March 17, 1996
Committing to follow Jesus is not a guarantee of an easy, trouble-free life. On the contrary, believers are to expect unjust suffering and be prepared to respond rightly. Alistair Begg demonstrates from Genesis 40 that the godly response is not to give up or seek revenge but to trust God and care for others, even in the midst of personal struggles.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to Genesis chapter 40, and let’s read together from the first verse, if you follow along as I read:
“Some time later, the cupbearerand the bakerof the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt.Pharaoh was angrywith his two officials,the chief cupbearer and the chief baker,and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard,in the same prison where Joseph was confined.The captain of the guardassigned them to Joseph,and he attended them.
“After they had been in custodyfor some time,each of the two men—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison—had a dreamthe same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own.
“When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected.So he asked Pharaoh’s officials who were in custodywith him in his master’s house, ‘Why are your faces so sad today?’
“‘We both had dreams,’ they answered, ‘but there is no one to interpret them.’
“Then Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God?Tell me your dreams.’
“So the chief cupbearertold Joseph his dream. He said to him, ‘In my dream I saw a vine in front of me,and on the vine [in front of me] were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed,and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup and put the cup in his hand.’
“‘This is what it means,’ Joseph said to him. ‘The three branches are three days.Within three daysPharaoh will lift up your headand restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer.But when all goes well with you, remember meand show me kindness;mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison.For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews,and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.’
“When the chief bakersaw that Joseph had [been] given a favorable interpretation,he said to Joseph, ‘I too had a dream: On my head were three basketsof bread.In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head.’
“‘This is what it means,’ Joseph said. ‘The three baskets are three days. Within three daysPharaoh will lift off your headand hang you on a tree.And the birds will eat away your flesh.’
“Now the third daywas Pharaoh’s birthday,and he gave a feast for all his officials.He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief bakerin the presence of his officials:He restored the chief cupbearerto his position,so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand, but he hanged the chief baker,just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.
“The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.”
Father, we pray that you would enable us so to study your Word that we might hear your voice, and in hearing it, obey it. We ask you to help us, both in speaking and in listening, so to be set free from every unhelpful distraction that we might have the mind of Christ. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Now, we come this morning to Genesis chapter 40 as we continue our series in the life of Joseph. A number of people have said to me that Joseph appears so far almost superhuman, almost beyond a point of identification—that his reaction to these daunting circumstances is such that many of us find ourselves saying, “Well, I’m a long way removed from Joseph and his ability to respond to the events that have unfolded in his life,” and I can certainly identify with that. However, if not before, this morning we’re given an insight into the nature of Joseph that will help us to see that he is very much a man. That obviously has never been in doubt, but we may have tended to give to him more of an elevated position than he would ever think of for himself or desire. We have been focusing very much on his integrity and at the same time his efficiency—able to carry out these various responsibilities with tremendous aplomb, able to handle all kinds of different and diverse factors of life with great clarity and usefulness. And yet this morning, what we are confronted with is not his integrity or his efficiency, but it is, in large measure, his human frailty. His human frailty.
His willingness to accept circumstances, which he so clearly did, did not, as we find out in this chapter, prevent him from trying to change them. Joseph was not a fatalist. Joseph was not going around singing, “Que será, será, whatever will be, will be.” He recognized that while a man’s heart devises his way, the Lord directs his steps. He recognized that ultimately all of his days and all of his decisions were under God’s providential care. But he recognized also that God had given him a mind with which to think, that he had given him the ability to take initiative, that he had made him influential in different ways. And so it is that he is not unwilling to take the initiative in relationship to his circumstances, and particularly in trying to change them.
Now, you can see this if you allow your eye to cast itself down on verse 14. He gives the news to the cupbearer that within three days, his circumstances are going to be rectified, he’ll no longer be in jail, his head will be lifted up, and he will be restored to freedom and to usefulness. And the prospect of his immediate discharge from the jail obviously triggers in the mind of Joseph his own personal interest in being liberated from this dungeon. And which normal man would not think along those lines? To be given the ability to give a word of prophecy concerning this individual and the fact that he will be out and enjoying the sunshine without somehow thinking how much he would enjoy that would be to be less than natural, less than normal.
