A few months ago I decided to study the life of Joseph in the Old Testament. I made that decision knowing that in the summer I would be preaching in five difference Bible conferences. Generally when I preach at different conferences, I pick different topics. This year I decided to do the same series at each place.
That means I preached through the life of Joseph five times in seven weeks—once in Maine, once in Oregon, twice in New York, and once in Michigan.
I wondered how it would go.
I wondered if I would get tired of the story.
I wondered if my messages would be the same.
Joseph is a man for all seasons.
I can answer part of that myself. I never grew tired of telling how Joseph’s brothers betrayed him, and the gripping tale of attempted seduction by a wife with a wandering eye, and the sad saga of false accusation and unjust imprisonment, and the long lonely nights Joseph spent in prison, and the unlikely journey he took from prison to the palace, how he put his brothers to the test, and how in the end it all came out alright because, as he said to the brothers who betrayed him, “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
When James Boice published his exposition of this section of Genesis, he called Joseph “a man for all seasons.” It seems like an apt title for a man who went through so many varied experiences.
He was chosen and rejected.
He was loved and hated.
He was favored and abused.
He was betrayed and rescued.
He was promoted and imprisoned.
He was tested and rewarded.
He was slandered and praised.
He never took his eyes off the Lord.
At no point did he ever take his eyes off the Lord.
Adversity didn’t harden him.
Prosperity didn’t ruin him.
Temptation didn’t destroy him.
Imprisonment didn’t embitter him.
Promotion didn’t change him.
He was a truly great man.
His Story in One Paragraph
Here is his story in one paragraph. He was the favored son of his father Jacob. When he enters the stage of biblical history, he is 17 years old. Because his brothers hated him, he was sold as a slave and taken to Egypt. After being falsely accused of rape, he was imprisoned with no hope of getting out. Because he correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, he became the prime minister of Egypt. Eventually he welcomed his family to Egypt, which preserved the line of promise that had started with his great-grandfather Abraham.
Joseph’s story is the “hinge” between Genesis and Exodus
That brief summary only hints at the drama that surrounded his life.
There is another way to put his life in perspective. If you know four events and four personalities, you know the basic structure of Genesis.
Genesis 1-11 concerns four great events:
Prosperity did not ruin him
Genesis is the record of four great men:
Of those four men, Abraham and Joseph receive the most space. It may surprise you to know that Joseph’s story takes up more space in Genesis than the story of Abraham. That one fact ought to alert us that this is no ordinary man and no ordinary life story. Joseph is the “hinge” that connects Genesis (the Book of Beginnings) with Exodus (the Book of Redemption).
If Exodus tells us how God delivered his people from Egypt, Joseph’s story tells us how they got there in the first place.
Lessons Joseph Teaches Us
Though Joseph was God’s man, he did not have an easy life. Here are some of the things his story teaches us:
Joseph didn’t have an easy life
Trusting God when in the pit of despair.
How to deal with sexual temptation.
How to redeem a painful past.
What to do while you wait.
How to see God’s hand in all things.
How to make wise plans.
How God awakens a guilty conscience.
The marks of true repentance.
How to live for God in a pagan culture.
Overcoming lingering bitterness.
How to die well.
Besides those lessons, we should note that Joseph stands as an outstanding type or picture of Jesus Christ. The older commentators especially loved to note the points of correspondence. We do not have to look far to see the resemblance. He was . . .
Loved by his father.
Hated and betrayed by his brothers.
Sold for 20 pieces of silver.
Judged guilty of a crime he did not commit.
Abandoned and forgotten.
Promoted after his suffering.
The means of salvation even for those who betrayed him.
