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The Road to Repentance

Date: Feb. 3, 2019

Author: Michael Mark

Genesis 42:1-38

Key Verse: Genesis 42:24

Has anyone heard the term “Skeletons in the closet?”  It’s a saying describing some embarrassing or shameful facts that someone wants to keep secret.  My brother sent me a meme last week with a scene in a courtroom.  The lawyer says, “I would like to present my client’s internet search history from that evening.”  And his client says, “I’d rather just confess to the murder.”  He would rather confess to a murder over having his internet search history read.  Do you have some skeletons in the closet?  Are there things you really hope no one will ever know or find out?  We all have them, often they are sinful things. For some people, it might not be a big deal.  But for others, these secrets can become huge sources of burdens and guilt.  The sons of Jacob had this issue, and this secret was the reason why Joseph was no longer living with them.  They had sold Joseph into slavery over 20 years ago, not knowing what ever happened to him, but they told a lie to their father, and never told him the truth.  This must have gnawed at their consciences, so much that I even think Judah left temporarily because of this.  Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, how could they ever tell him the truth.  For years they had to live with this guilt, seeing their father miserable day after day because of what they had done, but they were trapped, too weak to tell the truth, too weak to do anything about it. Despite their great sin and their weakness, God would work now to free them from their guilt and burden, and lead them on the road to repentance, that is, to turn them away from sin, and to turn them towards God.

Repentance is not a common word in our vocabulary, but it is one of the most important teachings in the Bible.  Today, when you hear the word repentance, you might think of someone on the street preaching “If you did this, you’re going to hell.  If you did that, you’re going to hell.  Repent now of your sins!”  While this is the truth, there is no grace.  Then you might hear other preachers say, “Let’s not talk about sin and repentance.  Let’s not dwell on the negative.  God is for you.”  This is grace, but when you take out sin and repentance, then there’s very little truth. Repentance has both grace and truth. You need both.  You need to acknowledge your sin, but you also need to know your sins are totally forgiven in Christ so you can continue to follow him. So repentance is also a daily practice. You might say, “I repented 1 year ago, 5 years ago, 10 years ago,” but repentance is not a one and done deal. We can and should continue to grow deeper and deeper in repentance.  Martin Luther says the same thing about repentance, in the very first Thesis he posted on Wittenberg Castle: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of the believer to be one of repentance.” Repentance is for our entire lives. Now let’s look at how God works through Joseph to lead his brothers to repentance.

Look at v.1, “When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you just keep looking at each other?’”  This is probably one of the most comical first verses in the Bible.  “Why do you just keep looking at each other?”  Can you imagine the sons all sitting around, doing nothing, saying nothing, looking at one another?  Sometimes I do that in meetings, because I’m hesitant to say something.  This past week during an online video conference, Sh. Bob said, “Mike, Dan, what do you think?  Why don’t you say something?”  And Dan and I were just looking at the screen.  I think we were both being polite and not wanting to speak at the same time.  But for Jacob’s sons, their quietness may have been for a different reason.  Last week, at the end of the passage, we saw that the famine had grown severe everywhere including and around Egypt. Jacob’s household was running out of grain to eat.  Notice Jacob learned there was grain in Egypt.  But no one was first to raise their hand and say, “I’ll go get some for our family.”  When they heard about Egypt, they fell silent.  Why?  Why do you think so?  Either they were lazy, or their guilt made them reluctant.  They knew their brother was sold as a slave to Egypt and hearing the word Egypt might have triggered their guilt, like “no one talks about Egypt around here.”

Nonetheless, Jacob ordered them to go, and they obeyed.  They would not go on their own accord, but because Jacob told them to, they went.  Here we see that although the sons were grown, married, and had their own families, Jacob was still like the chief of the clan, like the “Godfather.”  He also did not send Benjamin with them, and here you can see that he was now the favorite son and wanted to keep him safe from harm.  Jacob was afraid that Benjamin could get hurt.  Still all the other brothers went.  It seems that the brothers no longer had a problem with envy, but then again, starvation might also be a great motivator.

