A Dream Is FulfilledErwin W. Lutzer | September 29, 1996
Selected highlights from this sermon
What Joseph’s brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. By the time we get to the end of Joseph’s story, we are struck by the breadth of God’s providence.
But what exactly does “providence” mean? It means that God creates and directs all things to an appointed end—from the physical universe to the spiritual realm.
God’s providence should remind us that even evil has a purpose. Our troubled pasts have a purpose. Our futures have a purpose. When we love God, all things truly do work out for good!
Back in 1994 when a plane crashed near Pittsburgh, the investigators had the gruesome task of finding and identifying the bodies. And one of them came across a human hand with its fingers crossed. Do accidents just happen in life? Is it just by chance that things happen, or is there some kind of a divine purpose to it all?
Today I want to speak to you on the topic of the providence of God. It’s the last in a series of messages on the life of Joseph. And I invite you to take your Bibles, if you would please, and turn to Genesis, chapter 45, verse 8, where Joseph, without the benefit of the New Testament with all of its teaching regarding God and His providence, has enough insight to say to his brothers when his dream was fulfilled (and at this point it was fulfilled) … Verse 5:
“And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Did you catch it? “You sold me here. God sent me here.” Providence!
Take your Bible now and continue in the book of Genesis and just turn to the last chapter, chapter 50. Jacob is dead. The brothers are expecting that Joseph might retaliate against them and finally (quote) even the score. And what does Joseph say to them? Verse 20: “’As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
What do we mean by the providence of God? Providence means that God preserves His creation, and then He directs all things according to His desires toward an appointed end. I don’t know about the rest of Shakespeare’s theology, but I do know that when Hamlet said (Wasn’t it in Act V, scene 2), “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” he was very, very biblical. There is a divinity that shapes our ends. There is a purpose to which God directs all things. The providence of God!
What do I expect your response to be as a result of this message? I should think that if it is preached well, if it is used by the ministry of the Holy Spirit of God, if the Word is accurately expounded, some of you are going to be different for the rest of your life. You are going to leave here today relaxed, joyful, committed, no longer striving. Much of the anxiety will be gone because finally you will realize that this is God’s world ultimately, and if you are God’s child, you are number one on his priority list. God directs all things, all things toward an appointed end.
What I’d like to do today is to, first of all, discuss with you briefly the scope of providence. Now, I’ve made the statement that God directs all things to its appointed end, but we need to explain that and to unpack it so that we better understand it. What do I mean? First of all, God directs such things as the physical universe. It is God, you know, who created the stars, the Bible says, and He calls them all by their names. Who is it that decided that the earth is going to be the sphere of His activity, the place where the drama would be played out? Who is it who decided that the earth would be the scene where human beings would be created, where Satan would have his seat? And who decided that amid all the planets and amid all the stars? God decided it.
Weather! Is the weather in God’s hands? Who is it that created that storm for Jonah, mentioned in his book. The text says very clearly, “And God hurled a storm upon the sea.” God did it. And during the ministry of Jesus when you had the storm on the sea of Galilee, and Jesus said, “Peace be still,” and there was a very great calm, who calmed that storm but God? He has it in His control because He directs it.
You know, the Scripture says that Christ, moment by moment, upholds all things by the word of His power (Colossians 1:17). Here’s what most Christians think. They think that God created the universe with its laws and with its gravity and all of the intricacies of nature, and then He kind of lets it run. And every once in a while, He tinkers with it, and when He does that, we call it a miracle. Normally when people die their bodies disintegrate and they never come back to life again, but occasionally they do. Jesus is the best example, and so we say in that instance, “He intervened.” That’s what most people think.
I want you to know today that the Bible says differently. Christ upholds all things by the word of His power and by Him all things (present tense) consist. Moment by moment God is controlling what is happening in His physical universe. Moment by moment He is holding it all together, and when He does something extraordinary, we consider it to be a miracle, something out of the ordinary, but He is actively involved in it all the time. God has His physical universe that falls under the scope of His providence.
