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True Identity

Last week was a total game-changer for Joseph. If you’ve been with us for these past few weeks, you’ll recall that up until this point, it just seemed that no matter what Joseph did, something bad always happened to him. Even when things were going good, they quickly turned bad.

Because so far he’s been nearly killed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit, thrown into prison, and then completely forgotten about. And this was all before he was 30 years old. It has been a rough life for Joseph. But then, in just one day, everything changed.

Last week we read about how Pharaoh had a dream – well, two dreams really, and he didn’t know what they meant. These dreams obviously had some significance, but neither Pharaoh or any of his wisemen could figure out the meaning of these two dreams.

Now as it happened, Pharaoh’s chief cup-bearer had been in prison with Joseph some time earlier and Joseph had accurately interpreted a dream that he had had – and so the cupbearer told Pharaoh about this Joseph guy that he had met in prison who could interpret dreams.

Well, with that information, Pharaoh called up Joseph out of prison and asked Joseph if he could interpret his dreams. And this is how Joseph responded:

16 “It is beyond my power to do this,” Joseph replied. “But God can tell you what it means and set you at ease.” Genesis 41:16

Joseph knew that he didn’t have the ability to interpret dreams, but God certainly did. As we mentioned last week, Joseph had God-confidence – not self-confidence.

Well, to make a long story short, Joseph goes on to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, which in essence, were a warning from God that after 7 years of great prosperity in Egypt, there would be 7 years of terrible famine.

And this is where everything changed for Joseph. Because Joseph was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh determined that no one in Egypt was as wise as Joseph and so he gave Joseph full authority over all of Egypt – so that Joseph could make the necessary preparations for this upcoming famine. No one would be greater than Joseph in all of Egypt except for Pharaoh himself.

In one day, everything changed for Joseph. He went from being a slave in prison, to the second-in-command over all of Egypt. Pharaoh even gave him him a new Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife. What a total life change!

And it’s right at that moment of life-change that we pick it up today – with Joseph now the second-in-command over all of Egypt. The story of Joseph is far from over, so we’re going to find out what happened next. We continue reading in Genesis 41, verse 45.

So Joseph took charge of the entire land of Egypt. 46 He was thirty years old when he began serving in the court of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. And when Joseph left Pharaoh’s presence, he inspected the entire land of Egypt.

47 As predicted, for seven years the land produced bumper crops. 48 During those years, Joseph gathered all the crops grown in Egypt and stored the grain from the surrounding fields in the cities. 49 He piled up huge amounts of grain like sand on the seashore. Finally, he stopped keeping records because there was too much to measure. Genesis 41:45b-49

As you can see, the first part of Pharaoh’s dreams were certainly coming true. The crops in Egypt were incredibly prosperous for 7 years – allowing Joseph to pile up huge amounts of grain – so much so, that he stopped keeping records of it all. That’s got to be a lot of grain! But I guess it would have to be in order to feed an entire nation for 7 years! Just imagine how much food you’d have to store up in your house just to feed your family for 7 years!

Well, anyways, Joseph is getting all this food stored up, and then we get this little side note in Joseph’s story – at verse 50 it says…

50 During this time, before the first of the famine years, two sons were born to Joseph and his wife, Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On. 51 Joseph named his older son Manasseh, for he said, “God has made me forget all my troubles and everyone in my father’s family.” 52 Joseph named his second son Ephraim, for he said, “God has made me fruitful in this land of my grief.” Genesis 41:50-52

I’ll just quickly point out that I don’t think Joseph literally forgot all about his family (as it states in verse 51). When Joseph says “God has made me forget all my troubles and everyone in my father’s family.” – I think the idea here is that Joseph is starting to feel at home in Egypt. No longer was his identity wrapped up in the past – in his father and in what his brothers had done to him… But now his identity was found in the present – in doing what God had called him to do. In verse 52 he says “God has made me fruitful in this land of my grief.”

His first years in Egypt were indeed painful for Joseph – but God had brought him through those hard years and had again given him joy and purpose and fulfillment – even in Egypt. The land that had once brought him grief was now the place where he was fruitful.

And I think that can be an encouragement to us too. Sometimes our identity can be wrapped up in the past – in the mistakes that we’ve made or in the bad things that have happened to us. And while it’s certainly painful to go through those times, it’s important that we don’t live there forever. We aren’t defined by our past. Rather, we are defined by who God created us to be. We are defined by who we are in Christ.

