God Using Evil

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Good morning everyone. I don’t know if you have a favourite TV series which glues you to your screen? It might be The Crown or Downton Abbey or Poldark or Dr Who. What glues us to our screens when we’re watching our favourite TV series is the mixture of an engrossing plot and the awakening of our deep emotions as we watch. The story of Joseph and his family in Genesis 37-50 has all the hallmarks of a great TV series: it is absolutely bursting full with an exotic cocktail of different emotions: desperation, fear, guilt, relief, panic, tension, anticipation, concern, shock, agony, joy… and it has a great plot too! No doubt that’s why Andrew Lloyd-Webber wrote his famous musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, which I acted in at my first ever school play! But is that all this section is? Is it just a catchy musical, a great story to read? No. This part of Scripture (as all parts of Scripture ) changes lives.God speaks to us through it. Let me share a testimony from the American pastor Randy Alcorn. He writes this:

This time it seemed likely we would lose our house. By all appearances, and certainly by the world’s standards, our lives had taken a devastating turn. Right? Wrong. It was one of the best things that ever happened to us. What others intended for evil, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20)

And if you want to learn all about how God worked this awful situation for good, you can read all about it in his book, ‘The Treasure Principle’. Well let’s pray for ourselves as we begin:

In 1990, I was the pastor of a large church, making a good salary and earning book royalties. I had been a pastor for thirteen years, since the church began. I didn’t want to do anything else. Then something happened that turned my family members’ lives upside down. I was on the board of a crisis pregnancy centre, and we opened our home to a pregnant teenager, helping her to give up her baby for adoption. We also had the joy of seeing her come to Christ. I felt an even greater burden for the unborn. After searching Scripture and much prayer, I began participating in peaceful, nonviolent rescues at abortion clinics. For this reason I was arrested and sent to jail.

Another court judgement followed against him for another peaceful protest he’d been involved with, and he writes this:

Father God, we do pray that these truths in Genesis would take deep root in our hearts and radically transform our responses to the very worst situations we have faced in our lives, are facing, and will face in our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

I’m going to start by doing an overview of the story of Genesis 42-45 in nine short scenes. Then we’ll look at one the big lesson for us today at the end.

Scene one: FAMINE (42.1-5)

Joseph has recently been appointed as the governor of Egypt because he was able to interpret Pharoah’s dreams. He told Pharoah that there would be seven years of excellent harvests, followed by seven years of famine, and he got it right. At this point Jacob’s family enter stage-left. They are in Canaan. Food is running out and Jacob sends the young men off to buy grain, but he won’t let Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, go with them.

Scene two: SUSPICION (42.6-17)

The brothers arrive in Egypt and meet Joseph to buy grain. What happens when they meet Joseph? He recognises them but they don’t recognise him and he treats them as potential terrorist suspects! Genesis 42.8-9:

And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.”

When I was reading this part of my daughter’s children’s Bible, she asked me this question: “Why is Joseph being mean to his brothers? Why doesn’t he tell them who he is?” That’s a good question isn’t it. When you first read this section, it looks very much like Joseph wants to take pay back his brothers for selling him into slavery by giving them a really hard time. He seems like Edmond Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’: imprisoned for a long time falsely, then escapes, then rises to power, then uses his power to get revenge on those who harmed him in the first place. So is that what Joseph is doing here? Is he taking revenge? If you step back and you look at the whole of Genesis 42-45, you’ll see that this simplycannot be the case:

-Firstly, Joseph provides for all the material needs of his family. He helps them.
-Secondly, Joseph weeps four times! He clearly loves them, he’s desperate to be reconciled to them.
-Thirdly and conclusively, (and this is a spoiler alert for the end of this section) in the first words Joseph says to his brothers after he reveals himself to them are these ones (Genesis 45.4-5):

I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.

No. Joseph is not taking revenge in these chapters. He is actually making reconciliation. If you like, Joseph is a kind of ‘good’ ‘Count of Monte Cristo’, who’s using his power to humble his brothers, with a view to ultimate reconciliation with them (what exactly enables him to respond in such a way we’ll look at later).

