What do you do when you have been wronged or hurt by another? What do you do when it is in your power to get even by harming the person who has hurt you?
Jesus says, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” and “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” And Paul says, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
But how on earth do you do that?
Every one of us understands the pain of being wronged by another. Of all the pains we have to bear, this is probably the worst. Someone you loved, someone you prayed with and cared about, someone you helped, has turned on you, become your enemy, maligned your character, and deliberately hurt you. How is it possible to repay such evil with good—when naturally every fiber of our being wants to get back at that person, to hurt him?
Well, the answer to that, we find in the story of Joseph and his brothers, especially in the beginning of Genesis chapter 45, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.
This story has a background. Genesis 45 begins with the words, “Then Joseph…” and we ask, when? The answer is found in the last section of chapter 44, verses 14-34, which contain Judah’s plea to Joseph.
You remember that when the eleven brothers left for home, Joseph planted the silver cup in Benjamin’s sack, and then sent his servant to arrest Benjamin. He did this to test his brothers by recreating the circumstances of 22 years earlier. Now Benjamin has become the favored son. What will the brothers do when they have opportunity to get rid of Benjamin? Will they treat him as they had treated Joseph? Joseph gives them the perfect opportunity to get rid of him. They could go home to their father and, without lying this time, say, “Benjamin messed up. He stole the cup. Your favored son was not such an angel, after all.”
But instead, they turn around and together, as one, they go back to stand before the Egyptian ruler. There is family solidarity now. And this is the repentance, the change of heart, that Joseph has been looking for.
When they come back to Joseph, they fall down before him on the ground. This is the third or fourth time they have done this. And Joseph asks them, “Why, why have you stolen my silver cup?” Judah speaks for the brothers. “What shall we say unto my lord? What shall we speak? How shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants.”
What iniquity? The sin of stealing the silver cup? NO, the guilt of selling Joseph. Just as their money was planted in their sacks, so was the silver cup—they knew that. God has found out their iniquity in selling their brother Joseph 22 years earlier. This is what Judah is talking about. Remember, back in chapter 42, on their first visit, after being imprisoned for three days, they say, “We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, and we would not hear.” This is a confession: God has uncovered our guilt.
Notice, Judah is not pointing fingers at Benjamin, and saying, he stole the cup. Rather, we, we all are guilty. And we, all of us, will be your servants. We will not leave anyone behind this time.
Joseph has constructed this scene, and he says, “No, only Benjamin. Only the one who has stolen the cup will be my servant. The rest of you, go home in peace to your father.” Now, Joseph had to know there would be no peace if they went home. But again, it is an out for them. Just go home to your father, and tell him what happened.
Then, beginning in verse 18, all the way through verse 34, Judah speaks. It is the longest speech in the entire book of Genesis, and in it Judah not only pleads with Joseph for Benjamin, but he shows how deep and genuine his love and repentance are. Let me just highlight a few features of the speech.
First, it is all about Jacob, and Judah’s love for his father. Fourteen times he mentions his father. He talks about the pain of his father in the past, in the apparent death of his most loved son, Joseph. He talks about the pain of his father in the present, and the reluctance of Jacob to let Benjamin come down to Egypt. And he talks about what will happen to his father if Benjamin does not come home. This, he says, will kill my father. The gist of it is that, for Jacob’s sake, for my father’s sake, Benjamin has to go home. There is no alternative.
This comes from Judah, who 22 years earlier did not care a snap about how his father felt, who not only treated Joseph with cruelty, but who with a cruel lie had presented a shredded coat to Jacob, and then for 20 years had watched all the pain that this caused his father. Now, the guilt of that has brought him to repentance.
This is genuine!
How do we know that? Because of the fruits of repentance. The sin of the brothers was a sin against their family, against their brother and their father, a sin that tore apart and brought immense pain to their family. A notable sin. But now there’s a repentance that is just as obvious.
That is expressed in verses 33 and 34, of chapter 44. Judah says to Joseph, “Let me stay here in the place of Benjamin, and let me become your slave, and let Benjamin go home. I can’t go back and bring more pain to my father. He’s gone through enough.”
Do you understand the personal ramifications for Judah of what he is saying here? He is giving up the rest of his life, to live as a slave in a foreign land. He is willing to bear what he inflicted on his brother Joseph. He is letting go of his family back home, his part in his father’s inheritance. He is sacrificing all. And his motivation is love—love for his father, Jacob, who does not always love him fairly, but who favors other sons over him. And love for Benjamin, the favored, the spoiled son.
Earlier, Judah had responded to this kind of favoritism in the family with hatred. But now, he so loves his father that he is willing to give up himself. He is a changed man. This is not just a conscience that feels guilty, but this is a heart that has been changed, a mouth that confesses sin. This is a man who is willing to bear the consequences of his sin himself, who takes ownership of his sin. And this is a man who out of love will do whatever it takes to avoid causing hurt again in his family.
