Sovereignty and Responsibility

A sermon on Genesis 41 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 10/24/04

What does God’s sovereignty mean to you?

“Sovereignty” means that God controls everything that happens.

God not only knows all things – such as the number of hairs on your head (Matthew 10:30), which I doubt you know. He also is intimately involved in the world. He has desires, and He fulfills them. He has plans, and He ensures that He brings them about.

As we read earlier today,

Psalm 135:6 Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.

God is the only being in the universe for whom this is true. All the rest of us can have our plans frustrated. But He does whatever He pleases. He is never frustrated. He never makes a plan, finds it is too difficult to accomplish, and so changes the plan.

We’ve seen this in biblical history as well as recent history.

In biblical history: Nebuchadnezzer, Herod, Pharaoh – powerful men whom God lifted up, used - and then humbled.

Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, the northern kingdom of Israel, the southern kingdom of Judah - God raised up all these countries, used them for His good purposes - then destroyed them.

In recent centuries we can see the same:

God raised up the British empire, so that one hundred years ago Britain was the most powerful country in the world. And yet in just a few short decades Britain has gone from the world’s greatest power to a small coalition partner for the US.

God raised up the Soviet Union so that it rivaled the US in military power, and then brought about its miraculous collapse a few years ago.

Furthermore, if Jesus does not come again soon, there is no reason to think the same won’t happen to our own country. The United States will not always be the world’s most powerful country. We may not be a country at all.

We can see the same with individual leaders: Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Gorbachev; Roosevelt, Churchill, Nixon, Clinton – whether tyrants or believers in democracy, God raises them up, and God brings them down according to His purposes.

Question: If God is sovereign over all this – why vote? Why be engaged in the political process? It won’t make any difference, will it?

And the problem doesn’t end with voting. Note that God’s sovereignty extends far beyond mere political leadership. If God is sovereign, He does whatever He pleases in all the details of your life, from big decisions, such as the choice of a spouse or the choice of a college, down to what you had for breakfast this morning.

So why do anything? If God is sovereign over all of our affairs - why even get out of bed in the morning?

This is the question of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. This question is a favorite of those with a philosophical bent, and we can give some philosophical answers. But we’re not going to do that this morning. Today instead we will answer the question in a typically biblical way: by juxtaposing  xlear examples of God’s sovereignty with clear examples of decisive human action. The Bible presents these side by side, showing both are true, both are important – indeed, the two are closely integrated with each other.

So let’s see what God reveals to us about His sovereignty and our responsibility in Genesis 41. We’ll close by asking: What are the equivalents to Pharaoh’s dreams for us today?

God’s Actions

This text is a powerful testament to God’s sovereignty. All has been building to this point over many chapters. God has arranged matters so that Joseph will be exalted to the number two position in Egypt. Consider all that had to happen in the previous chapters to bring this about:

And all that before we get to chapter 37 where Joseph is a central character! Once we begin to consider Joseph, we have all the details that led Joseph to an Egyptian prison:

God had to orchestrate all those details – and thousands more – to bring Joseph to the place where we find him at the beginning of chapter 41.

A sovereign God, a God who does whatever He pleases, must control billions and trillions of details to bring about His plans.

What about this chapter? We can think of many details that God had to arrange even here. But let me simply note six major interventions by God:

1) Pharaoh’s Dreams: Clearly God sends these dreams to Pharaoh. God has a message for Pharaoh – a part of His plan to get the people of Israel away from the Canaanites. So God sends these dreams to Pharaoh, and drives him to find an interpretation.

2) The silence of Pharaoh’s magicians and wise men. Verse 8 tells us that Pharaoh called for “all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men.” Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret.

Think, now: Why don’t the magicians and wise men come up with something? They were professionals in this line of work! Why can’t they produce some plausible interpretation?

Has a friend ever tried to interpret your dreams? Have you ever told a dream to someone, and then he or she tells you who you will marry or what kind of job you will have based on what you dreamed? And that friend just made up his or her interpretation on the spot! These magicians are used to this. They have experience. One would think they would just make up something clever instead of being embarrassed by staying silent.

I think their problem is that these dreams seem to portend disaster. If the plump cows were to eat up the scrawny ones, the magicians could have identified Egypt with the plump cows; they could have told Pharaoh that he would conquer many kingdoms. But as it is, they would have to say either that Egypt will be destroyed or that Egypt today is a scrawny cow – which is manifestly untrue.

In any event, these men must not offer a plausible interpretation of the dream, or Pharaoh will never call Joseph from the prison. God ensures that they remain silent – despite their experience.

3) Joseph’s understanding of the dreams. In verse 15, Pharaoh states what he has heard – that Joseph can interpret dreams. Joseph knows he has no such ability- that the interpretation comes from God. And God gives him the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream.

4) Convincing Pharaoh that Joseph’s interpretation is true. Pharaoh could very well have heard Joseph’ interpretation and said, “Nonsense! Go back to prison!” But instead, in verse 39, Pharaoh admits, “God has shown you all this.”

