry as we follow Him.

[1] Michael Sowers, “Why 8 Population Centers.” Btt_news%5D=273&cHash=5b9282e4c36974e86899525495782630. Accessed April 4, 2017. 

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Story of a Son (Genesis 37)


Essential 100.11
The Story of a Son
Genesis 37

In our study of the Essential 100 texts of the Bible, we have crossed the 10% mark. As we have made our way through Genesis, we have seen a continual narrowing of the plot line, from God’s dealings with humanity as a whole, to His dealings with the family of Noah, and narrower still to His dealings with Abraham and his descendants, then Isaac and his descendants, and then to Jacob and his descendants. With each narrowing, we are tracing the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a redeemer into the world, the seed of woman who was promised to Adam after his sin, the seed of Abraham who would bless all nations of the world. At various points along the way, we have seen how God has preserved His promise of redemption through, in the words of John Newton, “many dangers, toils, and snares.” And today we come again to a narrowing point in the story.

I have pointed out in the past that the book of Genesis is divided into sections by the use of the Hebrew word toledoth. We find another use of that word – the final use of it in Genesis – here in verse 2 of our text. “These are the toledoth of Jacob.” The narrative shifts from Jacob himself to his sons, and in particular one son takes the focus of the final 14 chapters: Joseph. Nearly a quarter of the book of Genesis is devoted to Joseph. We might assume that Joseph is the next in line to receive the promise of the blessing of Abraham. Indeed, our text sets up that expectation in our minds as we read it. But we will find over the course of Genesis’ final chapters that Joseph is not the heir of promise. By God’s amazing grace, Judah will be the one through whom the promise comes to pass. This is proof of God’s sovereignty in choosing how His purposes will be fulfilled in the world, for if it were up to any of us, we would certainly choose Joseph. He is a heroic figure, in contrast to Judah, who leaves much to be desired in terms of his character. Joseph’s story is far more familiar to us than that of Judah. I suppose that most of our Bible story books and Sunday School lessons have focused on Joseph rather than Judah, and the story of Joseph has even made its way, albeit in a greatly modified form, to the Broadway stage and movie screen in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s famous Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Now, if Joseph is not the chosen seed through whom God’s global and eternal purposes will come to pass, why does his story occupy so much focus in Genesis, to the near exclusion of Judah? It is because apart from Joseph, God’s promises would have come to nothing. Though Joseph’s line does not bring forth the One who will save the world, Joseph actually turns out to be the one who saves the promise from ruin as God providentially orchestrates the circumstances of his life for the good of his family and ultimately for the world. His story is the story of a son who points the way forward for a greater Son who is to come into the world.

As we begin to study his life, this story of a son, we find first of all that Joseph’s story is …

I. The Story of a Beloved Son (vv1-3)

Everyone loves to experience a “brush with greatness,” as we find ourselves in the same place at the same time with a celebrity. I’ve had a few of them, but one of my favorite ones was at a restaurant in Winston-Salem when I was a teenager as my family celebrated my birthday. At the table beside of us was none other than Tom Smothers. Now many of you will recognize him as one of the famous Smothers Brothers comedy duo. When I was growing up, I thought these guys were so funny. We had a record that we used to play called “Mom Always Liked You Best.” It was a hilarious bit in which the adult brothers reminisce about their childhood, and it comes to the surface that their mother’s favoritism for Richard was shown in every way imaginable. No matter how many times I heard that, it never got old. It was always hysterical. But if you grew up in a family where a parent showed genuine favoritism for one child over another, you know that it is no laughing matter.

Jacob grew up that way. He was always in the shadow of his brother Esau in the esteem of his father Isaac. And Jacob himself was favorited over his brother by his mother Rebekah. That parental favoritism nearly ruined the entire family. You would think he would have learned his lesson. But the history of human nature shows us that we tend to repeat cycles of behavior that we learn from our parents until we break free of them by God’s grace. Just as Jacob grew up in a family fractured by favoritism, he fostered it in his own family as well. Verse 3 says, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons.”

Now, one might think that Joseph had earned the favor of his brothers because of the contrast in character between him and his brothers. Back in Chapter 34, there is a terrible incident recorded in which Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped by a prince in the region of Shechem. In revenge for this horrible deed, Jacob’s sons went beyond the bounds of justice and slaughtered every adult male of the region and looted the city. Another incident is recorded in Chapter 35 in which Jacob’s son Reuben slept with one of Jacob’s concubines. And we have in our text this statement in verse 2, that as the brothers were out shepherding their flocks, Joseph brought to his father “a bad report” about them. We don’t know what the report consisted of, or what it was the brothers were doing, but whatever it was compelled Joseph to inform his father about it.

