Does God Intend Evil for Our Good?
Providential Peril for Joseph, Jesus, and You
Bible Study Fellowship Leadership Summit
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:7–14)
I begin with Psalm 19 because I want you lovers of God’s word to know that my heart is knit together with yours in this precious and delicious gift — God’s inspired word, written in the Bible.
More precious than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
There may be nothing that I love to do more than to open God’s word and exult over it with people who share my estimate of God’s word as more precious than gold or health or life itself. Like the Puritans used to say, “Take my house. Take my books. Take my job. Take my health. Take my life. But don’t take my Bible.”
When I think of Bible Study Fellowship, and all the people that I have known over the years who taught in BSF, I think of people who live and die by what the Bible teaches. And when I see at the website the statement that the Bible is “God’s Truth, to be studied, savored, and lived out,” I get a big smile on my face and say, “That’s my word!” Savored! But actually no; it’s God’s word:
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)
So all that to say, I love what you do in BSF. And I count it a great privilege to spend a few minutes with you to encourage you to press on, especially in the study, the savoring, and living-out of the book Genesis.
Savor for Yourself
What I’ve been asked to do in this message is to focus on the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, and to draw out of it truth that is really there, and that will establish you and motivate you in your leadership of the study of God’s word — that is, that you would lead in the study of God’s word with the very truth and strength that you gain from God’s word.
“God brings his own promise to the brink of failure, only to show that he has been in charge all along.”
There is no way I could have survived — let alone flourished — in preaching God’s word for 33 years, if I had not been eating the bread I was serving. God has been so good to me! I have said before, and I will say it again now: I do not recall stepping behind the pulpit for the last forty years without being strengthened and in love with the word God had given me to say. And that’s true right now in this moment. And that’s what I want for you. I want you to experience in your own life the answer to your own prayer in Psalm 119:18:
Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law [your instruction!].
And then, seeing wondrous things out of God’s word, you would be thrilled by them and strengthened by them. And then, out of that strength and joy, lead others into the ability to see those things for themselves. Not just a transfer of information, but a transfer of seeing — really seeing in the text, for themselves, so they don’t have to take your word for it, and then savoring, and living out the word of God. What a great calling you have!
History in the Making
Let’s take a moment and put the story of Joseph in the flow of the book of Genesis.
May we never become numb or insensitive or fail to be amazed that the Bible begins with the staggering reality that once there was nothing but God and then, because of God’s word, there was God and the universe. God created everything that is not God (Genesis 1).
Then he permitted — and all his permissions are done with foresight and wisdom and planning — he permitted his most amazing of all creatures, human beings, to become fools and wicked in belittling the all-providing, beautiful, infinitely valuable Maker of the universe, by acting as though they knew better than the all-wise, all-good God what was good for them, and by spurning his word (Genesis 3).
God subjects the entire creation to futility and corruption and spiritual deadness, and every single human being since then, except one, has been under the sentence of death and has been a child of wrath (Genesis 2–3).
The story of the flood and the Tower of Babel confirm the incorrigible depth of human sin, and make the good purposes of God for his creation look impossible (Genesis 6–11).
Line of Promise
But in chapter 12, God reaches down in sovereign grace and chooses a pagan named Abram, making him the promise that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
Abram believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6), and thus was laid the foundation for justification by faith through a promised Redeemer, who would come through the chosen people of Israel two thousand years later, named Jesus Christ.
And the rest of the book of Genesis is the story of God making clear again and again that his true children — his chosen ones — come into being as his true children, and are preserved, by God’s sovereign hand, against all human odds.
“From the very beginning it is made plain to us the readers that God is orchestrating this entire story.”
Abraham’s son, Isaac, is the son of promise, not Ishmael. Ishmael was born through human works and human wisdom. But Isaac was born to a woman who could not give birth. It was a miracle child — just like all the children of God are miracle children.
And Isaac’s son, Jacob, is the chosen seed, not Esau, even though Esau was the older brother and, by all human reckoning, would be the heir. But God had sovereignly decreed, “The older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23; Romans 9:12).
