Ecclesiastes 2:15–16, “Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!”
Barring the return of Christ, the day of your death is certain, and it is inescapable. As King Solomon observed, “The wise dies just like the fool.” The question, no matter your present age, is not if you will die. The question is how you will respond to the inevitable reality of your death.
When we’re young, we don’t think about death. When we’re old, we spend billions on products and procedures to mask the physical symptoms of its approach. When death finally arrives, we employ all manner of euphemistic references for that of which we do not speak. The obituaries say, “He departed this life,” or, “She passed away”. You have to work hard to find a listing that actually says “he died,” or “she died.”
Why are we so reluctant to acknowledge, face, and speak about death? For one, it makes us uncomfortable. It reminds us we’re not immortal. We’re frail. We’re made of dust and will return to dust. Even if you live a culturally noteworthy life and wind up on the cover of Time Magazine, you are (at best) like the finale of a fireworks show or the cherry tree blossoms in our front yard. Here today, gone tomorrow.
Psalm 103:15-16, “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” Friend, you may experience all manner of joys and blessings before you die. But none of them alter the fact that life is fleeting, filled with tribulation, and ends in the grave. That’s not pessimism. That’s the truth. So how will you respond?
Some try to ignore suffering and death by staying positive. Some try to distract themselves from suffering and death by staying busy. Some try to forget suffering and death all together with their mind-altering drink or drug of choice. Some completely lose hope in the midst of suffering and death and take their own life. The God who created the world and everything in it calls you and me to embrace a response that is radically different from them all.
In Genesis 49-50, God calls us to respond to the sorrows of life by resting in the God who saves. That’s what the Christian faith is all about. Faith, defined according to the Bible, doesn’t believe everything will magically work out in the end. Or that if you’re a halfway decent person, you can look forward to peace on the other side. No. Faith responds to the suffering of this life (death included) by resting in the God who saves.
The book of Genesis begins with life – the world as it was meant to be. It ends with death – the world as it is today. But the all-too-familiar picture of suffering at the end of this book is not hopeless for the people of God. It is full of hope. For context of their suffering serves to reveal the content of their faith, the conviction of things unseen, that enable them (and us!) to rejoice in the midst of tribulation.
We’re going to focus on 3 contexts of suffering in the final section of this book. Each one of them highlights a different conviction that calls us respond to the sorrows of life by resting in the God who saves.
CONTEXT #1: THE SORROW OF DEATH
Jacob’s instructions to his sons in Genesis 49:29-33 mirror his words in Genesis 47:29-31. They provide bookends for all the prophetic blessings he spoke over his children in Genesis 48-49 and forcefully draw our attention to the reality of his death.
Verse 29, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place.
The Bible doesn’t ignore, forget, or distract us from the reality of death. Various forms of the word “bury” appear 5x in as many verses. They buried Abraham. They buried Isaac. They buried Rebekah. I buried Leah. And you’re about to bury me. Jacob’s words are intended to remind us of the reality of death – not just death in general but your death and mine. His grandfather couldn’t escape it. His father couldn’t escape it. His wives couldn’t escape it. Jacob does no better and nor will you, friend.
Why is that the case? The answer, in a word, is because of God. When the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God in Genesis 3, He justly imposed the promised penalty of death on them and their descendants. Anything less would have been a violation of His justice and a denigration of His holiness. The sorrow of death reminds us of the seriousness of sin. It is not a light matter. It is the reason the Sustainer of Life will one day cease to uphold your physical life, and in that moment, you will die.
Even for the people of God, the hour of death is an hour of sorrow. Notice Jacob can’t even bring himself in verse 31 to speak of his beloved wife Rachel. When Jacob breathes his last, what does Joseph – the paradigm of biblical faith – spontaneously do? He falls on his father’s face and weeps. In Genesis 50:3, the Egyptians join him in weeping for “seventy days.” In Genesis 50:10, Jacob’s family and the Egyptians lament his death with “a very great and grievous lamentation,” mourning for another seven days. Their expression of grief was so great that it caught the attention of the surrounding Canaanites. Verse 11, “This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians.”