Scene Three: GUILT (42.18-28)

But before this can happen, this reconciliation he knows his brothers first need need to face up to the sin that they committed against him and this takes us to scene three. Guilt. After his brothers have spent three days in custordy, Joseph tells them to leave one of the brothers with him (and it ends up being Simeon who gets the short straw), and he sends the rest of with grain back home then to return to Egypt with Benjamin. At this point, conviction for their past sin begins to fall very heavily upon them. Genesis 42.21-22:

… “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.”
And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”

They are starting to make a connection between how they treated Joseph, and what is happening to them now. Te skeletons if you like, are walking out of the closet. Joseph secretly returns the money they gave him to pay for the grain and sends them off back home.

Scene Four: STALEMATE (42:29-38)

Things get a bit stuck. The brothers return to Jacob and report back. It’s a tense family conference, but it finishes in a stalemate because Joseph has commanded the brothers to return to Egypt with Benjamin, but Jacob won’t let Benjamin return to Egypt with them… But the stalemate doesn’t last long:

Scene Five: DESPERATION (43.1-14)

The famine is severe, so Jacob again tells his sons to go and get food. But Judah says if they’re going to return they must bring Benjamin. Jacob gets annoyed that they told Joseph about Benjamin but eventually he gives in. He sends all the brothers back with double the amount of money that they had in their sacks and gifts (including I notice, almonds and pistachio nuts which I would have been very tempted to eat on route!) and Benjamin goes with them.

Scene Six: FEAST (43.15-34)

Joseph prepares a lunchtime banquet for his brothers. Much to their amazement, Joseph (who they still don’t know, they still don’t recognise) sits them in age order from the oldest down to the youngest. But there’s still no reconciliation there. What’s going to happen next.

Scene Seven : TRAP (44.1-17)

It’s time for the brothers to return home. Joseph commands his steward to fill his brothers’ sacks with food and money and to plant a silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. He lets them get away, then he orders the steward to chase after them and accuse Benjamin of theft. Joseph wants to keep Benjamin in custody. But the brothers know that Jacob can’t live without Benjamin, he would go down to the grave with sorrow in his heart. So what next?

Scene Eight : INTERCESSION (44.18-34)

Judah pleads for Jacob not to be separated from Benjamin. He relays to Joseph what Jacob had said to all the brothers before they left. He begs with Joseph that he might remain there instead of Benjamin. What will Joseph do?

Scene Nine: RECONCILIATION (45.1-28)

Joseph breaks down in tears. And thenhe tells his brothers who he really is, and how God has used their evil treatment of him for good. He tells them to bring Jacob to Egypt and promises to meet all their needs. Pharoah gets in on the act too and lavishly offers generosity to them and their family. The section ends on a high note with Jacob agreeing to come to Egypt to see Joseph before he dies. In a very quick whistle stop tour, that is the story of Genesis 42-45. Lets move on to:

PART TWO: THE LESSON

What’s the lesson for us today? The lesson is profoundly comforting and challenging to accept but deeply comforting. It’s this: if you’re Christian, God is working through bad situations in your life for the good of many others. If you’re Christian, God is working through bad situations in your lifeyou’re your good and also for the good of many others. Joseph himself learnt this vital lesson. It’s actually this perspective on God’s good sovereign purposes in his life that enabled him to forgive his brothers. Here’s what he says to them in Genesis 45 after he reveals his identity to them (Genesis 45.5-8):

And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Later, after the death of Jacob, Joseph says a similar thing in Genesis 50.20, which Randy Alcorn wrote about that I mentioned earlier:

…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.

What happened to Joseph in Genesis works as a ‘visual aid’ as well to help us understand more deeply what happened when Jesus Christ died on the cross. In Acts 2.23, Peter says this to the Jews in Jerusalem who had Jesus crucified:

…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men….

So why did Jesus die on the Cross? (A) It was God’s definite plan for Jesus to die on the Cross and (B) Human Evil; humans crucified and killed him. And who benefits from Jesus’ death on the Cross? Many people! Just as many people had their lives saved by Joseph’s wise management of crops in Egypt and the family line continued with Jacob and his family.

When he instituted the Lord’s Supper, Jesus spoke about his coming death. He said:

…this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. [Matthew 26:28]

Just as it was God’s good plan for Joseph to be sold into slavery, then raised up to be governor of Egypt to save the lives of thousands of people from starvation, so it was God’s good plan for Jesus to be crucified , to pour out his blood to save millions of people from hell (to reconcile them to know God forever). And if you’re watching this morning and you’re not yet a follower of Jesus, you need to know that this offer of reconciliation is still there on the table for you. Jesus died on the Cross so that many people (including you) can know God if you will turn back to him and trust what he has done for you.