And then Jacob has twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of the people of Israel. They are Israelites, to whom, Paul says,
belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and . . . the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:4–5)
In other words, through this people would come the divine Messiah, who would bear the sins of all God’s people and by his mercy break over boundaries of Israel and gather his elect from all the peoples of the world to be one new people of God, the bride of the Son of God. And then would come a new creation in which they would dwell in God’s presence where there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
Which means that if Jacob’s twelve sons — if those twelve tribes, through whom the Savior of the world was to come — if they were destroyed, especially the tribe of Judah, God’s plan for this creation would fail.
What we call the story of Joseph (Genesis 37–50 — almost a third of the book) is the story of how God does not let that happen. No, actually, it’s more provocative than that: it’s the story of how God himself brings his own people into the life-threatening danger of extinction, all the while planning their unimaginable rescue. He brings his own promise to the brink of failure, only to show that he has been in charge all along, planning a God-exalting deliverance.
Joseph’s Divine Journey
So, let’s trace the story, and then go back and let God interpret it for us, and then apply it to our lives.
As the story begins in chapter 37, Joseph, the son of Jacob, is 17 years old (Genesis 37:2). His father Jacob plays favorites and treats Joseph better than his brothers. This sets up years of hatred. Genesis 37:4: “all his brothers . . . hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.” Then Joseph had a dream that his brothers and his parents would be bowing down to him someday, and the text says his brothers hated him all the more (Genesis 37:5).
So, one day when his brothers see him coming to them in the field, they resolve to kill him (Genesis 37:18). Reuben rescues Joseph from their hand, and instead of killing him they sell him into slavery and he winds up in Egypt (Genesis 37:36). Joseph is bought as a slave by Potiphar, and God gives him success so that he becomes a trusted manager of the whole house (Genesis 39:5). But at the peak of his success and the peak of his righteousness (Genesis 39:10), Potiphar’s wife slanders him, accusing him of rape, and he is thrown into prison (Genesis 39:20).
Success Through Struggle
Again, God gives Joseph favor and success with the keeper of the prison, and he puts Joseph in charge of all the prisoners (Genesis 39:22). Then at the peak of his success, and at the peak of his dream-interpreting divine power, he predicts that his fellow prisoner, Pharaoh’s cupbearer, will be restored to his office, which he is. And then the cupbearer forgets Joseph for two whole years (Genesis 41:1).
It has now been 13 years since 17-year-old Joseph was sold into slavery. Every time it looked as though God’s hand of blessing were on him, things got worse instead of better. He is 30 years old.
Pharaoh has a dream, and his cupbearer remembers that Joseph can interpret dreams. Pharaoh calls Joseph out of the prison and tells him his dream. Joseph says, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:16). The dream is that there will be seven years of prosperity, and seven years of famine, spread out over the whole region, including where Joseph’s brothers live.
God Gives and Takes Away
The writer makes it very clear, by repeating it three times, that this prosperity and this famine are the work of God, not mere nature.
- Genesis 41:25: “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.”
- Genesis 41:28: “God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do.”
- Genesis 41:32: “The doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.”
So, God is bringing this famine, which will threaten the existence of his chosen people. All the while laying a 22-year plan for rescuing his people from his own threatened destruction.
I say 22 years because it has been 13 years since Joseph was sold into slavery when he now enters into Pharaoh’s service as a kind of prime minister in charge of storing the food during the good years, so that there will be provision during the famine years. So, 7 years of prosperity go by before the famine comes. Then 2 years into the famine (according to Genesis 45:6), Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt desperate for food. That’s 22 years.
“God’s way is to bring his people into peril for his wise purposes.”
Leaving out the details, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and sends for his father, and all the twelve tribes of Israel — the chosen people of God — move to Egypt. They are rescued from starvation. It has been 22 years, and only now — only now — can Joseph see what in the world all of that loss, and slander, and loneliness, and affliction, and injustice, and seemingly pointless righteousness was about.
