Lessons from the Dungeon — Part One
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

Lessons from the Dungeon — Part One

Genesis 40:1–23  (ID: 1861)

In an age of moral relativism, God’s people must remain devoted to speaking the truth boldly and proclaiming the name of Christ. What does such devotion actually look like? Alistair Begg guides us to Joseph’s example. Even when he sat helpless in prison, Joseph’s trust in God’s providence empowered him to deal honestly with his captors as he interpreted their dreams. May Joseph’s boldness encourage us to live God-centered lives in confused and confusing times.

Series Containing This Sermon

My Times Are in Your Hands

A Study in God’s Faithfulness in Affliction Selected Scriptures Series ID: 22301

The Hand of God, Volume 1

Genesis 37:1–41:57 Series ID: 21904

Sermon Transcript: Print

Can I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to Genesis and the fortieth chapter?

Let us pause for a moment and ask God’s help before we study:

Our God and our Father, we know that we so desperately need your help, both to speak and to listen, to concentrate, to understand, to obey, and to apply your Word to our lives. So, that’s why we’re coming to take this moment to ask you, so that we might be aware that we’re not just listening to a man give opinions but that we are renewing our conviction that when the Word of God is opened, then the voice of God is heard. May it be so. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now, I’m not going to take the time to reread Genesis 40. We read it last time, and I’m assuming that you have at least an awareness of it, and also that you will open your Bibles to it so as to be able to check and make sure that what is being said is actually here.

You will recall that we left Joseph in the dungeon. We learned a number of lessons from his response to his circumstances and finalized our study last time by paying attention to the fact that he sees the opportunity, even though his own predicament was grave, to look out for the well-being of others. And he did not miss the chance to help others. He could so easily have done so as a result of some selfish preoccupation, but he exercised his responsibilities and his privileges with great care and compassion, and particularly, as we’re told here, in the lives of two individuals—individuals who are identified as being a cupbearer and a chief baker. And we should not somehow denigrate their role as a result of that but recognize that within the framework of Pharaoh’s government, these were strategic responsibilities. As we said before, anything to do with the provision of food and the infrastructure that related to that—particularly anything that the pharaoh would be eating—was a matter of great concern. And so only a certain group of people would be appointed to that kind of task.

Now, these two chaps found themselves in the jail; indeed, they were in the same dungeon as the one in which we discovered Joseph. And in the course of time we’re told that they had these dreams. And in the course of Joseph’s response to these dreams, we are going to discover a number of lessons.

We should note, just in passing, that by means of these dreams, we are reminded of the fact that God is able to impress upon the hearts of men and women—even of those who do not know him—an awareness of his presence. He is able to impress upon the hearts of men and women—even those who do not know him—an awareness of his presence. And that’s what had happened in the lives of these gentlemen. That’s actually what’s happening in the lives of some people who have begun to worship regularly with us here at Parkside Church. By your own testimony—and I speak with some of you—you would be honest enough to say that you have not come to a personal, living faith in Jesus Christ, but for some reason you are here. And you have begun to conclude that somehow or another, God is impressing an awareness of himself upon you. And now your conviction is that perhaps God will speak to you through the Word, as indeed we hope he will.

Now, what I’d like to do is go through a number of these lessons with you, and first of all to notice lesson number one: living life with a God-centered focus. Here he is in the dungeon; what are the lessons we might learn? Incidentally, this is not the only place we can learn lessons from a dungeon. Paul was in a dungeon, probably in Rome, and he wrote the book of Philippians. Tremendous godly insights.

Lesson #1: Living with a God-Centered Focus

First lesson is living life with a God-centered focus. What does that mean? Well, let’s consider it here as we see Joseph’s response. It comes forcibly in verse 8, when these two characters come to him and say, “We both had dreams, … but there is no one to interpret them.” Now, notice Joseph’s response, there in the second half of verse 8: he says, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” “Do not interpretations belong to God?” He is about to offer an explanation as to what has taken place, but before he steps to the fore with this explanation, with this interpretation, he explains the fact that his perspective is very clear: it is God who is able to do what is about to happen. He doesn’t boast of his own quickness. He doesn’t boast of his own clear-sightedness. He doesn’t seek the opportunity to draw attention to himself. He merely wishes to be known as a servant of God.

If you have become excellent by God’s hand, don’t ascribe too much attention to yourself. In doing so, you may well obscure the grace of God.

