The Mystery of Providence

Sermon by Sinclair Ferguson on January 30, 2005

Genesis 50:20

The Lord’s Day Evening

January 30, 2005

Genesis 50:20

“The Mystery of Providence”

Dr. Sinclair Ferguson

Please be seated.

Our heavenly Father, as we turn yet again to
Your word we pray that it may come to us this evening with the same grace and
power that it came first to those who experienced the realities of which we will
speak. We thank You that You speak to us in so many different ways: in psalm and
in letter; in apocalypse and prophecy; in biography and history. We bless You
that every line in Scripture leads us together to our Lord Jesus Christ. And we
pray then that as we appeal to You to send Your Spirit to us, that our eyes may
be opened and our hearts may welcome the word of truth, and that it may bear
much fruit and prevail. We pray that again we may hear the voice of Jesus
Christ, the true Prophet and Priest and King in His church, addressing us
through His infallible word. And this we pray together for His great name’s
sake. Amen.

Well, turn with me this evening to the Old Testament
Scriptures, to the Book of Genesis and then to the final chapter. You’ll find
our passage on page 66 of the pew Bible if you’re using it… page 66 of the pew
Bible. And I want to read there in these closing verses in Genesis, chapter 50,
and we read from verse 15.

“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said,
‘What if Joseph should bear a grudge against us and pay us back in full for all
the wrong which we did to him!’ so they sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your
father charged before he died, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph, ‘Please
forgive, I beg you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, for they
did you wrong.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the
God of your father.’’ And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers
also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’
But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for
you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring
about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore, do not
be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ So he comforted them
and spoke kindly to them.”

Our subject this evening is “The Mystery of God’s
Providence.” I was not privileged to grow up in a Christian home, although my
parents did later become believers in Jesus Christ. But they did give to me
certain blessings. One of them, as I look back, although today it would be very
politically incorrect, was that my mother taught me to read before I went to
school. And the other was that although they did not attend church, my mother
had kept her own mother’s Bible. Looking back now, it is a source of great
wonder that people in the past were able to read those Bibles–the print was so
small, the covers were so thick. But one of my pre-school delights–as, I
suppose, a precocious little reader (and we had very few books in the house) –
was in the morning when my parents had vacated their bed, with my grandmother’s
Bible I would then go into their bed (which was delightfully warm in comparison
with mine), snuggle up with my grandmother’s Bible, and look for one or other of
my two favorite stories. One was Daniel, and he was not only down in the lions’
den–for a little chap, he was very difficult to find so far along in the Old
Testament Scriptures! And the other story I loved to read was the story of
Joseph, and he was almost as difficult to find, because I could never quite
remember which book Joseph was to be found in. I never realized that if I’d
remembered he was at the left hand side of the book, I would have found him
fairly easily. And so the story of Joseph over the decades now has meant a
tremendous amount to me, not least because these words that bring the very story
to its marvelous climax in many ways are actually the key. The answer in this
case really is at the back of the book. They are the key to chapters 37 to 50
that preceded.

I think of these words as
answering what I now call “the Joseph Question.” And “the Joseph
Question” is a very simple question. Every Christian at some time or another is
bound to have asked it: What is God doing in my life? And Joseph
certainly was a man, from the human point of view, who had every entitlement to
ask that question, because as you remember from the very beginning of the story,
God seemed to have worked in his life in an unusual way from his very early
years, and given him an early indication that God intended to do something good
and marvelous with him; that he was intended in some sense for a kind of
greatness. He wasn’t able to cope with that moment of illumination, and from
the human point of view he badly messed up his own life. And yet, as on this
very moving, tender, poignant occasion…his brothers come to him with their
father’s last message, he speaks these wonderful and memorable words. Looking
at the whole of his own life, and especially the series of disasters that seemed
to befall him–not least those disasters that seemed to befall him just when he
was making his way out of the previous disaster. And he says, “As far as you
were concerned, you meant things for evil, to harm me; but God meant it for

The story you know well
enough, I’m sure–most of you, if not all of you. It’s a very marvelous story,
in a series of miniature dramas. He is given a dream and he foolishly tells
the dream to his brothers and to his parents, and he finds himself hated as a
. He ends up sold as a prisoner, as a slave, and finds himself with
the possibility of rising again. And Potiphar’s wife begins to seek to seduce
him, and in his faithfulness he discovers that there are times when faithfulness
leads to immense loss. He is imprisoned because of deceit, and because of a
lie. And again, he is raised up from prison to become the prime minister of all
Egypt. And the story ends, as we all know, with the lengthy story of the
engagement and disengagement that he has with his brothers, until the whole
family is united again in Egypt, and he is able to teach them the lessons
that he has first of all learned from God: that in his life it is true that
what they meant for evil, God meant for good.