But there’s more to grasp here because this pattern (of Joseph suffering bad things and God using it for the good of many people, Jesus working suffering God’s good plan for the good of many people), that pattern as it were, is at work in our lives today too. God is working through the bad situations in your life for the good of many others. Let’s just be really clear about this because it’s hard to accept. God is not just working in the good situations in your life for your good. He’s not just working in the bad situations in your life for your good alone. The message of Genesis 42-45 is that God is also working through the bad situations in your life for your good and the good of many others.

Let me ask you: what’s the worst disaster that has ever happened to you?
Perhaps, like Joseph, the worst disaster that has ever happened to you is a major rift in your family. Maybe, just as Joseph was arrogant towards his brothers, you played a role in that. But maybe, just as Joseph was the really badly treated, you were too and there’s a gaping wound that never seems to heal. Or maybe it’s a period of ill-health you went through, or unemployment, or a broken relationship in the past. God is saying to you through Genesis 42-45 that he is working in that situation for your good (and the good of many others too).

I think of Joni Eareckson Tada. She grew up leading an active life riding horses, playing tennis, going hiking until one day when she was 17 years old she dived into a swimming pool, misjudged the water depth and was instantly paralysed from the shoulders down. All her dreams went up in smoke. What a horrible situation for a young woman to face, and yet God used that for the good of many, many people. Actually God has used her to bring the good news of Jesus to literally millions of people and to help millions of disabled people around the world too. Here just a few highlights (I’ll whiz through them to give you an idea of how amazingly God can use bad situations for the good of many):


-In 1976, she was only 27 when she releases her autobiography; translated into more than 38 languages, 5 million copies sold.
-She funds a ministry, the Joni and Friends ministry in 1979 to meet the needs of families affected by disability. In 1982 they started their own radio program.
-In 1988 Ronald Reagen invites her to join the the National Council on Disability.
-In 1989 she speaks at a Billy Graham Crusade to 100,000 people including many disabled people in Budapest.
-In 1994 Wheels for the World was founded to share the Gospel and provide mobility to disabled people in developing countries. The 100,000th wheelchair was delivered to Ghana in 2014.

The gospel going out, disabled people being helped, policies changed. The point is that none of that good for many people would have happened without that horrific diving accident. But God worked to bring good out of that (through her) to many people. I wonder how God could use your worst disaster to bless many, many other people?

Let me ask you another question: what’s your worst nightmare for the future? Perhaps it might be being sent to prison, unjustly like Joseph and Randy Alcorn were. The shame. The injustice. The confinement. The isolation. Three years ago, in a Wycliffe Bible Translators newsletter, I read this account of an Indonesian Bible translator who was put in prison for one year. His situation was bad. Imprisoned, shut in a cell for two months with no access out, locked doors. The ceaseless buzzing of mosquitos in his ears. Intermittent electricity and water. No proper bed, just a floor covering and a small pillow. But he came to realise (through reading Genesis 37-50) that God could use this nightmare situation for the good of many other people. He wrote this:

I was motivated by how Joseph ministered to his jailors. I also wanted to do something while in prison to help my fellow prisoners. But how? I prayed that the Lord Jesus would show me, and that he would make it possible. Then the Lord Jesus answered me. King Jesus gave me a very clear thought: invite all the prisoners to pray and worship together every Saturday. This invitation was well-received by all my fellow prisoners, and I was asked to share the word of God and to lead discussion times. This was beyond my expectations. I didn’t know how I would be able to do this, but King Jesus always helped me and showed me how to do it.

And he didn’t stop there! He was also motivated by how the Apostle Paul used his time in prison. So he asked his Bible translation team mates to print out drafts of 5 different New Testament letters so he could do Bible translation while he was in prison. What an example for us this guy was. This Indonesian brother understood from this part of Gensis that God is working in every detail of the bad events of our lives, for our ultimate good, and for the good of many many other people too. It’s true for us too. Let’s pray:

Father God, we pray that you would increase our trust that you are working all things in our lives (including the most painful memories which haunt us or the nightmares that may come true in the future) for our spiritual good and for the spiritual good of many others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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