Now here is where we often find Joseph painted with a bad brush. He is often described as a petty tattle-tale who should shut up and mind his own business. But I think that verse two is here to indicate a contrast in moral character between Joseph and his brothers. Notice that the Bible does not condemn Joseph for what he does here, though it certainly does not earn him any favor with his brethren. He was a morally upstanding man. In fact, there are only three men in the Bible about whom no moral fault is recorded: Joseph, Daniel, and Jesus. This does not mean that Joseph (or Daniel for that matter) was sinless, for he was a sinful man as we all are. Only Jesus is sinless. It does mean, however, that in his moral character, he was blameless and upright. But this is not why he was a beloved son.

Verse 3 says that his father loved him more than all his sons “because he was the son of his old age.” He was the firstborn son to Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, after he had fathered children by Leah and two other women. Joseph was precious to him, and so Jacob honored him above all the others. He made for him a “varicolored tunic,” verse 3 says. We are accustomed to calling this his “coat of many colors.” The translation of the phrase is notoriously difficult. Whatever else it means, we know that the robe was likely richly ornamented, and came to the wrists and ankles. This was not the garment of a working man. It was the robe of a prince. By giving Joseph this robe, Jacob was symbolizing his choice of Joseph as the heir-apparent, passing over his older siblings. And so this robe which was a symbol of his father’s love became the object of his brothers’ hatred.

It was because of nothing that Joseph had done, or anything that the brothers had done. It was because of Jacob’s love for Joseph’s mother, and the station in Jacob’s life at which time Joseph was born. But, as it was in Jacob’s own upbringing, this parental favoritism did not bode well for family harmony. As we look at this series of incidents in the patriarchal family of Genesis, we can make application to our own lives. Defiance of God’s plan for the family – one man and one woman, committed to one another in a lifelong marriage – always bears unintended consequences. The Bible records polygamy as a thing that happened, but it does not ever portray polygamy as something that God blesses. There are always bad outcomes in these situations. And we also see the important role that fathers have in shaping the lives of their children. Jacob, by and large, was a passive father. Though the family trade was largely shepherding, Jacob failed to shepherd the hearts of his sons, and their disappointments in life were the fruit of his passive neglect. And we also see over and over again how parental favoritism never plays out well. It was not Joseph’s fault that his father preferred him to his other sons, but Joseph and all of his brothers reaped the consequences of their father’s failure.

The point we want to see in verses 1-3 is that Joseph’s story is the story of a beloved son. And the second thing we notice in verses 4-11 is that Joseph’s story is …

II. The Story of a Hated Son (vv4-11).

I suppose you could ask anyone who grew up in a home filled with parental favoritism how it works out. The favorite child ends up being the hated child. And it was no different for Joseph. And just as his father’s special love for him was based on nothing that Joseph had done, neither was his brother’s hatred of him. I suppose we could imagine that they hated him for giving their father the bad report in verse 2. Or I suppose that they could have hated him for wearing the special robe his father made for him. I mean, its one thing for Jacob to give it to him; and quite another for him to wear it. It reminds me of the guy who won a medal for his humility, but then had it taken away because he wore it. But, as understandable as these reasons for hatred may be, they are not the reason why Joseph’s brothers hated him. Verse 4 says that they hated him because their father loved him more than them. So great was their hatred for him that they could not even speak to him on friendly terms.

Now we might imagine that things couldn’t get much worse for Joseph, but verse 5 says that something happened to cause the brothers to hate him “even more.” What was it that happened? He delivered to them an uncomfortable message. Verse 5 says that he had a dream, and it was his telling of this dream that took their hatred to a new level. Verse 8 says that they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. In his dream, Joseph said, “we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf rose up and also stood erect; and behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” Now, the content of this dream was evident to the brothers. Joseph was saying that God had communicated to him a vision of things to come, in which his brothers would be subservient to him and he would rule over them. Now look, you’ve got this tattle-tale, spoiled brat of a brother, and he says one day you are going to be his servant. I mean, I can kind of get it, you know. It’s not the kind of thing you want to hear. Maybe Joseph should have just kept this message to himself. But there are some messages that have to be delivered, no matter how uncomfortable they are.

The brothers hated Joseph because of his father’s love, and then they hated him even more because of his words. But then something else happened. He had another dream! And again he shared the message with his brothers and with his father. In this dream, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to Joseph. So the meaning of the dream was the same, but expanded and made more certain. Lest their be any doubt, the “eleven stars” just happen to be the same number of brothers that Joseph has, and they are not bowing down to another star, but to Joseph himself! And this time, the sun and the moon are included – whom Jacob recognizes as a reference to himself and Joseph’s late mother. In short, the message is that the whole family – this nascent nation of Israel – will bow down in humble servitude to Joseph, who will rule over them. Jacob rebuked him. His brothers hatred is now expressed in jealousy (v11). But Jacob files it away in his mind, wondering how this dream might be fulfilled.

