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Joseph Lagny

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So you've heard the story so far.
Joseph was sold into slavery, and ever since then we’ve seen God’s hand at work in seemingly impossible circumstances. Despite being sold into slavery, unlawfully accused and imprisoned, he has now ascended to power in Egypt and is second only to the Pharaoh himself. God gives him a vision that a famine is coming to the land, and Joseph shows engenious social planning by saving enough food to feed all of Egypt and the surrounding countries during that time.
And of course, among those coming for food are Joseph’s own family: his brothers, who sold him into slavery. He plays a kind of game with them: they think he’s just an Egyptian higher-up, so he keeps sending them back and forth with food and finding ways to make them come back over and over. It seems like he’s toying with them, threatening punishment for things they did not do.
But whatever his motivations were for these games, he has reached a breaking point.
There are two main sections to this text: we have v. 1-15, which deals with Joseph’s interaction with his brothers, and v. 16-28, which deals with the aftermath of that conversation. We’re not going to be able to see everything, so I’d like to concentrate today on v. 1-15.
V. 1-15 contain the best summary we’ve seen so far of all of Joseph’s story. There is one repeated refrain that we can see here which encapsulates an incredibly profound—and, frankly, hard to swallow—truth about the way in which God works in the world he has created.

"God Did This.”

V. 1:
Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence.
He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence.
It’s pretty obvious why they didn’t answer him—this was a man they were terrified of before. He held all the power in Egypt; he could have them killed at a simple order; and he had accused them of stealing from him, of being spies. They were already quaking in front of this guy.
Anon, 2016. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
And now they find out that not only is this man they’re afraid of very powerful and seemingly out to get them—but he is the brother they sold into slavery so many years ago. Who knows what he had to go through to get to this point? And it was all because of them.
But Joseph, although he has been actively frightening them so far, finally lets his guard down and lets them in on what is actually going on in his mind.
V. 4:
So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here...
So he doesn’t deny the wrong they did to him; he says it blatantly and honestly: you sold me into Egypt. But he tells them not to be distressed about it; not to beat themselves up about it.
Anon, 2016. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Now, in order to really feel the weight of the weirdness of this forgiveness, think about how we usually forgive people. (And let’s not imagine that only Christians know how to forgive; unbelievers do it too, all the time.) How do we do it? We forgive when enough time has passed for it not to hurt so much anymore; when we realize that holding on to bitterness is actually hurting us as much as the person who hurt us to begin with. So when we finally come to the point where we want to let that go, and move on with our lives, we say, “I forgive you. Don’t be distressed or angry with yourself because you did this to me; I’m okay.
Whether we realize it or not, that is usually the only way people can truly forgive; we forgive when we have incentive to forgive, when we realize that holding on to our anger is actually doing us more harm than the initial wrong done to us.
Joseph could say that. He could say, “Don’t feel bad; it all worked out in the end. I ended up here, in a position of great comfort and authority. I’m okay.”
But he doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything like that. What Joseph says is so shocking that most people are incapable of seeing it for what it is, at least in a first reading. Here’s what he says (v. 5 again):
And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Anon, 2016. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
What’s shocking about this is not that God would wish to preserve life. Most people know , which says that “God is love.” It’s not surprising that a loving God would want to prevent the death of millions.
Anon, 2016. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
What is surprising is Joseph’s affirmation that everything that had happened to him at the hands of his brothers came from God. What did Joseph’s brothers do to him? They were jealous of him; they threw him down a well; they destroyed his father’s gift to him; they sold him into slavery; and they lied about it, telling their father that his youngest son had been devoured by wild animals.
In a word, they sinned. Grievously. They did not sin merely against themselves; they sinned against someone else—someone younger, and weaker, and defenseless against them. This man suffered for years because of their actions against him. If these men were living today in France, and they did this and were caught, they would go to prison for the rest of their lives for kidnapping and human trafficking.
They sinned.
And yet Joseph says, GOD did this. It was not you who sent me here, but God.

