Tag Archives: prison

Finding God in our mess – Characters: Joseph, Part 3

30 Oct

Life can feel so messy. Have you ever been in one those the seasons of life where it seems like things keep going wrong? Just when you think you are getting past one hurdle, here comes another one. You jump one, then two, and you barely make it over the third, and you’re so tired, and you jump to clear the fourth hurdle, but you’re flagging strength doesn’t take you nearly high enough, and you crash into the hurdle, losing balance, crumbling to the ground. Been there?

Joseph was there. In this second installment in our series titled Characters, we’ve been following the life of Joseph, one of the patriarchs of ancient Israel, as he faces one hurdle after another. There are more to come. Will Joseph crash?

We read about Joseph’s life in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. In chapters 40 and 41 we return to the topic of dreams.  Remember how 17-year-old Joseph had dreams about his family bowing down to him? That didn’t go over well. At all. His brothers responded by selling him into slavery, and he was purchased by an Egyptian official, Potiphar. God was with Joseph and he prospered serving in Potiphar’s house, until Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph. Though he ran from her, she lied to Potiphar saying that Joseph was making passes at her. Potiphar threw Joseph in jail, and life was awful again. Yet God was with Joseph, and in prison he prospered again, earning favor with the warden. This is when the dreams start again, but it is not Joseph who is dreaming.

Two men in prison with him have dreams: the king’s chief cupbearer and chief baker.  If you want to read the story, open your Bible to Genesis 40:8.  Both men had been on the King Pharaoh’s bad side, and the king jailed them. In prison they both have mysterious dreams. The men don’t know what the dreams mean, and they tell this to Joseph. Joseph says to them, with confidence in God’s ability to provide interpretation, “Tell me your dreams.”  Again God is with Joseph, and he interprets the dreams.  The dreams are prophecies, and they come true.  Disaster for the baker, and restoration for the cupbearer.

In chapter 41 the text tells us two years go by.  Now the Pharoah, the king of Egypt, has some dreams.  Weird dreams.  My dreams can get pretty weird too.  I don’t know about you, but I have always had dreams, from childhood till now.  Sometimes they are nightmares, especially when I am sick.  That can really set off the weirdness at night.  Have you ever woke from a dream thinking, “Whew…it was just a dream…I am so glad that wasn’t real!” because it seemed real, and it was weird or awful.  Well, King Pharaoh has some strange dreams, and no one can interpret them, even the magicians and wise men of Egypt. 

Guess who is there watching the King desperately trying to understand his dreams?  The cupbearer.  Remember him?  He was one of the guys in prison with Joseph who had a dream. Joseph interpreted it, and the cupbearer was restored to favor with the king.  Now the cupbearer, watching the king struggle to interpret his dreams, remembers, “Wait…there was this guy in prison, Joseph, who interpreted dreams.”  He tells the king, and the king summons Joseph. 

What Joseph says when the king asks him to interpret the dream is awesome.  Look at Genesis, chapter 41:16. Joseph says to the king, “I cannot do it.”

That’s bold.

When the king calls, you answer.  When he says, “Jump,” you jump.  And when he says, “I heard you can interpret dreams,” you say, “Let’s do it, what is your dream?”  Not Joseph.  Joseph says, “I can’t.  But God can.”  See the humility in Joseph?  He has changed.  Even after being in prison for over two years, he isn’t angry at God.  He is devoted to God.  Joseph had gifts from God. He was dreaming dreams and was discerning them as a young boy, but it is possible in those early years he was not using his gifts in a God-honoring way.  It could be that he used his dreams to “show up” his brothers.  But when Joseph turned to God and found his identity in God, those gifts became powerful tools for good, as we have read in Genesis chapters 40-41. 

We all have gifts from God, and when we are asking God for his power to use those gifts for the mission of his Kingdom, our gifts are beautiful and powerful tools for Him.

Back to the story, we see Joseph using his gifts for God. Pharaoh tells the dream, and God gives Joseph the interpretation.  The dream was God’s message that a famine is coming on the land, and they need to prepare. 

Look at how Pharaoh responds to this.  Read Genesis 41:37-38, where Pharaoh sees the evidence of God in Joseph’s life, and thinks, “I want this guy on my staff.”  Pharaoh scoops Joseph up immediately, placing him in charge of all Egypt!

