retribution or restoration?

Christ Covenant Church
Marq Toombs
Series — Joseph: Stories of God’s Providence for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Text – Genesis 45

“You might think you are lost, but then you will find
That God draws straight, but with crooked lines”
— David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim

May the grace and peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

“I don’t get mad, I get even.”

I recall seeing that statement on T-shirts and ball caps back in the late seventies/early eighties. But the notion of seeking revenge is as old as fallen sinful man.

Basically, it means when someone does me wrong, I don’t show my true feelings right away. And when they think everything’s fine and we’re all good, that’s when I get revenge on them. Sooner or later my anger will come out with a vengeance.

We have all been there. We’ve all stood at the crossroads of Retribution and Restoration and struggled to decide which path to take.

That’s exactly where Joseph is standing at this moment. He is staring at his brothers — at the men who attacked him, betrayed him, cast him into a pit, and delivered him over to slave traders.

What will he decide? He has every right to seek justice against them. He could bring charges against them and condemn them to slavery or even death.

Yet he also has a responsibility to show mercy to them.

What will he decide?

In the last episode, Joseph’s brother Judah made a heart-felt plea for his brother Benjamin. He said, “Your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ And now please let your servant stay in place of the boy as a servant for my lord, and let the boy go up with his brothers.” (Genesis 44:32-33)

Judah had pledged his own life, so that his father, and brothers, and their little ones might live and not die. Yet, now he pleads to lay down his own life in the place of (BHS תַּ֣חַת / LXX ἀντὶ ) his brothers and become a slave, so that all his brothers might return to their father in peace.

He offered himself as a substitute slave to take the place of his brother. My freedom for his slavery; his slavery for my freedom.

What would you do if you were in his sandals and you had to decide between Retribution or Restoration? What if you had to choose between punishing your brothers for all the things they have done against you, or pardoning your brothers for all the things they have done against you?

Judah’s speech worked once before on his father Jacob, but did it work on his brother Joseph?

There’s only one way to find out, and that is to turn to the word of God.

Let’s give our undivided attention to the story from God’s Holy Word in Genesis 45.

Judah offered to lay down his life in place of his brothers’ lives, but Joseph refused his offer. Instead, he revealed himself to his brothers.

Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. “He could not no longer hold himself in check” (Alter). So he commanded all the Egyptians to go away from his presence and leave him alone with the Hebrews. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it.

Can you imagine what might have gone through the minds of the brothers?! To see and hear the second-most powerful man in Egypt weeping and wailing is bad enough! But to hear him say in your own language, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?”

[Note: Notice, he used his old Hebrew name (Joseph), not his new Egyptian name (Zaphenath-paneah). And he said “my” father, not “your” father.]

Now can you imagine what might have gone through the minds and hearts of the brothers?!

So, when he said, “I am Joseph” they were not able to answer him, for they were terrified at his presence.

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Draw near to me, please.”

Up to this point Joseph has kept his distance from them in order to make sure that they did not recognize him. Now he wants them to draw near and see who he really is.

And they drew near with fear and trembling. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.”

Now imagine what is going through their hearts and minds! At the name Joseph their hearts were gripped with fear; at the mention of their sin, their hearts are filled with guilt.

Remember the first time they met Joseph? They argued with each other in his presence: “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.” (Genesis 42:21-22)

At that time, they did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. (Genesis 42:23-24)

But now they know that he understood every word they spoke and that he has been testing them the whole time.

At this point in the story, we expect Joseph to say, “Aha! I’ve got you right where I want you, and you will be punished for your crimes against me.” That would be retribution.

But no! he says something totally unexpected:

Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before your faces 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 plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before your faces to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to save many survivors for you. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.

Instead of deciding to punish his brothers, Joseph decides to pardon, protect, and preserve them. This is restoration.

