To what extent do unbelievers have conscience? Do people without Christ feel badly when they break the law? In this message, Stephen reveals to us why our "prosecutor within" is one of the greatest apologetics for Christianity. You can deny a book . . . you can't deny your conscience.
“THE PROSECUTOR WITHIN”
The government receives (?) sums of money by people who have self-imposed fines upon themselves for stealing from the government, perhaps on their income tax. Perhaps they, as one case, they stole government blankets. They knowingly didn’t put the correct postage on a letter. Or, for whatever reason, one lady, whose husband had died, realized he had cheated on his income tax the year before and she sent a check for $500. And the government, back in 1811, created, what they call, the Federal Conscience Fund. And it now totals more than three million dollars of people’s money who have made restitution. One man, I read this rather funny story, decided that he would make restitution because he had cheated. And he wrote the government this letter, he said, “I have stolen from the government by cheating on my income tax and I can’t sleep. I have enclosed a check for $75. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the rest of what I owe.” (laughter)
What is it that sometimes points a finger at us? What is it that sometimes robs us of sleep at night? George Washington called it, “the sparkle of celestial fire.” Lord Byron referred to this inner struggle as, “the oracle of God.” We’re referring to it this morning as, “the prosecutor within.” I would suggest that you take from your worship or welcome folder this study sheet to follow along because I want you to jot in things that may be helpful. Because the purpose of this sermon is much more than just getting through another chapter in the book of Genesis. I trust that, as a result, we will be more sensitive to our conscience as God speaks to us. And if there are things that need to be made right, this morning will be the hour when that is done.
If you are noticing in your notes, I want to give you three things before we dive into chapter 42. Three things about the gift that God has given us that is our conscience. A threefold function. There are probably more but let me give you three. First of all, the conscience, this gift from God, this inner oracle, distinguishes between right and wrong. Now, it’s not always accurate. In fact, if you train it, it’s like a circus dog. You can train it to roll over. You can train it to come when you whistle. You can train it to play dead. It’s not completely accurate because it is dependent on how we condition it. But God has given us the gift of conscience to distinguish between right and wrong. So that a little four-year-old boy, born in America or in Africa or in Australia, knows that when he lies to Mommy and Daddy, he has done something wrong. We don’t have to teach them how to lie. We have to discipline the liar out of them. Why is that? Because God has given them and us this distinguishing ability between what is right and what is wrong. That is why it is so important, ladies and gentlemen, that we condition our conscience by this book. We allow IT to tell us what is right and what is wrong. And so our consciences are not tuned to our culture whose values change. It is tuned to the scriptures which never change.
Secondly, let me give you another factor or facet, function of the conscience. It encourages doing what is right and it discourages doing what is wrong. That’s why you can be in class, young people, and it’s mid-term examination and you’re in Spanish class. If you’re like me you barely made it. And you are in there taking that mid-term examination and, for some reason, you happen to sit next to the guy whose the smartest guy in the class. He’s as good as bilingual. You know that every answer he gives is going to be right. And you’re facing, all of the sudden, this battle, “Look! Look over there.” And you say, “No.” “Yes!” “No.” “Yes!” And you’re carrying on this, what is happening? You are, in a sense, carrying on an argument with your conscience which is encouraging you not to and your flesh is discouraging you not to. That inner struggle that you feel when you are tempted to do something that is wrong is a God-given struggle called, “conscience.”
The third function is that the conscience produces guilt when wrong is done. And there again, men and women, it is so important that the Bible determine what is right and wrong. Because our consciences can become so seared that we can do wrong and experience very little guilt. I’m convinced we will, no matter how hardened an individual may be, he will always experience some sense of guilt. But we can play it down. The first time you want to do something wrong in a particular area, your conscience shouts, “No!!” The second time you come back, a few days later, and you say, “Now look, conscience, I understand why you shouted, “No,” but I didn’t tell you a reason or two of why I should.” And your conscience, after hearing the reasons says, “No!” So you come back the following week and you say, “Now, I realize why you said, “No,” because of these particular reasons but I’ve come up with a few more. And here are additional reasons and rational as to why I should do this or say this or go there or whatever.” And your conscience says, “No.” Until you come at a later point in time and you give it additional rational and you so justify it that now your conscience says, (whisper) “no.” But it is much easier to ignore a whisper than a shout. That is why it is so important that we allow our consciences to be transformed by the renewing of our minds through the Word.
