by Angus M Gunn
“You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)
God is always right. That is perhaps the simplest way of describing the term, The Righteousness of God. Joseph’s story tells us how a man came to know that righteousness in a very personal way. In the record of Genesis we have the beginning of God’s great promise in the life of Abraham and then the line of promise coming through Isaac and Jacob, but Joseph comes on the scene without anything other than the fact that he was his father’s favourite son. He is not specified to be in the line of promise, but comes on the scene without any credentials. He has no special place in the line of promise, but appears just as one of many. Nevertheless, before we finish the book of Genesis, he is seen to be the saviour of the entire people of God.
He is a magnificent picture of Jesus Christ, perhaps more vividly so than any other Bible character we might study. In the course of his lifetime he went through enormous sufferings for no apparent reason. His life is shown to be a beautiful clean record of faithfulness to God, and yet he really had to go through the mill. We may well ask why this had to be so.
The whole destiny of Israel, the whole promise to Abraham and his descendants, hinged on the faithfulness of this one man. That is exactly the story of Joseph and shows him to give a picture of the Lord Jesus Himself. There are many little things in Joseph’s life which make him like Jesus Christ. He is the beloved son of the father; he is the person who is hated by his brothers. He is sold for silver, just as Jesus was sold, and is later stripped of all he has and later found in the company of two malefactors, one of whom was saved while the other was lost. This reminds us of the fact that Jesus was crucified between two thieves, one of whom was saved while the other was not. Many other details of Joseph’s life correspond with the story of the Lord Jesus. Joseph was full of wisdom, he knew the future; full control of the world was given to him and he alone could succour and feed the starving multitudes. In Joseph’s life we see mirrored characteristics which were found in their full perfection in the Lord Jesus. It is significant that in Genesis more space is given to him than to any other except Abraham.
If Joseph’s life points on to the Lord Jesus, we may be sure that it is given to us not only for that purpose but also to illustrate for us how God works in every life which is committed to Him and which He plans to conform to the image of His Son. We therefore consider Joseph’s story in order to learn more of God’s ways in His dealings with us.
The first thrust of the message is that God is in sovereign control of the ways of such a man: his is an ordered life. For years it seemed otherwise. He was hated by his brothers, he was sold into slavery, he was falsely accused and cruelly forgotten, yet when his terrified brothers came to plead for mercy, he was able to say to them: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5). What is more, he was able to affirm: “So it was not you who sent me here but God”.
It took time for Joseph to appreciate how marvellously God had ordered his life. He was hated, he was sold into slavery by his brothers, he was thrown into prison because of the lying lust of Potiphar’s wife and, being there, he was forgotten by the one man who ought to have spoken up for him. Finally, however, he was exalted to the throne, and then he was able to understand what had been God’s purpose in allowing all those sufferings and wrong accusations. He was able to compass the whole of those painful years with the explanation that they represented the divine programme for his life. “As for you”, he frankly told his brothers, “you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good…”. God did more than permit it; He meant it! There was never a moment when He was not in full charge.
Unlike Joseph, we are not yet privileged to see the end of God’s dealings with us but, as we look back over all the evil and hurtful things which have happened to us, things which were hard to understand and difficult to forgive, we may perhaps lose all our bitterness and questioning if we are able by faith to affirm that it has all been a part of God’s perfect plan. We get the victory if we really believe that God is always right. It may help us to do this if we consider the contribution which Joseph made through it all. It was two-fold:
1. Commitment to what was right
So far as the record goes, we are not able to fault Joseph. At the beginning of his life he was associated with his brothers who were a devious bunch, but he would have nothing to do with their bad ways. He reported their behaviour to their father, which made them hate him, and he also told them his dreams. We might say that this was rather foolish, but at least it shows that he was open and transparent. He retained that attitude all through, never deviating from a life of simple commitment to what was right in God’s sight. He did this to such effect in Potiphar’s house that he was entrusted with rule there where he doubtless learned lessons on the language and general comportment which were essential in his later vocation. For the moment, however, further sufferings awaited him by reason of his simple integrity, but he maintained that integrity even amid the injustice of his prison life. When at last he confronted his guilty brothers, his behaviour did not spring from any personal pique but only to be sure that there really was a different spirit among them.
The other feature of his whole life can be described by the one word, vision. At the beginning he had a vision of the whole purpose of God for his own life and, as he suffered under God’s hand, he came to see how that vision had been worked out. When his brothers came down to Egypt he was able to see how wise God had been to send him there first: “God sent me before you to preserve you a remnant in the earth, and to save you alive by a great deliverance” (45:7). Increasing vision showed him that the personal element was insignificant compared with God’s purpose to keep His chosen people alive and even to bring them down to Egypt. At the end of his life, many years later, he disclosed that he was looking beyond the 400 years’ story of Israel in Egypt, so that he could speak positively of the exodus and give commandment that his bones should accompany God’s people when they went back to the land. He saw not only the immediate, but the ultimate of God’s purpose for his life.