Let’s take a step back and notice the hurdles in Joseph’s life to this point: he went from losing his mother who died during the birth of his brother, to being the favorite son of his father, to having his coat of honor stolen from him, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers, to being a slave in Potiphar’s house, but achieving success, only to have Potiphar’s wife lie about him, resulting in being thrown into jail.  How about that for a life of ups and downs?

Finally things come full circle in Genesis 41:41 as Pharaoh puts him charge of Egypt, even including giving Joseph a new robe.  You can bet the robes Joseph wore now were fancier than the one his father gave him years before.  But as Joseph puts on that Egyptian robe, did he remember his father?  Did he think of his brothers?

As we continue in Genesis chapter 41, look at verse 51. Joseph marries, and has two sons.  Even though he marries an Egyptian priest’s daughter, he names his sons in honor of God’s work in his life.  God has made him forget his trouble and his father’s household.  Yet he is talking about his father’s household. So he hasn’t forgotten.  Maybe the family drama still stings a little.  Or a lot.  Yeah, he is now second in command of all Egypt.  He is at the heights of power and wealth and fame.  Yeah, he has a family now.  God is good, and has blessed him, and Joseph is faithful to God.  But that doesn’t mean the memories are wiped clean.  That doesn’t mean the past doesn’t still sting a bit.  

At the end of Genesis 41, we learn that a major famine has come upon the land, as was predicted through Pharaoh’s dreams.  Under Joseph’s leadership, then, Egypt not only prepared enough food for its own people to make it through the famine, but they had so much extra, they were able to sell food to people from other nations too. That fact will have significant ramifications for Joseph, which we’ll see as we continue the story in the next post.

For now, no matter how messy your life has been, know that God is faithful. Keep pursuing him, even in the mess.

When God is nowhere to be found – Characters: Joseph, Part 2

29 Oct
Photo by Brunel Johnson on Unsplash

Have you ever felt utterly alone and abandoned by your family, friends, and even by God? If so, you’re not alone. Maybe people hurt you. Maybe you made a bad choice. Maybe life turned out different from your hopes and dreams. There are many ways we can find ourselves in despair. Keep reading as our character for this week had a very similar situation in his life. There might be something helpful to you as you read his story.

In the previous post, we met 17 year old Joseph, and we learned that his family had a lot of drama, some of which seems to be his own doing. This is a blog series on Characters, people who lived in ancient Israel, people who were flawed and troubled, but people who God still used. At the conclusion of the previous post, Joseph had angered everyone in his family, including his father, who loved Joseph more than any of his other sons. The drama is about to get worse. Way worse.

As we continue the account in Genesis 37, verses 12-36, we read that Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers, and the brothers see this as an opportunity to vent their jealousy and hatred of Joseph, as he is far from home, from the watchful care of their father Jacob. They debate what to do, including killing Joseph, believe it or not, but the oldest, Reuben, intercedes, and they agree to kidnap Joseph and sell him into slavery.  In the process they take Joseph’s special coat, put blood from an animal on it, and give it back to their father Jacob, telling him Joseph had died. 

Imagine this experience from Joseph’s perspective.  17 years old.  Kidnapped by your brothers.  Sold into slavery.  That had to be horrible.  This is human trafficking, perpetrated by his own brothers. Imagine the darkness in Joseph’s soul.

How would this crisis have impacted Joseph?   Have you been through a crisis, a life-changing event?  It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Joseph’s, where he was kidnapped, and sold into slavery, betrayed by his own family.  But perhaps you can think of a difficult situation that happened in your life. 

Crisis can (and should) turn us to God. 

Crisis doesn’t always turn us to God.  Crisis sometimes makes us bitter.  Angry.  Harsh. 

How has crisis affected you?

It seems important at this point to note that something is missing in chapter 37.  Scan through the chapter.  It is a glaring omission.  What, or rather who, is missing?  God.  Not a single mention of God.  Not when Joseph is dreaming.  No mention when he is with his brothers.  And nothing about God when Joseph is sold into slavery.

I find it striking that God is nowhere to be found in this part of the story.

Hold that thought, as we see how crisis affected Joseph.

We’re going to skip over chapter 38, as that is a separate story.  Go to chapter 39 where the story of Joseph picks up.