He did not have to respond this way. Remember that another Pharaoh, during the time of Moses, responds quite differently. Moses tells Pharaoh that the Lord God has said, “Let my people go, that they may worship me in the desert.” Pharaoh refuses. God sends plague after plague, showing His power, and all Pharaoh has to do to end the plagues is to let the people of Israel go. But he won’t do it – he won’t believe Moses and Aaron - despite all the evidence.

Here, with much less evidence, this Pharaoh believes Joseph is right. That is a work of God.

5) Convincing Pharaoh to elevate Joseph to the number two spot in the kingdom. This may be the greatest miracle of all in a chapter filled with miracles. Imagine Joseph’s résumé at this time:

“At 17 I served as a messenger boy in my father’s business. From 17 to 22 I served as a slave in the household of Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, rising to manager of the house. At 22, I was falsely accused of assaulting my master’s wife and ended up in prison. For the last 8 years I’ve helped the keeper of the prison manage his operations. On occasion, God enables me to interpret dreams.”

If Pharaoh were convinced that the legal charge against him was false, perhaps such a résumé would lead him to appoint Joseph as one of his junior wise men. But why in the world would he name him number two in the kingdom? He doesn’t really know anything about Joseph!

This clearly is an intervention by God to exalt Joseph to a position he must hold.

6) Sending seven years of good harvests, and then seven years of famine. Don’t miss this! All comes about in accordance with the dream. There really are seven good years and then seven bad years.  

Genesis 41:49 And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.

Genesis 41:54 And the seven years of famine began to come, as Joseph had said. There was famine in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.

Genesis 41:57 Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.

God is sovereign. He exhibits his sovereignty in bringing Joseph to the 2nd highest position in Egypt. He controls both big, meteorological events as well as dreams, thoughts, and opinions. He is sovereign.

Joseph’s actions

But, knowing God’s sovereignty, does Joseph do nothing?

Would Joseph counsel us not to vote? Not at all.

What does Joseph do in this chapter?

First, he prepared himself to meet Pharaoh.

Genesis 41:14 And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh.

What do you think Pharaoh’s response would have been if Joseph had entered his presence in his prison garb, unshaven?

Note: Joseph is not just cleaning himself up. Hebrew men at this time wore beards; they did not shave. Egyptians, on the other hand, were clean shaven. Joseph is conforming to the cultural practice of the Egyptians to make himself more presentable.

God did not send a voice to Joseph, saying, “Shave yourself! Change your clothes before you go to Pharaoh!”

No. Joseph used his brain. He thought. He considered the culture. He considered what he knew of Pharaoh’s court. And he prepared himself.

This is not a violation of God’s sovereignty. These are actions that God intends Joseph to take. Rather, God sovereignly works through Joseph’s mind to accomplish His purposes.

Second, Joseph gives all the glory to God. God is using Joseph to bring glory to Himself in many ways. Some ways Joseph does not understand – he doesn’t know that his rising to prominence will eventually lead to his entire family coming to Egypt. But he does know that God is at work for His own glory. He does know that God must receive proper credit for everything. So this prisoner, desperate to get out, after being a slave or a prisoner for all his adult life, does NOTHING to exalt himself before Pharaoh. Instead, he only exalts God. Consider verses 15 and 16, and then Joseph’s statements in verses 25 and 28:

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." Joseph answered Pharaoh, "It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer." Genesis 41:15-16

“God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do.” Genesis 41:25

“God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. “ Genesis 41:28

Joseph’ trust in God’s sovereign control frees him from trying to impress Pharaoh with his skill and abilities. He knows he is God’s agent. He knows God is in control. He knows God will take him out of prison if that is His will. So he serves Pharaoh and Egypt as best he can, working for the good of the country in which he finds himself – and leaves the results to God.

Third, Joseph’s answer goes far beyond the question that Pharaoh asks. What did Pharaoh ask Joseph? Only to interpret dream. What did Joseph do? He told Pharaoh what policy he should pursue! Look at again at verses 33 to 36. Joseph tells Pharaoh that in light of what is going to happen, he should appoint a discerning, wise man who will organize efforts to store one-fifth of all the produce of the land during the years of plenty for use during the coming famine.

For a foreign slave and prisoner to give such advice to the most powerful monarch on earth takes great boldness and confidence. But note that even here, Joseph is not trying to exalt himself at all. He knows what Pharaoh must do to save his country – and he tells him!

This is a wonderful  example of 1 Peter 5:6:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,

Joseph remained humble. And at the proper time – at exactly the proper time – God exalted Joseph.

Finally, Joseph implements his suggested policy. Joseph builds storehouses. He gathers the grain. He supervises the transportation of the grain to the storehouses.

Note that this policy will be disastrous for Egypt if Pharaoh’s dreams do not come to pass. If the seven good years are followed by seven more good years – or even seven average years – all this storing of grain will be a huge drain on the economy. The entire policy is based on Joseph’s confident faith in God’s sovereign control. And that faith proves to be right.

