A Story of Grace (Genesis 50:15-21)

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After all the time that we have spent in our study of Joseph I think that we would agree that he was an amazing man. He was the kind of believer that we would all desire to emulate. He lived a God-centred life and the result was that the world, literally, was blessed. But more importantly, God was glorified.

As we examine the penultimate scene in the book of Genesis we once again see this godly man responding as a godly man! And a godly person’s life is a story of grace. Such an individual has experienced God’s grace and he or she thus expresses God’s grace in their relationship with others. This story of grace is writ large over these verses.

After the death and burial of their father, Joseph’s brothers confessed their guilt concerning the evil that they had committed against him some forty years prior. And as they did so they requested, for their father’s sake, that Joseph forgive them. They committed themselves to being his servants if he would indeed be gracious to him. Of course he had already forgiven them and yet he reassured them of his grace and further comforted them by promising to take care of them and their families for the rest of his days. It is a beautiful and touching scene in which the one who had previously been wronged shows kindness rather than revenge to the guilty. Again, it is a story of grace.

There is no doubt that in this scene we have a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ painted on the canvass of Joseph’s life. Though Scripture never identifies Joseph specifically as a type of Christ the parallels are too clear to be ignored. Clearly his life points to the One who would one day perfectly exhibit a life of faith in God; the One who around whom the story of grace centres.

As we study this passage may the Lord grant us insight to see ourselves in this account and may we be so changed as to be the next chapters in this everlasting and amazing story of grace.

Saved by Grace

Verses 15-20 point us to Joseph’s past (as well as present) expressions of forgiveness towards his brothers. Quite literally these brothers and their families had been saved by grace. And God had worked through his servant Joseph whom had also been saved by grace. Let’s examine this account under several headings.

Smitten by Grace

Jacob had died and been buried, and the previous scene (vv. 1-14) seems to indicate that the brothers at that point were in harmony with one another. They had grieved together on the long journey to Egypt, served as pallbearers at their father’s burial and now had returned to Goshen. But as they did so it would appear that some anxiety had developed amongst the ten eldest brothers. Their guilt over their mistreatment of Joseph some forty years ago was haunting them.

Now that their father was gone they were fearful that Joseph would unleash what they assumed to be his four decade long grudge against them. “Certainly,” they reasond, “Joseph has not forgotten how badly we treated him. Yes, he has been gracious and kind to us for all these years, but no doubt it was simply the presence of Dad that kept him from executing his right of revenge. Now that we are without the protection of our father, we are really in for it. Joseph is going to make us slaves – or worse.” Thus they agree that it is in their best interest to make a plan.

Though commentators differ, I am of the opinion that they made up the story regarding Jacob’s dying request. There is no evidence presented anywhere in the Genesis record to suggest that Jacob had any concern that Joseph might be harbouring a grudge against his brothers. Jacob had no reason to have concerns that Joseph might have an unforgiving and self-justifying vengeful spirit. Jacob was no doubt convinced that Joseph was a man of grace.

Why then did these brothers come up with this ruse? I think that the answer is clear to anyone who has ever done wrong: They had a guilty conscience. And this guilt was largely caused by Joseph’s acts of grace toward them. Joseph’s acts of grace had given birth to self-accusatory guilt and they were now scurrying for their lives!

It may be helpful at this point to note that up until this episode these brothers have not yet made a full confession of their sin against Joseph. In some ways Joseph’s prior expression of forgiveness toward them reminds us of a New Testament parallel in the story of the prodigal son. You will remember that the father embraced, forgave and expressed acceptance of the once wayward but now returned son; and he did so even before the son had the opportunity to declare his well rehearsed speech of repentance and restitution. And such was the case in the earlier reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers (see Genesis 45).

But even though Joseph did not need to hear the confession, God expected it. For there to be full reconciliation, restitution and reformation, these brothers would need to deal with their guilt. Acknowledging our guilt is fundamental to the story of grace.

