Attitude Is Everything
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Attitude Is Everything

Genesis 39:16–23  (ID: 1857)

It can be tempting to think that our obedience to God merits His favor and earns us His intervention. Alistair Begg points out that the life of Joseph proves otherwise. For all his humility and faith in God’s care, Joseph received the displeasure of Potiphar’s wife and found himself tossed into the king’s prison. Nevertheless, he maintained a contrite and steadfast commitment to God. His faithfulness challenges us to love God with sincere hearts and a sure trust in His provision

Series Containing This Sermon

The Hand of God, Volume 1

Genesis 37:1–41:57 Series ID: 21904

Encore 2012

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25903

Sermon Transcript: Print

Can I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to the first book of the Bible, to Genesis and to the thirty-ninth chapter? Genesis chapter 39 and reading from verse 17: “Then she—” that is, Potiphar’s wife—“told [Potiphar] this story: ‘That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.’ When his master heard the story [of his wife] saying, ‘This is how your slave treated me,’ he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. But while Joseph was there in prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warder. So the warder put Joseph in charge of all those held in … prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. The warder paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”[1]


Father, we pray that as we come to these solemn moments in which we believe that you will speak to us through your Word, that as the Bible is proclaimed that God’s voice is heard—in the awareness of this, we ask that we might hear your voice and that our hearts may be as open to your truth as our Bibles are open to the gaze of our eyes and that our lives may be touched and changed according to your good purpose. We earnestly cry to you for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now, you may like to turn just forward to Romans chapter 8 for a moment, to verse 28 of Romans 8, and to this most familiar of verses in which Paul says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I hope that if we have never fully understood this verse before we began our series in the life of Joseph, that we will come to a solid grasp of it as a result of these Old Testament studies, the reason being that as we’ve said, there is probably no more obvious illustration of Romans 8:28 in the Old Testament, in a particular life, than that which is found in the life of Joseph. If you imagine Romans 8:28, as it were, coming to life in front of your eyes, then you could say that in Old Testament terms it may well form up in the very life and characteristics of Joseph himself. We have only gone into this to the extent of two chapters, but already we have seen that God’s servant Joseph has had a very varied and checkered existence. By the time we end 39 and begin 40, he’s only twenty-seven years of age. He’s still only a young man, he’s still single, and he’s been through a tremendous amount. He’s been the object of his father’s peculiar love. He’s been the object of his brothers’ hatred. They hated him so much, they sold him into slavery. And while in the midst of slavery, in all the clouds and gloom of that experience, there was some blue sky, the sunshine of God’s favor penetrating the darkness of his confinement, as he suddenly enjoyed the favor of his master Potiphar and some measure of freedom around the house and an ability to be responsible for things that were under his care. And then all of a sudden—and we saw this a couple of weeks ago—he was hit by a tornado in the form of the invitations and the accusations of his master’s wife. Potiphar’s wife had come at him like a ton of bricks, and he had only managed to escape barely with his life and with his purity. He had previously been chucked in a cistern by his brothers, and now he has been dumped in a dungeon by his boss. He had previously had the run of the house, and now he’s been run out of the house. The one who was in charge is now being charged with a most awful crime. And as verse 20 tells us, as a result of the response of his boss, he was thrown into this dreadful and sunless hole. He refers to it himself in verse 15 of chapter 40 as a dungeon.

And I don’t know if you’ve been in a dungeon, but I’ve been in a dungeon on a few occasions. There are many of them in castles throughout the United Kingdom. I’ve never been in a dungeon here in America; I’m sure there are some. But they are deep and they are cramped and they are devoid of a significant supply of oxygen, and they’re certainly not the kind of place that you would want to spend a great deal of time. Any idea that somehow or another Joseph has sort of moved from a fairly nice room to a not-so-nice room is a wrong idea; it is to misunderstand the clear instruction of the Scriptures here. The kind of place that Joseph now found himself in was certainly not made for the care of the prisoners. There was little concern given to the cleanliness of them, and the dreadful circumstances would be marked both in your waking hours and in your moments before falling asleep by the relentless clanging of the prisoners’ chains fastened on the one side to the manacles that were around their ankles and then the chain fastened to these central pillars which not only held up the roof of the dungeon, but also explained the extent of the freedom that was enjoyed within that. And the length of the chain was all that one had in terms of mobility within the place, so you could move back and forth on your chain; if there was sufficient room, you could make a 360 all the way around. And morning, noon, and night people would be trapped in there, and Joseph was one who was so trapped.

