The 11th Sunday After Pentecost August 24, 2014
244, 388, 342, 50
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, “Before your father died he commanded, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: “I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.”’ Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.” Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
In Christ Jesus, dear fellow-redeemed:
“I don’t get mad. I get EVEN!”
“Father, forgive them
for they know not what they do.”
Can you sense two different attitudes? One is quite common, the other is uncommon and from our Savior.
One is looking for a way to “even the score” after being wronged, the other is praying for those who wronged Him. One is no forgiveness at all, the other is genuine forgiveness that flows from genuine love.
There is also a superficial forgiveness that is easy to give because it is essentially in words only. Genuine and unselfish forgiveness does not come naturally or easily. Because we daily face our own sin as well as sins against us, we do well to learn about genuine forgiveness. I. The reasons for forgiveness are with God and II. The pattern for forgiveness is in God. Therefore, we can conclude that FORGIVENESS IS DIVINE.
The story of Old Testament Joseph is a favorite. He was Jacob’s much loved son from his beloved wife, Rachel. Jacob showed obvious favoritism to Joseph. This greater love which Jacob had for Joseph combined with the fact that Joseph reported all of his brothers’ wicked behavior to their father, made the brothers hate Joseph very much. So great was the brothers’ hatred that they “could not speak peaceably to [Joseph]” (Genesis 37:4).
Once Joseph had a dream that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of grain together in the field. Joseph’s bundle of grain stood upright and the brothers’ bundles bowed down to it. Joseph’s brothers hated him even more because of the dream. Then Joseph had another dream in which the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. This time Jacob rebuked Joseph too and asked, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” (Genesis 37:10). Jacob thoughtfully kept this dream in mind, but the brothers’ envious hatred grew all the more.
The Old Testament Scripture Reading told us how the brothers wanted to kill Joseph, but Reuben spared his life. Later, the brothers without Reuben, took the opportunity to sell Joseph as a slave. In Egypt, Joseph went from slave to chief steward in Potiphar’s house and then to prison when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of sexual advances. In prison, Joseph again showed faithfulness and was put in a position of authority. Eventually, Joseph was released from prison and made ruler over Egypt—second only to Pharaoh the king.
Not only could Joseph blame his brothers for the rough treatment and hatred at home, but also for mocking his dreams which did come true, for throwing him in the pit, for selling him to be taken away from his father and home, for the slave labor he had to endure, for the imprisonment; and for all of the emotional distress and other hardships Joseph faced. The responsibility for a lot of agony fell squarely at the feet of Joseph’s brothers. It was a situation ripe for revenge if ever there was one, and Joseph’s brothers knew it. “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.’” [v.15]
Joseph had shown kindness to his father, his brothers, and their families by bringing them to Egypt and providing for them during the years of famine. However, the brothers feared that Joseph might be biding his time and just waiting for his revenge. Their uncle, Esau, had done so when Jacob had deceived their father into giving him the birthright. Esau planned to kill Jacob but he waited. “Esau said in his heart, “The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41)
Joseph’s brothers had confessed their sins against Joseph and expressed their fear to Jacob before his death. Jacob had given them advice as to what to do. “Before your father died he commanded, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: “I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.”’ Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.” [v.16-18]
The brothers followed their father’s advice and approached Joseph with humility. First, they sent a messenger with a plea for forgiveness and then they themselves came and fell down in submission to Joseph.
Joseph was not interested in gloating over his brothers who were bowing down to him just like he had dreamed. Nor was Joseph interested in gaining the upper hand or exercising any kind of revenge. He loved his brothers deeply and had long since forgiven them of all—yes all—that they had done to him. When Joseph heard the messenger’s words he wept at the thought that his brothers were living in fear of him and were pleading for forgiveness which they already had.
When Joseph spoke to his brothers he gave the reasons why they had no reason to fear, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God?” [v.19] If Joseph would have remained unforgiving and vengeful he would have been “playing God.” God reserves the right of vengeance for Himself and His chosen representatives. In the Old Testament He commanded, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). Paul repeats the command in his letter to the Romans, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
The lynch mobs of the Old West weren’t very good at leaving vengeance to God, neither are gangs and some individuals today. Rather than waiting for the law enforcement—God’s established representative—to punish the misdeed, matters are taken into one’s own hand.
God reserves the right of vengeance for Himself because He administers it in the way and in the amount that will work into His “big picture” of saving souls. If we are not simply seeking our own self-interest we too will want things to be done for the good of all. Doing so leaves any punishment and vengeance in the hands of God and His representatives on earth, trusting that God’s saving wisdom will prevail.