Now, the third factor of conscience is going to be seen in Genesis, chapter 42. So would you take your Bibles, if you haven’t already, and turn to Genesis, chapter 42, where we will see the awakening conscience of Joseph’s ten brothers. You see for 25 years, his brothers had battled their consciences. His brothers have battled and fought to silence and to suppress the guilt that they knew they had because of what they had done to Joseph. For 25 years, they had ignored what their consciences were shouting. They had not said anything to their father, Jacob. They had, perhaps, never breathed it again to each other. They were living under tremendous, severe guilt. Now, prophecy tells us that these brothers will come to Egypt and they will establish a great nation. So that in the valley of Goshen, this little, bitty nomadic tribe will turn into a fantastically huge nation, the nation of Israel. Now, that cannot be done in Canaan, they need Goshen to support that kind of existence. And God has planned that they do that in Egypt. But for the ten brothers and father, Jacob, the eleven in all, including Benjamin, for them to come to Egypt, there must be a reconciliation with Joseph. For a reconciliation to take place, these brothers must admit guilt. And for them to admit guilt, their sleeping consciences must be awakened.
Some people have suggested that Joseph was incredibly hard on his brothers. But I think I’ll be able to show you how he is doing nothing more that wisely awakening their suppressed guilty consciences. And there are some factors that will do this. The first, or we could call them principles, is, according to your notes, the principle of association. Let me explain what I mean by reading with you the first five verses. Chapter 42, “Now Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt, and Jacob said to his sons, ‘Why are you staring at one another?’ And he said, ‘Behold, I have heard that there is grain in Egypt; go down there and buy some for us from that place, so that we may live and not die.’” This is very interesting because it proves that there has been guilt by association. They’re starving. There’s a famine in the land. And where is there bread? Everyone knows, in Egypt. There’s an old proverb that says, “Never speak of rope in a hangman’s house.” You never want to speak about Egypt to the ten brothers. In fact, Egypt was something they never wanted to be confronted with. I imagine, over the 25 year period, when anyone was coming through needing lodging from Egypt, these brothers probably just scuttled them right on past. They don’t want anything to slip. Perhaps by some coincidence, they knew Joseph. And so father Jacob says, “We’re starving! Go to Egypt!” And these brothers cast furtive looks at each other. Suspicious looks as Reuben looks at Simeon. Egypt! And I’m sure that terror gripped their soul. Go to Egypt! It’s the last place on earth I want to go. And all of the guilt begins to rise to the surface as they hear the dreaded name of the country where they sold their brother. Egypt. And Jacob says, “Quit staring at each other. What are you just looking at one another for? Go to Egypt.” And so, verse 3, “Then ten brothers of Joseph went down to buy grain from Egypt.” And I can’t help but allow my imagination to join that caravan as they head to Egypt. I imagine as they get closer, they will see slave gangs working in the field and they will wonder, “Is Joseph there?” They get closer to Egypt and they perhaps see some slaves working some menial task and they take a closer look, perhaps afraid to discover that it’s Joseph. They’re petrified, as you’ll see later in the chapter. “But Jacob” - verse 4, interestingly, - “did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers”. You notice that Benjamin, you remember, is the real blood brother of Joseph. The other brothers are half brothers. Benjamin is a true son and he, evidently, received all of the love of Jacob that had once been given to Joseph. So he was, obviously, pampered. He was, like Joseph, the partial son. But perhaps, by now, Jacob has begun to mistrust his sons. Perhaps, by now, he senses that there was mischief done. And he won’t send Benjamin with them. He says, in the last part of verse 4, “I am afraid that harm may befall him. So the sons of Israel came to buy grain among those who were coming, for the famine was in the land of Canaan also.”
You know, it’s interesting, ladies and gentlemen, how God will use guilt by association in your life and in mine. There may be some holiday that brings to your mind terrible feelings of guilt because you have unconfessed sin. I’m not talking about sin that you have confessed to Jesus Christ. That should no longer produce guilt. We are to forgive and we are to allow Christ to forgive us and then forget it. But those things that we have held back, those things that we have harbored in our souls in rebellion, maybe some event, some vacation spot, some person’s name, we hear it and our blood runs thick. We’re guilty. That’s why it’s interesting to notice how when we hear of certain things, we feel so guilty.
I read, recently, a biographical sketch of Al Capone, in a book, that’s very fascinating. Al Capone, of course, as you know, gunned down perhaps more than 500 men in his days as one of the mob leaders in this country. He was a vicious man who attached machine guns inside his trunk. And whenever he was being pursued by either gangsters or the police, he could mechanically operate that from inside his car as he drove. He’d push a button and the lid would fly open and he’d spray the car behind him with bullets. He and his gangsters often would “blow people away” as they were driving along the road. In his later years, this man became so obsessed, so paranoid and one of the fascinating things is, he was terrified of cars filled with men. Why? It was guilt by association.