And so, in his humanity and in his normalcy, look at what he says: “When all goes well with you”—verse 14—“remember me … show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison.” I don’t know if we should imagine it all being on, like, one line—that his voice stayed on one line. I tend to think that it was a rising sense of intensity: “Maybe you would remember me when you get out, show me some kindness? Remember me, would you, to Pharaoh—and get me out of this prison, if you can!” Because the facts, he says in verse 15, are as stated: “I was forcibly carried off, even here I haven’t done anything wrong, and I don’t deserve to be in this dungeon.” And the cupbearer must’ve looked at him and said, “Well, you certainly have a point there.” He would’ve understood Joseph’s request very clearly—straightforward, to the point: “Remember me, show me kindness, mention me, do what you can to get me out of this jail.” It was an appeal to human kindness. It was a very normal thing from one man to another.
We won’t come close to getting to the end of the story, but just cast your gaze to verse 23 and look at what a rascal this cupbearer was: “The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” Joseph gives to him this great news of his discharge, follows it up with a request for his own release, and as we’ll see later on, this fact never imbedded itself in the mind of the one who was the recipient of these words, and he chose to forget him.
So Joseph was opposed, imprisoned, maligned, misunderstood, slandered, falsely accused, and wrongfully persecuted. Apart from that, you could say he was having a very nice time. And it may be that some of those words seem to fit your bill this morning. How has your day been? How has your week been? Do any of these words fit you: opposed, imprisoned, maligned, misunderstood, slandered, falsely accused, wrongfully persecuted?
In this respect, as in many others, Joseph was a foreshadowing of Jesus, who was to come. And this morning I’m going to draw your attention to a number of places in the New Testament—probably to 1 Peter more than anything else—so if you have one of those little, you know, ribbons in your Bible, that you may want to flip it over and turn it into 1 Peter, so as we go back and forth, you’ll be able to turn to it. First Peter chapter 2, concerning the Lord Jesus, we read in verse 22, of Jesus, “‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him,” which were unjustifiable insults, “he did not retaliate; when he suffered,” unjustly, “he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
Now, as I began to study Genesis 40 and as I began to think about the events unfolding between 39 and into 40, I was struck by the fact that the experience of Joseph in terms of unjust suffering is an experience with which any true believer will become familiar. There will be seasons in our lives where, similarly, we find ourselves on the receiving end of accusation, slander, maligning, imprisonment of some form or another. It may happen in our homes, in our school, in the context of our everyday work, and it may even happen within the framework of the church. And the one thing which makes it so difficult to deal with is the fact of its injustice. I mean, even when we have acknowledged all of our wrong and all of the contributory elements of our own lives and lifestyle, still, no matter how hard we try to look at it in another way, when we lay it all out before us objectively as we can, we say, “You know what? I have been taken here against my will, I have not done these wrong things, and I don’t deserve to be in this dungeon. He had no right to say that, she had no right to think that, they had no right to do that, and here I am. It is a downright injustice.” That is exactly what Joseph is saying in describing his circumstances.
And so I paused in my notes and I said, “Okay, what do we need to note here about unjust suffering and the response of a person to unjust suffering?” Because if we take it that we’re all going to suffer unjustly, then it would be good at least to know how we should approach it when it comes along—especially if we’ve made a hash of it so far. Because there’s more to come, and we can at least get ready for the next onslaught.
So, four things about responding to unjust suffering. The first thing is this: do not be surprised when you suffer unjustly. First Peter 4:12, that is exactly the phrase which Peter uses in writing to these scattered believers of his day; he says, “I don’t want you to be surprised at the fiery trial that is coming upon you.” The “painful trial,” it says in the NIV; I think “fiery” in the Authorized Version. “Don’t be surprised at this,” he says, “your suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”
The gentiles especially were not familiar with the idea of suffering because you were religious. They had an approach to religion which was fairly tolerant, as we’ll see later on, and consequently the idea of being a religious person and being a good person and then suffering because you were, it just wasn’t in their computer program. And so Peter writes to them, and he recognizes the sense of surprise which may well accompany this experience, and he says, “I don’t want you to be taken off guard by it. You should recognize that this is going to happen,” in much the same way that a father will sit down with his children before they go off to college or make their way in the world and will say to them, “Now, you should recognize that this will happen, that these things will be in front of you, and when they do, I want you to remember that I told you this, I want to remember that I prepared you for it.” And so Peter, pastoring, as it were, those to whom he writes, writes out of the love of his heart, and he says, “Make sure that suffering, especially unjust suffering, does not take you off guard.”
