When the patriarch Jacob died, his sons--who had sold their brother Joseph into slavery decades earlier (cf. Gen. 37)--feared that Joseph would now take vengeance upon them. "When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, 'Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.' So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, 'Before your father died he commanded, saying, "Thus you shall say to Joseph: 'I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.'" Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.' And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, 'Behold, we are your servants.' Joseph said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.' And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them" (Gen. 50:15-21).
I cannot help but wonder: would Joseph's brothers have returned evil for evil had their places been reversed? After all, they had already demonstrated a merciless spirit in the past. I believe that the brothers fear that Joseph may act as they would have, now that their father is dead, so they fabricate a lie in an effort to protect themselves. Many make this same kind of mistake today. They don't trust others because they know what they themselves would do in a similar set of circumstances. How sad! It might also be suggested that the guilty consciences of these brothers had turned them into cowards (and liars).
In this lesson I want us to carefully examine Joseph's reply to his brothers, particularly his comment about not being in the place of God. I believe his words are full of wisdom and that we should endeavor to learn from his response and make application in our lives today (cf. Rom. 15:4).
FIRST, JOSEPH RECOGNIZED THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD IN HIS LIFE.
Years after the fact, Joseph could clearly see that the cruel hardships he suffered were actually disguised blessings from God (cf. Gen. 45:5-8; 50:20). His faith carried him through the difficult times, even when he didn't understand why he was suffering for righteous living. Friends, let us have the understanding to realize that the struggles we endure and the seemingly devastating setbacks we are faced with are often blessings in disguise.
The apostle Paul had seen troubles prove to be blessings - "But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel" (Phil. 1:12). Faithful children of God have this blessed assurance - "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28).
Consider this poem by William Cowper on this subject:
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform;
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
We may not always be able to identify God's providence at work in our lives, but He is working! There is nothing that will prevent Him from working all things together for good for His faithful ones. Even when we can't figure out how certain things are going to work out to be beneficial for us, we must trust God and remember Romans 8:18 - "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."
Do you like to work jigsaw puzzles? Perhaps 500 pieces, 1000 pieces, or even more? If so, have you ever tried to put one of those puzzles together with your nose on the table? That wouldn't work very well because your vision would be limited. It would take forever to solve a puzzle like that. One needs to have the proper perspective of the pieces and how they all fit together in order to solve the puzzle. I believe life could accurately be compared to a one-million-piece jigsaw puzzle. There are so many variables and possibilities in life, and the difficulty is that we're right on top of the pieces and cannot see everything at once! Every decision you make will affect your life in some way. It would be nice to be able to step back and gain a larger perspective on life, so we could see how all of the pieces should fit together. But, we simply can't do that by ourselves. We can, however, acquire the perspective we need through God Almighty! He knows what we need in life and what we need to do. He tells us all these things in His word! He instructs us as to what we should think about, say, and do. He tells us what our priorities should be. He tells us to trust Him and the puzzle of life will work out for the best in the end! He can see clearly where we cannot. The puzzle will come together properly if you trust Him and obey His word. You won't regret it! God is at work every moment providentially for His children. Joseph could see that later in life even though he had to go through some dark valleys first.
SECOND, JOSEPH DID NOT HOLD A GRUDGE OR SEEK VENGEANCE AGAINST THOSE WHO MEANT TO DO HIM HARM.
Instead, he promised to care for them (Gen. 50:21). He pledged to return good for evil. Only a strong, mature person can do this. The best way to get even with one who has wronged you is to pull him up to your level rather than stoop down to his. The apostle Paul commented along this line of thought in Romans 12:17 - "Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men."
What did Jesus teach on this subject? Matthew 5:44 - "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." Our Lord exemplified this by praying for those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). Those who seek vengeance attempt to take the place of God. It is His business, not ours, to make the proper adjustments in due time. As Romans 12:19 teaches - "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." Joseph understood that he was not in the place of God. A vengeful attitude could have wrecked his life, but he chose a course that brought him peace of mind and joy.
THIRD, JOSEPH'S REALIZATION THAT HE WAS NOT IN THE PLACE OF GOD IS WORTHY OF GENERAL ADOPTION BY ALL.
