Joseph’s journey to rule traveled the slave trail
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Old Testament Reading:Genesis 37:1-28
“Then Midianite traders passed by; so the brothers pulled Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt” (Genesis 37:28 NKJV).
Most OF US remember that Joseph became the second most powerful man in Egypt, and that he saved not only Egypt from extinction but his own clan as well. But we tend to forget that Joseph was a slave for thirteen years before he rose from obscurity to prominence. The truth is, Joseph’s journey to rule traveled the slave trail, and slavery was Joseph’s God-appointed tutor to prepare Joseph for the throne.
It’s not just Joseph’s slave years that we tend to gloss over. We have a general tendency, I think, to ignore the years of painful preparation that many of our Bible heroes endured. We remember that David slew Goliath and went on to become Israel’s great king, but we forget the hard years he spent as a fugitive. (We also tend to read with nearly blind hearts those parts of David’s psalms that express his fear or anguish or confusion.) When it comes to the apostles of our Lord, we more often remember their mighty works than we do their beatings or rejections or imprisonments. We often prefer to think more about the resurrection of Jesus than we do about his sufferings on the cross. (Because of its horrors, I confess that I often avert my gaze from the cross.) We think much of Jesus’ victories but little of his almost constant battles with the Jewish leaders that opposed him.
And on it goes. There’s just something about human nature that tends to pay more attention to the coronation than to the crucible that preceded it. But it is the crucible that makes the man.
The fans want their team to lift the trophy at the end of the game. So do the players. But the players know they’ll have to first win the game, and that to do that they must first endure countless hours of grueling practice. Champions play the game and are crowned in the stadium, but they are made into champions on lonely practice fields. Players think about these things. Fans do not. I say this because I think we tend to read the stories of our Bible heroes more as fans than as players. That’s why we focus on their glorious conquests. We’d be wiser to read the stories as players. That way we’d more readily enter into the hard parts of our heroes’ stories—and that’s something we need to do because discipleship isn’t a spectator sport, it’s a war on the fields of life.
Joseph’s painful journey to power anticipated the way of the cross. It began with a call; it proceeded to a long season of the cross; it culminated with the power of the crown. Call, Cross, and Crown—that was the Lord’s way with Joseph, and it is his way with us.
So let’s look at Joseph’s way of the cross, and do so under these headings: first, we’ll look at the call of the privileged son; second, we’ll examine the formation of the betrayed brother; finally, we’ll look into the exaltation of the servant ruler. Because Joseph’s story is well known, I will anticipate its glorious ending as we track the way of the slave that begins with our text. May the Holy Spirit guide our meditation.
The Call of the Privileged Son
Joseph was the second youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, and thus not the son that anyone in the clan imagined would one day arise to rule it. But God called Joseph to do just that when he was a mere seventeen years of age. Already Jacob’s favorite son, God called Joseph to be the ruler of the clan. Let’s look at Joseph’s call now.
Joseph: privileged son & hated brother (Gen. 37:3-4)
Jacob was a wealthy and influential sheik, and that means Joseph was born into a life of privilege. Added to this were the facts that Joseph was Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel’s first son, and that Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other sons because he was “the son of his old age.” So when we meet Joseph, we meet him as the most privileged of all Jacob’s sons.
But all was not well for Joseph in Jacob’s household. When Jacob made a special tunic for him it provoked the hatred of his brothers, who verbally abused him. The favorite son was also the most despised brother.
Called to rule (Gen. 37:5-11)
God’s call on Joseph’s life was revealed to him in two remarkable dreams. In the first dream he saw he and his brothers binding sheaves in the field, and Joseph’s sheaf stood upright while all the other sheaves bowed to his. The clear meaning was that his brothers would submit to his rule. When Joseph told the dream to his brothers, they hated him even more for his dream than they did for his special tunic.
In a second dream, this one told to his brothers and his father, Joseph saw the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowing before him. The meaning was clear: The whole clan would one come under his rule. Jacob rebuked Joseph for this dream, but he also pondered Joseph’s words in his heart.
Over the course of time it became clear that these two dreams were from the Lord. Joseph would arise to rule his clan and to preserve them as the covenantal seed of Abraham. At the beginning of Joseph’s story, his brothers had not a clue that it was God’s divine plan to save and preserve them and their posterity through Joseph. But by the end of the story, the same brothers were most grateful for Joseph’s provision and protection.
My main point here is simply this: Joseph was called to rule at seventeen years of age. The call was glorious. But the road to its realization would be anything but. The divinely called and privileged son of Jacob was about to be delivered into Egyptian slavery.
The Betrayal of the priviliged son (Gen. 37:12-28)
Joseph’s divine call required him to go on an epic mission. And that mission took its first definitive step when Jacob sent Joseph on a lesser (and quite ordinary) mission to visit his brothers, who were pasturing their flocks far from the family base camp. For Joseph, the lesser mission would take a surprising and heart-wrenching turn when his brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery. Painful though this betrayal was, it thrust Joseph into the epic mission that would result in his preserving Abraham’s seed in the earth.
It is in Joseph’s betrayal and enslavement that the way of the cross first comes into view.
God’s mission for Joseph
Joseph’s lesser mission for his father became, as we just noted, God’s mission, a mission designed to eventually save and rescue Jacob’s clan and preserve them for the covenantal purposes that God had set in motion with Jacob’s grandfather Abraham.
Epic journeys often begin with ordinary steps, and then transform into journeys of extraordinary importance.