You see, the great temptation is to regard suffering as a strange misfortune—to regard suffering as totally out of step with whatever following Jesus is really about. And if that was a concern in first-century Cappadocia and Bithynia, the area to which Peter was writing, it’s surely a concern in twentieth-century Cleveland, to whom I am speaking. Because the same perspective is pervasive today: that many people are living with the mistaken notion that “all will be well now that I have made my commitment or I have endeavored to follow after Jesus. Because after all,” we’ve said to ourself, “there is that Romans 8:28 verse, ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love him.’” And we have made that equal our benefit and our blessing and our health and our security and our freedom and everything else, frankly, we want it to be. We’ve made the whole package and put it all together in a bundle. And so anybody who is living with that notion of what it means to be a Christian is going to be surprised by unjust suffering. Because from that perspective, suffering has really no place in our theology at all.
Now, the question, of course, is, how can you possibly arrive at such a conclusion—the idea that because you follow Jesus Christ, all will be well? The events of the week that has just passed deny that, the facts of life do not substantiate it, and the words of Jesus nor the example of his followers give no credence to it at all.
For example, think of the life of Jesus himself. John chapter 19—Jesus in the context of Pilate’s hall and the interrogation that was taking place there with Pilate. Where did we get this idea that service for Christ is an insurance policy against trial and pain and persecution? Where did we find that we had the right to go to bed angry because we lost our job or because our health was failing or because everything didn’t work out? Where did we get this idea that the Christian life was a bargain—you know, “I do something good for you, God, and then you do a couple of good things for me, and I don’t expect you to let your side of the bargain down”? Wherever we got it from, we didn’t get it from the Bible. We certainly didn’t get it from the pages of the New Testament.
John chapter 19, Jesus before Pilate. Actually, at the end of 18, Pilate says—the first of a number of times, concerning Jesus—18:38, he goes out to the Jews and he says, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” “I find no basis for a charge against him.” Pilate was convinced of two things: he was convinced that the opponents of Jesus were trying to manipulate the circumstances against him, and he was convinced that Jesus was not guilty of the accusations. Therefore, any suffering which Jesus would experience would be unjust suffering. Now, despite that fact, he says, “I find no basis for a charge against him,” and then the opening verse of chapter 19: “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.” Now, is there some kind of nonsequential thought in this? “I find no basis for a charge against him” should then be followed by “so Pilate took him and released him.” But no! “‘I find no basis for a charge against him’ … so Pilate took him and had him flogged.” Verse 6: “As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ [And] Pilate answered, ‘You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.’”
Now, Peter, writing of this back in the verses that we were at before in 1 Peter 2:20, asks the question, then, of the believers, “How is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?”
At school in Scotland, we got belted with a leather belt. The teachers carried the belt—the men at least—carried the belt in their jacket, up over their shoulder like this. As a kid, you learned to look very carefully at situations, and particularly if the guy was right-handed, you always checked over his shoulder in his suit or coat to see if the telltale two-inch lump was there over his thing, because that was where he went to pull the implement of destruction and to beat you on your hands, held out in front of you like this—sometimes once, mostly twice, a lot of times four, and on bad days six. Okay?
Now, if you’d been a total pain, if you’d been deceitful, if you’d been corrupt, and you got belted, nobody commiserated with you. ’Cause they understood the cause and effect: you violated the command, you were punished for doing wrong, you deserve it; let’s get on with life. But on the few occasions when an injustice was done and you were belted for something that was caused by another, the sense of support and camaraderie in the class was almost palpable, because they recognized the injustice in the punishment that had taken place. And every mind recognizes the injustice in the punishment that took place in relationship to Jesus and in the punishment which was going to take place in following Jesus. First Peter 2:20b: “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
Turn back a couple of pages to Hebrews chapter 11 and the great heroes of the faith, the great picture gallery of those who were following Christ. And as he goes through and identifies different portraits by name, he eventually comes to a more generic statement regarding a great glut of people who had suffered unjustly for Christ. And he says in Hebrews 11:36, “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were [sawn] in two; they were put to death by … sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and [ill-]treated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and [in] holes in the ground.” Why? Because of their commitment to Jesus Christ! Not because they had done bad things, but because they were committed to doing good things. Not because they had brought down upon themselves rightful justice, but that they had brought down upon themselves the bows of human wrath.