Suspicious of Grace

For many years, guilt had haunted Joseph’s brothers. The more gracious Joseph was, the more guilty they felt (cf. Romans 2:4)! And it is quite clear that these brothers were very suspicious of the graciousness of their younger brother.

And when Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him. And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him.

(Genesis 50:15-17)

Is it not amazing that, after all of these years of kind treatment at the hand of Joseph, his brothers still doubted his sincerity? They quite clearly doubted his goodness. Since they could not imagine themselves being gracious they assumed that Joseph was not. Their suspicion was a confession about themselves.

Guilt does funny things to people. It certainly sets the stage for the revealing of our own hearts. The trouble that these men had concerning the goodness of Joseph to forgive is the same problem that we often have concerning God’s goodness to forgive us. We are suspicious because we are sinful. Our sinfulness clouds our sense of grace and mercy. And since we are so short on forgiveness we expect all and sundry to be short on it as well, including God.

One of the most important truths for the believer to get hold of is that of the goodness and thus the grace of God. We need to allow the Scriptures to inform us of the character of God. As amazing as it seems, God does forgive and He does so freely. And when He forgives, He forgets. That is, He does not bring up our sins to us later on.

Joseph exemplifies for us this kind of grace. He had forgiven his brothers and he had done so with integrity. He had forgiven them with no strings attached. His brothers had no reason to fear his vengeance because his forgiveness was not dependent upon circumstances. When Joseph forgave them some two decades earlier (in fact he may have forgiven them long before they ever entered Egypt; perhaps he had forgiven them before his slave caravan even entered Egypt!) it was a once for all settled deal. Thus since his forgiveness was real it was irrelevant whether or not Jacob was still alive; you see, Joseph’s forgiveness was not conditional.

There is no doubt that the tears he wept in v. 17 were the result of sadness over the unbelief of his brothers. And yet don’t miss the tenderness between these tears. As indicated on previous occasions, Joseph is never seen weeping out of self-pity. And this is no exception. His tears were the result of compassionate sorrow over the fact that these men still carried around so much guilt. He was broken-hearted that they had not yet come to the point of experiencing the forgiveness that had up until now been so clearly expressed, so patently demonstrated.

Are you perhaps there as you read this? Are you able to sing on one level, “Jesus Paid it All” and yet on another level feel as though you are not fully accepted? Are you battling with false guilt?

Yes, you may be as “guilty as sin” and yet if you have been justified by faith alone then indeed you are accepted in the beloved (Romans 8:1-2). O, how we need to be well grounded in the gospel! The gospel is the story of grace rather than the legacy of legalism. When the guilt piles up in proportion to the mountains of God’s grace, don’t despair but rather rejoice that you are in favour with God!

Perhaps as the years have gone by you have become more aware of how awful your past sin was, and as you have done so you are now uncertain of the Elder Brother’s forgiveness. “After all,” you may reason, “how can God possibly forgive such a wicked past? I now realise how evil that it was and thus though at first I could accept God’s forgiveness now I am unsure of it. I mean if I were God I would never …”

But that is where we need to stop and take ourselves in hand. The fact of the matter is that you are not God. And to reason from your puny measure of grace to God’s matchless grace borders on blasphemy. God is God and you are not! Yes, His goodness in one sense may leave us feeling even more convicted but it is this goodness that is designed to further convince us of His grace. As we become aware of our guilt before the cross of Christ, we are enabled to embrace this forgiveness more fully. As Paul wrote, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20).

Thus any suspicion concerning God’s gracious forgiveness is an admission of our own self-righteousness. And this does not make God sad (as in the case of Joseph) but I would maintain that this makes Him angry, for to deny His forgiveness is to deny His goodness which is to insult His character.

What then must we do to overcome this suspicion?

First, make sure that you come clean before God—even if it is years after the fact. These brothers had apparently not done so and thus when Jacob died their consciences kicked into gear—high gear! Fear took hold of them and they resorted to what I believe was a fabrication. They thus finally confessed their sin to Joseph (and presumably before God). They offered no excuses but rather they pledged their full loyalty to the one to whom they had wronged. And such must be our approach.

