The purpose of authority is the service of others
“But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5 NKJV).
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Many years ago we were searching for a university for our second daughter and came across Pepperdine University’s Affirmation Statement, which mightily impressed us. It read like a creed. The concluding line of the Pepperdine statement sums up its educational purpose by declaring, “That knowledge calls, ultimately, for a life of service.” I thought of this concluding line as I meditated on Joseph’s words when he revealed himself to his brothers. His words were these: “But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5 NKJV).
Joseph’s words reveal that he had come to fully realize his life purpose, which was the service of others. Said service most certainly included the people of Egypt, and even surrounding nations, but it especially included the seed of Abraham, which had during Joseph’s lifetime become a growing clan.
Joseph didn’t learn his life purpose by reading about it in a how-to book. He learned it through a long and arduous period of testing and trial, a period of testing that I called “the way of the cross” in my previous sermon.
At the age of seventeen, Joseph was divinely called to leadership by means of two vivid but mysterious dreams. But the realization of his call required a thirteen-year period of Egyptian slavery during which God tested and matured him (cf. Psalm 105:19). At the end of that period, Joseph was promoted to the second most powerful governmental position in Egypt, and in practical terms effectively became the ruler of that nation. From there he continued to mature. When he revealed himself to his brothers, he had been in authority for nine years. By then his awareness of his life purpose had been refined to perfection, as the above-cited words make clear. When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers he knew who he was, what he was, and what God had put him on the planet to do. He was at peace with God, at peace with himself, at peace with the brothers who had betrayed him, and at peace with his life mission. He was a servant of God’s purposes, nothing more and nothing less.
Because God’s pattern with Joseph tends to be the pattern He follows with us, Joseph’s story has much to teach us. As I noted in my previous sermon, God’s pattern is one that we may describe as Call, Cross, and Crown. That is, God first calls us; then He tests and proves and forges us into the person He calls us to become; and finally He puts us into positions of servant leadership.
We are called to rule on the earth (cf. Revelation 5:9-11), but the way to the throne is the way of the cross. With Joseph, God forged a king in slavery and in prison. Our circumstances may not be as extreme, but our process is similar. With that in mind, let’s look once again into Joseph’s story. And whereas we studied the way of the cross in our previous sermon, in this one let us aim at better understanding the purpose of rule.
I.JOSEPH’S LONG JOURNEY TO THE THRONE
To prepare Joseph for rule, God sent him first into slavery. Then He sent him, as a slave, to even lower rank prison. Through it all, slavery and imprisonment were instruments God that used to forge Joseph into one of the greatest civil governors in human history.
Joseph’s call to rulership was revealed mysteriously, by means of two dreams that symbolically predicted Joseph’s future rule over his family (Genesis 37:5-11). Joseph was seventeen when the dreams came to him. The dreams constituted a divine call.
But shortly after Joseph dreamed his dreams and announced them to his brothers, he was betrayed by his brothers and sold to slave traders who in turn sold him into slavery in Egypt (37:23-36). In Egypt, the wealthy sheik’s son from Canaan became a slave of Potiphar, who was an officer of the Egyptian Pharaoh (king) and captain of the guard.
As a slave, Joseph learned that he wasn’t his own. He belonged to someone else.
Joseph’s long period of preparation
The Lord was with Joseph, and all that he did prospered. Recognizing this, Potiphar put Joseph in charge of all that he owned. Joseph’s managerial grace was thus in evidence from the outset in Egypt, and put to use in the context of slavery (39:1-6).
Joseph learned to manage things in Potiphar’s house.
At a certain point, Potiphar’s wife began trying to seduce Joseph. Her attempts continued day-by-day, but Joseph resisted her temptations, knowing that to succumb to them would be sin against God and a dishonor to his master (vv. 7-10). But one day, when Joseph found himself alone in the house with Potiphar’s wife, the seductress grabbed him by his coat and implored, “Lie with me.” At this, Joseph fled. But his coat was left in the hands of the frustrated temptress. Spurned, the woman then turned on Joseph. When her husband returned home, she accused Joseph of attempted rape. Hearing this, Potiphar consigned Joseph to the king’s prison (vv. 11-20).
Joseph also learned to fend off lust in Potiphar’s house.
The privileged slave thus found himself a slave imprisoned. But he had passed his first tests: managerial faithfulness with things and moral purity.
