One Moment in Time
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One Moment in Time

Genesis 45:1–15  (ID: 1882)

While holding a grudge can be tempting when we’ve been wronged, such behavior reveals a shallow view of God. When Joseph disclosed himself to his brothers, rather than exacting revenge, he acknowledged God’s providential hand. To help us understand the wisdom of Joseph’s response, Alistair Begg examines the comfort, security, and humility found in the doctrine of providence. Trusting God’s sovereign care enables us to endure afflictions without undue complaint and experience encouragement without undue pride.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Hand of God, Volume 2

Genesis 41:41–50:26 Series ID: 21905

Sermon Transcript: Print

Now in Genesis chapter 45, we resume our studies here in the life of Joseph—an epic story to which we have given ourselves over a number of months and to which we return with something of the end in sight. Ever since the eighth verse of chapter 42—and you may like just to look at it—we have been waiting for the moment to which we come in these opening verses of chapter 45 because it is there in the eighth verse of chapter 42 that Joseph first encounters his brothers after all this passage of time, and we’re told there that Joseph recognized them, although they did not recognize him. And in all of the ensuing events of their back‑and‑forth from their land of their birth and into Egypt and so on, we have been waiting, as it were, for this whole matter to resolve itself, in the same way that, sometimes, when at the end of a song, a group will hold everything on that V7 chord, and they hold it there on the seventh and you know that it has to resolve and come back to the primary chord, and it creates that sense of anticipation, and often the drummer drums and goes crazy and it’s going, and you know it can’t go on like this forever—at least it seems to be going on forever—and then eventually everyone breathes a sigh of relief as it finally ends in one great burst. And we’ve been held on this V7 chord here for months waiting to get to the resolution of chapter 45, and so we come to it: a moment in time—a moment in time.

There are moments in time when it would seem as though the clock stops and the action freezes, and one has the distinct impression that, as a result of what we are now experiencing, things will never be the same again. That is, for example, what people testify to when they are able to tell you where they were on the occasion of discovering the news of the assassination of President Kennedy, or in saying similar things in relationship to the destruction of Space Shuttle Challenger, or being able to recall exactly where they were when the Pan Am flight went down over Lockerbie. And there are moments in time for all of us personally—the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, great moments of success, big changes in our lives—and while they may not be known to everyone, those moments are frozen, as it were, for us. They are a moment in time. For example, when people ask me, “When did you come to America?” I always say, “The third of August 1983,” and I think they’re surprised that I would pinpoint it to a date. I could actually tell them the time if they wanted because it is frozen for me, a moment in history, and nothing would ever be the same again as a result of that—both for good or for ill—and all of us have that. And I know that when we get to heaven, if we have the chance to talk with Joseph and we say to him, “You know, Joseph, in the great ebb and flow of all that you experienced in the journey of your life, tell me some of the moments that stood out to you,” surely, he will say, “Genesis 45 and when I disclosed myself to my brothers.”

Now, let us look at this wonderful story here from three perspectives: first of all, from the angle of noting that it is a demonstration of human emotion, and there are things to be learned from that; then in noticing that it is an illustration of divine providence; and then, thirdly and finally, in noticing that it is an expression of genuine forgiveness. Emotion, providence, and forgiveness: those are the directions in which our minds are to go.

A Demonstration of Human Emotion

Back, actually, in chapter 43 and in verse 30, we have found Joseph struggling with his emotions in relationship to his brothers, particularly in the arrival of Benjamin. You know that he had been longing to see Benjamin particularly. It’s recorded for us that Benjamin actually arrives. We’re told in Genesis 43:30 that, deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep, and he went in to his private room and he wept there, and he must have wept quite a bit because it was only after he had washed his face and come out that he was able to control himself and say, “Serve the food.”[1] So there had been these private occasions recorded—and doubtless others, unrecorded—in which he had let go, had given vent to his emotions, had expressed himself, had cried out, but publicly, up until this point, he had managed to hold himself in check. He was under control, but all of that is about to change; the dam is about to burst. All of this pent-up emotion is now raging at such a level that he knows he’s not going to be able to stand it any further, and so he demands his privacy. He says, “Leave me. Everybody leave me, except these men,” and he demands his privacy because he knows now that, in this moment, he is about to disclose his identity.