Their journey led them to Egypt, and for the first time in over 20 years, the 10 brothers met their long-lost brother Joseph, though they had no idea. God arranged, or pre-arranged, this fateful meeting.  Look at v.6, “Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people.  So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground.” Joseph was the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, and had the authority over all the storehouses of grain. When the brother’s arrived, they paid him homage and gave him great honor.  Joseph recognized them, but they did not recognize him.  It had been more than 20 years now (counting Joseph’s 13 years as a slave or prisoner, and 7 years ruling in prosperous times). Joseph was now 37 years old.  He was sold when he was a teenager, so he would be more unrecognizable than they would be having been grown up.  He was also groomed and dressed like an Egyptian, and he also walked and talked like an Egyptian, so they were kept from recognizing him.

He saw the 10 brothers, and immediately recognized them – but someone was missing.  Where was the youngest?  Where was his brother from the same mother?  So he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them, probing them. He wanted to find out what was going on with Joseph, and his father.  So he began, “Where do you come from?”  And they replied, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.”  Look at v.8-9a, “Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.  Then he remembered his dreams about them.”  I want to pause here to think about this.  He remembered his dreams.  These were the dreams where the sheaves of grain, and the stars, that represented his brothers, were bowing down to him.  It was all clicking now.  These dreams were the reason he was here.  These dreams were what caused his brothers to become jealous.  They tried to defeat the dreams by killing Joseph, but God fulfilled them.  He might not have really thought too much about the dreams over the past 20+ years, because he could not know when or if they would be fulfilled.  But now, he has become ruler of Egypt, and they all came to bow down to him.  It all made sense.  Joseph must have heard how God promised Abraham he would bless the whole world through him, and how Isaac was miraculously born, and how Jacob wrestled with God and promised kings and nations would come from him.  He experienced a demonstration of God’s power when the dreams were fulfilled exactly, in his rise to power as ruler and his brother’s arrivals as servants.

Joseph continued to speak harshly to them – in the rest of v.9 he turns up the heat with an accusation punishable by death, “You are spies!  You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” Joseph was not mad or vengeful of his brothers.  He could have been, and maybe he should have been, after what they done to him.  But Joseph was not like that.  He was not spiteful, nor was he playing games with them. He was working under the inspiration of God.  Joseph would begin to test and examine his brothers, one, to find out about Benjamin and his father, and two, to see if their attitudes had changed after their great sin against him.  As we will see, he will lead them to repentance.  How could he do this?  Joseph was a wise man, but even he acknowledges that he can do nothing, but God can do anything (Gen 41:16).  His wisdom comes from the Spirit of God, even Pharaoh acknowledged in the previous chapter, “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God? (Gen 41:38).”  God will work through Joseph to lead his brothers to repentance, restore their family, and remove their guilt.  First, truth must be applied.  He does not speak on friendly terms with them, but as a ruler, and a judge.  If he was friendly with them, they may never sense that anything is wrong.  Joseph knew their sin, and by being harsh, he can bring them to an acknowledgment of the truth.

He continues his accusation, “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”  In those times, and maybe even now, it is common to see one clan or tribe look for an area of weakness in another, so that they can attack, raid or plunder. Often what do countries do when spies are caught?  It’s not pretty.  They will imprison them, and some countries will torture or put spies to death. Joseph is really pressing the brothers to prove their innocence.  As he probes them, he gathers information about their identity.  These days, you have to go through several identity checks because fraud is so prevalent.  When you call a credit card company, they will have you verify your social security number, date of birth, home address, mother’s maiden name to make sure it’s you. Joseph was doing something similar. He asked probing questions.  Who are you?  Who is your father?  How many brothers do you have?  And they answered accordingly.  So when they answered the truth about their brothers, and he saw one was missing, he used that as a way to test them and also to see Benjamin.

