What was Joseph's greatest test? Was it when his brothers sold him into slavery? Was it when he was tempted by Potiphar's wife? Stephen suggests it was neither of these. Instead, Joseph's greatest test was being surrounded by opulence, ease and luxury for the latter portion of his life. The Test of Prosperity is a difficult one for believers to pass.
“THE TEST OF PROSPERITY”
If you have been studying along with us on the life of Joseph, you have noticed, obviously, that his life thus far has been a whirlwind of reversals. He was the favored son who was loved by his father, adorned with a coat that reached to his ankles and to his wrists, denoting nobility, exempting him from the hard labor that his brothers would have to perform. But then he ends up in a pit because his jealous brothers are determined to wipe out this dreamer. But when all seems to be at a loss, he is, instead of being killed, sold to Midianites. And that would be the low point in his life, perhaps, as he is standing stripped naked on the auction block being sold to the highest bidder, who happens to be Potiphar. But God gives him favor in Potiphar’s eyes and he is soon elevated and promoted and given a responsibility. But then, as you know, Potiphar’s wife decided to sink her talons into his character and because he refused, he ends up in prison. Another low point. And the cupbearer, who was placed in prison with him, and the baker have a dream. And it seems that there is hope because he is able to interpret their dream and he knows one of them will be taken out of prison. And so he says, “When you get out, remember me. Tell the Pharaoh that I have been falsely accused. Do everything that you can because I have given you a favorable interpretation. Get me out of this prison.” The last part of chapter 40 ends with the words, “he was forgotten.”
In fact, let’s go back, to set the stage, to chapter 40, verse 20 in the book of Genesis. Genesis, chapter 40, verse 20, says, “Thus it came about on the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday”. After being in prison for three days, Pharaoh has a birthday. And this is an interesting side light. And I want to give it to you because if you’ve been reading the newspaper lately, you note that the liberals and the critics and the scoffers are once again attacking the reliability of the scriptures. You probably noticed the front page of the Raleigh newspaper this past weekend, how they are determined to tone down the sexist point of view of the scriptures. Implication being: the Word of God is sexist. So they are going to change verses from “He” to “It”. I don’t know what they are going to do with the masculine references to God, perhaps they’ll find a way around that as well. But I thought it interesting that the critics have often said, “This is proof that the Bible was written by someone long after the time of the Pharaoh because they didn’t know anything about birthday parties during the time of Pharaoh.” And it says here that Pharaoh’s having a birthday party. This is proof that someone living far beyond that time wrote. And it just seems as if God, every once in awhile, allows the archeologist’s spade to uncover some evidence. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Rosetta stone that was uncovered which allowed us to read hieroglyphics. Not us, as in you and me, but us, as in those who can do it. And on that Rosetta stone is an entire decree given at the birthday party of a Pharaoh. And I say, “Go get them. Hallelujah!”
Well, it was Pharaoh’s birthday party and, “he made a feast for all his servants;” - verse 20 - “and he lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. And he restored the chief cupbearer to his office,” - just as Joseph had said - “and he put the cup into Pharaoh’s hand; but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet” - three days after it occurred - “the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph” - and it had only been three days. When I read this, the first thought that came to my mind was his memory reminded me of me. Three days! I have a hard time, my wife will tell me when you come home from work eight hours later to pick up a loaf of bread, and I forget that. So she pins notes to my lapels now, when I leave home in the morning. But here it is three days after, you would think that he would remember. And I looked up each word in the original text, thinking that one of the words would imply he chose to forget, and I couldn’t find it. He didn’t make up his mind to choose to forget, he simply forgot.
But is that really what was going on behind the scenes? There was a sovereign God who knew that the timing was not right. Joseph still had two more years of preparation before he would step from the prison cell into the office of prime minister. God wasn’t through preparing him. He was making gold out of Joseph. You’re familiar with Job when he wrote that though God try me, when he is finished, “I shall come forth as gold.” That is an internal development. He is not saying when God is finished, I will get my job back. When he finishes trying me, my spouse might return, I’ll get promoted, my children will begin to obey. No. “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” That is an internal development of character that’s sterling, that’s valuable. God was, in a sense, in that prison cell over the next two years, when Joseph had been forgotten. About his ankles were the fetters. Periodically perhaps, his neck being fettered to that stone column so that he had to stand at attention. What was God doing? Making gold.
