Monday, May 15, 2017

God and His People (Genesis 45-50)

Some of us, myself included, grew up as part of the MTV generation. If you did, not only will these words be familiar to you, but you will also be able to envision a very specific visual in your mind as I read these words:

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Whether or not you are familiar with those lines from the Talking Heads, you may be able to identify with the sentiment. How did I get here? And what does this have to do with Genesis? Quite a lot, actually. The book of Genesis was written by Moses around the time when he led the nation of Israel out of Egypt 430 years after the events we just read about. Egypt was the only home they’d ever had. Though they had been slaves there for several generations, those alive at the time of Moses had never known any other way of life. Moses was a man they hardly knew, and he was telling them they had to pack up and leave for a place they’d never been. Through this writing, they would learn of how the world came into existence, and how from the human race, God chose a particular family to be His people in the world. They would learn how they got to Egypt in the first place, and why God never intended for it to be home. Through the stories of their patriarchs, they would discover how God works in, through, and on behalf of, the people He has chosen and called to be His own.

Like the Israelites in the days of Moses, we too were born in slavery, but we didn’t realize it. We were not slaves to a foreign power but to a spiritual power – to sin and Satan. This fallen world, filled with evil and suffering has not always been happy but it has always been the only home we have ever known. And along comes Jesus, telling us how He is going to prepare a place for us, and the only way to get to that place is to follow Him. He introduces us to the God who has chosen and called us to be His own people, that He may be our God, and that we may dwell with Him forever. So the Gospel of Jesus Christ does for us what these words of Moses did for Israel in Egypt. It tells us how we got here, it helps us make sense of the world in which we find ourselves, and how God has been working in, through, and on behalf of His people.  

So with a view toward the Gospel, let us consider how the first audience of these inspired words of Scripture would have come to understand these theological principles concerning God and His people.

I. God is sovereign over the sins and sufferings of His people (45:1-11).

There are two universal and unavoidable realities in the course of human existence: sin and suffering. Everyone sins, and everyone suffers. There are no exceptions. Sometimes suffering is a result of one’s own sin, or the sin of others. Sometimes suffering happens simply because our bodies and this world have been corrupted by sin. It has been my observation over the course of nearly twenty years of pastoral ministry that almost every case of pastoral counseling comes down to the issue of sin. A person may be seeking counsel because they have sinned, and their sin has produced a burden of guilt and remorse, or unpleasant consequences in his or her life. Or a person may be seeking counsel because they have been sinned against, and the actions of others have victimized them and brought harm upon them. In both cases, it is of great importance that the individual comes to see that his or her life does not consist of the sum total of their sins and sufferings, but rather of what the God who is sovereign over the sins and sufferings of His people is able to do by His grace and for His glory.

We see a picture of this in the encounter between Joseph and his brothers. They have sinned against him. He has been victimized by them. But they both have to realize that neither of these conditions has to be terminal. By looking to God, they can see Him work powerfully in and through their circumstances to bring about good for them and for others. In the previous passage, we saw how Judah spoke for the brothers in repentance of their sin. He said to Joseph, “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants” (44:16). Having heard a genuine confession and received repentance from the contrite hearts of his brothers, Joseph was able to reveal himself to them. Prior to this point, he had kept his identity hidden in order to test their character. They have now passed the test, not by insisting upon their own goodness, but by owning up to their own badness.  

It was only after this repentance that Joseph could give them words of comfort. Until sin is confessed and repented of, there is no comfort to be found. But at this point Joseph could speak of how God was at work in their sin and in his suffering to bring about His good purposes. Notice in verse 5: “Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here.” That was probably not what they expected to hear. Grief and anger are appropriate responses to sin, but once the Lord wipes those sins away by His forgiving grace, we can move beyond the grief and anger over it. They sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, yes, but over and above this, God was doing something different. Joseph says, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” In verse 7, he says it again, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.” Therefore, he can say with all confidence in verse 8, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” And in verses 8 and 9, Joseph sees how God has transformed, not only the sinful act of his brothers, but his own suffering as well. He says that God “has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” None of that could have ever happened had his brothers not sold him into slavery, and had he not been falsely accused and imprisoned with the royal cupbearer, who remembered Joseph before Pharaoh.