Look at v.15, “And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here.” Notice he says, “As surely as Pharaoh lives.”  This is to keep up the façade that he is an Egyptian.  No Hebrew would swear by Pharaoh, because they would swear by God. He stated his terms – 9 will stay in prison in Egypt, and 1 will go back to bring Benjamin.  Then he put them in custody for 3 days.  This was to show them he was serious.  He actually put them in prison.  But this also has the effect of giving them some time to think. They could think about literally anything.  Why are they in prison.  What is this guy doing?  What is going on?  Are we going to get out?  They were given plenty of time for reflection and self-examination.  When you’re in prison, I don’t think you would think about what you are going to do or see, I think you’d think about what is wrong, either of yourself or the situation.  Paul writes about the law of God as a kind of prison until the faith that was to come would be revealed (Gal 3:23-24).  The law of God shows us our sin (honor your parents, do not murder, commit adultery, steal, slander or envy), and we realize we are trapped and can only be freed by the faith that was to come – the faith in Jesus.

Having been in prison for 3 days, Joseph returns and shows them some mercy – look at v.18-19, “On the third day, Joseph said to them, ‘Do this and you will live, for I fear God: If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households.”  He shows a little more leniency.  They did not know for how long they were going to stay in prison, but he showed up after three days.  He says, “I fear God.”  This should have brought them great comfort, but their lack of faith may have prevented it. Joseph is saying that he will give them a chance to prove their innocence, that he will not put them to death just because of suspicions but allow them a fair chance.  He is saying that he rules justly because he fears God. He reverses the terms, so now 9 will go and only 1 will stay.  He is also considerate of their households and allows them to take grain back.  This is in contrast to what they did to him 20 years ago.  They ate while he was in a pit and planned to starve him to death; but here Joseph planned to feed them and their families.

They agree, reluctantly, even though they had no choice.  They knew that their father would be very much opposed to allowing Benjamin to go.  But now we can see what they had thought about in prison, and the beginnings of repentance.  Verse 21 says, “They said to one another, ‘Surely we are being punished because of our brother.  We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.’”  We have a breakthrough!  This was an admission of guilt, a confession of sin.  Their consciences sprang to life because of the law of God, and they were convicted.  They admitted that what they did to Joseph was wrong.  He pleaded for his life, but they ignored him.  They committed fratricide, they all took part in the murder of their brother.  Their own hearts were condemning them.  But they admitted to sin.  Many, if not most people in this world do not know or believe that they are sinners. But 1 John 1:8-9 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”  We are all sinners in light of the law of God, but acknowledging and confessing our sins is the first step on the road to repentance.

Reuben further chastises his brothers, in v.21, “Reuben replied, ‘Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy?  But you wouldn’t listen!  Now we must give an accounting for his blood.’”  It was true, Reuben objected to killing him, and suggested he be thrown into a pit.  He wanted to save him, but before he could pull him out they sold him to the Midianite merchants.  He could not prevent their wickedness, so he admits guilt and responsibility with them. He adds that they must give an accounting for his blood, meaning, they are now being punished and getting what they deserved for what they did to Joseph.  And if Joseph was dead, so would their punishment be.

Joseph witnessed this whole argument and saw their distress over what they had done.  He saw that they were repentant, and truly believed they deserve punishment from God for their sins.  Look at what happens next.  Can we all please read v.24, “He turned away from them and began to weep, but then came back and spoke to them again.  He had Simeon taken from them and bound before their eyes.”  He turned away from them and began to weep.  He was moved by their repentance.  He did not cry when he first saw them, he did not cry when he was pretending to be harsh with them, but he cried when they acknowledged their sin. In this you can see a shadow of God. You can see God’s tenderness and mercy towards sinners who repent.  Jesus said that there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10).  Peter tells us in 2 Peter 3:9 that God wants everyone to come to repentance. Repentance pleases God, and it touches the heart of God.  This I think is the better reason to repent, not out of fear of punishment, but out of love for God.  See the tender mercy of God toward sinners, in Joseph’s weeping over the repentance of his own brothers.