The psalmist in Psalm 105:18 makes reference to Joseph’s circumstances. Speaking of the work of God, he says of God:

He called down famine on the land
  … destroyed all their supplies of food;
and he sent a man before them—
 Joseph, sold as a slave.
They bruised his feet with shackles,
 his neck was put in irons,
till what he foretold came to pass,
 till the word of the Lord proved him true.[2]

And so the picture of Joseph now at the end of 39 is particularly changed from the beginning of 39. And we should imagine him enslaved, in irons, both around his neck resisting the ability to be able to lift up his head and gaze, and at the same time shackled in his feet. If you pay careful attention to the chapter, if you’ve observed it with care, you will note that there is a symmetry about this chapter insofar as the opening verses and the closing verses describe the same sort of scene, albeit in two locations. When we studied the opening verses, we noted that Joseph was protected, and then he was prospered, and then he was promoted, and then we found him propositioned. I don’t expect you to remember the outline, but that’s what we said—that the circumstances were such that he found himself moving through that progression. Largely the same thing happens, albeit he was in the palace or in Potiphar’s house in the beginning, and he’s in the dungeon at the end, but you largely find the same truth unfolding, therefore laying us all open to the possibility of simply preaching the same sermon all over again from different verses. And that, of course, is the great danger of preaching sermons that just have points, and you like your points so much, and then you go and find a text to anchor your points to, and eventually if you get generic enough points, you can preach the same message from lots of places all over the Bible. And you may have enjoyed that kind of preaching in the past, and it comes upon me with great temptation. But in order to prevent me from doing that—trusting, you see, in your ability to forget exactly what I said in the opening six verses of chapter 39, which is a fair assumption judging by the glaze on your eyes when I mentioned the four points—but resisting the temptation simply to cash in on your forgetfulness, what I want to do is go through the concluding verses by looking at each of the characters in turn—each of the characters in turn. And there are, if you like, five personalities that are before us in these concluding verses of chapter 39.

Potiphar’s Wife

First of all, let us consider these events as they unfold through the eyes of Potiphar’s wife—Potiphar’s wife. Had there been society pages in Egypt at that time, I have little doubt that she would have appeared regularly in them. Indeed, I think she would have been delighted to find herself in them and probably would have grabbed the magazine as soon as it arrived to see whether she was on the page as usual: get the newspaper on a Thursday to see if that special insert section was there which would tell her where she’d been and what she’d been doing, what she was wearing. She may even have been, in her position of responsibility, the recipient of the best-dressed woman in Egypt award. She had that kind of profile. Of course, she may have been the recipient of the worst-dressed woman in Egypt; we don’t know how she dressed. I have a sneaking suspicion she was the recipient of the least-dressed woman in Egypt in the light of what we find before us here. She certainly had prestige. She was in a position of influence. She was, in Egyptian culture, one of the beautiful people and yet her life was an absolute shambles—it was a shambles, and we know that simply by reading the Bible. We don’t have to read into it, we simply need to observe what the text says, and what it says to us is this, that she is like many people in contemporary culture: On the outside, apparently got it all—nicely put together, nails done, hair done, the heels of her shoes never had that horrible chipped bit on the back of them, never, never. She always put together properly if you saw her in the mall, and you would have assumed, “Man, has she got it together!” But she didn’t. She was a walking disaster zone, and her life was in chaos. She was surrounded by many gods with a small “g,” but she didn’t know God. She didn’t know this God of Joseph, for sure. She was, in the words of Solomon, passing through her days like a shadow.[3] She was the kind of lady who was tempted to believe that a fine perfume was more significant, more prestigious, than a fine name. She had wealth, possessions, she had honor, but she lacked the ability to enjoy them. She doubtless would have been happy to concur with the statement of Sophia Loren some time ago where she said, “In my life there is an emptiness. It is impossible for me to fill.”[4] For this Potiphar’s wife, despite all the superficial indications of who and what she was, was a lady with some real deep-seated issues, far more than perhaps we’re able to observe, but at least these facts were true. Number one: she had an adulterous heart—she had an adulterous heart. She lived with lust. She had allowed lust to become her friend. She had allowed it to begin in her mind, she had processed it to her lips, she had transferred it to her hands, and she was on the prowl. It would be surprising if this was her only foray beyond the marriage bed in relationship to the opposite sex; it is more than likely that she was simply doing what came naturally to her.

Secondly, she couldn’t bear to have her evil desires unfulfilled. She was used to getting what she wanted, and she couldn’t stand it when she didn’t get what she wanted. Indeed, she was prepared to go to almost any lengths to try and get what she desired, and her failure to do so absolutely compelled her to the worst of action.

