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Genesis chapters 37, 39, 40, 41
God has His failures. His Kingdom can’t do without them. These failures are His men and women of promise. The Divine Wisdom has decreed that all such should walk the way of defeat, failure, humiliation, and resignation—unto glory. Joseph is a case in point for us to carefully consider: “And Joseph was brought down…” (Genesis 39:1).
Whatever we may think of his awkward family situation, Joseph was favored by God with two extraordinary dreams (Genesis 37:5-11). Even his jealous brothers saw clearly that these dreams heralded great things for this young man. “And they hated him yet the more for his dreams.” (Genesis 37:8)
What a time this must have been for “this dreamer.” He was highly favored by his father (if not by his father’s household). He lived like a prince. And he possessed an infallible, “double-witness promise” of God that he should be the great one among his brethren. Seventeen years of age at the time, he may very well have been intolerable to those around him!
The future must have seemed all blessing and glory to Joseph. Perhaps he was lost in the contemplation of this future bliss as he approached his brethren in the fields of Dothan. But then came the disillusioning and crushing blow—sold into slavery by his brothers, his bright future dashed in a few hours’ time. Yet this should speak to us, for to all those going on in God this disillusioning and crushing blow must come.
It is a spiritual maxim that everything, even the promises of God, must come to us by way of the Cross. How many of us have seen our dreams and visions and high callings seemingly smashed until we have nothing left. “We shall see what will become of his dreams!” (Genesis 37:20)
Yes, “Joseph was brought down”—not only into Egypt, but into the ignominy of failure and defeat. We are such a simple and shallow people that when God brings us low or tests us, we believe it will be only for a short time. Yet Joseph was a slave for years, and a prisoner for years.
It took years of God’s blessing him in the house of Potiphar for Joseph to rise to the position of head steward—hard earned “success.” But it took only a matter of hours for everything to come crashing down around him again—a false accusation destroying the success of the man who had stood for divine morality. How the devil must have pummeled him as he was hauled to prison!
However, the Lord prospered him again even in prison, and he rose through the ranks once more. But let’s not deceive ourselves because of the brevity of the account—this too took years. Eleven years after being sold to the Midianites he had his remarkable encounter with Pharaoh’s butler and baker. He shines as he is used of God! By the Spirit of God he interprets two God-given dreams. Happy day! Surely this must be his ticket to freedom at last.
“Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him” (Genesis 40:23). After all, who remembers a failure? He was exiled by his brothers, destroyed by Potiphar’s unfaithful wife, and ignored by the king’s ungrateful servant. (This last was the cruelest of all, for of a certainty those prison dreams must have all-too-painfully evoked his own decade-old dreams.)
What wrestlings there must have been with bitterness and depression! Everywhere he looks in his past there is blessing—blessing in which he has no part. How his miserable brothers must be prospering as cattle barons, watching their families grow, while he has neither life-mate nor shekel to his name. Luxury is still the lot of Potiphar’s lustful, lying wife, while Joseph’ accommodations are but a dark, bare cell. The ungrateful butler is in a place of honor in the king’s service, while he is an unknown convict.
A lesser man would have given up on God and His promises; but, strange to say, it is in part these very trials that make him something better than “a lesser man”. Psalm 105:18 speaks of Joseph: “Whose feet they hurt with fetters: he was laid in iron.” But the marginal note will speak far more deeply to those who walk in the Spirit: “his soul came into iron;” or, perhaps, as Edersheim translates it: “iron entered into his soul.” The shackles bound his very heart and soul.
Has this Jesus Whom you follow—the One Who promised “deliverance to the captive…to set at liberty…” (Luke 4:18), and “the opening of the prison to them that are bound…” (Isaiah 61:1) —has this same Jesus brought you down into this place of failure, where you can see neither the reason nor the end? Have there been times when it seemed that your trial was almost over, and then you found yourself brought down even further? Has your soul ever “come into iron”? Have you despaired of God’s calling on your life, of the vision He set before you, of the promises He made to you?