I heard several illustrations, this past week, that illustrated this point so well. A young soprano was singing in a concert hall. And there was a vast audience and her range was exquisite and she was obviously trained. And the composer of the song she was singing was in the audience. And one of his friends leaned over and he said, after she had finished, “What do you think of that?” And the composer said, “She will be great one day after her heart has been broken.” A. W. Tozer wrote these words. Listen carefully because you might disagree. He writes, “It is doubtful that God can use anyone greatly until God has hurt him deeply. There in the prison cell for this two year period, God is, in a sense, hurting, developing, maturing. So that he will come out of that cell ready for the office of prime minister.
Well, let’s note now, as we head into chapter 41, all that occurs. “Now it happened at the end of two full years that Pharaoh had a dream, and behold, he was standing by the Nile. And lo, from the Nile there came up seven cows, sleek and fat; and they grazed in the marsh grass. Then behold, seven other cows came up after them from the Nile, ugly and gaunt,” - or skinny - “and they stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly and gaunt cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. Then Pharaoh awoke.” - and I would probably add, “with a start” - “And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time; and behold, seven ears of grain came up on a single stalk, plump and good. Then behold, seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke, and behold,” - he understood - “it was a dream.” Now verse 8, “Now it came about in the morning that his spirit was troubled, so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all its wise men. And Pharaoh told them his dreams”. You’ll note this is a collection of the wisest of the wise. These magicians, by the way, are the same crowd that Moses will do combat with in the book of Exodus. These “wise men” could be translated, “well-versed in the writings.” That is, these men knew all of the writings of Egypt. They were well-versed in the occult. They had powers that is evidenced, especially when Moses fights against them, as they give revelation of Satan’s power in them. These men were very wise in terms of the underworld. They were well trained in interpreting hard sayings and dreams. If anybody could do it, these men could. In fact, if you read these dreams, you and I could probably make an educated guess. It seems that there are good things happening for seven years and then there are going to be bad things happening for seven years. It seems to almost make simple sense to us. But yet, I think God closed their minds. Because they were not able to tell him, last part of verse 8, “but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.”
“Then the chief cupbearer” - you remember that character? - “spoke to Pharaoh, saying, ‘I would make mention today of ‘” - my sins - “my own offenses.” It’s in a sense he is saying, “Uh-oh, I forgot something, Pharaoh, that may be helpful.” He says, “Pharaoh was furious with his servants, and he put me in confinement in the house of the captain of the bodyguard, both me and the chief baker. And we had a dream on the same night, he and I; each of us dreamed according to the interpretation of his own dream. Now” - in that prison cell - “a Hebrew youth was with us there, a servant of the captain of the bodyguard, and we related them to him, and he interpreted our dreams for us. To each one he interpreted according to his own dream. And it came about that just as he interpreted for us, so it happened; he restored me in my office, but he hanged him.” Now, two years later, God brings to his mind a remembrance of this Hebrew captive. So, verse 14, “Then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph, and they hurriedly brought him out of the dungeon;” - literally, they forced him to run. But he stops and, probably understanding whose presence he will be in, he decides to dress the part. “And . . . he . . . shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came to Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it; and I have heard it said about you, that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’”
Stop! You’re Joseph right now. You have spent years in prison because you have been falsely accused. Here is your grand opportunity now. This is, in a sense, your day in court. Now to vindicate yourself. I think my first words would have been, “If you’ll get me out of prison, I’ll do this.” Or perhaps if Joseph had been spending that two year period in bitterness, determining that once he was released there would be revenge. That would have been the first thing out of his mouth. But he says these words, “It is not in me”. In other words, Pharaoh, “It’s not me.” And I want to rush into the courtroom and say, “Joseph, just a minute, sure it is! God’s in you, take some credit here.” No credit taken. He says, “It is not in me;” - but Elohim - “God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” I love it because I can just imagine all of the magicians and all of the wise men filling the court of Egypt and there that grand Pharaoh sits and Joseph, this little Hebrew captive, says, “ELOHIM will tell you.” As you know, Egypt was a very idolatrous nation, they had myriads of idols, myriads of gods. And he says, “Elohim, the God of heaven, will reveal it to you.”
