Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's All Good!

Two of my favorite Biblical characters are Joseph and John the Baptist. These men are heroes of mine. By them I am simultaneously convicted and challenged. As I read my Bible and study their lives, I am struck by the similarity and contrast between Joseph's and John's lives, particularly the fact that each was unjustly imprisoned. I found the similarity and contrast to be interesting and comforting, and I enjoyed the study so much I wanted to share it.

Let’s begin by noting seven similarities shared by Joseph and John.

Both were Born to (previously) Barren Mothers & Elderly Fathers

We read about John’s parents Zacharias and Elizabeth in Luke 1:7. In Joseph’s case, Genesis 29:31 and Genesis 37:3.

Both were Born in Answer to Prayer

These two children were deeply desired by their parents, and when godly people desire something deeply, they pray for it earnestly to the God for whom nothing is impossible (Genesis 30:22-24 and Luke 1:13; 1:37). The births of Joseph and John are the fruit of God's omnipotence. They are proof that God can bless where it looks humanly impossible and that He does this in answer to prayer.

Both were Predicted to be Great

Before the true greatness of each of these men appeared, God had revealed what was in store; that each would be great men of God. For John case we read in Luke 1:14-15. The revelation of Joseph’s greatness was a little different from John's because as a 17 year old young man God gave him dreams (Genesis 37:6-7). God revealed that Joseph would one day be exalted over his brothers and they would bow down to him.

God revealed His purposes before accomplishing them because when they finally did come to pass, it was evident that God did it. These dreams also helped produce their fulfillment (Genesis 37:8). By that I mean the brothers’ jealous, bitterness, and hatred of Joseph became so inflamed, because of those dreams, that they sold him to Ishmeelite merchantmen who were on their way to Egypt. The irony here is terrific: by sending Joseph to Egypt so that they might be rid of the dreamer, they set in motion the very events that fulfilled the dream.

That is the way it is every time we try to resist the purposes of God. We always wind up fulfilling them. God’s purposes cannot and will not be thwarted (Isaiah 46:9-11).

The 17-year-old Joseph was sent away to Egypt. His aged father was fed a lie; having been told that the boy was eaten by a wild animal. Jacob then ripped his garments and wept and mourned for days, refusing the hypocritical comfort offered by his older sons. It's one of those scenes where you want to break into the story and say, “Jacob, trust God! Believe God! It will turn out for your good and God’s glory! Remember what the Psalmist says,

'For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee.'” (84:11-12)

But Jacob cannot hear you and it will be twenty long years before Jacob sees the mercy of God in his heart-breaking circumstances.

Both were Way-preparers

Another similarity John and Joseph shared is that both were sent by God as way-preparers. About John we read in Luke 1:17; 7:27. Joseph's trip to Egypt, even though forced upon him as a slave, was also a way-preparing mission. When he revealed himself to his brothers he told them as much (Genesis 45:7).

The real significance of both was not in themselves but in what came after them. God's people were delivered from famine as a result of Joseph's mission to Egypt. On the heels of John's mission, the Deliverer Himself came to save God's people!

Both were Men of Integrity

Both Joseph and John were men of integrity. Mark 6:20 says, “For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and holy.” Genesis 39:1-4 tells how the Lord was with Joseph. He was bought by Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, and he proved himself so upright and reliable that Potiphar put him in charge of his whole house.

John and Joseph also proved to be men of integrity by resisting sexual sin. They uncompromisingly opposed adultery. John preached the same truth in the palace that he preached in the wilderness (Mark 6:18). John resisted adultery in public and in principle. Joseph resisted adultery privately. Potiphar's wife was incessant in her attempts to seduce Joseph in an empty house. Joseph resisted her and fled (Genesis 39:7-12).

Both were Imprisoned for their Integrity

In both cases these young men wound up in jail because the women they reproved were enraged (Mark 6:17 and Genesis 39:13-20). Herodias could not endure the continuing prosperity of a righteous man who had publicly condemned her sins. Neither could Potiphar's wife: she cried out to the servants and fabricated a story in which Joseph was the seducer and she was the victim. This caused Potiphar to imprison Joseph rather than loose face. Thus both Joseph and John were imprisoned for the sake of righteousness.

Both were Young Men

AT least they were during their imprisonments. Most likely both were in the neighborhood of thirty. We know that John was six months older than Jesus, and Luke 3:23 tells that Jesus was about thirty when he began his public ministry. Genesis 41:46 says that Joseph was thirty when he was released from the dungeon. He was probably twenty-seven or twenty-eight when he was locked up (Genesis 41:1). These were young men. (Younger than I am. Which is why this similarity grabs me the most.)

That is the end of their similarities, however; and we have arrived at the one decisive dissimilarity between these two great men of God. This dissimilarity may seem shocking, especially in relation to their several similarities.

Joseph was exalted. John was beheaded.