Now, there is an obvious and immediate lesson in this, especially for those who have been given unique gifts from God—those who by dint of God’s gracious provision have been made able in some facility or area of life, and it becomes immediately apparent to all who are around. It may be in the realm of art, it may be in the realm of care, it may be in the realm of ministry—whatever it might be. Such individuals need to make sure that since they have become excellent by God’s hand, they’d better not ascribe too much attention to themselves, for in doing so, they may well obscure the grace of God.

Now, this principle is not a principle that is earthed simply in Genesis 40. It runs the whole way through the Bible, and there is perhaps no more classic statement of it than is made by Jesus in John chapter 15. I’d like for you to turn there if you would, just to see that to which I’m referring. John chapter 15, and Jesus makes it clear to his followers:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.

Now, here’s the crucial phrase: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”[1] “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

Now, Jesus means exactly what he says there. If we understand the statement in Colossians 1:17 as being an all-encompassing statement, where it says of Jesus that “in him all things hold together,” the fact is that none of us can even breathe without his enabling. We are absolutely impoverished without the divine help. And when a man or a woman begins to live life with that kind of focus, they are no longer living with a self-centered focus or with a circumstance-centered focus, but they are beginning to live with a God-centered focus. And the way in which we react to circumstances reveals our focus.

Amateur photographers usually don’t know what they’re focusing on. They know what they think they’re focusing on. And then they go to the place and they get the one-hour thing, because they are sure these are going to be the best photographs they had ever taken in their lives, so they spend the extra couple of dollars so they can get them back real quick—’cause they’re gonna be the best—and they get them back, and they have, you know, drainpipes coming out of their daughters’ heads, they have buildings off skew and stuff, and they look at them and they say, “I didn’t take this. This isn’t what I was pointing at.” The fact of the matter is, that is exactly what we were pointing at! And the photographs reveal the way we had the lens—frozen in a moment in time, undeniably so. And in the same way, the way in which you and I react to circumstances reveals the angle of our camera lens, as it were—reveals what it is we’re focusing on, where it is we’re looking.

And Joseph, from the many-colored coat, to the pit, to the back of the camel, to Potiphar’s home, to the dungeon, is completely God-centered in his focus. You don’t have a litany here of Joseph feeling sorry for himself. You do not have Joseph bemoaning all of these various events, taking everything that is unfolding and relating it to himself and saying, “Oh me, oh my, this is so dreadful. Look at poor old Joseph, would you?” No! Why? Because he has a God-centered focus in his life.

Isn’t that what we saw in Genesis 39:9? How does he respond to the temptation when Potiphar’s wife comes at him? In a God-centered way. He doesn’t respond by saying, “I don’t think this is an expedient thing to do.” He doesn’t respond by saying, “Oh, I think we might get caught.” He does not respond in any of the ways. He responds by immediately introducing God: “How … could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”

Chapter 41, when Pharaoh dreams his dream, and he comes to Joseph and he says—41:15—“I had a dream … no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Put your finger over the next verse; don’t look at it yet. Don’t look at it yet. “I have heard it said of you … when you [have] a dream you can interpret it.” Great opportunity for Joseph to say, “Oh-ho! Glad you heard, Pharaoh. Yes, I am quite an interpreter of dreams, I must say. Yes, I interpret my own dreams. I have interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, the baker’s dream, and I’m really a dream machine—all-around dream machine. Now, what would you like me to do for you, Pharaoh?”

No, that’s not what he says. “I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Look at the next four words: “I cannot do it.” Those are four crucial words for anybody who ever wants to be used by God. In fact, these are the four most singular important words if you’re ever going to be used by God! That’s the first thing you have to know: “I cannot do it.” If you think you can, step aside. If you think you should, sit down. If you think everyone’s waiting to hear from you, take a hike. But if you think you can’t do it, you may just be the person God is about to lay his hand on.

All the way through the Bible.

“Moses, I’d like you to go to Pharaoh.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”

“You’re just my man.”

“Amos, give us your credentials for your prophetic ministry.”

“Well, I have fig trees in my yard, and I look after them, and—”

“No. Amos. Excuse me. We’re asking for your credentials, son, not a lecture in horticulture. Your creden—”

“I’m giving you my credentials.”

“You can’t call these credentials, Amos.”

“Well, they’re all I’ve got. The only thing I can add to it is, I not only keep sycamore trees, fig trees, but I also look after sheep.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, Amos, then why don’t you go and be my prophet?”

What a strange way of operation!