Thirdly, she was an able liar. She had made lies her refuge.[5] As soon as the events that we considered last time unfolded against her, then she resorted to telling lies, and she lied about the circumstances, she lied about the servant, she was lying about Joseph, and she was lying straight into the gaze of her husband. That’s a dangerous woman—a woman who can take her husband’s gaze, look right down the avenue of his eyes, and lie through her teeth is somebody you better learn not to pay much attention to.

Fourthly, she was capable of murderous hatred—she was capable of murderous hatred. How do you say that? Well, because her lies were to induce a circumstance where Joseph would lose his head because the crime was punishable by death. And so her perspective was really straightforward: “If I can’t have him, no one’s getting him; and I’ll make sure nobody else gets him, because I’ll ensure that he gets his head chopped off.”

And fifthly, she was skillful, I suggest to you, in manipulating her husband’s mind. She was a manipulator. We noted that just in passing; let me show it to you again in verse 17: “Then she told him this story: ‘That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me.’” Now what are the three manipulative words in that phrase? You put a brackets around them: “You brought us.” You see, that’s the insinuation. She doesn’t say, “the Hebrew slave tried to make sport of me.” That would have been one thing. That’s a flat-out lie. But she says, “The Hebrew slave you brought us …” “See, the problem, Potiphar, is your problem. If you hadn’t bought this slave, then this wouldn’t have happened to me.” Same thing in verse 19: “When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, ‘This is how your slave treated me.’” See, as long as everything was hunky-dory, she was fine. As long as she was living with the prospect of fulfillment, it was okay because, after all, Joseph had been like no other slave: he was the best of slaves. He was such a fabulous slave, as we saw in the story, that Potiphar had given everything into his care—everything except what he ate for his dinner and his wife—and everything was prospering under Joseph’s jurisdiction. Within the home, his portfolio, the work of agriculture in the fields, everything he touched was just transformed. And now, says [Potiphar’s wife], “It’s your slave.” Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.


That’s Potiphar’s wife; what about Potiphar? What do you think of Potiphar here? Interesting character. What do you think of when you think of Potiphar? I mean, he was obviously masterful at delegation. He was a fairly shrewd judge of character. He’d had many, many people under his control for all of his life, it would seem. He was able to pick a good slave from a bad slave. He was able to determine that this fellow Joseph had something about him. And it is hardly surprising that, having entrusted everything to the care of this Hebrew lad, he would react in anger at the thought of his wife’s purity having been compromised. Any man worth his salt must react in this way. Even the very idea of it is abhorrent to a man, that somehow or another his wife’s purity and morality would have been compromised by someone who was around the house, and particularly somebody that they had determined should be around the house and was given freedom and trust within the home. And so his jealousy is an understandable jealousy. There is a rightness about that sort of protection, and we would expect him to display it. However, one of the striking things as you read this—and it must come to mind, apart from trying to think about processing the information like, “Well, I wonder why Joseph left his, you know, cloak there? ’Cause my wife’s not physically stronger than Joseph. Joseph’s too smart to realize that he would leave incriminating evidence behind, so why didn’t he grab my wife, throw her on the couch, grab his trousers, and then split?” You know, there’s too many things here that don’t add up when you start to think about it. I mean, it’s not a really good story on his wife’s part, but he’s buying it. And he is not processing the information. He is not setting his wife’s accusations against the backdrop of Joseph’s record of faithful integrity. Why doesn’t he stop and say, “Now wait a minute, I know I’m angry, but …”? I think there are two reasons. Number one: He allowed his anger to run away with his judgment—he allowed his anger to run away with his judgment. Once he allowed himself to be overtaken by rage—and you’ll notice the phrase there at the end of verse 19—“he burned with anger;” it’s not that he was a little concerned, but he was immediately enraged and he was enflamed and he went from, you know, normal body temperature to absolutely boiling, you know—he was flaming. And as soon as he became overtaken with anger, he was incapable of hearing either truth or reason.

If you or I choose to make decisions while angry, we will the majority of the time make bad decisions

Note this as a principle, dear ones: If you or I choose to make decisions while angry, we will the majority of the time make bad decisions. If you listen to the Bible preached with an angry heart, you will not hear the Bible. You will hear a man talking, but you will not hear the Word of God to your spirit. And that’s why people can sit under the ministry of the Word of God and it’s like water falling on a stone. Nothing apparently happens, because they do not combine the Word of God with faith, and the reason they don’t combine it with faith is because they sit with an angry heart, whatever the source of the anger might be. And anger will always blind the mind. Indeed, there’s probably nothing more effective in doing so than unchecked anger. That’s why James, the brother of Jesus, in [James 1:19–20] says that the anger of man is never the means of achieving God’s true goodness.[6] And Potiphar formed his judgment of Joseph or, if you like, re-formed his judgment of Joseph and the events while he was enraged, and it was a bad move. And it always is. That’s why, when you feel that coming on—when we feel that coming on—you’re better to have somebody just grab you and throw you out of the window before you open your mouth and sin your soul, before you open your mouth and make a fool of yourself. Better go walk ’round the building five times and get soaked to the skin than immediately allow rage to close you down to reason and to truth, and to speak out of venom. Do you know how many marriages fall apart because someone does that and then they won’t back down? Do you know how many arguments are fueled by that approach because someone just simply speaks—they neither hear anymore nor respond anymore, they just let their mouth run away with them? And then they become cussed, and then they won’t say “sorry,” and then they let the sun go down on their wrath, and before they know where they are, they ain’t got no marriage at all. And it all started because, like Potiphar, they allowed rage to run away with his judgment. That’s the first reason I believe he did what he did.

