Our hero is in prison.
Not because he did wrong but because he did right.
Here is the single most important fact about Genesis 40.
At the beginning Joseph is in prison.
At the end he is in prison.
That’s not fair, but there it is.
In this series on the life of Joseph, we’re looking at nine crucial questions. So far we have considered two questions:
Do you know why you were born?
Do you know who you are?
Here is today’s question:
Are you willing to wait for God?
In this chapter Joseph is waiting because there is nothing else he can do. He can’t get out of prison, he can’t appeal his sentence, and he certainly can’t escape. He’s stuck in an Egyptian prison, far from home where they think he’s dead anyway. He has been falsely accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife.
You don’t have too many friends in that situation.
So he waits.
At this point readers of this story face a problem. Because we know how Joseph’s life ends up, it’s very easy for us to read Joseph’s story in light of how it ends. We know that eventually he emerges triumphant and that he will one day say to the brothers who betrayed him, “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Our problem is, we read this whole story as if Joseph himself knew how it was going to end.
That’s not true.
When Joseph was thrown into the pit by his brothers, he had no idea what was going to happen next. He knew as much about his future as you do about yours. It’s not as if God whispered, “Hang tough, kid. Don’t let ‘em get you down. Pretty soon you’ll be the Prime Minister of Egypt.” It didn’t happen that way. This isn’t a fairy tale.
When Joseph is stuck in prison, he has no “inside knowledge” regarding how or when or if he will ever get out. He certainly knows nothing of the baker and the cupbearer.
So, let’s read Genesis 40 as Joseph would have lived it, with no hint of what the future might hold. Here’s a short summary of this chapter:
One lives, one dies.
One man forgets.
That’s the whole chapter right there.
Meanwhile Joseph waits to see what will happen next.
Waiting is perhaps the hardest discipline of the Christian life. Most of us hate to wait. I know I do. Probably all of us are waiting for something at this very moment.
Waiting for your grades.
Waiting to graduate.
Waiting to be accepted to college.
Waiting for your first job offer.
Waiting to see if the bank will give you a loan.
Waiting for the right time to start a family.
Waiting for a church to call you.
Waiting for your loved ones to come to Christ.
Waiting to meet the right guy or the right girl.
Waiting to be married.
Waiting to find out what God wants you to do.
Waiting for someone to buy your house.
Waiting for your prayers to be answered.
Waiting for your husband to come home from a business trip.
Waiting for your oldest daughter to come back to the Lord.
We all have to wait whether we like it or not. Truth be told, most of life is waiting. For instance, when you watch a football game on TV, most of the time nothing happens. By rule the actual game takes 60 minutes to play, but the average NFL telecast lasts three hours. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, in the average NFL telecast the actual playing of football takes up eleven minutes. If that’s true, then what happens the rest of the time? In that three-hour block of time, you have . . .
60 minutes for commercials.
75 minutes when the players are standing around.
17 minutes for replays.
After a few other miscellaneous things are thrown in (such as crowd shots and talking heads in the booth and shots of the cheerleaders), what you are left with is.
11 minutes of actual football.
I take it as a parable of life itself:
The action of life is small.
The waiting is large.
Warren Wiersbe says this about Joseph’s time in prison:
“God permitted Joseph to be treated unjustly and put in prison to help build his character and prepare him for the tasks that lay ahead. The prison would be a school where Joseph would learn to wait on the Lord . . . He would learn that God’s delays are not God’s denials” (Be Authentic, p. 111).
We will all spend a lot of time waiting for something to happen. The question then becomes, what do you do while you wait? I find three answers from Joseph’s prison time in Genesis 40.
1. Be Faithful
“Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt. And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer, and the chief baker, and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them. They continued for some time in custody” (vv. 1-4).
We don’t know how long Joseph had been in prison when the cupbearer and baker arrived. It must have been more than a day or two. Perhaps he had been in prison for a few months when suddenly these two new inmates showed up.
