I’m sure that most reading this would agree that, were the story of Joseph not recorded in Scripture, we might be justified in thinking that it just sounds too good to be true. And yet we know, because the story is contained within the pages of God’s Word, that it is indeed true. Joseph was a man who went from prison to the palace, from the pit to the pinnacle. Perhaps a (weak) contemporary parallel to Joseph’s story might be that of Nelson Mandela. Some 20 years ago I was driving in New York City and saw some graffiti on the side of a bridge which read, “Free Nelson Mandela.” Around the world, people clambered for his release. As Joseph sat in prison, no one called for his release, and yet God remembered His servant. F. B. Meyer describes Joseph’s story movingly.
It was a wonderful ascent, sheer in a single bound from the dungeon to the steps of the throne. His father had rebuked him; now Pharaoh, the greatest monarch of his time, welcomes him. His brethren despised him; now the proudest priesthood of the world opens its ranks to receive him by marriage into their midst, considering it wiser to conciliate a man who was from that moment to be the greatest force in Egyptian politics and life. The hands that were hard with the toils of a slave are adorned with a signet ring. The feet are no longer tormented by fetters; a chain of gold is linked around his neck. The coat of many colors torn from him by violence and defiled by blood, and the garment left in the hand of the adulteress, are exchanged for vestures of fine linen drawn from the royal wardrobe. He was once trampled upon as the offscouring of all things; now all Egypt is commanded to bow before him, as he rides forth in the second chariot, prime minister of Egypt, second only to the king.
The question facing us as we approach this passage is twofold. First, how would Joseph handle this sudden promotion? Then, what enabled him to handle it in the way that he did?
First, how did Joseph handle this sudden promotion? It is one thing to serve God when you are undergoing affliction; it is often quite another to do so when you are at the pinnacle of prosperity. As one man has said, life at the top is often dangerous for the believer. R. Kent Hughes observes this fact in the life of Joseph. “His clothing was Egyptian, his name was Egyptian, his language was Egyptians, his wife was Egyptian, and his father-in-law was the leading Egyptian sun worshiper … Joseph’s soul was in greater peril than at any other time in his short life … The pinnacle of Egyptian life inclined the soul toward pride and independence.”
Clearly, Joseph faced a great temptation in his promotion. Thankfully, we know the full story. Joseph handled the situation admirably. But this brings us to the second part of the question: Why did Joseph handle his promotion so well? The answer to this question lies in his character; specifically, in his godly character. Joseph’s godly character was consistent whether he was in the pit or in the palace. Donald Grey Barnhouse said it well: “The key to power is character and the key to character is God.” Joseph was able to handle his heady promotion because he had character, and he had character because he walked with God.
The Christian life is essentially about character development. Though we were ransomed from sin at conversion, we battle with sin on a daily basis. Throughout the Christian walk, God works to conform us to the image of His Son; that is, to change our character to one of Christlikeness. This character transformation will be fully experienced at death or at the Lord’s return (whichever comes first), but the goal of the Christian life is to increasingly be conformed to that image, to increasingly have our character changed.
As we examine this episode in the life of Joseph, we will gain some biblical insight into the nature of godly character. How is such character developed? What does it look like? What are its results? Genesis 41:46-57 will help us to answer these questions.
The Preparation of Character
Character—godly character, that is—is not genetic. It must be developed. This takes time, because it requires experience. So it was with Joseph. “And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh king of Egypt” (v. 46).
It is interesting that Moses makes the effort to note Joseph’s age at the time of entering Pharaoh’s service. There are probably several reasons for this. First, he wants us to understand that a significant amount of time has elapsed between Joseph’s initial entrance into Egypt and his eventual promotion to Pharaoh’s service. Remember that Joseph was but “seventeen years old” (37:2) when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. It is only some 13 years later when he finally enters Pharaoh’s service. These were 13 years of ups and downs, of dreams dashed. His life for those 13 years was spent, quite literally, in the pits. But it was the pits that prepared and proved his character.
Adversity is necessary in order to attain godly character. Character speaks of a disciplined will, and it is only through adversity that our wills are disciplined. Of course, it is possible to have character as an unbeliever, but our pursuit, more than merely character, is godly character. Biblically, godly character is only attained through the experience of difficulties.
Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
The word “experience” in this section could legitimately be translated “proof,” and it speaks of proof that we belong to Christ, that we are making inroads toward a Christlike character. Joseph underwent difficult times in order for godly character to be produced in his life, and that is the same reason that God allows us to undergo difficulties.
I recently had the wonderful privilege of joining our church’s annual cycle tour. During cycle tour each year, church members camp together at a selected campsite, and each day join on a pre-arranged cycle route. On the first night of cycle tour I prayed that it would not rain. It then proceeded to rain almost every day of the week! It was probably the worst weather we have ever had on cycle tour. And yet, in God’s kind providence, I returned from cycle tour edified. The love of Christ was clearly manifest in the lives of church members throughout the week. Clearly, God had a better plan than I did, and He used the rain to prove, in some way, Christlike character in the lives of those in attendance.
Character is indeed developed over time, and more often than not in times of difficulty. Tough times put our metal to the test. When I was growing up, one of the rules that my parents set for the family was that when you start something you do not quit. I often found myself wanting to quit things that I had started, but my parents would not allow me to do so. In retrospect, I thank God for their wisdom, for quitting when things get tough circumvents growth in character.
Of Jesus Christ, it is said that He “learned … obedience by the things which he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). He did not quit in the face of overwhelming difficulties. Through His unwavering obedience, He gained favour with both God and man.
Believers ought to view trials as opportunities for character development. Joseph was thrust to a position of leadership, but leadership required (as it still does) the necessary character development. There is something significant in the Bible about the age 30. Levitical priests could only be ordained at that age (Numbers 4:1-3). David began his reign at the age of 30 (2 Samuel 5:4). Jesus began His public ministry at the same age (Luke 3:23). One of the requirements for an elder in the church is that he must not be a novice (1 Timothy 3:6). Though it is nowhere set in stone, it is often a wise practice to ordain a man to the ministry only once he has turned 30, for by that time his character will have been tested.
But perhaps a second reason that Moses took the time to note Joseph’s age was to highlight God’s incredible providence. Joseph was a young foreigner in the court of the most powerful man in the world, and yet Pharaoh was willing to follow him. Certainly, Joseph exemplified the exhortation of Paul to young Timothy: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
Character is a powerful thing. People follow those who have character, and this truth was most certainly evident in the life of Joseph.
The Perseverance of Character
Those with godly character persevere. When they achieve they do not rest on their laurels, but they carry on. Again, note the truth of this in the life of Joseph.
And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went throughout all the land of Egypt. And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls. And he gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid he up in the same. And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number.
Joseph had reached the pinnacle. In very real terms, he could achieve no more than he had achieved at this point. The temptation, upon such success, would have been for him to sit back in the palace, barking orders for others to carry out. But he would not do that. The text is quite clear: “Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and went throughout all the land of Egypt.” He left the comfort of the palace to serve the people of the land.
Obviously, Joseph’s service was spurred by the fact that he believed God. God had told him what was to unfold, and he believed that it would happen just as God had promised. Thus, he took the necessary action to prepare for the terrible famine that lay ahead. More importantly, however, Joseph served because, thanks to his godly character, he remained humble. He did not allow the promotion to go to his head. Boice has stated the matter well.
The fact that Joseph kept his eyes on God in adversity is remarkable. But even more remarkable is the fact that he kept his eyes on God when he was prosperous. How often promotions ruin people! A man can be a strong witness for God and be wonderfully used by God in the ministry of his local church when he is in some lowly position in his firm. But let him be promoted to vice president, and suddenly he has a new image to keep up. He drops his old friends, moves in with the country club set, and now no longer has time for witnessing, Bible study, or other Christian activities. And his wife keeps pace with his deprovement! She adopts airs and now no longer primarily wants her children to be godly. She wants them to meet the right people and marry those who will promote their careers or social advancement. Many Christians have been impoverished by prosperity. Many have been brought low by promotion.
How often this is the case, but happily not of Joseph. He was a man who persevered. He was as faithful in the palace as he was in the prison. Just as he was faithful in Potiphar’s house as a servant, and as a slave in prison, so he was faithful in the highest echelons of authority in Egypt.
The point is simply this: Godly character perseveres in the face of prosperity. Godly character keeps its eyes on Christ so that, when the promotions come, and the salary increases, and the prosperity is felt, it still drives us to fellowship with the saints and ministry in the church. Godly character does not isolate itself from the saints, regardless of the life circumstances in which it finds itself. Godly character works hard. It studies hard. It saves hard. It prays hard. It doesn’t rest on past blessings. It is zealous to read God’s Word and to meditate thereon. It does not try to live on yesterday’s bread. It serves hard.