And loved ones, this morning, let us make sure that we understand this. We do a great disservice to the Bible and to all who have gone before us to continue to perpetrate this silly and false idea that because we live—and are privileged to live—in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” that somehow or another, all of this stuff about unjust suffering has to do with another day and another time that is far away from us. After all, we’re Americans, you know! Our shores are uninvaded, our democracy is unimpeded, our right to enjoy ourselves all of the time is an inalienable right! And especially now that we have baptized Christianity into it, we have made it some soft-soap, shilly-shally little deal where the average teenage kid wants nothing to do with it, where the thoughtful student on a university campus regards it as absolutely bogus, where an intellectual mind in the mainstream of educational research regards it as a triviality. And while people with hurting hearts want to know how it would ever be that any of these Christians could ever have anything to say to them when after all, all that we have there to portray is that we are powerful, and we are effective, and we are healthy, and we are wise, and we know everything! No we don’t! We’re “the scum of the earth.” That’s what Paul describes himself as in 1 Corinthians 4; he says, “We are, as ministers of the gospel, amongst other things, the offscouring of pots when you go to put them in the dishwasher.” The junk that you take and flick down the garbage disposal as you rinse it and put it in the dishwasher—he says, “If you want to know how to think about us, think about us like that.”
Where did we get the idea? Where did we get a Christianity where Jesus does all the dying? Where did we get a Christianity where Jesus is the only one that bears a cross? A Christianity where Jesus is the only one who wears a crown? I’ll tell you what, we didn’t get it in the New Testament.
You say, “Well, I don’t know what you’re on about, frankly, because this is a very nice place, and I don’t see why you should get people agitated like this on a lovely Sunday morning.” Hey, if I’m agitated, you’re getting agitated. That’s the deal.
And let me tell you, I’m not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, but I’m gonna tell you why we better pay attention to this in this country. If you take the environment in which Paul was functioning, in the Roman Empire, you know enough about it to understand this: that in the Roman Empire you had a pluralist culture. Now, don’t let’s get confused by the word. Pluralism is the theory that the ultimate reality of the universe—I’m quoting from my own notes now—consists of a plurality of entities. Okay? Pluralism says that truth cannot be and is not in one dogma or in one person or in one entity. Pluralism says it is in multiple entities. Syncretism advances that and says it is in the blending of all of these entities that we come to a discovery of the truth. For example, that great edifice out there near the Northwestern campus in suburban Chicago, out on the North Side, erected by the Bahá’í Faith, is the classic expression of it: nine porticos—a magnificent structure seen from the air or from the ground—nine porticos, which all lead to one central altar, and the central altar is “truth,” and the point of the nine porticos is to say that there is no portico which leads to truth; it means the entering through all these different porticos so that in the plurality of entities which they represent, and in the synchronizing of those views, we will eventually find that which is truth. And in that mindset, there’s always room for another god.
And so there was in Roman culture. They had the Pantheon, which was a just a big variety of gods. And if somebody showed up and said, “You know, I’ve got another one for you,” they’d say, “Well, I think there’s probably a place here,” they’d bring a little pedestal and put it up, and they would include it with the rest. A very open culture. Very willing to think expansively. Very prepared for all kinds of religions.
So isn’t it kind of strange that they threw the Christians to the lions? Isn’t it kind of strange that Nero used them as Roman candles and drove them into the ground like pegs around a tent, smeared them with pitch and with tar, and set fire to them? How could it be that in such a pluralistic, open, pantheistic culture you would have such unjustified suffering meted out on Christians?