Now, the very fact that he now puts himself in a position where he is alone with these individuals must have begun to strike terror into their hearts. After all, this man had held their lives in his hand over a period of significant months now, even years, and they had been imprisoned as a result of his mandate. Then they had been discharged. Then one of them had been kept. They had been dispatched, and all kinds of things had been going on, all of which made it very, very tenuous for them, and while there is no record of them speaking, we can surely imagine—without taking undo liberties with the text—that, with their eyes, they were looking at one another and saying, “I wonder what is going to happen now. What is this chap doing?”

And suddenly this enigmatic Egyptian prime minister begins to cry. Now, we know the story, and so we have to try and get ourselves back into it, but they hadn’t a clue with what was going on. Picture it, if you will: here is this man and all of his power and all of his authority—an indication to them of the fact of his greatness and their smallness. They’re left alone with him in the room, and all of a sudden, he bursts into tears—not little tears, big tears—not the kind of little women tears, you know, with the little hankies, you know, those little sort of little kitten tears. Not that, no. This guy is going hog wild crying. He is weeping and he is wailing, so much so that even the people that he has discharged from the immediate context, they hear him, and as they make their way away from him, they must have been looking back over their shoulders and saying to one another, “What in the world has happened in the room? What has happened to our master? Do you hear that? Do you think he’s happy? Do you think he’s sad? Do you think someone has said something to him? What in the world is going on that he would weep and wail as he does?” And the very fact that he is weeping and wailing and not saying anything would surely simply heighten the tension amongst these brothers and increase the sense of terror that they felt in their own hearts. “What in the world is going on now?” they must have said to themselves.

Now an interesting thing in the course of this—and I don’t want to miss little obvious things—there is a reminder to us here that there are times when family matters need to be addressed as family matters, in other words, without witnesses being present. If you have been well brought up, you know that you have family conferences or you have family meetings, or whatever else it is, and no matter who’s over or who’s staying over or who’s doing whatever they’re doing, they are out of here because this is a family event, and if you haven’t established that as a practice as bringing up your young children, then establish it now. Take my advice. The idea of disclosure to everybody about everything on all circumstances and in all events is a bad idea because not everybody is able to process the information in the same way, and that was certainly true of these servants that he had got out of there. If Joseph’s servants had remained, then they would almost inevitably have found out the fact that these men, who were his brothers, had treated him so badly all these years ago. And in learning that, and not being possessed of the same sense of godliness that Joseph had, the temptation for them would have been to have held this against these men immediately and probably over a long period of time. They would not be inclined to grant to these characters the same forgiveness that Joseph was about to show, and the injuries that had been done to their lord and master, they would find difficult to reconcile. And so in dismissing them—that is, these Egyptian servants—Joseph actually does everything in his power to save his brothers’ reputation. Do you notice that in passing? He’s actually protecting his brothers. Now, some might have said, “What a wonderful opportunity to let everybody know what a bag of scum these guys are.” After all, for twenty-two years, he had lived on the receiving end of their vitriol, of their hatred, of their animosity, and of their jealousy. “Why not have everybody in and just let them know? Let them find out why I’m crying. You want to know why I’m crying? I’ll tell you why I’m crying, and then you know, and then you can feel bad about it and you can remember it when you walk past them in the bazaars, and you can stick it to them, and every time you see them, you can remind them of it.” He doesn’t do that. Why? Because he protects his brothers. And it is a wise father, a wise husband, a wise leader in the home, who exercises the same sense of protection, not out of a desire for undue privacy, but out of a desire for realistic privacy, recognizing that there are some matters of family life which are simply matters of family life. “Love covers a multitude of sins,”[2] and in getting rid of these characters, he was gathering, as it were, a big blanket. They all got under a big blanket, he and his brothers, and they got everybody else out, and they pulled the four corners of the blanket down, and they were all underneath, and they said, “Okay guys, now we’re going to talk. This isn’t for everybody’s ears.” Everything isn’t for everybody to hear.

God has given to us the ability to cry.