So Pharaoh spoke to Joseph and I think he probably ignored that statement. “In my dream, behold, I was standing on the bank of the Nile” - and he tells the story. Now, let’s get to the end of the story and note what happens. Verse 25, “Now Joseph said to Pharaoh, ‘Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has told’” - Elohim has told - “to Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one and the same. And the seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven thin ears scorched by the east wind shall be seven years of famine. it is as I have spoken to Pharaoh: God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do. Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt; and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine will ravage the land. So the abundance will be unknown in the land because of that subsequent famine; for it will be very severe.” Joseph’s interpretation is to the point, it is truthful. Perhaps if you’d been abducted, perhaps if you had been sold into slavery and falsely accused, you would have added a little P.S. to this, “And Pharaoh, I hope Egypt rots. It wouldn’t bother me a bit. Seven good years are coming. Seven bad years are coming and you deserve every bit of it.”
But what will happen next is nothing less than startling. Let’s take a look. He says, verse 33, “Now let Pharaoh look for a man discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.” I like the way he adds the word, “discerning,” because Pharaoh had his “wise” men. But a discerning person is one who can see a problem AND add a solution. He had all kinds of people who could say, “Pharaoh, here’s the problem. This is the problem.” Just as in your life, and perhaps you can see problems. A discerning person can provide a solution. “Let Pharaoh take action to appoint overseers in charge of the land, and let him exact a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of abundance. Then let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and store up the grain for food in the cities under Pharaoh’s authority, and let them guard it. And let the food become as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish”. This is how you can survive, Pharaoh, during the famine.
And I sit back and I have to ask myself, first of all, “Where in the world did Joseph come up with this plan?” The last time we saw him in freedom, he was overseeing the tending of sheep. The son of a wandering immigrant in the land. And now, as a thirty-year-old, he is standing in the court of the Pharaoh and he is saying, “Pharaoh, this is the problem. Now let me give you a three-fold solution.” Bang! Bang! Bang! He says, “We need a central administration. We need a security system. We need a distribution plan.” It’s fantastic!
And Pharaoh’s probably on his little throne there thinking, “Wow! I’m going to believe this because he interpreted the dream. But now, where in the world am I going to find some man who can not only share the problem, but provide the solution.” And so you notice what he did? “Then Pharaoh said to his servants,” - his servants being the wise men, the magicians - “Can we find a man like this, in whom is a divine spirit?” That is, “In whom dwells the spirit of the gods.” He isn’t a believer but he senses something in Joseph that is distinctive. He senses that his God is really part of his life. It’s more than an idol, this is a reality to him. And his God has given him discernment and wisdom. Oh, that the world could see that in you and in me. “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage; only in the throne I will be greater than you.”
Now before we enjoy the promotion, let’s broaden our imagination a little bit and let’s try to imagine what the rest of the country would think about this. Here is a young upstart, and all of the news will spread fast as fire, that this servant is now going to become prime minister. And you would probably think, as one man suggested that I heard, that he probably knew somebody or bought somebody off. No one would know that God was behind the scenes. And Joseph’s plan sounds wonderful to a Pharaoh. It wouldn’t sound wonderful to you and me. Joseph has suggested that he tax the people one-fifth of their produce for seven years. This is a tax increase. And they’re going to ask, “Upon what basis, Pharaoh, have you done this?” Could you imagine asking George Bush as he gets on his plane, this past Thursday, and heads to Europe to heal a rift in NATO, “Do you have a plan?” And George Bush says, “Yes, I do.” “Well, upon what basis do you have a plan?” And George looks at you and he says, “Well, I had this dream.” (laughter) “Pharaoh, you’re going to raise our taxes. For seven years you’re going to take a fifth. Upon what basis?” “Well, I had a dream and this Hebrew slave told me what it meant.” Understand the tremendous risk. Yeah, Joseph’s prime minister but I guarantee you, he was hated.
