This little section is huge. Anyone who has suffered in this life has no doubt sought out the book of Job. But they have eventually found their way to this passage in an attempt to find understanding of their suffering. Among believers who’ve walked in the shadow of the valley of death the words of Joseph have become a beacon: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.”
Jacob, the last Patriarch, has died and is buried back in Canaan. Our passage picks up an event that happened once they got back to Egypt. Joseph’s brothers are afraid that with their father dead Joseph will finally get revenge on them for selling him all those 40 years ago (Joseph is 56 now and was 17 then). They come to him and beg for mercy, offering themselves as slaves. Joseph is heartbroken to see they are still distraught over those events. So he comforts them and he explains his own perspective of what happened
THE BROTHERS’ GUILT & FEAR (15-17)First we see the fear that Joseph’s brothers have of him (15-17), READ…
I think for them, the designated days of mourning for Jacob were not long enough. The whole ride back to Egypt after burying their father was spent worrying about what would happen back in Egypt when it was just them and their brother Joseph – the brother they betrayed. So they have a meeting. They’ve had a lot of meetings over the years together. They met to discuss how to kill Joseph (37); they met together in an Egyptian prison to decide what they would do about the Egyptian ruler’s demand to bring back their brother Benjamin (42); they met again with their father Jacob to decide whether to return to Egypt with Benjamin to retrieve Simeon (43).
Now, here, they meet again to decide what to do so they can avoid retribution if in fact Joseph has been waiting to avenge himself on them. Clearly they saw Jacob as a protector. They saw their father as the only reason why Joseph hadn’t killed them yet. They imagined that Joseph, out of love and respect for his father, refrained from killing all of his beloved father’s other 11 kids – his own brothers. But with Jacob dead, and out of the way, they felt vulnerable and exposed – like someone who was hiding in the basement during a tornado and the house was lifted away and they no longer had any cover, out in the open in the middle of a raging tornado.
It reminds me of Revelation 20 when it describes the Great White Throne of judgment, and the dead were standing before that throne. It says heaven and earth were peeled away and there was nothing – absolutely nothing – but the dead and their Judge on the throne. There was nothing to hide behind. In the Garden Adam and Eve hid in the trees. In the Tribulation mankind is going to hide in the rocks and caves. But not at the GWT. They are all going to stand there, naked, exposed, with absolutely nothing to hide them or cover them from the Most Holy God and his judgment.
APPLICATION: There is a blessing in being stripped of something you have thought to be your security. It is a blessing to lose that security when it leads to discovering God as your true security. The brothers were going to find this moment an incredible blessing. We’ll see that in the next point. But for now, understand that the painful process of being stripped of something you’ve relied on for some form of safety or security may be painful, but if it is God’s doing then it is a great blessing. That thing is being removed so you can see your God more clearly and walk with him more closely.
Here’s the thing: they don’t know for sure that Joseph was still angry. That’s why they say “What if…” in v15. Apparently Joseph has given them no reason over the last 17 years to believe he is angry. But they sure have a powerful fear of it.
APPLICATION: A guilty conscience is a merciless master. They had no relief from their guilty conscience. Joseph slept soundly every night – but they didn’t. They lived in Egypt that whole 17 years with an anxious “What if?” At every birthday party they ate their cake trying to decipher “Was his laugh real and did he really find that joke funny?” Or “Did he really enjoy the cake or is he just saying that?” At every holiday they peered over their wine glasses wondering, “Is he really interested in how my job is going?” and “Is he actually glad we’re all together again?” They never really trusted Joseph because they were always afraid Joseph still saw them for what they did to him. Its because they still saw themselves for what they did to him.
APPLICATION to the APPLICATION: We tend to think other people are like us. We project. They thought Joseph was like them. They were projecting themselves onto Joseph. They thought he could pretend to enjoy being around them while beneath the surface he was simmering with revenge. But that’s not who Joseph was. You know who that was? It was who they were: they were the ones who pretended to be friendly with people while plotting murderous revenge in their hearts. Remember Shechem (34)? When people have guilty consciences they are ruled by fear. Guilt drives fear and anxiety and paranoia. Proverbs 28:1 says, “The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” The wicked flee….but no one is chasing them…the wicked live in fear. One reason is because they are afraid everyone else is as wicked as them and will treat them wickedly the way they treat everyone. Another reason is that the guilty conscience of an evil person – if their conscience is still operating – makes them afraid of being found out. So they live with a constant anxiety and timidity.
APPLICATION to ALL THESE APPLICATIONS: Grace is the only solution for a guilty conscience. There is no amount of self-inflicted suffering, no amount of good deeds, no amount of “making up for” that will ever cleanse a person of their guilty conscience. A guilty conscience is a brutal master. If that’s you, and you’ve done something you can never forgive yourself for, and you don’t think God ever could, and you are petrified of someone knowing about it, then you have to see that the cleansing waters of God’s grace can wash you clean. Your guilt can be washed away, and your conscience can experience true freedom and relief. But it only comes as a gift from God through His Son Jesus Christ when you accept His forgiveness for your sins. He is the only one who can forgive you, and he is the only one whose forgiveness has such transforming and liberating and cleansing power.
So the brothers take the initiative, they make the first move towards Joseph. Their plan is that by coming to him first, they can secure his mercy, rather than waiting for him to come to them first with revenge.
APPLICATION: Make your move to God first for His mercy. Don’t wait til He comes to you on the Day of Judgment. Go now, while mercy is offered.
JOSEPH’S GRACE (17B-21)Joseph had a godly perspective of the arc of his life, follow along in verses 18-21…
Joseph is the picture of magnanimity and grace here. I’ve said this before, but I really don’t think there is any other way to be more like God than in forgiving. Look at Joseph here in this. We are going to explain it, find applications, and then see the portraits of Jesus here.
