We’ve been thinking about the story of Joseph for a few weeks now. And we’ve been seeing how the history of Joseph’s life reveals to us the history of our Lord’s life. Joseph was his father’s Beloved Son just as the Lord Jesus Christ is God the Father’s Beloved Son. And just as Joseph suffered many things before rising from prison to be exalted over all, so the Lord Jesus Christ suffered many things before rising from the dead to be exalted over all. And just as Joseph was able to save Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s descendants from perishing because of the famine, so the Lord Jesus Christ is able to save Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s spiritual descendants from perishing because of our sin.
So, we’ve been seeing how the history of Joseph’s life reveals to us the history of our Lord’s life. But we also thought about how, through faith, we’re united to Christ. And so, just as Joseph was raised from the prison and glorified in the presence of the Pharaoh, and just as Christ our Saviour was raised from the dead and glorified in the presence of his Father in heaven, so we too will be raised from the dead and we will be glorified with him in God’s heavenly kingdom. The story of Joseph not only speaks to us of the suffering and death and resurrection and ascension of our Saviour, but it also speaks to us of the great hope God gives to all who are united to his Son through faith of our resurrection from the dead and the glory that awaits us in the life to come. The history of Joseph’s life reveals to us the history of our Lord’s life. And the history of the Lord’s life reveals to us the glory God has in store for all who believe in him.
And then one more thing we’ve been learning is how, in Joseph, we have an example of someone who was in the world but not of it. He was in the world: living in Potiphar’s home, working for Potiphar, working among the other servants, going about his duties every day, and taking care of Potiphar’s affairs. He was in the world. But he was not of the world, because though he lived among sinful, godless people in Egypt — people who did not know or honour the Lord — he refused to become like them. And when he refused Potiphar’s wife, who wanted to sleep with him, and said he could not do such a wicked thing and sin against God, he showed that his mind was not on the things of the earth, but his mind was on the things above, where the Lord his God dwells in glory. And that’s how we should be as well, because we too have been raised with Christ to live a new, heavenly life. We’ve been raised with Christ so that we belong, not in the world, but in the heavenly realms where Christ our Saviour is. And our life here on earth is meant to demonstrate that our true citizenship is not here on earth, but in heaven.
So, those are some of the things we’ve been thinking about and learning as we’ve studied the life of Joseph. And if chapters 37 to 39 have been about Joseph’s humiliation, and his descent into suffering, chapters 40 and 41 are the start of his exaltation. So, the Beloved Son has gone down, down, down in chapters 37 to 39. And now, he’s going to go up and up and up. And so, once again, as we look at today’s passage, we’ll run through the text, making a few comments on the way. And then, at the end, I’ll make a couple of further points to show the significance of this passage for believers.
And you’ll see that chapter 40 tells us about his time in prison, where he was sent after Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him. And chapter 41 tells us how the Pharaoh came to hear of him and to summon him into his presence so that eventually Joseph was appointed prime minister of Egypt.
Let’s turn to chapter 40 first of all. And there are four sections here. First of all, in verses 1 to 8, Joseph asks the cupbearer and the baker why they look so sad. Secondly, in verses 9 to 15, we read about the cupbearer’s dream and how Joseph was able to interpret it. And then thirdly, in verses 16 to 19 it’s the turn of the baker to describe his dream. And once again, Joseph was able to interpret it. And finally, in verses 20 to 23, we have the outcome.
Who were the cupbearer and the baker? Well, kings in those days were often afraid of being poisoned by their enemies. So, they would appoint a cupbearer to serve the drinks at the royal table. That meant the cupbearer had to supervise the wine and make sure no one was allowed to interfere with it. And really, because the king was trusting his life into the hands of the cupbearer, the cupbearer had to be loyal and trustworthy. And often, in fact, the cupbearer became quite influential because of his close relationship to the king.
Well, whereas the cupbearer was responsible for what the king drank, the baker was responsible for what the king ate. Ancient hieroglyphic texts tell us that the Egyptians had 38 kinds of cake and 57 varieties of bread. And once again, because the baker was responsible for what the Pharaoh ate, his was an important and influential position.
