Before we retell the story of Joseph and the spectacular sin of his brothers and its global purpose in the glory of Jesus Christ, let’s back up to Genesis 12. God has chosen Abram from all the peoples of the world by free grace and owing to nothing in him. In Genesis 12:2-3, God makes him a promise:
I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
This is the beginning of the people of Israel through whom Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God will come into the world to save us from our sins.
Then in chapter 15, God makes a formal covenant with Abram. He uses a remarkable symbolic act and some astonishing words. He says to Abram in Genesis 15:13-16,
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. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. . . . And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.
Four Hundred Years!
So at the very beginning of his covenant relationship with his chosen people, God predicts a 400-year stay in Egypt and the return to the promised land. “They will be afflicted 400 years.” He has his strange reasons why they must leave for four centuries (think of it!) and not inherit the land now, namely, verse 15: “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” When the Israelites come back to take the land under Joshua in 400 years, they will destroy these nations. How are we to understand that? Deuteronomy 9:5 gives God’s answer:
Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
The conquest of the promised land is the judgment of God on the fullness of centuries of wickedness.
Through Many Afflictions
In the meantime, God says that his people will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be afflicted for 400 years, namely, in Egypt. So there is God’s plan for his pilgrim people — a kind of picture of your life on this earth until heaven. If God plans 400 years of affliction for his people (Genesis 15:13) before the promised land, we should not be surprised that he says to us “through many tribulations you must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
“God takes the very sins of the destroyers and makes them the means of the destroyers’ deliverance.”
The question for us today is “How will it come about that God’s people wind up in Egypt? And what does God want to teach about his ways and about his Son in this strange sojourn in Egypt?” The answer is that God fulfills this prophecy through a spectacular sin. And through this sin, he preserves alive not only his covenant people of Israel, but also the line from which the Lion of Judah would come to save and rule the peoples. So huge things are at stake in the story of Joseph.
Going back to Abram, let’s bring the story up to Joseph. Abram has a son Isaac. Isaac has a son Jacob (whose other name is Israel), and Jacob has twelve sons who become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. One of Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph, has two dreams. In both of them, his eleven brothers and his parents bow down to him. Genesis 37:8 says his brothers hated him for these dreams. And verse 11 says they were jealous.
The day came when they could vent their rage against their brother. His father sends him to see if it is well with his brothers (Genesis 37:14). They see him coming and say in verses 19-20,
Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.
Reuben tries to save Joseph but his attempt is only partly successful when the brothers sell Joseph as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelites heading for Egypt (v. 25). They keep his special coat, soak it in animal blood, and his father assumes he was eaten by wild animals. The brothers think that is the end of that.
Potiphar, Prison, and Providence
But they have no idea what is happening. They are utterly oblivious to God’s invisible hand in their action. They do not know that in the very effort to destroy this dreamer, they are fulfilling Joseph’s dreams. Oh, how often God works this way! He takes the very sins of the destroyers and makes them the means of the destroyers’ deliverance.
In Egypt, Joseph is bought by Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard (Genesis 37:36). There Joseph submits to God’s strange providence and serves Potiphar faithfully. He rises with trust and influence over Potiphar’s household. And you would think that the righteous would prosper. But it seems to be otherwise. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. He flees adultery. And the spurned woman is vicious and lies about Joseph. And in spite of his righteousness, he is put in prison.
In prison, again, totally unaware of what God is doing in all this misery, he again serves the jailer faithfully and is given trust and responsibility. Through the interpretation of two dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker, Joseph is eventually brought out of prison to interpret one of Pharoah’s dreams. His interpretation proves true and his wisdom seems compelling to Pharaoh, and Joseph is made commander in Egypt. “You shall be over my house,” Pharaoh says, “and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you” (Genesis 41:40).
Unexpected Dream Makers
Seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine strike the land, just as Joseph said they would. Joseph preempts starvation in Egypt by gathering huge reserves of grain during the seven good years. Eventually, Joseph’s brothers hear that there is grain in Egypt, and they go for help. They don’t recognize their brother at first, but eventually he reveals himself. He had been seventeen years old when they sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:2) and now when he tells them who he is he is thirty-nine years old (Genesis 41:46, 53; 45:6). Twenty-two years had gone by. They are stunned. They tried to get rid of the dreamer, and in getting rid of him, they fulfilled his dreams. The brothers are bowing down at last to Joseph.
“They tried to get rid of the dreamer, and in getting rid of him, they fulfilled his dreams.”
Eventually, he invites them to live in Egypt to save their lives, and the fulfillment of the distant prophecy that Abraham’s seed would sojourn 400 years in Egypt begins. So we ask again, How did it come about that God’s people wind up in Egypt in fulfillment of God’s plan? And what does God want to teach us about his ways and about his Son in this strange sojourn in Egypt?
Two Biblical Descriptions of This Fulfillment
The answer to how the people wound up in Egypt is clear at one level: They got there by means of the spectacular sin of attempted murder, greedy slave-dealing, and the heartless deceit of a broken-hearted old man. But how does the Bible describe this fulfillment of God’s prophecy? In two ways.
1. God Sent Joseph to Preserve Life
First, in Genesis 45:5, Joseph says to his brothers who are very afraid of him:
“Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
The first way the Bible describes this spectacular sin of the brothers is that it was God’s way of sending Joseph to Egypt in order to save the very ones who were trying to kill him. “God sent me before you.”
And lest we think this was a side comment with little significance, we read the very same thing in Psalm 105:16-17 — only there the stakes are raised even higher. Not only was God ruling the actions of these brothers to get Joseph to Egypt, but God was ruling the famine as well:
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.