Now, you’ve already answered it in your mind, have you not? I think you have. The Roman culture could not and would not tolerate Christianity because Christians were not prepared to add Christ to the Pantheon. You see, Christians were and remain unprepared to say, “Jesus is just another of the arches.” Christians must inevitably say that there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby people are saved, save the name Jesus of Nazareth—Acts chapter 4. And as soon as a person said that in the Roman culture, they were taboo.
“Well,” you say, “but that’s the Roman culture. That’s two thousand years ago. This is Cleveland.” Hey, do you understand that this is a pluralistic culture? Yesterday’s Plain Dealer, the guy, the Roman Catholic priest writing in the column on the inside thing of the religion page, identifies the place as the epitome of a pluralistic culture, acknowledging the fact that we are where they were at the time of Rome—that is, we have a place for Jesus over here next to Buddha, Muhammad, Gandhi, and a few others.
“If you could just place him over there, and then let’s get on with life.”
And the Christian says, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t place him over here.”
“Because Gandhi will bow at the feet of Jesus and declare him Lord. Buddha will bow at the feet of Jesus and acknowledge that he was the only Savior. Muhammad and every other human prophet will acknowledge one day that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”
“Well,” says somebody, “isn’t that a very arrogant posture to take?” Isn’t that what they say to you at your work? “Who the world do you think you are? Why would you think that you’ve got it? How can you be so arrogant? How can you be so dogmatic?” The answer is, loved ones: if it is true, it isn’t arrogant. And if it isn’t true, it’s just stupidity.
You see, we do not press upon our loved ones and our friends Christianity on the basis of its pragmatic benefits; we press and are pressed by the fact of its evidential truthfulness. And if we, in a pluralistic culture, are going to be prepared to stand for these things, believe me, we better get ready not to be surprised at the painful trial that comes upon us.
Now, please God, I’m completely wrong, but I firmly believe this in my own heart as I look to the future: that evangelical Christianity in the form in which we proclaim it, with an inerrant Bible, a coming-again Christ, totally divine, totally human, one God in three, three in one—an orthodox biblical Christianity—will not be tolerated in the American, pluralistic, New Age world. And I’ll you why: because pluralists can only tolerate pluralists. They cannot tolerate—indeed, they are mercilessly intolerant towards—those who refuse to subscribe to their agnostic and universal views. And if you doubt that, go on a university campus. If you doubt that, go on a high school campus. If you doubt that, say it straight in your office or in your factory. And your people will be with you right up until the point that the penny drops and they understand that what you’re saying is, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and nobody comes to the Father except through him.” And that phrase “except through him” is anathema in a pluralistic world, whether it is the culture of Rome or the culture of Cleveland.
When you watch, as many of you did last summer, the British Open coming from St Andrews, Scotland, and you have in your mind that fabulous sight of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse set back on the left-hand side of the eighteenth green—the next time you see a picture of that, if you look carefully, if the angle is wide enough, you’ll notice that there is a monument, a little behind and set off from the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse. And you go stand at that monument, and you will be standing at the memory of those who were sawn in two and bled and died for the truth of the gospel, were the victims of unjust suffering, so that I could grow up with the Bible in my own tongue and be able to worship in the freedom of my own land—and that in turn, across the Atlantic Ocean, the same would be true for each of us. Loved ones, it didn’t come except at a great cost. And it will not be maintained into subsequent generations except still at great cost. And that’s why I’m so afraid of all the blurring of the edges, of all the dimming of the distinctives, of all the great mass movements.
Joseph: “I don’t deserve to be here. This suffering is unjust.” The way that some of us feel. Answer: “Don’t be surprised.”
Secondly… And I’ll go quicker; I spent the longest time on that, but I’ll just hit the other three. Secondly, don’t throw in the towel. Don’t throw in the towel. Joseph, in viewing his circumstances, had every reason, humanly speaking, to say, “You know, I think I’ll give up. I might as well do what everyone else does. I don’t see that this is working to my benefit. I try to do the right thing for my father, I get thrown in a pit. I try and be nice to my brothers and go and check on them, and they strap me to the back of some mangy camel and ship me off into Egypt. I try and do the right thing there, and I get thrown in the jail because of some perverse woman. I really don’t deserve this. I might as well give it a miss.”