Well, secondly, what else falls under the scope of providence? The human race! Paul says in Acts 17:26 that it is God who created from one blood all the nations of the earth, and He determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation. Appointed by God!
If we ask the question why it is that the sons of Jephthah happened to move to Europe, and the sons of Ham happened to go to Africa, the answer is because God so willed it. God willed it such! And then when you begin to think of the governments of the world… Nebuchadnezzar, you remember, went insane because of his pride, and at the end of the days he said, “I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted up my eyes unto heaven, and my understanding returned to me. And I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever and ever, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and whose dominion endures from one generation to another. And He does it according to His army in heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay His hand, or say to Him, ‘What doest Thou?”
What did Daniel teach? It is the Lord who appoints the leaders of the world, and sometimes puts over the nations the basest of men. Psalm 75, verses 6 and 7: “Promotion comes neither from the east nor from the west, nor from the south, but God is judge. He puts down one and He sets up another.” God’s providence extends to the physical universe. It extends also to the human race, and all that is somewhat understandable.
But now we begin to get into some hot water. Does it extend to the human will? Can God actually direct people’s choices? This, as you know, is an area of controversy, and there are two different interpretations. First of all, there is in the history of the church what is generally known as Arminianism. Arminianism says that the human will is free, that God would never impinge upon the human will, so an Arminian would read this story from Joseph, and he would say, “Well, Joseph, your brothers had the option of selling you or not selling you. They could have been kind to you or they could not have been kind to you.” That was that their free unfettered choice. If so, by the way, it would be very difficult for us to understand what Joseph meant when he said, “God sent me here.” Joseph seems to not only be saying that God took evil and used it for good, but that the evil was actually a part of the divine plan.
Well, as you know, there’s another view sometimes referred to as Calvinism, and the names are not important. The question is whether or not their theology is Biblical, but Calvinism stresses that there are some choices that God even directs. He doesn’t program us like computers, to be sure. We are not robots. But through secondary causes He can cause these brothers to sell Joseph because the hatred is in their hearts and he uses the coat and the dreams to bring it all to the surface, so indirectly God was determining their decision.
You know there’s that old story about those who believed in free will versus those who believed in predestination, and they were having an argument. And it’s a view that has often been argued. And so they separated into two camps. Here over on the one side were those who believed in predestination. On the other side were those who believed in free will. There was one man who, typical of many today, didn’t know which camp he belonged to, so he decided to go over to those who believed in predestination. They said, “Why did you come here?” He said, “I came of my own free will.” (laughter) They said, “Get out of here. You don’t belong here.” So he went over to the other group and they said to him, “Why are you here?” and he said, “I was sent here.” They said, “You can’t be here unless it’s your own free will, your own free choice.” And so the guy was left out in the cold.
My daughter said to me today, just home from college for the weekend, “Dad, there are so many kids at college who believe in free will.” (chuckle) And of course we know that that should not surprise us, but the question is this. And I simply leave it with you, and then we hurry on today. You know, the Scriptures indicate that if it were up to us regarding free will to accept Christ or not accept Him, none of us would accept Him. We’d use our free will to reject Him. But it is God who works in the human heart, who grants us the desire, who shows us the conviction of our sin. And we end up doing what we want to do, namely to believe in Christ, but behind that choice is God.
Well, it was not my intention to scare up more rabbits today than I can shoot, but I need to simply say that there are two things that must be held in tension. One is that we are not robots. God holds us fully responsible. We are not programmed like computers, but on the other hand, God does move history, events and even people toward an appointed end. We must live with both of those truths even though it’s difficult to hold them in tension.
Now, I mention that because when we begin to see that God is sovereign over all things, and that He is the one, you see, who can even direct events, and at least indirectly people, then we begin to understand that the scope of His providence does indeed include everything. I think Joseph believed that. “You sold me. God sent me.”