As the Scripture makes clear, Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, stripped of his prized tunic, thrown into a pit, and then sold into slavery to Ishmaelite traders who took him to Egypt and there was sold him to an Egyptian master.
Think about it:
- Betrayal by loved ones.
- Emblems of rank and privilege stripped away.
- Cast into a pit, as an animal without rights.
- Raised from the pit only to be sold to slave traders.
- Sold as a slave to an Egyptian overlord.
The brothers break his heart. His ties to his father are radically severed. He loses all privilege in the bottom of a dark pit. He loses rights to himself in the chains of a slave. He is forced to live for another, as a slave, in a foreign land.
Joseph has been thrust onto the way of the cross.
The emotional pain
We can scarcely comprehend the emotional pain and excruciating bewilderment that Joseph suffered under this cruel and unjust turn of events.
Make no mistake about it: Joseph’s betrayal was an evil deed. But later in his life Joseph came to understand that, in God’s mysterious providence, his brothers’ evil dead worked for good under the providence of God. (We’ll look into this issue in the next sermon.) I am reminded here of something Peter preached to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus, Peter declared, was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” but was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:33 ESV). God’s sovereign will is sometimes worked despite the evil deeds of men. It was so with Joseph.
Epic journeys are often marked by epic betrayals and extraordinary pain. But God is mysteriously at work in these things.
The son of privilege, now a slave
So the son of privilege found himself on the road to slavery. Joseph was no longer his own. For all practical intents and purposes, he had been stripped of his dignity. He lost his identity. He had no rights save those of a slave, and slaves had no rights. His heart and soul were torn from the father who loved him. A slave’s quarters and worse replaced the opulent tents of the home he once knew. He found himself in a nightmare for which his dreams had not prepared him. The slave traders knew nothing of his father’s love, and saw in Joseph only a piece of merchandise by which they hoped to prosper. On the journey, Joseph’s future became clear to him: he would become the servile property of an Egyptian master whose language he could not speak and whose gods he could not serve. The son of privilege thus became a slave. The future ruler of his clan (and much more) found himself ruled by heartless men.
But it was the way of the cross.
The price of the high call
High calls come with high price tags. It was Joseph’s high call that put him on his mission. Perhaps the memory of his dreams sustained him. I like to hope that they did. But being human, and having had my own dark journeys of soul, I know that the glories of a promise can fade almost to the point of obscurity when darkness and pain press in. So I tend to think that what Joseph experienced on the way down to Egypt was the horror of a crushed and abandoned and desolate soul. On the road to Egypt, Joseph was as good as dead.
The hero of the epic journey often finds himself in chains. It was so with Joseph. Called of God to achieve great things, betrayal and slavery became Joseph’s unwanted but much needed tutors.
The exaltation of the servant ruler
But we know the rest of the story. Joseph’s call was from God. He was destined to rule. In the providence of God, the rejection of his brothers put him on the road to ruling not only his father’s clan but all of Egypt as well. Jeweled ornaments would one day replace his chains. A nobleman’s robes would replace his prison rags. Degradation would be replaced with regal splendor. He would move from a prison to a palace. The hero’s journey would lead, finally, to rule. The slave would rise to rule over Egypt, the greatest empire of the age.
The greater mission
To say it again, Joseph’s greater mission was the preservation of Abraham’s seed. To accomplish this, Joseph needed to be in Egypt and there rise to authority. He needed to accomplish his rise on the strength of proven character and divine gifting—one without the other would not be enough—and it was this for this purpose that Joseph traversed the way of the cross on his epic journey to power and authority.
Embracing the cross
As the rest of Joseph’s story makes clear, he embraced the way of the cross. He walked the hard road, maintaining his character and learning to become a servant leader for the benefit of others. He both suffered and thrived under injustice. He developed his skills under the most humbling of circumstances. He developed his gift for discerning the true meaning of dreams. When the time came for him to save Egypt, he was ready for it. When the time came to save his clan, he was ready for that too.
Joseph was made fit for royal service by the way of the cross.
God knew Joseph’s mission from the beginning
God knew Joseph’s mission all along. Joseph did not. At every step God worked in Joseph to prepare him for the fulfillment of his calling. God worked in and through his family, in and with his call, in and with his betrayal, in and with him in slavery, and in and with him in prison. All was aimed at making Joseph fit for purpose for which God had called him. So though Joseph did not realize it until well into his reign in Egypt—and we’ll talk about that in the next sermon—Joseph’s whole life was about fulfilling a great and God-appointed mission.
The happy ending
In the end the hero’s journey had a happy ending, not just for him but for multitudes of Egyptians and a Hebrew clan destined to become the nation from whom the Messiah came. The privileged-son-become-slave became the exalted ruler of Egypt and the savior of his people. In a real sense, Joseph served you and me, and all who have or will come to know the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So we see that Joseph’s story illustrates the way of the cross. Doing so, it suggests the walk that all true disciples must walk. Your story and mine may not be as dramatic and world changing as Joseph’s was, but its basic outline follows the same pattern; and that pattern is Call, Cross, and Crown.
It is the long middle road—the way of the cross—that is so difficult. But it is while we are on that road, with all its unpleasant and difficult circumstances, with all of its seeming injustices, and with all its painful opportunities for growth, that God makes us servant leaders.
The story of Joseph thus encourages us to embrace our call, embrace the way of the cross, and in the end embrace the promotion that puts us to work on behalf God’s higher purposes.
The way to the throne is the way of the cross. Our day is coming, Church. Be faithful.
May God be glorified in us all. Amen.