Our subject for tonight (in our evening series) is Joseph on Purity and we are to look particularly at Genesis 39, our Old Testament reading. So after an introduction I want us to focus on three important facts about Joseph to which this chapter points, namely His Success, His Sexual Ethics and His Suffering.
But first by way of introduction I want to mention two important theological truths that our chapter and Joseph's experience illustrate. The first is the truth that God Governs this World or as it can be called, God's Providence. Let me explain.
Our Creation is the truth behind all reality. This is the truth that not Chance but God (who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit) created and caused this amazing universe of space and time. But as one famous theologian (J.I.Packer) puts it regarding "God's governance" or "providence":
"If Creation was a unique exercise of divine energy causing the world to be, providence is a continued exercise of the same energy. By it our Creator, according to his own will, keeps all things in being, involves himself in all events, and directs all things to their appointed end. God is completely in charge of his world."
Such is the creative work of Christ and the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit as the Bible teaches. But we then need to acknowledge a balancing and complimentary truth. That is that God has created human freedom and a world that can be described in terms of natural laws. So a person freely does something, or an event happens through natural causes – an earthquake, say – yet God still overrules. And people's motives may be evil, yet God can use their actions for good – as we will be seeing so clearly in Joseph's case. Yes, this is a mystery. But as Isaiah 55.9 says:
"For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
It's rather like a machine in which you have cog wheels going in different directions, but all driving the machine forward. So God continues to govern this world – he did not just create it. And this Governance is often called his Providence.
The second truth is the need positively to Put Sin to Death as Paul teaches in our New Testament reading. Colossians 3.5 and following:
"Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them."
The problem is this. Sin will not be totally rooted out of any believer this side of heaven. So the Christian, seeking to grow in godliness, has always to fight against the world, the flesh and the devil. And "putting sin to death" certainly applies to sins of the "flesh" such as …
"… sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry."
Putting to death these sins won't earn you eternal life (Christ has already paid for that on the Cross). But it is one of those works of faith that proves your faith in Christ is genuine and alive. For as James says, 2.26, "faith without works is dead." And this is needed because we mustn't passively expect God to do everything for us, once we enjoy his grace. No! As Paul writes in Philippians 2.12:
"work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for [verse 13 and the good news] it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
And Joseph had learnt to put sin to death as we shall see.
So much for two important theological truths. That brings us to Genesis 39 and Joseph himself - and first, His Success.
We need to know that earlier chapters have shown that as a child Joseph had lived through very disturbing times. And he had a difficult home life as well. He was the favourite son of his Father out of 12 children from four different women, and so not popular with his brothers. Many will know his story from the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. If so, you will know that his brothers' hostility led eventually to their selling Joseph as a slave to some Ishmaelite traders. And that is where we pick things up in verse 1 of our Old Testament reading:
"Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there."
He was then very successful in Egypt, miles away from his family - verses 2-5:
"The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favour in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had the Lord blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field."
Success is an important concept. But what does the Bible teach about success? Well, God helps obedient believers to succeed. Our psalm tonight, Psalm 1, couldn't be clearer:
"Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away."
Now this doesn't allow a "prosperity Gospel" – "trust God and you will make a fortune." However, Mark 10.28-31 reports once when …
"… Peter began to say to Jesus, 'See, we have left everything and followed you.' Jesus said, 'Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.'"
I haven't time to go into that in detail. But, as a sociological fact, Christian believers do better on average (note the word "average") over a range of measurements than others. So, for example, one longitudinal study finds that regular church attendance correlates with one third better on average family income.
Then recent world-wide development surveys of Pentecostal churches under Dena Freeman, of University College London, conclude that such …
"… churches are often rather more effective change agents than are development NGOs [but with all their governmental money] … they are exceptionally effective at bringing about personal transformation and empowerment."
And relevant to tonight, one other huge survey found (surprisingly to journalists) that the women most enjoying their sex lives, were conservative Protestants, so with strict sexual ethics.
And certainly Joseph was successful because, verse 3:
"the Lord was with him … the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands."
And so, verse 6a:
"… he [Potiphar] left all that he had in Joseph's charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate."
That brings us, secondly to His Sexual Ethics.
Look at verse 6b-9:
"Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master's wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, 'Lie with me.' But he refused and said to his master's wife, 'Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?'"
Egyptian women, in the ancient world, had a reputation for immorality. In such an environment many would have been seduced. But Joseph had a consciousness that God's law was that this was absolutely wrong – to have sexual intercourse with another man's wife. He had not yet the 10 commandments delivered by Moses. But Joseph may have known the gist of the creation accounts in Genesis 1-3. Also, people without the Jewish law, Paul says, can …
" … by nature do what the law requires … They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, their conscience also bears witness" (Rom 2.14-15)
And anthropologists see a universal sex-ethic from the need for the human family. Claude Levi-Strauss, the anthropologist, has said that the family almost everywhere is …
"… based on a union, more or less durable, but socially approved, of two individuals of opposite sexes who establish a household and bear and raise children."