That’s a long time for God to keep his servant in the dark about what he’s doing through the miseries of his life. And I do not doubt that many of you are somewhere on the pilgrimage between being hated by family, being thrown in a pit, being sold into slavery, being accused of what you did not do, being thrown in prison, and being forgotten by those you blessed — all the while keeping your integrity and trying to serve God. And you, like Joseph, are utterly perplexed. You may be about to discover what it’s all been about. Or you may be in the middle of it, and the mystery will not be revealed for years to come. Maybe only in heaven.
But one of the main points of this story is that God brings his people into life-threatening peril, all the while preparing, in that very peril, their God-glorifying deliverance. Let’s make sure we see this in the text. The writer makes it clear in numerous ways. I’ll mention three from Genesis and one from Psalms.
1. In Genesis 37:5–11, Joseph has a dream before any of this happens, which portrays what’s going to happen 22 years later. And the text makes clear it is God who gives and fulfills the dreams in this story. So, from the very beginning it is made plain to us the readers that God is orchestrating this entire story.
2. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he interprets what God has been doing for the last 22 years (Genesis 45:7–8): “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” This is stunning! Joseph says that the brothers’ sinful, hateful, jealous selling of Joseph into slavery was, in fact, God’s sending Joseph to rescue the very brothers who sold him from a peril that God himself would bring in due time.
It is unmistakable what this inspired author wants us to see: God is sovereign over dreams, and humans’ sinful actions, and prosperous years, and destructive famines, and slanderous enemies, and forgetful cupbearers. Nothing is happening in the story randomly.
3. I’ll mention one more way that the author helps us see clearly that God brings his people into life-threatening peril, all the while preparing, in that very peril, their God-glorifying deliverance. And this is the most famous verse in the entire story, and perhaps one of the most important verses in the Bible, when you understand it in relation to the entire course of redemptive history.
Genesis 50:19–20: Joseph says to his brothers, after his father’s death, when they are terrified that he will now take vengeance on them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
And don’t make the mistake here that many people make, missing the point. It does not say, “You meant evil against me, but God used it for good.” It says, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,” and the same word for meant is used in both cases. And the word it refers to the same thing in both clauses: “You meant it, you intended it, you planned it — my being sold to the Midianites (which was evil of you); but God meant it, God intended, God planned it — my being sold to the Midianites — for our good.”
God is not surprised by the sins of his people and then scratches his head about how to “use” it for good. He is in charge of everything in the story from the beginning. He plans it. Then he predicts it in a dream. Then he superintends it for 22 years. Then he finishes it in the rescue of his people.
And lest we think this was missed by other writers in the Bible, here is what Psalm 105 says:
When he summoned a famine on the land
and broke all supply of bread,
he had sent a man ahead of them,
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
His feet were hurt with fetters;
his neck was put in a collar of iron;
until what he had said came to pass,
the word of the Lord tested him. (Psalm 105:16–19)
So, the suffering of Joseph, in being sent away from his family as a slave, was God’s doing. The regional suffering caused by seven years of famine is God’s doing. He imperils the life of his people through testing, and he plans and performs their salvation from his own peril. That’s the story of Joseph. And it’s the story of the whole Bible — and of your life as a child of God.
Joseph’s Story Is Yours
So, let me try to illustrate from a simple experience that I had with my family several years ago, and then close with the all-important experience of Jesus.
When I say that the story of Joseph is the story of your life as a child of God, what I have in mind can be illustrated by this question: Why do we often pray for things to not happen, say at the beginning of the day, and then they happen, but in their very way of happening we see the good hand of God? In other words, it seems like God often answers prayers inside what appear to be nonanswers.
“The gospel of our salvation was accomplished through the evil of sinful men as they killed the Son of God.”
How many times I have heard godly people speak of praying for safety in the morning, the terrible accident happens in the afternoon, and as I hear the story unfold, they start telling me of the amazing providences: He hit his head just this way; another millimeter would have killed him. The woman walking by was a nurse. The ambulance was there in five minutes. At the hospital, they had just the kind of blood he needed. God’s hand was all over this. And if I didn’t know the story of Joseph, I might be asking myself, “If God’s hand was all over this, why didn’t he just prevent the accident with that hand?”