And this is the kind of repentance that is needed in our families and in our marriages. We live in a society where divorce is almost as common as marriage itself. There are different reasons for this, the main one probably being selfishness, and that selfishness will often express itself in an unwillingness really to own up to sin, and really to seek in love the good of your partner. Judah is willing to go to the ends of the earth, he is willing to give up everything, to keep peace in his family. This is true repentance.
And now, the tables are turned. The ball is in Joseph’s court. And, you see, that is the thing about confession and repentance. When you say, “I was wrong, and will you please forgive me?” that puts you in a strong position. Not a position of power, but it is liberating, and it puts a kind of pressure on the one to whom you have confessed your wrongs. Reconciliation requires not only a willingness to confess, but also a willingness to forgive. And that forgiveness is as difficult and as rare as confession. It requires as much grace to forgive as it does to confess.
After Judah’s confession, everything is in place for full reconciliation in this family. The question is, how will Joseph respond?
And that brings us to chapter 45, the climax in the story of Joseph, which is not just a story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, but is an amazing account of genuine and gracious forgiveness. There is no bitterness, no resentment, no hard feelings, no retribution, but rather an amazing display of grace, love, and forgiveness.
“Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him.” He broke down again. This is the third time, and this time it is not just because he sees his brothers, or hears them talking in their Hebrew about their sin of 20 years ago. No, this time it is because of what Judah said. His brothers are sorry. They’ve changed. There is hope for his family. And Joseph forgives them.
Through tears, he cried out to all the Egyptians in the building, “Get out!” Why? He did this partly because what was about to happen was a very private and personal affair. His position of ruler made him a public figure, but this was a private matter, a family matter. But, the real reason was to protect his brothers, to keep them safe.
Just imagine the consequences if their cruelty to Joseph in the past came out publicly. Joseph is the most loved man in Egypt. Pharaoh and the people owe their lives to him. Imagine if this were exposed. Joseph does not want it exposed. Why? Because out of love he desires to protect the reputation and character of his brothers. There is no vengeance in his heart, no desire to expose and to humiliate and to defame them. Instead, with a Christ-like love that covers a multitude of sins, Joseph speaks to his brothers, alone. Jesus says in Matthew 18, “if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” That requires a lot of love. The temptation is there to spread it. Joseph wants to talk to his brothers, alone. His concern is for them.
And so, with all the Egyptians out of the room, Joseph speaks for the first time to his brothers with no interpreter and says, “I am Joseph; doth my father yet live?” And he does not mean, is he alive, but rather, How is he really doing? Judah, you have told me he is alive, you have told me in general terms about his grief, but how is he?
And the brothers? Verse 3 tells us, they do not answer him, because they could not answer him, because they were troubled at Joseph’s presence. The idea of troubled here is “shell-shocked.” It is the experience of terror that a soldier has the first time he escapes death on the battlefield. Joseph’s words are a bombshell. Can this really be Joseph? This man is Joseph?
They do not say a word, but you can imagine that their minds were racing back over all that this ruler had said and done to them? This is Joseph. And now, his rough treatment does not seem so rough after all. There is so much more he could have done to get back at them. Probably they remember the dreams for which they hated him so much, and yes, here they were, bowing to him. This is Joseph? Is it possible? We sold him as a slave, and now he stands before us with absolute power. What is next?
And then in verse four you see again the graciousness of Joseph to them. “Come,” he says, “Come near to me.” When you stand before a ruler, you give him his space. Now Joseph invites them into his personal space. He calls them forward to fellowship and intimacy. He wants to touch them, he wants them to be comfortable with him. He reaches out to them.
When they come close to him, and you can imagine it was a hesitant shuffle, he says, “I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt.” Notice, they still have not said a word, and they know that what he has just told them is true. This is our brother, the one we hated and sold. Now they are facing reality. Now truth is in front of them. Why did Joseph say that? “I am your brother whom ye sold as a slave.” Verse 5 tells us why. Out of a massive heart of empathy, Joseph says, “Be not grieved or angry with yourselves that ye sold me hither.” In other words, do not be distressed about this. Do not let the guilt of what you have done trouble you. It does not matter anymore. I’ve forgiven it and forgotten it.
What consumes Joseph now is a desire to affirm in the minds of his brothers that they are forgiven. He wants to relieve the suffering of their guilty consciences. He does not want them to feel any pain or anguish over what they have done to him. There is no vengeance, no retaliation, no bitterness, no animosity, nothing but grace, love, concern, and desire for fellowship and restoration. This is amazing.
