For as long as we’ve been going through Genesis, I have been looking forward to this passage that we find ourselves in today. There are several highlights that stick out in the book of Genesis, and I have to say that this is one of them – particularly Joseph’s classic statement on the sovereignty of God: “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” That’s one of those phrases that sticks out when doing theological considerations of the good sovereignty of God and the evil works of man, and how those things work together. And it’s also one of those phrases that sticks out as a great comfort and joy to a believer who gladly rests in the providence of God that directs every event of our lives – good or ill – for his good purposes. But we do not wish to isolate a passage out of its context, as we find this statement from Joseph tucked into a final turn of events in the narrative of Genesis, of which there is much for us to glean great principles of faith from. Let us proceed to the text.
The Brothers’ Fear (v15)
Its interesting to see here that after Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers begin to fear that Joseph will get some kind of revenge on them, for what they did years ago to him, in beating him, stripping him, and selling him to slave traders heading for Egypt. Clearly, they believed that Joseph was simply being kind to them while their father was alive, so as not to cause more heartache to their father, being that Joseph and their father had a special bond for one another. So now they believe that now that the deterrent is no more, Joseph will get his revenge on them.
Though Joseph had formally forgiven them back in chapter 45, they clearly were suspicious of the sincerity of Joseph’s extension of forgiveness toward them. They clearly are doubting the authenticity of their forgiveness. They have an underlying belief that Joseph put on a show in order to do good to Jacob’s heart and be reunite with him and Benjamin, but now that Jacob is gone, he will have his revenge.
Though Joseph had forgiven them, their consciences are so stricken with guilt and fear for what they had done, they don’t see how their forgiveness could be real.
Imagine for a moment if you were one of the brothers. Put yourself in their shoes. You had a younger brother who had a great relationship with his father, you were jealous so you beat him, stripped him, threw him in a pit, sold him to slave traders heading for Egypt, and then spent years carrying on with a lie that a wild animal had killed him, all the while living with the knowledge and guilt of what truly happened, but unable to talk about it and get it off your chest. And then, through an almost unbelievable turn of events you travel to Egypt during a famine to buy food to survive off of, and you run in to this brother who you betrayed, who is now second in command in Egypt, behind only Pharaoh himself, having the power to do with you whatever he so desires. But then what does he do when he reveals himself to you? He weeps over you, embraces you, and forgives you. C’mon, no way, that is too good to be true. There has to be some ulterior motive here, you think. So you go on doubting and wondering what it could be. Then your father dies, and you realize, that could’ve been it. Oh no, and so your guilty conscience begins to sweat and swell with fear, wondering if this will be the time that your brother gets his revenge on you. Makes sense to the flesh.
The brothers are dealing with a guilt stricken conscience. We know that Joseph has already forgiven them. But their sin still weighs so heavily upon their minds, it drives them to fear. I like how Matthew Henry puts it, “Note, a guilty conscience exposes men to continual frights, even where no fear is, and makes them suspicious of everybody…” I’m sure we can all relate to that. John Calvin also says something similar, “Joseph had absolved his brethren from the crime they had committed against him; but hey were so agitated by guilty compunctions, that hey voluntarily become their own tormentors.”
The Brothers’ Petition (v16-18)
So what do they do? They come up with this plan, to send a message to Joseph, too fearful to go meet him face to face, telling him that their father’s dying command was for Joseph to forgive his brothers for what they did to him. Now, I have to wonder if they made this up. We are nowhere told Jacob made this command. And you would think that if he did, Joseph would know, since he was dear to his father’s heart – or you think that Jacob would just tell Joseph himself that that is what he wished. Having said that, Jacob may very well made this command, I just simply have to wonder if it isn’t something the brothers made up in the effort to convince Joseph to forgive them, by invoking the name of their father whom they knew, Joseph loved.
So they send this message, asking for forgiveness, admitting their sin and their evil. And in their petition for forgiveness they position themselves as servants of God. Now, there may be some authenticity in this declaration, but I think it is also evident that they are hoping to tap into Joseph’s faith in God, as a fellow servant to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as a way to avoid any revenge he may be plotting.