However, something had gone wrong. Somehow — and we don’t know how — but somehow the chief cupbearer and the chief baker had offended the Pharaoh. And the Pharaoh had put them in custody. to await sentencing. Well, it just so happened that they were put in the same prison where Joseph was. And it just so happened that Joseph was appointed to attend to them. But, of course, things just don’t happen by chance, and we believe the Lord was working in the background, arranging everything according to his plans and purposes so that Joseph was in the right place at the right time in order to hear their dreams and interpret them, because God, of course, was working out his plan to have Joseph appointed prime minister of Egypt so that he would save his people from the famine and thereby reveal to the world what his Son would one day do for our everlasting salvation.
So, God was working in the background. And one night, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker had a dream. And when they awoke, each of them must have realised that their dreams were significant. Presumably, since they were waiting to be sentenced, they imagined that the dreams had something to do with their fate. But they couldn’t work out what the dreams were trying to tell them. And so, we read in verse 6, that they were dejected, because they couldn’t figure their dreams out. Well, when Joseph asked why they were so sad, they explained what was wrong. And look at Joseph’s reply. He’s lost none of his faith in God despite all that has happened to him. He’s ready to confess openly and without hesitation his confidence in God who is able to give them the proper interpretation.
And so, in verses 9 to 15, the chief cupbearer describes his dream: This vine with three branches very quickly blossomed and bore grapes which he was able to squeeze into the Pharaoh’s cup which he then handed to the Pharaoh. What did it mean? Well, Joseph was able to give the interpretation immediately: In three days the Pharaoh would release him from prison and restore him to his former position.
And then, having interpreted the dream, Joseph asked the cupbearer for a favour:
When you’re back in Pharaoh’s good books, remember me. Mention me and my case to the Pharaoh.
And Joseph goes on to explain what had happened to him and how he was wrongly and unjustly imprisoned. Well, some commentators criticise Joseph for asking the cupbearer for a favour. Instead of relying on this pagan, why did he not trust God to help him? But the text does not condemn Joseph for asking for this man’s help, and neither then should we. And in any case, that’s often the way God helps us: he helps us by sending into our life someone with the knowledge or the expertise or the opportunity to help us. We ask God for our daily food? How does he supply it? By sending the farmer into the fields. We ask God to help us recover from illness. How does he do it? By providing us with doctors to can treat us. Joseph was relying on the Lord to release him from prison. How would God set him free? By introducing Joseph to this cupbearer.
Well, having heard what Joseph said to the cupbearer, the baker was encouraged to describe his dream to Joseph. And that’s what verses 16 to 19 are about. In his dream, he was carrying three baskets of bread on his head. But the birds were coming down and eating the bread. What did it mean? And Joseph again was able to interpret it immediately. And, of course, you wonder how Joseph broke the bad news to the baker, because his dream meant that in three days, the Pharaoh would have the baker executed and afterwards, the birds would eat his flesh.
And look now at verses 20 to 23. In three days, it was the Pharaoh’s birthday. And on that day, he restored the cupbearer to his former position, just as Joseph has foretold. And on the same day, the Pharaoh had the baker executed, just as Joseph has foretold.
Well, perhaps the reader is thinking:
Great. The cupbearer will be so delighted, he’ll arrange for Joseph to be released straightaway.
But no. The chapter ends on a depressing note, because we’re told that the cupbearer did not remember Joseph. Instead he forgot all about him and Joseph remained where he was, in the prison. But once again, we need to say that nothing happens by chance, and that God was working in the background. And this time, God was delaying things, because it was not the right time yet to call Joseph from his prison.
That’s chapter 40. In verse 1 of chapter 41 we read that two years have passed. So, for two more years, Joseph was kept imprisoned. However, despite his long wait, things move quickly in chapter 41. One night Pharaoh had a dream about seven thin cows who ate up seven fat cows. He then had a second dream: seven thin ears of corn ate up seven good ears of corn. In the morning, the Pharaoh was troubled by the dreams, but none of his magicians and wise men could give him a satisfactory interpretation. Then the cupbearer just happened to remember Joseph who was able to interpret dreams. So, in verses 14 to 16, Pharaoh summoned Joseph who must first shave because, while the Jews wore beards, the Egyptians did not. And he changed out of his prison clothes and he was, in due course, presented before the Pharaoh. And the Pharaoh explained that he had had a dream and he had heard the Joseph could interpret dreams. And once again, Joseph does not hesitate to confess his confidence in God who is able to explain the Pharaoh’s dream.
