God’s Purpose in the Sufferings of Joseph

Suffering is a grim reality in this world. But the God who controls it by his almighty power is also real. The question therefore follows, What is God’s purpose in our sufferings? The last part of the book of Genesis (Ch. 37-50) is largely devoted to answering this question. The inspired writer answers the question by way of the story of Joseph.

Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. He was the eleventh son born to Jacob in Padan-Aram. He followed Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun and his sister Dinah. Only Benjamin was born after him. Joseph is seventeen years old at the beginning of our story (Gen. 37:2). He is called a “lad.” He is no longer a child, but he is not yet a man. He is a young person. In fact, at the age of seventeen, he is the same age as many of you young people. Later when Pharaoh exalted him in Egypt, Joseph was thirty years old (Gen. 41:46). Thus, the period of his suffering was about thirteen years. It stretched from his late teens through all of his twenties.

Joseph represents the godly young person who suffers for his godliness. Joseph is a spiritually-mature, godly young man. The whole story portrays him as such. He is godlier at the young age of seventeen than his much older brothers who seem to slumber in wickedness until late in life. Joseph is a young man with conviction. He loves God, and hates sin and evil. And he suffers for it. He suffers not “as a murderer or as a thief or as an evil doer or as a busybody,” as Peter would say, but “as a Christian” (I Peter 4:15-16). Joseph does not so much suffer physical pain or financial woes or the loss of a loved one. But he suffers persecution for righteousness’ sake. He suffers persecution at the hands of his family, which was the church of that day, and at the hands of the world. But Joseph recognizes that God has a purpose with his suffering. In the end he confesses that, although others meant evil against him, God meant it unto good (Gen. 50:20). Joseph represents you godly, believing young people. You are Josephs. I know that some of you might look more like Joseph’s brothers at this point in your life. But I am not interested in that right now. I will address you as Josephs.

Joseph suffered greatly, more greatly than I have ever suffered, and probably more than most of you. As I write this article, I wonder what it was like. I almost have to go to Joseph and ask him: “Joseph, what was it like? What did you experience? Let me walk in your shoes. Let me stand at your side and see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. I want to get a sense of what your suffering was like. Otherwise I cannot relate to you.” Are you prepared to do that with me? Let us walk in Joseph’s shoes for a moment.

First, let us look into Joseph’s home life for it was there that his suffering began (Gen. 37:1-11). The first thing we see is that Joseph was hated by his brothers, and that hatred grew. Their hatred was kindled when Joseph brought to Jacob “their evil report” (v. 2). Joseph informed his father that his brethren had a reputation for evil among the natives. We can easily surmise that Jacob rebuked the brothers for that, and they in turn despised Joseph for telling their father. Their hatred grew when Jacob showed open favoritism to Joseph by giving him a “coat of many colors” (v. 3). In fact, when this occurred, they could not “speak peaceably” to him any longer (v. 4). From that point on, Joseph heard from them only the rough words and sneers of those on the brink of exploding in anger. Their hatred grew white hot when Joseph told them his two dreams in which they made obeisance to him (v. 5-11). If you can imagine, we read that “they hated him yet the more for his dreams” (v. 8). In all this, Joseph suffered. His own flesh and blood, those who should have been his spiritual allies, had turned against him.

Can you relate to Joseph already? Have you ever been hated for righteousness’ sake by those who should be your spiritual allies? I see a young man who refuses to party and get drunk while his friends are doing so. For his godly resolve he is mocked and left out. I see a young lady who will not go to the movie theater when her best friend wants to go. For her desire to live the antithesis she is abandoned by that “best friend” with a sneer. I see a young person who refuses to do sexual things with the one he or she is dating. For this young person’s chastity he or she is hated and mocked. I hear godly young people like Joseph being called “goody, goodies,” and “tattle-tales.” I hear them being reviled with words like, “Oh, you think you’re so perfect. You can’t do anything wrong.” It is painful to be hated.