In this statement, God’s sovereignty over all things and man’s responsibility in all things comes together. God sent Joseph to Egypt ahead of his brothers by means of his brothers who sold him to slavery in Egypt. What the brothers intended for evil, God intended for good. The brother they tried to destroy is the same brother who is trying to deliver them.

Calvin says, “This is a remarkable passage, in which we are taught that the right course of events is never so disturbed by the depravity and wickedness of men, but that God can direct them to a good end.”

RC Sproul explains: “Joseph’s words are some of the most important and extensive in all of Scripture on the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He refers to the Lord’s activity and intent in his travails four times, affirming his belief in God’s providential governing of history … God used the wicked act of his brothers to advance His will, despite their ignorance. Once more we see the central theme of Joseph’s life, namely that God’s providential rule uses evil, but only for His good ends. His sovereignty is so encompassing that Joseph can even tell his brothers: “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (v. 8). We must be careful here to note that the brothers are still liable for their sin…All Joseph means to say is that the Lord’s will — not man’s — is ultimate. In all that occurs, God is at work to make His desires for creation go according to His plan. This concurrence, or simultaneous working of the Lord and men (good or evil) to bring about God’s holy purposes, is hard to comprehend. (RC Sproul, Hard Providence)

Another commentator puts it: “Joseph theologizes on the spiritual implications of [God’s providence] in a unique way. From a worm’s-eye view, his narrative reads like a nightmare, a cacophony of outrageous excesses unjustly inflicted upon him; a rational conclusion that it is all absurd from this perspective could have made him an existentialist, a cynic, or a nihilist. But he chooses the heavenly perspective that God is working through him to bring about what is good. This enables him to forgive and encourages his brothers to do the same.” (Bruce Waltke, Genesis, p 565)

As you know Joseph goes on to explain how God has made him a father to Pharaoh (perhaps because he was older and wiser than Pharaoh), and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

[Note: Interesting that the “fatherless” Joseph became a father to Pharaoh.]

In the past, he spoke to them through an interpreter, but now he speaks to them with his own mouth. He speaks to them in their common language, their family lingo.

Speaking of father, Joseph urges his brothers to hurry and go up to his father and tell him the whole story of God’s providence for the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how Joseph will provide all good things for his father’ whole entire household.

All the brothers must testify to their father of all that they have seen and heard — especially Benjamin since he is the most trustworthy of all the brothers.

Finally, after twenty-two years, Joseph fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him.

And Joseph gave them wagons, according to the command of Pharaoh, and gave them provisions for the journey.

He made restitution for his brothers. He paid the sin-debt they owed on their behalf.

They took away his coat of many colors; but he gave them many changes of clothes.

They sent him away for a wage of a few pieces of silver; but he sent them away with gifts of many pieces of silver.

They sold him as a slave; but he set them free as sons.

They sought retribution against him; but he sought restoration for them.

As one commentator observes: “In reality, his confidence in God’s sovereignty is one factor enabling Joseph to forgive his brothers. In hindsight, he is able to see God’s invisible hand; thus, there is no place for revenge since Joseph knows the Lord used his years of suffering for His good, redemptive plan (v. 5).” (RC Sproul, Hard Providence)

Joseph sent his brothers away, and as they departed, he said to them, “Do not quarrel on the way.” The word “do not quarrel” can mean “do not fall out and fight” but it can also mean “do not fear and worry” either about robbers taking your stuff or about your father’s response to the news.

So they went up out of Egypt and came to the land of Canaan to their father Jacob. And they told him, “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.”

We don’t have to imagine Jacob’s response. The story says, “his heart became frigid and rigid, for he did not believe them.”

But when they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived — it was literally saved from the destruction of death. And Israel said, “It is enough; Joseph my son is again alive. I will go and see him before I die.”

Jacob seemed to grasp that “God willed that Joseph should be as one dead, for a short time, in order that he might suddenly bring him forth from the grave, as the preserver of life.” (Calvin on Genesis 45:8)

Just as Joseph was dead yet lived again, so Jacob’s heart was dead, yet lived again.