God showed mercy to Joseph in prison and gave him favor with the prison keeper. Soon the prison keeper placed all the prisoners under Joseph’s charge (vv. 21-22). Again, all that Joseph did prospered (v. 23). But he was still an imprisoned slave.
Joseph had ruled things and himself in Potiphar’s house. In prison he learned to rule men.
Then it happened that Pharaoh was angered with his butler and baker and placed both in prison, where Joseph took charge of them (40:1-4). One night, each had a dream. Each was troubled by his dream, but Joseph interpreted them. The meanings were simple: In three days, the baker would be hung and the butler would be restored to his position (vv. 5-13).
Knowing that the dreams would come to pass, Joseph appealed to the butler to remember him to Pharaoh when he was restored (vv. 14-15). Joseph’s aim, of course, was to secure his release from prison. Joseph’s request was sensible. He had been unjustly sold into slavery and consigned to prison. Why would he not want to get out of jail?
In three days the butler was restored to his honored position, but he promptly forgot Joseph. Joseph would remain in prison for two more years.
Joseph was given dreams when he was seventeen. At twenty-eight he demonstrated the God-graced capcity to interpret them. To his other capacities, God added this special gift. One day it would spring him from prison.
Two years later Pharaoh himself had a set of frightening dreams (41:1-7). The dreams so troubled Pharaoh that he called upon magicians and wise men to interpret them, but they could not do so (v. 8). It was then that the butler remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh about him (vv. 9-13).
Pharaoh called for Joseph immediately (v. 14), and when Joseph came before him, Pharaoh told Joseph his dreams (vv. 15-24). Declaring that Pharaoh’s dreams came from God to show him the future (v. 25), Joseph then interpreted the dreams, which predicted seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine (vv. 26-32). In addition to interpreting the king’s dreams, Joseph also gave Pharaoh sound advice. Pharaoh, Joseph recommended, needed to appoint a wise and discerning man to set over the land of Egypt to collect and safeguard a fifth of the produce of the seven prosperous years to preserve Egypt through the following seven lean years (vv. 33-36).
Pharaoh immediately promoted Joseph to the position and task that Joseph had recommended. Joseph became the second most powerful man in Egypt (vv. 37-45). He was thirty years old (v. 46), and ready to begin fulfilling his call. His training had taken thirteen years. Centuries later a psalmist said of God’s ways with Joseph during this period, “Until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him” (Psalm 105:19).
Joseph’s promotion was followed by marriage to a woman of note, and Joseph went to work preparing for the seven lean years. His wife bore him children. He named the first child Manasseh, explaining, “For God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house” (vv. 50-51). The second he named Ephraim, declaring, “For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction” (v. 52). God healed and comforted Joseph’s previously ravaged soul through his family. Joseph thus learned the importance of one’s own family early in his reign, and the lessons learned with his family doubtless later helped him care for his brothers’ families.
When the seven years of prosperity ended, the seven years of famine set in as Joseph had predicted. It hit neighboring lands as well. Only in Egypt was their bread. People from other countries came to buy grain in Egypt (cf. vv. 53-57). The man from whom they had to buy was Joseph, the sheik’s son from Canaan who had learned to rule as a slave and as a prisoner.
Joseph’s journey call to rule took thirteen long, hard years to accomplish.
II.JOSEPH’S DECLARATION OF LIFE PURPOSE
Most of us know the story, so I will forgo a thorough review of how Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt in search of food. Let us instead proceed to today’s reading, Genesis 45:1-15, that tells us how Joseph revealed himself to the brothers who had originally betrayed him.
Time: Twenty-two years after the betrayal
Joseph revealed himself to his brothers two years into the seven lean years, so he had come to rule nine years before. That meant that he was thirty-nine years old when he disclosed himself to his brothers. Having been separated from his brothers since he was seventeen, he had been in Egypt more than half of his life (twenty-two years.)
Time also serves as part of God’s preparations in our lives.
The eruption of deep emotion
Before Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he wept so loud that Pharaoh’s household heard it (45:2). Joseph’s weeping was that of a man whose pent up longing for his family had grown to volcanic force over the course of twenty-two years. “I am Joseph,” he declared. The he asked, in the same breath, the question that lay most heavily on his soul, “Does my father still live?” (v. 3) Clearly, the bond between Joseph and his father remained powerfully in place.