You see, in that day and time, God often spoke through dreams and visions. Today, not so much. Why has that changed? Well, we have something that that generation did not have: the Bible. God has spoken clearly and unmistakably in His Word, and we need not expect Him to provide additional information beyond what the Bible says. Jesus Himself said this in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. When the rich man in hell petitioned heaven that someone return from the dead to warn his brothers of the horrors of hell, the answer he received was, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” But the rich man protested and said, “No, they need something else!” And the response again was, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” “Moses and the Prophets” was a colloquial way of referring to the Scriptures, and Jesus was saying that the Word of God as we have it in the Bible is enough for us all. But prior to the writing of the Bible, God spoke “at sundry times and in divers manners,” as the King James says in Hebrews 1:1. And dreams and visions were some of those manners. Now, as it is today, just because someone dreamed a dream doesn’t mean God is speaking to them. Today, we take every claim that someone makes as a message from God back to Scripture and compare it to what God says there. But in that day, God’s truth was established by multiple witnesses. Just as in a court case under the Mosaic Law, a fact was established by the mouth of two or three witnesses (Dt 19:15). And so, Joseph himself will say in a later text, when Pharaoh has two dreams of similar circumstances, “Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about” (41:32).

So, here in such a short span of time, Joseph has had two dreams which have the exact same meaning, indicating that God has spoken and the matter is settled. Joseph will have authority over his brothers. He has been the recipient of a divine revelation and of divine favor. And this makes the brothers jealous and even more hateful toward him.

As we consider the story of the hated brother, we are mindful that often in the world, the righteous are hated by the wicked for no particularly reason. It may be because they are shamed by the moral character of the righteous. It may be because the righteous have been shown divine favor and been blessed in significant ways. It may be because the righteous speak uncomfortable truths about life, death, judgment and the life to come. I mean, if you want someone to hate you, tell them what the Bible says. That’s essentially what Joseph did here. He spoke God’s truth to his brothers and they hated him for it. Some might say, “Serves him right! That will teach him to keep his big trap shut!” But no! When God speaks, the message must be delivered, no matter how uncomfortable or unpalatable His truth may be, or what response it may provoke in those who hear it.

The story of Joseph is the story of a beloved son, and the story of a hated son. But it is also …

III. The Story of a Suffering Son (vv12-36).

In verse 12, we find the brothers returning to Shechem – where previously they had slaughtered every man in the city and looted the city in vengeance for their sister. This time, they went to pasture their flocks. This obviously caused Jacob some concern. What might they do this time while there? What might become of them there? So, Jacob sends Joseph out to check on them. Now, this says something about how dense Jacob was when it came to his understanding of his family. Does he not know how hated Joseph is? Does he not know how much resentment his preferential treatment of Joseph is? Does he not know how much the sight of that despicable robe makes their blood boil? But for all that this says about Jacob, it says even more about Joseph. Joseph could be trusted to carry out his father’s will. He had proven his faithfulness before in bringing back a true report of his brother’s bad conduct. And Joseph’s willingness to completely obey his father is seen in his response to Jacob’s commission. He says, simply, “I will go.” In the Hebrew, it is one word – hineni. It is the same word that we looked at previously when God commanded Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah. It means, “Here I am,” and conveys the idea of willingness to do whatever is asked. When we looked at that passage, we said that it means, “I am fully Yours, and will do all that you command me to do!” It is the only recorded word of Joseph in this entire chapter.

Joseph proved his willingness to do all that his father required of him by accepting a commission he knew would be challenging, and persevering through even greater difficulties. Having arrived in Shechem, Joseph discovered that his brothers were not there. A stranger found him wandering around in the field and explained to Joseph that his brothers had gone on from there to Dothan. He had already journeyed 50 or more miles, and it would have been understandable for him to return home and tell his father that his brothers were not where they were supposed to be. But Joseph pressed on and found them at Dothan. The sight of him drawing near did not please the brothers. As soon as they saw him, they began plotting how they might put him to death.

