by T. Austin-Sparks
We are passing now to the fifth of the movements on the eternal line of the Cross as the way of life as we come to speak of Joseph – Joseph whose story covers thirteen long chapters of the Bible, that is, of the book of Genesis. You take it up at chapter 37, and you go right on to the end of the book of Genesis occupied with the story of Joseph. I mention that because that alone indicates how important this thing is. We are not dealing with a little incident now, a minor character or feature. There is something here which is very important with God.
Now, as in every other case, we cannot appreciate the life of Joseph until we are able to put our finger upon his particular function, for the key to the life of Joseph is not what Joseph did. It is not the incidents of his life, that is, that he was the favourite of his father, provoked jealousy in his brothers, was put in a pit, sold into Egypt, involved in a woman's intrigue and put into prison, interpreted various dreams, was lifted up and made second in the land and stored up corn against a time of famine and saved the land. They are the incidents, but that is not the function. That is the story, but the real meaning is within the story.
The function is that essential purpose that Joseph served and that is what we have to discover. Not one of you believes that the saving of Egypt and the world from famine was an adequate explanation of the story of Joseph. Not at all. All these thirteen chapters are not written just to tell us that Joseph saved the world in his day from famine. Of course there is that interpretation which is perfectly right and true that makes Joseph a type of Christ, one of the most perfect types of Christ perhaps in the Old Testament. But when you have said all that you can say about that, you have not exhausted the significance of Joseph and you are left with this particular function of which we are speaking today.
Let us look, then, at this thing more closely. Jacob, otherwise known as Israel - the man, the builder of the nation, the foundation stone in type of the house of God - was old, very old; about one hundred and thirty years old. A broken and sorrowful man, not only in the sense of which we have spoken, broken at Peniel by the hand of God, but now broken in other ways; a sorrowful and disappointed man. When Pharaoh asked him how old he was, he says, "The days of the years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty years" (Gen. 47:9) and so on... in effect, sinful, disappointing, or in one word: a failure. That is Jacob's summing up of his life right at the end. One hundred and thirty years of disappointment, of sorrow, of failure. That is the first fragment.
The second is Joseph's brethren who represented the house of Israel at that time in a very low and poor spiritual state. Read the story and you find every unhappy feature and characteristic in those men, in that which is supposed to be the house of God: divisions, strife among themselves, jealousies, envyings, malice, suspicion, intrigue, deceit, prejudice, avarice, hatred, disloyalty to their father, unfaithfulness to God, and, to crown it all, murder. You have only got to leap over the centuries, to the days of the Lord Jesus, and you find them all in the sons of Jacob, all those things are there around the Lord Jesus, heading up to His murder. And yet these are supposed to be, you see, the house of God, the house of Israel. These are the sons of Jacob, the sons of Israel.
Further, they were in the land of promise, but wholly and utterly unsuited to the place that they were in. If ever there was an exhibition of inconsistency with a profession, they gave that exhibition. When you think of all that the land of promise stood for in the thought of God and typified as to God's mind for His people, and then find people like this in occupation you say, 'This is a glaring contradiction! There is no correspondence between their position and their condition.' Projecting that right on to its spiritual interpretation, it is possible to be in Christ, and be a contradiction to Christ, altogether inconsistent with the position claimed and professed.
Next, the famine. In the sovereignty of God, a world condition of famine and threatened disaster reaches and involves the house of Israel. It touches them, perhaps, in a more acute way than it touched anyone else. You see the sovereignty of God. That is why I said nobody thinks that the life of Joseph is to be explained by just saving Egypt from famine. God is working deeply in relation to His own purpose, very deeply in relation to His house. And so, in His sovereignty, we repeat, this state of threatened disaster overtakes the house of Israel and touches that house very acutely. Really it is there where the eye of God is resting. He is working out here, doing things on a big scale, but really He has His eye upon them. He always has had. He remembers Abraham His friend, and this is where God's eye rests; this is the object of His thought at this time.
Dear friends, that principle is capable of very wide application. God very often brings great disasters and calamities upon the world in order to secure a people out from the world. So God is moving with profound thought and wisdom.