And it’s so obvious,
because in a way this is the Old Testament’s version of the great words of Paul
in Romans 8, that “God works everything together for the good of those who love
Him, who are called according to His purpose
.” It’s so obvious that these
words appear at the end of the Book of Genesis not merely as a personal
testimony, but as a testimony on the part of one of God’s servants who has seen
everything that is intended to be understood by every child of God: that
whatever befalls us for evil, God is working out His purposes of good.

“He plants His footsteps
in the sea….” as we were singing, “…and rides upon the storm.” But the
problem we all face–and doubtless Joseph himself faced it…and William Cowper
certainly faced it–was that when God plants His footsteps in the sea, as the
psalmist says, those footprints become virtually impossible to trace. And we’re
always asking, therefore, the question–and we ask it especially in
difficulties–we’re always asking the question, “How is it, and where is it, and
when is it that God is working everything together, not least those things that
seem to have befallen for evil…how, in the midst of footprints that are
planted in the sea, can I trust in the providence of God? And of a sense of the
kind of things that God is doing?”

And I want to try in the
few minutes we have together this evening, from this wonderful story we have of
the life of Joseph, to point you to some of the keys that help us to open the
lock of providence in our lives; to help us to believe with Joseph that we, too,
will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

I. The
first of them is this, and it’s so clear in the story of Joseph, that God is
always working together a variety of circumstances.

The problem that we face
ordinarily in our Christian lives in interpreting the providence of God is that
we don’t see all the variety of circumstances; and sometimes foolishly we
insist, when we only have a small part of the picture of what God is doing, that
He tell us here and now what He is doing–when, if He did tell us what He was
doing, we would never be able to understand it!

I don’t know if in
American television shows, quiz shows…which I never watch…I don’t know
whether they have the kind of question that they often have in British quiz
shows…that also I happen never to watch, but I know they have this kind of
question! Where they will show you perhaps part of a photograph of some famous
person–a nose, or an eyebrow, a chin–and you’re supposed to guess who it is. And
then, if you fail you get another piece, but fewer points. And then, if you fail
again, another piece but fewer points, and then when the final piece is in place
you think, ‘Why didn’t I see that when the first [piece] was put down?’ And
it’s precisely the same oftentimes with the providence of God.

God is not doing isolated
things in the world, occasionally dropping down and doing things that are
utterly disconnected from one another. He is working out a marvelous unified
pattern of His gracious purposes, and when we have only one piece of the jigsaw
puzzle and are tempted to cry out to Him, ‘O God, what are You doing?!’ Could
Joseph ever have dreamt that it was absolutely essential, if he were going to be
prime minister of Egypt, and in some sense the savior of the ancient Near East,
could he ever have imagined that it was necessary for him to be betrayed by his
brothers, and sold into slavery? That Potiphar’s wife should need to seek to
seduce him, so that he would find himself in prison; that he should be left
there over a period of two years before he would be raised up to become the
prime minister? He never could have imagined it! But yet, as he looks back on
the whole of his life, he sees that one of God’s workings in his life has led to
another, and led to another, and there has been a whole pattern of God’s
purpose. God, who in His wisdom has seen the end from the beginning; God, who
has seen the whole picture and therefore in every detail of His working, has
been working together for Joseph’s good, and for the blessing as Joseph himself
says, of many others.

