True Joy and Self-Denial

A sermon on Genesis 45:16-47:27 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 11/14/04

What have you lost that you would dearly love to have back?

Some might think first of a car they loved that’s never been matched. Others, of a pet who died. But for many of us the answer is a person: a grandparent, a parent, a child. And in some of these cases, it is not death the separates us, but a fight, a dispute, with the resulting bitterness and anger. But in these cases too we want so badly to have that person back – to have the relationship restored.

Regardless of whether it is death or anger that separates you: What would you do to have that person back? Would you do anything? Anything?

Today’s text gives us an example of someone who has the opportunity to have a dearly loved child back. After 22 years of thinking that his favorite son is dead, Jacob finds out that Joseph is alive. His long lost son also is a ruler of Egypt, and invites him to join him in that country. Jacob wants to see Joseph more than anything. He starts to go - but then he pauses, and wonders: Am I disobeying God in going to my son? What do I want more: Joseph or God?

That’s a question we must ask ourselves also. As much as we want a person back, as much as we want a relationship restored, what do we want most?

Recall that in last week’s text, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. Convinced that they were repentant for selling him into slavery 22 years before, he tells them he is the very brother they sinned against. He forgives them – for he sees the way God has sovereignly used that sin to save Egypt an to save the brothers themselves.

Anxious to see his father, Joseph twice tells his brothers, “Hurry”! There are five more years of famine. Joseph wants the entire family to come to Egypt right away, both to escape the famine and to be with him. Joseph promises to take care of them.

Today’s text shows the fulfillment of that desire, including the subsequent prospering of the Israelites in Egypt, as well as the prospering of the Pharaoh because of God’s blessing through Israel.

We’ll look briefly at that overall story – the macro picture – as God works out His plan for the Israelites. But we’ll focus this morning on the question facing Jacob: Is he willing to give up the opportunity to see Joseph in order to walk with God? Should he go to Egypt?

We’ll see how he answers that question, and ask similar questions of ourselves.

Macro: The Big Picture

Our passage begins with Pharaoh inviting Joseph’s family to Egypt. He indeed commands Joseph to send wagons to transport Jacob, the women, and the children. The word “wagons” doesn’t sound too elegant to us. But remember: Pharaoh is the most powerful king – and the richest king – in the world at this time. Thus, these wagons are not rickety and cracked, but ornate and beautiful. Perhaps a modern equivalent of Pharaoh’s command would be, “Joseph, take my limos and send them to pick up your family. Forget about their goods – just take along a few snacks for the ride. I’ll provide all they need when they get here.”

This is a generous offer. Indeed, this king of Egypt – in contrast to the Pharaoh during the time of Moses - is always portrayed as generous, wise, and discerning.

Joseph sends the wagons/limos back for his family, and includes his own presents. Furthermore, Joseph gives gifts to all his brothers. Benjamin receives the greatest gift, but even the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery receive gifts from him.

Finally, Joseph sends them off saying, “Don’t quarrel.” Why does he say that?

The brothers must tell their father that Joseph is alive, and is a ruler in Egypt. This is good news – but they must also tell their father of their role in getting Joseph to Egypt. After 22 years of silence, they must confess their sin.

Joseph knows there is considerable temptation here to blame each other. Indeed, he’s already heard some of that. In 42:22, when the brothers are interpreting their having to leave Simeon in Egypt as punishment for what they did to Joseph, Reuben says, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy?” They easily could try to justify themselves, and end in a great argument. So Joseph warns them against that.

In any event, they travel home and tell their father Jacob. We’ll look at Jacob’s response later. Then all of the household goes to Egypt; details of the individuals are given in 46:8-26.

Joseph, having achieved his goal of getting his family into the country, now wants to ensure that they live in the right spot. Pharaoh has promised good land, but Joseph wants a particular place: Goshen, in the delta of the River Nile. This is not only good land, but also is isolated from the rest of Egyptian society. So Joseph tells his brothers what to say to Pharaoh in order to get him to agree to let them live in Goshen. They obey, and all works out even better than Joseph desires, for Pharaoh tells Joseph to put the best of his brothers in charge of the king’s livestock.