Second, meditate, frequently and deeply, upon the gospel and all that it tells us about God. Remember that the gospel is good news. And it is such because it comes from the heart of God who is good.

We need to listen to God’s self revelation in Scripture; and the story of His grace is nowhere more clearly seen than in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we learn of the love and the goodness and the grace of God.

This Genesis account points us to Jesus who, though He was hated by us his brothers, yet he suffered for we who wronged him and has and will forgive us. The Lord Jesus forgave because that was His assignment from the Father. The Father’s responsibility was justice. And in a marvellous way it was the cross that blended these two seemingly diverse concepts. Forgiveness was secured and justice was ensured.

Believer, repent of being suspicious about God’s forgiveness, about God’s gospel. With Luther let us declare, “When you sin, sin large for grace is large!”

Servants by Grace

As these brothers worked up the courage to actually come into Joseph’s presence (had he summonsed them?) they fell on their face before him and confess themselves to be his servants, if only he would spare their lives. That is, if he would show them grace then they would be his servants. Such were the terms of the story of grace. “And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants” (v. 18).

As sinners who have been moved by grace, we willingly pledge ourselves to serve the One who is the central character in this story of grace. We gladly bow before Him, for what a wonderful Master He is!

We need this mindset, albeit in a radically different way than these brothers. For whereas they grovelled out of fear of rejection, the believer can bow before Christ expecting nothing but grace and acceptance! We confess and commit to serve our Saviour because of “the mercies of God” (see Romans 12:1-2). In other words, we don’t offer to serve as a part of the deal; rather we gladly surrender to serve because of His deal!

Seeing by Grace

Joseph’s response was profound because it was soaked with grace. He let the brothers know that he had no intention of taking revenge on them. He was not in the place of God and thus vengeance was not his to exercise. But more than this, he was clearly admitting that he too was on the same level as them. Since he was not God then he too was a sinner and thus how could he not forgive them?

And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.

(Genesis 50:19-20)

It is clear that Joseph was able to see something that most others do not; that is, he was enabled to view his evil treatment at the hands of others by the grace of God. God had given to him the ability to see beyond the immediate. And how we need such grace!

It was this ability to see by grace that enabled Joseph to understand that true forgiveness means vengeance is no longer an option. Forgiveness is an act of release but it is more importantly an action of recognition. That is, when we forgive we recognise God as God. We thus, like Jesus, commit ourselves to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:21-25).

If the Lord Jesus Himself refused to take vengeance when He was malevolently treated, then why would we think that we can respond in any other way? When we are mistreated we need to do all that we can to save people by grace.

Let me suggest two major truths that Joseph was enabled, by grace, to see.

The Sovereignty of God

Joseph well knew that God was God and that he was not! He understood that God is the sovereign ruler of all; he understood that the Lord reigns. And coupled with this conviction was the fact that he himself was a sinner. This understanding of the truth of the sovereignty of God helped him to appreciate the sovereign grace of God, which enabled him to see what others could not see and thus to respond in a manner that others could not.

Of course the pivotal section of these verses is found here where Joseph makes clear the motivation behind his gracious response. Joseph was gracious towards those who had wronged him because he himself knew something of the sovereign grace of God. Joseph was able to be good towards his erring brothers because he knew that God had been good to him. In fact, he knew that God had been good to his entire family and that he would continue to be so. The belief in God’s goodness enabled Joseph to respond positively to the grief caused by the evil intent of others.

We will never be joyful participants in the story of grace until we come to a proper, biblical understanding of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. We must feel this truth, for until we do we will find ourselves questioning God’s goodness, and sceptical about God’s power. And the first step toward such illumined living is to acknowledge that we are not in the place of God (see v. 31). Because Joseph knew his limitations he refrained from sitting in judgement upon God. Only the humble will be in a position to rest in the doctrine of God’s sovereign rule and grace. Only the humble will enjoy the story of grace. And this brings us to the second truth that Joseph saw by grace.