Now, let’s dive into this from rags to riches story. I love it. Pharaoh says to his servants, “Let’s find a man.” And he says to Joseph, verse 39, “There’s nobody like you. Let’s put you over the house.” Note what he does in verse 41, “And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand, and put it on Joseph’s hand”. A signet ring was a symbol of power. It was with this ring that he would stamp into the wax of invoices. It was with this ring that he had the power to buy and sell. It was with this ring that he stood as Pharaoh’s man. He was accountable to no one. “And he clothed him in garments of fine linen, and put the gold necklace around his neck.” This was a symbol of his position. This was royalty. He was THE second in command over all of Egypt! And I can’t help but wonder what Joseph thought because just a few hours ago, he was scraping food from a tin plate, his feet shackled. And now, his feet are perhaps looked after by the best physicians. His prison garb is taken off and he’s dressed in fine clothing. His callused hands, from prison yard work, now adorned with the signet ring of the Pharaoh. This is his day. He will now ride in a chariot, a gift of the Pharaoh. And before him will be the slaves who run before it saying, “Iskay, Iskay (?) - Bow down, here comes Joseph.” There’s Joseph riding along.
There isn’t anyone in this room that wouldn’t enjoy being prime minister of Egypt. Every one of us would love, in our flesh, to be unaccountable to anybody. Never asking for time off, vacation pay, a raise. Never being told to do another job for the rest of your life. You answer to no one. Everybody answers to you. You are on top. But yet, ladies and gentlemen, I really believe that if you were able to ask Joseph, “Joseph, what was the greatest test that you faced? I bet I know, it was when you’re eleven brothers threw you in the pit and you had to fight the feelings of revenge and bitterness. That was it, wasn’t it?” He probably said, “No.” “Oh, I know, it was Potiphar’s wife and how she was after you, day after day, and you had to ward off her advances. That was the greatest test, wasn’t it?” I doubt it. I believe, the greatest test he faced was prosperity. The position that he now had. The authority that was now in his office.
Why is it that prosperity is a tremendous test? A test that you and I face living in our culture today. In a “give me” type of culture that is always after more. And we have more. We have so much. I think we are not aware that the test is laid at our feet. Why is it so dangerous that we prosper? Why is it that one man would write, “While a hundred men can stand adversity, only one can stand prosperity.” What is it about our natures that can’t handle the pampering and yet we want it. What is it about our flesh, our relationship with Christ, that can’t handle when we’re really on top, unaccountable. Why does God not want that?
Let me give you two reasons why prosperity is such a great test. I want you to jot these down. First of all, prosperity tends to eliminate faith. Prosperity tends to eliminate faith. Turn ahead to the book of Deuteronomy. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Chapter 8. This was the warning to the children of Israel. It’s something that you and I must remind ourselves of constantly. He says in verse 11 of chapter 8, “Beware” - write that in, underline that - “Beware lest you forget the Lord our God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances”. The children of Israel, now, are on the edge of the land. If they had not disobeyed they would have entered. And he gives this warning, “Lest,” - verse 12 - “when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord your God”. Verse 15, “He led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water; He brought water for you out of the rock of flint. In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end. Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’ But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth”. Powerful words. It seems that when you and I are in need, we remember God. We go to Him more in prayer, “Lord, how are we going to make this payment? Give us wisdom.” There is something precious about adversity. Why? Because it engenders faith in God. It allows us not to forget Him. You know one of the most exciting things, men and women, about being a part of this church right now? It’s because we don’t have much in terms of material wealth. It would be hard to forget God because the next step, “God give us wisdom.” We’re looking for the miracles. We’re watching his hand. It’s primitive. We’re at the beginning. But beware, beware the prosperity. Beware of the advancement. And I would imply that beware when we no longer put out folding chairs or meet in a dirty room back there for Sunday school. Beware when we have so much. And as a church, I challenge us, as we look forward to that, to take stock now. But in our individual lives, when you and I prosper, we tend to forget God.
