The Sons of Levi

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 8 - Joseph - A Delivering Instrument in the Making

Reading: Psalm 105:16-22; John 5:20-27; 13:3.

In the passage in Psalm 105, and especially in that little clause in verse 17, "He sent a man before them", we have in principle something which is very much in line with what we have been considering in the earlier messages. And although we may not now speak of it in the same connection, that is, in connection with the sons of Levi, it does not matter very much about the connection, it is the Divine message that we want to get.

We make no attempt here to set forth in detail the correspondence between Joseph and Christ. That is one of the kindergarten lessons of Christians and is all very clear; and whatever we may say about Joseph and the spiritual principles embodied in his life, their highest fulfilment and their most direct relationship is of course found in the Lord Jesus Himself.

Their application to the Lord's people is in a secondary, although a very real way, but the Word of God primarily has the Lord Jesus always in view, and we do not want to lose sight of that fact in this meditation.

The Initiator - God in Sovereignty and Foreknowledge

But our special purpose is to observe an abiding principle and method of God as here bound up with the life of Joseph and with the life of the Lord Jesus, and it is found right in the heart of this simple statement: "He sent a man before them." Every part of that sentence carries a significance. He, God, acting sovereignly - something coming out from God; it is God who does this. You notice what precedes: "He called for a famine upon the land; He brake the whole staff of bread". That really, in point of time, lay a good way beyond the next statement. The calling for the famine, the breaking of the whole staff of bread, was subsequent to His sending a man before them, but it indicates that a time comes when God sees a need among His own people which can only be met by His acting in a way which brings them into severe adversity.

Here was to be a sovereign act of God which would involve the elect seed, the people of God, in conditions of severe straightness and privation. A situation which would threaten to bring about their end, and would really result in that, did He not act also in another way to meet the situation which He Himself had created. In His foreknowledge therefore, He sovereignly chose an instrument for the meeting of that situation, "He sent a man before them." That, I say again, sets forth a Divine principle and a method which God has employed not once nor twice in the history of His people and of this world. Again and again in anticipation of a coming situation, God has sovereignly acted to secure for Himself an instrument. Sometimes the instrument has been individual. So it was with the patriarchs and later, the prophets. God foresaw a need and anticipated it in a sovereign way by laying His hand upon individuals. But it has also been collective in history; that is, God has laid His hand upon, and raised up, companies of people like the Levites - an Israel within an Israel - to meet His special need as He moved on towards His ultimate end. That is no unfamiliar fact with us, but I do want to re-emphasize it now, because I believe it is a very vital part of the Lord's word to us at this time.

In the earlier messages we have spoken of the Levites and sought to show that within the great company of those who bear the Lord's Name in a general way, but who are spiritually a mixed company, the Lord seeks to have sons of Levi who approximate to His mind in a fuller way and in relation to the greater need which exists among His people. This method and principle of God is again seen here in the case of Joseph. So that it is sometimes individual - He sends a man; sometimes it is collective in a company. I do want that to be something more than a thing said, and that we should really appreciate its import.

God does act sovereignly. And who shall say that He is not so acting in our day within the mass of Christian people to possess Himself of a company to stand vitally related to the greater need in a day which is coming? Let us at least entertain the possibility of that being so and even if it is only a possibility, it carries with it a challenge to us and an interpretation of God's dealings with many of His people and perhaps with many of us. The first thing, then, is God's sovereign choice of an instrument according to His foreknowledge. God sent; acting out from Himself in a sovereign way.

The Means - The Common Disciplines of Life

Then, "He sent a man before them." God is acting sovereignly in advance of a time of need which He Himself knows is coming. The instrument, whether it be individual or collective, very often does not know that God is doing that. Take Joseph, he went out at his father's command one day, to enquire after the welfare of his brethren. You know how - perhaps unwisely - he had told them his dreams, and how they had been quick to draw the implication so far as they were concerned, recognising what they thought he intended to imply as to their having to come under his authority. And being in the spiritual state in which they were, they reacted to him very unfavourably. All very natural, nothing very extraordinary about that; and being rough fellows and very jealous and self-centered, they were spiteful and conceived a plot to get rid of him. You know what they did; first put him into a pit, and then some of them, having a bad time with their conscience over what they had done, took him up again and sold him to some travelers going to Egypt. So he eventually arrived in Egypt, was sold as a slave, got into some difficulties and found himself in jail and then got out.

It is a very natural story, full of natural incidents - just how things could go and might go. In common speech you might say there was a good deal of misfortune about it. There is nothing apparently very extraordinary or supernatural about it. And yet all those happenings are gathered up by the Spirit of God in this way - "He sent a man before them." That is how God covers the ground. In other words, here God in sovereignty was governing all that seemed to be the mere happenings and incidents of a life that came into difficulties. Ah, more than that; God was sovereignly governing the very faults of Joseph and the wickedness of his brethren - his injudicious utterances and their spiteful, evil intents. Those things come right within the scope of the Divine sovereignty and are the things which made up God's sending a man before them.

