Lessons from the Life of Joseph (6)
“From Prisoner to Prime Minister” Genesis 41
After many long years Nelson Mandela was released from prison in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 11th. 1990. Just over four years later, following South Africa’s first fully democratic election, he became President of his country. The story of this remarkable man is told in his book “Long Walk to Freedom”. The many things Nelson Mandela suffered, the injustice, the humiliation, the loneliness, did not make him bitter. Strongly influenced by the Christian faith, he learnt to forgive others, even his prison guards, and became the catalyst for reconciliation within the nation. In four short years he went from prison to being president. He became a symbol of wise & humble leadership.
Joseph did not have nearly as long in prison as Nelson Mandela but his rise from being a prisoner to being Prime Minister of Egypt, one of the major civilizations of the time, was nothing short of miraculous. A mere thirteen years earlier he had arrived in Egypt as a 17 year-old slave, a foreigner not understanding the culture or speaking the language. Now virtually overnight he was brought from a prison dungeon and elevated to second in the land. No one except the Pharaoh had more power & prestige.
At the end of Genesis 40 we left Joseph in prison, forgotten by the cupbearer, and seemingly forgotten by God. Of course God had not forgotten Joseph. In fact God’s plan was about to change into top gear. In the first verse of chapter 41 events start moving fast. The Pharaoh wakes up after two very disturbing dreams. He was worried. In the first dream the Pharaoh saw himself “…standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek & fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly & gaunt, came up out of the Nile & stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly & gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows.” (vrs 1-4) How strange, & as Bill Crowder put it, “This would have been a terrifying thing to witness – cows don’t eat beef, they are beef!”
In his second dream the Pharaoh saw: “Seven heads of grain, healthy & good, were growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other heads of grain sprouted - thin & scorched by the east wind. The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven healthy, full heads.” (vrs 5-7) The Pharaoh must have sensed that his dreams were not ordinary dreams, and they were not the result of too much rich food the night before. They seemed to have significance for him as leader of a nation totally dependent, as Egypt was, upon the Nile River for water & fish and needing good harvests to feed its people. But what did the dreams actually mean? He was desperate for answers.
Being a pagan who worshipped many gods, and being someone the ordinary people regarded as a god himself, the Pharaoh turned to the only people he knew might be able to give him answers. V 8 tells us, “…he sent for all the magicians & wise men of Egypt.” Some of these so-called wise men must have been learned scholars, but others majored in reading the stars, in fortune telling & performing magic. They would have relied on occult practices for their powers. What they didn’t realise was they were not dealing with realities they knew, or with a God they knew. The Pharaoh told them his dreams but it seems all they could do was look down at the floor & feel embarrassed. V.8 continues. “…no one could interpret them for him.”
At that moment, the chief butler suddenly remembered Joseph who had interpreted his dream two years previously when he was in the prison. He felt guilty about having forgotten Joseph but now in God’s sovereignty the perfect time had come. God over-ruled even the failings of the chief butler. The butler told the Pharaoh about what happened in the prison when he and the chief baker told Joseph about their dreams: “…he interpreted them for us, giving each man the interpretation of his dream. And things turned out exactly as he interpreted them to us.” (v 12 & 13)
Well, Pharaoh was desperate & all the wise men of Egypt had run out of ideas. V 14 tells us: “So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved & changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh.” Some of our most important opportunities come unexpectedly. One minute Joseph was going about his normal duties in the prison and the next he is told he is going to see the supreme leader, the Pharaoh. He had hardly any time to prepare himself. Imagine what he might have been thinking as he hurriedly shaved & changed. Was his heart pumping at twice its normal speed? Was he nervous? I guess he may well have been but it is amazing how well Joseph was prepared. Such was his trust in God & such was his relationship with God that whether he was in prison or standing in front of the most powerful man in Egypt, Joseph was ready. Nothing seemed to shake his remarkable poise or his gracious unassuming confidence. He had been hurried out of the dark & dirty dungeon into the bright lights and splendour of the palace. He stood in front of the supreme leader. “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I had a dream, & no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’” (v 15)
What a challenge! How would Joseph answer? Would he try to use this chance to impress the Pharaoh, hoping perhaps to gain his freedom? Or would he freeze in panic? Neither! Look what Joseph says in v 16: “‘I cannot do it,’ Joseph replied to Pharaoh, ‘but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.’” Joseph speaks four words that express an extremely important truth which anyone who wants to serve God must know. These words are - “I cannot do it”. Worldly wisdom says the opposite. It says, “I can” or to quote Barack Obama, “We can! Yes, we can!” Heavenly wisdom however, the wisdom Joseph possessed, says: “I cannot do it!” “I cannot do it for I am nothing on my own. I cannot do it for I am weak & unworthy. Yes, if we want to serve God we had better forget thinking about how clever we are, or how gifted we are, or how lucky God is to have us serving Him. The truth is that without Him, without His Presence, without the power of His Spirit, you and I can do nothing, for as Jesus said: “apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Joseph knew that he could do nothing but notice his next two words, which are even more important for us to remember. His next two words were: “But God”. He was saying, “I can’t, but God can and God will!” Dear friends, Joseph is saying something that is essential for us to understand whether we are talking about serving God or even simply talking about living the Christian life. Joseph didn’t try to promote himself. He didn’t try to impress others with how much he knew. He had learned to put his trust in God, and not in himself. He had a realistic view of himself but he also had a great view of God. His God could do anything. His God was not for Sundays only, but was for every day and every situation. His God was not the God who did miracles somewhere else but never here. His God was not the God who did great things in the past but not any longer. His God not only used other people but He was ready to use him and speak through him. Joseph knew his God, & his God was right there with him, ready to act in the here & now. So Joseph gave glory to God. And we must do the same. Whenever the Lord uses us to accomplish something we must give the glory to Him alone.