The second reason is that the elimination of faith weakens character. Prosperity tends to eliminate faith. When faith is eliminated, our character is weakened. You see, it is the hard time that develops the iron in the blood. The toughness of moral character. I want you to look at another passage. Go all the way to the other end of the book, to Revelation, chapter 3. Revelation, chapter 3. And take note of a church where this happened. Let it be a warning to us, not only individually, but corporately. Revelation, chapter 3, verse 14, “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot;’” - you’re tepid - “I would that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” Why? Why? Verse 17, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’”. What is the result of an attitude that says, “I don’t need anything. I have everything. God has prospered.” We have forgotten God. What happens then? Our characters become tepid. We lose our effectiveness. We are lukewarm. The elimination of faith, ultimately, produces a weakened character that, ultimately, denies the potential of an effective ministry.
How do we know, men and women, back in Genesis, chapter 41, that Joseph did not forget God during the prosperous years? How do we know? I’m going to give you a very clear reason why. I want you to notice the names that Joseph gives to his sons. To make Joseph more palatable to the Egyptian culture, Pharaoh wisely gives him an Egyptian name and gives him an Egyptian wife. Both, he accepts. Joseph has two sons, however, that he is determined to raise according to his “old country” value. And he names the firstborn, verse 51, “Manasseh, ‘For,’ he said, ‘God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.’” And he has a second son and he named the second, “Ephraim, ‘For,’” - the meaning of that is - “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” How do we know that Joseph didn’t forget God? When he had two boys, he named them in honor of his God, Elohim. GOD had done this. In fact, it runs through the entire chapter of Joseph’s life. There as he prospers, GOD, GOD, GOD! It’s on the tip of his tongue. “Joseph, you’re really something!” “God did it.” “What a plan you came up with!” “God did it.” I think if we had someone contemporary now going back, perhaps us, living in that kind of situation, becoming prime minister, we’d probably write a book, From Prisoner To Prime Minister, And How I Did It In Two Short Years. Joseph took absolutely no credit.
Let me ask another question, by way of application. What was the key to Joseph passing this test? It was this: Joseph was careful to respect the glory of God, the place of God, the authority of God. Between the two extremes of adversity and prosperity, there is one little word - integrity. It is that character that acknowledges God. It takes no credit for itself. It yields it all to God. It never looks in the mirror and admires itself. It gives all of the honor to God. Joseph had integrity.
What happened to his interpretation? It came true. Look at verse 53, “When the seven years of plenty which had been in the land of Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said, then there was famine in all the lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.” By the way, a footnote, as you know, I’ve mentioned in the past, Joseph is a type of Jesus Christ. And there are perhaps more than a hundred illustrations of this. Joseph’s Egyptian name, many believe, means, “Savior of the world”. And it’s interesting, as famine comes to the land, note what happens, verse 55, “All . . . the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread;” - they’re hungry - “ and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph’”. I love it! There is a famine today in the land. And what is our answer? Go to Jesus Christ. HE can feed you. HE can provide nourishment. Perhaps you are here this morning and there is a famine in your soul. You’ve never come to the Savior of the world. Go to Him.
I imagine, at this point in Joseph’s life, he could have sat back, stuck his thumbs in his lapels, and he said, “See, I told you so. It happened, just like I said.” But no, he’s beyond that now. Because God had hurt him deeply. God had broken him. God had formed him. So that now, as prime minister, he has the same character as when he was a prisoner. He isn’t putting on airs. He isn’t sticking up his nose at the peons out there. He’s still compassionate. He’s still caring. Something wonderful has happened in Joseph’s life. God has created gold. Gold is a quality of character so pure. Gold is a quality of character that, back then and today, is in great demand. And it is so rare. Do you have it? Do you acknowledge the glory of God? Do you give him the honor and the praise for everything that transpires? Even when you prosper? The world will be quick to notice, just as they noticed then. And, ultimately, they’ll come for an answer. And then you can point them to the Savior of the world and say, “Go to Jesus.”