Loving Discipline

April 21, 2013 / No. 3668

Dear Radio Friends,
Among all the stories recorded in Scripture, there is hardly one so dramatic as the story of Joseph. It is a story of twists and turns, of ups and downs, something like riding a roller coaster. I remember as a child loving this story and reading it over and over. And perhaps, because of our familiarity with the story, we as adults do not catch the raw emotion and the drastic changes in this story. The experience of each person in the story is a kind of roller coaster.
That is true for Joseph as he goes from favored son, to Egyptian slave, to property manager, to federal prisoner, to prime minister. What is God doing, and where is God leading?
That is also true for Jacob, the patriarch, who has the promise of God, “I will be with thee whithersoever thou goest.” When he looks at his life, it seems the opposite is true, and so he cries out, “All these things are against me.”
That is also true for Joseph’s brothers. Guilty of selling their brother into slavery and hiding the sin for more than 20 years, they are suddenly faced with their guilt in Egypt when an Egyptian ruler treats them harshly, accuses them of being spies, and keeps one of them in prison. You remember that, back in chapter 42, verse 21, as Joseph the ruler imposed these things on them, they looked at one another and said, “We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.” For 20 years this had been their secret and they had been silent about it, but there it was, right below the surface, plaguing their consciences. They feel the shame and the guilt. They are on edge. That comes out as they leave to return home and find in their sacks the money they had used to purchase the grain. Now, fearful they’ll be accused of theft, they return to Egypt the second time, with extra money in their hands, with a gift for the ruler of nuts and spices, and with their brother Benjamin along to verify to the ruler that they are not spies.
In the passage we look at today, from Genesis 43:15 through chapter 44:13, we will consider the second appearance of these brothers before Joseph. In it, their roller-coaster ride continues—and it is not all fun either. There are moments of joy, and moments of fear. They are treated to a royal feast with the ruler, and it seems that God is working things out for their safe return to Canaan with both Benjamin and Simeon, and then there is the silver-cup incident and the arrest of Benjamin.
As we know, the one operating the roller coaster is Joseph, and we might ask, why does he do this to them? Is he just teasing them? Is he having fun or being vindictive? I remember as a child being quite gleeful as the brothers stood in their misery before Joseph, not knowing what was going on. The bad guys were getting beat by the good guy. Is that what is going on? The answer is NO. To understand the story, we have to go deeper.
What Joseph wants is to see the repentance of his brothers, and Joseph’s goal is the full reconciliation and salvation of his family. Spiritually, Joseph has something that he wants his brothers to share. Joseph knows his own salvation, and Joseph is working here to bring his brothers to that too, through true repentance. On their first visit, they acknowledged their guilt before him. And remember, they did not know that he could understand what they were saying. Now Joseph wants to see that their hearts are sorry. He wants to see that their character and not just their behavior has changed.
That is what is going on in the passage we look at today. In love, Joseph puts his brothers to the test. We could call it loving discipline. And the brothers experience it, not as Joseph working on their consciences, but God working on them. Judah says, chapter 44:16, “God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants.” There is something for us to learn from that too, that this is the way we should take all the troubles of life—as from God’s hand. That is what Joseph always did. He lived before the face of God. That’s what Jacob has to learn to do in the troubles of his life. And that’s what the brothers learn to do here too. They realize that one cannot hide his sins from God.
So, first, we have in the second half of chapter 43, from verse 15 to the end of the chapter, Joseph treating his brothers to a royal feast.
When Joseph sees his brothers have returned to buy corn, and that they have brought Benjamin with them, rather than greetings them and talking to them in the marketplace, he tells his steward to invite them to a feast at his home.
He does this to show them that he is not against them, that his goal is not to destroy them. The feast is set up in such a way that they experience the mercy of the ruler and see that the hand of God is with them. Joseph uses the feast to put them at ease.
At first, however, the eleven brothers are not at all thrilled to be invited to this feast. On the contrary, they are quite shocked. There are three things that shock them.
The first is the very fact that they are invited to the feast. Why would the ruler of Egypt want us to eat with him? No one else who is here to buy grain gets invited to his home? It makes them afraid, suspicious, and defensive. In Genesis 43:18, we read, “And the men were afraid, because they were brought to Joseph’s house; and they said, Because of the money that was returned in our sacks at the first time are we brought in; that he may seek occasion against us, and fall upon us, and take us for bondmen, and our asses.” The ruler thinks we have stolen the money, he is going to capture us and enslave all of us. Nothing good can come of this. And they get very defensive. In verses 19-22 we read that before they enter the house to eat they stand at the door and give a long explanation to Joseph’s steward, explaining that they did not take the silver and that they have brought it back. The reason they are so nervous is their guilt. This is what guilt will do. It will not let you rest. So, first, the invite itself is a shock.