All roads lead to Christ
When W. H. Griffith Thomas had finished his Devotional Commentary on Genesis, he surveyed Joseph’s life and declared that “it is impossible to avoid seeing the close, prolonged, and striking resemblances between Joseph and Christ” (Vol. 2, P. 214). He goes on to say that it is “in every way spiritually profitable to ponder the life of Joseph in the light of the history of our blessed Lord.” That seems exactly right to me. Since Christ is the great theme of the Bible, all roads must eventually lead to him. In studying Joseph, we will see glimpses of the One who will be born centuries later in an obscure village in Judea.
What starts in the fields near Hebron leads on to the fields near Bethlehem.
Joseph of the Old Testament will lead us to Joseph’s son in the New Testament.
We should not hesitate to make that journey ourselves.
Two Key Observations
As I have been preaching Joseph’s story this summer, two thoughts have increasingly occupied my mind.
1. Joseph did not know how his story would end.
We have a problem that Joseph didn’t face.
We know how the story ends.
Joseph had no clue about his future
No matter how hard we try, it is almost impossible to read it as the amazing, unpredictable adventure that it was. When you know the end of the story, you may lose the sense of how unexpected it all was.
How much did Joseph know about his future when he was a teenager tending the flocks with his brothers? Zero. Nothing. Nada.
How much did he know about his future when he was cast into the pit? Nothing at all.
How much did he know about what was about to happen when he was rising in Potiphar’s house? Same answer.
How much did he know when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of rape? He knew only that he was innocent of the charge.
We don’t know our own future
How much did he know when he was languishing in an Egyptian prison? He had no clue hat was about to happen.
How much did he know about God’s purposes when he was elevated to being the prime minister of Egypt? He didn’t see it at all.
Let me put it this way. How much do you know for certain about what will happen to you in the coming week? You have your plans, of course, but those could be changed. You have classes to attend, calls to make, people to see, appointments to keep, papers to write, plans to make, ideas to discuss, and decisions you have to make. But all of that is contingent on circumstances far beyond your control. When I was preaching in Michigan, I offhandedly commented how quickly life could change. “Just one phone could change everything,” I said. I ran into a woman who told me that when I said that, she felt that was meant for her. The next day she received an unexpected phone call saying that a dear friend had passed away.
Life can change with one phone call
Life is short, fragile, and uncertain.
No one knows what tomorrow may bring.
We will gain much more from Joseph’s story if we read it the way he lived it—with no clear idea of the future, with no big picture to guide him, with no “happy ending” in view. In short, we should read Joseph’s life the way we live our own lives—one day at a time.
And that leads me to the second key point.
2. God is the hero of the story.
On one level, we certainly know this is true. Joseph says as much when he declares to his brothers that “God meant it for good.” But it’s easy to forget that through all the ups and downs of Joseph’s life, there was an “invisible hand” working through every single event to produce the desired result, which Joseph himself could not see until he arrived at the end.
If we read Joseph’s story and do not come away with a new appreciation for God’s providence over all things, then we have certainly missed the point. While there are many important lessons to be gleaned from his life, above all else Joseph’s story points us to God. His story proves that
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
What’s Your Wingspan?
When I preached this series at Word of Life Campground, I started the week by stretching my arms out and saying, “We need a big God.” I must have done that a lot during the week because when I finished my last message, Jason Perkins (who oversees the Campground during the summer season) asked me about my “wingspan.” He had noticed me stretching my arms out all week long to make my points. He said he thought my wingspan was greater than my height. That didn’t seem likely to me but for the fun of it, he had me stand on the platform and stretch my arms out so he could measure them. Then he measured my height. The results surprised me.
I have long arms but that’s about it
I’m 6’3” tall with a wingspan of 6’8”. Someone asked me if I ever played basketball, and the answer is no, just pickup games here and there. I have long arms but that’s about it. My older brother Andy got most of the basketball skill in the family.
I mention that to emphasize the point that we need a big God.
When you’ve been betrayed by your brothers, a small God won’t do.
When you’ve been falsely accused of rape, a “medium God” won’t be enough to support you.
When you’ve been forgotten in prison, an “average God” will not sustain you.
