Joseph

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Genesis 50:22-26

One of the greatest heroes of faith in the Bible, Joseph, found a way to give testimony to his faith centuries after his death.

According to Hebrews 11, “faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for. It means being certain of things we cannot see” (Heb. 11:1; Phillips). When it comes to explaining what faith is like, the writer to the Hebrews decides the best way is to give examples, and so he does, a whole chapter full. There is Abel who offered a better sacrifice, and Noah who built an ark, and Sarah and Abraham who left their home and became pilgrims and had a child long past the time – all by faith. And among the other heroes of faith, there is Joseph, Jacob’s son, Isaac’s grandson, Abraham’s great grandson. This is what the writer to the Hebrews tells us about him:

By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.

(Heb. 11:22, niv)

What a curious thing to single out as an example of Joseph’s faith! Not that it wasn’t an act of faith, just that there are so many other things the writer could have pointed to. Throughout Joseph’s whole life, he lived by faith and demonstrated marvelously what it meant to walk by faith. When he was young, the Lord often revealed special things to him by way of dreams and visions. He was only 17 years old when his jealous brothers seized him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. But Joseph remained loyal to the God of his youth. He said no to sin when he was a slave in Potiphar’s house, refusing to compromise his virtue even though it cost him his freedom. He showed great steadfastness during years of suffering in prison.

After the Lord raised him to great honor, Joseph demonstrated that he knew how to abound as well as how to be abased. He remained faithful to God, even as he stood at the pinnacle of earthly fame, power, and wealth – a place much harder to have faith, incidentally, than in prison. And finally, when providence brought Joseph’s brothers under his power, giving him the chance to take his revenge, Joseph showed that he knew how to forgive. All in all, there is not a greater human example of faith in all the Bible than Joseph, nor anyone who is more Christlike.

But when Hebrews comes to Joseph in its roll call of the heroes of faith, it mentions none of those things. Instead, it chooses the rather unusual instructions issued by Joseph on his deathbed. Here’s how the book of Genesis describes it:

And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Then Joseph took an oath of the sons of Israel, saying, “God will visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”

So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

(Genesis 50:24-26, rsv)

WHO HE WAS

Those are the closing words of the book of Genesis, and they describe an unusual act of faith. Just before his death, Joseph gave his brothers instructions for the eventual reburial of his bones; highly unusual, but in this instance highly informative as well. Joseph’s insistence that the children of Israel take his body back to Canaan some day spoke volumes. In the first place, it told who he really was. Joseph looked like an Egyptian, he talked like an Egyptian, in most ways, he lived like an Egyptian. Not surprising; after all, he had spent 93 of his 110 years in the land of Egypt. He not only lived an Egyptian, he died an Egyptian. And after his death, his body was embalmed in the Egyptian style, placed in an Egyptian coffin and put in an Egyptian tomb. (If you’ve ever seen a mummy in a museum, you have some idea what that involved.)

But in his heart Joseph was an Israelite, and his last words testified to it. On his deathbed, it was of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he spoke and of the promised land that he thought. When Joseph made his brothers swear to take his bones back some day to the land of promise, he turned his fancy Egyptian tomb into a temporary resting place. He made his grave a statement of his faith and a confession of his true identity.

WHERE HE BELONGED

Secondly, Joseph’s instructions were a statement about where he really belonged. Just where was his home? Was it Egypt? One might think so. After all, Joseph had lived there a long time. After he left Canaan involuntarily at the age of 17, as far as we know he never came back again except for his father’s funeral. Nine decades is a very long time, long enough, one would think, to make Egypt his home. Not only that; Egypt had been very good to him. Joseph’s was the classic immigrant success story. Starting with nothing – less than nothing, in fact, for he began in slavery without even his freedom – Joseph advanced in power and importance and wealth until he was second only to Pharaoh himself. He prospered beyond his wildest dreams. And Joseph, you might recall, had some pretty wild dreams. God had brought him to Egypt. He had blessed him there. Egypt was part of God’s will for Joseph. So what was wrong with it?

Nothing really, except this: Egypt wasn’t home. It was not the land that was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to those of their descendants who claimed the promise by faith. It was not the homeland of God’s Old Testament, and because Joseph, despite all the glory of his earthly success, was one of those people, only their home could be his home. Everywhere else on earth he would be a stranger and sojourner.

