God's plan and God's provision - Genesis 45
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~~God’s plan and God’s provision
One of the most outstanding Christian thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the American theologian, B.B. Warfield. His work output was phenomenal and his influence immeasurable. What many people don’t know is that in 1876, at the age of 25 he married Annie Kinkead and as they took their honeymoon in Germany it was during a fierce storm that Annie was struck by lightning and was permanently paralysed. Just imagine that happening to you. After caring for her for 39 years Warfield laid her to rest in 1915. And do you know that because of her special needs, Warfield seldom left his home for more than two hours at a time during those long years of their marriage.
Talk about dreams being shattered! On this earth he never saw his wife healed, he never witnessed a turnaround of events- he just exhibited patience, faithfulness and love. He hadn’t planned it that way, but at no point did he believe that what had happened was outside God’s good purposes. And it was having that bigger perspective which enabled him to see things differently and so act differently when many of us would have collapsed into a heap of self-pity. Writing on Romans 8:28, that ‘in all things God works to the good for those who love him’ Warfield said this, ‘The fundamental thought is the universal government of God. All that comes to you is under His controlling hand. The secondary thought is the favour of God to those who love him. If he governs all, then nothing but good can befall those to whom he would do good….Though we are too weak to help ourselves and too blind to ask for what we need, and can only groan in unformed longings, he is the author of those very longings… and he will so govern all things that we shall reap only good from all that befalls us.’ This was no armchair theologian; he knew what he was talking about having a faith rooted in Scripture and forged by experience.
Someone else who had a similar faith founded upon God’s revelation and shaped over many years by heart rending experience was Joseph. As we shall see, he too believed that ‘all that comes to us is under God’s controlling hand’ with a special favour to ‘those who love him.’ And in what in many ways is a climactic episode in the story, the astonishing nature of God’s grace is displayed with deep emotional intensity in a way which is almost unparalleled in Genesis.
First, we have the revelation, 45:1-3.
‘Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.’
As we saw last week, Judah had spoken from the heart which shows a real transformation of the heart and it is not surprising that Joseph is moved to the depth of his being. In his previous encounters with his brothers, Joseph has managed to hold it together and when he couldn’t he removed himself to cry in private until he composed himself. But not this time. He is so overwrought with emotion, to the surprise of everyone and the utter consternation of his brothers, he screams out the order for everyone to get out- leaving him alone with his brothers. He is so beside himself with uncontrollable weeping that even those who are elsewhere in the palace could hear him. Men of this status-the Prime Minister of Egypt- didn’t do that sort of thing. So everyone in court must have wondered what was going on. And they were not the only ones. When the revelation is made, ‘I am Joseph’, we are told his brother’s couldn’t speak because they were terrified. The term is one which described a paralysing fear - as we would say they were ‘petrified’– fixed to the spot. Why? Well, just think about it. Up to this point Joseph had only used a translator to speak to the brothers and now he speaks their language which means he had understood everything they had been saying. He had the power not only to jail them, but torture them and kill them if he wanted to. A thousand and one thoughts would have been flashing through their minds as they looked at each other in desperation, hands clammy, beads of sweat forming on their brow. This wasn’t a dream in a story full of dreams, it was a nightmare.
You see, not all revelation is pleasant- at least in the first instance. Here is God’s man- Joseph, and, in many ways God’s Saviour, and yet he has been abused and done away with by those who should have known better. And so when the revelation of Joseph takes place the brothers are mortified. Do you not think that a similar reaction would have happened to Saul on the Road to Damascus when he realised that the one for whom his heart was filled with hate, was the Lord of glory- Jesus? And when Jesus returns again not veiled in the form of a small baby in a manger, but in splendid magisterial authority- what will the reaction be of those who have maligned him and his people? The Book of Revelation tells us “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” (1:7). It is no small matter coming face to face with the Living God- terror is the inevitable reaction if you are on the wrong side of him.
But there still is the possibility of getting on the right side and so we come to the reconciliation 45:4-15.
Joseph calls them to draw nearer. That would have intensified their terror when coupled with the second time he identified himself- ‘I am Joseph’, with the added words ‘whom you sold into Egypt’. Now there is no mistaking who this is and what they have done.