We learn right away in Chapter 39 that a significant change has occurred in Joseph’s life.  Slave traders take him to Egypt where we meet Potiphar, one of the Egyptian King Pharoah’s officials, and Potiphar buys Joseph.  So a physical change has taken place as Joseph is far from home in a new land.  But there is a spiritual change as well.  Look who is mentioned in verse 2.  God is with Joseph, and Joseph prospered.  The Lord gives Joseph success in all he does. 

Back up with me a moment.  Think about all that Joseph has gone through.  I wish I could know if something changed in Joseph while he was in the hands of the slave traders.  The text doesn’t tell us.  But the presence and blessing of God in chapter 39 is quite striking when you consider the total absence of God in chapter 37.  Could it be that Joseph went through a dark inner struggle while he was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery?

Did he wrestle with God like his father Jacob did, as we saw last week?  The text doesn’t tell us, but to me that is a possible explanation for the absence of God in chapter 37 and the presence of God in 39.  Also, God is faithful in our trials.  He is there.  He was always there, even when it didn’t seem like it.  Even when the circumstances don’t change, he is there. 

We don’t know how long Joseph was in the caravan of slave traders.  Weeks probably.  Maybe months.  But imagine being a 17 year old boy in that circumstance. Can you imagine all the emotions he’s got going on!  He was in a home where he knows he is the favorite and he is beloved, but he also knows and feels the hatred of his brothers on a regular basis. Then he is sold into slavery! I suspect he cried his heart out to God.  I suspect a change took place in Joseph’s relationship with God.  And God changed Joseph.  His identity became about who he was to God and not who he was to his father and to his brothers.  When we realize our identity in God, he is sufficient for us, even when the trials of life continue. 

We read that Joseph rises in favor in Potiphar’s estimation, as Joseph was very capable and blessed by God in all he did, so Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of his whole estate.  Because of this, God blessed Potiphar too. 

Then more trouble comes.  It’s like Joseph is a magnet for drama.  We read that Joseph is very handsome.  And Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him. Joseph’s response is amazing, showing the change that God has worked in him.   Look at Genesis chapter 39, verses 8-12.

Joseph refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances saying, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”  Here he shows his concern for purity, for following God’s ways.  Especially note verse 12 where he flees temptation.  Joseph is an amazing example for us in this.

But Potiphar’s wife is jilted and angry, and she lies to Potiphar, saying that Joseph initiated the advances on her.  Potiphar, angry, imprisons Joseph.  And yet what do we read in Genesis 39:21?  The Lord was with Joseph!  Basically the same thing happens in the prison as what happened in Potiphar’s house.  Joseph is put in charge, and God is with Joseph and blesses all he does.  But Joseph is still in jail.  So his circumstances are still difficult.  Just because Joseph is close to God and being obedient, he is still in prison.  Righteous living does not always mean that immediate results and rewards will come. When we find our identity in God, though, we find that we have all we need, even if our circumstances don’t change.

Seeing beyond our circumstances to share grace and peace – Philemon 1-7, Part 2

20 Aug
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

How are you viewing your life? Are things going well? Are they difficult? If they are going well, my guess is that you probably view them in a positive light. But they are difficult, your view could be negative. In the middle of the difficult, it can be hard for us to think and feel anything but self-loathing, wanting an escape, or anger and despair. In the previous post, though, we saw Paul, though a prisoner, demonstrate an ability to see beyond his circumstances. As we continue studying Philemon 1-7, Paul’s at it again, and this time he not only sees his personal difficulty hopefully, he has a message to share.

After introducing himself as the letter writer, Paul includes Timothy as a cosigner to the letter, because Timothy was in Rome with Paul.  Next he refers to the recipient of the letter, Philemon, calling him a “dear friend and fellow worker,” so we learn just a bit about how Paul felt about this guy.  Clearly Paul feels a close relationship with Philemon.

Then Paul greets two other people. Apphia, who most scholars believe could be Philemon’s wife, and Archippus. Some have speculated that maybe Archippus is Philemon’s son.  We don’t know. 