Now, we need to be clear about something. What God can do in, with, through, or in spite of our sins and sufferings is not the same thing as why God allowed it to happen. There are mysteries of providence which are known only to God. There is also such a thing as gratuitous evil and suffering in the world. It is not what God intended or purposed for us. It carries with it severe consequences and we bear full responsibility for it. Never once did Joseph minimize either the evil of his brothers’ actions or the severity of his own suffering. But while he did not minimize those things, he maximized God’s sovereignty over them by showing that none of it was beyond His ability to transform into an occasion for the furthering of His purposes.

Long ago Marcus Dods wrote these profound words:
God does not need our sins to work out His good intentions, but we give Him little other material; and the discovery that through our evil purposes and injurious deeds God has worked out His beneficent will, is certainly not calculated to make us think more lightly of sin or more highly of ourselves…. The knowledge that God has prevented our sin from doing the harm it might have done, does relieve the bitterness and despair with which we view our life, but at the same time it strengthens the most effectual bulwark between us and sin – love to a holy, overruling God.[1]

Putting it more succinctly, William Taylor says, “It is a comforting thought, that while we cannot undo the sin, God has kept it from undoing us, and has overruled it for greater good in ourselves and greater blessing to others than, perhaps, might otherwise have been attained.”[2]

In this, we see a wonderful picture of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The cross represents the most heinous sin ever committed in the history of the world, and the most horrific suffering ever experienced by anyone. God had come into the world in human flesh to rescue humanity from self-destruction, and what did mankind do to Him? We murdered him. And I say “we,” because it was not merely the betrayal of Judas, or the denouncement of the Sanhedrin, the decree of Pilate, or the hammers of the soldiers which nailed Jesus to the cross. The Bible is clear that Jesus’ death was the necessary atonement for all of our sins. The punishment inflicted upon Him was for the sins that you and I have committed. The cross was what we deserved. And the agony of it was not merely the physical pain of torture, but the unbearable weight of being separated from God the Father, as Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” That is the cry of the damned, and those words deserve to come out of our mouths, not His. But God has taken the most heinous sin of history, and indeed all the sins of humanity, and the most indescribable suffering ever inflicted upon a living being, and transformed for good and for glory by His grace. The cross is God’s way of saying to us, “I know everything you have ever said, thought, or done, and I love you anyway and will save you if you turn to Me in repentance and faith.” As Peter said on the day of Pentecost, “you nailed (Jesus) to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death.” Nothing changes the weight of human responsibility for this sin and suffering. But, he also says, “this Man (Jesus, was) delivered over to you by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Ac 2:23). Again in Acts 4, the church prayed, saying, “there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Ac 4:27-28). What Joseph said in Genesis 50:20 can be said with even greater truth by Jesus, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”

Has the grief and anguish for sin driven you to repentance? Are you looking God-ward in the midst of your suffering? Because of God’s sovereignty over the sin and suffering of His people, it does not matter what you have done, or what has been done to you. Nothing is beyond His ability to transform it into something good for His own purposes and for blessing to us and to others. He can save you from it, and change you in it, and change it to bring about good according to His will and for His glory. Just as God is willing to forgive you of unspeakable sin, He is also able to supply you with the grace to forgive those who have sinned against you, and from both your sin and suffering and theirs, He is able to bring about good if we will turn it all over to Him and look to Him in the midst of it. If we are to understand how God works in, with, and on behalf of His people, we are going to have to recognize His sovereignty over our sin and suffering, because we give Him precious little else to work with.

II. God is patient in the fulfillment of His promises (45:24-46:7).

Some of you know what it is like to pull up stakes and move far away from home. While the excitement and adventure of a new life in a new place provide a strong allure, there is a sense of fear and uncertainty as we leave the comforts of a familiar place and familiar people behind. No matter how difficult any of the moves we have made in our lifetimes may be, nothing could compare to the move that Jacob had to consider. Oh, to be sure, the excitement of seeing his beloved son Joseph once more before he died was almost too much to consider. We read in 45:26 that “he was stunned and did not believe” his sons when they told him about the prospects. A son that he had long since considered dead was still alive. Moreover, he had arisen to the second most powerful position in Egypt and was extending an invitation for his father to come and join him there. Concerns about the famine would be alleviated by Joseph’s promise to provide for the family. He had a guarantee of safe passage and the best part of the land to live in, offered not only by Joseph but by Pharaoh himself, most powerful ruler in the world at that time. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to launch into this opportunity?