Yet in that very context, amidst the sorrow of death, we see the content of genuine faith. Notice the precision and repetition in Jacob’s burial instructions. He doesn’t just say, “Bury me with my fathers.” He says, “Bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of ephron the hittite. Both “cave” and “Ephron the Hittite” show up again in verse 30 and again in verse 32. And the entirety of verse 30 is quoted again, almost word for word, in the summary of what Jacob’s sons did for him in Genesis 50:13.
The repetition isn’t designed to exhaust us. It’s designed to inform us, to draw our attention to the content of Jacob’s faith in the context of his death. What did the Lord promise to Abraham in Genesis 13, to his son Isaac in Genesis 26, and to his son Jacob in Genesis 28? He promised to give them the land of Canaan. Over and over again. So what does Jacob’s request to be buried with his father “in the land of Canaan” declare? God will surely do what He said He will do! When He makes a promise, He keeps His promise. He’s a faithful God. His word is worthy of your trust.
Centuries later, God did exactly what he promised He would do. He brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan. But He didn’t make them wait that long to experience His faithfulness. You may remember God didn’t just promise Jacob land. He promised that “kings shall come from your own body.” (Genesis 35:11) He promised that the royal dominion Adam and Eve exercised over creation and lost when they sinned would be restored through Jacob’s descendants.
You know what all the details of Jacob’s funeral procession and burial in Genesis 50:2-14 reveal? He received a burial fit for a king. The embalmment, the 70 days of mourning, the fact that “all the elders of the land of Egypt” (verse 7) went up to Canaan, the “chariots and horsemen,” the “very great company” in verse 9, etc. Those are not trivial details. They are a striking foretaste of the faithfulness of God. In the very hour of death, when sorrow abounded, God demonstrated once again – not just to the Israelites, but also to the Canaanites who watched the whole thing go down – I will do what I said I will do. I will restore to you and your descendants the dominion sin destroyed.
For Jacob, a single cave, in a single field functioned as a down-payment on the faithfulness of God. Both the tomb and procession up to it reminded Israel that God does what He says He will do. Amidst the sorrow of death today, the Lord still invites us to direct our attention to a tomb. But the evidence of God’s faithfulness is no longer the procession leading up to it, it is the Son of God who walked out of it.
See, Jacob’s tomb is still full. All who die as followers of Christ are still waiting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in glory for the resurrection of the just when we receive imperishable bodies and reign with our Savior for all eternity. But Jesus’ tomb is empty! As the firstborn from the dead, His resurrection is foretaste of our own, assuring us amidst the very real sorrow of death, that God will do what He said He will do. 1 Corinthians 15:22–23, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ.”
Friend, the bodily resurrection of Christ isn’t just a historical fact. It’s a present assurance of the faithfulness of God. Do not belittle His word. Do not doubt His promises. When He speaks, believe Him. When he commands, obey him. His words are trustworthy and true because he is a faithful God. Context #1 – the sorrow of death. Conviction #1 – God is faithful.
CONTEXT #2: THE EVIL OF SIN
With Jacob out of the way, Joseph’s brothers fear He will finally avenge the wrongs they committed almost 40 years earlier when they abducted Him and sold Him into slavery. It’s hard to tell if their “story” in Genesis 50:17 of what Jacob told them to say to Joseph is true. Verse 15 strongly suggests it’s fabricated because they are explicitly driven by the fear of Joseph, not the fear of God. Regardless, their words reveal their ignorance of the true wellspring of Joseph’s forgiveness.
They think Joseph restrained himself for the last 17 years for Jacob’s sake. In reality, he had already forgiven them for God’s sake. His tearful reply in verse 19 to their requests is one of the most profound statements in the entire book of Genesis and a poignant summary of the whole. “But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
When we avenge the wrong done against us by actively or passively punishing the person who hurt us, what are we doing? We’re playing God. Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
Joseph refused to punish them not because he feared Jacob, but because he feared the Lord. He’s the second most powerful man in one of the most powerful countries in the world at the time, yet he is all too aware what we quickly forget. I’m not God. The Lord is God. He’s the judge. He’s the one to whom you guys are accountable.