But where on earth does that come from? How is it possible, when you’ve been wronged, to repay evil with good?
The key to it, the key to forgiveness, is here in the passage. There are two elements to it. The first is that Joseph has a correct theology of God.
How do you persevere through the trials of life? How do you endure the deep pain of being hurt by someone you love? How do you repay evil with good? How do you overcome bitterness and resentment? How do you restrain yourself from getting even? How do you hold your tongue so as not to damage the reputation of someone who has hurt you?
For Joseph, the key is that God is sovereign over all. That God in His providence rules over everything in this universe, so that nothing can move without His will, and nothing can happen to me, no hair can fall from my head, no evil can come against me, apart from the will of God. Even the wicked and hate-filled actions of sinful people who intend to hurt me come according to God’s will. That is the big God that Joseph confesses here.
Notice, three times in verses 5 through 8 he says, “God sent me.” In verse 5, “for God did send me before you to preserve life.” In verse 7, “And God sent me before you.” And in verse 8, “So now, it was not you that sent me hither, but God.” He says this to console his brothers. He saw God’s purpose in it. God determined it to be this way. And in all that he says to his brothers there is no resentment, no accusation, and no retaliation. He does not take what they have done to him and rub it in their faces.
You see, when we by faith embrace the reality of the sovereign providence of God, then that frees us, not just to be able to endure all the different trials that come our way because we see that they come from God’s hand and are under His control and that He has a purpose in them, but it frees us also to forgive the evils that others commit against us. I have a good friend in the ministry who will often remind me, and others, of this. If I dare to raise with him a criticism that I have heard that someone has of my ministry, his response is, “But God wanted you to hear that. Even if it is not true, God wanted you to hear that.”
What a marvelous perspective, a liberating perspective, because then it is not about the person who has done me wrong, it is not about what your spouse accused you of that wasn’t true, it is not about the terrible things that people have done to you, it is not about the dreadful abuse you received as a child, it is not about getting back at those people, or exposing what they have done, but, like Joseph, it is about living before the face of God, and understanding that even if I do not see it now, God has a purpose in the present evils of my life. Joseph sees that purpose here—God sent him to Egypt, to save lives. This was God’s sovereign and providential purpose. But understand, Joseph didn’t have a script written out ahead of time that told him what God’s purpose was. No, it must have taken Joseph years, at least 13 years of slavery and imprisonment, to see any purpose of God in it. His life was just like yours and mine—we do not always see the specific purposes of God. And yet, Joseph kept responding, not to people or circumstances, but to God who was over all.
And he could do that because he knew that he was a child of God. He knew that he belonged to God. He knew the promises to the house of Abraham, and he knew that the God whom he loved worked all things for his good.
It was this knowledge that he was a child of God that is the second part of the key to Joseph’s forgiveness. Joseph knew the grace of God to him, and knowing God’s grace and forgiveness himself, he was enabled to forgive others. “God,” he says, “hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.” He is saying, God has shown immense and undeserved favor and grace to me, and now what can I do, but show the same grace to you?
This is such an important biblical principle underlying forgiveness. If you as a believer really understand the gospel of grace and forgiveness, the grace and forgiveness that God has shown to you in Jesus Christ, then it is impossible for you to harbor resentment and bitterness and desire for revenge in your heart. And if you do, oh I encourage you to dig into Scripture in order to understand the greatness of God’s grace to us sinners.
Do you understand what you deserve as a sinner? Really? And do you understand the greatness of God’s love in giving His Son, and in putting on Him our sins? God’s grace toward His people is free, it is full, it is complete, and it is wholly undeserved. And we who have tasted His grace, and understood it and experienced it, should be ready to forgive those who sin against us. We should have no bitterness or desire for revenge, and we should be ready also for complete reconciliation upon their repentance. Joseph in love, without thought of revenge, sought the repentance of his brothers, and when it came, his forgiveness was complete.
That led to a full and beautiful family reconciliation. That begins in these verses. Joseph fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brethren and wept on them. And after that his brothers talked with him.
What a wonderful conversation that must have been. Twenty-two years of catching up, and such hope for the future for them all. Joseph gives them gifts of love, and supplies to get the family, including Jacob, back down to Egypt, and he says to his brothers, “Tell my father of all my glory in Egypt, and of all that you have seen; and ye shall haste and bring down my father hither.”
And that is where we will pick up the story next time—a family reunion.
Father, we give thanks for Thy forgiving grace toward us undeserving sinners. And we give thanks for Thy sovereign providence and care of all the affairs of our life. Lord, give us grace to receive whatever comes our way, as coming from Thy fatherly hand. And give us grace so that hearts of vengeance may be replaced with hearts of love. We pray it for Jesus’ sake, Amen.