Then Joseph brings Jacob in to bless Pharaoh. Let’s read these verses:

Then Joseph brought in Jacob his father and stood him before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh. 8 And Pharaoh said to Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of your life?" 9 And Jacob said to Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning." 10 And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from the presence of Pharaoh. Genesis 47:7-10

Jacob comes not as a supplicant, not asking for a favor, but bestowing favors. He is the heir of the promise of Abraham, through which all nations will be blessed. So he is source of blessing for Egypt, for Pharaoh, also.

When Pharaoh asks his age, does Jacob respond by telling the truth? His response certainly sounds gloomy. But there is much truth in it. Jacob does not live as long as his father and grandfather, who died at 180 and 175; he will die at 147.   His life has been characterized by conflict – with Esau, with Laban, with his wives, with his own sons. God has redeemed those conflicts, but his days have been difficult, frequently because of his own sin.

As God’s source of blessing to all nations, Jacob blesses this pagan king two times, as recorded in verses 7 and 10. We tend to think of blessings simply as forms of polite address, without real power or impact. But this is not the case with Jacob’s blessings. The rest of this section – verses11-27 of chapter 47 – displays the blessings that follow Jacob’s statement. These blessings fall both on the people of Israel and on Pharaoh.

First, consider those that fall on the people of Israel.

Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. Genesis 47:27

Over the next 400 years this household of 70 will become a nation of more than 2 million. God blesses the nation of Israel mightily in Egypt.

What about Pharaoh? God fulfills Jacob’s blessing of Pharaoh through Jacob’s son Joseph. The people of Egypt run out of money and livestock to give in exchange for food. So they offer themselves and their land to Pharaoh through Joseph in exchange for food. Joseph agrees. Pharaoh thus gets all the land in Egypt except that of the priests. And all the people of Egypt other than the priests become his servants. Yet the people have no animosity toward Joseph or Pharaoh. Quite the contrary, the people make this request themselves, and are pleased with the outcome. God thus fulfills Jacob’s blessing of Pharaoh.

That’s a rushed view of the big picture. God has been at work to build up for himself a people for his own possession ever since the Fall. This people must be distinct from the nations around them. This step is key to bringing that about. For 400 years they will remain in Egypt, until Moses leads the large nation of Israel back to the promised land.

But what had to happen for this big picture to be fulfilled? Let’s now go back and examine the micro picture: Jacob’s decision to go to Egypt.

Micro: Is Joseph Alive?

Imagine Jacob waiting for his sons to return with food from Egypt. A 130 year old man sits at his home in Canaan. For 22 years he has thought that Joseph was dead. For 22 years he has mourned him. And much against his will he sent Rachel’s other son Benjamin to Egypt with the others. They have been gone for weeks now, perhaps for months. Jacob worries about their return. He sleeps fitfully, and wakes up at night thinking he should never have let Benjamin leave. “He’ll never come back! He’ll disappear just like Joseph, and my last connection with Rachel will be gone! I’ll die in misery!”

But this day, at long last, he hears the donkeys arriving – his sons have returned! He goes out to meet them, and sees Benjamin right up front. Benjamin! Still alive! But before Jacob can reach him, before he can embrace him, all the sons cry out,      “Father! Father! Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt!”

Think back now to the question I asked at the beginning: What have you lost that you would dearly love to have back? Imagine that the person you are thinking about has been dead or estranged for twenty years or more. And imagine that you hear, “He is alive and prospering, and he wants very badly to see you!’

How would you respond initially? Surely you would be incredulous! You would be stunned!

And that indeed is Jacob’s response. “Joseph? Alive? That would be great news but – ruler of Egypt? Is this some type of cruel joke?”

But the brothers tell him the story – all the words of Joseph, as the text tells us. And they must confess their own part in the story – without accusations or argument. When Jacob hears their heartfelt confession and Joseph’s God-centered words - “It was not you brothers who sent me here but God” – Jacob realizes, “Those indeed are the words of my son.”

Furthermore, he sees the limos! – or rather the wagons – and he knows his sons did not buy those.  

So he concludes in verse 45:28:

"It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die."

Indeed, Jacob could have spoken the words of Luke 15:24: “This my son was dead, and is alive again.”