So put out of your mind the thought that God foresaw a famine happening on its own or happening by Satan. God summoned the famine. And God prepared the deliverance.
2. What Man Designed for Evil, God Designed for Good
So the first way the Bible describes the fulfillment of God’s prophecy that his people would come to Egypt is by saying God sent Joseph there ahead of them. The second way the Bible describes this prophecy is even more penetrating and sweeping. The brothers come before Joseph again, this time after the death of their father, and they are again afraid he will take vengeance on them. In Genesis 50:19-20, Joseph says:
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.
The second way the Bible describes the way God fulfilled his prophecy is: The brothers meant the sale of Joseph for evil, but God meant it for good. Notice it does not say that God used their evil for good after they meant it for evil. It says that in the very act of evil, there were two different designs: In the sinful act, they were designing evil, and in the same sinful act, God was designing good.
This is what we have seen and will see over and over: What man designs — or the devil designs — for evil, God designs for some great good. The great good mentioned in Genesis 45:5 is “to preserve life.” And the great good mentioned in Genesis 50:20 is “to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” But in those words, and the whole story of how God saves his people, are pointers to the global purpose of this sin — this life-saving sin — in the glory of Jesus Christ.
Three Pointers to the Glory of Jesus
Let’s look at three things in this story that prepare us to see the glory of Jesus and who he really is.
1. Salvation Comes Through Sin and Suffering
First, we see the general pattern that turns up over and over in the Bible, namely, that God’s saving victory for his people often comes through sin and suffering. Joseph’s brothers sinned against him, and he suffered for it. And in all this, God is at work to save his people — including the very ones who are trying to destroy the savior. The fact that Jesus came this way should not have been as surprising to as many people as it was. That he was sinned against and suffered on the way to save his people is what we would expect from this pattern that turns up again and again.
“That Jesus was sinned against and suffered on the way to save his people is what we would expect from this pattern that turns up again and again.”
So in the story of Joseph and the spectacular sin of his brothers, we are being prepared to see the glory of Christ — his patience and humility and servanthood, all the while saving the very ones who were trying to get rid of him.
Died he for me, who caused his pain —
for me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
2. The Suffering One Is Righteous
Second, the story of Joseph and the spectacular sin of his brothers prepare us to see Jesus not just because of the general pattern that God’s saving victory for his people often comes through suffering and sin, but more specifically, in this case, because the very one who is suffering and being sinned against is so righteous.
Joseph stands out in this story for his amazing constancy and faithfulness to every relationship. Even in undeserved exile, he’s faithful to Potiphar and he is faithful to the jailer.
The keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. (Genesis 39:22)
And what was Joseph’s reward? He was lied about by Potiphar’s wife, and the cupbearer of Pharaoh, whose dream Joseph interpreted, thanklessly forgot about him in prison for two years after the dreams. So the point of all this is not just that there is sin and suffering and that God is at work in it to save his people. More specifically, the point is that the righteous one, even though mistreated for so long, is finally vindicated by God. Even though others have rejected this righteous stone, God makes him the cornerstone (Matthew 21:42). His vindication becomes the very means of the salvation of his persecutors.
Jesus Christ is the final and ultimate and perfect righteous one (Acts 7:52). It looked to others as if his life was going so badly that he must be a sinner. But in the end, all the sin against him, and all the suffering he endured in perfect righteousness, led to his vindication and, because of it, to our salvation. If Joseph is amazing in his steadfastness, Jesus is ten thousand times more amazing, because he experienced ten thousand times more suffering and deserved it ten thousand times less, and was perfectly steadfast, faithful, and righteous through it all.
3. The Scepter Will Not Depart from Judah
There are other parallels in this story between Joseph and Jesus, but we turn now to the most important thing in this story about Jesus and it is not a parallel with Joseph. It’s a prophecy about the coming of Jesus, which could not have happened if these sinful sons of Jacob had starved in the famine. The spectacular sin of these brothers was God’s way of saving the tribe of Judah from extinction so that the Lion of Judah, Jesus Christ, would be born and die and rise and reign over all the peoples of the world.
We see this most clearly in Genesis 49:8-10. Jacob, the father, is about to die, and before he dies, he pronounces a prophetic blessing over all his sons. Here is what he says about his son Judah:
Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
Here is a prophecy of the coming final king of Israel, the Lion of Judah, the Messiah. Notice in verse 10 that the scepter — the ruler’s staff, the sign of the king — will be in the line of Judah until one comes who is no ordinary king, because all the peoples, not just Israel, will obey him. Verse 10:
To him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
This is fulfilled in Jesus. Listen to the way John describes Jesus’ role in heaven after his crucifixion and resurrection:
Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals. . . . And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:5, 9-10).
The Lion of Judah Is the Lamb Who Was Slain
The most magnificent thing about the Lion of the tribe of Judah in his fulfillment of Jacob’s prophecy is that he lays claim on the obedience of all the peoples of the world not by exploiting our guilt and crushing us with it into submission, but by bearing our guilt and freeing us to love him and praise him and obey with joy forever. The Lion of Judah is the Lamb who was slain.
“God does not exploit our guilt and crush us with it, but bears our guilt and frees us to enjoy him forever.”
He wins our obedience by forgiving our sins and making his own obedience, his own perfection as the righteous one, the basis of our acceptance with God. And in this position of immeasurable safety and joy — all of it owing to his suffering and righteousness and death and resurrection — he wins our free and happy obedience.
The story of Joseph is the story of a righteous one who is sinned against and suffers so that tribe of Judah would be preserved and a Lion would come forth, and would prove to be a Lamb-like Lion, and by his suffering and death, purchase and empower glad obedience from all the nations — even from those who put him to death.
Does he have yours?