Secondly, because he allowed himself to be unduly influenced by his wife. Now, I didn’t say that he allowed himself to be influenced by his wife, but he allowed himself to be unduly influenced by his wife. Every man is influenced by his wife, mercifully—indeed, to a great extent, gratefully. But we are not to be unduly influenced by our wives. To the man falls the responsibility of leadership, to the man falls the headship of the home, to the man is given the armband for the captain on the team, not to his wife. And when a man is unduly influenced by his wife, especially in moments of decision making, especially if his judgment were to be clouded by anger, then not only does he live in a perilous predicament, but he puts everybody else with whom he is engaged in a perilous predicament with him. Now, you see Potiphar’s wife clearly had a pretty good tongue in her head; she may have had a better tongue in her head than Potiphar himself. She may, over time, have become adept at intimidating her husband. These little phrases point me in this direction: “This Hebrew slave that you brought us … Hey, I told you not to get him.” No, she didn’t. But, “I told you,” and so she goes. And eventually he said, “Aw, forget it. I’ll just go and throw him in the dungeon. If that’s what we’ve got … fine.” Many an apparently powerful leader is led around by his nose when he goes home. It is intriguing to me to find guys coming up with brilliant ideas five days after I just met him or five hours after I just met him—contrary ideas, redirecting ideas. And in forty-three years of life and twenty-one years of pastoral ministry, I have discovered that many guys are unduly influenced by their wives—unduly. And that’s why, in churches, you have women run churches. The men are in leadership; they’re puppets, for they are unduly influenced by their wives.

Listen to Calvin: “Husbands [are especially] taught that they must use prudence lest they should be carried rashly hither and thither at the will of their wives.”[7] Now, is it my imagination, or is it particularly quiet on this point? This is not politically correct. This is biblically accurate, and eternity will reveal how accurate it is. Listen to Lawson:

Potiphar paid too much deference to his wife. He ought not to have believed her words against Joseph without examining into the truth of them. A man ought to love his wife as a part of himself, but however dear she may be to him, truth and justice ought to be still dearer. Men ought to love their wives above their servants, but their fondness for their wives ought not to make them unjust to their servants by adopting without examination every quarrel of their wives. Our tenderest and most amiable affections must be kept within the bounds of reason and religion, that we may act like honest men.[8]

And so Potiphar, allowing rage to influence his decision making and being unduly influenced by his wife, confines this young man Joseph to the place where the king’s prisoners were normally put. He conducted no investigation, he allowed for no defense, just swiftly dealing a dreadful blow to the life of Joseph. And then he went off to his bed. I can imagine the conversation in their bedroom, but we’ll let that pass.


What keeps a man or a woman on the narrow way is not pragmatism. It is principle. It is rightness. It is duty. It is the forming of decisions in the secret place and in the quiet place and without all the fanfare of life going on, in order that when all hell breaks loose against us, we will know how we’re going to respond.