Interestingly Paul calls Archippus a “fellow soldier.”  “Soldier is a word that refers to “one who serves in arduous tasks or undergoes severe experiences together with someone else—one who struggles along with, one who works arduously along with, fellow struggler.”  Scholars tell us that a “strictly literal translation of that word could imply that Paul himself was a soldier and therefore, in a sense, a secret agent of some military force.” Because we know that wasn’t the case, we need to see Paul as saying to Archippus that Archippus is one, “who works like a fellow soldier or one who experiences great hardships along with us.”[1]

Finally at the end of verse 2, Paul greets “the church that meets in your home.”  Because this is a personal letter to Philemon, it seems best to understand this as Paul referring to a church that meets in Philemon’s home.  Remember that at this time, churches all met in homes.  There were no church buildings. 

Then in verse 3 Paul gives a greeting that is very typical for him: “Grace and peace from God our Father and Lord Jesus.”  But these are not just throw-away words.  Paul means them.  He uses them over and over in his letters, and so we know he takes this greeting seriously.  

Grace came up a lot in Titus.  It comes up a lot in all of Paul’s writings. So we could assume that we all know what it means.  But let’s not.  Instead let’s talk through what grace is.  In the original language that Paul wrote in, ancient Greek, he is using the word, “charis.” In English, “charis” is often translated as “gift”.  You can see how that relates to grace, because we often call it “God’s gift of grace.”  A gift is something that is given, not earned.  That is how we see grace, right? 

Next Paul says “Peace.”  Peace is the Greek word “irene”.  So we have two women’s names in Paul’s greeting: Charis and Irene.  Peace, or irene, refers to a favorable set of circumstances involving tranquility.   

Now add in the rest of the greeting and we see that the grace and peace is “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  This is not human grace and peace, it is from God.  He wants the people receiving this letter to have quite a wonderful blessing from God.  A blessing of grace and peace.

What is so amazing about this, is to consider Paul’s situation as he writes this.  Imagine Paul, in chains, trying to encourage people who are not on house arrest!  He wants them to experience grace and peace when it seems like they should be encouraging him!  Doesn’t it seem like Paul is the one who should be getting a blessing of grace and peace?  And yet here again, Paul does not allow his circumstances to dictate his message.  He wants grace and peace to be communicated anyway.  He doesn’t want his house arrest to destroy the work of God.  He easily could have allowed his chains to ruin his ministry.  But he doesn’t.  Paul allows Jesus to transform his situation.

And Jesus has a really important purpose for this letter, which we will see in the next post in this series.


[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 447.

Fasting for Freedom – The Monday Messy Office report…on Tuesday…again – March 11, 2014

11 Mar

Truth be told, my office didn’t get very messy over the weekend.  I have to admit that I was a bit bummed about that because I like being surprised when I when in here on Monday mornings.  And I’ve enjoyed telling you about what I find.

But this week there were no surprises.  Just the regular stuff, like the reports and mail.

The one exception to that is my copies of the 2014 Lenten Compact devotions.  Each year for the past five years Faith Church has joined with our brothers and sisters at Kimball Avenue Church in Chicago for a Compact.  What is a compact?  Here is a brief description from this year’s edition:

A compact is a covenantal agreement among a group of people. Those who voluntarily enter a compact bind themselves to a set of guidelines and standards for the purpose of accomplishing personal and corporate goals.

Lent is time of fasting, so during Lent we agree together to fast for a purpose, and it is Isaiah 58 where we learn about one of God’s main purposes for calling his people to a fast:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

I would encourage you to take a look at the entire compact and consider joining us. This year we are specifically learning about what it means to loose the chains of injustice for the millions who are incarcerated in our nation’s prisons.  We are talking about a distinctly Christian response to unjust incarceration, mercy for prisoners, hoping to open our eyes to their plight.  But if you do the crime, you should do the time, right?  Perhaps there is a lot more to it than what it might seem.  For instance, have you heard about Kids for Cash, a scandal that happened right here in Pennsylvania where a corrupt judge unlawfully sent 3000 kids to jail. Interestingly the judge was paid millions for this. Sadly there are many more instances of corruption in our justice system.

Will you join us in learning more?  If Jesus said that he came to set the prisoners free, we would do well to give time for serious consideration of the issues.

Also, anyone can participate in the online discussion of the compact’s daily devotions at the Lenten Compact blog site. We’ve been having a wonderful time hearing from one another.  May this Lent be a very meaningful time for you of learning about God’s heart for the oppressed and what we can do to help set them free.