What I’d like to do now is to give you some implications of providence, and this should really transform our lives. We should look at everything differently after we have understood this.
First of all, evil has a purpose. We may not understand the complete purpose at all. We understand a little bit based on the Bible, but it is not haphazard. It does not come about because God is in heaven, and He’s looking at His world and saying, “Well, there’s nothing that I can do. I gave people free will, and all that I can do is watch what’s happened and not be involved.” There is a divine purpose as God marches history and individuals to their appointed end.
Now, I marvel at Joseph. You remember the words that we just read: “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Do you notice what he was able to see long before the New Testament was written that there are really two purposes? There is the purpose of the evil and the perpetrators of the evil, and we could say the purpose of Satan. His purpose is always to destroy. His purpose is always to ruin. His purpose is always to antagonize God. That’s the purpose of evil. But in the very same event God has a purpose. He is meaning it for good.
Joseph would have delighted in Romans 8:28: “All things (ALL things) work together for good to them who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” All things work for good! Do you realize what that means in practical terms? That means that even when evil is done against us, even though there are people who would like to sue us frivolously, people who would like to falsely accuse us, people who would do evil against us because they intend to do evil, that in that very trial, in that very difficulty, God is working it toward an appointed end that is benevolent and good. And that means in your life and mine that even though things may be going very badly, they may actually be going very good—very good—because God is in those things working them toward His purpose.
You see, once we begin to understand this, how it changes the way in which we view the vicissitudes of life, those haphazard things that we can’t control… There are some people into control, and they spend their whole life saying, “If only I had done this, then that might have happened,” and “If that hadn’t happened then perhaps this would have turned out better.” And now you can give all of that up. You can give it up because you realize that even when things work against us, they are actually working for us.
You know, out on the farm we used to take clocks apart, not the quartz ones that you have today, but just those old clocks that you used to wind up. And you look at those little wheels, and my brother and I used to always take them apart and we ended up with a lot more wheels when they were put back together than we originally had. But you’ll notice that they are turning in opposite directions. One wheel is going one way. The other wheel is going the other way. If that’s all that you saw, you would now know that they are actually cooperating together for good so that time could be accurately registered. And that’s what God does, and that’s what He does best. He takes evil that is done against us and He turns it for good.
Oh, I know there is somebody here who says, “Oh, but I was abused. I was abused. How can that possibly be for good? What good can come out of my ruined dreams? What good can there be when everything is against me, and every time I turn around something does not work out? How can that be for good?” Well, the best answer is the answer that the Puritans used to give. They said the reason why Satan is given to us to fight against, the reason that we have so many things that constantly are working against us, is because God is increasing the eternal joy of the saints. He’s increasing the eternal joy of the saints. What if he wanted to prove that the suffering of this present time is not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us? And so He has some people who are allowed to go through tremendous trials and discouragements. Why? He is working it all for an ultimate eternal good because God is at work.
First of all, then, evil has a purpose. Secondly, that means that your past has a purpose. I again refer to Joseph’s words in chapter 50, verse 20: “You meant it for evil. When I was sold that day into slavery, when I was in the pit and I cried in loneliness, when I was sold to the Midianites and went over into Egypt, a country whose language I did not understand, when I was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, and thrown into jail because of my commitment, when all that ugly thing was happening I know that you meant it for evil, but God meant my past for good.”
And do you know what Joseph said? “That’s why I don’t need to even the score.” You see, the brothers were expecting that. They thought, “He’s been nice to us so far, but now that Dad is dead, here it comes.” Joseph says, “I can forgive you.”