So he’s in the grip of the most tender and powerful passions and emotions—joy at realizing what is about to unfold as he reveals himself, grief as he looks into the time-laden eyes of his brothers who have gone through so much in these ensuing years, love for them, compassion as he thinks of them—and as all of that conjures itself up into a great rising tide, it bursts the dam of his self-control. Notice also in passing that tears are not dishonorable to the bravest and the best of men and women. I don’t regard it as a great compliment of anyone to hear that they “never cry.” I’m actually more concerned about people that never cry. When someone dies and they don’t cry, when there is pain within their home and they don’t cry, they are probably fiddling on the fringes of repression, and their geyser will burst somewhere along the line. And God has given to us the ability to cry. Read the psalmist, he’s crying all the time. He’s either playing tambourines or he’s crying. I mean he’s filling up bottles with his tears. He’s washing his bedclothes with his tears. He’s drowning in his tears, and then he’s playing his drum and banging his tambourine. He’s just living out life the way we live it out. That’s why the Psalms are like a medicine chest for our souls—good to go to them frequently.

Now, he still hasn’t said anything, right? So, all the brothers have experienced is: into the house, servants out of there, left alone with this fellow in all of his Egyptian finery. And if you had been able to do one of those little side interviews, you know, where you took one aside like on the edge of the fourteenth green in a golf tournament, you know, where they do that whispering thing, and you said, “How do you think it’s going? What do you think’s going on here?” I don’t think there’s a chance in the world that any one of them would have conjectured what was about to unfold, that of all the things that might be able to be revealed, they could never have imagined, in their wildest imaginations, that the chap who was before them was about to say what he said. And so he manages to get ahold of himself enough to say two words: “wayyō’mer yôsēp.” Must have dropped like a bomb. “Did you catch that? Did he just speak in our language?” Because, after all, all of the interchange to this point had been through an interpreter. He had never spoken to them in their own tongue. They didn’t know that he could. He was an Egyptian. Why would he be dressed that way? Why would he be in the position that he was in? And now, all of a sudden, he says, “I’m Joseph,” and they must have said immediately, “Well, that’s interesting.” And then he immediately follows it up, and he says, “Is my father still living?” And in that whole experience of terror and mystery, he then goes one stage further to reveal his identity, and he says again, “I am Joseph, the one that you sold into Egypt.” Now they know that he is who he is because who knew about him being sold into Egypt? The Ishmaelites who carried him off, but it was long time ago and they were probably not around and wouldn’t necessarily have remembered—they were doing that all the time—but really nobody knew, except the people who’d been involved in the deed, God who saw from heaven, and the individual who’d experienced it. And suddenly before him, underneath all of this Egyptian headdress and grandeur, is the very one whom they had last seen on the back of a camel being dragged off by the Ishmaelite traders.

Small wonder that it says, “And they were terrified at his presence”—unable to answer. You know that experience of terror where you can’t get any saliva in your mouth? It dries up instantaneously, sometimes when you have to speak publicly. They were now in the presence of the one whom they had hated with a passion, whom they had hated without a just cause. They’d stripped him, dumped him, sold him, rejected him, and in the two-part movie that was made for TNT, for the television, if I recall it correctly, in between saying, “I am Joseph,” and saying, “I am Joseph the one that you sold into Egypt,” he takes—in the movie, at least—he takes his headdress off, and suddenly as he takes off this great expression of his finery and of his grandeur and as the brothers’ eyes narrow and they look and they imagine—as with an artist’s gaze—adding twenty-two layers of life to the seventeen-year-old teenager that they had bustled off into Egypt, suddenly it all dawns on them, and looking into their faces, Joseph must have seen their shame and seen their fear, all produced by the bitter memories of the actions of all those years ago, and as he responds to them, what does he do?

An Illustration of Divine Providence

God—who has created the universe for his own purpose and glory, has been preserving his creatures—operates in all of the things that come to pass, and directs everything to his appointed end.