This is why I love the young Brazilian football player, Kaka. Long before he was recognized as one of the best players in the world he unashamedly gave glory to God. This is why I love the story of Eric Liddell, the famous Olympic sprinter & missionary to China. Despite all the pressures to compromise he always put God first in his life. He ran for God’s glory & said “God made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure.” His life was lived for the glory of God. Do we live like that? Do we seek to bring glory & honour to God, or do we try to get recognition and praise for ourselves?
The Pharaoh told Joseph his dreams and ended by saying, “I told this to the magicians, but none could explain it to me.” Now Joseph was on the spot. All eyes were upon him. What would he say? He spoke with humble confidence for God had shown him the interpretation. He said in v 25, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” Again Joseph focuses on God. Far from being afraid to bring God into things, God was central. How often do we honour God as we should? Do we leave Him out of our conversation, fearing what others may think? For many years I used to help organize visits to China by top Christian professionals. They would give seminars and share their expertise. I will never forget the visit of a Swiss grape-juice expert – one of the best in Europe. He was brilliant and the visit was a huge success. At a farewell banquet hosted by the deputy mayor of Qingdao, my Swiss friend Robert Rahm, naturally & graciously shared his faith in the Lord Jesus. Even the top Communist Party members around that table listened intently. Are you ashamed to let others know what Jesus has done for you? Learn from Joseph and give the glory to God. Keep Him at the centre of your life and do not be afraid to speak of Him to others. Live with transparent integrity and you need fear no one.
What a picture it must have been - the unknown slave standing before the powerful Pharaoh! Joseph explained the meaning of the dreams. In v 28 he told Pharaoh, “God has shown Pharaoh what He is about to do. Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, & the famine will ravage the land.” In v 32 Joseph explained that Pharaoh had been given two dreams with the same meaning because “…the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.”
But notice, Joseph had more than an interpretation for Pharaoh. He had a plan as well. When God shows us something he usually intends us to do something about it. We need to apply the truth. We need to act upon God’s Word. God had shown Joseph what was going to happen and Joseph urges the Pharaoh to appoint someone to take action. There is not even a hint that Joseph thought the Pharaoh should appoint him. He simply shared his suggestions with calmness & dignity. “And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning & wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt.” (v 33) Joseph’s plan was a smart plan. Those of you in business or administration have probably heard about SMART goals. SMART is an acronym. The S stands for “specific”. The M stands for “measurable”. The A stands for “attainable”. The R stands for “realistic” and the T stands for “time frame”. Smart goals need these elements and Joseph’s recommendations in verses 34-36 measured up. They were specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic and they had a definite time-frame. It was a plan in which all Egyptians would play a part and through which all would benefit. It balanced the need for both responsibility & welfare – responsibility on the part of every citizen and welfare when and for whom such help was truly needed.
What happened next was truly dramatic. We read in v 37 & 38, “The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials. So Pharaoh asked them, ‘Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the Spirit of God?’”
Pharaoh was so deeply impressed with Joseph’s wisdom & his demeanour that he could not help but connect all this with the God Joseph had been talking about. Joseph not only talked about His God, he knew his God. The Spirit of his God was upon him. Pharaoh recognized that Joseph was the man for the job!
There are many instances in the Bible where men & women are said to be those in whom God’s Spirit dwelt. Joshua was one. Daniel was another. In the New Testament in Acts those chosen to be deacons in the Early Church were to be men “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom”. (Acts 6:3) Dear brothers & sisters to serve the Lord you and I need to be full of the Holy Spirit. Like Joseph we need to display in our lives the fruit of the Spirit – graces & qualities like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness & self-control”. Many of these beautiful qualities Joseph learnt in the dungeon. Only then & in God’s time was this Spirit-filled young man ready for the challenges of being Prime Minister.
How about you and me? Are we so focused on pleasing the Lord and putting Him first in our lives that whatever happens we are ready to speak up for Him? Are we so resting in His promises that whether we are in the dungeon or in the palace we have a poise & confidence because we know He is with us? Are we like Joseph - people in whom others can see the Spirit of God? Do others see Jesus reflected in our everyday words and actions – whether we are in church, or at home or at work? Important questions, right!