Then second, the response of the steward shocks them even more. Joseph’s steward was an interesting fellow. He held the same position in relation to Joseph that Joseph had held earlier in relation to Potiphar. He was in charge of everything in Joseph’s house, so that Joseph did not have to be concerned about anything he had. It is obvious that this man knew how Joseph his master thought, and that he was in on the plan Joseph had for his brothers. Joseph would have handpicked him, and it seems from his responses that, through Joseph’s influence, he may well have been a believer himself. The brothers, however, have no idea of this. How startling it must have been to them, then, when in response to their fear, he says, “Peace be to you, fear not: your God, and the God of your father, hath given you treasure in your sacks: I had your money.” This whole reply rings with recognition of who these brothers are, of who their God is, and even of the covenant promises that Jehovah has made to their families.
First, he greets them with the Hebrew greeting, Shalom. Peace to you. Do not be afraid. He wants to put them at ease. There will be no accusations of theft. And then, “Your God, and the God of your Father,” that is, the covenant God, the God who made promises to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, this God is being faithful to you. He has given you treasure, not silver, but treasure in your sacks. I received your payment.
The only way the brothers could receive these words is as a rebuke, another smiting of their conscience. Here they are in a foreign land, among heathen people, and they are not trusting their God, and a man who to them would have been an unbeliever reminds them of who they are and of the faithfulness of their covenant God. Do not be afraid, do you not believe and trust in the God of heaven and earth?
Have you ever had that happen to you? An unbeliever, maybe a neighbor or someone you work with, someone who has heard your testimony about your God, and this person sees you anxious or angry, or maybe he hears you sin with your words, and he says, “What about your faith? Do you not believe a sovereign God? Is He not in control? Have you not rebuked me for speaking like that in the past?” And your conscience is smitten. You have opened your mouth and defamed the name of God and spoiled your testimony. Sometimes our children will pull us up like this too.
What a reproof the words of this Egyptian were to these men. Where did he learn about their God and the promise in their generations? How did he know to talk like this?
And then the third thing that shocks them is their seating arrangement. They are seated before the ruler from the oldest to the youngest and they look at one another in astonishment. Is this a coincidence? How could he know? There’s something going on, and it troubles their conscience.
But at the same time, their host is so gracious.
The clock strikes noon and Joseph is home for lunch. Nervously they present him with their gift, and they bow themselves down to the ground before him. There is no accusation about them being spies or thieves. Simeon is restored to them. Joseph asks them about their aged father and how he is coping with the famine. And they answer (v. 28), “Thy servant, our father, is in good health, he is yet alive.” And they bow to him again. And then, there is a sumptuous feast. Eleven men, who have been suffering through a famine, are treated to an abundance of food. The meal is extravagant and sumptuous. The ruler is friendly and generous. And soon all their fears are forgotten. The wine comes out. They drink and are merry. This ruler is not such a harsh man after all.
You see here that Joseph is not heartless. For a second time, this time after seeing his full brother Benjamin, and saying to him, “God be gracious unto thee, my son,” he is overcome with emotion and has to go to another room to cry and dry his tears and wash his face.
Now maybe you ask, why does he not just tell them now who he is? Why does he not say, “I am Joseph, God has brought you to me, now, go get our father Jacob and come here to live?” Why not?
And the answer is that Joseph has one more test. These brothers feel their guilt, but has their heart changed? Given the circumstances, would they commit the same wicked deed again that they have committed in the past? And so what Joseph does is reconstruct the setting of 20 years earlier when he was hated and sold, only this time Benjamin will be the brother they are tempted to get rid of, for their own well-being. Joseph is going to force them to make a choice between themselves and Benjamin.
He does not do this out of spite. Joseph is ready to extend forgiveness, but for reconciliation there needs to be a change of heart and behavior. Gently and lovingly, Joseph is leading them to that point. There is no accusation, he is simply letting God work on their consciences and in their lives.
So, this is what he does, and it is masterful. And again the steward handles the whole situation with amazing expertise.
First, at the feast, he spoils Benjamin by giving him a portion five times the size of his brothers. He did not do that for Benjamin’s sake. Benjamin did not need five meals worth of food at once. No, he did this for the brothers to see. He did this to separate Benjamin from the others as the special, the spoiled, the loved, the favored brother. Joseph knew this was still going on back at home, that it has been going on for 20 years. That is why Benjamin did not come to Egypt the first time. And Joseph wants to know, how are the brothers responding to it now? How is Benjamin being treated by them? Is it the same hatred and envy that led them to get rid of him so that they could be happy? Joseph wants to know what is going on in their hearts. They had to notice that Benjamin was given five times what they received. You can see them all looking down to the end of the table where Benjamin is. But how will they respond? Will this bring jealousy and envy?
That is the purpose, also, of the silver cup in Benjamin’s bag, to discover what is going on in their hearts. First, Joseph sets Benjamin apart as the spoiled one, and then he forces them to make a choice between the spoiled one and themselves. He is going to give them an opportunity to turn on and get rid of Benjamin, as they did him.