Godly character cares about the welfare of others. Why did Joseph commit to getting his hands dirty in this situation? Surely because he understood the impact that the famine would have on the people of the land. Twice in this passage we are told that the famine was “sore” or severe in all Egypt and the surrounding lands (vv. 56, 57). Joseph was concerned about the welfare of those whom the famine would impact, and thus he worked as hard as he could to relieve the situation in whatever way possible.
I recently read the testimony of a man who had visited Bethlehem Baptist Church, which is pastored by John Piper. This man was struck by the fact that the church holds prayer meetings seven days a week. While Piper is preaching, there are people in another part of the building praying. While the Sunday School is going on, people are praying for the ministry of the Word in another part of the building. Throughout the week, church members have volunteered to set time aside to pray for the ministry of the church. Not surprisingly, Bethlehem Baptist Church is one of the most successful churches in the world today. Such a church could easily sit back, conclude that it has arrived, and enjoy its prosperity. But not no: The church chooses instead to continually cry to God for blessings.
As we experience blessings individually and as a church, let us not allow those blessings to go to our heads. Let us have a godly character, which is holy and humble and perseveres for the welfare of others. God blesses such faith, just as He blessed Joseph and all of Egypt because of his faith. Joseph believed God and he was a powerful testimony to the Egyptians of God’s power.
Bobby Bonner was a professional baseball player, who played major league for the Baltimore Oriels. While he was still playing baseball, someone shared the gospel with him and he came to faith in Christ. One day his coach, Earl Weaver, called him into his office and said, “Bobby, all this Jesus talk in the locker room needs to stop.” His teammates were complaining because he was always talking about Jesus. Bonner replied, “You don’t understand Coach: Jesus lives within me, and wherever I go He goes.” To which Weaver said, “Well He’s not coming to Baltimore.” Bonner’s stand for Christ resulted in him being demoted to the Minor League. Eventually, he left America for the mission field. Yet at the pinnacle of his career, he did not lose his focus on Jesus Christ. May God give us that kind of godly character!
The Perspective of Character
The text now adds a note about the children that were born to Joseph during his time in Egypt. We might be tempted to think that this is merely a parenthetical addition, but it is in fact important.
And unto Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, which Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On bare unto him. And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.
This note is in fact essential to a proper understanding of Joseph’s character. His perspective and focus are what produced his character. Remember that Pharaoh had arranged the marriage between Joseph and Potipherah’s daughter, no doubt in an attempt to fully Egyptianise the young foreigner. Verses 50-52 make it quite clear, however, that the attempt had no effect whatsoever on Joseph. The names of his children—Manasseh and Ephraim—are not Egyptian names, but Hebrew (God-centred) names. “Manasseh” speaks of forgetfulness, and “Ephraim” speaks of fruitfulness. But notice Joseph’s clear, God-centred reasons for naming his sons: “For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.” “For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Culturally, Joseph was Egyptian—Egyptian dress, Egyptian name, Egyptian working conditions, Egyptian wife—but spiritually he was Hebrew. Clearly, Asanath did not have a negative effect on his walk with God. Whether she became a believer is unclear (despite a first century novel which portrays her as such), but clearly she did not lead him to apostasy. The proof of this is the fact that his children received Hebrew names. Perhaps there was some debate about what to name the children. Perhaps the in-laws made a case for pagan, Egyptian names. But Joseph stood firm. His commitment was to the one true God and he would not be moved. Joseph’s focus on Yahweh enabled him to forget what he needed to forget and to remember what he needed to remember. And the only way that we will maintain a godly character is if we keep our perspective firmly on the Lord.
Let me suggest that those with a godly character are forgetful. “And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house” (v. 51). We see here that Joseph was able to forget two things.
First, he was able to forget his “toil,” which is a word that speaks of weariness, grievance, or misery. That is, he was able to forget the injustices done to him. He had been wronged by his brothers, by Potiphar and his wife, and by the chief cupbearer but he wasn’t enslaved to bitterness because of the mistreatment of others. And the reason that he was able to forget all these injustices is because he never forgot God’s grace.