And so, in verses 17 to 24, the Pharaoh describes his dreams to Joseph, adding a bit more detail to what we’ve already heard. And in verses 25 to 32, Joseph explained the dreams and how God was revealing to the Pharaoh how there would be seven years of plenty in the land followed by seven years of famine. And having interprated the dreams, Joseph went on in verses 33 to 36 to offer Pharaoh some advice on what to do in order to prepare for the seven years of famine. And his plan has three parts to it: First, appoint someone to be in charge of what needs to be done. Two, appoint local overseers to oversee the work. Three, gather one-fifth of the produce of the land in the years of plenty and store it safely for the years of famine so that the country will not be ruined because of the famine.
That was Joseph’s advice to the Pharaoh. And in verses 37 to 46 we read how the Pharaoh was pleased with his advice, and pleased with Joseph himself. He said in verse 38:
Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God? Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge….
And so, just like that, in a flash, in an instant, Joseph was lifted up out of the prison and exalted to the Pharaoh’s right hand side to rule over all and to save the people from the famine. And, in place of his prison clothes, he was given the Pharaoh’s ring to wear on his finger, and fine linen clothes to put on and a gold chain to wear around his neck. And he was made to ride through the streets in one of the Pharaoh’s chariots and everyone was to bow down before him. And he was given a new name to match his new status. And he given a woman from a noble family in Egypt to marry. It all happened in an instant. Or so it seemed, but really it had taken 13 years, because when we first met Joseph, he was 17; and when he was appointed Prime Minister, he was 30 years old, according to verse 46. So, thirteen years of suffering and humiliation. But now, his time of exaltation had come.
And finally, in verses 47 to 57, we read about the years of plenty and the years of famine. And in that time, Joseph’s wife bore him two sons, to whom he gave Hebrew names The name of one marked the fact that God had made him forget his troubles. The name of the second marked the fact that God has been good to him. And so, once again we see that his faith in God did not waver, but he continued to trust in the Lord and to give thanks to him.
And right at the end of the chapter we read how all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world; but in all the world, men and women had heard that Joseph was able to save them.
What lessons can we learn from this passage? Well, in our church’s Shorter Catechism, question 11, it asks:
What are God’s works of providence?
And here’s the answer:
God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preservation and control of all his creatures, and all their actions.
The events of these two chapters demonstrate the truth of that answer, because — as I’ve said already — the events of these two chapters do not happen merely by chance, but by God’s most holy, wise and powerful preservation and control. So, we believe — don’t we? — that God was the one who arranged things so that the cupbearer and the baker were imprisoned by the Pharaoh and placed in the same prison as Joseph. And we believe God was the one who caused the cupbearer and baker to dream their dreams. And we believe God was the one who ensured that Joseph was there in the morning to see them. And we believe God was the one who enabled Joseph to interpret their dreams. And, of course, God knew what was going to happen to the cupbearer and to the baker and he was able to reveal to Joseph what would happen to them, because the Lord is the one who controls all things and he had planned out what would happen to these two men as well as to Joseph.
And then, think about chapter 41. We believe God was the one who caused the Pharaoh to dream his dreams. And we believe God was the one who enabled the cupbearer to remember at last what Joseph had done. And we believe God was the one who enabled the Pharaoh to listen to the cupbearer and to summon Joseph from out of the prison. And look at verse 25 where Joseph begins to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph said:
The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has reveal to Pharaoh what he [that is, God] is about to do.
And jump down to verse 28, where Joseph says again:
It is just as I said to Pharaoh: God has shown Pharaoh what he [that is, God] is about to do.
What is God about to do? He’s about to send seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, because not only does God’s providence include his holy, wise and powerful perseveration and control of all his creatures, but God’s providence includes his holy, wise and powerful perseveration and control of the weather and the fields and the sun and the rain and the seeds in the ground. All things are under God’s control so that he’s able to cause the sun to shine and the rain to fall and the crops to grow; and he’s also able to withhold the rain and to cause the crops in the fields to fail. The God we worship rules over all things, which is why we pray to him for our daily bread, because we believe that he’s the one who gives it to us. And whenever we sit down and eat, we give thanks to him, because we believe that he’s the one who gave it to us. He rules over all, and therefore we’re to trust in him for all things and to give thanks to him for all that he provides.
And so, what did the Lord Jesus say in the New Testament? He said:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.
Why not? Because just as God feeds the birds of the air, and clothes the flowers in the field, so we can trust our loving, Heavenly Father, to provide for us. Being our Father, he’s willing to help us. And being Almighty God — who perseveres and controls all things — he’s able to help us. And so, we ought to look to him for all that we need each day.