Joseph understood that there is a proper position for man and a proper position for God. Man ought not to infringe upon the place of God in any manner whatsoever. God is the Creator; we are the creation. He is the Master; we are the clay.
This truth certainly applies to the subject of taking vengeance, but it is applicable in many other areas as well. Let's consider three specific topics where this attitude is vitally important today.
1. Creed writing or tampering with the Scriptures
God has given the Bible as our creed or system of beliefs. Have you ever heard the statement: "No creed but the Bible"? The principle is implied in passages like II Timothy 3:16,17 - "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." If the Scriptures thoroughly equip us for every good work, what other written document would we need to pledge our allegiance to? The answer is none! Those today who write religious creeds or confessions of faith supplant God as lawgiver by binding their ideas upon others. Such is not the place for man!
It is true that all of us can profit from non-inspired resources pertaining to the Bible (e.g., commentaries, class materials, sermons, articles, etc.). But, these are all merely tools to aid in our understanding and growth. The Bible is to be our guide. However, there are many today who adhere to human creeds and elevate them in importance to the level of the Scriptures. This is wrong! To write a creed is essentially to tamper with God's word by adding to it. Such an action brings one under the condemnation of God - "For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book" (Rev. 22:18,19). Preachers who refuse to preach the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:26,27) are also guilty of taking away from God's truth. They are basically implying that certain divine truths are unimportant or non-essential by ignoring them. They wrongly put themselves in the place of God by determining what should and should not be taught. If the Holy Spirit has revealed something in the Scriptures, what right does man have to suppress it, ignore it, or treat it as trivial? None whatsoever!
We are commanded to teach God's word (Matt. 28:19,20), but we are not commanded (or authorized) to write church creeds! We are taught to confess Christ (Matt. 10:32), but we are not taught to confess loyalty to church manuals! Writing a creed was a privilege that belonged only to the Lord. We must never attempt to take His place!
2. Creating churches
With the multiplicity of churches in existence in our modern day world, one might be inclined to think that anyone has the right to start a religious group. However, founding a church is a right that belongs exclusively to the Lord (Matt. 16:18). Jesus promised to build His church, and He originated only one (cf. Eph. 4:4; 1:22,23). Man does not have the right to start a church in competition with Christ's church, even though many have wrongfully done so and continue to do so. Those who are wise will consider what Jesus stated in Matthew 15:13 concerning unauthorized religious groups and practices - "Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted." To become a part of the church Jesus built is right and proper, but to create a new church with doctrines and traditions that have no Biblical authority is to put oneself in a place he doesn't belong!
3. Deciding the destiny of the dead
The Lord, not men, is the determiner of the fates of men. It is true that God "will render to each one according to his deeds" (Rom. 2:6), and it is only God who fully knows the heart and actions of any individual. Therefore, it is He who maintains the Lamb's book of life (Rev. 20:12). No preacher can assign a man to heaven or hell. That is a right belonging to the Perfect One. Now, that is not to say that we won't have expectations regarding certain ones. Ultimately though, God is the judge, and He will be faithful to what He has declared in His word (cf. Titus 1:2). Humans cannot make perfect judgments simply because we lack perfect knowledge and understanding. God knows everything about every one of us. Comparatively speaking, we know very little about each other.
We who preach the plan of salvation (i.e., faith, repentance, and immersion) to sinners outside the body of Christ are sometimes accused of judging. However, declaring these Biblical truths is not judging but merely revealing God's will on the matter. In some cases, only God knows whether a certain one was obedient to the gospel or not. It is not man's place to judge the destiny of others, but the truth must always be preached and souls must be persuaded to obey the Lord (II Cor. 5:10,11). Let it be understood that those who refuse to preach God's conditions of salvation are the ones guilty of judging improperly in the most unthinkable way. They have judged God's word--at least a portion of it--to be unimportant or unessential. No one has the right to do that!
Dear listeners, many of man's problems result from him getting out of his proper place and attempting to occupy the role of God. Happy is the person--like Joseph--who knows His place and stays in it.
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.