Point 2: God’s Sovereignty Over Sin

That does not square with the way we see God, does it? We know, for example, what the Bible says about God’s holiness, his moral purity. When Isaiah had his vision of God in the temple, the angels were singing (Isaiah 6.3):
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
We know what the apostle James said about God ():
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
And yet, if we read the Bible carefully, we see that God is sovereign over all things—even sin. Sometimes people imagine that when we talk about God’s sovereignty, we mean that he could intervene if he wanted to, but stays at a distance. But tells us that God works all things according to the counsel of his will.
ALL THINGS. Everything that happens, and everything that could happen but doesn’t.
And we don’t need to limit ourselves to any one text to see this: it’s clear from the entire story of the Bible.
We see this in the story of Joseph, obviously, as Joseph affirms that God was the one who sent him to Egypt, sovereign over the sins of his brothers.
We see this in the story of the Exodus, as Pharaoh hardens his heart to God, and God, in turn, hardens Pharaoh’s heart and prevents him from letting the people go ().
We see this in the story of Saul and David, when the Lord sends a “harmful spirit” to torment Saul, of which David soothes him with his music ().
We see this, finally and ultimately, in the crucifixion of Jesus. We can all agree: it was a sin to crucify the Son of God. It was a sin for Judas to betray him; it was a sin for the crowds to cry out for his death; it was a sin to condemn him and beat him and crucify him. It was perhaps the most unthinkable sin in history.
And yet, when Peter stands before the crowds shortly after Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, he tells them (Acts 2.23),
23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
Do you see the contrast? Peter affirms, just like Joseph, “YOU did this. You crucified and killed him.”
And yet, he says, all of this happened according to the DEFINITE PLAN and foreknowledge of God. He does not just affirm that God knew what was going to happen. He says God meant it to happen. It was his definite plan.
It is very difficult for us to reconcile these two realities.
On the one hand, God is without sin—he is morally perfect, in every way.
On the other hand, God sometimes wills that sin is committed—whether it be an evil spirit to torment a king, the hardening of a ruler’s heart, the sale of a young boy into slavery, or the murder of the Son of God.
How is this possible?
The truth is that we don’t know. Charles Spurgeon gave the image of two lines running parallel to one another—on one line we have the truth of God’s sovereignty, and on the second we have our responsibility for our own sin. Being human, we can never see how those two lines intersect.
And yet we can rest assured that they do.
God, being God, knows how he can be sovereign over sin and yet without sin; he knows how he can be sovereign over our sin and we can still be responsible for that sin.

Point 3: For Good

So let’s return to Joseph. Joseph does not deny that his brothers sinned against him when they sold him into slavery. But rather than seek revenge on them, he reassures them. He comforts them. He says (v. 5), And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here.
How can he say this? How could he find the strength of character to not only not seek revenge against his brothers, but to actively comfort them? He could do this for two reasons: firstly, because he had the unwavering confidence that no matter what his brothers did, it was God’s intention that it happen in just this way. This does not take the weight of guilt off of them; it simply frees Joseph from the need to punish them.
Secondly, he could comfort them because he knows at least a partial reason as to why God would have put his life on this course. In v. 5-8, he gives three reasons why God did this.
V. 5 again:
And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.
If Joseph had not been in Egypt, he would not have been there to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams; he would not have been able to warn him of the coming famine; and potentially millions in the Egypt and the surrounding countries would have died of starvation. God sent Joseph there to preserve life—it was an immense good he did in sending Joseph there, no matter how painful it may have been for Joseph himself.
V. 6:
For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.
This is huge, and it goes back to the promise God made to Abraham. When God established his covenant with Abraham (then Abram, in ), he assured him that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars; and he told him the way that would happen (it was an odd promise).
:
13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
In other words, God’s plan for Abraham’s descendence was not that they simply inhabit the land now, because he planned to execute judgment on a sinful people, and the sin of the Canaanites was “not yet complete.” God was waiting until a time when the people in Abraham’s homeland had sinned so grievously that the war Joshua and the people of Israel would wage on them, and the manifestation of God’s power against them, would be completely appropriate.
But to get there, the people of Israel would need to leave. They would need to be taken out of their homeland, remain in Egypt for four hundred years, and escape their slavery with an incredible manifestation of God’s power.
And although he surely didn’t know all the details of what this would look like, Joseph tells his brothers that they sent him to Egypt precisely so this would happen. God sent me before you, he says, to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.
Because if he had not been there, then it was quite possible that all of Jacob’s family would die. So there would be no descendents of Abraham to live in the land of Egypt, there would be no Exodus, there would be no conquest of Canaan, and, ultimately, there would be no fulfillment of God’s promise. Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery so that what God had said to Abraham would come to pass.
Lastly, v. 8:
8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Why is this important? It’s important because Joseph’s unique position in Egypt is what made it possible for his people to come and live in Egypt, as God said they would. As you’ll see in next week’s chapter, Joseph will bring his family to live in the land of Goshen, near Egypt. They will live out the rest of the famine there, put down roots there, and will multiply there. And again, this is so that God’s word might come to pass, that much later on, the new Pharaoh will feel threatened by them, and enslave them; so that God might manifest his power and set them free.
In every case, the point of what Joseph says is this: God had a reason for all of this, and his reasons are GOOD. You sinned against me, absolutely; but in the end this was part of God’s plan: to save many lives from a famine, to bring Abraham’s people where he wanted them to be, to put them in just the right place for what would be one of the most incredible displays of God’s power in recorded history.