So they send this message to Joseph, and then at some point – I don’t know if Joseph called them to come see him, or they just decide to go after – they themselves go before Joseph. Upon arrival they come, bowing before him, showing their repentance and their humility, seeking forgiveness. And in doing so, they yet again, fulfill Joseph’s dreams from years and years ago, that his brothers would bow before him.
Joseph’s compassion (v17b)
At the end of verse 17 it tells us that when they speak to him, Joseph weeps. So here again we are reminded of Joseph’s great love and compassion toward his brethren despite their evil toward him. However, we’re not 100% sure as to why Joseph weeps here. It could be that he pities his brethren for living with such fear and guilt. It could be that he is upset that his brothers doubt their forgiveness. Or it could be that he is simply filled with emotion from being reminded of what happened to him. Maybe a mix of all those things and more of the emotion that accompanied this situation. Whatever the precise case may be, it is clear that Joseph hasn’t simply let things go, but he has totally forgiven his brothers so much so that his emotions are invested in their well-being and he is overflowing with compassion and concern for them and their condition.
Don’t you see a bit of our Savior’s compassion and care toward us, here? We are poor, needy, helpless, vile, and guilty sinners. We ought to come before the Lord, bowing low before His throne, begging for forgiveness and mercy, hoping just to be named a servant. And there is Christ, the high ruler of heaven, looking down upon us with pity and compassion. Oh what a wild thought that is – that high and holy ruler of heaven, would look down upon us poor and miserable creatures with compassion, care, and concern. What does He see in us, to look upon us and not turn away in disgust? Nothing, but His own desire to love us.
Joseph’s Position (v19)
We observe in verse 19, and also verse 20, that Joseph’s compassion toward his brethren flows from his theology. What a thought that is! First, he references his position, posing the question, “Am I in the place of God?” Of course the answer is no, considering he begins the question by saying to them, “Do not fear…” Imagine you are one of the brothers, in this situation as we’ve described, trembling with fear, and the first words you hear out Joseph’s mouth are the words, “Do not fear.” Oh what a comfort, what a relief, what a peace, must have flooded their souls at that moment! When the fear of death or enslavement, weighed heavy upon their conscience, to hear the one who had the power to do with you what he wished, whom you did evil against, say those words, “do not fear,” must surely have brought the most shocking and relieving peace, that is beyond the description of human words.
Friends, a million times more true this is with our guilt and offense toward a holy God, and the moment that He speaks peace to us in Jesus Christ. Our offense toward the pure and holy king of the universe is far greater than the brother’s offense toward Joseph. And our deserving punishment is not far worse – not simply possible death, enslavement, or imprisonment, but eternal death, the second death, the eternal flames of hell that never die out and the wrath of God poured out for all eternity. If our guilt, offense, and punishment is a million times worse than the brothers’, imagine how much greater, then, our peace and relief is when Christ speaks to us those words, “do not fear.”
But you see, Joseph’s compassion stems from his theological understanding of his place and position in the universe. Is he in the place of God? No. Being that he is not in the place of God, he is not in a position to inflict vengeance on his brethren, for that belongs to God. “Vengeance is mine” sayeth the Lord. Joseph understands that he has no claim to that which God has laid claim to. And so he rightly submits himself to the one who judges justly, returning evil for good.
Joseph is leaving vengeance to the Lord. It is not under Joseph’s jurisdiction to exact vengeance because he is not God, nor in the place of God – and vengeance is under God’s jurisdiction – “vengeance is mine” sayeth the Lord –it’s not ours, Joseph’s, or anybody’s but God’s. Matthew Henry says this, “Those that avenge themselves step into the place of God…”
Think about this next time you want to get vengeance – are you in the place of God? Surely your answer must be no. Far too often we are wronged and sinned against and we elevate ourselves into the place of God, enacting revenge on those as we see fit. I don’t think we realize how dangerous of a position we raise ourselves up to when we do that – we are taking over the duty that God has said He alone will do. We are taking what is God’s. We are stealing from God. Vengeance is His, not ours. Oh my friends, let us not take vengeance for ourselves, but leave it for the One who owns it, and will do what is right.
Kids, this goes for you too. When your friends, or your siblings do something mean or wrong to you, you are not to do something mean back to them. But you are to trust Jesus and forgive them.