You see, ladies and gentlemen, when you and I go to the Word and we read of Peter, who denies Jesus Christ, what is God doing? God is, perhaps, confronting us with guilt by association. That is, He’s bringing to our minds there yesterday in the hallway of that downtown business. Some gal asked you something about religion and you refused to say anything. You denied Him and you felt guilty. Perhaps, there by the locker in school, somebody made some caustic remark about the Lord and you clamed up. And so you read then of Peter and God is able to convict you by association.
The second principle that Joseph, I think, uses wisely, or he will begin to use, is in the next few verses. And we’ll call this the principle of similar circumstances. I agree with the great expositor, F. B. Meyer, as he talks of how Joseph, literally, lays down, step-by-step, everything that they had done to him. And he will, in a sense, parrot words that they once hurled at him. He will put them in the same situation that they put him in. Why? Because he wants to sense and to see whether or not they have dealt with this guilt. It’s fascinating. Let’s look at it together. “Now Joseph was the ruler” - verse 6 - “over the land; he was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down to him”. Interesting, chapter 37, verse 7, his dreams said they would bow down, this is the same Hebrew word. They - “bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, but he disguised himself to them”. Now, you’ve got to remember, that Joseph is now the prime minister. He’s wearing the Egyptian headband. He is clean shaven now, according to Egyptian custom, where the Hebrews had full beards. He looked anything other than a Hebrew. And so he continued this acting by speaking to them harshly. Similar circumstance. You’ll notice in the earlier chapter, if you’ve been studying with us, that they could not speak peace to him, the Hebrew word was “Shalom”. They couldn’t say, “Shalom,” to Joseph, they hated him so much. Every time he was around, they spoke harshly to him. And he, now, is the one speaking harshly to them. He said, “’Where have you come from?’ And they said, ‘From the land of Canaan, to buy food.’” Now, perhaps Joseph is in charge of all of the large purchases of food and this is why his brothers are before him. “But Joseph had recognized his brothers, although they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them, and said to them, ‘You are spies; you have come to look at the undefended’” - or the naked - “parts of our land.” He will give them what they gave him. False accusation. “You’re a dreamer. You’ve come to spy on us. Our father sent you along so you can spy.” As you remember, he brought back a poor report or a bad report of their character. And they accused him of being a spy. And, I imagine, there in the valley, he would say, “No. No, guys, I’m not a spy! I’m your brother. I love you.” “No, you’re a spy, sent by our father.” And now he, interestingly, accuses them of this. “No, my lord,” - verse 10 - “’but your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man; we are honest men, your servants are not spies.’ Yet he said to them, ‘No, but you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land!’ But they said, ‘Your servants are twelve brothers in all, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and behold, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more.’ And Joseph said to them, ‘It is as I said to you, you are spies’”. In other words, not only does he falsely accuse them but he refuses to listen to their pleas. Exactly what they had done to him. “By this you will be tested:” - verse 15 - “by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here! Send one of you that he may get your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. But if not, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” He is giving them several tests that we will overlook this morning and study tonight. This is one of them, it’s a test of honor. He is going to discover whether or not they really care about their brother, as they will soon put Simeon in prison.
This is the principle of similar circumstances and God often works in our hearts the same way. We are guilty of something and, for some reason, we suppress that guilt, we ignore it until we see someone else in a very similar situation. Or, we have been guilty, perhaps of gossip, and we have ignored it or overlooked it until someone gossips to us, or we are gossiped about. And it is that similar circumstance that brings to our mind, by the grace of God, “I’m guilty of that.” George W. Truit (?) used to tell the story, he was an old preacher of yesteryear, of a man accused of killing his employer. And then, to hide the facts, he burned his employer’s home to the ground. This man was on trial and the prosecutor and his defense attorney were doing their best. And the trial went on for several days, the judge presiding there in that courtroom scene. Until, finally, the last remarks were made and then it was the judges turn to address the jury. And the judge began to speak to the jury of this heinous crime that he had been found been guilty of. And then, to the shock of all in that packed courtroom, that judge buried his head in his hands and he began to weep. And he said, as he confessed to that whole, entire courtroom, he said, “I have been guilty, 30 years ago, of killing my employer. And to hide the evidence, I burned his home to the ground. I, for the last few weeks, have been judging my own crime.” Sometimes God can work in our lives to bring about an awakened conscience by similar circumstances.