Thirdly, let us look at the events in light of Joseph himself. What about Joseph? Where is he? Well, his rear end has just hit the dirt again. One minute he’s flying high; the next minute he’s bottomed out. I mean, he’s got only kinda like two speeds, you know: full speed ahead and dead stop. There’s very little in between. He’s the object of his father’s love; he’s the object of his brothers’ hatred. One minute he’s up, the next minute he’s rock bottom. Then the sun comes out and it’s beautiful, next minute he’s down again. And right now, he’s down. And as they took him and put him in these horrible chains, and as they fastened the irons around his neck … Can you imagine—now let’s be honest—what would have been going through your mind? At least the fleeting notion must have been there in Joseph’s mind, “Goodness, gracious, if this is what you get for doing it right, what the world would happen if you did it wrong? This is the reward for integrity? This is what I get for not sleeping with her? What would have happened if I’d slept with her, for goodness’ sake?” And then he’d be saying, “Maybe I should have done. Maybe I missed the point.” And all of these things, tumbling ’round in his mind, causing him to consider his actions and his reactions, and yet I say to you that only a fleeting notion in Joseph’s case, the reason being that Joseph somehow knew better. He had made his response, remember, to Potiphar’s wife, not on the basis of pragmatism, but on the strength of principle. He had done so on the basis of rightness. It wasn’t that he said, “You know, I don’t think this is going to work” or “I don’t think this would be best” or “Maybe we’ll be found out” or “Maybe it’ll cause this or that or the next thing—”  all sort of humanistic thinking in relation. No, no, no. He says. “How could I do such a dreadful thing and sin against God?” You see, that is the thing that will keep us on the narrow way. [Spurgeon] says, “The narrow way was never hit upon by chance, neither did [a] heedless man ever [live] a holy life.”[9] And what keeps a man or a woman on the narrow way is not pragmatism. It is principle. It is rightness. It is duty. It is the forming of decisions in the secret place and in the quiet place and without all the fanfare of life going on, in order that when all hell breaks loose against us, we will know how we’re going to respond. And Joseph had said, “If this comes my way, this is what I will do, and whatever happens, so be it.” And now it had happened, and he was in the dungeon. He was the subject of the accusations of his family, which were flat-out untrue. He was the subject of the accusations of Potiphar’s wife, which were untrue. He was the product of undeserved hatred on the part of his brothers and now on the part of Potiphar’s wife. The bottom had dropped out of his world.

Those dreams that he’d had as a boy prior to the receiving of the coat seemed like pipe dreams now. How in the world is anyone ever gonna bow down before him? What were those sheaves? What about the stars and everything? “Goodness, me,” he must have said as he fastened into this weary, horrible, unclean pigsty of a dungeon. And yet look at him: Somehow he remains patient, enduring. At the beginning of the chapter he’s enslaved within the house, and he’s a man of principle. At the end of the chapter he’s enslaved in the dungeon, and he’s a man of principle. Whether he’s a governor or a prisoner, he’s the same guy. He’s not a chameleon. He’s not playing it one way up here and another way down here. He’s right through to the core—Joseph. Straight on.

Now, you notice that in the extremity, he becomes the object of God’s favor. In these worst of circumstances, verse 21 says that “the Lord was with him” in the jail; “he showed him kindness and [he] granted him favour in the eyes of the prison warder.”[10] You see, from the most unlikely quarters, God is able to raise up friends for his servants. We’ve seen this through the journey of our lives, haven’t we—in relocating, in a change of job, in a change of school, in a change of circumstances? That lonely feeling of life as you have to stand by yourself, as you face the prospect of walking into that school classroom all on your own, as there’s not an eye that you can take on, there’s no two eyes that you can look at that betray anything that would be remotely regarded as friendship. As you stand in the middle of the break, and you stand at the radiators by yourself, and everybody talks to one another and goes about their business, and there you stand. I’m talking out of personal experience here; I’m not making this up. I’ve been there. And in the middle of all of that you say, “I wonder if I’ll ever have another friend again.” And out of the most unlikely quarters, God raises up friends for his servants, and he does so in Joseph’s life. The prison warder didn’t get the job ’cause he was a nice guy, you can be guaranteed of that. You know, when they interviewed him they weren’t checking his fingernails, you know, to see if they were clean and, you know, whether he was a good “people person.” “Wanted: Prison warder, good people skills,” you know, that kind of thing. No, they wanted to know, “How do you do with the hatchet?” You know, “How are you with the screws?” You know, “Could you take somebody and just crush their cranium?” Guy says, “Not a problem. One before breakfast and one after breakfast.” Potiphar said, “You’re my main man. Step up.” Because there was a brutality about those days. There was no finesse. There was no “Now, would you like a lethal injection?” There was no discussion. It was just like—gone! And if I had been the prison warder and living in this environment, and little shiny-drawers Joseph shows up, I wouldn’t have been too excited about him. After all, I’ve been here a lot longer than him, and how did he get to be in charge of the whole operation? I would have instinctively disliked Joseph; I know it. And I would have been delighted, as the prison warder, to fasten those little ankle things on myself, nice and tight.

And so as Joseph looks around for friends, he’s not going to expect that the prison warder’s going to become anything close to his friend, and yet God has other ideas. “When a man’s ways,” says Solomon—Proverbs 16:7—“are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies [to] live at peace with him.”