When it came time for him to die, Joseph wanted to make one last clear statement about where his true home was, where he really belonged. There was so much that Joseph did not know, could not know. He did not know clearly about heaven or eternal life or the resurrection of the dead. None of that had been revealed yet to the people of God. Joseph did not even know about Moses or David, let alone Jesus Christ. All he knew was Canaan. That was the land to which God’s promises pointed, and Joseph wanted to show by his final burial that he was claiming those promises.

WHAT HE REALLY BELIEVED

The third thing Joseph’s last will and testimony points to is what he really believed. Despite all his time in Egypt, despite his familiarity with Egyptian culture, his success in Egyptian government, Joseph still believed in the Word of God. Joseph’s hope for the future hung on God’s promises, not Egyptian myths about the afterworld.

It is interesting to observe the differences between Joseph’s last instructions and those of his father Jacob. When Jacob had died years before, he made his sons promise to take his body back to Canaan immediately for burial. He wanted it to rest in his family plot.

But Joseph directed that his burial in the promised land should wait for generations, even centuries, until all the people of Israel returned there. In the meantime, his body would rest in a temporary tomb in Egypt. Joseph foresaw a time of hardship for his people. Israel would first be oppressed and then enslaved, but one day God would come to their aid. “God will visit you,” he said, “and you shall carry my bones up from here.”

Joseph’s temporary resting place was a reminder of that great promise of God. It was a silent witness to God’s people that, no matter how intense their suffering, their redemption was coming. Not only did it bear witness to Joseph’s own faith in God’s coming salvation; through all the centuries of slavery, its mute testimony helped keep his people’s hope alive.

Christians don’t have Joseph’s tomb to encourage us, but we have something even better. The night before he died, Jesus also gave instructions to his disciples. He broke bread and gave it to them saying, “Take and eat, this is my body broken for you.” He poured wine in a cup and offered it to them as a symbol of his blood shed for them. And as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, says the Bible, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26, rsv).

Every time and every place where Christians gather around the Lord’s Table and celebrate together the Lord’s Supper, it is a reminder of the promised salvation of God. It is a signpost showing us that our redemption is drawing nigh; it is an encouragement to faith and faithfulness. It is one more milepost bringing us that much closer to the Lord’s return. For just as Jesus came once to save from sin, so he will come again to bring complete deliverance from all evil. The Lord will once more visit his people, and then we can all go home.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

What about you? Are you one of those whose faith is in Christ, one who belongs to the people of God? You may be a citizen of any nation. You may be an American or a Canadian or a South African, but if you belong to Christ, your real citizenship is in heaven. You may live anywhere in the world, in Britain or India or Nigeria or Zambia, but if you follow Jesus Christ, then heaven is your true home. And you know, when it comes right down to it, we really can only have one home; it’s either here or in heaven.

Each of us only has two choices with our life: to live for this world or to live for that world. That is not to say that Christians drop out of the world completely or opt out of involvement in it. No, on the contrary. History has shown that those Christians who were most heavenly minded turned out to be the most earthly good as well. But biblical Christians always live with a consciousness of where our real home is.

I wonder if your death will say anything about your faith, the way Joseph’s did.. I recall once walking through a cemetery reading some of the inscriptions on the gravestones. Many of them had verses of scripture or other expressions of Christian hope. But one large stone standing next to the road had a name on it, underneath which appeared in large letters the words “Gone fishing.” Now that’s a testimony of another kind. I remember reading it and thinking, “What a fool!” And what a witness pointing to a frivolous and misspent life. On the other hand, there is the death and burial of David Livingstone. After a lifetime of missionary service in central Africa, Livingstone died there literally on his knees in prayer. His body was returned to England, but his heart was buried in Africa by the spiritual children whom he loved so much and with whom he spent his life sharing the gospel. Another kind of witness altogether!

What sort of story will your life tell when it is done? What sort of testimony will your death offer? More important perhaps, what is your life saying right now about who you are and what you believe and where you belong? Is heaven your real home? Can those who are living with you tell it by your words and your deeds now?