He speaks peace into their troubled hearts because he wants them to realize our second point: that all of the events of the past twenty-two years are an illustration of divine providence. They are an illustration of the fact that God is ruling sovereignly, not only over the great cosmic issues of the universe, not only in the setting up and bringing down of kingdoms, but in the very number of hairs upon an individual’s head, on the experience of a sparrow falling to the ground, on the very course and direction of rivers, on whether they’re in full spate or whether they’re dried up, and God—who has created the universe for his own purpose and glory, has been preserving his creatures—operates in all of the things that come to pass, and directs everything to his appointed end. And that underpinning understanding framed Joseph’s life, and indeed, Joseph’s life is the classic illustration of that truth.

Now, I admit that there is ample mystery here for our minds to ponder. There is ample comfort upon which our souls can rest because what the Bible tells us in Ecclesiastes 3—made popular by The Byrds, admittedly, in some quarters—“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die.”[3] And everyone was singing along, not knowing what they were singing, assuming somehow or another that it had to do with fate or chance or the cycles of the planets or whatever it might be—similar to the other guy, you know: “Run like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning in an every spinning reel,” you know, and “Like the circles that you find in the borders of your mind,”[4] and so it all rolls in, in people’s mind. They don’t know what they’re singing about. What Ecclesiastes 3 is declaring is the providential overruling hand of God in all of life and all of human history, and Joseph understood it—at least he understood enough to be able to respond as he did.

And here is the great mystery of it: when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, it was in part to prevent him from ever rising to the position of authority and power that his dreams had portended. You remember his early dreams, that he saw these sheaves bowing down, and it was a picture of the fact that his brothers would one day bow down to him. And so, in order to ensure that that day would never come, they took matters into their own hands, and they did what they did and sold him into bondage in slavery, and God—in his providential overruling—was dealing and using their own evil, responsible actions to prevent him from becoming this person in authority. God was using their endeavors to prevent him from becoming the person in authority to make him the very person in authority. Now, you can stay up a long time at night trying to think this stuff out, and you may well do. It might well be a good exercise, in comparisons to some of the other reasons we’re tempted to stay up at night. You see, it’s customary for us as men and women to feel animosity towards those whose actions have caused us misery and to feel ourselves favorably disposed to those who have made our circumstances better, and that is why people favor others and harbor grudges because we are devoid, in responding in that way, of a large enough view of who God is and what God is doing—in essence, that we’re missing the factors of providence.

Now, this has not always been the case. In earlier days in this country, it was customary for people to talk about the happy providences of God. If you read some of the events of the Civil War—if you read, for example, some of the writings of Stonewall Jackson—then you will find that it is frequently that he makes reference to the fact that, in whatever business they’re engaging, God is providentially overruling things according to his great purpose. But in the day in which we live now, men and women doubt that there is a God; and if there is a God, he’s just a cosmic power; and if he’s a cosmic power, everything is taking him by surprise, and he wakes up and reads The New York Times like everybody else and says, “Oh my, my. Look at what’s going on here. What am I going to do now?” “No,” says Joseph. “That is not the case.” Joseph looked beyond the actions and the reactions of men, and he saw the hand of God both in his afflictions and in his benefits. So he looks beyond his brothers to God when he thought about his sufferings, and he looks beyond Pharaoh to God when he thought about his benefits. He said to himself, “Yes, my brothers have done this to me, but somehow or another, since nothing comes to my life but passes through his hand, God has chosen to make use of their evil actions—for which they are totally responsible—in order to bring about this end, and I’m not going to keep writing thank-you notes to Pharaoh and kissing his boots because, while I recognize that in a human perspective he is responsible for my position, nevertheless, he couldn’t do a thing were it not for the fact that God in his grace and in his wisdom and in his providential care inclined his heart in such a way.”

When you and I begin to depend upon divine providence in that way, it will allow us to endure our afflictions without undue complaint, and it will allow us to experience our encouragements without undue pride.

Now, when you and I begin to depend upon divine providence in that way, it will allow us to endure our afflictions without undue complaint, and it will allow us to experience our encouragements without undue pride. Think it out: neither you nor I can breathe without God’s enabling. You’re not breathing in your own right, are you? Who woke you up this morning? Do you really think it’s because you did that postgraduate degree and you’re so smart, that you’re able to earn what you earn? Well, it is in part, but ultimately God overrules all these things according to his own purpose and his grace.