There’s a marvelous little illustration of this in
the life of the Apostle Paul in Acts 16, you remember, when they’re anxious to
preach the gospel. And they try to go in one direction and the door is closed;
and they try to go in another direction, and the door is closed. And it’s only
because these two doors are closed that a third door, the door into Europe, the
door of the gospel to our kind of people, the door of the gospel that eventually
would bring the gospel to this land mass–isn’t it something to think that in the
economy of God it has been the frustration of the Apostle Paul in one direction
that first of all led to the gospel, as it were, sweeping through Europe? And
this is how God characteristically works. And sometimes in our lives we need to
understand what I sometimes call the ‘cul de sac principle’, the ‘dead end
principle’ that God uses, where He shunts some of the choicest of His people up
a dead end into frustration, sometimes wondering if there can be any future for
them, until the place in the traffic for which God really intends them has come
into place, and then He slides them in and moves them on, and they begin to
realize that God has known all the time what He is doing.

I had a rather amusing experience last week. I was
teaching at Reformed Seminary in Orlando. I drew up in a set of traffic lights.
I’d come to the automobile that was beside me. I was absolutely sure in the
automobile was somebody I knew, and so I wound down the window. It was my
friend John Muether, the librarian. I thought to myself, what are the chances
of the two of us in Orlando landing in the same set of traffic lights at exactly
the same time? I asked him the obvious question: I said, “Do you have any Grey
Poupon™?” If you ever think you’ll meet me at a set of traffic lights, make
sure you’ve got the Grey Poupon!

But I thought to myself, this isn’t a coincidence.
This is one of those little divine touches to lift my spirit, that’s what it is.
I don’t know what else it might mean to him, but that is what it means to me. It
lifted my spirit to think that God was sovereignly in control of his life, and
God was sovereignly in control of my life, and in His sweet providence He had
brought us together for a totally unexpected moment. And I reflected again on
this passage, and reminded myself that God works in all the details of life.
Even when we cannot see His footprints as they place themselves in the sea, we
know that He understands the big picture. He knows the end from the beginning.
He knows where He is going, and I therefore, in His grace, am able to trust Him.

You see, sometimes we demand God to know what His
will is, when the more important question in a sense is, what His timing is.
Not just what His will is, but what His timing is. And this is why the Bible is
full of the exhortation to wait for the Lord. And it’s clear one of the
great lessons that Joseph himself was learning in those days was precisely that:
to wait for the Lord in the confidence that He knows the end from the
beginning. He knows His timing. And He can be absolutely trusted.

II. But then there’s a
second key here. God is always working together a variety of circumstances, but
then secondly, God is always working in a variety of people.

He’s always working in a variety of people, and this
is a great and important lesson for me to learn, because my instinct is to say,
‘O God, what are You doing in my life?’ when, if I could hear Him, He
would say, ‘Let’s hear less about your life. Let’s see you giving your life to
Me in order that your life may be employed for the blessing and benefit of
others’ lives.’ And it’s very interesting, in the two palces in Genesis where
Jesus says almost exactly the same thing as He says here in verse 20, that’s one
of the great emphases. He’s come to understand that what God was doing in his
life was not actually for him. It was because He wanted to employ him, to pick
him up into the heart of his purposes and employ him in the lives of others.

I sometimes think in this context of the expedience
of Naomi in the Book of Ruth, and all the suffering that woman went through: the
bereavements she experienced in loss of husband and sons. I often wonder if she
was left there in Moab asking herself the question, ‘Does God have anything to
do with this? Does God have any purpose in this?’ And by the end of the book
you’ve come to understand that God had a glorious purpose in this, because this
was the route He was taking in order to bring King David into the world. And
then when you turn to the New Testament it becomes clear this was the route God
was taking in order to bring the Lord Jesus into the world, in this family
tree. And so the great thing is not to become obsessed with what God is
doing in my life, but so to yield to His purposes in my life that He may
use my life, fit my life into purposes of blessing and grace for others

I was profoundly moved last month at a memorial
service for the daughter of one of my colleagues, Richard Gaffin. Lisle Gaffin,
his daughter, had struggled with cancer for several years, and now had gone to
be with the Lord. And in the course of the memorial sermon her minister said how
she had spoken to him at the church door one day, huddled in her blanket to keep
her now-emaciated body warm, and she said to her pastor these words that
obviously stuck deeply into his soul. She said, “I see it now, I think. It’s
not really about me, is it? It’s not really about me, is it?” And we’re all
conscious that we live in such a frenetically individualized me-obsessed world
that we need to be turned outside in, as it were, to take account of the fact
that I am not God’s only interest. And God’s kingdom is not being built in
order that it may be subservient to me, but my life is being employed in order
that it may be subservient in His kingdom.