“I can’t do it,” Joseph replied. Now, notice the next two words; these are the next two crucial words: “But God…” “I can’t, but God…” That’s what Jesus is saying to his disciples. He says, “Guys, I want you to understand: apart from me you can do nothing. Your need of me is not partial; your need of me is total. You flat-out can’t do it. Now, when you’re prepared to understand that, then we can talk from there and move forward.” That’s what it means to have a God-centered focus. And it is all about motivation of heart. For God, who tests and knows the motives of our hearts, deals with us according to the motivation of our hearts, and he will reward us according to the motivation of our hearts. And yet still we continue to judge people on the external activities, and even may try to judge one another on the basis of the motives of our hearts. Time will reveal all, as it did here in the dungeon with Joseph.

He doesn’t draw attention to himself; he says, “I can’t do it, but God will give the answer he desires.”[2] Later on in the chapter, in verse 51, when his two children are born to him, his first son is named Manasseh, and Joseph gives the explanation as to why he called him Manasseh: he said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble … [in] my father’s household.” And when his second boy was born, Ephraim, he said, “It[’s] because God has made me fruitful.”[3] So whether it is facing the temptation of Potiphar, whether it is in his experience of being dumped in the pit, whether it is in the interpretation of dreams, or whether it is in the fathering of his children, at every point along the journey his center is God. God-centered. He realized that God’s not going to share his glory with anybody else.

And indeed, in the apex of it all—to which we’ll come one day—in Genesis 45, when his brothers show up and he’s reunited with them later on in the story, and they’re distressed when they realize what has taken place, he says in Genesis 45:6, “For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping.” Now, here come the two words again: “But God…” “But God sent me ahead of you.” “Sent me ahead of you.” Isn’t that an interesting perspective? That phrase, “God sent me ahead of you,” is Joseph’s description of the day when they took his coat, ripped it off his back, beat him up, threw him in a pit, and sat and ate their lunch considering whether they should kill him, let him starve to death, or sell him into slavery.[4] And they finally sold him into slavery, he was strapped into the bondage of these captors, taken into the ignominy of the slave market in Egypt, stripped stark naked, poked around at by people, and finally taken into the bondage of Potiphar’s home. And how does he describe it? “God sent me ahead of you.”

I tell you, there’s a lesson from the dungeon here, loved ones. And you see, the whole issue is that he looks at life from the bigger picture. He looks at life from the scheme of eternity. He looks at his unfolding circumstances in the light of history. And he knows that he is simply a blip on the horizon, that his day will end, and he also will be a figure of history. But while life’s little day ebbs its way out, he says, “I will live to the honor and praise of God. I will live my life with a God-centered focus.”

The only way to live is with a God-centered focus. For that is the only time we can be sure we’re all looking in the same direction. And where do we see God? In Christ.

How about you? How about me? How about Parkside? You want to live with an us-centered focus? Disappointment. You want to live with a circumstance-centered focus? Confusion. The only way to live is with a God-centered focus. For that is the only time we can be sure we’re all looking in the same direction. And where do we see God? In Christ. And how do we have him described in Hebrews 12? “The author and [the] finisher of our faith.”[5] And what are we to do? We are to run the race that is set out before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith.[6]

Now, there’s another element to this, beyond the matter of the purely devotional. Because a God-centered focus in our lives this morning cuts across the view of our contemporaries. Men and women throughout all of time have wrestled with the question posed in the psalmist’s words in Psalm 8: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that you should visit him?”[7] “What is man?” That is the great question. Where did he come from? Where is he going? And does it matter? And any of you who have taken anthropology at college or university know that there is a tremendous amount of ink that has been spilled on trying to answer the question about our humanity: Who are we, and why do we exist? And all of those anthropologies end in confusion.

Indeed, in the ’60s, when Lennon and McCartney wrote “Nowhere Man,” they were not simply describing an individual; they were essentially describing a whole corporate consciousness. In a generation that was asking the question, “Who am I, why do I exist, and where am I going?” and was coming up dry every time they tried to answer. And so they wrote, “He’s a real nowhere man, [living] in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”[8] And it was an expression of total futility. And that’s why in our university campuses today, across some of the great campuses, brimful of young human potential, there is a dust of death which settles over scientific investigation and between the production of great literature and great art.

And the absence of great art and great literature is directly related to getting the wrong answer to the question, “What is man?” And that is why so much contemporary art, when you see it, is so confusing to understand. You don’t know whether to stand on your head, or lie on your side, or whatever to do. What in the wide world is this? And some creator will tell you, “Sir, it is whatever you would like it to be,” you know? It sounds really sort of trendy, but it’s just bogus. And that’s why you have to keep going back to a different-centered perspective before you can get order and structure in art and before you can get order and structure in literature, because the people wrote from a different focus.