Well, there is a factor in Jacob’s situation that is quite unparalleled, and made this appealing offer very difficult to consider. The land in which he was now living, Canaan, had been deeded to him by God Himself. God had sovereignly deeded this land to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, and to his father Isaac, and to Jacob. We sing, “This land is your land, this land is my land,” but no one could sing that like Jacob could of Canaan. Now his sons, even Joseph, and the Pharaoh of Egypt were all beckoning him to walk away from it.

Because of his desire to see Joseph, he went, but he went with much fear in his heart. How do we know that? Because in Chapter 46, as he is on the way to Egypt, God spoke to him “in visions of the night,” saying, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt.” The only reason you ever tell someone not to be afraid is if they are. Perhaps Jacob felt like he was abandoning God’s purpose for his life and his family by fleeing Canaan. Maybe he feared that his faith had faltered in not trusting God to provide through the famine. Maybe he feared that this was all some sort of elaborate trap that had been set for him. But God reassured him, saying, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again.” This was the language of God’s original promise to Abraham, to be with him, to make him into a great nation and to bring him into the land of promise. God had ever been with His people. As yet, they had not become a great nation, but they would. And as for the possession of the land of Canaan, it wasn’t so much a “No,” but a “not yet.” God is patient in fulfilling His promises to His people, and we must learn to be patient as we wait for Him to do so.

In Canaan, the family of the patriarchs numbered around 70 people. In Egypt, they would grow to millions in number, just as God had promised. They would be given a vast area of land to spread out and grow in, and because they were shepherds and the Egyptians found them detestable, there would be no intermarrying to dilute the lineage of God’s promise of innumerable descendants. The land of Canaan wasn’t going anywhere. It would still be there and still be theirs, just not now. God had revealed this to Abraham in Chapter 15. Had he not passed it down to Isaac and then Jacob? Or had they forgotten? We cannot know, but God’s message to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16 was that his descendants would be strangers in a land that is not theirs, enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But God would judge that nation, and deliver His people out of it in the fourth generation. The reason for the delay: He had to prepare the nation for the land, and the land for the nation. He said to Abraham, “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” The Amorites were an idolatrous and immoral people who occupied the land of Canaan. God was giving them ample time to turn to Him in repentance and be saved, but He knew they wouldn’t. So, He would use the nation of Israel to bring about His divine judgment on the Amorites and other pagan peoples of the land as they took conquest of it in the days of Joshua.

God has made equally spectacular promises to all who are in Christ. Jesus said He is coming again to take us to the place He has prepared for us. He has promised us a new heaven and a new earth. He says that we shall inherit the earth and judge the angels. He says He will crush Satan under our feet. He has promised us new bodies that will no longer be subject to the limitations, ailments, and injuries that we experience here and now. He says we will dwell in His presence forever, and there will be no more crying or mourning or pain, because there will be no sin there – not in heaven, and not in us. That all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? No, it sounds AMAZING! But, we do not have it yet. We have the promise, and we have the Spirit of the Risen Christ as the guarantee of the promise, but we do not have the actual things themselves. What we have is what the Israelites had in Egypt. We live as strangers in a world that is not our home. We are enslaved and oppressed. But on this foreign, enemy-occupied soil, we have the opportunity to grow into a vast nation by sharing the good news of Jesus with others. In the midst of the famine, we have the bread of life in God’s word to feast upon. He is preparing heaven for us (Jn 14:1-6) and us for heaven. But we wait patiently for the fulfillment of the fullness of His promises, because He is patient in fulfilling them. Some might say that He is slow about it. But there is a difference between slow and patient. Second Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Just as God gave the Amorites centuries to repent and be saved from judgment, He tarries in the fulfillment of His promises to allow all people the opportunity to hear and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved lest they perish in sin. Rather than growing impatient in our longing for all that has been promised to us, we should occupy ourselves in the business of heaven here and now, serving the Lord Jesus and serving others in His name.

If God seems to be taking His time in fulfilling His promises in your life – promises to provide, to protect, to prevail – it is because His timing is perfect and we must wait for it with patience, because He is working with patience to fulfill those promises.