Friend, you will never be able to maintain a posture of forgiveness toward those who hurt and sin against you unless you believe they are ultimately accountable to the Lord. The justice of God ensures one of two outcomes – either they are punished for their sin or Christ receives the punishment for their sin. Either way, the guilty will not go unpunished, which frees us to trust God as the Judge instead of trying to do his job for him.
That doesn’t mean we refuse to use God’s Word to evaluate the conduct of the people around us. It does mean we lay down our pride, lay down our bitterness, lay down our self-righteous spirit, and humble ourselves before the Judge of all the earth who always does what is right. Only when we trust God to be the judge are we free to forgive our enemies instead of punishing them.
Joseph forgave his brothers because he trusted the judgment of God. He also forgave them because trusted the providence of God. He knew that God had used the great evil committed against him to accomplish unimaginable good. If Joseph hadn’t been sent to Egypt, he couldn’t have been present in Pharaoh’s court. And if he hadn’t been present in Pharaoh’s court, he couldn’t have interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. And if he hadn’t interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, Pharaoh would never have authorized him to store up abundant grain during the 7 years of plenty to sustain his life, his family’s life, the entire nation of Egypt, and the surrounding peoples during 7 years of famine.
Should Joseph’s brothers have sold him into slavery in Egypt? No. Did God force them to do it against their will? No. Were they morally accountable to God for their actions? Yes. But did God plan it, did God design it, did God not just transform it but actually intend it from the very beginning to accomplish what is exceedingly good? Yes.
Therein lies the incredible comfort of providence. God isn’t surprised when hard things come your way. He isn’t taken off guard, forced to spontaneously react, or thrown off his groove when evil assails you. In the mystery of his sovereign will, it’s part of His perfect plan to do you good. I love how the Christian Standard Bible translates verse 20. “You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result – the survival of many people.”
Joseph’s story is an incredible testimony of the providence of God, but it is not the most definitive statement. What his brothers did to him was evil. It’s also not the greatest act of evil mankind has ever committed. The greatest act of evil mankind has ever committed is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God. No life was more precious. No death is more grievous. Yet what does the Apostle Peter say?
Acts 2:22-24, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”
Who betrayed, arrested, scourged and crucified Jesus? We did. Sinful men like us who resist his rule and despise his authority delivered Jesus up to Pilate to be killed. But how was he delivered up? He was delivered up “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” God didn’t just see it coming. He didn’t adjust course at the last minute. He planned it that way, from the very beginning, in the mystery of his wisdom. The greatest evil we ever committed proved to be the greatest good God ever accomplished.
It’s that sight, the tide of eternal salvation flowing down from the cross of Christ that compelled the Apostle Paul to rejoice in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” He doesn’t say all things are good. Nor did Joseph. His brothers meant real evil against him and committed real evil against him. But what did God do? He intended it for good, to bring about the salvation of many.
Every one of us in this room has both committed evil and experienced evil. As David Powlison says, “We trouble our trouble.” I do not know how God will use all of those sorrows for the good of those who trust and obey him and you should be suspicious of anyone who claims to know. We’re dealing here with mystery, with the God whose ways are higher than our ways, whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
We know the “what” – God means it for our good. We don’t know the “how.” We see it in the story of Jacob’s family. We don’t always see it in our own. But we don’t trust God because we see it. We trust God because we see Jesus. For in Jesus’ story God has made the loudest possible statement, the definitive declaration, that He is sovereign and His ways are good, especially when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse. Context #2 – The evil of sin. Conviction #2 – God is sovereign.
In the sorrow of death God is faithful. In the evil of sin God is sovereign. That’s reason enough to respond to suffering by resting in the God who saves. But there’s a third context and a final conviction designed to strengthen our faith.
CONTEXT #3: The wait for deliverance
Joseph lives long enough to see his great-grandchildren. He doesn’t live long enough to see his family return to the Promised Land. So what does he do? Does he arrogantly conclude that the only things that are real are things he can see? No. He strengthens his brothers in verse 24 while they’re still waiting for deliverance. “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
Think about it. For the last 70 years of his life, Joseph had been Israel’s source of provision and protection in Egypt. It was his relationship with Pharaoh that enabled them to thrive and multiply in the best of the end. So what does Joseph do right before he dies? He directs his brothers’ confidence away from himself and back to the Lord.