The Success of the Gospel

Verse 20 is a wonderful verse and one which has brought comfort to millions over millennia: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” And yet I wonder if we have properly grasped the underlying emphasis of it? Consider the following.

As Joseph responded to his brothers he explained to them (in words that will be echoed later in Romans 8:28) that he was not bitter for the evil that they had inflicted upon him. And this was because he saw that God had orchestrated it for the purpose of saving much people alive. Don’t miss that: God sovereignly used their evil to save them by His grace!

By the grace of God Joseph was enabled to see that the evil that had happened to him was for the purpose of the gospel. This family would be saved by the intervention of Joseph and of course it was this particular family that was in a very real way carrying the gospel! It was through them that Messiah would one day come and thus it was essential that they survive the famine. Joseph saw that the events of the past forty years were part and parcel of the continual progress and eventual success of the gospel. He was able to see his circumstances through what someone has called “gospel glasses.”

Like Paul hundreds of years later, Joseph was in a sense able to say, “The things that have happened to me have really advanced the gospel” (Philippians 1:12-14). What Paul said under house arrest in Rome is exactly what Joseph in principle had said in Egypt. They both had been mistreated for Christ’s sake and they both chose to see the goodness of God in this. They both realised that their circumstances did not change God’s character. They both understood that God is good though life sometimes can be really bad. They both realised that God is committed to the success of the gospel, even if it means that those He loves must suffer. This is the realistic response of believers to the evil realities of life.

These men knew, like we need to know, that there is a bigger plan than you and me. They saw life as a matter of God fulfilling His agenda rather than fulfilling theirs. And because they knew and loved God they were empowered to endure whatever was required for the progress of the gospel. In other words, the furtherance of God’s kingdom was more important to Joseph and to Paul than the furtherance of their own concerns. If the cost required for the hallowing of God’s name meant forced slavery, or malevolent treatment by brothers, or separation from a beloved father or having a slandered reputation, or being forgotten by friends, then so be it. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” was their heartbeat. You see, they were committed to God’s success with the gospel. Are you?

The gospel is the good news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. And this good news was at the very heart of God’s original creation. He created everything that is, and when He did so He declared it to be “good.” Even though sin entered with all of its “bad,” God remained committed to His good plan to save sinners. Yes, there would be much evil that would attend the history of the world but underlying this was God’s good plan. And as Joseph came to learn, even though many in this world intend evil unto God and to His people, God, when it comes to His plan and people, intends it for His and for their good.

Joseph knew this because he knew God. He understood something of the covenant which his family had been saved under. No doubt he was awaiting the promise of Messiah and he knew that in some way the Promised Seed was going to come through the children of Jacob, through the children of Israel. And this conviction about a good God who saves sinners is what kept him from growing bitter and empowered him to be forgiving.

Yes, Joseph understood that men are sinful (after all he had experienced much of this evil firsthand) but he also knew that God is good and that He uses the evil intentions of sinners to fulfil His will. As Calvin said, “Joseph was sold by the wicked consent of his brothers and by the secret providence of God.” And it was precisely because of these “gospel glasses” that Joseph was equipped to handle the inequities of life and to leave a legacy that still speaks to us today.

It is important that we see what we are all too often so slow to see: that life is not about us! Joseph grasped this and this was the reason for his countercultural approach to his problems. Note his response, “Though you meant it for evil God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” Please don’t miss what is missing here! In Joseph’s response there is nothing mentioned about him. He does not say anything about how he has been advantaged by God’s providence in this evil deed. Certainly Joseph had grown closer to the Lord through the ordeals and no doubt his career success was the result of God’s gracious providence. But he does not make any mention of this in his response. Joseph saw God’s providence in the evil as a means of others being blessed. Again, he saw this as instrumental in the furtherance of God’s good plan, as a factor in the establishing of God’s kingdom.