Now, I’m speaking to some young people who are gonna go off into university. I’m speaking to others who are here, and you are reading books all the time: you go for those mochas over there in Pavilion Mall, and you sit down there, and you’re getting these books from the self-help section, and you’re trying to find yourself. You’re looking for yourself. I want to say, “You’re there,” you know? “You’re behind the table.” “But, no, I’m looking for myself.” I keep having these conversations about people who are “looking for themselves.” And I understand why: because they don’t have a God-centered focus. And I have to tell them, “You ain’t gonna find yourself—till you meet God.” They don’t know whether to view themselves in terms of spirituality, in terms of rationality—as has been taught in classical philosophy and in Eastern thought—or whether they should view themselves as a great combination of physicality and materialism, as Marx taught, and all materialists since him. And as they try and read this literature and find out who they are and what they are, they don’t know whether to be pessimists with all the existentialists or whether to be optimists with all the hedonists. And so they’re like the guy who fell out the thirty-five-story window of a building, thirty-five stories up, and as he passed the twentieth floor, somebody heard him shouting, “So far, so good!” And that’s largely the way many people are living their lives: they’re living from Friday to Friday to Friday, and it’s “So far, so good. Turn up the music. Give me another shot of courage.” And they check into the Hotel California, and they know they aren’t checking out.

Now, you see, the only answer is the answer that is provided here in the lesson from the dungeon from Joseph. It is a God-centered focus. The Christian view is the only answer. Listen to John Calvin, years and years ago at the time of the Reformation. He says this: “Man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself”—he can never know who he is—“unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutiniz[ing] himself.”[9] You see the vital importance of a God-centered focus in life? Without it, everything is turned on its head. Everything is upside down. The Bible is absolutely clear; it’s unashamed. Oh, I know it cuts across contemporary thought, but nevertheless, it is clear.

Genesis chapter 1, just turn to it and look at it. It rings out with striking emphasis in the contrast to what’s going on around us: “Then God said,” Genesis 1:26,

“Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, [and] over the livestock, [and] over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.[10]

What does the Bible say this morning? Listen, this is fabulous. The average teenager thinks that he emerged from a pile of sludge, where his DNA introduced itself to itself, and he set on a course from there. And he doesn’t like his school, and he doesn’t love his friends, and he can’t stand his parents, and since he was born without reason, prolongs himself with chance, and will die in oblivion, he says to himself, “Why don’t I just check out right now?” Well, I want to say, “Hey, let me tell you something. Young man, you exist because God made you. He made you purposefully, he made you with dignity, and he made you in order that you might glorify him.”

And at creation God has vested man with the ability to rule over his world, to possess it and subject it to the rule, so that other creatures would serve him. That doesn’t mean we abuse creatures. It doesn’t mean we abuse our world. It doesn’t mean we abuse the beauty of what God had provided for us. We are to be the stewards of his creation. But we understand clearly that the bumper sticker that is increasingly flying around on the back of cars is absolutely wrong. “Which bumper sticker is that?” you say. The one I’m about to tell you of. It says, “The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.” As with every error, there is just that element of rightness about it to cause manifold confusion. But here’s the deal, loved ones: that is pantheism. And the Bible says, “[Sorry,] the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.”[11] And we are the stewards of God’s creation. And the reason that we exist is because God has purposely fashioned us and made us for his pleasure.

And Joseph understood that. “My brothers can do this to me. Potiphar’s wife can try that with me. I can end up in the dungeon here. That may be my tomorrow, but I know that absolutely today, ‘His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.’”[12] And that God-centered focus allows a man or a woman to go to bed at night, put their head on the pillow, and fall asleep, and awaken to a new day and say, “‘This is the day that you have made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.’[13] I know I don’t have a job, and I know that this is not so good, and that’s not so great, and these things have happened. But God, as long as God is God, we’ll be okay. For ‘the name of the Lord is a strong tower, and the righteous run into it and they’re saved.’”[14]

You go home for your lunch today, and you find that the table is already prepared for you, and the placemats are there, and the cutlery and the glasses and the little bit of floral arrangement in the middle. You say to yourself, “My, what an amazing explosion has taken place while I’ve been at church,” that all of this would just cast itself up on the table. Such a silly idea! There is a greater chance of taking a million alphabets up in a small aeroplane and dropping them on the Sahara Desert and them forming up in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark than there is of the world evolving.

You will never know who you are, or why you’re here, or what you’re supposed to be doing in the world until first you gaze into the face of God as revealed in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and acknowledge him to be who he is.

