The story of Joseph reaches its culmination at this point. The big question ask as we read through this story is how Joseph eventually will treat his brothers, the same brothers who sold him into slavery so long ago.
And it was Judah’s act of self-sacrifice that caused Joseph to break down. Joseph seemed to be looking for character change from his brothers as he accused them of being spies, as he imprisoned them, as he held Simeon captive and sent the other brothers home for Benjamin, as he put their money back in their bags, as he planted his own silver cup in Benjamin’s bag.
Joseph seemed to be looking for what these men were made of. Had they changed at all in those many years since they threw Joseph into that pit and then sold him off into slavery?
And it seems as if Judah finally convinced Joseph that these men had indeed changed. Something in their hearts had softened. We can’t be sure what it was that caused this softening. Perhaps it was the strain of the famine that had jeopardized the family for those two years. Or perhaps it really was the long, slow burn of regret about what they had done to their brother. We don’t really know.
But the surprising self-sacrifice of Judah – a man whom we might least expect to demonstrate this – was the thing that caused Joseph to break down and cry.
This change in these men – what do we call that? As they protected one another and as they protected their father and as they pleaded their case with Joseph and as they responded to the negative things that kept happening to them – what is this?
There is a word that we use in the church for this kind of thing. It is called repentance. Repentance means a person literally turns around. He or she stops going in one direction and begins to move in the opposite direction.
Repentance is key to our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus wants us to repent, to leave behind our own ways and to follow him.
Jesus’ very first recorded sermon was a very brief one and repentance was a major theme. Mark records it like this: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15).
Because the kingdom of God was now present on earth – it was “at hand” in the form of the life and ministry of the Son of God, Jesus Christ – people should repent of their evil ways, and they should believe in the good news of Jesus.
Interestingly, one of the very first things Jesus did in his ministry was to issue a command. And it was a command about behavior. He said, in essence, “Turn around. Stop going that way. Go this way instead.”
I find this interesting because so often when we share the gospel, we don’t talk about behavior. We stop short of telling people to stop doing what they’ve been doing, to stop living the way they have been living. Instead, we assure them of God’s forgiveness of their sins, and we encourage them to believe so that they will go to heaven.
The assurance of God’s forgiveness and the encouragement to believe are both good things to do. But somewhere in the call of Christ is also a call to repentance, to change one’s ways. Many times, we ignore this as an inconvenient truth of the gospel. You’ll notice many of the mainline denominations of Christianity, as well as many so-called evangelical churches, have embraced things like homosexual lifestyles and transgenderism as holy and good.
They do this because they have left Jesus and God’s Word behind. They don’t want to tell people to repent. They wantto say, “Neither do I condemn you.” But they don’t want to say, “Go, from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).
In what ways have you repented of sin in your life as you have followed Jesus? Is your life moving in an entirely different direction now that you know him?
Repentance is critical to the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. Listen to the way the apostle Peter responded to the crowd on the day of Pentecost:
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37-38).
Again, repentance is linked closely to our being followers of Jesus Christ – of our becoming followers of Jesus Christ. We are to repent and receive baptism. And we are forgiven for our sins and receive the Holy Spirit. It’s pretty simple. Peter doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity. Repentance is required if we are to become followers of Jesus Christ.
We can’t be followers of Jesus if our lives are not changed, if we are not seeking to please him with our actions. That’s why James said, “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). James said, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). In essence, James said a person doesn’t have faith if he continues to move along in his old ways and never repents of those things and turns around to follow Jesus. Our works are the evidence of our faith.
Well, Joseph got the evidence for which he was looking. Seeing his older brother Judah pleading for the life of Benjamin, and offering to sacrifice his own life for Benjamin, put Joseph in tears. I suspect he barely recognized these men.
These were not the brothers Joseph knew in his formative years. These brothers loved each other dearly. They were willing to pour out their lives for each other and for their father. These brothers honestly gave back the money that was not theirs. These brothers demonstrated remorse and guilt for the way they had treated Joseph.
Again, we don’t know what caused this change, this repentance. All we can do is see it in their by their works. These men were different.
The question that we Protestant Christians always have to put to bed is this: What comes first – forgiveness or repentance, grace or works? It’s like that nail in your deck that keeps working its way up. You have to keep pounding it down – because we want to make salvation about ourselves. We want to make it about our own works rather than the grace of God. We mostly do this subconsciously, I think. We want to be in control of things when we are not in control of anything, really.
Joseph’s brothers were not in control of anything. Joseph was very much in control. He called the shots. And it is clear to me from this story that forgiveness came before repentance. The free gift of grace came before any of those brothers had shown Joseph one scrap of repentance.
Why do I believe this? Because if I was Joseph, those men likely would have been dead the moment I laid my eyes on them. If they had thrown me into a pit with the intention of killing me and then decided instead it would be better to sell me into slavery, I would have been upset. And then the long years of languishing in slavery and prison would have worn on me. I would have remembered those brothers. No one deserves to be treated as I was treated.
And so the fact Joseph didn’t execute his brothers immediately speaks to some kind of forgiveness that was at work in Joseph. He was moving on, and he was letting go, and he was beginning to see God had a purpose in the hardships he faced.
Joseph already had forgiven his brothers by the time he saw them. And he tested them, as God tests and disciplines us. God takes our repentance, and he continues to push and push and push. He pushes us. What are we made of? Have we reoriented our lives toward Him? Have we left the evil of our past lives behind us, and are we continuing to root out the evil in our lives as we find it?
Repentance is a continual act, not a one-time event.
Listen to what the writer of Hebrews says about this kind of thing:
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary and fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:3-11).
God is pruning us through his testing of us, through his disciplining us. Remember the text we discussed recently about Satan’s request to sift Peter and the disciples like wheat (Luke 22:31-32). Who approved that request? Jesus did. The sifting was a test, a moment of seeing what the disciples were made of. Where was their allegiance? What did they really think of Christ?
This wasn’t an effort to tear them down or to cast them out. No, it was an effort to build them up and to grow them. And Jesus said, “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” There’s that picture again of repentance, of turning around. Peter would seem to fail the test in his denial of Jesus. But he would turn again. He would repent. And he would be used by God to strengthen the family of faith.
There’s a picture here in this story of Joseph and his brothers that ought to be meaningful to us. Joseph had been watching his brothers. He’d seen their lives. He knew them well. And Joseph pushed everyone out of the room – all the Egyptians, that is. This was a family matter. No one but he and they needed to know the depth of their sins. Like a good ancient Mediterranean family, they concealed one another’s faults.
And Joseph was in that room alone with his brothers. The interpreter was gone, too. And Joseph wept. He wept so loud that everyone on the block could hear him. This was deep grief and deep joy. And Joseph said, in their own language – and I assume it was for the first time – “I am Joseph!”
This was an extraordinarily tender scene. This was a scene of full forgiveness and of the speaking of the truth. “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. … And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.”
This is the way of God. This is the way of Christ. Peter said, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:23-24).
God has a plan for his people. It started with Abraham, a single man who responded to God in faith. It grew to encompass an entire nation. And then it reduced down again to a single man, Jesus Christ.
On the cross, speaking of how we know forgiveness comes first, he looked out on those who were putting him to death. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The question we must ask ourselves is whether we have come into that forgiveness. Have we accepted it? Have we reoriented our lives now toward Jesus? Have we repented and believed in the gospel?