The brothers could not answer, for they were shaken to the core of their beings. But Joseph summoned them to himself with these tender words, “Please come to me,” he appealed (v. 4). His brothers came to him. “I am Joseph, your brother,” he said, “ whom you sold into Egypt” (v. 4). Then he assured his brothers with words aimed at both calming their guilty consciences and explaining God’s sovereign will. “But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (v. 5, emphasis mine). Next he explained that there would be five more years of famine, then added, “And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (v. 7). Joseph then concluded, “So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt” (v. 8).
It was God, and not Joseph’s brothers, who sent Joseph to Egypt. Divine purpose and sovereign actions were the controlling force in all that had happened.
Joseph’s tears reveal the deep pain he had endured during the years of slavery and separation from his brethren. But when he spoke to his brothers, there was no bitterness in him, no desire for vengeance. Only peace can be found in his words. From the bottom of his soul Joseph was at peace with God’s sovereign plan. That put him at peace with himself, at peace with his past, at peace with his brothers, and at peace with his destiny.
Clearly, Joseph realized that his life purpose was to preserve life. Certainly he preserved the lives of countless thousands of people by providing them food during the great famine. But primarily his life purpose was meant to preserve the seed of Abraham, which might well have perished had not God sent Joseph into Egypt to provide them a safe haven.
By saving his clan, Joseph preserved its posterity. That means he preserved the future nation of Israel, the people from whom the Savior would emerge. He therefore preserved the Church, and that means he preserved you and me.
Joseph wielded great authority in Egypt, but he didn’t wield it for himself. No. Joseph wielded his authority for the sake of others, especially the people of God. His authority even served us.
III.The Pastoral PointS
Joseph’s life story makes essential pastoral points that we should appropriate for our own lives. Let me suggest a few.
The preparation process
First, we are wise to recognize the process God employs to forge us into effective servants. The way to the throne is the way of the cross. The way to glory is the way of humility. The way of rule is the way of service. What better way to learn service than as a slave? What better way to learn to give orders than to be on the receiving end of them? What better way to learn to rule men than by ruling prisoners? What better way to learn to be somebody than becoming nobody? What better way to embrace freedom than to first be made a captive?
The wealthy sheik’s son from Canaan, when called to rule at seventeen years of age, wasn’t yet fit to rule. After thirteen years of slavery, he was. What is the pastoral lesson here? It is this: Take up your cross and follow Jesus. God makes kings on crosses.
Trusting God and his sovereign purpose
Second, we must trust God’s sovereign purposes in our lives. God knows what He is doing with us even when we don’t. So we must learn to trust our God and His purposes, even in bewildering circumstances.
I know. It’s hard to trust God in the pit, and harder still to trust him when in chains or in a sea of seemingly senseless circumstances. But trust Him we must. He knows what He wants to do with us even when we don’t. He knows how to prepare us to fulfill His call in our lives. Only when the day of realization comes will we understand our journey and comprehend our course. Sometimes the blindfolds come off only after you’ve gotten to where you are going.
A life of service
The goal of God’s dealings in our life is to make us servants of His purposes. Serving His purposes compels us to live not for ourselves but for Him and others. When the chains of slavery finally came off Joseph, he was God’s servant. May we be like him.
I should add a few words about timing. After nine years in office, Joseph had the political capital to invite his clan to Egypt and settle them in its richest territory. I doubt he could have done that any earlier.
Israel follows Joseph’s pattern
Israel went on to become a nation in Egypt, the leading world power of the age. In the end the Egyptians made slaves of Israel, but when that happened it allowed Israel, as a nation, to follow Joseph’s pattern. God had called them to become a great nation. But between the call and its realization was the way of the cross, which for Israel fleshed out in a period of slavery followed by forty years of testing in the wilderness. Only after these things did Israel enter into the Promised Land.
Call, Cross. Crown—the patterns holds for individuals, families, churches, ministries, businesses, governments, and even nations.
The way of the cross is the way of discipleship, and it leads to leadership. Put another way the way of the cross leads to the throne. I don’t know where each of you is in the epic journey, but stay faithful and trust God. Embrace your call. Embrace the lessons you learn in the school of affliction. They will teach you how to serve. When leadership is granted to you, apply those lessons in the halls of power. The purpose of authority is service. Amen.