Joseph a Pioneer
Back to Joseph's function, for we are now ready to put our finger upon that. When Joseph himself, later in the sequence of events, explained the course of his life to his own brethren with whom he was reunited in Egypt, he put the whole thing, as we say, in a nutshell when he said, "God did send me before you to preserve life" (Gen. 45:5). Break that into two, and you have the whole function of Joseph: "Before you", ahead of you, "to preserve life". Well, what did that amount to? Joseph was given by God special, heavenly, spiritual understanding and wisdom, and it was only in that spirit of wisdom and understanding that he was ahead of his brethren. He had gone before. It was not just geographical. That is quite true if you talk about the story and its incidents literally, but you have got spiritual principles here.
He was ahead of his brethren firstly in this, that God gave him wisdom and understanding. The interpretation of various dreams was declared to be the Spirit of God. The heathen would put it "the spirit of the gods". Here is a man who has wisdom that all the magicians of Egypt do not possess. This is divine. He is ahead, not only of the world, but also of his own brethren. And being ahead in wisdom and understanding, he had bread which they not only were without, but which they also needed for their very survival. Do you now see his function, the real heart of Joseph's life?
So, because he had the spirit of wisdom and understanding, God-given discernment and knowledge, and because he had thereby the bread of life, he became the link between his brothers' tragic condition and God's full purpose for them. I think that is tremendously impressive. What a lesson! Here is the house of God in a deplorable spiritual condition, altogether a denial of God's thought for that house in Christ; completely inconsistent, no correspondence between profession, position and condition. That on the one side.
On the other side, there is God's full thought and intention for His people, for His church: a church alive, a church well-fed with plenty of spiritual food, flourishing. There is a big gap between the two. Is that not true? It is true today as it was in Joseph's time; I think more true. God needs a bridge over that gap. God needs something to come in between to be His link between the sad, tragic, pathetic condition of so many of His own people, and what His thought is for them. And Joseph is the man in the gap, and he represents therefore an instrument, a vessel, that God will sovereignly raise up to bridge that gap and to stand in between, having the spirit of wisdom and revelation and having the heavenly food that is needed to save the situation amongst the Lord's people.
God's Need of a Joseph Vessel Today
I think that this chapter brings us to the putting of our finger upon one of the most vital matters with which we can be occupied: God needs today a Joseph vessel. We are always reluctant to uncover the state of God's people, to be critical, censorious, to exercise any spirit of judgment; we say it with sadness and grief, but we cannot close our eyes to the fact that the Lord's people are not where the Lord would have them, speaking very generally. The condition of things amongst the Lord's people is not what the Lord meant to be. And we could be stronger than that, could we not? There is so much inconsistency, so much denial. Divisions, and not only divisions, being content to live quietly in their own divisions, but also strife between them, and jealousies. Shall we go farther?
Is not prejudice one of the most noticeable things amongst the people of God today? Prejudice just means that the whole thing has been judged without any consideration and the door closed without allowing the possibility that you may, after all, be wrong and the other people right. And there is a lot of that about, bringing the Lord's people into very serious limitation and certainly closing the door to what the Lord wants for many of His people. Oh, beware of prejudice! It was that that murdered Joseph and murdered Christ. I will not pursue the list, but it is true today, not in the world, but in the compass of Christian people. The Lord must do something about it.
And what does the Lord do? Because Joseph is not the only instance of the wording of this very principle found in the Bible. God works upon this principle from time to time, that is, in His sovereignty and providential ordering He raises up an instrument to be a bridge between the poor condition of His people and the thing that really He desires for them. He does it, and if we will only accept it and put away our prejudice and our suspicions, that is a thing that God does.