How does God work in, with, and on behalf of His people? He is sovereign over the sins and sufferings of His people. He is patient in the fulfillment of His promises. And thirdly …

III. God is faithful in the upholding of His purposes (Chs 47-50).

When Adam and Eve fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, God promised a Redeemer who would come into the world as the Seed of Woman. Over the ensuing generations, He clarified that promise, revealing to Abraham that it would be through His seed that all nations of the earth would be blessed. That promise was passed down to Isaac and to Jacob. Through this family, God was working to bring the blessing of redemption from sin to all the peoples of the world. But the outworking of these eternal, divine purposes was confronted by many dangers, toils, and snares. God’s people were faced with one trial after another, some of which threatened to terminate the line of promise and undo God’s purposes completely, if it were possible. But it is not possible. The upholding of God’s purposes is not contingent on the faith or faults of His people. Neither is conditioned by the fires of oppression and persecution. The upholding of God’s purposes rests squarely and securely on His own unfailing faithfulness.

Lest God’s people starve to death in a famine and bring His purposes to naught, God established Joseph as Prime Minister in Egypt. He was God’s man, and he was used for God’s plan by advising Pharaoh on the storage of grain to provide for the people during the famine. He came in as an indentured servant and died as an empowered ruler. He brought the blessing of God into the land of Egypt. And when his old father Jacob came into Pharaoh’s presence, one might expect him to come in and humbly plead for the Pharaoh’s blessing. But the Bible says in 47:10 that Jacob blessed Pharaoh. God’s purpose for His people to bring His blessing to all peoples was being upheld by His faithfulness.

Lest Israel remain a nation no larger than an NFL football roster, embattled on all sides by pagan people, God gave Joseph favor with Pharaoh to secure a broad place for Israel to dwell and grow in Egypt. And lest they forget that it was not their true home, Jacob gave orders that his corpse be taken up and buried back in the land God had promised them. Joseph gave the same orders concerning his bones. These men knew that God’s purposes would not fail, and that the Israelites would return again to that land one day.

And lest the sons of Israel think that they had out-sinned the grace of God and become entirely useless to Him; lest they forget God’s promise to bring that Seed of Woman into the world through the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; dying Jacob gathered his sons to his side and began to prophesy over them. Coming to Judah, the one whose idea it was to sell Joseph into slavery, the one who violated God’s will in egregious ways in his own family life, old Jacob said in 49:8-11, “Judah, your brothers shall praise you. Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s sons shall bow down to you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. He ties his foal to the vine, And his donkey's colt to the choice vine; He washes his garments in wine, And his robes in the blood of grapes.

Centuries would pass until a silent night in a cattle cave in Bethlehem, when a young virgin who was a descendant of Judah would give birth to a Son. He would be the One to whom every tribe of Israel and every nation of earth will bow and confess as Lord. Judah will hold the scepter of authority, and in his descendant David and his lineage, this was fulfilled in part. But when Jesus Christ was born, the Seed of Woman, the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David had come. This is the Shiloh who had the right to hold that scepter forever. The word Shiloh is variously interpreted by scholars, but the consensus is that it means “the one to whom it rightly belongs.” The scepter of Judah and the throne of David rightly belong to Christ. But He did not come to establish that throne in His first coming. He will do so in the second coming one day. But in the first coming, He came in humility, riding not the white stallion of the conqueror, but the donkey’s foal of a servant. He has tread the vineyard of God’s wrath on our behalf, and the blood that stained His robes served to make our own robes clean. So, when the Apostle John was shown a vision of heaven and the throne of God, he saw One standing between himself and the throne who appeared as a lamb that had been slain. But this Lamb of God was called the Lion from the tribe of Judah, and He has overcome.

When that Lamb who is the Lion is revealed, heaven erupts in a song of worship, proclaiming, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). In that moment, John was able to see the consummation of it all – how God had faithfully upheld His divine eternal purpose, from the Seed of Woman to the Lion of Judah, in the person of Jesus Christ. In this descendant of Abraham, God has blessed all the nations of the earth. And in Him, all of God’s promises and purposes are yes and amen to the glory of God. Because He is faithful, nothing which He has purposed for you or the world will fail.

How does God work in, with, and on behalf of His people? He is sovereign over our sins and suffering. He is patient in the fulfillment of His promises. And He is faithful in the upholding of His purposes. Moses wanted the Israelites in Egypt to know this – to know how they got there, and how God was working through their hardship, fulfilling His promises and upholding His purposes. And as we understand these theological principles, we will discover He is doing the same for us through Jesus Christ.

[1] Marcus Dods, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1896), 245.
[2] William Taylor, Joseph the Prime Minister (New York: Doran, 1914), 138. 

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