Paul reminds us of our true identity in Ephesians 1:3…

3 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. 4 Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. 5 God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. 6 So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. 7 He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. 8 He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding. Ephesians 1:3-8

That’s your true identity. You are someone dearly loved by God. And God loves loving you. Despite anything that you’ve done in your past or anything bad that has happened to you, God loves you and chose you to be holy and without fault in his eyes. He decided before he even created the world to adopt you as his own son or daughter.

He purchased your freedom and forgave your sins so that like Joseph, you can be fruitful even in this land of your grief. 

Your identity is not wrapped up in your experiences – as good or as bad as they have been. Your identity is wrapped up in the fact that you are a dearly loved son or daughter of the Living God.

I think Joseph was beginning to understand who he really was. He wasn’t just Jacob’s son. He wasn’t just the guy who was hated by his brothers. He wasn’t the slave who was falsely accused and thrown in prison. He wasn’t even the dream interpreter who explained Pharaoh’s dreams and become 2nd in command in Egypt.

He was Joseph – dearly loved by God – who’s life had been given incredible value, purpose, and fulfillment by his Creator.

And just before we get back to our story, maybe you want to take a minute to reflect on who you are. In light of this passage in Ephesians (and many others in the Bible) – who does God say you are? There are a lot of labels that we put on ourselves based on our feelings, our experiences, our weakness, our past…. But who does God say we are? God says we are a dearly loved son or daughter of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. If you’re going to wear a label – wear that one!

Well I’ll leave you to ponder that for a bit, but for now we’ll get back to our story – continuing in verse 53…

53 At last the seven years of bumper crops throughout the land of Egypt came to an end. 54 Then the seven years of famine began, just as Joseph had predicted. The famine also struck all the surrounding countries, but throughout Egypt there was plenty of food. 55 Eventually, however, the famine spread throughout the land of Egypt as well. And when the people cried out to Pharaoh for food, he told them, “Go to Joseph, and do whatever he tells you.” 56 So with severe famine everywhere, Joseph opened up the storehouses and distributed grain to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe throughout the land of Egypt. 57 And people from all around came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph because the famine was severe throughout the world. Genesis 41:53-57

Again, we see Joseph’s predictions coming true, exactly as God had warned in Pharaoh’s dreams. But of course, because of Joseph’s preparations, there was plenty of grain for all the Egyptians – as well as for those in the surrounding areas who were suffering from this famine as well – including (as we’re going to see in the next chapter) Joseph’s family. We continue now in chapter 42, verse 1.

When Jacob heard that grain was available in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why are you standing around looking at one another? 2 I have heard there is grain in Egypt. Go down there, and buy enough grain to keep us alive. Otherwise we’ll die.”

3 So Joseph’s ten older brothers went down to Egypt to buy grain. 4 But Jacob wouldn’t let Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, go with them, for fear some harm might come to him. 5 So Jacob’s sons arrived in Egypt along with others to buy food, for the famine was in Canaan as well. Genesis 42:1-5

You can see that not much has changed in Joseph’s family since he left. His father Jacob is still favouring one child over all the rest. While the 10 older brothers go down to Egypt, Benjamin stays at home with dad – why? ‘for fear some harm might come to him’.

It’s kinda odd how Jacob doesn’t seem to be all that concerned about the safety and well-being of his ten oldest boys, (In fact, he says to them “Why are you standing around here – get going to Egypt!) But he keeps Benjamin at home with him for fear some harm might come to him. It seems that Jacob is still oblivious to the damaging effects of his favouritism in his family.

But while it seems not much has changed for Joseph’s family, things have drastically changed for Joseph – and things are about to get very interesting when Joseph’s brother’s arrive in Egypt! It says in verse 6…

6 Since Joseph was governor of all Egypt and in charge of selling grain to all the people, it was to him that his brothers came. When they arrived, they bowed before him with their faces to the ground. Genesis 42:6

Now at this point, Joseph’s brother’s obviously didn’t recognize him, but things have sure changed from the last time these brothers were together. If you recall, the last time they saw Joseph, they had grabbed Joseph, ripped off his coat of many colors, thrown him into a pit to die – and then later sold him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver. They had watched him march away in chains with those slave traders – disappearing in the distance – presuming that they would never see him again.

But now here they are – bowing down with their faces to the ground – unaware that they were bowing to their brother – unaware that their lives were now completely in Joseph’s hands. Which, by the way, was exactly what God had told all of them many years ago through Joseph’s dreams.