So Jacob now has the opportunity to see his long-lost son. He has provisions. He has transportation. His sons have clearly changed on this last journey; Joseph sends word that all is prepared. Should he go?

If you were to find out that that loved one you miss more than anything was alive, living a few hundred miles away, wouldn’t you rush there? Wouldn’t you go right away and see that person? That’s what Jacob feels. And that’s what he begins to do.

Micro: What is my Calling?

So Jacob travels with his family until they reach the southernmost tip of the promised land, Beersheba. To keep traveling toward Egypt will mean leaving the promised land. Evidently, Jacob is beginning to doubt the wisdom of that step. Verse 46:3 tells us he is afraid to go down to Egypt.

What is he afraid of? We can speculate about many possible fears:

But neither of those is Jacob’s fundamental fear. His biggest fear is the fear of disobeying God!

The news that God has exalted Joseph from slavery to the number two position in Egypt has caused Jacob to remember the greatness of his God. In recent years Jacob had allowed the difficult circumstances of his life to overshadow his trust in God’s sovereignty. But he knew God. He had wrestled all night with God, and in the end clung to Him, not letting go (see sermon). He knew that holding on to God was more important than his meeting with Esau, more important than any danger he had to face. He knew God was worth more than all else.

And now, God has proved Himself once again to Jacob. God has kept Joseph alive despite Jacob’s years of doubt. God has watched over Joseph and miraculously exalted him in Egypt. Learning of God’s miraculous faithfulness has renewed Jacob’s faith.

But now he is faced with a dilemma: Jacob has a strong desire to see Joseph – and would God really save Joseph, exalt him, and NOT want Jacob to go to him?

On the other hand: God sent Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans to “the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). And then after Abraham arrived in Canaan, God told him, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7). God had promised Canaan to Abraham and his descendants – not Egypt. Indeed, God had brought Jacob’s mother from far away so that Isaac would not leave the promised land. And in Genesis 31:3 God had told Jacob himself to leave his father-in-law’s house and return to this land: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

All of these memories would lead Jacob to think that he would be disobeying God, displeasing God, to go down to Egypt. But there is one more memory that would have underlined this danger more than all the others. When Abraham first came to Egypt, right after God told him He was giving him the land of Canaan, a famine occurred in the land. And Abraham did not seek God’s face, but disobeyed God, traveling where? To Egypt!         Abraham feared the famine, did not trust God, and left the promised land – leading his wife into danger and almost into disaster (Genesis 12:10-20). Jacob does not want to follow this example.

So Jacob thinks: “I only want to go where God wants me to go. God has shown Himself to be loving and gracious and sovereign and good through bringing my son virtually back from the dead. Should I now presume to leave the land of my calling – the very land God promised to my grandfather and father, the very place he instructed me to enter - when God has shown his power, might, and love so clearly?”

Therefore, Jacob halts before leaving the promised land. He decides that his proper response to the revelation about Joseph is not to go to Egypt – the proper response is to worship God. So he does. Probably using the very altar his grandfather built, Jacob offers sacrifices at Beersheba.

And God calls out to him in a night vision: “Jacob! Jacob!” Jacob is listening, and replies: “Here I am.” God continues:

Then he said, "I am God, the God of your father. Genesis 46:3

That is, “I am the God of the covenant. I am the God who brought Abraham out of Ur. I am the God he disobeyed to go to Egypt. I am the God who will bring about the fulfillment of all my promises through your offspring.”

“Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. “

God had promised Abraham that he would make him into a great nation (12:2). And now he tells Jacob that that promise will be fulfilled in Egypt.

4 I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes."

In Hebrew, there is a strong emphasis on “I” – which is why the ESV uses the gloss “I myself”. We could translate this verse, “I, even I will go down with you to Egypt, and I, even I, will bring you up again.” 

God is saying, “Jacob, there is no conflict between following your desire to see Joseph and your desire to serve me. I will fulfill both desires. Go! I am with you! I will bring you back! And you beloved son will be with you until your death. I will not take him away from you again.”