If we think the emotion of Joseph was charged, what we see here is almost unparalleled anywhere else in the Bible, with the possible exception of the response of the father to the younger son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal. What we see here is a beautiful choreography of authentic reconciliation.
Did you notice how Joseph tries to put his brothers’ minds at ease in v5- he doesn’t want them to be overwhelmed with distress? He is genuinely concerned for their future welfare and that of the rest of the family in v 9. They may have packed him off to Egypt as a slave, now he wants to bring them to Egypt as rich, freemen protected from future famine-v11. He is going to be their provider. And just in case there was even the slightest doubt that this was some kind of set up, a way of trapping the rest of the family so that Joseph could strike a final blow like the one the Campbell’s did with the MacDonald’s in 1692 having invited them over for hospitality slaughtered them, we see Joseph showing a display of raw emotion which couldn’t be faked- v14, ‘Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.’
What enabled Joseph to do that? It was that he had the same great vision of God and his good sovereign purposes later shared by Warfield. Look at what he says- v 5, ‘Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you’; v 7, ‘But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance’; v 8, ‘So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God,’; v 9 ‘God has made me lord of all Egypt’. It is all God, God, God! This doesn’t mean that the brothers can shrug off what they had done with a ‘Well, that’s alright then- it was God’s plan after all so didn’t we do well?’ No. What they did was morally wrong and they were personally responsible for what they had done, as Joseph reminds them ‘they had sold him into slavery.’ The fact that God has the power and the wisdom to work in and through evil human actions does not make them any less evil, it just shows how in control God is and how immensely kind and forbearing he is and are we not grateful that it is so as we look at the mess ups we have made in our lives?
But what we also have here is a wonderful picture of the nature of true forgiveness and it is well worth pondering.
It seems to me that we are living in a society which is increasingly harsh in its condemnation leaving no room for forgiveness. Just think of the furore surrounding the actor Liam Neeson’ s revelation that upon hearing of the rape of a friend, he pretty well lost it and in a fit of revengeful rage went out to beat up a black man- any black man. It was a dreadful thing to want to do, quite reprehensible and utterly shameful- which Neeson admitted. He was gutted that he found to have it in him to do such a thing. He said so and even went to see a priest about it. The response of the nouveau-Pharisees? Not- ‘This could have been any one of us because we are all so twisted’. Not- ‘Well done for daring to admit to such dreadful thoughts and repenting’. No- it was ‘he must pay for this and been seen to pay’.
Thankfully that was not Joseph’s response to the injury done to him, nor is it God’s response to the injury don to his Son. Real forgiveness is always costly. Inevitably there is pain. You see it here with the loud wailing of Joseph - deep personal anguish. For decades he had been banished, spent years in in prison, not knowing if his father whom he loved so passionately was alive and the prospect of returning home to the land of promise seeming as remote as ever. You would have to be superhuman or rather, subhuman, not to feel any hurt or anger.
So what options are there?
Option one, which is the preferred option if the Twitter mob is to make the perpetrator suffer. They are not allowed to forget what they have done and in some way or other they have to pay for it- disgrace them, demean them certainly- but don’t thinking of redeeming them. Somehow they have to pay off their debt. Joseph had that option- he could have had his family functioning as his slaves for the rest of their lives and some may have thought ‘serves them right’.
The second option is more costly- forgiveness. There is no lashing out, ‘giving as good as you got’, there is simply the determination to let things go. But there is a cost, born by the one who has been offended. This is the way Dr Tim Keller puts it speaking of forgiveness, ‘It is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity [as did Joseph], but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out on the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people say it feels like a kind of death.’
That is what we see Joseph doing. The tearing of his soul, of which the weeping and wailing were but expressions, occurred at this deep level because he chose to forgive. To forgive someone isn’t a matter of engaging in ‘make believe’- pretending things never really happened; it is the exact opposite- it involves looking at both the sin and sinner squarely in the eye- saying wrong is wrong, even saying- ‘I have been hurt, but I choose to forgive you, putting the past behind so that we can go forward together into the future’.