Why didn’t God prevent Joseph from being sold? Why didn’t he prevent the slander of Potiphar’s wife? Why didn’t he prevent the cupbearer from forgetting him for two years? Because God’s way is to bring his people into peril for his wise purposes, all the while planning, through that peril, their deliverance.
Breakdown for Good
About thirty years ago, when I had four children at home, and one of them was 9 years old, we were hurrying from Minneapolis to get to a special gathering in South Carolina with my father. It was Sunday and we were driving on a lonely stretch of interstate when the car died. I had prayed in the morning that God would protect us from harm and from trouble. And the car died seemingly in the middle of nowhere. This is before cellphones. Do those of you who are older remember how humiliating it is to wait on the side of the road hoping someone might stop before you have to take out a white handkerchief and look foolish?
After fumbling about under the hood as though I could do anything about this, and after pacing back and forth, wondering if anyone would stop, my 9-year-old said, “Daddy, maybe we should pray.” Right. So, he and I went around behind the car, bowed our heads, and asked that God would put in the heart of someone to help us. When we lifted our heads, a pickup truck had stopped. The driver was a mechanic. He diagnosed that we needed a new water pump. He said he worked at a shop and asked if I would like to drive along to go get one, and he would put it in right there. On the way to the shop I shared the gospel with him, and we had a good talk. He brought it back, he installed it, and we were on our way within a few hours.
What do you make of that? This is what I mean by God answering prayers inside of nonanswers. God did not spare us trouble. But what did he do? He humbled my proud heart. He showed his prayer-answering power to a 9-year-old. He gave a gospel presentation to a mechanic. And we were on our way with a new water pump.
I regard that as a kind of parable of the story of Joseph and the way God works to bring his people into trouble, all the while planning for their good. Suppose Satan was involved in breaking the water pump, thinking, “I will make this family miserable, and I will make them doubt the goodness of God.” What, then, could we say to Satan? We could say Genesis 50:20: “Satan, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Not just “used it,” but meant it, designed it, for good.
What God Predestined to Take Place
We end with the experience of Jesus, which is a million times more important than my experience. The life of Jesus is the story of Joseph, is it not? And here’s one reason this is so important to say: Thousands of people that you teach in BSF will not want to hear what God has to say in the story of Joseph. Many people do not want to believe that God governs the actions of sinful men, like the hateful actions of Joseph’s brothers. They are not going to want to hear the Bible say that the sinful selling of Joseph into slavery was, in fact, God’s sending of Joseph for the very salvation of the very ones who sold him.
So, what you will need to show them is that if they reject God’s sovereignty over the sinful acts of men, they will reject God’s work of salvation in Jesus. That is, they will reject God’s sovereign act in the death of Jesus for sinners. The key passage here is Acts 4:27–28, about the forces that brought Jesus to his death. The early church prayed,
Truly in this city 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 plan had predestined to take place.
Herod’s mockery, Pilot’s spineless cowing to the crowds, the Gentile soldiers crowning Jesus with thorns, and the crowds’ crying, “Crucify him” — all of it was sinful. All of it was murderous. All of it was like Joseph’s brothers, and Potiphar’s wife, and unjust years in the dungeon of Egypt. And all of it was planned by God. All these murderous people were gathered “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
The gospel of our salvation was being accomplished through the evil of sinful men as they killed the Son of God. But random evil saves no one. This was not random. Seven hundred years before, Isaiah had said, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10). This is not random evil against Jesus. This is planned. This is salvation.
There is no gospel, there is no salvation, if God cannot, in perfect holiness, govern the acts of sinful men in bringing his Son to the cross.
The message of Genesis, the life of Joseph, the death of Jesus, and the whole Bible is that God reigns in sovereign love over his people, bringing us into peril, all the while working our salvation from his own just affliction.
- “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom” (Acts 14:22).
- “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Psalm 34:19).
Satan and sinful men mean them for evil. But God means them for good.