It seems odd, that after Joseph composes himself, he gives orders to have Simeon taken and bound in the sight of the other brothers.  But there was still work to do in this work of reconciliation.  They still needed to uphold their agreement to bring the food back, and bring Benjamin to Egypt.  So Joseph decided to take Simeon.  Why Simeon? Maybe because he heard Reuben confess his good intentions, though he was not fully innocent.  Maybe because Simeon was the next oldest, or maybe he had the more violent nature.  Though Joseph puts up a tough front, he is pouring out grace and kindness behind the scenes.  He fills all their bags with grain, at least 9 bags, and he puts their silver back in the bags.  He gives them all that grain for free, without cost to his family, and allows them to keep their money.  Then he also gave them provisions for their journey.  He made sure they would be comfortable and well fed, well watered and well stocked for the ride home.  They were not even fully reconciled yet, but Joseph is already lavishing them with gifts. This is how God treats repentant sinners.  For a brief moment he is hidden, but he comes back with deep compassion; for a moment he hides his face from us, but with everlasting kindness he has compassion on us (Isa 54:7-8).

Repentance does not change us over night, but our faith is being perfected day by day.  The brothers, and even Jacob, could not yet see what God was doing, but God was diligently working to lift them up out of their guilt and distress. On their way back home, they made a stop and during the night one of the brothers opened a sack of grain to get feed for his donkey, and saw something shocking.  Look at v.28, “‘My silver has been returned,’ he said to his brothers.  ‘Here it is in my sack.’  Their hearts sank and they turned to each other trembling and said, ‘What is this that God has done to us?’”  They did not see the kindness of Joseph, nor of God.  What was supposed to be a blessing of God they took to be a curse. They had every reason to believe it at this point.  Joseph had been harsh to them, and accused them.  Now they thought he might have planted this silver in their bag, so he could frame them and punish them some more. 

They made it back home to Jacob, but again with one less son.  They explained the whole situation to Jacob. Then when they emptied their sacks, they found silver in every pouch!  When everyone saw the money pouches, they were frightened.  Then Jacob lets loose.  Look at v.36, “Their father Jacob said to them, ‘You have deprived me of my children.  Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!’”  Look who he accuses.  He points the finger at all of his sons.  “You have deprived me of my children.”  Though he doesn’t really know what happened to Joseph, he is suspicious of them.  Knowing their violent temperament, he suspected the disappearance of his children could be related to them somehow.  He laments “Everything is against me!”  In the midst of this heat, Reuben tries to reassure Jacob, that if he does not bring Benjamin back, he can put to death his two sons.  But Jacob refused.  How is putting two of his grandsons to death any consolation?  But Reuben may have just offered to make a point to trust him.  Jacob would not trust him, however.  He says in v.38, “My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left.  If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow.”  As the only remaining son of his favorite wife, Jacob really tried to hold on to Benjamin.  He was still afraid something bad would happen to him if he left him out of his sight.

See now the effects of sin – it hinders our faith: we can’t see God’s grace and blessings in our lives, and we can even be scared of them.  It also affects our trust in others, just as Jacob could not trust his sons.  This passage or chapter seems to have a discouraging ending, but actually the brothers and Jacob have just begun the road to repentance, and it is a work in progress.  This should give us some comfort, that when we begin repentance, we do not need to have a perfect repentance.  It can be as small as a mustard seed.  We may never come to a perfect repentance, but day by day we can grow deeper in our understanding and experience of it.  There is a repentance that leads to life.  It has two aspects: a negative (as in, something to stop), and a positive (as in, something to start).  The negative aspect is to turn from sin, to stop sinning.  The positive aspect is to turn to God.  There are the two aspects: turn from sin, and turn to God.  Sin does make it difficult to see what is good and repent, that is why we look to God to help us.  He is faithful, and can do it.  Repentance is a gift from God.