God foresaw a day coming of famine and need, and having Joseph in mind as His chosen instrument, projected him into a situation. But why did He not do it in a different way? Why did He not get him to Egypt on some ordinary kind of business or have him wonderfully transferred there without any difficulty on the journey, and then precipitate things in Egypt so as to bring Joseph into touch with Pharaoh, and thus cause him to become the second man in the kingdom? Being God, He could have reached that end by a straight course, working all things so wonderfully and smoothly. That is our idea of how God ought to do things when He is going to accomplish a great work. He ought to come down as a mighty God and take up His instrument and carry it through without any trouble at all because He is so great and powerful. Is that not our idea of how God ought to do His work and are we not often stumbled because it is so often otherwise?

But read again. "He sent a man before them". If you did not know the story of Joseph, you would conclude that God simply sent a man before them, that he arrived there, and did his work and that was all. But you know the story. Every step of the way was fraught with difficulty, adversity, suffering and perplexity, and what looked like frustration and defeat. And yet the whole story is put like this: "He sent a man before them." God... even taking hold sovereignly of all these things and working in them good, by their very instrumentality securing His end. These evilly disposed men, as Joseph put it later on, only fulfilled God's purpose. "Ye meant evil, but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20). Thus the evil intent, the malice, the hatred, the frustration, the intended destruction on the part of those who were against him, were all taken hold of by the sovereignty of God in order to get Joseph through.

It is a strange way God has in getting us to His desired position. When we come to the end of the story, it will be romance indeed. There is nothing very romantic about it now; there was no romance for Joseph when he was in the pit or the dungeon. But it is a hidden romance of Divine sovereignty that is being written in the case of all those who are the called according to His purpose, for whom He foreknew He foreordained. But how strange is the way of reaching the foreordained end; God worked in all things good, according to His purpose.

The Goal - Suitability of Character, Not Official Status

Then there is another aspect of this. "He sent a man before them." It was not only a matter of advance in position, but advance in time, and the time of Joseph's going before them was a time of deep and terrible discipline. We have just said that any instrument thus sovereignly taken up by God, individual or collective, does not know for the time being what it all means. All that it knows is that it is having a difficult time, going through the fires. There is very little explanation for what is happening; it seems to be all, or almost all, discipline, suffering, trial, adversity. There is very little respite. But it is a thing in the purpose of God for a time ahead, a deep work of Divine preparation bringing to a spiritual strength and position which will work out in an ability to help others when they come to the time of need.

God is very practical. He does not act mechanically in these things and take a Joseph, an instrument, and lift him from one position and put him into an elevated position in an official capacity. No, God works him into that position by inward discipline so that his position is not official but spiritual. It is not just that he comes to occupy a place, but he has come to be a kind of person suited for such a place, and the advance movement is for the making of an instrument ahead of a need. Joseph perhaps never realised this at the time, and we ought to be very grateful if the Lord gives us enlightenment that that is what He is doing in our case, that in a spiritual sense He is sending us on in advance. It is because He knows of something that is coming for which that advanced spiritual condition will be His key to the situation, His answer to the need.

The Issue - (1) The Secret of Life in God

When the time comes which God has foreknown, then the instrument which has been passing through the fires - the sons of Levi who have been in the purifying fires - has two things without which all its brethren will perish, upon which the very survival of the Lord's children will rest. The first is the secret of life. Joseph said later to his brethren that God sent him before them to preserve life. Joseph possessed the secret of life, and although in the type, the earthly story, the secret of life was largely a matter of corn and harvests, the sowing and the reaping which Joseph indicated should be done, the spiritual truth is this: that Joseph had learned the secret of life by passing through successive experiences of death. It was a death experience in the pit, but he did not die. It was a death experience in the hands of strangers, and in Potiphar's house, and in the dungeon. It was another death experience when he was forgotten by the butler whom he had helped.

If you could have seen into Joseph's heart at those different points of his life, probably you would have understood how he felt as to the hopelessness of the situation. It seemed like death upon death. Every fresh promise of a way out was followed by another reverse, successive experiences of death. He might have died many times. They intended that he should die in the first place, and death seemed to be dogging his steps all the way along, but he never died. And that was not because he was so clever, or had such wonderful powers of endurance, or had in himself the secret of survival. The secret of Joseph's life was not 'the survival of the fittest'; it was God. And Joseph, through successive deaths, learned the mighty power of Life triumphing over death, the power of resurrection. And at last when he comes to full exaltation, he embodies the full testimony to the power of resurrection.

That is no unfamiliar ground. But this is what I want to say - through his experiences of repeated deaths, he learned in the innermost part of his own being the secret of life in God. God was his life. There was nothing else to be his life; everything else was death, but God was his life.