And so, next morning, the brothers head out on the road, happy and relieved. Things could not have gone better in Egypt. They have Benjamin with them, they have Simeon, they have food for their families, and they were treated to the best of Egypt. All the suspicion about their being spies and thieves is gone. What a relief.
They are not long gone, however, and Joseph sends his steward after them with careful instructions. He needs to arrest Benjamin, and bring him back, and give the brothers the opportunity to go on home without their youngest brother. More than 20 years earlier they had said of Joseph, “We will not have this dreamer rule over us, and so we’re going to get rid of him.” Now how will they respond? This will show whether their hearts are changed.
When the steward catches up to them, he repeats exactly what Joseph told him to say in verse 4: “Wherefore have ye rewarded evil for good? Why have you stolen my master’s silver cup?” The brothers are offended at the accusation. A false accusation is very difficult to take. They become extremely defensive, and reply in this vein, “That’s impossible. We would never do something like that. We were bringing money back, so why would we steal?”
I think there is a lesson right there in repentance. Too often we reply to accusations, and to the accusation of the Word of God concerning our sin, this way. We get defensive and think we are above certain sins. We should never think that way. Was this sin really below these men? Had not they sold their brother as a slave for a few pieces of silver, and stolen more than 20 years of his life from him? Why is this such an absurd accuastion?
But they are indignant. Far be it from us. God forbid that we should do such a thing. And they make a rash vow. “With whomsoever of thy servants it be found, both let him die, and we also will be my lord’s bondmen.”
That is extreme, and the steward recognizes it, so he changes the terms of this vow. “He with whom it is found shall be my servant, and ye shall be blameless.”
And so, hastily we are told, they each took down his sack and opened it to prove his innocence. And, methodically, from the oldest to the youngest, one by one, the steward searches their sacks. And then as he comes to the last one, as they were collectively breathing a sigh of relief, the silver cup is found in Benjamin’s sack.
Here is the moment of truth—the test. Will they go home, and say to their father, Benjamin stole the silver cup, so he is now a slave in Egypt? Will they wash their hands of their spoiled brother?
How do they respond?
The Bible records no words here, only actions, because their actions speak louder than their words. They tore their clothes, and, to a man, they turned back to Egypt to face the ruler. And, coming before Joseph, they fall before him on the ground.
What do we have here? We have family love and solidarity. That means they have repented. Their hearts are changed. Not only do they not want what’s easiest for themselves, but they do not want their brother to be a slave in Egypt, and they do not want their father to be hurt and to die of grief. As Judah will go on to explain (and we will look at this in the next message), they are ready to give up themselves and their own life and happiness for the sake of others.
Guilt has brought repentance, which is not only a change in conduct but a change of heart.
We are going to stop in the story right here, but I just want to close with a couple of comments regarding true repentance and conversion.
First this, that true conversion is repentance. Conversion is not simply saying, I believe in Jesus. Conversion is not simply identifying a moment when you feel Jesus came into your heart. Conversion is not simply identifying yourself with a group of people or a church that calls itself Christian. Nor is conversion simply being delivered from one or several very bad sins of your past. No, conversion, true conversion, is heartfelt repentance over sin, and a turning and forsaking of sin to follow Christ in love.
That conversion goes deep, because God’s Word goes deep. The truly converted one does not say, “Far be it from me to sin. Don’t call me a sinner, I find that offensive.” No, the truly converted one cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The truly converted one says with Paul, “I am the chief of sinners.” The truly converted one understands the depths of sin and hatred and envy and lust and anger and bitterness that are resident in his own soul.
God’s Word exposes that to me. It is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And so, if I’m truly converted I see my need of salvation in Jesus Christ alone. I trust in Him and not myself or my worth. I am saved by grace alone.
True conversion also means a change of heart and life. The question is not, when was I converted, or do I go to church, but the question is, am I living in daily repentance over sin, and am I fighting against sin, and am I holy, as God is holy? True Christians don’t go on in sin. They hate sin, because God hates sin. And, like Judah and his brothers now, they will give up their all to serve others in love, and to serve their savior in love. The true Christian says, “I am not my own, and I am not here for me, but I belong to the Lord. His I am, and Him I serve.”
And, finally, when that is our perspective of conversion, we are not looking for decisions in others. We are not waiting for that moment when our kids will accept the Lord into their hearts. No, we are trusting that God will work in their hearts, and we are teaching them heart change and heart sorrow, and we are looking for the fruits of the Spirit in their lives. This is how the gospel works. It is not simply a message of forgiveness, but a powerful message that brings change to people’s lives.
Joseph understood that, and that is where he wanted to lead his brothers.
Oh, may God so work in us.
Let us pray.
Father, we pray for hearts that know their sinfulness, mouths that are ready to confess guilt, and lives that are transformed by the power of the gospel. And in this way, give us peace and joy. For Jesus’ sake we pray. Amen.