You ever succumb to that temptation? You feel like that? “You know, I really don’t need to keep this up. I don’t think that anybody pays attention to it in any case. I don’t see that I need to keep purity in my marriage. I don’t think that I need integrity in my tax returns. I don’t think that there’s any benefit in this at all. After all, all these rascals around me here, they’re doing it all wrong, and they’re having a great time. I’m doing it all right, and it’s the pits.” Says F. B. Meyer, “Do right, because it is right to do right. And when you determine to do right because it is right to do right, then when you’re misunderstood, ill-treated, when you are the victim of unjust suffering, you won’t swerve, you won’t sit down, you won’t whine, and you won’t despair.”
And you see, that’s the wonderful thing about Joseph. How is it that he is so absent whining? Sure, he’d like to get out. He makes a request to do so. But he’s not a whiner. He’s not a moaner and a groaner, a complainer. Because he determined to do the right thing. And he said, “You know what, I’m going to do the right thing no matter what it costs, no matter where it puts me.” Do right because it is right to do right.
And back in Hebrews chapter 12, as the writer encourages those who were tempted to throw in the towel, tempted to chuck it, he says, “Listen, let me tell you what the antidote is, the antidote to faintheartedness and to weariness: consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. You having a bad day?” he says. “Think of Jesus. You have people maligning you? Think of Christ. You feeling like throwing in the towel, giving it up, losing heart, chucking it? Consider Jesus. After all”—verse 4—“in your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. You haven’t died yet,” he says. “Could get much worse than it is.”
What do I do when I face unjust suffering? First of all, don’t be surprised. Secondly, don’t throw in the towel. Thirdly, don’t take revenge. Don’t take revenge.
This is the most litigated society in the world. There are more lawsuits here in these fair shores than any other place in the whole world. This is no time to make comments about attorneys; they always get rather tense. You know my story about the attorney called Odd, Mr. Odd? And all the way through his life people called him Odd Ball, Odds and Sods, and Odds and Ends, and everything, on the phone. So eventually he determined that he would not have his name on his tombstone, ’cause he had been so plagued by it in his life, he didn’t want to be plagued by it in his death. So he left instructions in his will that he should have an inscription on his tombstone that simply read, “Here lies an honest lawyer.” And people used to walk through and look at it and say, “That’s odd.” That was just lighthearted repartee. It’s not a comment on the legal profession. But one of the reasons that the society is so litigated is because people are so vengeful. People are singing, “I’ll get you. I’ll get you in the end. Yes I will. I’ll get you in the end, oh yeah.” And that’s not a love song they’re singing.
Romans 12:19 gives the instruction with absolute clarity. You’re in the face of unjust suffering, what should you do about it? Well, he says—verse 17—“[Don’t] repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If [it’s] possible, as far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone.” And then look at this:
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It’s mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary, [how about this]: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In the course of the last little while, in the everyday events of life, one of my children came home and was deeply upset and offended by something that had happened in the school, to the point of tears and heartache, and some triviality that loomed larger than Mount Eiger. And the reaction was, “Well, I think, one, I’ll never speak to them again; or two, if I do, I’ll just give ’em a piece of my mind real good, ’cause I’ve thought of some good replies to this.”
And so we sat, and I said, “You know, let me tell you what to do here. Write a note that simply says, ‘I’m sorry about what happened yesterday. I forgive you. You’re my friend.’ Then sign your name.”
“Pfft, no way! You weren’t there! You didn’t hear it! You should’ve heard it! You should’ve seen it!”
“Honey, you go your way if you want, but that’s my suggestion.”
The following day, I get a call at the office.
“I did it!”
“What?” (I’ve already forgotten now…)
“Yeah, I… I took the note.”
“And what happened?”
“Well, I was in the bathroom. And my friends came in. And they were crying. And they said, ‘We’re sorry.’”
And I said, “What did you do?”
She said, “Well, we just hugged each other and just cried for a bit, and then it was—then it was fantastic!” She said, “You were right, Dad.”
Now, all of our disputes are just grown-up versions of things that happen in children’s bathrooms, when you cut to the heart of it. It’s all an extension of “he said, she said” stuff. Marital breakdown is all about that as well. Do you know how much can be cured and prevented by paying attention to this in the face of unjust suffering? Instead of responding à la Cosmopolitan magazine, instead of responding à la the mind of the world, respond à la the New Testament:
“But I shouldn’t deserve this!”