Notice the evil plot in verse 19: “Here comes this dreamer! Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits.” These pits were cisterns – essentially holes in the ground intended to hold rain water. In addition to killing him and disposing of his body in a pit, they concocted a lie to tell their father: “We will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’” And then their troubles will be over. “Let us see what will become of his dreams.” Now, Reuben had a better idea. Already in hot water with his father, Reuben realized that this was his chance to get back in dad’s good graces. He said, “Shed no blood. Throw him into this pit … but do not lay hands on him.” Reuben’s idea was that he would come back later and rescue Joseph and go home as the hero who saved the beloved son. So, this is what they did. They stripped him of that robe that they despised and threw him into the pit, which was mercifully empty. So heartless were they, that they just sat down and started eating a meal.

Reuben apparently went away for a period to wait for the opportune time to come back for the rescue. With Reuben gone, Judah hatched another plan. Seeing some Ishmaelite traders coming across the desert, Judah saw an opportunity. He said, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood?” And to be sure, when he said, “profit,” he meant it in the truest sense of the word. So his plan was that they should sell Joseph to the traders – after all, he said, “he is our brother, our own flesh.” You can see his hypocrisy. Since he’s our brother, let’s not kill him. Let’s just sell him for personal gain and greed. The brothers bought into the plan and so it was done. Twenty shekels of silver was the price – the going rate for a male slave in that day. When Reuben returned and found the brothers counting the money and Joseph on his way to Egypt, all he could think about was how this was going to look for him when they got home. His concerns were entirely self-centered. So, as is so often the case, one evil plot leads to another, and they dipped Joseph’s tunic in the blood of a goat, and brought it back to their father and said, “Hey, we found this bloody tunic out in the desert – does this belong to your son?” And of course it did. Just as Jacob had deceived his father with the skin of a goat when he presented himself as Esau, his own sons deceived him with the blood of a goat. And Jacob assumed the worst – that a wild beast had devoured his beloved son. He wasn’t far from the truth. And he sank into an inconsolable season of grief. Meanwhile Joseph was sold again, this time to an Egyptian official named Potiphar.

In all of this, we see the story of a suffering son. Having done no wrong to deserve it, Joseph suffered at the hands of his own kinsmen because of their hatred and envy. He was betrayed for silver, and carried away into an uncertain future. But that future was certain in the eyes of God. Through all of this evil, God was working out His good purposes for Joseph, and indeed for the entire family and the world. In the coming chapters we will see how Joseph eventually rose through the ranks of Egypt’s government, becoming second-in-command to the Pharaoh himself. And when famine hit the land, forcing Jacob and his family to flee to Egypt for survival, it would be Joseph who saved his brothers and his father, preserving God’s promise to bring the long-awaited Redeemer into the world through their descendants – the One through whom God would bring the blessing of salvation to all peoples of the world.

Every meticulous detail of the entire ordeal was under the sovereign providence of God who was orchestrating it all together for His good purposes. From the delay in Shechem that prolonged him finding his brothers to the timing of the caravan passing by, to the manifold evil schemes of his brothers, God was working all things together for the good of the one who loved Him and was called according to His purpose, as He promises to us all in Romans 8:28. No matter what you are going through, no matter what others do to you, if you belong to the Lord, you can have confidence that He remains in control and will bring about a good end for His own. When the family is reunited in Egypt, Joseph will say to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (50:20). And as with Joseph, God is able to take all that we experience in this world and weave it together into the tapestry of His grand and glorious purpose that He is working for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Joseph’s story is the story of a beloved son. It is the story of a hated son, and it is the story of a suffering son. But God was using all of this in order that this beloved, hated, suffering son might be a savior to those who had despised and rejected him. And when we look at it that way, we see that this story of Joseph is more than just a story of a beloved, hated, suffering son. It is …

IV. The Story of a Greater Son.

You see, centuries later, another Father would send His beloved Son on a mission to a people who would reject Him. And this Son would do all that His Father willed for Him to do. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not (Jn 1:11). He was despised and forsaken of men, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). He came speaking truth – truths that are hard to hear about our sinful state and our need for saving grace. And in response to the words of His revelation, those who heard Him said, “Let us kill this Dreamer and see what becomes of His dream.” He was betrayed for silver, and the hateful, envious, murderous mob cried out for Him to be crucified. His body was thrown into a pit in the shape of a tomb. But, like that cistern that Reuben found empty in the desert, so too the tomb of Jesus was found empty. And from the pit, He ascended in glory and power, able to save all who bow before him, like the sheaves in Joseph’s dream, in faith and repentance. The day will come when each of us must give report to God the Father for every word, thought and deed of our lives. And like Joseph’s report of his brothers, it will be a bad report for us. But on that day, the Lord Jesus will place His own bloodstained garment into the hands of His Father on behalf of those who have put their faith and trust in Him. And the Father will recognize it as the garment of His Son.