Now loved ones, this morning it’s important that we say this over and over again: this Romans 8:28 kitchen-verse theology will not do. Now, let me explain what I mean by that: taking Romans 8:28 and sticking it above the kitchen sink as a sort of Christian mantra which, if you say it over and over and over again, it’ll somehow kick in for you, you know. “Oh goodness, gracious, I forgot bread, but nevertheless ‘all things work together for good to them who love God.’” “Oh! Jammed my finger in the door, yes, but Romans 8:28, ‘all things work together for good,’ you know.” “Oh! He’s home late for dinner, oh, yes, but ‘all things …’” We’re missin’ the point there; that’s not it. All of those things are true. All things God works in, even the inconsequential details, but here’s the thing: ninety percent of the people I hear using Romans 8:28 have it as a theology of triumphalism. They only use it to explain how the sun is shining and how everything’s going good, but they don’t know what to do with it when the clouds come down, the wheels fall off, and they’re in the absolute pits. Now, if it doesn’t work in that situation—if it doesn’t mean something there—then frankly I couldn’t be bothered with it. “And we know that in all things God works …” The NIV is a much better translation; the King James Version’s not so good because it has things working: “All things work together for good.” No, “in all things God works.” Things don’t work—things happen; God works in things. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” not just in the triumph, not just in the success, not just in the victory, but in the dungeon. And indeed, if it doesn’t work in the dungeon, then it doesn’t work at all.

God is far more willing to bless us than we are to take the time to even ask him!
When he shines the sun of his providence into the life of his servant, it is not because he has merited his favor; it is induced by nothing other than his goodness.

We need to understand this morning, dear folks, that when God in his providence shines light into our darkness—as he did in the circumstances here of the dungeon—when he chooses to lift up our fallen spirits, he’s not doing it because we have merited his favor. You see, some of us have got it okay about the doctrine of justification. We know that you cannot earn your salvation. We are very clear on that in our theology, and we tell people that all the time. “Oh, no, no, no, no. Your works are like filthy rags.[11] Oh no, you can’t by being religious gain God’s favor. Oh no, you must come and commit and trust unreservedly in his mercy.” Very, very good. But that’s true not only in coming to Christ, that’s true in living for Christ. We don’t merit his favor. He doesn’t repay us for good stuff by making the sun shine on us. If Joseph had anticipated that, how does he explain what happens? He has the opportunity to sin his soul, he responds in absolute integrity and purity, and what does he get rewarded with? A dungeon. Manacles ’round his ankles and a chain around his neck. And then suddenly in the midst of that experience, the clouds part and the sun shines in upon him. Why? Because he merited it? No. Because God chose to do it out of his own goodness, motivated by nothing in Joseph, driven by nothing in the circumstances, emerging only from the plan and purpose of God. Now, when we begin to get to grips with that, as Calvin says, “Since we are unworthy that he should grant us his help, the cause of its communication must be in himself, seeing that he is merciful.” And some of us, when it comes to the level of “work[ing] out [our own] salvation with fear and trembling,[12] are still living with an incipient form of cause-and-effect Christianity. And you only need to think about the way you love your children in our flawedness and realize how we say “no” to our children in certain things—they don’t understand; they bellyache—but we do it for their good. And when they are least deserving sometimes, we lavish our love upon them so as to crush their hearts in repentance at the awareness of our unconditional favor. “But I didn’t do anything.” “But I didn’t bring my report card home.” Or, “I did bring my report home, and it stunk. How come I got this new pen? How come we had this meal?” “Because I love you with a passion, not because you’re doing so well—it emerges from my own motivation as a father for you, my child.” And if we being earthly “know how to give good gifts to [our] children, how much more will [our heavenly Father] give good gifts to [them] that ask him?”[13] God is far more willing to bless us than we are to take the time to even ask him! And when he shines the sun of his providence into the life of his servant, it is not because he has merited his favor; it is induced by nothing other than his goodness. So, you see when we sing, “God is so good, He’s so good to me,”[14] we have to acknowledge the fact that that remains true even in the dungeon, because a good God is working all things out in conformity with the purpose of his will.[15]

In a magazine which I take on a monthly basis, a gentleman always writes an editorial, and this week, this fellow (turns out he’s from Scotland) wrote a piece on the posthumous joys of the Christian. I opened my magazine and the very first page it says, “The Posthumous Joys of the Christian.”[16] I said to myself, “The Post—” even the word “posthumous” gives you a kinda funny feeling, you know? And then I began to read it, and what a wonderful article it is as he points out that in seeking to have all of our joys now, all of our cookies now, all of our rewards now, all of our healing now, all of our success now, all of our answers in the immediate, we miss what’s gonna happen in heaven. And I won’t give you whole article, but he describes this lady in the fourteenth century praying that somehow or another God would liberate the church from its darkness, praying that God would somehow or another shine the truth of his Word into all the rigmarole and the bells and smells of Middle Age dark religion, and how she prayed all of her life for that and was laid in the grave with no answer to her prayer.[17] And, says Roberts, can you imagine what she’s gonna feel like in heaven when she gets introduced to Martin Luther? When she meets Wycliffe? And when she finds out that God answered the prayers of her life? Mums and dads that have gone to their grave with no assurance that their boy or their girl has turned in repentance to Christ, and then suddenly in heaven to meet them there—that is gonna be unbelievable! You see, we’re all caught up in, “Oh, I don’t think I should be in this little dungeon, you know. Oh, I don’t think this should be happening to me. Oh, God’s not playing the game, you know. This isn’t fair. That’s not …” “Cut it out!” I say to myself. That’s why you need a theology: you can’t live life without biblical doctrine; you can only live as a silly person. But once you begin to understand these great truths which underpin our lives, then we can say with Wesley:

Commit thy ways to him,
Thy works into his hands,
And rest in his unchanging word,
Who heaven and earth commands.
Through waves and clouds and storms
His power will clear thy way:
Wait thou his time;
The darkest night shall end in brightest day.
Leave to his sovereign sway
To choose and to command;
So shalt thou, wondering, own his way,
How wise, how strong his hand.[18]

See, and it’s one thing to say that when we have the prospect of getting a wee bit of it now, but when we have no prospect of having it now, then that’s a different framework, and that is spiritual geography into which I have never entered. I have only read of it and observed it. In making pastoral visits on people whose motor neuron reflexes have all closed down in their mid-thirties, who now cannot actually sustain the opening of their eyelids for more than the briefest of seconds, for whom speaking has become a daunting prospect, who have to be turned two hours every night from side to side, every two hours rolled in their beds, to prevent the bed sores—and this, the life of a lady who was the chief nurse in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, given all her life to the care of others, and now hospitalized day in and day out and day in and day out, and what would she say to me? She said, “Alistair, read me the Bible. Just read me the Bible.” She knew she wasn’t coming out of hospital except feet first, but she knew where she was going when she left. Joseph had no prospect of coming out of the dungeon, but he showed “patient endurance”[19] and quiet confidence in the midst of it all.

The Warder

Now, there’s two folks left: one is the warder, and the other is the Lord himself, in terms of the five characters in this story. Let me just say a word about this warder. If we’d gone and interviewed the warder and said to him, “What do you make of all of this?” he would have said, like, “You know, in all of my time I never met anybody like Joseph. In all of my time I never experienced anything like this. In all of my time I never saw Potiphar soften the way he softened in relationship to this character. And frankly, I can’t even explain the change in my heart towards this Joseph.” And the answer is that the heart of the king “is in the hand of the Lord,”[20] and the heart of the warder is in the hand of the Lord too. And there is nothing in here that suggests that Joseph tried to manipulate the circumstances to his own end, but that God shone his love upon him.

The Lord

Now, the key to it all is in, of course, the Lord’s activity, and I’ll just want to finish this up for you here. Because in the midst of all of this—Potiphar’s wife, Potiphar, Joseph, the prison warder—the key to it all is the Lord’s presence with him in verse 21, showing him his kindness, granting him his favor,[21] and watching out for him. As I thought about this, my mind went immediately to Psalm 139 as I thought in terms of—what was the Lord’s perspective towards his servant Joseph in the midst of all of these things? What would God be saying to Joseph? “What more can he say than to you he hath said,” says the hymn writer, “to you unto Jesus for refuge have [fled]?”[22] What more can he say than what he said? He’s not going to say more than what he said. What has he said? He said it in his Word. What does he say in his Word? If you take the 139th Psalm and you turn it ’round the other way, and you put it in the voice of the Lord rather than in the voice of the psalmist, and you think of it in relationship to Joseph, it reads like this:

“Oh Joseph, I’ve searched you
 and I know you.
I know when you sit and when you stand up;
 I know your thoughts from afar.
I discern your going out and your lying down;
 I’m familiar with all your ways.
Before you say anything, Joseph,
 I know it completely.
“Joseph, I hem you in—behind and before;
 I’ve laid my hand on you.
“Where do you think you can go from my Spirit?
 Where do you think you can flee from my presence?
If you go up to the heavens, Joseph, I’m there;
 If you make your bed in the depths, I’m there.
If you rise on the wings of the dawn,
 if you settle on the far side of the sea,
even there my hand will guide you,
 my right hand will hold you fast.
If you say, Joseph, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me,
 the light will become night around me,’
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
 the night will shine like the day.
“Joseph, I created you;
 I knit you together in your mother’s womb.
You have every reason to praise me, Joseph, because you’re fearfully and wonderfully made.
“Your frame wasn’t hidden from me
 when I made you in the secret place.
I wove you together in the depths of the earth,
 my eyes saw your unformed body.