Now, be very clear about this. Joseph couldn’t forgive his brothers because in his heart he said, “Well, you know, you played a part of a divine plan and therefore you are not responsible.” The Bible never gives us permission to let people off the hook, and to say that because they are part of a divine plan, therefore they are not responsible for what they did. Those brothers were guilty. Let that be said. But here’s what Joseph said: “In light of the fact that God is working in spite of and around and through these circumstances, I can now choose to forgive because even though you are off my hook, you are not off God’s hook, and I can let God even the score and do with you as He wills.” See, that’s why Christians can forgive. It’s not because they aren’t interested in justice. It’s not because, you see, they are saying, “Well, this person was part of the plan that God had for me, and therefore, he’s not responsible.” That is not biblical. A Christian can forgive because he says, “There is a God who is the judge of all the earth to whom I commit my case, and I give it over to Him and I release it, being assured of this. ‘Vengeance is mine; I will recompense, says the Lord.’” And God does it. He does it either through the judgment of the people who committed the evil, or He does it through their forgiveness, in which case their sin is laid upon the supreme sin-bearer, Jesus Christ. But in either case justice must always be served. Blessed are those who can let God do it, and don’t feel the need to do it themselves.
Do you realize that the bitterness that you have in your heart today is self-inflicted suffering, because what you can do is simply say, “God, the evils that have been done against me, I so commit them to You. I give them to You and no matter what the intentions of the people were… They meant it for evil. They wanted to exhaust us. They wanted to bankrupt us. They wanted to destroy us, but You meant it for good, and I will let You handle it.”
How in the world do you think the Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians could tell us to give thanks in everything (Not for everything, but in everything)? How could he possibly ask us to do that unless he had a strong view of providence? How could we give thanks for the mistakes of other people? How can we give thanks for what they overlooked? How can we give thanks for the evil that others may have done against us? How can we possibly do that unless we know that there is a God who is moving all things toward His appointed end? We can accept our past. Evil has a purpose. We can accept our past.
We can also accept our future. Now, it’s interesting that Joseph, of course, is there in Egypt. When Jacob dies… you know the story. They had a tremendously huge funeral for him. But before Jacob died, I want you to notice what he said about his sons. It’s all there in the 49th chapter. In some instances, he gave them a great blessing, and in other instances he seemed to give them a judgment. It’s all a very, very mixed bag. But my eye falls on verse 8 on Judah. I’m interested in Judah because we wonder how God deals with people who are immoral and cruel. Remember he was immoral and he’s the one who suggested that Joseph be sold when the boy was there in the pit. You’ll notice it says: “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you.”
But you’ll notice it says in verse 10: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”
Does this startle you that Jesus Christ ends up being from the tribe of Judah, that when Jesus is born on earth according to His natural birth, He is from that tribe that had such a smudgy record, a tribe that was really quite vicious and at one time cruel? And Christ comes through that lineage. The mercy and the grace of God!
What about Joseph himself? You’ll notice it says in verse 22 that Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring. Its branches run over a wall. The archers bitterly attacked him, and yet you’ll notice that there he is and he is strong. And you know that Joseph was somebody who was planted in the right place. His roots were deep in God, and because of that he could accept adversity and he saw even in that adversity the love and the compassion and the benevolence of God. It was all there because he was planted so deeply beside that stream of water.
If Joseph were here today he’d say, “You know, it doesn’t matter whether you get all of your dreams, because we all have dreams that lie shattered; what is important is that God gets His dream. And God gets His dream if we are willing to give to Him everything that we are (our hopes and our dreams) and then we know that all things work together for good.
You know, it’s interesting that Joseph lived 53 years after the death of Jacob. He died, the Bible says, at the age of (What was it?) 110. Toward the end of his life his fame decreased. Israel was in the land now of Egypt, and he had been exalted in Egypt, and then he no longer had that role after the years of plenty and famine were ended, and he kind of just fades off the scene. And I can imagine Joseph saying to himself, “That’s okay too, because when I am exalted, God has exalted me, and when I am humbled, God has humbled me. And when I am well, then God has had His blessing, and when the time comes to die, why then indeed I die within the will of God because God’s providence extends to every single detail of my life. All things work together for good to them that love God.
It is forty years ago that those five missionaries gave their lives in Ecuador. There was a recent article in Christianity Today, which is taken from a book that was written about their martyrdom. And in that article, which was written by Steve Saint, one of the sons who now lives among the same tribe that killed those missionaries so many years ago, all the details of what happened are finally coming together.