“But I didn’t do that!”
“But I shouldn’t even be here, I shouldn’t’ve been—”
“We know. Why don’t you send them a present?”
“Don’t be crazy!”
When Jesus was reviled, he didn’t revile in return. When he suffered, he didn’t curse them or threaten them. You find the same thing all the way through the Bible. Nehemiah in chapter 6 is trying to do a fairly decent job building the wall with God’s help. They got opposition from outside, opposition from inside, opposition from inside, outside, backside, frontside. Everybody’s tearing him apart. Now he’s the leader. First of all, he’s a hero; the next minute, he’s a bum. The first year, they idolize you; the second year, they criticize you; the third year, they ostracize you. And it was all happening within the space of months for Nehemiah. And they send him a letter—an open letter, an unsigned letter, an anonymous letter with multiple exposure.  The worst kind.
Incidentally, you know what I do with anonymous letters? Pitch ’em. That’s my advice to you. Don’t pay one bit of attention to a letter that someone won’t sign their name to. I don’t care if it’s positive or negative. If it’s positive and you won’t tell me who you are, you’re scaring me, and if it’s negative and you don’t tell me who you are, I ain’t got no respect for you. There was a famous preacher in London at the time of Spurgeon who was on the receiving end of anonymous letters. And as he was walking up into the pulpit, someone threw him a letter, and he opened it—it was a half-folded sheet—he opened it, and it simply said, “Fool.” And he said to the congregation, he said, “I’m used to receiving these letters. There is usually a greeting without a signature. In this case, I have the signature without the greeting.”
So what does Nehemiah do? He writes and he says to the guys, he says, “Listen, nothing like what you say is happening. You’re just making it up out of your heads.” It’s the response of a clear conscience. It’s the same thing that you have by Paul in 1 Corinthians 4. They’re saying all these things about Paul and why he’s doing what he’s doing. He says, “Listen, I don’t care if I’m judged by you or by any human court. My conscience is clear; that doesn’t make me innocent. But it does mean that I can sleep at night in the awareness of the fact that one day, I’m going to be judged by God, and the thought of being judged by God is a far more significant judgment than what Mr. X or Mrs. X has to say about me.”
John Knox had it perfectly. John Knox—it was said of Knox in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh that he feared the face of God so much that he never feared the face of any man. Which was good, because they used to throw stuff at Knox when he was preaching—stools and bits of merchandise and everything. So he’d just be, you know, like, “As it says in 2 Corinthians 11… If you’ll take your Bibles and turn to…”
It’s a great, great mistake to spend our lives trying to clear ourselves, trying to justify ourselves, trying to explain our motives and explain this and explain that and get all the scrambled eggs back up into the shelves and put them all in a nice form all over again. Forget it! Justice will be served. Do not spend your life trying to clear your name. It is a wiser course of action to keep on with the task at hand, to trust God to vindicate in due course. That may be days, weeks, months, years, and maybe not until we get to heaven. But that’ll be fine.
Last thing, when you face unjust suffering. What did we say? (I don’t know, I need to look.) Number one, don’t be surprised. Number two, don’t throw in the towel. Number three, don’t take revenge. And finally, number four, don’t miss the chance to help others. When you’re on the receiving end of unjust suffering, don’t miss the chance to help others.
Isn’t that the wonderful thing that we find here in Genesis 40 and to which we will return: the interest in the sensitivity of Joseph? Did he have a big problem? Certainly. Did he have a reason for a grudge? Without question. Could he have spent all of his life consumed with his own little problems? Absolutely. But what does he do? Verse 6: he notices that these two men are dejected. The reason he notices is because he’s looking. And the reason he’s looking is because he cares. Not only does he notice that they’re dejected, but in verse 7 he cares enough to ask them why they’re dejected. And as we’ll see next time, he reveals the sensitivity of his heart, in the worst of circumstances, in caring for others who are on the receiving end of good news and bad news. We might’ve forgiven him, actually, if he had said, “You know, I’ve got so much trouble here. I know you had a dream, I know you’ve got a problem, but, hey, you know, I … man, since the age of seventeen—and it’s been going a decade now, I’m twenty-seven now—I, you know, I’m sorry, I just don’t time to deal with this stuff.” But he didn’t. He didn’t.