If you remember back in Genesis chapter 37 when Joseph was only 17 years old…

5 One night Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they hated him more than ever. 6 “Listen to this dream,” he said. 7 “We were out in the field, tying up bundles of grain. Suddenly my bundle stood up, and your bundles all gathered around and bowed low before mine!”

8 His brothers responded, “So you think you will be our king, do you? Do you actually think you will reign over us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dreams and the way he talked about them. Genesis 37:5-8

That was over 20 years ago!

It took a long time, but God’s promise was finally coming to pass. Which, by the way, always happens. God’s promises always come to pass. Some may take a very, very long time, but they always come to pass.

We talked a little bit last week about Jesus’ promise to one day return to earth to bring judgement for those who refuse to trust in Him, and reward for those who do. He made that promise nearly 2000 years ago… But just because it’s been a long time coming, doesn’t mean it won’t come.

Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:8….

8 But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. 9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.

2 Peter 3:8-9

God always keeps his promises, but he does it on his timeline. His timing is perfect – waiting patiently for everything to happen according to his perfect plan. We don’t always like waiting, but being patient for God’s timing is always way better than trying to rushing things to fit our schedule.

I don’t know how patiently Joseph had been waiting for this day, but this day had finally come. His brothers were doing exactly what they thought they would never do – bowing down before him with their faces to the ground.

And I wonder, in this moment, what thoughts ran through Joseph’s head? When he saw his brothers walk through those doors, and bow low in reverence and respect towards him, what kind of thoughts did Joseph have? 

Did he immediately have thoughts of revenge? Did he want to make them suffer for what they had done to him? Did he immediately think of his father – wondering if he was still alive? Did he think of his younger brother Benjamin – and wonder why he wasn’t there? Maybe his brothers had killed or sold him as slave too?

Had his brothers changed at all over the past 20 years? Or were they as cruel and heartless as he remembered them?

I’m sure there were 1000 thoughts in Joseph’s mind and 1000 questions that he wanted answers for. But for some reason, Joseph decided to be patient for those answers. We don’t know exactly what his motivations were, but Joseph decided to put his brothers to the test. 

We read in verse 7:

7 Joseph recognized his brothers instantly, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where are you from?” he demanded.

“From the land of Canaan,” they replied. “We have come to buy food.”

8 Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they didn’t recognize him. 9 And he remembered the dreams he’d had about them many years before. He said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see how vulnerable our land has become.”

10 “No, my lord!” they exclaimed. “Your servants have simply come to buy food. 11 We are all brothers—members of the same family. We are honest men, sir! We are not spies!”

12 “Yes, you are!” Joseph insisted. “You have come to see how vulnerable our land has become.”

13 “Sir,” they said, “there are actually twelve of us. We, your servants, are all brothers, sons of a man living in the land of Canaan. Our youngest brother is back there with our father right now, and one of our brothers is no longer with us.”

14 But Joseph insisted, “As I said, you are spies! 15 This is how I will test your story. I swear by the life of Pharaoh that you will never leave Egypt unless your youngest brother comes here! 16 One of you must go and get your brother. I’ll keep the rest of you here in prison. Then we’ll find out whether or not your story is true. By the life of Pharaoh, if it turns out that you don’t have a younger brother, then I’ll know you are spies.”

Genesis 42:7-16

 Now again, we’re not really told Joseph’s motivations in all this. Is he just trying to make life difficult for them because of what they did to him? Is he trying to find out if his younger brother Benjamin was really still alive as his brother’s claimed? Was he testing their character to see if they had changed at all? We’re not specifically told.

But as I read this and some of the later verses that follow, I tend to think Joseph was not doing this in a spiteful, revengeful way. Remember, the lives of his brothers were entirely in his hands – no one but Pharaoh had more authority and power than Joseph. And so if Joseph wanted to make things really miserable for his brothers, he certainly could have. But instead, despite his harsh appearance, we see a lot of compassion displayed by Joseph. Look at these next verses:

17 So Joseph put them all in prison for three days. 18 On the third day Joseph said to them, “I am a God-fearing man. If you do as I say, you will live. 19 If you really are honest men, choose one of your brothers to remain in prison. The rest of you may go home with grain for your starving families. 20 But you must bring your youngest brother back to me. This will prove that you are telling the truth, and you will not die.” To this they agreed.

21 Speaking among themselves, they said, “Clearly we are being punished because of what we did to Joseph long ago. We saw his anguish when he pleaded for his life, but we wouldn’t listen. That’s why we’re in this trouble.”