Now, the interesting thing is—and the three recurring statements which underpin all of this are so important—three times Joseph tells his brothers, “God sent me ahead of you.” That’s in verse 5: “God sent me ahead of you”; verse 7: “God sent me ahead of you”; verse 8: “It wasn’t you who sent me here, God sent me here.” I want you to notice something very, very important: this is Joseph speaking, not the brothers. If the brothers were speaking in this way, then we might have justifiably accused them of seeking to shift the blame from themselves to God. They would have said to themselves, “Oh, it wasn’t us that did this. It was God who did this. God sent you here, Joseph. We’re not responsible. Don’t you understand the doctrine of providence?” The answer, of course, would have been, “Yes, I do understand the doctrine of providence, but unfortunately you don’t, because if you did, you wouldn’t say such things.” You see, they could not evade responsibility. They meant evil. They meant evil against him, but in Joseph’s response, he’s in effect saying, “My coming to Egypt is more God’s work than yours.”

The nature of sin is not altered by the use that God makes of it.

Now Lawson, the Scottish commentator, years ago, puts it in this way: “God was the first cause. [They] were but instruments overruled by him for the accomplishment of his own purposes ... It was the will of God both that Joseph should be brought to Egypt and that the [malevolence] of his brothers should be the means used for bringing him to it.”[5] It was both God’s will that Joseph should come to Egypt and that the means whereby he should come to Egypt was the malevolence of the brothers themselves, their own badness. Now, there’s a great mystery in this and you can read books and volumes on it, but let me just try and help you: the nature of sin is not altered by the use God makes of it—the nature of sin is not altered by the use that God makes of it. Somebody anticipating the story came to me after last Sunday morning and said, “Are you going to get into the very subtle and necessary distinction between an understanding of providence—which makes it appear as though we could just go out and sin because, after all, God is overruling everything to his glory—and actually the issue of our own personal responsibility and why the will of God never contains an injunction on our part to do that which runs contrary to his revealed will?” “Well,” I said, “I’ll give it some thought and see what happens.” Well, this is what is happening. Poison does not cease to be poison just because it is part of the composition of a medicine that heals. It’s still poison; and sin is still sin even though God may choose to use that sin—for which man is totally responsible and God bears no blame—in the unfolding of his plan. Again, Lawson: “The Lord of Hosts permits much evil in the world. We are amazed that the God who hates all sin should permit so much sin, to find a place in a world which he governs with an absolute sway.”[6] Isn’t that one of the questions? People ask it all the time: “Well, why, if God is sovereign and in control of everything, why would he allow so much sin in the world?” And the answer is: “For his own glory.” He knows what’s he’s doing. Shut up. Keep marching. You’re not God. He has dealt with sin at the cross, and he is about to deal with sin finally when he banishes the evil one into hell forever, but in the meantime, it serves his purposes. And since he is God, let us not raise our ugly voices in protest, but, says Lawson, “Here we find that he not only permits sin, but he makes use of it. No sinner can do any evil that God has not intended to use for the advancement of his own glory.”[7] Now, you want to go to Cappuccino’s and drink stiff coffee and talk, on you go. Here’s your thesis: “No sinner can do any evil that God has not intended to use for the advancement of his own glory.”

Now, if you want to really get into it, buy yourself a copy of Calvin’s Institutes, and here you can delve your brain to levels hitherto unknown before. Let me give a little flavor of it to you so that you can all rush out and get one of these wonderful volumes for yourself. In tackling the issue of how providence cannot be used as a cloak or as an excuse for our wickedness, Calvin writes as follows: “I grant more,” he says (he’s been arguing along this line):

I grant more thieves and murders and other evildoers are the instruments of divine providence, and the Lord himself uses these to carry out the judgments that he has determined with himself. Yet, I deny that they can derive from this any excuse for their evil deeds. Why? Will they either involve God in the same inequity with themselves, or will they cloak their own depravity with his justice? They can do neither. In their own conscience they are so convicted as to be unable to clear themselves; in themselves, they so discover all evil, but in him only the lawful use of their evil intent as to preclude the charge against God. Well and good, for he works through them.[8]