Looking at Joseph we can see that something more than just a spirit of revenge is missing. Joseph was completely without any kind of grudge or ill-will. He had completely forgiven his brothers. I expect that there have been times when we have all been guilty of not forgiving much less. What was the reason that could make Joseph so totally forgiving?
In answering that question, the first thing we need to understand is that an unforgiving spirit is nothing less than self-serving pride. In Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Gospel reading—Matthew 18:21ff), in whose well-being was the servant interested? His and only his. He was more than willing to receive full forgiveness for his debt, but he wanted every last penny from his fellow servant for himself.
We don’t even have to look at a parable to see this. If I grow tired of forgiving someone that is impatience and all impatience is really pride that exalts, me, my time, my efforts, and my kindness above the person with whom I’m impatient.
If I bear a grudge, it is because the other person really hurt me and I’m angry about it. How dare he hurt me? Nevermind that I’ve probably done something similar many times, but this is different because this time it’s me that is hurt and I won’t forget it.
Take some time to consider any grudge and unforgiving spirit you may have ever held and just see if it isn’t filled with the “I’s” and “me’s” of self-interest.
A lack of trust is also behind an unforgiving spirit. If someone hurts me by robbing me of someone else’s affection, or makes me look small in the eyes of another and hurts my honor, or actually steals some possession of mine, or simply makes life miserable, then the unforgiving spirit wants to get back what was taken and won’t want to rest until it does. God instructs us to trust Him for our needs, peacefulness, and happiness in life.
A heart that trusts that God will provide and take care of the present and the future doesn’t need to hold a grudge over what has been lost or what has happened in the past. This trust also lay behind Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers: is another reason lying behind Joseph’s full forgiveness of his brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” [v.20]
The brothers, on their part planned evil against Joseph and carried it out. God, on His part, planned it all out for Joseph’s good.
God’s gracious plans were not only for Joseph. Step-by-step God brought Joseph into his position over all of Egypt in order to preserve the lives of all the people in the area and especially Jacob’s family. Through Joseph, Jacob’s family was preserved and given a homeland in Goshen where they prospered into a large nation from which the Savior Himself would eventually come. Had Jacob’s family perished in the famine, God’s promise to Abraham—including the promise of salvation—would have perished right along with them.
God turned Joseph’s misfortune into something that ultimately became a blessing for all people. It is impossible for one to hold a grudge or be unforgiving when he is certain that God will take whatever comes and turn it for the good of His people. Joseph’s trust in God’s mercy and providence enabled him to let the sins against him roll off and be forgiven.
God promises the same miracle of mercy to all of His children. “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). With that knowledge, we know that wrongs committed against us are not going to have any permanent evil impact. God will turn them for good, so forgive.
The greatest reason for forgiving the sins against us, and the reason to which all the others are tied, is God’s forgiveness toward us. God’s pattern of forgiving all our sins is more than enough to make us forgiving toward one another.
God’s pattern of forgiveness is a matter of undeserved love. Joseph’s brothers had piled up a large debt of sin against him, but even that cannot and does not compare to the debt each of us has with God. Every single little tiny turn from perfection in God’s Law is a sin.
If we were to give every sin the money equivalent of a dime, how many zeroes would have to come after the dollar sign to equal our complete debt? Sin abounds. We are born in it and add to it each day. There is nothing that would suggest that our debt should be erased. Yet, like the king in Jesus’ parable that is exactly what God does. He erases it completely so that there is no dollar sign and no string of zeroes, just one zero because your sins are all forgiven. “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much abound” (Romans 5:20).
Sins abound but that is the very reason Jesus came to the earth. He came and kept God’s Law to perfection. On the cross, He endured Hell’s damnation and was forsaken by God which we deserve for all of eternity because of our sins. Jesus’ keeping of the Law and His death in our place is what wipes out the debt of sin and makes us right with God. It comes at no cost to us. Even though we are like sheep who are continuously straying, our sins are forgiven. There is no limit or cut-off because God’s grace abounds.
With such a tremendous debt freely lifted from off our shoulders, the little sins others do toward us should be easily forgivable. Each and every sin done against you, no matter how big and grievous it may seem to be, is indeed the tiniest of tiny compared to our sins against God. “Oh, but how those sins against me irritate and grind at me and anger me! And I’m supposed to forgive?” Don’t you suppose that your sins irritate and anger God? Yet, He forgives all of them out of His grace without cost.
We would regard the servant in Jesus’ parable as foolish and petty for insisting on being paid less than 50 dollars when he had been forgiven multiple millions of dollars. That servant never appreciated what the master had done for him. Such lack of appreciation led him to lose his gift and be thrown into prison until that impossible day when he could pay the debt in full. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses” (Matthew 18:35).
Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness are not set up in a 1:1 ratio. God does not forgive one of our sins for every one we forgive in someone else. If that were the case, we would still be hopelessly lost.
God’s forgiveness of our sins depends on and comes from Christ—His life, death, and resurrection. In no way does it come as a result of our forgiveness or any other “good” thing we might do. However, if we do not forgive others then by that unforgiving spirit we prove that we are like the servant in Jesus’ parable and have not really understood, appreciated, or received with thanksgiving the forgiveness won by Christ.
On the other hand, a heart that trusts in Christ and rejoices to have the forgiveness of God—such a heart will show thankfulness by forgiving all others. Your forgiving spirit is not your salvation, but it is a fruit of faith and evidence of your salvation.
Because forgiveness that comes out of love for Christ is evidence of faith Jesus could say: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Joseph was by no means sin-free. His conduct in the light of his father’s favoritism and the way he presented his dreams were not God-pleasing. This is not even to mention all of the other sins that come out of a sinful human being. Joseph took comfort and found joy in the confidence that God forgave all of his sins and that led him to forgive his brothers. This is just what Paul encourages, “Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Genuineness is another characteristic of God’s forgiveness. When God says your sins are forgiven, He means it. God forgives your sins in Christ and they are gone. He will not come back at another time and remind you of your past sin and use it against you. Sometimes our forgiveness does end up like this. In those cases, everything is forgiven until some past sin can be brought up as leverage in a current situation—but that is not really forgiveness.
God’s forgiveness is so genuine and so overwhelming that He graciously forgives our sins and then comes right back and blesses us and provides for us. Joseph reflected the same kind of genuine forgiveness and provided for his brothers, “Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” [v.21]
Even when the offending party has the assurance that the sin is forgiven, the feelings of guilt can remain for a long time. A half-hearted forgiveness isn’t going to give much comfort. God’s genuine forgiveness does. God repeatedly comes to us sinners through His Word to promise and assure them again that what Jesus did really does give complete and free forgiveness.
Joseph’s brothers had confessed their sins and received forgiveness, but still felt their guilt for all they had done. Joseph, in genuine forgiveness, reassured them “And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” [v.21] Joseph’s kind speaking to his brothers is literally translated, “he spoke upon their hearts.” The brothers’ hearts were still in turmoil over their sins. Joseph’s genuine forgiveness spoke to those hearts to put them at ease. Joseph followed God’s pattern for God’s Words speak upon our hearts to put us at ease.
God’s genuine forgiveness and all that it involves is a pattern we seek to follow and to do so is a challenge that can only be met together with Christ. On the other hand, imitation forgiveness is really pretty easy. “I forgive you” are words that roll off the tongue very nicely. The mouth may say, “I forgive,” but if the heart and the inside feelings can still work up anger at the thought of what took place, or if there is lasting bitterness, then the forgiveness isn’t 100% pure.
Surely, each one of us needs to add sins of unforgiveness to the stack of sins we lay at Jesus’ feet. Despite our best intentions to model our forgiveness according to God’s pattern and truly, genuinely, and completely forgive all the wrongs done against us, we may still find that nagging grudge, bitterness, and hurt coming up. “The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). As long as we hang onto our old man and our sinful imperfection—which we will for a lifetime—genuine forgiveness toward all is going to remain challenging. Our memories of things that hurt are just too good and our natural sinful urge that doesn’t want to forgive is just too stubborn.
So then, our forgiving spirit or lack thereof, is another part of our daily struggle between the Old Adam and the New Man. An unforgiving spirit is a sin, but Jesus died for it too. When the Old Adam’s desire to not forgive is daily drowned by contrition and repentance then we stand assured that it together with all of our other sins stands forgiven—washed away by the blood of Christ.
Because of our natures, it can take weeks and even years before the urge for revenge and an unforgiving spirit can be conquered. Forgiveness doesn’t come naturally. It comes from God. It is a fruit of the Spirit. As we struggle with forgiving the wrongs done to us, it is the message of our forgiveness through Christ which will enable us to forgive.
As we struggle let us turn again and again to the wonderful news of the Gospel that tells us our huge debt is forgiven. Let us recognize any unforgiving spirit and repent, and seek God’s forgiveness for Christ’s sake. Let us offer our pleas and fervent prayers to our Father that He would increase in us appreciation and joy at our forgiveness and thereby teach us to be forgiving toward one another.
The forgiveness of sins that gives us eternal life doesn’t come from within us, it comes from God and His grace. The forgiveness that forgets the wrongs done to us doesn’t come from within us, it comes from God and His grace. Forgiveness is Divine. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.