That "social approval" implies ethics. And certainly Genesis 1 and 2 suggest "one flesh" (meaning sexual intercourse) was for heterosexual marriage alone. In Genesis 1.27 we read:
"God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them."
And in chapter two, after the creation account of the woman, we read this:
"Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Gen 2.24).
So there's to be no "holding fast" to a wife without formally "leaving parents", and no being "one flesh" without "holding fast" to a wife. And this is a creation ordinance – it is relevant to absolutely everyone.
However, in Old Testament times, there was still polygamy – having a number of wives. But Jesus ends all that when he underlines what those verses from Genesis really mean by adding a fundamental explanation. For in Mark 10 he repeats Genesis 1 and 2 as God's creation intention for men and women, when he says, verses 6-8:
"From the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.'"
But then he adds verse 9 to make things crystal clear; and this is very important:
"So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."
Do you see what that means? It means that when a man is joined to his wife, he should not separate from her by divorce, for it is a lifelong union. Nor should he separate, even just temporally, to marry another woman as a second partner. For he has to hold fast to his one wife. And being "one flesh" - the sexual union - creates a new indissoluble union that is not to be divided. Nor, of course, should a wife separate or divide from her husband. That is how sexual intercourse is for heterosexual marriage alone. And that law follows God's creative plan, as the teaching of Christ and his apostles makes clear. The Anglican bishops have well summarized this biblical ethic in its final expression like this:
"There is … in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable."
Well, certainly Joseph had clear in his mind that sexual intercourse with Potiphar's wife was absolutely wrong. That was the first of four things that helped him "put to death" any sexual urges to sleep with her. And so today, you are helped by knowing that sexual intercourse is for heterosexual marriage alone if, or when, you are tempted. So pre- and extra- marital sex is wrong (as are all forms of same-sex sexual relationships). To know that clearly helps you say, "No!". And so Joseph did not lack what king David lacked when he committed adultery with Bathsheeba. That was, as David called it in his Psalm of repentance, Psalm 51.6 - "truth in the inward being".
Secondly, also Joseph was helped in this "putting to death" of such behaviour by calling it by its real name which he called (verse 9), "this great wickedness." Someone has well said:
"Sin thrives on soft terminology and avoiding the issues of plain truth."
So in the Bible words like abomination and perversion are used of sexual sins like adultery, homosexual sex and bestiality.
Thirdly, he was helped by being like the Prodigal son in Jesus' Parable. For after wasting his Father's money on prostitutes, he realized that a sin against another person is also a sin against God (Luke 15.18). So Joseph (verse 9) called adultery "this great wickedness and sin against God."
Fourthly, Joseph did not think that repeated temptation meant it was any less serious. This is a danger today in the West. On the media the normalization of sexual sin is hugely dangerous, and, yes, wicked. It generates what has been called "the death of outrage" when outrage is called for. But Joseph was aware of this danger for, in verse 10 we read:
"And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her."
She wanted his company, even if he wouldn't lie with her. But he knew she was dangerous. So he said, "No!" Joseph heeded the warning expressed in Hebrews 3.13:
"that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin;"
And Hebrews says we are to "exhort one another every day" about that – the deceitfulness of sin! So much for Joseph's sexual ethics and lessons to be learnt from him.
Finally we come to His Suffering.
Look at verse 11 and following:
"But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, 'Lie with me.' But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, 'See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.' Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, 'The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.' As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, 'This is the way your servant treated me', his anger was kindled. And Joseph's master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison."
This is where we must remember the biblical teaching on God's providence. And also we must remember Jesus' teaching that not only is success promised but also persecution or suffering - if you are going to follow him! For Joseph, his sexual morality led not to immediate success, but to imprisonment. However, following this totally unjust treatment, he seems to have "put to death" the wrong sort of "anger", "judgmentalism", or "self-pity". So, as verse 21 says:
"… the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison."
God was still in total control – verses 22-23 show how:
"And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph's charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, he Lord made it succeed."
And as you read on in Genesis, because one other prisoner, when released, managed, for Joseph, an introduction to the Pharaoh (the king), Joseph eventually became Prime Minister – yes, Prime Minister. Then when later a regional famine occurred, he was able to save his extended family. They were able to go down to Egypt for food. And long term it meant the nation of Israel was preserved!
So in old age, and reminiscing to his brothers about his life, Joseph said this (Genesis 50.20):
"As for you, 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."
Such is the providence of God. Who needs to be trusting in the Providence of God tonight? Well, remind yourself of those famous words in Romans 8.28:
"We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
Who is not sure of their love for God, for disobeying him? Like Potiphar's wife you need forgiveness – maybe for sexual sin yourself.
If you repent, Jesus (through dying for you) will say, as he is reported saying to an adulterous woman in the New Testament (John 8.11): "I do not condemn you." But then he added:
"go! and, from now on sin no more."