What they discovered was that those men really weren’t even supposed to die because the tribe loved them. They had given them gifts and so forth, and there was a good relationship that was being built. The problem was that there was an argument in the tribe and somebody was angry, and so in anger, they said, “Let’s kill these foreigners,” and then they expected the foreigners to retaliate. All other foreigners had drawn guns and shot at them, and these killers were expecting that, and it didn’t come, and they couldn’t figure it out. And so once they started they decided to finish. All five were dead, and they ran to their huts, waiting for the retaliation. And the retaliation, as you know, never came, and they could not figure that out. And that’s why they later invited Betty Elliott, and also Rachel Saint back into the tribe years later. And they were converted to Christ because they said, “Why don’t these Christians retaliate? Where were their guns? We were expecting that we would be shot.” They meant it for evil. God meant it for good.
By the way, did you know that when those five were being killed, there are people today in the tribe who said they saw what they now know to be angels singing? They saw in the sky the angels gathered around. They saw and they heard the music, and they did not understand the music until years later they came to faith in Christ, and they said when they listened to Christian records, that’s the music they heard that day out on what is now called Palm Beach where the missionaries died. I don’t know of any event in recent history that has so inspired whole generations of young people to give themselves to God to go as missionaries as the death of those five young men.
Do you notice the text? It was meant for evil. How did God mean it for good? When you go through it you don’t see it. When the arrows were being shot at these five men, they were not thinking of this text, I’m sure. How could you have good come out of the death of five young men, and five brand new widows having to survive and bring up their children alone? What good is that? Behind it is a God who says, “I will work it for good to increase the eternal joy of the saints.”
Joseph finally said to everyone as he was dying, “Take my bones. Keep them. Embalm me but don’t bury me because someday my bones are going to be taken out of Egypt.” And they were. Later on when the children of Israel left they went through the Red Sea and they had the bones of Joseph, and they buried Joseph in Shechem and not Hebron where the tomb of Joseph supposedly is today, but Shechem. And that was the inspiration that what Joseph had written would come about.
Now, I need to remind you of something. When the Bible says that all things work together for good to them that love God, it is to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. All things do not work for the good of the wicked, those who do not know Christ. They may live for God’s ultimate good, but in the life of a Christian, what is good for God and what is good for us becomes the same thing, but that is not true in the life of unbelievers. Jesus said, regarding Judas, “It would have been good for him if he had never been born,” because the good (in quotes) that applies to believers does not apply to him.
Why is it that you and I can have all things happen for our good? It’s because of Good Friday. Why would we call Christ’s crucifixion Good Friday? Was not this the culmination of all the evil that could be? Is this not the supreme evil in the universe, nailing Jesus Christ to the cross? Of course! Of course!
Well, what was God doing? Once again, God was doing what He does so wondrously. He was taking evil and out of it so much good flows that today we sing, “God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ by which the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world.” And out of that cross forgiveness flows and reconciliation flows, and cleansing flows, and once we become a member of God’s family through faith in Christ, we can then say with confidence that we are called according to His purpose, and all things work always for our good.
So you blow it in life. What about that? If you repent and get close to God, He will even use that for good. There are no limits to what the Almighty can do in the lives of those who are fully His.
Cease striving. Don’t fight your past. Don’t fight your future. Just know that He is God and He will bring it to pass.
Let us pray.
Father, today we want to thank You for the life of this young man. Thank You for the encouragement that he is to all of us. Thank You, Father, that he had the insight to know that it is not necessary that everything work according to our liking. What is necessary is that You get what You want. We pray today, Father, for the deliverance of Your people from anxiety, from manipulation, from jockeying for power, from getting our rights, from trying to extract from people what they owe. Father, grant freedom that we might be able to give all to You, and give You the glory and the honor for Your wonder and Your grace we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.