Joseph understood it. You understand it too, unless you choose to deny it. Atheism is a lie. Agnosticism is confusion. And I say especially to those of you who are in search of yourselves: you can go for a month of Sundays to sit and have people talk to you about who your granny was and your uncle was and your great-grandfather and all that stuff. You will never know who you are or why you’re here or what you’re supposed to be doing in the world until first you gaze into the face of God as revealed in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and acknowledge him to be who he is, and then you can discover who you are. And if you’re here today and you’ve never made that discovery, we’d love to talk with you and help you in that direction.

Lesson #2: Telling the Truth without Ambiguity

Well, that’s the first lesson. What about the second lesson from the dungeon? First one is fairly clear; I’ve taken longer on it than I should: living life with a God-centered focus. The second one is learning to tell the truth, whether it’s good news or bad news, without ambiguity—learning to tell the truth, whether it’s good news or bad news and without ambiguity.

Tremendous authority in Joseph’s tone when the first dream is told him. He responds in verse 12—we’re back in Genesis 40 now—he responds in verse 12, and he says, “This is what it means …. The three branches are three days.” Now, that is the absolute zenith of foolishness, unless he was able to speak with conviction and certainty on the authority of God himself. And obviously, he was. Dionne Warwick and all of her followers, with their 900 numbers and their silly ideas of what’s going to happen to you tomorrow, will never give you such categorical and definitive descriptions of what’s about to take place. They won’t because they can’t. And so for Joseph to say, “The three branches means three days,” was to put himself on the line. In the same way that another whom he prefigured was to put himself on the line when he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it again.”[15] So we have a three-day window in which to find out whether Joseph tells the truth, and whether Jesus, explaining the reality of his resurrection, tells the truth also. And of course, in both cases, God is vindicated in all that follows.

Now, having given this good news to the one, the baker, he comes hoping for a similar explanation. And we’re in verse 16: “When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, ‘I too had a dream.’” Now, it’s interesting, is it not, that the verb there is the verb to see and not the verb to hear? You would have thought that it would have read, “When the chief baker heard that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation…” How would you see a favorable interpretation? Well, we can only assume that since the two of them were in the same predicament and they were both despondent and their faces were cast down, that by their very tenor of life they revealed their dejection. The first one, I imagine, perhaps disengaged himself from his sorry companion, said, “I’m going to go to Joseph, and I’m going to tell him what happened to me and see what he says.” So he goes to Joseph, and Joseph says, “In three days, you’re going to be back on the job.” Comes out, closes the door, comes back in: “Huh-huh. Whoo!” And the baker saw from the very change in the countenance of the cupbearer: “Hey, you got some good news in there, didn’t you?”

You go into the office tomorrow, people can tell a lot about you just by your body language. If you come in whistling, they assume one thing. You come in doing something, they assume certain things. And you can see a lot of what’s going on. And he saw. And so, on the basis of that, he must have said, “Hey, good work,” he said. “I’m gonna go now and see how it goes for me.” And you can imagine him going in—at least I can: “Hey, Joseph! That was a nice, nice thing you said there to, ah, the cupbearer. I liked that. That’s really nice, Joseph, with the three days and then back on the job. Well, I had a dream as well, and I was wondering, you know, if you have any more interpretations along that kind of line, you know, it would be just super.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think this baker certainly was an optimist, because this dream, even when I read it, doesn’t strike me as real positive. Maybe it’s ’cause I know the conclusion, but this idea of the birds picking on your head and everything, it doesn’t just have the same ring to it, you know? But he’s hoping for the best. Hoping for the best.

Now, there’s a wee lesson within a lesson. Here are two men whose circumstances are very similar. One gets really good news and a kind of surge up in the world. And so the other guy, who is in the same spot, assumes that the same will happen for him. Because we naturally wish to be as happy as our neighbors. We assume that when one of our neighbors prospers, and they were in the similar circumstances to ourselves, that we presumably will prosper just as they have done. There’s no reason, after all, why if they were blessed we shouldn’t be blessed. There’s actually another lesson within a lesson, insofar as “godliness with contentment is great gain,”[16] and constantly comparing ourselves to our neighbors and our friends is a dreadful snare. And we have to learn to rejoice in the way in which our neighbors are prospered without only being able to rejoice in how they’re prospered if it carries with it the anticipation that we will enjoy the same prosperity. For this individual was to receive a very different explanation.