If you are being made to walk the path of failure and disillusionment, you have already discovered that few, if any, will understand your situation. How many thought of Jesus as the Great Failure as He hung on the cross. “Yet for this cause came I unto this hour; Father, glorify Thy name!” (John 12:27) If we follow this Great Failure (as men see Him), then it is inevitable that our paths will meet with His at the Cross. “Many are called, but few are chosen” because they will not let God lead them this way.
Why did Joseph have to suffer so, and for so many years? “Who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct Him?” (1 Corinthians 2:16) Imagine, if you will, our seventeen-year-old Joseph suddenly thrust into the rulership position he eventually received. A spoiled, pampered teenager who has known only success, wealth, prestige, good health, with dreams from God to add to his swagger—all in all, not a likely prospect to be one through whom the purposes of God could be accomplished. Such exaltation without the critical preparation would have led to his eventual destruction.
But we see an entirely different man in the thirty-year old “failure.” Here is a humble man with “no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). “It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace” (Genesis 41:16). His trust is in God alone. Joseph puts his reliance in nothing—not his abilities, his experiences, nor even the promises he has received—nothing except His heavenly Father.
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Why do we go through these things? What are we to learn and how are we to be comforted by Joseph’s life? For our sakes God made Joseph to be
- an example of perseverance;
- a type of Christ; and,
- a type of those who will reign with Christ.
Joseph, An Example of Perseverance
Joseph is an example of perseverance. “…We also exult in tribulation, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint…” (Romans 5:3-5 nasb). In the end, beloved, Joseph knew how to persevere. He came through with a solid, proven character and hope that God would yet do what He had promised, and that all that transpired would yet vindicate God and His ways. Joseph came through with “iron in his soul.” I suppose we might say that God had put some “steel in his spiritual backbone,” too. God carried Joseph through. He showed His ability to keep him. In the end Joseph proved it to be so within himself. He was absolutely solid in God, meek, standing for God, and usable by Him. Thus prepared by the years of perseverance through disappointment, despair, and doubt, not even the “pleasures of Egypt” nor his heady position under Pharaoh could ruin him.
Joseph, A Type of Christ
“Joseph was brought down” by suffering, defeat, rejection and the discipline of failure that he might be a type of Christ to us. Joseph was acquainted firsthand with slavery, injustice, heartbreak, hard work, and despair; like his Master, he was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). God’s end always justifies His means. What a remarkable life! How wonderfully close is this to the New Testament saint’s goal:
For to me to live is Christ…
Christ liveth in me…
Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be manifest in our body. For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal body.
2 Corinthians 4:10,11
Believer, are you a “type of Christ” to others? Is it one of your most cherished desires to be so? Then you must walk this way—the way of the Cross.
Joseph, A Type of Reigning with Christ
Joseph is a type of those who will rule with Christ. He represents another truth we neglect to our eternal loss: only if we suffer with Christ shall we reign with Him.
If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him…
2 Timothy 2:12
…knowing that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be of the consolation…
2 Corinthians 1:7
If so be that we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.
How few of us believe this! This was God’s path for Joseph. It was His path for His Christ, your Master. Why should it seem strange or “unfair” that it is His path for you, too?
The disciple is not above his Master, nor the servant above his Lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his Master, and the servant as his Lord.…
The disciple is not above his Master: but every one shall be perfected as his Master.
Luke 6:40 (marginal reading)
In this light we consider Paul’s maxim to Timothy:
It is a faithful saying:
For if we be dead with Him, we shall also live with Him.
If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him:
if we deny Him, He also will deny us:
if we believe Him not, He abideth faithful:
He cannot deny Himself.
2 Timothy 2:11-13
IF we suffer with Christ THEN we shall reign with Him! Paul knew this well—he penned these words from his last residence on earth, a prison cell, just before he was executed. Yet his sufferings were a source of anticipation to him (see 2 Timothy 4:6-8), for he saw “the joy that was set before him” and willingly “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). But consider this also from the passage just quoted—refusing the path of spiritual death and suffering seems to lead directly to denying Christ and unbelief. Are you denying Christ and disqualifying yourself from ruling by refusing the path that Joseph had to tread? Or are you choosing to go through and reign with Him? How willingly you accepted that promise, that vision from the Lord! Now you see the cost involved. Will you allow God to exact it?