Listen to this:

“All the days ordained for you
 were written in my book
 before one of them came to be.” [23]

“You want to know how much I’m lookin’ after you, Joseph? I am absolutely up front, behind, on top, below, in it, through it. I am consumed with you, Joseph.” “He who ‘touches [my servant], touches,” says the Lord, “the apple of [my] eye,’[24] so sensitive is my care towards you.”

And loved ones this morning, if that’s true of Joseph, it’s true of you in Christ. I don’t know your circumstances. I don’t know what’s going on in most lives. You may feel yourself to have hit the dungeon this week. You may feel yourself to be confined. You may feel that you have been the recipient of unfounded allegations or you may about to become the recipient of unfounded allegations. You may be living with mistreatment from everybody around you. But the Lord knows. He’s not taken by surprise, and he loves you with an everlasting love.

we have no right to demand of God an explanation; he has every right to ask of us genuine consecration.

In the mid-sixties, as some of you will recall, there was in what was then the Belgian Congo an unbelievable uprising of rebel troops which eventually ended in the independence of the Belgian Congo and its renaming as Zaire. Right in the eye of that storm were a group of medical missionaries. One of those girls visited the Chapel in the past and has spoken here, Dr. Helen Roseveare. She went to Cambridge University as a young girl and graduated successfully, took her medical capabilities and offered them up to the Lord in his service, said that she wanted to serve Christ no matter where, no matter what, and no matter what cost. And in the course of that she shipped off to the Belgian Congo, only to find herself in the midst of unbelievable chaos. Some of her colleagues in the midst of the uprising were, before her very eyes, shot through the temple and dropped into an open grave, and the grave was covered over, and then they marched further on. She and other young women were brutalized at the hands of these rebel troops. A tremendous story of her life is in a book entitled Give Me This Mountain.[25] And in a letter which I received from her dated the 22nd of February, she’s talking about various things and challenges and struggles along the journey of life, and she talks about how it is important for us to allow God to use the hurts in our lives to mold us to be more like Jesus, to draw us closer to himself—not to seek to avoid the hurts, but to realize that our reactions to them can bring him joy and pleasure as we trust him even in the darkest dark. And then she says this, “The phrase he gave me years ago, during the 1964 rebellion in Congo in the night of my own greatest need, was this: ‘Can you thank me for trusting you with this experience, even if I never tell you why?’”—“Can you thank me for trusting you with this experience, even if I never tell you why?” You see, we have no right to demand of God an explanation; he has every right to ask of us genuine consecration. And as in Joseph and in others and in Helen, so in Jesus himself when, says Peter, “they hurled their insults against [Jesus], he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”[26] May we then follow the example of Joseph and the example of Jesus.

Let us pray:

We come to you this morning, our God and King, aware of the diversity of our lives and circumstances and aware afresh of our need of your grace and your help. Match, we pray, the cries of our hearts to the provision of your truth. For your glory and your name and your praise, we ask it. Amen.


[1] Genesis 39:17–23 (NIVUK 1984).

[2] Psalm 105:16–19 (NIV 1984).

[3] Ecclesiastes 6:12 (paraphrased).

[4] Lloyd Shearer, “Sophia Loren and Clark Gable: Will this Chemical Casting Work?” Parade Magazine October 25, 1959 (paraphrased).

[5] Isaiah 28:15 (paraphrased).

[6] James 1:20 (paraphrased).

[7] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Vol. 2, trans. John King (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1850), 301.

[8] George Lawson, Lectures on the History of Joseph (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 43.

[9] C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 5, Psalm CXI. to CXIX. (London: Marshall Brothers, 1881), 157.

[10] Genesis 39:21 (NIVUK 1984).

[11] Isaiah 64:6 (paraphrased).

[12] Philippians 2:12 (NIV1984).

[13] Matthew 7:11 (NIV 1984).

[14] Paul Makai, “God is So Good” (1970).

[15] Romans 8:28 (paraphrased).

[16] Maurice Roberts, “The Christian’s Posthumous Joy,” The Banner of Truth Magazine 390 (1996), 1–5.

[17] Ibid., 3 (paraphrased).

[18] John Wesley, “Put Thou Thy Trust in God,” (n.d.).

[19] 2 Cornthians 1:6 (NIV 1984).

[20] Proverbs 21:1 (NIV 1984).

[21] Genesis 39:31 (paraphrased).

[22] Attributed to George Keith and R. Keen, “How Firm a Foundation” (1787).

[23] Psalm 139:1–16 (paraphrased).

[24] Zechariah 2:8 (NIV 1984).

[25] Helen Roseveare, Give Me This Mountain (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2006).

[26] 1 Peter 2:23 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.