Surely Jacob and sons found it very hard to repent, but it was God who was leading them, and it is God who can lead us to repentance, through grace and truth. These are the two qualities of repentance, and both are needed: first truth, then grace.  Just as how the brothers admitted to their guilt and wrongdoing, we have to confess our sins, and admit that we are sinners.  But this is never easy.  It is one of the hardest things to do.  Many years ago, before I was married, I used to go out to party and get drunk all the time, and my pictures would get posted to Facebook whether I knew it or not.  Sh. Bob had seen these pictures, and one day he confronted me.  He gave me a list of Bible verses showing my sin, such as 1 Cor 6:9-10, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”  At first I got reaaaaly angry, I got silent, and my face turned read.  I thought, “That’s not me.”  But as I sat there, writhing in my anger, the truth came to me. This is me.  I am a sinner.  I have sinned.  And I have been a terrible influence to all those who looked up to me, especially young men.  Not too long later, I had untagged and removed all of my shameful photos and asked my friends to untag me, and set out to be different.  But even today, I still need to repent.  There are times when I am working late at night, and I find some videos on Youtube, and end up watching for one or two hours, causing me to stay up until 4am on many nights.  Now this might not be the same for everyone, but my conscience convicts me that I am wrong, and I need to repent.  We need to confess our sins honestly, and admit that we are sinners. Now we don’t need to go out of our way to find something we feel guilty about, and if our conscience doesn’t bother us, we can in general acknowledge we are sinners, and need forgiveness even for our unknown sins. 

Sometimes God may lead us to repentance through discipline, just as the brothers were sharply corrected.  I want to be careful here, because not all suffering is because of sin. Sufferings can be for the glory of God, to show his power in our weakness.  But God is faithful, he knows what we can bear, what we can handle.  If there is discipline in our lives, and though it be painful, know that it is because God loves you, and it will lead to a harvest of righteousness and peace (Heb 12:7-11).  I don’t think we need to ask for discipline necessarily, because God will know when to dispense it.  But a mature Christian will see it as a way to grow, and God will strengthen the one who undergoes it.  The truly brave may seek discipline, as a soldier, athlete or any professional who wants to become better.  Discipline can strengthen your resistance to sin, and your reliance on God.

Finally, the second quality of repentance is grace.  This is the road to repentance; grace is the road to repentance. Rom 2:4 tells us, “the kindness of God leads us to repentance.”  Consider the great kindness and goodness of God.  The truth tells us we deserve punishment, we have done wrong.  The truth tells us we are weak, we are under sin and we cannot escape.  The truth tells us our sin leads to misery, despair and death.  But God does not give us what we deserve.  You will find, when you ask for forgiveness, how quick God is to forgive, how quick he is to bless, how quick he is to restore.  Think about what happened with Joseph’s brothers. Even before they were reconciled, even before Joseph could even say “I forgive you,” the moment his brothers said, “We’re wrong,” he turned around and wept.  He filled their sacks with grain, and gave them back their silver, and gave them provisions back home.  He lavished grace on them.  Likewise, when we turn to God, he quickly pours out his grace.  Here is proof: he answers our prayers.  Who are we that he is mindful of us?  But he answers our prayers, and gives us what we ask.  He gives us what we need, even if we don’t know to ask for it.  Now consider his lavish kindness in this: did you see how Jacob was not willing to give up his most precious son Benjamin?  You see how close he clutched on to his youngest son?  He loved Benjamin, that the loss would bring him sorrow forever.  God’s son Jesus was just as precious, and even moreso – he was God’s one and only Son, and he was perfect.  In everything he did, God was well pleased. 

Jacob thought: “Everything is against me!”  But only if he could see what God was doing behind the scene.  Oh sinner, only if you could see what God has already done!  Paul says this in Rom 8:31-32, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”  God gave up his most beloved Son to die on the cross for our sins, so that he would get the death we deserved, and we would get the life he deserved.  God made him who knew no sin be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God!  (2 Cor 5:21).  The kindness of God leads us to repentance.  We repent because we have done nothing deserving of his forgiveness, his healing and his blessings, but because of his great love for us, he remained faithful and loving.  So this is the road to repentance: to confess our sins in truth, and to accept the grace of his love and forgiveness, and to come to him daily.  Martin Luther’s shorter catechism says this about daily repentance (in relation to baptism by water): “[Being baptized by water indicates that] the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and the new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”  May your new person emerge daily to live before God in righteousness and purity forever on the road to repentance.

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