The Scottish commentator Lawson says, “But let us remember, that Divine Providence is under no obligation to be equally kind to us all, and that prosperity and adversity, life and death, are distributed to men by one who has a right to do what He will with His own.”[17] In other words, God is God, and he can do what he likes. He’s God! And because he blessed your brother and he lives in a nicer spot, you don’t have to live there, and we may not live there. Because something happened to this individual and they were lifted up and encouraged and they received well-being and health, we assume that the same will be true for us. The fact of the matter is that there is no guarantee whatsoever in relationship to that. And this baker made a flawed approach to things when he assumed that it would be so. He went in the hope that the word, when it came to him, would be the same kind of word.

And people come to church on the same basis. They don’t all come to listen to the Word of God because they want to receive instruction from it and receive the truth; they come because they want to receive the enjoyment that it might bring them. And then when they find out that the message is painful rather than enjoyable, they say, “Well, I’ve gotta get away out of here; I don’t want to stand this stuff.” And therefore, it falls to the person who has the responsibility of opening the Scriptures, if they’re going to display integrity in their lives, not to simply tell people what meets their expectations, not what is simply palatable to people, but to actually to be the servant of what the Book says. And that’s, you see, what Joseph had to do. The first guy said, “What’s my dream?” He said, “You’re gonna be okay.” The second guy: “What’s the—”; “You’re in deep trouble!”

There are big, big, big churches all across America that are built on the guy being Mr. Nice Guy up in this spot. Everybody who comes is wonderful: “I want to tell you this morning how wonderful you all are. I want you to know that no matter what, all will be well. I want you to know that God has a personal interest in you becoming tremendously successful,” and so on. And people are sitting up going, “Oh man, this is nice! This is nice.”

That’d be like going for a biopsy, and the guy doing a hundred biopsies a day, and every biopsy he did, he told the people, said, “Hey, it was beautiful. It was absolutely clear, you know. There’s nothing there at all.” And in 70 percent of the cases, the people were dead from malignant melanoma within a matter of years. What would you call that guy? There’s not a name for him. So when we’re dealing with the matters of eternity—heaven and hell—do you really want to go somewhere where someone will tell you “lies … lies … sweet little lies”?[18]

If you are going to be the servant of God, if you are going to be the explainer of the human predicament, if you are going to speak to the questions of humanity, you’re going to have to be able to tell the truth—the good, the bad, and the ugly—no matter what.

The lesson from the dungeon is this: if you are going to be the servant of God, if you are going to be the explainer of the human predicament, if you are going to speak to the questions of humanity—who am I, why do I exist, and is there a purpose in my life?—you’re gonna have to be able to tell the truth—the good, the bad, and the ugly—no matter what. And you’re gonna have to be able to live with the furnace that comes right up your tail! And if you can’t, you’ll never do it. And Joseph did it. Says Calvin, “All love to be flattered. Hence the majority of teachers, in desiring to yield to the corrupt wishes of the world, adulterate the word of God.”[19] “Adulterate the word of God.” They are like contemporary politicians: they do not walk out in front and lead the people; they just check the way the wind’s going, and then they go in that direction. What a tragedy to think of the most important country in the world being led by a bunch of horse traders. Somebody somewhere could just stand up and lead.

Joseph! No wonder he became the prime minister! Some people looked at him and must have said, “Oh, he became the prime minister overnight.” No, he didn’t. God was fashioning Joseph in his tiny years, and in his teenage years, and in all of the journeys, and he was teaching him one thing amongst others: “Joseph, tell the truth. Do right, ’cause it’s always right to do right, because it’s right.” And he stood out in the midst of the malaise all around him. It’s the same thing: Paul to Timothy as a young man, in his swan song—2 Timothy 4—he says, “Timothy, when you get at it, you will be surrounded by a group of people who want to gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” He says, “Don’t allow your head to be spun by it. You continue to preach the Word, to correct, rebuke, with careful instruction in the awareness of the fact that one day you will stand and answer for it.”[20]

Do you have a God-centered focus in your life? Do you do your studies every week in the awareness of God? Did you close business deals this week in the awareness of God? Did you respond to temptation this week—did I—in the awareness of who God is? And are we prepared to tell the truth, no matter what, even if it’s bad news for one and good news for another? Would we play with the minds of men and women in the prospect of their death?

Lesson #3: Preparing for Our Death

That’s actually the third lesson, and let me just introduce it, and we’ll return to it; we don’t have time to do justice to it. But the third lesson is what I’ve referred to: learning how to prepare for our death. Now, not immediately striking in terms of people’s interests—we say, “Maybe we can leave that one till next week, or maybe next year. Maybe we could end on a little higher note.” No. No, we can’t. Because the words of Joseph to this baker must have really stung him. I mean, I’m not trying to play with your mind in describing this situation, but it had to take place somehow.