There’s a third, it is called, the principle of isolation. Note verse 17, “So he put them all together in prison for three days.” Bang! Bang! Bang! Similar circumstances, he speaks to them just as they spoke to him. He gives them the same treatment and then he throws them in prison, just as he was thrown in there. But, I think he has something more in mind. By the wisdom that God had given him, he now puts them into a place where all they have to do for three days, is think. Just mull over in their minds as their guilty consciences have been coming awake by returning to Egypt, the land of their brother that they had tried desperately to forget. Now, they’re in a prison. And, I imagine, that they are casting furtive glances about the wall of the prison, wondering as prisoners have etched their names into the wall and scribbled messages, “I wonder if Joseph’s name is here. I wonder if this is where he was incarcerated.” They are tormented, I think, for three days they have time to think. You know something, ladies and gentlemen, one of the reasons why God cannot get to us, in terms of awakening our slumbering consciences of guilt, is we never allow him time. We never get alone. We get into a room and we’ve got to flip the tube on, or turn the radio on, or get some noise in here. Because we can’t stand to be by ourselves. Shakespeare wrote, “To be alone with my conscience is hell enough for me.” When is the last time you’ve been alone before God? Are you afraid to be? Knowing that as soon as it is quiet, the Spirit of God will begin rumbling in your soul and bringing to mind things that you have never dealt with.
I’m reading a book, that someone gave me, that’s impacting me called, Restoring Your Mind In A Secular World. The chapter begins, the first chapter, with a quote by Chuck Colson, who says that, “Although in America, religion is becoming popular, it is becoming faddish. Although today, religion is up, morality is down, why?” And they go on through this book to declare that the main purpose is believers who are very religious, who know the game, who know the language, are no longer spending time alone with God and God doesn’t speak. Christians are living with guilt of unconfessed sin.
Well, as he deals with them, I want to move you to the application and that is the response of a guilty conscience. And this is just tremendous. Let’s take time to pull this apart. You know, just the law of proportion would tell us that there’s a lot in these few chapters. This is probably the story with the most specifics given to us in all the Bible. There’s a reason for that. It isn’t just to be read and forgotten. It isn’t just to be interesting. It is to be applied. And I think that there are several, as we see these slumbering consciences come awake and bring with it, of course, pain. The first response of a guilty conscience, and there are three, is an admission of guilt. If you’re following along in your notes, let’s look at verse 21. Well, let’s start back with verse 18, “Now Joseph said to them on the third day, ‘Do this and live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison’”. In other words, here’s the test, “I’m not going to keep ten of you and send one of you back, I’m just going to keep one of you.” And I’ll tell you a little bit more about that tonight of why I think that’s so. “But we’ll keep one of you confined in our prison.” “The rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified”. All Joseph is doing is working toward a family reunion. “’And you will not die.’ And they did so. Then they said to one another”. Now, note the scene, you have Joseph standing right about here, you have the ten brothers lined up before him, and in the middle is an interpreter. You see Joseph has been speaking in Egyptian. That’s been part of the acting. He knows Hebrew fluently. But if he spoke Hebrew, they would, perhaps wonder. So he has been conversing to them through the interpreter in Egyptian. They are beginning to speak, now, in Hebrew, not knowing he understands. Notice what they say. “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul”. Boy, that prison has certainly done the job. And all these other factors. “When he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.” Circle the word “we” in your text, it is very emphatic in the original. This word, it’s as if they smite their breasts and they say, “WE, only we are guilty. We have done this terrible crime.” You know, it’s interesting, that when their backs are against the wall and they admit guilt, Judah doesn’t say, “God has done this because I committed incest,” as he had done, Simeon doesn’t say, “God has done this because I massacred those helpless men years ago,” Reuben doesn’t say, “God has done this to me because I have slept with my father’s wife.” No. The thing in their minds that brought tremendous guilt, they all agreed, “God is doing this because of what we did to our brother, Joseph. Joseph. Because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us.” Can you imagine, as Joseph is being chained in that chain gang along with the other slaves headed for Egypt, his hands are cuffed, and he turns back to his brothers and he says, “Reuben, Simeon, don’t do this. Don’t let them take me.” And he cries until his cry is no longer heard. It says, “We” - heard his - “distress . . . when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.” You know, that’s so true that whenever you do something to someone else, you bear the distress. There is something about the way God has made us that we actually become the victim when we mistreat, when we sin against others. There is a transfer of guilt.