But there is more. Joseph’s suffering was only just beginning. Joseph’s brothers made him suffer the worst possible evil (Gen. 37:12-28). Look and listen. The brothers have been gone a long time in Shechem seeking better pasture for their father’s flock. Jacob sends Joseph to inquire as to their well-being. Joseph journeys to Shechem, but he is told that the brothers have moved on to Dothan. So to Dothan he goes. As he approaches, the brothers see him coming. Listen to their words: “That dreamer cometh. We are far from home. We have an opportunity here! No one will know. We can silence him and his dreams!” An ingenious plan is hatched: “Let us kill him, throw him into a pit, and blame it on a beast.” But Reuben urges a modification: “Let us not kill him, but throw him into this empty cistern.” To this they agree. Now put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. He walks up. He greets them. But only silence replies. A strange aura is in the air. Something does not feel right. Their eyes have a gloomy look. They stare at him blankly. Then, without warning, hands are upon him. His prized tunic is violently ripped off his body. He is pushed forward to a dark hole. “What do they have in mind?” Joseph must have wondered. “Are they going to drown me?” Then he is hurtling down into the pit. A thud. A dry bottom. He looks up, but they are already gone. He is overwhelmed by a deep sadness. But soon, shadows dance on the floor of the pit. He hears voices, and looking up, he sees faces. Hands pull him out of the pit. “What is this?! Was this all just a cruel joke? But who are these strangers? And why are they leading me away?” He perhaps hears the jangling of silver in the pouches of his brothers as they walk away, but little does he know, he has just been sold into slavery. He is put among the other merchandise and carried away into Egypt, as far as he knows, never to see his father again.

Can you relate to Joseph now? Have you ever been thrown into the pit? I see a young man getting beat up, kicked, punched, pushed down, not because of sinfulness on his part, but simply because he is disliked. I see a boy being slammed against the bathroom wall at school or a girl being slapped in the face, simply for being diligent students and godly young people. Have you ever been sold into slavery, i.e. decisively rejected by brother or friend? I see a young person who sits home every weekend because no one cares to call him or her. No one loves him or her. I see another who has been abandoned by his peers because he is not cool enough. I see a young man and woman who terminate their dating relationship and so decisively split ways that they can no longer look at or talk to each other. To be rejected and despised is great suffering.

But there is more. Joseph’s suffering increased even more. He suffered also at the hands of the world, in Egypt, in Potiphar’s house (Gen. 39). At first things went quite well for Joseph there. But soon Potiphar’s wife laid her eyes upon him and lusted after him. She enticed him to lie with her, but he steadfastly refused. But she did not take no for an answer. She even tried to force him, but he slipped away. Then Joseph suffered again. Potiphar’s wife slandered him to the servants of the house: “This Hebrew servant tried to rape me! He came into my room and tried to lie with me. But I cried aloud. Then he ran and dropped his robe here.” She slandered him again to Potiphar. Potiphar was filled with wrath. He seized Joseph, apparently gave him no chance to defend himself, and led him to the prison. He put Joseph in chains, as we read in Psalm 105:17-18: He “was sold for a servant: whose feet they hurt with fetters: he was laid in iron.” Joseph could get no lower than this. He had reached a depth of suffering to which we struggle to relate. He had been sold into slavery, slandered for his chastity, thrown unjustly into prison and now he was bound in chains, in a dark, dingy prison cell, far away from home and father.

Can you relate to Joseph? Have you ever been slandered by a wife of Potiphar for righteousness’ sake? Some of you have been unjustly treated by your unbelieving bosses for your refusal to work on Sunday. Some of you have been called names: You bigot! You hateful, intolerant people! Some of you have perhaps been mocked by your ungodly professors at college, or even been given bad grades on your homework for your Christian views. These are the sufferings of Joseph. These are our sufferings.

God had a purpose in Joseph’s sufferings.