“Brothers, the Lord’s used me to protect and provide for you, but he doesn’t need me. He’s the one you should trust. He’s the one you should lean on. He’s the one who will be your shepherd all the days of your life. And one day, he’s going to bring you out of this place and take you home.”
Joseph believed the Lord’s promise, just like his father Jacob, even though he died waiting for the fulfillment. Some four hundred years later, God did exactly that. He visited his people by sending his servant Moses who led them out of slavery in Egypt and back to the Promised Land.
However, the exodus from Egypt wasn’t the end of the story. A far greater fulfillment of God’s promise and Joseph’s prophecy in verse 24 was yet to come, another day when God would visit His people. Only this time, He it wasn’t through the words of a prophet. It was through the person of His very own Son.
Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has made a way for every one of us to be saved – not from physical exile but from spiritual exile. He’s made a way for sinners like you and me to be forgiven and reconciled to our Heavenly Father. If you will repent of your sins, turn away from living for yourself, and turn toward following Jesus, then God will give you the gift of eternal life, the reward he has promised to all who trust in Christ and Christ alone for salvation from sin and death.
For we too are awaiting another Promised Land, the new heavens and the new earth to which the land of Canaan ultimately pointed. Speaking of the Jewish patriarchs and their descendants, Hebrews 11:39-40 declares, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
What’s the “something better” God has provided for us? It’s the blessing of the new covenant! The eternal salvation and redemption that is ours because of Jesus. So why does Hebrews say the Israelites “did not receive what was promised”? Because being “made perfect,” for them as for us, awaits the end of the age when the Lord returns and grants imperishable, immortal bodies to all who have died in faith – Jacob and Joseph included.
Like them, we’re still waiting. We’re still longing. We’re still groaning. But that day is coming, friends. The resurrection of Christ guarantees the return of Christ and the day when Jesus finally brings us home. 2 Peter 3:13, “But according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” It’s a return to the Garden of Eden, the final fulfillment of all the promises God made to the patriarchs.
The resurrection of Christ assures us that the God who visited us once will visit us again. We may be waiting for deliverance, lying in a coffin like Joseph, but our salvation is certain. Until then, we embrace the Lord’s call to us in Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Praying what? Revelation 22:20, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Come and take your people home. Context #3 – The wait for deliverance. Conviction #3 – Salvation is certain.
Genesis ends with three contexts in view – the sorrow of death, the evil of sin, and the wait for deliverance. Christian faith responds to all of them by resting in the God who saves. Why? Because in the sorrow of death God is faithful, in the evil of sin God is sovereign, and in the wait for deliverance salvation is certain. That’s why we respond to the suffering of this life (death included) by resting in the God who saves. When we feel the weight of sorrow pressing in, we choose to wholly depend on the Lord.
In 1964, Robert Ettinger published a book called, The Prospect of Immortality, in which he made a case for preserving human corpses in liquid nitrogen in hope that future science would be able to bring them back to life. Twelve years later, the Cryonics Institute was founded. It’s a non-profit membership organization made up of people seeking to pursue cryonics’ “prospect of Immortality” for themselves and their families.
For a mere $28,000, the following benefits could be yours – another chance at life, renewed youth and health, reunion with loved ones, and the possibility of an unlimited lifespan to live all your dreams. They say, “Imagine a world free of disease, death, and aging. At the Cryonics Institute, we believe that day is inevitably coming and cryonics is presently our best chance of getting there.”
Technology will never deliver us from the vanity of this life because the root of our problem isn’t scientific. It’s spiritual. Death didn’t come into the world because of medical ignorance. It came into the world because of spiritual arrogance, which means hope for a world free of disease, death, and aging will never be found in a tank of liquid nitrogen. It is found and will only ever be found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s found in the assurance that all who follow Him and share in His tribulation will not fail to share in His triumph.
Romans 6:5, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Don’t ignore the reality of your suffering and death. Don’t try to distract yourself from it or lose hope in the midst of it. Respond by resting in the God who saves. For God will surely visit you and bring you to the place He has prepared for you.