Now, that is a good story in and of itself, but it is a truer and better story if we read it in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A preacher in the twelfth-century AD put this challenge before his hearers in a sermon on Joseph:

“What I have placed before you, brethren, is like an egg or a nut; break the shell and you will find the food. Beneath the image of Joseph you will find the Paschal Lamb, Jesus, the one for whom you yearn. The great depth at which he is hidden and the diligence necessary in seeking him and the difficulty you will have in finding him will only make him all the sweeter to your taste.” (Guerric of Igny, Liturgical Sermons. Quoted in The Art of Reading Scripture, pp 208-209.)

I want to echo that same challenge for my hearers day. Listen to and look for Jesus in this story.

We have said many times before that if we can relate to anyone in the story, we can relate to the brothers.

The brothers are a shadow, but we are the reality. We are Reuben. We are Simeon and Levi. We are Judah. We are Benjamin.

We have dishonored our father and mother; we have been angry with our brothers and jealous of our brothers; we have felt selfish ambition and vain conceit in our hearts; we have coveted money, craved sex, and clawed for power; we have cheated and deceived one another; we have attacked, betrayed, condemned, and damaged each other; we have not always loved one another or forgiven each other as we ought.

We are sinners, and we have sinned against God and man.

Like Joseph’s brothers, we must all appear before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:10).

So, what shall we say to our Lord?

He who searches our hearts knows who we are and what we have done. He has already found out the guilt of his servants; and behold, we are guilty.

What shall we say in self-defense?

We deserve whatever punishment, whatever slavery, and whatever death our Lord wishes to pronounce upon us for our sins.

We stand in his presence shell-shocked, unable to speak, paralyzed by fear, expecting retribution and punishment —

But Jesus is the true and better Joseph who says, “I am Jesus, and as my father lives, do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sent me to the cross, for God sent me before your faces as the savior of the world to preserve your life … God sent me before your faces to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to save many survivors for you. So it was not you who sent me to the cross, but God.”

Jesus is the true and better Joseph who was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, yet crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23) who did whatever God’s hand and plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:28)

Jesus is the true and better Joseph who was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he is found! (Luke 15:32)

Jesus is the true and better Joseph who found in the form of a servant, and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, (Philippians 2:8-10)

Jesus is the true and better Joseph who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Mat 28:18).

Jesus is the true and better Joseph who decides to pardon, protect, and preserve you. This is restoration, not retribution.

Once we were slaves clothed in the filthy rags of our sin, but now we are are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of us as were baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27)

We sought retribution against him; but he sought reconciliation, redemption, and restoration for us.

Nevertheless, we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5:10).

So what shall we do?

Draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, that you may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16)

Draw near to Christ for he is able to save perfectly and completely since he always lives to make pray for you. (Heb 7:22)

Draw near to worship God with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with your hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and your bodies washed with pure water. (Heb 10:22)

How shall we live?

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

So work out what God works in with reverence and awe together in community.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing. (Philippians 2:12-14)

We all have people in our life who have sinned against us one way or another. A brother or sister in Christ; a sibling or parent; a friend or enemy; a coworker or stranger. We’ve all stood at the crossroads of Retribution and Restoration and struggled to decide which path to take.

Let’s seek reconciliation, not retribution. Let’s strive to redeem, not get revenge. Let’s struggle to restore one another, not recycle our faults and rehash our failures.

What shall we say in response to all these things?

Jesus is Lord! For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever. Amen


“Let us bow when the brothers lower Joseph into the pit, when Judah offers to give up his life for Benjamin, when Jacob surrenders Benjamin to his other sons, when Jacob hears that Joseph is alive and of royal stature. And let us reserve our deepest and longest bow for when we hear Joseph’s words of forgiveness to his brothers: ‘Do not be afraid!’ We are those brothers, and only the Elect One of Israel can speak the words of absolution.” (Gary Anderson, Joseph and the Passion of our Lord, 215)

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