A “medium God” can’t help us
You need a big God.
You need a God whose ways are vast beyond understanding.
You need a God whose purposes span the generations.
You need a God who cannot be stopped by the evil deeds of evil men.
We have a God like that!
The God of Joseph is our God too.
Check out your own wingspan.
Stand up and stretch out your arms as far as they will go.
Then say, “I need a big God.”
Good news! You’ve got one.
He’s the God of the Bible.
Working in the Family Business
Here is how Joseph’s story begins:
Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. This is the account of Jacob’s family line. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers (vv. 1-2).
With no other introduction, Joseph steps onto the stage of biblical history. At this point we know only three things about him:
He is a teenager.
He is working in the family business.
He doesn’t have a clue about his own future.
When I preached this in Michigan, a teenage girl told me how much this meant to her because she too is 17 years old, and like Joseph she doesn’t have a clue about what her future holds. I suppose that if we had asked Joseph about his career plans, he would probably have said, “I’m going to be a shepherd like my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather.” After all, that was the family business. Apparently Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had done pretty well at it. So we would expect Joseph to figure that his future would include sheep.
But God had other plans.
Before this story is over Joseph will become the prime minister of Egypt, but you couldn’t tell it that day when he went out with his brothers to tend to the flocks.
As the story begins, the threads of his life are scattered in all directions. Only later will the grand design become apparent. But it is clear enough that Joseph was being prepared by God for his destiny long before he was aware of it. Marcus Dods emphasizes the traits he inherited from his ancestors:
He had Abraham’s dignity and capacity, Isaac’s purity and power of self-devotion, Jacob’s cleverness and buoyancy and tenacity. From his mother’s family he had personal beauty, humor, and management.
Although God had been preparing the way for Joseph long before he was born, it would take quite a while for him to discover his calling in life. But when he did, he saved his family and changed the course of history. For the moment he’s seventeen years old, working in the family business, without a clue about the events that were about to unfold.
Joseph always lands on his feet
What, then, shall we say about this young man as we begin our journey through his story?
Joseph stands before us as a man whose life was filled with turmoil. It started early in his life and never really stopped. Through it all, he emerges triumphant by God’s grace.
–You betray him, and he ends up in Egypt.
–You throw him in prison, and he ends up running the joint.
–You travel to Egypt, and he’s the prime minister.
–You try to trick him, and he turns around and forgives you.
Joseph always lands on his feet. Here is a man who conquers crisis by supreme confidence in God. Though he came from an extremely dysfunctional family, God turned him into a hero who delivered the family that sold him into slavery.
He’s a key link in the chain of God’s plan
He became a key link in the chain of God’s plan that would 2000 years later bring the Messiah to the earth. As Joseph saved his own family, so Christ would come as the Savior of the world.
What a man!
What a story!
In studying Joseph . . .
1. We will learn about life itself. This is how it works. This is what we should expect. Life isn’t easy for any of us, and for most of us it can be quite difficult. To say it another way, anyone looking for an easy life has picked the wrong planet to be born on.
Life is hard
1.We will learn how this life works for our good. Spurgeon remarked that “God is to be seen in small things.” Since God himself stands behind the universe he created, we should not be surprised to find his fingerprints everywhere, even in the tiniest details of life.
1.We will learn how Christ is the power to make life worthwhile. Note that I did not say that Christ “has” the power, which is true, but that Christ “is” the power, which is slightly different. Because Christ himself lives in us, he himself is the power that gives meaning and purpose to life.
As we will see in our next study, the hero arises out of the turmoil of a dysfunctional family. His brothers don’t like him. There is trouble on the horizon.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride
Joseph proves you can come from a crazy, mixed-up family and do amazing things for the Lord.
But it won’t be easy and definitely not predictable.
Hang on—it’s going to be a bumpy ride for Joseph and for us.
Stay tuned. Much more to come.
You won’t believe what his brothers do to him.