First, look at how Joseph GRIEVESover their guilt. The end of verse 17 says Joseph wept when he heard his brothers were afraid of him. Joseph has wept often. Not because he’s unmanly, but because weeping is what you do in certain times of life. And he has had his share of those times. He wept when he overheard his brothers in the prison discussing – not realizing Joseph heard them – their guilt for selling Joseph all those years ago. He wept when he saw Benjamin. He wept when he revealed himself to them as their brother. He wept when he finally saw his father again. He wept when his father died. He has been overcome by emotion time and time again, because of sadness, grief, or just the sheer drama of a moment. But here he weeps again. He weeps because he is devastated to learn that his brothers are afraid of him. That for 17 years of being with him they have never really believed that he has forgiven them. He wept because he did NOT want them to be afraid of him.
Second, Joseph is GRACIOUS towards them. They throw themselves down on their faces as his slaves in great fear of him. But he tells them twice not to be afraid (19, 21). Verse 21 also says “And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”
The magnanimity of Joseph is on full display. Pause right here and ask yourself: Who else do we find in the Bible repeatedly telling people, “Do not be afraid?” Our Lord! Whether the disciples are freaking out because they see him walking on the water, or he appears to them in the upper room after his resurrection, or he appears to people after his ascension, Jesus seems to always be encouraging his followers not to be afraid.
It is the kind of assurance that is only expressed from a heart of kindness and mercy. Here you have the true condition of Joseph’s heart coming out. And it is one of the most touching moments in all of Genesis. Through red eyes and tear stained cheeks Joseph looks down at his brothers on their faces, probably also weeping in fear, and while taking them by the arms to pull them up tells them “Do not be afraid!”
APPLICATION: Real forgiveness does not demand groveling or punishment from the person who hurt you. Joseph wants to relieve their fear and guilt, not capitalize on it. The picture of unforgiveness is one where you are trying to make the other person grovel on their face in front of you. You don’t want them to stop. You want them to wallow in all their guilt, you want them to stay on their faces as you punish them and puut your foot on their neck and stand triumphant over them as they never stop acknowledging what they did. Unforgiveness can cause someone to really enjoy the power over someone to manipulate them.
But Joseph wasn’t like that: he refused their offer of being his slaves because his attitude of forgiveness wouldn’t allow it. But unforgiveness seeks to enslave the other person. Unforgiveness wants the other person to always be a slave to your demands. This is the idea of debt. They owe you for what they did. But Joseph didn’t see his brothers as owing him anything for what they did. Not because they didn’t actually do something awful to him. Not because enough time had passed that it was no longer an issue. Not because they’ve done so many good things now the account is balanced. But because he forgave them. Which means he cancelled the debt. They didn’t work off the debt, Joseph just erased it.
APPLICATION to the APPLICATION: Forgiveness changes the relationship from one of slavery and improves it to friends/brothers. Joseph didn’t WANT them to owe him anymore. He wanted a relationship with them where their sin was not a factor. That only comes through forgiveness.
Slavery and demanding the other person will always owe you and you are now their master is no longer the nature of your relationship with them. Because forgiveness changes that. It cancels that whole debt, “frees” them from owing you, and now restores an equal, free-will love friendship, or marriage. Do you see that? Real forgiveness forgoes enslaving the person who hurt you.
Thirdly, we see Joseph’s God. Read verses 19-20….Notice 3 things:
First: Joseph saw punishment as God’s job, not his. “Am I in the place of God?” His question is rhetorical. It’s a statement. He is not God and he is not their judge. Joseph did not see punishment as his to mete out. This is an incredible mindset. This is also what forgiveness does. If Joseph had not forgiven his brothers from his heart then he would still be trying to “get justice” for what they did to him and he would be trying to do that by trying to punish them.
Second: Joseph saw the providence of God. God’s providence refers to God acting in human affairs to accomplish his perfect purposes. He is sovereign, meaning he has the right to do what he wants, so no one can condemn him, and he has the power to do what he wants, so no one can stop him. But providence is as they say, “God’s sovereignty in action.” How does God get done what He wants to get done? Well he uses earthly circumstances, human decisions and actions, and so on. We even see him at times working in people’s hearts to direct them towards things. His providence is his divine activity in human affairs to accomplish his divine purposes.
With that in mind now that is what Joseph saw with his own personal circumstances. He now could see how God fit into his own divine designs the personal suffering that he went through in his early years. Joseph saw purpose for his suffering becuase he saw the providence of God. He knew that what happened to him was not random, or a cosmic accident, and vain. But it was part of God’s perfect plans.
I want to make a clarification here. God did not cause the brothers to act evilly. God did not program in their hearts to carry out that evil against Joseph. Nor did he do that to Potiphar’s wife’s heart. God is God and knows all things and that means he knows how people will behave and he uses their decisions, actions and behaviors to bring about his plans.
Third: Joseph sees the GOOD God planned in all this. He very selflessly came to see that his suffering led to a great good for many other people. .
Joseph may not have had this perspective while chained in the donkey carts of the Ishmaelites riding away watching his homeland disappear behind him at 17 years old. He may not have had this perspective while unjustly in an Egyptian prison in his 20’s. But at 56 Joseph is a very mature man, and a very mature man of God.
Fourthly, and finally: we see Joseph being GOOD. He is GOOD to his brothers. Look at verse 21… That’s what forgiveness does, it changes a heart that wants to hurt someone to a heart that wants to do good to them. To be a blessing to them. Joseph didn’t want to make them his slaves, he didn’t want them to suffer, he didn’t want to see bad things come into their life, he didn’t hate it if something went good for them.