In thinking about this story, it’s vital that we view it from Joseph’s perspective. As far as he is concerned, this is just another day in prison. Even though he may be the leader of the prisoners, he is still imprisoned, with no hope of getting out. He could not see into the future. The cupbearer would eventually be his ticket out, but he had no way to know that at the time, and it wouldn’t come to pass for two more years.
What do you do when you are unjustly accused?
What do you when people you trusted turn against you?
What do you do when your dreams turn to ashes?
Even though all those things were true for Joseph, he remained faithful to God and to his duties. Somewhere I read this quote:
”The secret of your future is found in your daily routine.”
The things you do every day, especially the little things that make up the routine of life, those are the seeds of your future that you sow every day. It reminds me of what the Preacher said in Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”
Eugene Peterson (The Message) offers a punchier version of this phrase: “Whatever turns up, grab it and do it.” I like that because it emphasizes the unpredictable nature of life. No matter how well planned your day may be, something unexpected is always bound to “turn up.” When it does, grab it and do it. This verse challenges us to take hold of the ordinary responsibilities of life and make sure they get done. It’s easy for us to live in the never-never land of what we plan to do tomorrow. We dream about starting a diet or getting a new job or buying a new computer or meeting someone who will sweep us off our feet or somehow finishing that term paper or painting the living room or learning French or calling on a new client or applying for a grant or going back to college, or any of a thousand other worthwhile ideas. Meanwhile there is work to be done, much of it tedious, that somehow gets left undone while we are dreaming about what we are going to do “someday.” Unfortunately, someday never comes for most people.
In one of her books, Elisabeth Elliot talks about what to do when you hit a wall and feel stuck. When that happens, she advises people to just get up and do the next thing because “there is always the next thing that needs to be done.”
That’s good advice.
It may be small or trivial, but there is always something that needs to be done–washing or cleaning or writing a note or making a phone call or paying bills or cleaning the shelves or filling an order or putting gas in the car or picking up the kids or taking your pills or saying your prayers or weeding the flowers or feeding your dog.
Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way:
Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”
Think of it this way. Because God’s hand was upon him, Joseph was promoted by the captain of the prison to be in charge of all the other prisoners. Because he was faithful, he did not shirk his duty when these two new men entered the prison. Little did he know that by taking care of them, he was advancing the cause of his own freedom.
Let me sharpen that point a bit.
I said, “Little did he know.”
But really, I should have said, “It was impossible for him to know.”
Faithfulness is its own reward.
So here is a question for all of us. Will we be faithful where we are even when life seems to make no sense?
2. Be Ready
“And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation. When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “Why are your faces downcast today?” They said to him, “We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.” And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me" (vv. 5-8).
There are dreams all through Joseph’s story. First, he has them (Genesis 37), then these two men have them (Genesis 40), then Pharaoh will have a two-part dream (Genesis 41). In each case the dreams prove crucial in Joseph’s life.
In Genesis 37 Joseph has dreams that he shares with his brothers, provoking their hatred even more. But in Genesis 40 the baker and cupbearer turn to Joseph to help them interpret their dreams.
Joseph’s willingness to interpret their dreams means that he has not yet given up on his own dreams. Even though many years have passed, and he has endured the pain of rejection, enslavement, false accusation and imprisonment, down deep inside he still believes that one day God will someday cause those early dreams to come true. Otherwise, he would have said to the men, “My advice is, forget about those dreams. They don’t mean anything. I had dreams of my own once and look where I am now.”
But he didn’t say that.
And he doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, fellows. I’m an expert in dreams. I can figure this out for you.” Rather than giving in to despair or relying on false optimism, he points the men to God: “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (v. 8) His answer means something like this: “There is a God in heaven who gives dreams to men. He and he alone can explain the dreams you had. I don’t have the answer in me, but I know the Lord and he can help you out.”
Joseph stood out among his own generation because he saw God’s hand everywhere!
He had a big God, and therefore he knew that being in prison was no hindrance to Him accomplishing his purposes.