Jacob acts wisely here. He shows a willingness to part with what he wants most on earth to hold on to God. He lives out Psalm 73:25-26:

There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Micro: Jacob’s Greatest Joy

Meanwhile, Joseph has been waiting anxiously for news of his father’s arrival. He had told his brothers to “hurry” but donkeys and wagons – even ornate wagons - can only move so fast. And Jacob had stopped at Beersheba. So weeks, maybe months have passed. At long last he gets the news: His father is in Egypt!

Then Joseph prepared his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. Genesis 46:29

Joseph, the second most powerful man in the world, doesn’t wait for a servant to prepare his chariot. He does it himself!

[Joseph] presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. 30 Israel said to Joseph, "Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive."

Jacob last saw Joseph when he was 17, going out to seek his brothers, dressed in his many-colored coat. He’s now 39, dressed in the robes of an Egyptian ruler. But this is his son! His beloved son! Dead, and now alive! Returned from the dead!

Jacob is content. Living with Joseph will be a joy; but now even death holds no fear.

This statement is quite a contrast to what Jacob said when his sons told him they must take Benjamin to Egypt:

But he said, "My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol." Genesis 42:38

Jacob feared dying in sorrow. Now  - through the very trip he didn’t want Benjamin to take – Jacob is reunited with Joseph. He fears death no more. He won’t die in sorrow – now he knows he will die with joy. Joseph lived with Jacob the first 17 years of his life; Jacob will live with Joseph the last 17 years of his life.

What a joy! Such a reunion! Joseph cries “a good while”, and well he should.

Question: Is the reunion with Joseph Jacob’s greatest joy?

Jacob knows that the answer to that question is “No”. At Beersheba he was willing to give up this reunion. For despite the great joy of a reunion with Joseph, Jacob knew a yet greater joy: The joy of knowing and following the God of the universe. The joy of fulfilling God’s purposes for his life.

Jacob knew this God to be:

True joy can only be found in obedience to Him. To disobey the source of all good gifts is to seek pain eventually, not pleasure.

So Jacob’s greatest joy is found in following God, clinging to Him. His greatest earthly joy – graciously granted by God – was to hold his son raised to life. But he knew:


What about you? Your purpose in life is to glorify God. Your greatest happiness will come from fulfilling that purpose. At Desiring God Community Church we encourage people to pursue the greatest happiness. But that path can mean giving up lesser pleasures to pursue greater ones. The path to your greatest joy can be paved with saying “No” to what seems good. Indeed, Jesus told His disciples:

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. Mark 8:34-35 

If instead you try to hold on to what you think you need for joy in this life, you will lose – you will never attain the greatest joy of following Jesus.

The 17th century English pastor William Gurnall puts it this way:

A man never comes to enjoy himself truly, in any comfort of his life, till [he is] prepared to deny himself readily in it. 

Are you prepared to deny yourself readily every comfort of your life?

My friends: God is not stingy – He doesn’t withhold something or someone from you just out of meanness, or to reserve it for Himself. If He withholds something from you, He does that for a purpose. If we give up a highly-desirable joy – even our greatest earthly joy, as Jacob was willing to do - we do so for the much greater joy set before us.

Jesus says as much in Mark 10:29-30. Peter has just said, “See, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus replies:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,  30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

If your possessions, friends, or family members are more important to you than God, if they become idols to you, you will not enjoy them truly. You will not enjoy them fully. Indeed, those very idols will become to you a source of great pain. But if you accept them as God’s gifts to you – which he could easily take away from you at any time for your good – if you can see them as undeserved presents showered on you by One Who loves you more than you can imagine – then they can be sources of great joy (see sermon).

Are you – like Jacob – willing to say no to pleasures in order to pursue your greatest joy?

Are you willing to say to God, “Earth has nothing I desire besides you?”

Then, dying to self, you will be raised to true life indeed.

So die to self.

Die to pseudo-pleasures

Live to the greatest joy imaginable – intimacy with God.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 11/14/04. Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 3, Genesis 37-50, Baker, 1985, 1998) were helpful in the preparation of this sermon. The William Gurnall quote is from The Christian in Complete Armour, (Banner of Truth, 1964; originally published 1662-1665), Volume 1, p. 569.

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