22 “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy?” Reuben asked. “But you wouldn’t listen. And now we have to answer for his blood!”

23 Of course, they didn’t know that Joseph understood them, for he had been speaking to them through an interpreter. 24 Now he turned away from them and began to weep. When he regained his composure, he spoke to them again. Then he chose Simeon from among them and had him tied up right before their eyes.

25 Joseph then ordered his servants to fill the men’s sacks with grain, but he also gave secret instructions to return each brother’s payment at the top of his sack. He also gave them supplies for their journey home. 26 So the brothers loaded their donkeys with the grain and headed for home. Genesis 42:17-26

On one hand, Joseph certainly seems to be acting harsh towards his brothers. First of all, he accuses them of being spies… Then he tells them that they won’t be allowed to go home until someone brings their youngest brother here. Then he puts them in prison for three days… It certainly could seem that Joseph was acting quite vengefully…. But then we see him soften his stance – and only ONE brother would have to stay in prison while the others could go home to bring food back to their starving families. We also see Joseph weeping when he over heard his brothers talking about how God had caused this to happen as punishment to them because of what they had done to Joseph. And then finally, we see Joseph secretly putting their money back into their grain sacks as well as giving them supplies for the journey home.

So this really does come across – not as the actions of a revengeful, spiteful brother who’s gonna pay them back for what they did – but rather as a brother who still loves and cares for his family, and is using this situation to really test the character of his brothers.

But you know, in addition to testing the character of his brother’s, I think this is the moment that was actually the greatest test of Joseph’s character too.

It was quite a test of Joseph’s character when he was sold as a slave, but he worked hard and kept a good attitude and as a result, he rose to be the head of Potiphar’s house.

It was also quite a test of his character when Potiphar’s wife tried to sleep with him, but he refused to sin against God and against his master, and he stuck to his principles no matter what.

But I think the greatest test of Joseph’s character was in this moment now – when he had all the power to do whatever he wanted – and his brothers were completely at his mercy. He had every opportunity to get revenge, (and really, no one would have blamed him if he had, after what they had done to him). But instead of revenge, Joseph had compassion and mercy.

As I read a few different sermons on this chapter in preparation for this week, I came across this quote by a preacher down in Texas. He said:

“Here he was, faced by his brothers, absolutely destitute and defenseless, while Joseph had unlimited power. Without a doubt this was the greatest test of Joseph’s character. It is one thing to be tested when you are powerless to resist. It is quite another to be given the opportunity to get revenge when your enemies are mere putty in your hands.

While poverty, suffering, or injustice may be tests that come our way from time to time, I believe that we, like Joseph, are tested most by the power that is ours and the way that we use it.” 

~ Bob Deffinbaugh, Richardson Community Bible Chapel

And I think that’s very true. The greatest tests of our character are not when we’re down and out – when we face failure or rejection – or when we’re helpless and hopeless.

The greatest tests of our character are when we are successful and powerful – when we have plenty and things are running smoothly in life. What we do with our power, with our success, with our plenty – is a far greater test of our character than what we do when we have nothing.

I think Joseph understood that his power and his position had been given to him – not merely by Pharaoh – but by God, and as such, he a responsibility to God to use that power and position for God’s purposes – not his own personal agenda. We see this clearly at the end of the story in chapter 50. I don’t want to give away the ending – but at the end of it, Joseph says to his brothers…

20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. Genesis 50:20

Joseph recognized that the power and position he had, were given to him by God and for God’s purposes. To use his power to exact revenge on his brothers would have been a gross misuse of what God had entrusted to him.

And I think we’ll end it there for today, but that’s a good thought for us to take home.

The things that we have – our positions of power and authority, our success, our finances, our relationships – all of those things have been given to us by God and for God’s purposes.

But is that how we use them?

We may not be second-in-command of a whole country or anything like that, but we all have at least some small realm of authority and power. Maybe in your marriage, In your home, at work, among your friends….How do you use the authority and power that God has given you? Do you use your position to accomplish God’s goals and purposes – or do simply use it further your own personal agenda?

Do you consider your success to be something that you’ve earned, or do you consider your success to be a gift from God – to be used somehow for his glory?

We need to recognize that whatever we have is a gift from God and we are to be good stewards of those things – using them for God’s purposes and God’s glory.

Whether its our position of authority or power, whether it’s our success, whether’s it our material stuff we have, whether its our talents and abilities, or whether’s it our relationships – whatever it is, we’ve been given those things by God and for God’s purposes. 

How will you use what God has entrusted to you?

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