Oh, does that not interpret something for us? Does it not explain the dealings of God with some of His people? They seem to be taken into experiences of death. Again and again it seems that the end has come - how this surely is the last stage, this time I shall not come out; whatever it has been in the past, this time all is finished! And yet all is not finished, it is not the end and there is no other explanation but that it is God, it is the Lord, who has brought us through. And we come all too slowly to realise and lay hold of the fact that He is our life and the length of our days; not what the enemy says, not what any enemies say, not what others would impose on us, not what natural conditions would dictate; but He Himself is our life and the length of our days (Deut. 30:20). And we do not come to that position by being told about it, by any number of messages and conferences. We can only come there by going into the pit and into the dungeon and knowing what deliverance from death really is. So Joseph came to possess the secret of life by the very experiences of death through which the sovereignty of God led him.

The Issue - (2) The Wisdom of Life for Others

The other thing which Joseph possessed was the wisdom unto life. Pharaoh is at his wit's end, the wise and the mighty of this world are quite unable to meet the situation. Where is wisdom to be found? That is the question in Job: "The deep saith, it is not in me; and the sea saith, it is not with me" (Job 28:12,14). Where is wisdom found? "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (knowledge ASV and KJV)" (Prov.1:7). The wisdom unto life (that is the explanation: counsel, enlightenment which will save the whole situation) will be with those who have gone this way with the Lord in spiritual advance, learning to know Him in adversity and in suffering.

The Nature of the Instrument - Always 'A Man'

Now, I am trusting that all this is not wishful thinking and imagination of what may be, but I do suggest to you that there are not lacking even in our day indications of a coming possible situation like this, a situation of great spiritual need among the Lord's people. I am not sure that His people have been very much oppressed with the consciousness of their spiritual need for some time past. There has been a great deal of complacency and preoccupation and self-gratification, even in religious activities, and the Lord has not been able to get very far with His own people as to His fullest thought concerning them, but I repeat, there are not lacking indications that a change may be coming about before long. The situation may alter soon, things may come under the breaking of the hammer of God and He may be already beginning to break the whole staff of bread and to call for a famine over the land. In other words, a new situation is arising in which Christian people must know the Lord in a new way. I have no doubt that is true in many parts of the world today which are being touched or threatened by the spreading of the war. How long it will be before things intensify over yet a greater area so that all are involved in this new need, I do not know, but I say there are indications of a new situation arising in which a new spiritual knowledge will be necessary for life.

If the Lord cuts off the things which have been the life of His people, lesser things than His full provision for them, what may we expect to find? That He has already been secretly, sovereignly, at work in the earth taking some here and there through the fires and through the depths unto that knowledge of Himself which will be the wisdom of life for the others in that day which is coming. But it will not be through a new organisation, a new piece of machinery, a new society, that He will do this work. "He sent a man before them." That, as you know, is the great discriminating factor in the case of the Levites.

David made a new cart and put the ark upon it, and the Lord smote Uzza so that he died and the whole thing came under arrest. And then David, through heart discipline and inward suffering, was brought to see the explanation: God does not entrust His full testimony to carts, to machines, to organisations. His eternal principle and law is to commit it to living men who have been set apart, sanctified, purified in the fires; therefore 'purify the sons of Levi'. No, not a new movement, but a new man, individual or corporate - a living people who know the Lord.

The Hand that Alone Can Fashion the Instrument: God's

That is God's full thought and method. He, and no else, can do it like this. We have tried to make people better and spiritual, and our methods of doing it have been very commendable to ourselves, but when God has taken it in hand, He has done it in a way we never thought of, in His own right way.

I have very often, out of sheer sympathy, spent many hours going round the cases of brothers and sisters who were having a bad time, to see how I could make things easier for them, if I could not change their situation and get them into some place and position which would be more comfortable, where they would not suffer so much. And the Lord has again and again come in and said, "Hands off! You might get them into an easier place and frustrate My work in them; leave them to Me!" When the Lord does it, He does it in His own way, but He does it very effectively and He purifies the sons of Levi.

We must be very careful how we manipulate other lives. It does not mean that we must be unsympathetic, unhelpful, but we must be very much led of the Spirit in changing a situation, otherwise we may be hindering the Lord's purpose in another life. The Lord is after a living people knowing Himself, and such, be it individual or collective, is His key to a situation which He knows is coming about.

Let us then take heart. If we are in the fires, in the dungeon, if it does seem that the enemy is scoring every time, take heart from this. "All things work together for good (or God works good in all things) to them that are called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28). The sovereignty of God is at work and you may take it as a settled thing that what we have been saying is true in any case, whether its outworking be seen in this life or afterwards. God is preparing an instrument; and if it be not for use during its own lifetime here on the earth for a situation which will arise in the history of His people, it will be for a special ministry in the ages to come. That possibility seems so remote and uninteresting so far as this life is concerned, that we may not take to it very kindly, but there it is. It is true - a people brought into a particular and peculiar association with the Lord for a special service in His appointed time; and that is the meaning of the fires. "He sent a man before them." The Lord speak the meaning of that for our comfort and strength.

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