And you see that marvelously here in the story of
Joseph, how all that happened to him, for example, was one of the ways in which
God was wanting to work in the life of his father Jacob. The whole situation of
Joseph’s life goes back to Jacob making the same, the precise mistake his own
father had made, of favoritism between the children, and how like his own father
he himself was deceived when the boys brought the multicolored long-sleeved coat
back. It was Jacob himself who was deceived! Joseph was not dead, and the
brothers in that instance didn’t say he ways dead. They simply sent the cloak
back, and he was deceived by the evidence of his hands. And in an amazing way
[he] had to be willing to lose Benjamin in order to be restored to integrity.
And in this amazing way God takes away for a season his son Joseph, in order
that as He works in His mysterious ways He brings together not only Joseph with
his father, but his father with his brothers, and together they are most
marvelously reconciled together.

And then, of course there are the brothers. The
opening verses of the Joseph narrative tell us about their jealousy and hatred
of him, and some of it you might think Joseph richly deserved. But they had
twisted hearts, these boys, and great hatred. And of course, when that seizes us
things get out of control, and their hatred became a mercenary selling of their
brother, and that led to lies and to deceit, and as the story goes on you begin
to see…particularly when they arrive in Egypt and Joseph begins in an
amazingly wise way to deal with them…he has learned, in a sense, to be able do
this–as he begins to deal with them, they become conscious of their sin and
conscious of their guilt, and several times in the course of the narrative–read
it through again for yourself–they are confessing their sin, they are confessing
that they are under the judgment of God, and they are being brought ultimately
again to reconciliation with their brother and to an appreciation of what God
has done for them through him.

And then there is Joseph– Joseph, to whom God gives
dreams of greatness that turn his head. It is one of the great mysteries to me.
I can’t understand it in Joseph, and I frankly have not been able to understand
it in other individuals that I’ve seen, that God sometimes seems to give us
things that we cope with very badly. And instead of keeping it to himself,
instead of keeping it to himself, he blurts it out at breakfast time. Breakfast
time, of all times! The foolish young man, the foolish young man…but God
begins to grind down the folly until even a pagan king recognizes that in this
young man, now about 30 years old, there is the wisdom of the gods. And you see
in the way in which he handles his brothers that God has done something quite
amazing in changing this young man’s folly into a maturity of witness that is
really quite amazing.

And the God who is working together a variety of
circumstances is always working together in a variety of people. And the answer
to the question, ‘O God, why is this happening in my life?’ may not be in the
first instance ‘my life’, but somebody else’s life–somebody who’s watching you,
somebody who is connected to you. It may be that life. And so the
providences of God are simultaneously a summons to me to bow my life before God
and say ‘Take my life and everything with it and use it as pleases You, for Your
glory. But dear Father in heaven, please use it for Your glory in ways
that I may not see in this world, but by Your grace I will be able to see in the
world to come.’

There’s another wonderful illustration of this,
isn’t there, in the life of the Apostle Paul when he is stuck in a prison? And
as word gets out, some of the Christians are panicking, and of course they’re
panicking. They’re thinking, ‘If that’s what happens to our greatest
missionary, what’s the point?’ And Paul says, ‘I want you to understand that
because I’ve been here in prison the gospel has run like wildfire among those in
the praetorian guard. It’s reached places it would never have reached.’ It’s
almost as though he understands if these people won’t come to the street corner,
the synagogue, to hear the Apostle Paul preaching, then God will send the
Apostle Paul to where they are, so that they have no place of escape from the
Apostle Paul preaching. And as a result, he says, many of the brethren (this is
in Philippians 1), many of the brethren themselves are becoming encouraged, and
they’re bold to preach the gospel as God is doing things in Paul’s life with a
view to others.

And so this is for Joseph, for us, a summons to bow
ourselves before His sovereign will and say, ‘Use me when and where and how You
will.’ So God is always working together a variety of circumstances, always
working simultaneously in a variety of people, and

III. God is always working
towards a variety of goals.

In the life of Jacob, to bring him joy and
restoration; in the lives of the brothers, to bring them grace in their
reconciliation; and in the life of Joseph–notice this–in the life of Joseph, not
only to bring him to the right place at the right time, but to bring him to the
right place at the right time as the right man. As the right man.