All this helps to remind us that if we are wholly committed to what we know to be true and have a vision which is larger than our own well-being, God can do for us what He did for Joseph — make every circumstance and happening of life contribute to His divine purpose. Romans 8:28 is absolutely true. “We know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to His purpose”.
The Righteousness of God
Joseph shows us that no harmful thing which comes to us can interfere with the outworking of God’s will for our lives, provided that we are not found in a way of deliberate disobedience. We live on the basis of God’s righteousness. Of course, the beautiful thing about Joseph’s life as it is recorded for us is that he did not make any mistakes. We cannot claim to have such a record, and because we do blunder we are prone to be discouraged though we are not really surprised by calamities which we feel we have brought on ourselves. What does perplex us, though, is when we have no sense of having done anything to deserve them, we yet have to suffer wrong and injustice. It was so with Joseph, and it was then that he learned to triumph by faith. We have his story so that we can get the victory by faith. There is no need for us to be thinking hard thoughts about those who have wronged us. To hold a grudge is something inwardly destructive; its bitterness eats into us and diverts us from God’s purpose for our life. Never mind our puny righteousness. Let us find our rest in the rightness of God’s ways with us and get on with His business and purpose.
Authority for God
When the brothers met Joseph in Egypt they were powerless before him for in him they came face to face with the righteousness of God. It was no longer a matter of Joseph’s goodness, whether what he did or experienced was right, but he now knew the righteousness of God. This is what came to him during those years in Egypt. His first son, who was born before the years of famine, was given the name of Manasseh, for he said: “God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house” (41:51). His early dreams had gone down the tube. All the hopes of his life had gone. He had come to an end of himself. All that related to his old life — however good it may nave seemed — had had to go down into a grave so that he would live on a new and resurrection basis. He had had burned into the depths of his being that there is another righteousness which alone can conquer the power of evil.
We are told that during his bruising and sufferings, the Word of the Lord had tried him (Psalm 105:19). By the hard route (one translation tells us that ‘the iron entered into his soul’), he learned and appropriated for himself the truth that God is always right. During his years in prison he must often have wondered if his original vision had been God-given, and if so why it seemed so to have miscarried. It was a hard lesson and at times his faith wavered, as when he complained to his fellow prisoner that he had done nothing to merit what had happened to him. He had to learn — as we all do — that human righteousness is not enough; it is tainted and it is inadequate and must be replaced by God’s righteousness.
Even at the end of his life Paul was found saying: “That I might have a righteousness not my own”. Here was a man who had more integrity and better quality in his life than most of us, and yet he was gripped by the realisation that the righteousness of God is infinitely greater than the best that man can provide. It is more than a quality, it is a Person, even Jesus Christ our Lord. The supreme thing is to know Him (Philippians 3:9-10). Human righteousness is not enough. It will collapse when faced by some social upheaval, some personal trial or some pressure of enemy activity. Nothing less than God’s righteousness can face and vanquish the assaults of evil.
Joseph was a man who moved on with God while his brothers were stuck in the mud of their evil consciences. All through the years they had carried with them a burden of guilt which was never resolved. Their first encounter with Joseph in Egypt brought the remembrance of their sin to the surface. Reuben tried to excuse himself by reminding the others that he had wanted to act differently but had been overruled. As they feared before Joseph and squabbled among themselves, they never got into the clear light of God in which Joseph had walked. He, however, was to be their saviour.
Joseph represents the person who pioneers a new way with God and helps his brothers by his own experiences under God’s hand. Through him in the end they got some idea of what God is like. At the end of the story we are confronted by the contrast between Joseph and his brothers (50:15-21). When the brothers saw that their father was dead they feared that Joseph would pay them back for the wrong they had done him, so they sent a bogus message to him purporting to say that Jacob had insisted that they should be forgiven. When the message came to Joseph he wept, as he might well do, for they were still shallow and narrow in their outlook. He assured them that he would never come in between them and God and, in the power of God’s righteousness, he was able to reassure and speak kindly to them. Though they did not understand or deserve it, he had really suffered for their sakes, to pioneer a way for their preservation and destiny.
This, then, shows something of the value to God and to other people of a truly God ordered life. The one concerned will find that the Lord is able to pick up all the hurts of the years, all the weaknesses and injustices, all the painful mysteries and use them for His glory and for the blessing of others. In the end we will find that God was not just permitting things or accommodating Himself to them, but using them in a purposeful way. Over everything in such a life it may be written, GOD MEANT IT FOR GOOD.