And what made this pain bearable for Joseph was the knowledge that God was in it all, bringing about a greater good that no one could ever have imagined. In the short term it was the salvation of the children of Israel and the rescue of the surrounding nations from famine, but in the long term, the salvation of the world as from this family would come God’s Messiah.
And as Christians it is this bigger picture and deeper understanding that this is how God acts which should enable us to forgive those who have hurt us and hurt us badly. How does the apostle Paul put it, ‘Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.’ (Col.3:13-14)? Our forgiveness, like all forgiveness costs- and it cost God the death of his Son. Here is the option again. We tend to say, ‘You sin, you pay’. God in the Gospel says, ‘You sin, I pay’. Then, and only then with forgiveness clearing away the barriers and healing the scars is reconciliation possible. And so we have this wonderful scene of Joseph hugging and kissing his brothers as if they were the only people in the world who mattered- and at this point they probably were. Let me ask: as you think on what has happened to Joseph- the betrayal, the miscarriage of justice, the lies told, the love denied and yet the forgiveness shown- can you honestly say that someone, maybe here in this fellowship, who you feel has betrayed you is beyond you forgiving them? When you or I stack up all the debts we have incurred with God and he points us to the cross and says, the debt has been paid and I have paid it, is there not even a modicum of a desire that we extend the same kind of forgiveness to others? Surely we must be able to answer: by God’s grace, yes.
But we need to understand that forgiveness is not the end but a means to a greater end. We find forgiveness in Christ not simply so that we can cleanse a guilty conscience- the negative, it is to have a restored relationship with God- the positive. And that is what we see here in the remaining verses- Restoration 45:16-46:34.
What we are being given is an anticipation of the Exodus, which was to occur 400 years later. Let me explain.
First, we have the presence of God in 46:2-4a, ‘And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!” “Here I am,” he replied. “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you.’ There are echoes of God meeting Moses in the wilderness in the burning bush, when God called out to him ‘Moses, Moses’ and Moses said, ‘Here I am’ (Ex 3:4). Moses too was afraid to go down to Egypt and God promised to be with him, as he did with Jacob. And God hasn’t changed. Sometimes we are called to go to places we are uncertain about and which will make us feel uncomfortable- but the promise remains- ‘I will be with you’. Jacob believed that and acted upon it- how much more can we who have the presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit?
Second there are the promises of God to fulfil his covenant with Abraham which is why we have the list of Jacob’s descendants in chapter 46 which ends with the announcement that 70 people went down to Egypt (v27), but having in view a great nation which would come out of Egypt in v3. From this relatively small number, a rag tag group of people being placed far from the land of promise- the great purposes of God’s salvation will come. Similarly who would have thought that from that small number of fishermen and tax collectors in Jerusalem you would have billions of Christians in the 21st century scattered throughout the world? We worship the God of the impossible.
Thirdly, there is the provision of God
Just look at the generosity of Pharaoh in Chapter 45:16ff. Joseph plans on giving them land to be near him, Pharaoh wants to give them the best land possible and orders carts to be loaded with goodies so that they are going to be so well provided for they won’t have to bother bringing their own stuff down into Egypt. So they go out with a wagon train piled high with treasure as a sign of blessing. Well, in the Exodus when the people of Israel leave they do so carrying the ‘spoils of the Egyptians’, ready for settling in the Promised Land. And likewise the one we worship who is the true Israel, one greater than Moses, the Lord Jesus Christ, when he liberates us from sin and the devil he does so by showering us with gifts for our good now and our new settlement in heaven, this is how the apostle Paul puts it, ‘But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captive and gave gifts to his people.”…So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service.’ (Eph. 4:7-13). God does not short change those who put their trust in him.
Let me ask: what do we really need to live the Christian life? I guess you could name many things- we need the Holy Spirit, we need God’s Word, we need the fellowship of his people. But what we really need, which Warfield certainly knew and which Jacob was to discover afresh can be summarised like this: ‘I am God…I am in control….and I will bring to pass all that I have promised.’ And what God said to Jacob, he says to each one of us.
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