God wants to counter this contradiction between the position and the condition of His church, His people. And today He must have some to stand in the gap who know, who really know by way of the Cross, the open heaven. You know that the letter to the Ephesians stands right in this very position. What Paul is talking about in that letter is just this, that here is God's great eternal thought for His church. Oh, how marvellous is God's thought for His church... seated together with Christ in the heavenlies, blessed with every spiritual blessing! That is God's thought. But the letter shows that the church is not corresponding to that thought. There are lots of things that contradict that in that letter to the Ephesians, and so it is. But Paul comes in to bridge the gap, he stands between and he talks about the Spirit "of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him; having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe". Is that the condition of the church? Is that the state of the Lord's people? Well, it would not be there if it was not the Lord's will for them, and it would not be there if it were not possible for them to come to it.
But how will God get it? Through a people who are already there to be the embodiment of it, and to show it forth. And so Joseph became the very embodiment of the thing that God was after for his brethren.
The Cost of Such a Ministry
And that leads us to the peculiar cost and deep way by which such a function is fulfilled; for in type there were few in the Old Testament dispensation who knew more deeply the meaning of the Cross than did Joseph. Yes, the Cross was planted very deeply in his life. He suffered in a measure all that the Lord Jesus suffered later: the suspicion of his own brethren after the flesh, the prejudice, the ostracism, the hatred, the malice, the jealousy and the murder. Joseph went through it all, cast off among the dead, lowered into the pit as one slain, put into the dungeon and left by men, forsaken, cast out. And it says, "His soul entered into the iron" (Psa. 105:18). Poor Joseph! And he did not know what it was all for. He did not know what was coming. He did not know of the glories that should follow. He went through it in utter loneliness and if the Cross means one thing more than another, that is where we feel it most, the utter desolation of soul where no one can go with us in understanding.
Yes, there was peculiar cost in suffering, in experience, bound up with this function. We can say that others do not go that way; even others of the Lord's people do not go that way. It is for this particular kind of instrument. It goes by a particular kind of way and it has so much that a multitude of Christians know nothing about. Their Christian life is more like a playground than a winepress.
Yes, Joseph knew the Cross deeply and terribly. Disliked, suspected, cast out, hated, killed, made to suffer immediately by them of his own family, and made to suffer resultantly at the hands of the world. You get the interpretation. I need not say more.
What was the issue? 'God sent me before you to be used in this way.' We have to pioneer the way for others. Such an instrument of such necessity to God and value to God, has to go ahead in a lonely way. It may be an individual or it may be a company; it may be a little nucleus. It is all the same. It is going ahead, and all going ahead is a very lonely thing. You are tasting something that so many others have never tasted. Yes, "sent me before you, in advance of you, to preserve life". You see the Lord's thought for His people is life and life abundantly, fulness of life. Who will say that the church is in the good of that? What is the way? Well, it is the way of the Cross.
I do not want to finish on that note, although that, of course, is the heart of the matter, that it is the way of the Cross and you cannot avoid it. The measure of your value to the Lord in relation to His full and ultimate purpose depends upon the measure in which the Cross has been applied to your life. That is an unavoidable fact and you cannot escape it. But when the day of need was really manifested, Joseph was the man for the hour. All that had been God's secret, unexplained preparation for a coming hour. Oh, how true that is, how true that has ever been, how true it is today!
There is a dear man of God in China today lying in prison. He went ahead of Christians in China; he sought to pioneer the way for God's fuller thought for His people. He went a way in which he met all the prejudice, all the suspicion, all the hard blows, all the exclusions and ostracism at the hands of Christian brethren and Christian missionaries. The day of overflowing came, Communism walked in and spread itself like a terrible scourge over the land, and all the missionaries had to go and hand over to that man! He is the key to the situation. They asked him to carry on. Here is an up-to-date illustration of this truth.
You go ahead with God, you go right on with God, you accept what it costs to go right on with God and a time will come when you, by the grace of God, having been thoroughly crucified and dealt with in your own nature and ambitions and brought very, very low before the Lord, you may be the key to a big situation, to a need which God foresees is coming.
That is the message, that is the function of a Joseph, and it is no small one, is it? Tremendous! Well, God give us grace to see His need and the need of His people; to accept all that the Cross means in order to be in a position available to God for not only the salvation of the unsaved, but also the salvation of His own people into His full purpose.