And then he comes up with this rather ancient illustration which is not for the fainthearted: “And whence I ask you comes the stench of a corpse, which is both putrefied and laid open by the heat of the sun? All men see that it is stirred up by the sun’s rays, yet no one for this reason says that the rays stink. Thus, since the matter and guilt of evil repose in a wicked man, what reason is there to think that God contracts any defilement if he uses his service for his own purpose?”[9]

All of the evil was Joseph’s brothers’. God is not contaminated because he determines to use their responsible activities of evil in order to achieve an overarching purpose that he has for his servant. “Away, therefore,” says Calvin, “with this doglike impudence which can indeed bark at God’s justice afar off, but cannot touch it.” “Away … with all this doglike impudence.”[10] I like that. It has a nice friendly sort of ring to it, doesn’t it? But I’m forced to tell you that in the last twenty-five years, there have been way too many books written which are nothing other than “doglike impudence,” and it is an expression of the low view in contemporary evangelicalism of the greatness and grandeur and wonder of God that we would feel that we have the right to call in question the immensity of his being, and it is a sad and sorry evidence of the state of affairs in which we live. Calvin was right: it is doglike impudence. You’d smack your dog’s nose for it, and it is only in the providence and grace and goodness of God that he doesn’t just drive us into eternity for the impudence which so often fills our mortal frames and which we allow ourselves the luxury of giving vent to. Now, you’re sensible people, you’ll need to think this out, and I’ll need to wrap this up.

The God who oversees the rise and the fall of the sparrows is profoundly involved in the life and circumstances of those whom he has made the object of his love.

Let me say three important practical things. There are many we can say about the doctrine of providence. First of all, the doctrine of providence brings to us comfort in the face of great difficulty and sorrow. You see, how can you go to sleep at night and get up in the morning unless you have a view of the providence of God? See, this overarching worldview is so crucial in our day, you know, and it expresses itself in all kinds of ways. If you went to see Jane Eyre, one of the lovely scenes in Jane Eyre is when she goes to become the governess to that little girl with the French background, and as she sits on her bed with her on the first night that she’s there as her governess, and the little girl looks up to her and she’s such a cute, wee girl—has pigtails and everything—and she says to her, saying her name (which I can’t remember from the book), she says to her, you know, “And Miss X, will we be happy?” And Jane Eyre says to her, “We will work hard, and we will be content.” See, wrong question: “Will we be happy?” Happiness is the by-product. “We will work hard, and we will be content.” Why? Because God is in sovereign control over all of these details. None of us knows what the phone call from the hospital brings. None of us knows when we come around the corner in our car to see the flashing lights and the wreck at the side of the road what it brings to our hearts and lives, and so are we to live then in paralyzing fear of all these things? No, we must rest in this confidence: that the God who oversees the rise and the fall of the sparrows is profoundly involved in the life and circumstances of those whom he has made the object of his love. In other words, if he’s looking after the sparrows just drive home, and have your eyes open. If he’s looking after the sparrows,[11] and he has made you the special object of his love, then “how much more will he look after you, O ye of little faith.”[12] You’re worried about tomorrow morning, and I understand. There is anxiety that fills your heart; you’re fearful about your job, about circumstances involving your loved ones, how will this person cope and they are … The Lord understands all of these things, and what is it allows us to sleep the sleep of the just? It is a recognition of God’s providence. I don’t have any doubt that Joseph slept as well in the dungeon as he slept in the palace—’cause he knew that his exaltations came from God, and his depravations ultimately came from the same source. It provides great comfort in the face of difficulties and sorrows.