Three Implications

Now, I know that typically at the end of a message you arrive at something we preachers call the “application.” It is the point where you tell people, “In light of what God says in this text, here’s what he calls you to do; here’s how he calls you to respond.
The problem is that very often those applications can become forced, because sometimes, a given text won’t call us to do anything. There is always a response, but sometimes that response isn’t something we do, but rather something we see.
That is the case in this text. This text is not mainly about forgiveness; it is about what God does in and through the actions of human beings—even sinful actions. So I don’t believe this text is calling us to do anything in particular; it is calling us rather to see. And given what we’ve seen today, this text is calling us to see three things in particular.
Firstly, this text is calling us to see that the Bible tells the truth. There are many texts in the Bible which point us in the exact same direction, and if we read the Bible carefully, we are obliged to see it. The Bible does not shy away from telling us the truth...even if that truth is difficult, or even impossible, to understand.
All Christians affirm God’s sovereignty; but often they mean very different things when they use that word. Some people use the word “sovereignty” to simply mean “authority.” And a king with authority over his kingdom can do whatever he wants, even if he doesn’t.
That’s not what the word means, when we use it to talk of the way the Bible says God acts. God can do whatever he wants, and he DOES all that he wants. The Bible even says it in those words— says, Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
Some people want to say that all sin is “out of God’s hands,” that in the name of our freedom he relinquished some of his own authority, or that because he created us free, he was unable to prevent sin from happening. But if either of those things were true, then he isn’t a very powerful God, is he? God being God, surely he is able to be sovereign over all things and maintain our responsibility for our own actions. How? I don’t know—but he does. He’s God!
And the good news is that the Bible never tries to pretend that sin is “out of God’s hands,” but is brave enough to tell us the truth about God, even if it’s hard for us to understand or accept it. This is the kind of truth that makes me trust the Bible: like people often say about politicians, if they only tell you what you want to hear, they probably don’t have your best interests at heart.
Secondly, this text calls us to see that even in sin, God has something bigger in mind than the sin committed. No sinful act is an end in itself—God did not will that Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery for the slavery. But Joseph reminds us that he had a bigger plan in mind: to save lives, to bring Abraham’s people where they needed to be, so that he could fulfill his promise to Abraham later on.
This is also the case with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (because if he had just let the Hebrews go there would have been no mighty manifestation of God’s power to save them); and it was also the case with the murder of Jesus Christ (because if he hadn’t been killed, we would still be lost in our sins).
Even when he sovereignly wills sin, God always has something bigger in mind than the sin itself.
The Bible does not shy away from telling us the truth, even if that truth is impossible to understand. (Some people want to say that all sin is “out of God’s hands,” that in the name of freedom he relinquished some of his own authority, or that because he created us free, he was unable to prevent sin from happening. If God were that powerless, he’s not much of a God to be reckoned with. The good news is that the Bible never tries to make that excuse. It tells us what makes sense for a being who is as powerful as God claims to be: Absolutely, God is in control—even over this. Although it doesn’t always explain why every particular sin is willed by God, it affirms that God has never lost control.)
Lastly, this text calls us to see that the “bigger plan” of God is always good, even if the road is painful. Paul tells us in :
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
That text is often misused; but Joseph’s story is a perfect example of what it actually means. It does not mean that God will always work things out in your life to make you more comfortable, or to give you an easier life. It means that no matter how hard or painful life becomes, God has something bigger in mind behind that pain, and that “something bigger” is always good.
Your sin does not please God. It grieves God and separates you from him. And yet, without your sin, you would never see your need for a Savior. You would never know the grace and love he has in himself. God took your past sin, as awful and damnable as it was, and in saving you from that sin, allowed you to see him as he really is.
Our sin made us need a Savior.
Our need was met when God sent Christ.
God sent Christ to show us grace.
The grace we received from Christ’s life, death and resurrection made us clearly see God’s greatness in love.
And our seeing God’s love to us in Christ glorifies him and makes us happy.
Brothers and sisters, I’ll say to you what Joseph said to his brothers. Do not waste time beating yourself up over past sin. It was awful and inexcusable, absolutely. But now Christ has come, and the call is set before you: Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you did these things. Rather look to the reason why God allowed you to drift for so long. Look to the reason why God did not stop you from sinning. Look to Jesus—God sent him before you to preserve life. It was not you who made this possible, but God. Come to him, and do not wait.
do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here
Anon, 2016. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
God has something bigger in mind than the sin committed (cf. to preserve life).
God’s bigger plan is always good (), even if the road is painful. (Our sin > Jesus > grace shown > our sin and God’s greatness made visible > God glorified)
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