Did you know that God does some of his best work in prison?
John Bunyan goes to prison and out comes “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer goes to prison and out comes “The Cost of Discipleship.”
Chuck Colson goes to prison and out comes the worldwide ministry of Prison Fellowship.
And there is Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail.”
Prison doors can never keep him out.
Joseph’s example leads me to ask this question: Are you ready to serve God right where you are, even when you’d rather be somewhere else?
3. Be Bold
When you read Genesis 40, you discover that Joseph tells the cupbearer that he will be released in three days and restored to his former position (vv. 12-13). No doubt he was delighted to hear the news. Then Joseph adds a personal request in verse 14:
“Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house.”
While preparing this message, I ran across a Bible teacher who calls this a lack of faith on Joseph’s part. I don’t agree with that at all. If Joseph has been unfairly treated and if he’s not guilty, then why shouldn’t he seek his release? When I preached on this once, I told the audience that if I were in prison and if a buddy of mine were about to get out, I would look to heaven and say, “Your will be done,” and then turn to my buddy and say, “Help me get out of here!”
They laughed because we all understand that if you’re in prison, you want to get out as soon as you can. In Joseph’s case, he truly hadn’t done anything wrong.
On one hand, he is faithful and ready to serve God where he is.
On the other hand, he doesn’t want to stay in prison forever.
It’s as if he’s saying, “I’m here but this is not my whole life.”
“I accept where I am for the moment, but I hope to be set free eventually.”
Two years later his request will lead to his release.
I don’t think he ever regretted what he said.
The whole episode reminds me of a scene from the movie Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne (who was falsely accused of murdering his wife and her lover) was talking with his friend Red in the prison yard. They were discussing Andy’s hope of getting out someday when Red says, in essence, “You gotta give that up. Look at us. We’ll never get out of here.” Andy pauses for a moment and then says,
“It comes down to a simple choice. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
So many people lose hope.
When hope is gone, life is over.
What do you while you wait?
Verse 23 gives us the end of the story:
“Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.”
That’s a bummer.
After all that, the cupbearer forgets Joseph.
But that happens all the time in life.
We make promises we don’t keep.
We intend to stay in touch but we don’t.
We plan to call an old friend but we don’t.
The “what ifs” of life will kill you When the cupbearer got out, he promptly left the prison far behind.
Joseph must have had many questions:
What if the cupbearer never remembers?
What if I die in prison?
What if I never get to clear my name?
The “What ifs” of life will kill you.
What if I lose the job?
What if he never asks me out for a second date?
What if I never get married?
What if we can’t have children?
What if things don’t work out?
What if we run out of money?
What if my husband makes a bad decision?
What if I lose my job?
What if our children get sick?
What if we can’t find a place to live?
What if the contract falls through?
What if I don’t get accepted?
What if the chemo doesn’t work?
What if she files for divorce?
What if the church splits?
Put yourself in Joseph’s place. The only people who can help him think he’s dead, or they think he committed a vile crime, or they have forgotten him completely. What do you do then?
It all depends on how big your God is.
How big is your God when you’ve been . . .
Joseph’s experience in prison reminds us that God doesn’t keep time the same way we do.
He is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2).
And “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
Time is no complication to God. A. W. Tozer said it this way:
God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which he must work.”
He’s never in a hurry.
He’s never late.
He’s never behind schedule.
Even though the cupbearer forgot Joseph, God didn’t.
What do you do while you wait?
Wait on the Lord because . . .
“They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
Your Redeemer is on the way.
He’s just not working on your schedule.
William Cowper struggled mightily with depression and lived under a cloud most of his life. Out of his suffering came one of our greatest hymns, written in 1774.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Let God be God and all will be well Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
Let God be God and all will be well.
Let me ask the key question one more time:
Are you willing to wait for God?
This post ends where it began—with Joseph in prison.
Alone and forgotten.
Apparently he’s hit a dead end.
This story is over, or so it seems.
He’s about to meet the most powerful man in the world.