Also, it provides great security in the light of the increasing global and national chaos in which we live. Here we go again towards November 5. I hope you understand how important it is that you vote; how responsible you must be as citizens; how you must think properly, and you must listen carefully, and you must make wise assessments, and you must exercise all the privileges of democracy which this great land affords to you, but—having said all of that—I don’t want you to lose a wink of sleep—not a wink. Don’t allow the debates to unsettle you; there’s hardly a good sentence in the whole lot of them. I’d just like to hear one sentence come out of the heart or the inside of somebody, just once—written by spin doctors and speechwriters and consumer discoverers, and so on, and all the time we’re told, “This is the great nation of the world, you know, and I’m the vice president-to-be. This is the greatest nation in the world.” “And I am the vice president, and this is the great nation of the world, and if we don’t get in here and we don’t do that, then this will happen; and if that happens and we don’t get over there fast to Bosnia and sort that out, then we’ll be in deep difficulty there; and of course, we’ve got to get a few people over here to sort out the Middle East, and so on; and we’ve really got a lot of things on our plate and really, really, it’s just as well we’re as great as we are, you know, otherwise all the wheels would come off, and the cart would be left at the side of the road.”

Turn to Isaiah chapter 40 and get your head and your heart put in alignment, dear ones. Isaiah 40, let me point it out to you again. Isaiah 40:15. What does the prophet say under God? “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket.” Now, that doesn’t sound very nice. “They are regarded as dust on the scales.” I’m still of the vintage where I used to be sent for a stone of potatoes. In a leather bag my mother gave me, I would balance it on the handle bars of my tricycle, and the potatoes were weighed out on those big brass scales, and they pulled the potatoes out of a dusty bag, and they put them in the side—and some of you did the same—and then they poured them in my bag, and when they’d finished pouring them in the bag, there was always dust left on the scales, but it wasn’t enough to move the scales, it was just there. You could blow it away. You think God is preoccupied the way we are? Uh-uh. The nations of the earth are like the small dust—you blow them away. They’re like the drop in the bucket when you finish washing your car, and you dump the two-gallon bucket and then you do that thing where you try and get rid of the excess. There’s always a bit there, it just hangs—it’s a right nuisance—and you try and get it out and it goes like that. The Lord goes, “There’s the British Empire. There’s the United States. There’s Korea, North and South. There’s the millions of China.” Not in a disregard for humanity, but in the great scheme of things, we have got the preoccupation all, all wrong. And you see, it is an absence of an understanding of providence which creates this terror, and an awareness of this truth removes it.

If you doubt it, look at verse 25 in the same passage: “‘To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One? ‘Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?’”[13] Been some lovely nights, haven’t there, this past week? Some starry nights, chance to stand and just look up and wonder. The astronomers tell us that, in the galaxy of the Milky Way alone, there are a hundred billion stars, any one of which is capable of eating planets the size of the earth without even burping. A hundred billion. Start counting from one, and let me know when you get along the journey. Give me a call at my house when you get to seventy-five billion, will you? “He who brings out the starry hosts one by one, … calls them each by name.”[14] You want to have security in a world that is all topsy-turvy and upside down and anxious and chaotic and everything else? Just bow down before the wonder of God’s providence.

And thirdly, it provides humility in the awareness that all of our successes are ultimately from God, and the people who have injured us we treat with humility because we recognize that, in some great mystery, God is still on the throne. Can I take just a moment and do the last point? I do want just to draw this to a close because it’s so important. If I leave it hanging, I do you a disservice. Indulge me.

An Expression of Genuine Forgiveness

It is in the story, also, an expression of genuine forgiveness—genuine forgiveness. You see, what do you think they were expecting from his lips when he finally gets ahold of himself and says who he is? I’m sure they didn’t imagine that he was going to say what he says in verse 5: “And now do not be distressed and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me here.” It must have struck them as bizarre—it strikes us, in a sense, as strange—because surely there was good reason for them to grieve over their actions. Shouldn’t, when people sin, they be brought to repentance? Shouldn’t they be made aware of their guilt? Shouldn’t they confess their sin? What is this? “Oh don’t grieve, it doesn’t matter”? Is he simply casting it all off? Twenty-two years, he blows it by, and he says, “Hey, it doesn’t really matter. I want to let you off”? No, because already, you see, in chapter 42:24, he has discovered that they have repentant hearts. Verse 21 of 42, when he overheard them, when they didn’t understand that he was listening, they said to one another out of earshot, “Surely we’re being punished because of our brother,” and then the acknowledgment of their sin: “We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life. We wouldn’t listen. That’s why this distress has come upon us.” And he had wept on that occasion. They didn’t realize that Joseph could understand them since he was using an interpreter, and he turned away from them and began to weep. Now, we’re going to have to wait till heaven, but I believe that the reason he wept because he realized that his brothers were actually coming to an acknowledgment of their sin, and that was why, when he had no reason to think that they were facing up to their guilt, he treated them with severity, and he treated them with harshness, and he put them through this process in order that they might be brought to an awareness of the fact that they were sinful. And that is why the law of God is preached to us: so that we might be brought to an awareness of our sin and our guilt, so that we might realize that we have erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep, so that we might be brought to repentance and to faith. But—having been brought there as he believed his brothers to have been brought there—when he realizes that they are deeply humbled, that they are now overwhelmed with confusion, he is concerned that they do not carry their grief to excess.