The two guys are in the same predicament. The two fellows have dreams. In the morning the guy says, “What’s up with you, Fred?” He says, “Man, I had a dream, it was, it was…” And the guy says, “You did? So did I! What was yours like?” “Well, I was…” So the one goes, and he comes back: it’s terrific! The other guy goes, and now he’s totally bombed. Why? ’Cause he was told, “You have three days to live.” Three days to live! In fact, if the baker had known what the interpretation of his dream was going to be, he presumably wouldn’t have gone for the interpretation. He would rather have lived in his ignorance. And there’s great wisdom in that, is there not? Jesus says at the end of Matthew 6, “Every day’s got enough trouble of its own.”[21] Why would you start and haul tomorrow’s trouble, and next week’s trouble, and the week after that, into today? Today’s enough. You got enough to deal with today.

The hymn writer says,

God holds the key of all unknown,
And I am glad;
If other hands should hold the key,
Or if he offered it to me,
I might be sad.[22]

And Lawson says of the baker, he died three days before his time.[23] The thoughts of the fatal moment and of the birds feeding on his carcass took possession of his soul; sleeping or waking, his heart was dead within him.

And in it all, again, the integrity of Joseph: he had promised to give the meaning, he had acknowledged that God could reveal it, and as painful as it was in this case, he displays in his response a genuine interest in the life of the baker and a genuine concern for God’s glory. He was later to be given a new name, which was “the revealer of secrets,” but even then he wanted everyone to know that God is the foundation of all knowledge. And so he says to the baker, “Baker, you asked for the truth. Here’s the truth: within three days, Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree, and the birds will eat away your flesh.”

You say, “Well, fortunately we don’t have to say that to anybody nowadays.” No, specifically, we have no reason to say that. But what have we to say? We have to say that “it is appointed unto [man] once to die, [and] after this [comes] judgment.”[24] We have to say that Jesus spoke more about the issue of hell than he ever spoke about the presence of heaven. We have to encourage people to understand that when they say to us, “Well, you know, I like what the Bible has to say about heaven, but I don’t like what it has to say about hell; I believe the heaven stuff, but I don’t believe the hell stuff,” we have to say, “Loved ones, it is intellectually implausible to have a heaven and no hell, on the strength of what Jesus has said.” And in the saying of that, we bring clarity to the minds of people in relationship to the ultimate event at the end of their days.

Here’s the question: Did the baker use the opportunity to make preparation for the final event of his life? Did he seize the chance to go back to Joseph and say, “Hey Joseph, I’ve been awake all night again. I didn’t dream this time. But all I can think of is this thing about the carcass and the birds, and I’m scared to death. Joseph, I don’t know what it is about you, but you seem to know God. I mean, you interpreted the dream. Joseph, can you help me? Can you help me deal with this?” Or did he just simply steel himself against the thought of his death? Did he go gently into the darkness of that night? Did he rage and scream against it? We know this: that if he failed to make use of the opportunity that fell to him with the death sentence that was given him, it was his own fault.

The investment companies, like—well, I won’t name them. Some of you work for them. But they’re all good at it, very good at it. You’re just having a happy afternoon watching a basketball game, and just when you’re sort of softened up, they come on with these commercials with the grandfather wearing the, you know, nice designer sweater and the Timberland shoes, and the house by the river, and the grass done by TruGreen, and the sun just perfect, and his wife with the highlights in her hair, and the grandchildren all around them. And they want you to feel cozy, but not immediately. What they want you to feel first is total paralysis of the mind. Fear. And the fear is that if you’re not careful, you won’t be able to buy one of those sweaters, you won’t be able to live in one of those houses, you won’t be able to keep your grass that green, and you won’t be able to dangle around with your kids. The fact of the matter is, we don’t even have that good of a house now, for goodness’ sake. So you really think you’re gonna be living down there by the river—down by the riverside, at the end of it all?

But it works. It really works! And yet, when those guys have signed you up to those funds—the Global, and the this and that and the next thing—you say to yourself, “That’s me, I’m set. That’s good. I can do the math.” (Well, I can’t say that, but other people can say that.) “I can do the math, and I know we’ll be fine.” Don’t be so ridiculous.

See, this guy got a deal. He got told, “You got three days.” You and I don’t know we have three minutes. Now, I’m not saying that to scare anybody; I’m saying that to myself. My mother died in a chair in the middle of a very normal evening, on a very normal kind of house, with a very normal family, as a very normal forty-six-year-old woman. And one moment she said, “Would you please put the kettle on?” and then she died. And so may you, and so may I.