Joseph’s Theology (v20)
Joseph’s compassion toward his brethren does not simply come from his understanding of his position in the world, but also from his theology – from his doctrine of God’s sovereignty. As one of the hallmark statements from the book of Genesis we get unparalleled insight into the sovereignty of God, and the faith that Joseph possessed. Upon looking back upon his life and the evil that was done to him, Joseph says, “yeah, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” What an incredible faith that this is! God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. Joseph of course referring here to the way in which he was raised to a position of leadership in order to prepare for the severe famine and thus preserve the lives of many, and namely the lives of his own brothers, who committed evil toward him. What a way it is in which God works! The very evil in which the brothers committed, God meant it to work out for their own benefit! Not simply Joseph, or people in general, but them specifically! How crazy is that.
God’s will and secret councils will never fail to be carried out, not matter what kind of evil mankind commits, it cannot stop God’s plan from being fulfilled. It is the common working of God that in order to fulfill his counsels, He means for good, what man means for evil.
There have been many throughout the years who have baulked at such a doctrine. There have been many who have ridiculed it, perplexed over it, and who have driven themselves mad over such a truth. Such creatures have missed the point! Joseph simply testifies to the reality here, as should we, that God is God and we are not. Several weeks ago as I was open-air preaching downtown, I had a young man walk by across the street and in a tone of mockery shouts at me, “Explain predestination!” As he walked away, not seeking an answer, I responded by saying that predestination is one of the most glorious truths in the Scripture but it must begin with acknowledging the reality that God is God and we are not. So it is the place we must begin when dealing with such deep doctrines as God using the evil of mankind for his good purposes. It must begin with us on our knees. It must begin in humble adoration that God is God and we are not. We can use logic and reason and study till our eyes bleed, but if we have not a humble submission to God as a Sovereign God, we will do nothing but drive ourselves into insanity.
I love what John Calvin says on this, “if human minds cannot reach these depths, let them rather suppliantly adore the mysteries they do not comprehend, than, as vessels of clay, proudly exalt themselves against their maker.”
This is the humble example that Joseph sets for us as he looks upon the evil in his life, and says with faith, “God meant it for good. I know not how the particulars work together. But God meant it for good, and He is good. That is enough for me.” Oh to have the faith that rests in a sovereign God. There is nothing outside the purview of God’s sovereignty – including the evil of mankind. And that is a good thing. That should comfort us. This is Romans 8v28, is it not? “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” It’s as if Joseph is believing Romans 8v28 here. It takes more than mere theological knowledge to believe it, it takes the gift of faith.
We learn here that evil cannot ever triumph, because just when it thinks that it does, God uses it for good, his good purposes. And the fact that God means good from evil is incredible grace. He doesn’t have to work it for good for us. Yet he does. What a comforting truth it is as Christians – whatever evil men mean against us, God intends it for a good purpose. If the evil events in Joseph’s life don’t happen to him, then he is not in Egypt to save the world from famine.
Matthew Henry says, “This does not make sin the less sinful, nor sinners less punishable, but it redounds greatly to the glory of God’s wisdom.” And another commentator, “This does not exonerate the wicked actions that carry out such evil, but it does give us the broadest vision for what is happening at any given point in history.” This doctrine does not excuse the sin of man, and it does not accuse God of sin, but it magnifies the glory of God, and raises up our thoughts of him, from the lowly valleys to the highest of the heavens. His ways are higher than our ways, His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
When man thinks he is accomplishing one thing, it is likely that God is actually accomplishing another thing through it. The principle that God ultimately overrules human sin for his glory and the ultimate good of mankind is important in Scripture.
Because ultimately, this doctrine is played out in the crucifixion of Christ. Acts 2v23 tells us, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed you the hands of lawless men. So who was it? The Jews, the Romans, God? Yeah, that’s right. No matter what evil thing the Jews or the Romans thought they were doing, they carried out the definite plan of God.
This is the way God works. My friends, let us never get angry with God for allowing evil to happen to us, for He used the greatest evil to accomplish the greatest good! The sinless, and perfect Son of God was crucified by wicked sinners, so that sinners like us could be forgiven. It is clear that Jesus understood this, as He submitted to the will of the father, allowing himself to be beaten and crucified by sinful men. Jesus gave himself up like that, knowing that though mankind meant evil, it was accomplishing the good will and plan of God. You might say that Jesus had a high view of the sovereignty of God.