Reigning! Glory to God! After all, that lies at the end of this path. We see this end in Joseph’s life. God fulfilled His promise to Joseph:
Until the time that His word came:
the word of the Lord tried him.
The king sent and loosed him;
even the ruler of the people, and let him go free.
He made him lord of his house,
and ruler of all his substance…
The change in circumstances happens suddenly to Joseph, and not by any works which he has done. Others begin to perceive the deep work of God which has been hidden from human eyes and understanding: “‘Can we find such a man as this, a man in whom the Spirit of God is?’” (Genesis 41:38) Clearly he is God’s man. Joseph begins to perceive the Lord’s purpose in all his defeats and failures. He is renamed Zaphnath-paaneah, the man to whom secrets are revealed, (Genesis 41:45, margin) for he has walked with God in the secret place of obscurity and sorrow, there communing in the Spirit and learning of Him. He ascends to the fulfillment of God’s promise—and in God’s time (not before, and undoubtedly not nearly as soon as he would have liked) he is ready.
The years of barrenness have ended. God’s purposes are now plain and His promises are at last being fulfilled. Joseph’s pain is assuaged in seeing God’s hand in all his life. The memory of the anguish and loneliness begins to wash away, and so he names his first-born Manasseh, which means “forgetting.” And he blesses God for his second son, Ephraim, whose name means “fruitful;” for God made him fruitful “in the land of his affliction” (Genesis 41:51,52) and (truth be known) because of his affliction. Even later (though it takes eight or nine years more), when his brothers are restored to him, Joseph recognizes the mercy and perfect love and wisdom of God in his years of trial: “God meant it unto good” (Genesis 50:20).
Yes, “Joseph was brought down”—not only into Egypt, but into the ignominy of failure and defeat. He was mourned by some, forgotten by others; yet who saw the hand of God in it all? Do you see it? Have you ever walked there? Are you walking there now? Then you know how Joseph felt—alone, misunderstood, empty, numb, and forsaken. Here is a fiery trial of isolation, the discipline of defeat, the narrow gate for those who would be used by God.
Can you trust God for this as well—that He means for good the failures of your life and ministry? This is God’s way, beloved, if you would be real with Him and have His life and unction in you and your ministry. Let the dream, the promise, die! Trying in your own strength to make it come to pass is frustrating the dealing of God in your life. If the dream is of God He will resurrect it and fulfill it in His own perfect time. You will glorify Him for His faultless wisdom and timing.
The hymn writer Frederick W. Faber surprises us, exhorts us, and comforts us with one of his verses, though his words seem strange to our ears in a “success-oriented” culture of “easy believism”:
Then learn to scorn the praise of men,
And learn to lose with God,
For Jesus won the world through shame,
And beckons thee His road.
“Lose with God?” “Win through shame?” How alien these ideas are to us! God has given us the example of Joseph by which to set our course and to encourage our hearts. If you, too, are one of God’s “Josephs,” take heart that the Most High has His heart set on you. And gird yourself with Faber’s conclusion:
But right is right and God is God,
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin.
Ah! God is other than we think!
His ways are far above,
Far beyond reason’s height,
And reached only by childlike love.
[F. W. Faber, in the hymn
Workman of God]
If there is a phrase, then, to sustain you who are weary, discouraged, confused, and even doubting the promises God has spoken to you, it is this: “If we suffer with Him, then we shall reign.” If your God-given promises, your ministry, or even your life seems under the shroud of Death, whether in the agonizing throes of an inner crucifixion or the dark lonely despair of some sealed tomb afterwards—you are following Jesus, and He passed this way. God allows no shortcuts that bypass the Cross.
Yet do not be surprised if God speaks just one word to you, a word which provides the courage to continue on, though your feet are fettered (what better way to keep you from running away?!) and your soul is in irons. It’s not just a word, but a name, and it’s not just the name of a Bible character, but a name by which the Holy Spirit is calling you. Are you listening carefully? If you do listen, you can hear Him say that one word, that one name. Take courage—He’s calling you…
- Credit: Image of Joseph used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license from http://sweetpublishing.com from their website at http://pub.distantshores.org/resources/illustrations/sweet-publishing/. ↩