So I have a responsibility, in light of those striking statistics that one out of one dies, to prepare you for that event. I come behind the doctor, and I come behind the undertaker. When they have done their business and signed the death warrant and prepared the open grave, they stand back, and they say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Reverend Begg will now do the service.” So Reverend Begg steps forward to do the service. What am I doing there? I’m there as a servant of this book, which says, “You don’t know who you are until you know God, and you don’t know how to live until you’ve settled the question of how to die.” And it is a strange thing that people can be in the proximity of death, as Shakespeare says in the Hamlet play, as he comes upon the gravediggers and he says, “What is it with these men that they can make such sport of grave digging?” And I can’t quote it exactly now from memory, but it says, “Custom, custom hath made of it a matter of unimportance to them.”[25]

Are you prepared to die? If you die before this day is over, will you go to heaven? And if you don’t know the answer to that question, are you telling me that you’re prepared just to walk out the door, turn your car stereo on, and say, “Hey, a flea in his ear; he was trying to scare me”? I’m not. I’m telling you the baker got a deal: seventy-two hours to prepare. We have no guarantee of seventy-two hours. That is why the Bible says, “Now is the accepted time; behold, [today] is the day of salvation.”[26]

And in the circumstance of Calvary, with the two thieves on the cross around Jesus—remember that they were both in immediate proximity to Christ. They were both aware of the injustice that was being done to Jesus. They were both aware of the justice of what was being meted out on them. They were both knowing that they were never gonna come back. They were nailed on that cross; they couldn’t even look back over their shoulders. There was only one way they were going, and that was to the grave. And one guy curses Jesus and says, “Hey, you saved others. Why don’t you get down from there and save yourself, and save us while you’re at it?”[27] Can you imagine how hard a person can be, so close to death?

And the other fellow shouts over to him, “Hey, why don’t you cut that out? We’re up here because we deserve to be. He’s up here, and he did nothing wrong.” And then he says, “Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your kingdom?” And Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”[28] I’d love to have been at the gates of heaven when that guy showed up. What a slob. What a piece of scum. What a slimeball. What a thief. What a wretch. What an uncivilized, irreligious bum. You mean God takes people like that to heaven? Absolutely. And he leaves Pharisees behind.

These are just some lessons from the dungeon. Let us pay attention.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, we thank you that we have this morning the Bible to read, that we’re not left to human opinion and conjecture, and that this ancient book speaks with clarity to our lives. We pray that as we consider these lessons, you will bring us to an awareness of the brevity of our lives, of the reality of death, and the certainty of judgment, and the opportunity of faith. We pray for any who are wrestling with these issues even as I speak, that you will grant them grace to talk with someone before they leave, that we might be able to point them in the direction of the answer to their questions. We pray that you will make us truth tellers—good news and bad news alike—that we may be sensitive and gracious, but that we might be men and women of integrity. I pray, too, that you would help us to live with a God-centered focus, as individuals, and as families, and as a church family. May it be that not simply with our lips, but with our lives, we will live to praise the name of the Lord. For we ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.

[1] John 15:1–5 (NIV 1984).

[2] Genesis 41:16 (paraphrased).

[3] Genesis 41:52 (NIV 1984).

[4] See Genesis 37:23–28.

[5] Hebrews 12:2 (KJV).

[6] See Hebrews 12:1–2.

[7] Psalm 8:4 (paraphrased).

[8] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Nowhere Man” (1965).

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.1.2.

[10] Genesis 1:26–27 (NIV 1984).

[11] Psalm 24:1 (KJV).

[12] Civilla D. Martin, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (1905).

[13] Psalm 118:24 (paraphrased).

[14] Proverbs 18:10 (paraphrased).

[15] John 2:19 (paraphrased).

[16] 1 Timothy 6:6 (NIV 1984).

[17] George Lawson, The Life of Joseph (1807; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988), 60.

[18] Christine McVie and Eddy Quintela, “Little Lies” (1987).

[19] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Called Genesis, trans. John King (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1850), 2:311.

[20] 2 Timothy 4:2–5 (paraphrased).

[21] Matthew 6:34 (paraphrased).

[22] Joseph Parker, “God Holds the Key” (1887). Lyrics lightly altered.

[23] Lawson, Life of Joseph, 64.

[24] Hebrews 9:27 (KJV).

[25] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 5.1. Paraphrased.

[26] 2 Corinthians 6:2 (KJV).

[27] Luke 23:39 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 27:42.

[28] Luke 23:40–43 (paraphrased).

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.