What Joseph says about his situation we can say about the death of Christ. The crucifixion of Jesus, though man meant it for evil, God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be made alive, as we are today. Praise God, that He uses the evil intentions of man to accomplish His good purposes – for that is the reasons we are saved today! That is how He accomplished our salvation!
Joseph’s Provision and Comfort (v21)
Joseph’s compassion and care for his brethren continues in verse 21. He reminds them not to fear, promises to provide for them, and proceeds to comfort and speak kindly to them. What over-the-top, above-and-beyond kindness Joseph shows his brothers.
The Brothers’ Unfounded Fear
You see, ultimately the brothers’ fear of revenge was unfounded. It was unnecessary. Why? Because Joseph had already forgiven them! Joseph revealed himself to his brothers back in chapter 45. He wept over them uncontrollably; yet if you remember, the brothers weren’t as emotional as Joseph. They were a bit hesitant, shocked, and unsure of the situation. And so when their father dies, they fear Joseph will get his revenge. It’s as if they are doubting their forgiveness and Joseph’s love for them.
Is this not us with God? How often are we timid or fearful of God because of what we’ve done? How often do seem to doubt our forgiveness? How often do we seem to forget God’s love toward us in Christ? I look at the brothers here and I say, “this is so us!” They forgot their forgiveness. They doubted Joseph’s love. They were unsure of their standing with him. It was as if they thought that Joseph’s forgiveness and treatment of them was too good to be true!
Don’t we find ourselves in this place from time to time? There are times when we can get so focused on our own sin, failures, and shortcomings, that we fixate upon how much we aren’t living up to what we should, and in fixating upon our shortcomings, we forget what our forgiveness looks like. We become hesitant to go before the throne, forgetting what it means to be a son. We can fall into the trap of thinking that God’s free grace toward wretches like us is just too good to be true! As I’ve said before, it is indeed too good to be true, except it is true!
But you know, just like Joseph and his brothers, though we forget our forgiveness and doubt God’s love for us, God never forgets his forgiveness, He never doubts his love for us. Though we waver and become unsure, He never does! Joseph never forgot that he had forgiven his brothers – his feelings toward them never left him. Neither does Christ toward us.
The brothers were afraid because they knew that had done evil. What’s interesting is that Joseph doesn’t tell them that it didn’t matter, or that it was no big deal, but he told them that it they are forgiven. That’s what the perspective of divine sovereignty does – it enables us to forgive.
It’s as if the brothers find it hard to believe that Joseph wouldn’t deal with them according to their evil. But Joseph is a beautiful illustration of Psalm 103v10, which says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” Joseph doesn’t do that to his brothers.
And what is even more breathtaking is that this is how God is toward us in Christ! God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities, not because He doesn’t deal with them, but because He has dealt with them at the cross. He has dealt them on Christ. This is why we are alive.
Finally, verse 21 gives us a full picture of the nature of Joseph’s forgiveness toward his brothers. It shows us that Joseph’s love for his brothers is not merely a forgiveness that wipes the slate clean; but it actively provides what they need. Likewise, Christ’s love for us is not merely a forgiveness that wipes the slate clean, but it actively provides what we need – which is righteousness. We don’t just need to be forgiven, we need to be given righteousness. This is the most overwhelming aspect of the gospel to me – that God would take our sin, and in exchange, give us everything we need – namely the perfect righteousness of Christ.
Verse 21 ends by saying, “Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” What a comfort it is to know that we are not just forgiven, but that all we need is provided for us. What comfort Christ speaks to us in the gospel! And how kindly Christ speaks to us in the gospel. Instead of getting wrath for our sin, we get righteousness. Instead of paying the penalty for our sin, we get pardon and provision.
Oh my friends, let us not neglect so great a salvation. For all the brothers’ faults, they did, after all, go to seek forgiveness from Joseph. Let us do likewise, and humble ourselves, bowing before Christ, and going to him to receive forgiveness and ease our conscience. If you refuse to seek Christ out for forgiveness you will never have peace of mind and you will never have forgiveness. All the fears of punishment will come true but only worse than you imagine. So let us humble ourselves and go to Christ, submitting ourselves to Him to be His servants.