It is quite apparent to those who have eyes to see that our world is increasingly individualistic. And the church has not escaped this essentially selfish approach to life. All too often we are tempted to interpret all the bad things that happen to us as being all about us. Now no doubt God uses such experiences to strengthen our walk with Him as well as to sanctify us. But how often do we give thought to the fact that our troubles, that the evil intent of others is actually in the hands of God for the purpose of strengthening the faith of others? Do we ever consider that our troubles are actually orchestrated by God for the purpose of the salvation of others?

What I am trying to articulate is that God’s plans and purposes include us but they are not always strictly about us. We are characters in God’s story of grace. And His focus (thankfully!) is on His Son. Since Christ died for us to the glory of God should not everything be about Him? In fact, Scripture makes it patently clear that this is indeed God’s intention:

  • Colossians 1:17-18—“And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.”
  • Ephesians 1:20-21—“Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.”
  • Philippians 2:9—“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.”

These texts should make it abundantly clear that this world is not about us; it is not about us when things are going great and it is not about us when things are going bad. Yes, a thousand times, yes: The Lord loves those who are His children. And thus yes, He cares for us in our heartaches and He is using them for our good. But remember that Romans 8:28ff teaches us quite clearly that he works all things together for good in the lives of those He loves ultimately for His glory! Our good and His glory are intimately connected but in the end His story is the issue. As we grasp this plotline of the story of grace then the more productively we will respond to the various experiences of life; both the good and the bad.

Practically, when your health fails, or your marriage suffers, or your finances tank, then you need to trust God to use this to in some way further His Kingdom purposes. In some way God desires to save much people alive by the evil that is happening to you. In other words we need to put on our gospel glasses and see that in some way the gospel is to advance through our hardships. God means for the evil that happens to us to further His good plan. As A. J. Gordon wisely notes, “God’s providence is like the Hebrew Bible; we must begin at the end and read it backwards in order to understand it.”

Sustained by Grace

In the final verse of our text Joseph gives assurance to his brothers that indeed all is forgiven and that they need not worry about their future; as he had cared for them in the past so he would care for them in the future. He promises to supply their every need. Yes, God had used him to save them by His grace and God will continue to use him to sustain them by His grace. “Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them” (v. 21).

The Strengthening of the Guilty

These words highlight that Joseph was a kind soul. He “comforted” or “strengthened” them with “kind” or “gentle” words. Once again we see the grace of God expressed through this wonderful servant of God.

Don’t lose sight of the issue here: Joseph saw himself as being used providentially to save this family earlier in their history (v. 20) and he also now believed that God desired to continue to use him to save them further. His understanding of God’s redemptive purpose made him a perseveringly kind man. Joseph believed in the success of the gospel, he thus believed in this gospel carrying family; and it was for this reason that he was committed to serving and thus strengthening the guilty.

And such can be, should be, true of us. Such an understanding of the story of grace will help us to identify with others who are guilty, with those who before God are guilty like us!

The story of grace is a story that is in the hands of the church. And it will be until Jesus returns. And like Joseph, we need to strengthen the hands of one another, for the long haul. We must be committed to strengthening the body of Christ, yes the often guilty body of Christ.

We ourselves need others to comfort us when the guilt begins to haunt us and others need for us to do the same for them. We need to so speak to one another that hope is communicated; we need to both say and hear that the future is as bright as the promises, not merely of a Joseph, but rather of God. When the world, the flesh and the devil whisper to us that grace is all in the past we need someone like Joseph coming alongside of us and perhaps even shouting, “There is an endless supply of grace for the future!” Such assurances have the potential to strengthen believers, literally, for generations to come.

So in closing, let us be committed to facing life as Joseph did, with our gospel glasses well placed on our mental noses. We may at times need to super glue them in order for them to stay on tightly, but whatever the challenge, let us keep the gospel perspective; a God-centred one.

As we do so may we both experience a God-centred hope and may we minister the same to our brothers whom God has providentially placed in our lives. Like Joseph, let us be committed to such for as long as we live. Better yet, let us love them like Jesus loves us, for that is the wonderful story of grace.