We all love a good story. Children, adolescents, young adults, old adults and everyone in-between all love a good story. But it is not just any kind of story that sparks our interest. We love stories that captivate us; stories that strike our imaginations; stories that surprise us. Stories that include ironies or coincidences are always entertaining. And if there can be a “Cinderella” effect then that just makes it even better. One recent Cinderella story that made it to the big screens is The Pursuit of Happyness. In this movie, Will Smith plays a man by the name of Chris Gardner. This is the true story of a man who went from homeless to multimillionaire. The movie portrays him as a hard-working guy whose luck had run out. He worked as a medical salesman, selling medical equipment that was outdated. He barely made enough money to care for himself, his wife, and his son.
Throughout the film, Gardner’s wife leaves him, he loses his apartment, and he at one point in the movie ends up being homeless with his son—even sleeping in a public bathroom one night. I am not certain how much the movie actually aligned with what really happened, but the message was clear: Chris Gardner materially had nothing. During this time of real struggle, Gardner was accepted into an internship with a stockbrokerage firm. In the end, Gardner ends up being the only one out of the many interns to start working for the brokerage. Today he is a multimillionaire and the CEO of his own stockbrokerage firm. We love these kinds of stories, which is why they make it into books and onto screens.
The story that culminates in our passage today seems to present itself as a rags-to-riches story and it seems to be chock-full of coincidences. However, we will see that this is not the purpose of the story at all. The Joseph story has been called one of the most artistic and most fascinating of the Old Testament biographies; and for good reasons. In it we see the ultimate Cinderella story. If you thought Cinderella or Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happyness went from rags to riches, then the story of Joseph will blow your mind. This is the story of a poor shepherd boy who goes from being nearly murdered by his own brothers to second in command in the most powerful empire the world had seen!
However, the story of Joseph does not serve the same purpose of Cinderella or The Pursuit of Happyness. We are meant to admire Chris Gardner after hearing his story. However, we are not meant to marvel at the rise of Joseph from the ditch to the throne. Instead, the way this story unfolds in Scripture causes us to marvel at God’s absolute sovereignty instead. We see glimpses of this throughout the story, but it is at the end, where we will pitch our tents today, where we see the mysterious glory of God’s power and sovereignty.
At the end, after all the crazy turn of events; after all the sin of the brothers and Potiphar’s wife; after all Joseph’s suffering; and after Joseph’s rise to power and his salvation of his family and the Egyptians, it is God who is the main character. And it was God who was behind and above the events in the Joseph narrative. This story teaches us a few important truths that are brought out in Genesis 50:15-21. The thrust of this passage is that God is absolutely sovereign over all sin and suffering for the purpose of salvation.
God is Absolutely Sovereign in Suffering
The first thing this passage and the entire Joseph narrative teach us is that God is absolutely sovereign over all things. If a movie of the life and times of Joseph was created, we would marvel and point and nod and smile at the countless coincidences. That is how the natural man would initially interpret these events. As we are reading the story, it is easy to think something like this: “His own blood sold him into slavery only to be saved by him in the end? Classic!”
But Joseph knows better. And we know better.
The statement Joseph gives tells us a lot about who God is and how he works in our world and lives. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (v. 20). This is an interesting and important theological truth for us to understand. Despite the evil done to Joseph by his brothers, we see in the end that God is not a helpless bystander watching Joseph’s life with an all-knowing eye. God is actively working all things together for Joseph’s good.
This passage indicates that God does much more than use bad things for good. God’s absolute sovereignty in this passage indicates that God actively “means” all things, even evil things, for good. There is intent involved. God sends evil and even causes evil while remaining totally set apart from it for the good of his people and the glory of his name. In the end of Joseph’s story and all of your stories, God is totally in control.
Joseph’s brothers are now at the feet of their younger brother whom they had mocked, despised, and sold, and the revelation that it was God who sovereignly brought all of those things to pass is presented to them. This begs the question, why? Why did God intend the sin of Joseph’s brothers for good? For what purpose did he effectively cause Joseph to suffer? I see two primary purposes in God’s sovereign action in the suffering of Joseph that serve as a shadow of the greater reality of the suffering of Jesus.
Salvation of Life Through Suffering
God’s sovereignty in the suffering of Joseph served for the salvation of life. In verse 20, Joseph says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” This is not the first time we see this in the story of Joseph. Back in Genesis 45:5, Joseph tells his frightened brothers, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” The active God-language in this passage reinforces the point of the author that God sends suffering for the purpose of salvation.
It is through Joseph’s suffering that his people are saved from the famine ravaging the land. Through suffering, God sent Joseph to Egypt in order to save the ones who attempted to murder him. As magnificent and glorious is the grace of God in his salvation of life in his sovereignty over the actions of Joseph’s brothers, Psalm 105 teaches us that God’s sovereignty stretched even further. “When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave” (Ps. 105: 16-17). Again, God is not sitting on the bench watching these things play out in Joseph’s life. He actively sends suffering for the purpose of saving lives. Such is the mysterious and glorious grace of God.
The Sovereignty of God in the Suffering of Christ
The theme of God’s sovereignty in suffering for a pointed purpose is weaved throughout Scripture and is on fullest display in the cross of Christ. In the life of Joseph, man designed for the purpose of evil while God designed those same things for the purpose of good, particularly the good of the salvation of those who would otherwise starve. Likewise, in the cross of Christ, men designed evil, namely the crucifixion of the innocent and righteous God-man. However, God designed the death of his Son for good, namely the eternal good of guilty sinners and the eternal glory of his own name.
Oh, don’t miss the glory of Jesus in the story of Joseph! The righteous suffers for the guilty and God turns evil plans for ultimate good. Salvation comes through suffering. That’s the pattern. That’s the agenda. Joseph was a righteous man who suffered on behalf of his people, so that one day Jesus would come from the tribe of Judah to be the righteous Lion who would be slain for his people under the sovereignty of God. God’s active sovereignty in suffering is not divine abuse, but is grace and love unfathomable. It is a grace and love that leads his people to sing,
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
God is absolutely sovereign over all suffering for the purpose of salvation. This is the story of Joseph. This is the story of Jesus. Where are you found in this overarching story of God’s salvation of sinners through the suffering of his Son? The ultimate question from Genesis 50:15-21 becomes, “Are you found in the blood of the One who suffered under God’s sovereignty?”
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.