Leslie Flynn—a pastor in New Jersey, I believe—wrote a little book on Joseph, and in the course of it he tells a story of a seminary professor who went into a deep depression. So deep was the depression that he didn’t actually care about anyone or anything. He’d been on the receiving end of criticism or something, and everything seemed hopeless. In the course of a visit from a friend, the friend challenged him to think of people in his life who had been a major help to him, and then from that list to select one and to write them a letter expressing his gratitude.
The man thought about it for some time, and before his mind’s eye came the face of a school teacher that he’d had when he was a small boy—a school teacher who had instilled in him a love of literature, poetry, prose, and reading, and everything. And thinking of her, he decided to write her a letter. He wrote her a note telling how she had inspired him with this great love of books. And he received a reply in the shaky handwriting of a lady who had been retired for many years:
Dear [William], When I read your letter, I was blinded with tears, for I remember you as a little fellow in my class. You have warmed my old heart. I have taught school for 50 years. Yours is the first letter of thanks I…received from a student, and I shall cherish it until I die.
And a little sliver of light came into the dungeon of this fellow William’s life, encouraging him to write another thank-you note, and then another one, and another one, and another one, until he had written five hundred notes of gratitude and was no longer close to anything that may be described as depression.
Why? Because, like Joseph, he finally figured it. There’s no reason for surprise. There’s no reason to throw in the towel. There’s no reason for revenge. And there is no reason to miss the chance to help others.
Are you in a bind at the moment? Are you in circumstances that, known only to you and to God, are closing you down like a dungeon? And all the advice that you’re getting from all around is, “Fight your way out”? Consider Joseph. Consider these principles. And do what’s right because it’s right, always, to do right.
Let’s pray together:
Our God and our Father, we thank you that we have the Bible to read and study, that we’re not left to human conjecture. All of us, at some points in our life, face unjust suffering in words, in deeds, in circumstances. We face the temptation to be surprised by it. “Oh, I didn’t think this would be what Christianity was like,” we find ourselves saying, and then we look at the life of Christ, and our mouths are struck dumb. We find ourselves tempted to say, “If this is how it’s going to be, I don’t want to run in this race. If I’m going to take these digs in the ribs and elbows in the shoulder and spikes in the shins, I don’t want to be in this race.” And then we consider Hebrews 11, and we fasten down to the task and keep running. We hear the voice, insistent in our ears: “Go ahead, make a name for yourself. Clear your name. Avenge yourself. Stick it to them. Give it back.” And we see Jesus on the cross, and we hear his words: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And we find ourselves tempted to draw into the solitude of our own self-pity, our own little preoccupations, and we hear the voice of the Lord say, “Consider him, and then consider them.” And as we turn our gaze to the needs of others, we find that balance returns to our own preoccupations.
We pray that you will help us with this as individuals, families, as a church, so that we might live to the praise of your glory. And we ask that grace and mercy and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the triune God—may rest upon and remain with all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Ray Evans, “Que Será, Será” (1956).
 See Proverbs 16:9.
 1 Peter 4:12 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 11:36–38 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 4:13 (NIV 1984).
 See Acts 4:12.
 See Philippians 2:11.
 John 14:6 (paraphrased).
 F. B. Meyer, Joseph: Beloved—Hated—Exalted (London: Morgan and Scott, 1910), 60. Paraphrased.
 Hebrews 12:3–4 (paraphrased).
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “I’ll Get You” (1963).
 See 1 Peter 2:23.
 See Nehemiah 6:1–7.
 “Signing One’s Name,” Daily Evening Traveler, April 27, 1870. Paraphrased.
 Nehemiah 6:8–9 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 4:3–4 (paraphrased).
 See W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God: A Biography of John Knox (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 290.
 Norman Vincent Peale, “Practicing Thanksgiving Could Accomplish Wonders,” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 26, 1972, quoted in Leslie B. Flynn, Joseph: God’s Man in Egypt (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1979), 64.
 Luke 23:34 (KJV).
Copyright © 2023, 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.