Neither they nor we should consider our faults and crimes too great to be forgiven by God or too great to be forgiven by the brother or the sister we have offended.

Neither they nor we should consider our faults and crimes too great to be forgiven by God or too great to be forgiven by the brother or the sister we have offended. The fact is, loved ones, it is sometimes much easier to forgive the injuries which are done to us than to believe that the injuries which we have done are forgiven. I spend a lot of time in pastoral counseling trying to assure people that, when the Word of God says, “Your sins I will remember no more,” he means exactly what he says.[15] And it is not that Joseph offers to them here some soft-soap, mealymouthed easy way out of all of the sin and hatred and envy and jealousy. It is that, having acknowledged the fact that they have been brought low to a recognition of all of their wrongness, he doesn’t want them now to be buried with undo sorrow, and he says to them, “Hey guys, come here. Benjamin, you first. I want to give you a hug.” And he hugged Benjamin and he wept, and Benjamin hugged him and he wept. That’s kind of understandable—big brother, wee brother—but after all, Benjamin hadn’t been involved in any of it, but then verse 15—it’s getting to be one of my favorite verses in the Bible—“And he kissed all his brothers and [he] wept over them. [And] afterward[s] his brothers talked with him.” Kissed all his brothers. Oh dear, oh dear—“kissed all his brothers.”

Can you kiss all your brothers and sisters? You holding grudges? You holding grudges over things that don’t even approximate to one microcosm of all that he’d been through? Why are you doing that? Either it is because you have never yourself been forgiven—because, you see, the ultimate expression of our awareness of forgiveness is that we are quick to forgive others—or it is that you have determined to live in Bypath Meadow, and you are backslidden, and you are stuck in neutral, and you’ve two wheels in a ditch; and that’s why you can’t worship, that’s why you can’t witness, that’s why you’re no jolly use for the kingdom. And God says to you today, “If I, from the cross, in the person of my Son, looked into your eyes and said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,’[16] are you honestly telling me that you plan to hold a grudge against your brother and sister for all the rest of your life over some marginal, minimal offense?” Of all things—of all things—the church is to be the people of forgiveness. Is that not part of our prayer—“Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors”?[17]

Let us pray together:

O God, our Father, take your Word afresh to our hearts today, we pray. For some of us who have never understood the wonder of your love towards us in Christ and we remain buried with guilt, I pray that today we might cry out to you in repentance and in faith and plead with you that we might know your love and your forgiveness. For others of us who have been buried under our own guilt and have been able to forgive others easier than to acknowledge the fact of our forgiveness, we pray that you would set us free today and that you will make today in many a heart and many a home a springboard of a whole new tomorrow; that, like Joseph, we might rest in your providence.

And may grace and mercy and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the triune God—rest upon and remain with each one of us today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Genesis 43:31 (NIV 1984).

[2] 1 Peter 4:8 (paraphrased).

[3] Pete Seeger, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (1959).

[4] Noel Harrison, “The Windmills of Your Mind” (1968).

[5] George Lawson, Lectures on the History of Joseph (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 271.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes, 1.17.5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Matthew 10:29–31; Luke 12:6–7.

[12] Matthew 6:30; Luke 12:28 (paraphrased).

[13] Isaiah 40:25–26 (NIV 1984).

[14] Isaiah 40:26 (NIV 1984).

[15] Hebrews 8:12 (paraphrased).

[16] Luke 23:34 (NIV 1984).

[17] Matthew 6:12 (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.