God worked for Joseph in prison. Indeed, God prospered Joseph all the way to becoming the de facto ruler of Egypt, and all because of the wisdom God had given him. From dungeon servant to palace ruler is an amazing turn of affairs.

The turn of affairs for John was also amazing. Late one night in John's dungeon cell the sounds flutes and lyres and tambourines and the raucous cheers of Herod's cronies could barely be heard, as Herod threw a big drunken bash for his boys and they all lustfully gazed at Herodias’ daughter as she danced before them. Herod, in a drunken stupor no doubt, promised the young woman whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom (Mark 6:22).

The young woman sought her mother's counsel (Mark 6:24-25). Not a bad idea, usually, but not when one's mother is Herodias. “What shall I ask?” And Herodias, with her eyes flashing and her wicked heart bursting with vicious delight, instructs her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist served up on a platter. That request caused Herod to sober up fast. The lustful monarch was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her (Mark 6:26-28). So John the Baptist, forerunner to the Christ, was decapitated.

Now remember: John is thirty or thirty-one years old. He spent the early part of his life in the wilderness in devotion to the Lord and preparation for his ministry. When he was about twenty-nine he came like a whirlwind of righteousness through Israel and within a relatively brief period of time he was in prison and beheaded. Twenty-nine years of preparation for just one year in the ministry?! This just and holy man, the forerunner of the Messiah, beheaded after his faithful service. Beheaded on the whim of a lictenious king, who was goaded by some sex kitten whose strings were pulled by a vindictive adulteress!

Did John cry out in rage: “So much for serving the living God! He takes a man from his mother's arms, drives him to the wilderness and after a moment's service, flings him away on the trash heap of the world!” Or did he summon all his wavering faith, bow in submission and hand over his agony and his life to the one who justly judges (1 Peter 2:23)?

We don't know. We do know what Jesus said about John. Luke 7:26-28,

“But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet...For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.”

The more pressing question before us is this: was God only with Joseph and not with John? Did God preserve Joseph and abandon John? No! He did not!

God was faithful to John even through that seemingly meaningless death. Hebrews 11 teaches that people of faith sometimes have Joseph's experience and sometimes they have John's experience. By faith God’s people have, Hebrews 11:34 says, "Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.” God prospered them like Joseph and caused their enemies' hearts to be turned.

But Hebrews 11:36-37 says that others with just as much faith “had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented.” That is, God chose not to intervene, but instead chose to take them out of the world.

Lessons Learned

By comparing and contrasting these two lives we can draw the following lessons.

First, do not assume you will have a long life. Both John and Jesus died in their early thirties. None reading this post, and certainly not the author of this post, are as obedient as Jesus Christ or John the Baptist. On the other hand, Joseph lived to be 110! The point is we cannot assume long life. Do not put off living for Jesus. Begin today.

Second, God is the ultimate giver and taker of life. Take it from Job (Job 1:21) if you would rather not listen to me. God gives it as long as our mission yet remains and He takes it when our mission is accomplished. John's mission as the forerunner was done. John himself had said as much(John 3:30). Still, I assume that was a more swift and decisive turn than John had expected. God will keep us alive precisely as long as it is good for us. When our mission is done, He will take us.

Third, those who love God and are called according to His purpose should never believe that a wrenching and painful turn of affairs is a sign that God is against you. On the contrary, it is God's hand at work for you and for His glory! There are three things that make this hard to believe but which these stories prove.

  1. First, it is hard to believe God is for us in our tragedies if they last for thirteen years or twenty years. Joseph was a slave and prisoner for thirteen years, and who could have ever convinced Jacob that the loss of Joseph was for his good, for the good of his family, for the good of the world, and the glory of God? It was twenty years before God showed him that this was so. Do not put a time limit on God. He operates on His own time schedule and we must adapt accordingly.
  2. Second, it is hard to believe God is for us in our tragedies if several of them come in a row. Just when we are getting over one heartache, trial, or persecution, another one strikes. But look at Joseph. At first he lived as the apple of his father's eye. Then he was sold as a seventeen year-old into Egyptian slavery. He prospers in Potiphar's house, but just when things look bright he is falsely accused and thrown into the dungeon. How easy it would have been for Joseph to throw in the towel and quit trusting God. That would have been easy, but it would also have been foolish because behind every setback God was moving to bring His purposes to pass. When you suffer setbacks for the cause of Christ, be assured that God is moving you to glory.
  3. Third, it is hard to believe God is working for our good when our setback does not give us life, but, as with John the Baptist, leads us into death. But I believe with all my heart that Genesis 50:20 is just as true for John the Baptist and Herod as it was for Joseph and his brothers. Herodias meant it for evil; but God meant it for good. There is no greater comfort than to know that no matter how absurd and irrational circumstances may seem, God is in control and means it for our good and His glory.
It’s all good! It may not be all pleasant, but it is all good. Let's always trust in Him.