Many reading this perhaps need to forget about some of the things in their past. We need to focus on the grace of God, which will build our godly character and enable us to forget all the “toil” that we have faced in the past months and years. As we remember God’s mercy and grace to us, we will be able to forgive others of the wrongs that they have done to us. This is not to say that the wrongs done to us will be completely wiped from our memory, but rather that God’s grace will enable us to forgive others and not feel the need to constantly bring up those wrongs all the time. Joseph was not vindictive, and later when his brothers thought that he might want revenge, it was clear that he had chosen to forget their wrongs (50:15-21). He had the attitude of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Second, Joseph was able to forget his “father’s house.” Again, this does not mean that he never thought about them again, but simply that he was able to be content with the separation for God’s glory. Perhaps he initially felt the pain of separation and wished that he could be reunited with his family. But soon he came to realise that God had placed him in Egypt for a purpose, and he contentedly fulfilled his duties for God’s glory.
At times, we too are called to forget family. This does not mean that we do not love them, but that we understand that sometimes there is a higher calling than family. Missionaries understand this principle perhaps better than most. They often have to spend special times (Christmas, birthdays, etc.) separated from family, but they are willing to do so because they realise that they are where they are for the glory of God.
But not only are those with a godly character forgetful, they are also fruitful. In fact, it is because they are forgetful that they are fruitful. “And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction” (v. 52). Because Joseph was not hung up about the wrongs committed to him in the past, and because he did not pine to be reunited with his family, he was able to get on with life and lead a fruitful existence for the glory of God. Rather than becoming bitter, he was able to channel his energies into fruitfulness.
Perhaps the reason that Joseph was able to be fruitful was because, throughout 13 years of hostile affliction, he came to realise that God was for him. God was cheering him on in his afflictions. And since God was for him, it mattered little who was against him. And if we will be fruitful in the land of our affliction, we must look to Christ and realise that, indeed, God is for us.
The Product of Character
Godly character yields great dividends, not just for the individual but for others too. So it was in the case of Joseph: His character resulted in the preservation and deliverance of others. His character turned him into a saviour.
And the seven years of plenteousness, that was in the land of Egypt, were ended. And the seven years of dearth began to come, according as Joseph had said: and the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do. And the famine was over all the face of the earth: And Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians; and the famine waxed sore in the land of Egypt. And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine was so sore in all lands.
Because of Joseph’s godly character and his subsequent good planning, there was a surplus of food in Egypt when the famine eventually struck. The Egyptians besought Pharaoh to relieve their suffering, and Pharaoh in turn sent them to Joseph, with complete confidence that Joseph would deal justly in the matter. And because of his godly character, Joseph was able to be used by God to preserve a multitude of lives.
It is interesting that Joseph is not in the direct line of Christ. Jesus would descend from the tribe of Judah. The story of Genesis has thus far traced the plotline of redemption through the direct ancestors of Christ. From Adam down to Jacob, the emphasis of the story has been on the godly line through whom Jesus would descend. Joseph is an exception. And yet I find it interesting that, though Joseph is not in the direct line of Christ, he is used by God to preserve that line. Judah, the ancestor of our Saviour, was affected by this famine as much as the Egyptians were. And because God had sent Joseph beforehand into Egypt, and because God prepared him for 13 years to fulfil His will in that pagan land, Joseph was able to move in order to provide what Judah needed.
Indeed, God prepared Joseph to be a saviour, a deliverer. But the vital element in his becoming a deliverer for many was his godly character. Most reading this will probably never be famous, and that is fine, for our primary calling is to godliness, not to fame. But the wonderful fact is that God can and does use those with a godly character to deliver souls in need. Someone once stated that the miracle of a godly life is the most powerful gospel witness to an unbelieving world. If we are people of godly character, God will use us to deliver others from eternal damnation. God uses godly parents to deliver children from hell. God uses godly friends to deliver friends from hell. That is how important godly character is! Do not underestimate the power of a godly character.
As the pastor of a local church I feel the weight of this truth heavily. If the elders of the church are godly men, it should be a rare thing for church members to die and go to hell, for godly character impacts people in a positive, gospel-centred way (cf. 1 Timothy 4:16). May we have such a character, that those with whom we associate—at home, at church, at school, in the workplace—would be impacted by the gospel of God for the glory of God.
In whatever sphere of life you are called to function, realise that as a believer your purpose is to be salvific. Thus, stay focused on God and may He use you to preserve others for His glory. May you develop the character necessary to do so.