And as the story ends with Joseph as the prime
minister of Egypt, the amazing thing that you see in the way in which he takes
the dream that Pharaoh has and begins to meditate on it, is that this boy who
had been overeager to say to his brothers and to his parents, ‘God is going to
do something great in my life, and you’ll all come and bow down before me’; this
boy who was so radically impatient he couldn’t keep it in, is now a man who has
the wisdom to develop a seven-year plan, and to be patient and to be careful,
and to be self-disciplined in a marvelous way in his leadership. And this
haughty young man who, in his youthful pride, strutted the privileges that God
was intimating he would receive, God has marvelously humbled, not only in the
way he shows grace to his brothers, but in the way in which he says to them in
very telling words, ‘My dear brothers, I am not God. God alone is God.’

And I suppose of all the lessons that God teaches us
in providence that is what lies at the very heart of each and every one of
them. He is teaching us that we are not sovereign. He is teaching us that we
are not the creator. He is teaching us that we do not have the wisdom to plan
the best things in the best way for our own lives, but He alone is God. And He
alone, at the end of the day, is to be absolutely trusted. And all of this in
Joseph’s life shaped by pain. Shaped by pain.

The Apostle Paul, again…you remember, now in II
Corinthians 1 he says, ‘We almost despaired of life itself, but out of that
experience of great pain and agony we have been comforted with the comfort of
God.’ And as he writes to the Corinthians he says, ‘I’ve come to see that I’ve
been comforted with the comfort of God in order that I may express to you in
your need and affliction the comfort that God gives those who are afflicted.’

Many of you are able to look at incidents in your
life-moments of experience, difficulties that have come into your own life or
your family life, or the life of the church with which you’ve been connected,
and only later on have you begun to understand that this has been an amazing,
wise, divine investment to prepare you to serve and to minister, and to do good,
and to bring you blessing in some situation for which you would have been
totally unprepared and totally unfit were it not for the investment that God had
made in your life.

Brothers and sisters, our God is in the business of
long-term investments with long-term dividends, and we can trust Him. And the
reason we can trust Him is because not only has He done this in the life of
Joseph, but He has planted at the very center of history the guarantee that He
is able to do this, does do this, and will do this.

As the Apostle Peter trumpeted on the Day of
Pentecost, “He was taken by the hands of wicked men intending to do evil and
crucify Him, but our God meant it for good, for the salvation of many.” The
Joseph Question
is answered by the Joseph principle, and the
Joseph principle is actually the Jesus principle:
that what man means for
evil to destroy God’s purposes, God irreversibly means and uses for good, in
order to get us like our Lord Jesus to the right place at the right time, in the
right way, for the right people, as the right man or woman.

And so, in his own little way, Joseph was really
pointing to Jesus, that we might in Jesus see that “God moves in mysterious ways
His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the
storm. Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain….” Even the
angels were perplexed by what was happening, scanning His work in vain. “God is
His own interpreter,” and if you will but wait three days, “He will make it

The ‘Joseph Question’ and the ‘Jesus Answer’. He is
working everything together for the good of those who love Him, who are called
according to His purpose. How do I know? Because He did not
spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all; and if He has done that, then He
will freely give us all things. So trust Him, because He is more trustworthy
than you are

Our heavenly Father, thank You again this evening
that Your word is written in such large letters that we all can read. Thank You
that the story of Joseph that has meant so much to so many of us, in all its
exquisite beauty speaks to us of Your exquisite wisdom, and we pray for grace
not only to rejoice when we are delivered from difficulties in Your providence,
but to rejoice in those providences as those who are yielded to You, knowing
that You are working many things together for good, knowing that You are working
in many different people for good, knowing that You are working towards a most
glorious end: the good of those who love You. We ask this, our dear Father, in
Jesus our Savior’s name. Amen.

Now please stand and receive the benediction of the

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of
God our heavenly Father, the help of the Holy Spirit, strengthener and
comforter, be with you all this night and forevermore. Amen.

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