God had a purpose first of all for Joseph. His purpose was Joseph’s good. Joseph himself recognized this later on when he said to his brothers, “Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good…” (Gen. 50:20). God intended to do good to Joseph through his sufferings. Indeed, God used Joseph’s sufferings as the means of exalting him. God purposed the hatred of his brothers as the means to bring him to Potiphar’s house where he blessed Joseph and exalted him as overseer of Potiphar’s house (39:2-6). God purposed the slander of Potiphar’s wife as the means to lead Joseph into the prison of Pharaoh where God blessed Joseph again and exalted him over all the other prisoners (39:21-23). God purposed Joseph’s imprisonment as the means to lead him into Pharaoh’s house to interpret his dreams, and thus as the means to exalt him to the highest position of power and honor in Egypt, under Pharaoh (41:41). God exalted Joseph through his sufferings so that Joseph would come to realize that his exaltation was solely the work of God, and not of himself. God exalted him through suffering so that Joseph would not trust in his own flesh but would look to God. He exalted him through suffering to reveal to Joseph the great power of his saving grace.

God’s purpose in your sufferings is also your good. You may not always recognize it right away. But God always wills suffering for your good: to test your faith and reveal to you and others that you are a true believer; to purify your faith and obedience from the dross of self-trust and self-confidence; to chasten you, if you are walking in disobedience, so that you turn from sin and serve God again. But even if you cannot put your finger on what God’s purpose is, you may know that his purpose is your good and salvation and glory.

God also had a purpose in Joseph’s sufferings for Joseph’s brothers and family. Joseph also recognized this when he said to his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:7). God used Joseph’s sufferings as the means to put Joseph in a position to save his family, the church. God intended to send seven years of famine, so terrible that Jacob and his family would nearly starve and be in danger of death. God’s purpose was then to preserve his covenant people, out of whose bosom Christ would come, through Joseph. He purposed thereby to show that the salvation of his people and the coming of Christ were wholly dependent on his sovereign, saving grace.

Moreover, God’s purpose was to save his church through Joseph’s sufferings, and I submit to you that Joseph was therefore a type of Christ.[1] One man suffered that others might live. Joseph suffered for the earthly salvation of the church of his day; in like manner, Christ suffered for the eternal salvation of the elect church of all ages. Joseph, although still a sinner, suffered as a righteous man; Christ suffered as the perfectly righteous man. Joseph suffered the hatred of his own family, the church of his day; Christ also suffered the hatred of his fellow Nazarenes, the church of his day. Joseph suffered ultimate and decisive rejection when sold into slavery; Christ suffered that same kind of rejection when he was crucified at Calvary. Joseph was thrown into the pit and then into prison; Christ descended into the bottomless pit and prison of hell. Joseph submitted to great humiliation, but was thereby exalted by God to great exaltation in Egypt; Christ submitted to the deepest humiliation, but was thereby exalted to the highest exaltation at God’s right hand. Joseph from his exalted position saved the church of his day; Christ from his exalted position saves the church in our day.

So remember, young people, that as Joseph suffered to save his brethren, Christ suffered to save you. Also remember this: We must still suffer as Christians because we are members of Christ’s body. We do not suffer for our sins because Christ accomplished that perfectly at the cross. But we suffer to fill up that which is behind of the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24). We suffer as partakers of Christ’s sufferings (I Peter 4:13). And therefore, Jesus tells us, we are blessed! We must rejoice and be exceedingly glad when we suffer for his sake! (Mt. 5:12). It is a great privilege to suffer for Jesus’ sake! And such suffering will be rewarded with a crown of glory in heaven. Also this: The sufferings that we experience now are not worthy to be compared to that crown of glory because the glory will far surpass it (Rom. 8:18).

Finally, God has a purpose in Joseph’s suffering for himself, namely, his own glory. God led Jacob and his family into Egypt in order that he might later deliver Israel from bondage by a mighty hand and a stretched out arm—to reveal his power and grace, unto his glory! God sent seven years of terrible famine in order that he might save Israel from starvation and preserve his covenant people—to reveal his covenant faithfulness, unto his glory! God led Joseph into the deepest depths of suffering in order that he might exalt him to the highest heights of power and honor—to reveal his power and grace, unto his glory! God wills your suffering in life and death in order that he might comfort you in it by his Spirit and save you from death’s dark pit through the resurrection of Christ—to reveal his power and mercy, unto his glory! So give glory to God in your sufferings. Even when we walk through the difficult paths of sorrow and rejection, he is worthy of our praise. Lift up his name and exalt him.