“And Reuben”. This is the second response of a guilty conscience and this is an escape by self-defense. “Reuben answered them, saying”. In other words, he kind of pulls away from the crowd. And he says, “Hey, wait a second, brothers.” “Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the boy’”. What a lousy thing to say. He’s as guilty as they are, and he says, “Didn’t I tell you so? That this would happen. Because I told you not to do anything against this boy and you did it.” “Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” Reuben was as guilty as sin. He was right in there with the rest of them for 25 years. Had never gone to his father. Had never taken a trip to Egypt to try to rescue Joseph. And now, self-righteous? “Huh, me? Guilty? No way!” You know what, when God brings to our mind things by way of an awakened conscience, we can admit guilt and say, “Lord, it is because I have sinned.” Or, “Wait a second, you don’t know who you’re talking to. I’m religious. I’m a Christian.”
The third response of a guilty conscience, and this is beautiful, an understanding of God’s involvement. Note, verse 23, “They did not know, however, that Joseph understood . . . And he turned away from them and wept.” Oh, Joseph! I can’t imagine being him, hearing these nine brothers weep that this was being done because of what they had done to him. And it brought back on him all of the emotion of that day 25 years ago when he saw his brothers desert and abandon him. And he has to turn away and just weep. Perhaps he rushes from the room. Finally, “returned to them and spoke to them” - verse 24 - “he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.” There’s another similar circumstance. “Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain and to restore every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey.” We’ll get into this tonight. Verse 28, “Then he said to his brothers,” - as they opened their sacks and they saw the money - “’My money has been returned, and behold, it is even in my sack.’ And their hearts sank, and they turned trembling to one another, saying,” - underline this - “What is this that God has done to us?” One of the responses that God, I think, wants to bring us to, as He brings to our minds that guilty conscience that we have been suppressing, is that God is involved in our lives. That He is even bringing about these events to bring us to Himself for cleansing and forgiveness. And they finally say, “God is doing something. There are too many coincidences here. Something is happening. It must be God.” One of the responses of a guilty conscience is an understanding that we are accountable to God. And, ultimately, they understood that it was God who was behind the scenes.
Perhaps, something has come to your mind that has been brought by the Spirit of God. And you say, “I am guilty of certain things that I’ve been struggling with and rebelling against and I’m hanging on to. What should I do? I don’t want to go through another chapter and a half until this thing is figured out.” Well the Bible is very clear. And that is, specifically confessing , immediately forsaking, whole-heartedly claiming the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, some of you may need to make restitution. Some of you may need to request forgiveness from another.
As a boy, I’ve mentioned to most of you, that my parents have been missionaries for 30 years with the servicemen. And we really grew up in downtown Norfolk. Running the streets, we would go down there after school and all summer long. And back then you could, it was fairly safe. And there was a wharf down there and we would play on the rocks and go in and out of every store. And I told you before of the Macarthur memorial where we used to ransack the hallways, just about every week, and the library. And the servicemen back then, and I think they’ve gotten back to that now, would wear the whites and the darks and that funny little hat that they wore, the sailors. And the servicemen center eventually moved out of it’s one room little shop into a three-story building that was a block long. A very large servicemen center which they now no longer use. And we would play for hours on end, all of the missionary kids because that’s where our parents spent most of their time, and we had a ball. Three stories, all to ourselves. We’d climb out on the roof and do all sorts of things. On the third floor there was a washing machine and a dryer for the servicemen. I will tell you why I am remembering this because I had since forgotten. One of the missionary kids, named Bobby Walker, he and I were the closest buddies until we graduated from high school. And then we went, sort of, our separate ways. He went to a local university and I went off to college. Bobby was a rascal, he was responsible for anything wrong that I did. And we used to hang around. And my father recently got a letter from Bobby Walker, now referred to as Bob. Bobby wrote in his letter, he said, “You know, God has been working in my heart.” Here is a 32-year-old man. He now directs the largest Christian ranch in Virginia and I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago. And he said, “When I was a kid and we were running around Missions to Military, I’d go up to that third floor and I’d take a piece of bubble gum and I’d stick it on to the end of a popsicle stick and I’d slip it down that money box and I’d pull money out.” I can’t remember doing that with Bobby. Maybe that’s a suppressed conscience, I don’t know. But God had brought that to his mind. He said, “I can remember doing that on several occasions.” He says, “I have no idea how much I took but here’s twenty dollars. I think it will cover it.” Bobby is, of course, working with teenagers, and young people, and couples and he evidently is seeing, week after week, the importance, the necessity of clean, of clear conscience.
One of the greatest gifts God has given us is a conscience. We can turn it off. We can shout it down. We can ignore it. Or we can, by the Word, allow God to speak through it so that it is, in fact, the oracle of God. Don’t go another day with a guilty conscience. Experience the joy and the cleansing of a conscience that is clear and clean before God.