Submit to his will
But then, since we believe that all things are under God’s control, then we need to learn to submit ourselves to his will. Once again, our church’s Shorter Catechism is helpful here. It asks in question 103 which is about the Lord’s Prayer:
What do we pray for in the third request?
And this is the answer:
In the third request (which is, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven) we pray that God, by his grace, would make us able and willing to know, obey and submit to his will in all things, as the angels do in heaven.
Now, I’ve explained before the distinction between God’s revealed will and his secret will.
What is God’s revealed will? Well, his revealed will refers in part to the commandments he has given us, because by these commandments which he’s given to us, he’s saying to us:
This is my will for you, that you should do these things. This is what I want you to do.
And so, we need to pray for God’s help to obey his revealed will.
But what then is his secret will? Well, his secret will refers in part to what will happen to us in the future. God, of course, knows what will happen to us in the future, because he’s planned it all. But we don’t know what his plans for us are, because he hasn’t revealed them to us. So, none of us can say what will happen to us tomorrow or next year, or even later on this evening. We don’t know what will happen, because God hasn’t revealed it to us. But we ought to trust that his will for us is good, and that he always knows what is best for us. And we need to pray for his help so that we will submit to his will for us, whatever it is. We need to pray that we will submit to his will for us and accept that, whatever he has planned for us, his will for us is good and pleasing and perfect.
So, think again of Joseph, and all that happened to him. How his brothers hated him and sold him into slavery. How he ended up a servant in Potiphar’s house, far from his father. How Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him and then she falsely accused him. How he ended up in the prison and was forgotten by the cupbearer. Think of his life, and all that happened to him, and how, for 13 years, he suffered so very much. And yet, through it all, we’ve seen that his faith in God did not waver, and he continued to trust in the Lord and to have confidence in him, believing that God knew what he was doing and that God’s will for Joseph was good.
And, of course, Joseph was right to trust in the Lord, because when the time was right, his time of suffering was brought to an end, and the Lord raised Joseph up from the pit and made him prime minister. Joseph was right to trust in the Lord, because the Lord knew what he was doing and had it all planned out perfectly.
And so, just as Joseph submitted himself to God’s will, so too must we. And we ought to pray to the Lord for his gracious help to submit to his will whatever it may be. Things go wrong. Things happen that we did not foresee or want to happen. Decisions go against us. People disappoint us; or they upset us. The life we’re living now is not the life we were hoping for. But the Lord is able to help us to bow before him and to say:
Lord, I trust that my times are in your hands and you know best.
The Lord Jesus
And finally, this evening, why did God plan all of this? Why did he plan all of the suffering Joseph went through? Why did he decide to send seven years of plenty and seven years of famine on the land of Egypt?
Well, one reason is because he was using the history of Joseph’s life to reveal to the world the history of his Son’s life. Just as Joseph, the Beloved Son, was brought down into the pit of the prison, so the Lord Jesus, God’s Beloved Son, was brought down into the pit of death and the tomb. And just as Joseph was raised from the prison and exalted to sit at the Pharaoh’s side to rule over all, so Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and exalted to God’s heavenly kingdom to rule over all.
And did you notice how chapter 41 ended? It says that all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph. Well, just as all the nations came to Joseph in Egypt in order to be saved from the famine, so God was revealing how men and women and boys and girls from every nation of the world will come to Jesus Christ, who sits enthroned in heaven; and without money, and without price, they will receive from him everything they need, everything they need for everlasting salvation.
God was revealing in the history of Joseph’s life what he would do for the world through his Son. And since God was revealing that this is his will — for the nations to come to Christ for salvation — then we ought to bow down and pray to him that he will send preachers into all the nations to declare to all the unsearchable riches of Christ, so that in every nation people will know that they can come to Christ who alone is able to save them. And we ought to pray to the God who rules over all, and ask him to draw men and women and boys and girls in all the nations so that they will come to Christ and find in him the salvation they need.
We were talking to Matt this afternoon about Malawi and what the church is doing there that three-quarters of the population are at church on Sundays. What is the church doing to attract so many people? What are they doing there when it’s such a struggle here to draw new people into the church? And here’s what he said: People there are aware of their need for salvation. Like the people in Joseph’s day, who were aware of their hunger and need for food, so people in Malawi are aware of their sin and guilt and their need for forgiveness. And so, we ought to pray, and pray again, that people around the world and here in Northern Ireland will once again become aware of their sin and guilt so that they will turn and seek forgiveness from the Lord.