Note that during these years Joseph not only serves the Egyptian Pharaoh, he also marries an Egyptian. Nevertheless, he does not become an Egyptian. He remembers his identity as  Hebrew. We see this in verses 51 and 52. Joseph’s wife bears sons – and they receive not Egyptian names but Hebrew names. So as Joseph acts, he keeps before Him God’s loving concern, God’s covenant with his family, God’s sovereign control of all things.

One commentator sums up this theme well: 

God’s sovereignty lays the foundation for human activity. . . . von Rad comments, ‘What is theologically noteworthy is the way in which the strong predestination content of the speech is combined with a strong summons to action. The fact that God has determined the matter, that God hastens to bring it to pass, is precisely the reason for responsible leaders to take measures!”

Just so with us. God’s sovereignty should never be an excuse for our laziness. God will work through our efforts. Our task is to use the gifts he gives us, always remembering He is in charge. And, like Joseph, to step out confidently, boldly to bring about God’s purposes. And if we seem to fail, we then learn from our mistakes, never doubting that God will fulfill his plans.

Pharaoh’s Dreams for Today

Thus, God’s sovereignty doesn’t make our actions pointless – rather, God’s sovereignty makes our actions effective.

Consider the alternative: If God is not sovereign, if He doesn’t rule, if He doesn’t know the end and ensure that it comes about, then we can never know if we accomplish our objectives. We might seem to make progress during our lifetime, but then after we die all falls apart.

But if God is in control, if He has determined the ends, and if He tells us what they are – and if, furthermore, He tells us He will use us to bring those ends about - then we can know confidently that our actions by His power to bring about His purposes will bear fruit – even if no progress is evident in our lifetimes.

We see this in our present text. God tells Joseph about the harvests – he realizes God is using him to save Egypt from famine. Now, God is doing much more than this! He is saving the Israelites and removing Israel from the Canaanite influences that have already damaged them so severely. Joseph doesn’t see everything – but he sees in part, and he fulfills his tasks, the tasks God shows him, faithfully.

Just so with us. We won’t see the entire picture – just as Joseph did not. But God gives us a ministry – and tells us the ends we are to work toward.   

What has God told us?

Perhaps you are thinking, “Boy, I wish I was like Joseph! I wish God would reveal to me in a dream exactly what is going to happen in my life! Then it would be clear to me what to do!”

Guess what? You don’t need a dream. You have the Word of God. As we read in Isaiah, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) And in this Word, He tells us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). What are some of those things? What are the equivalents of Pharaoh’s dreams for today? This morning we can just touch on six equivalents of Pharaoh’s dreams, six things God has told us that must happen, that we should work towards:

1) Jesus is coming back!

Time and again God’s Word tells us that Jesus will return:

Revelation 1:7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

Rev 22:12: Behold, I am coming soon!

Matthew 24:42 Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

The fact that Jesus will return should have an impact on everything that we do. We must be watchful and expectant. We should look forward with great joy to seeing our Savior reign on earth. He has told us this will happen. And we must be prepared.

2) The earth will be destroyed!

2 Peter 3:10-12 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. (NAU)

Peter tells us exactly what is going to happen to this world:

All will be burned up and dissolved. “All the earth and its works.”

This is Pharaoh’s dream for us! We DO know what is going to happen!

How should we then live?

Peter tells us

2 Peter 3:11-12  Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness,  12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God.

None of those things matter! Nothing matters except God’s glory! And we should live in such a way that we reflect that glory.

Joseph knew that. That’s why he, a prisoner, could stand in front of most powerful man on earth without nervousness, and tell him what to do.

God is sovereign. He will destroy this earth, and all that is on it. That is certain. How, then, will you live?

3) God desires our sanctification          

1 Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification.

Many of us get hung up trying to discern God’s will: “What job should I take? What house should I buy? Whom should I marry?”

God tells us His will for us – that we become like Him!

Think about the excuses we make for avoiding the very means He ordains to make us like Him:

God is sovereign. He is almighty. If you truly are a believer, His Holy Spirit dwells in you. And He has all authority.

There is no question about God’s will. He wills your sanctification, your becoming like Him.

So take advantage of the means of grace!

Be in the Word – yes, that may mean sleeping 30 minutes less per day, or watching TV 30 minutes less per day, or spending less time surfing on the internet, or visiting chat rooms, or reading the newspaper, or eating meals, or doing yardwork.

This is God’s will for you. The sovereign God has ordained that His people will be set apart for Him, that they will live to His glory.

This is Pharaoh’s dream for you – God tells you that He wills your becoming like Him!

So do it – by the means He ordains!

4) You have a ministry, a gift from God: Fulfill it!

1 Corinthians 12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Again, God tells us that He gives gifts to each believer. He uses us to serve others by His Spirit.

So love each other! Step out and serve!

This looks different in every one of us. We will serve in little ways, in big ways, behind the scenes, and up front. Don’t compare your way of serving to others. Just remember: God has told you that He works for His glory in part through the way His Spirit works in every believer. So step out in faith. Consider how you can love others in the body. And see how God will work.

5) God will bring worshipers to Himself from every people group on this planetl

Revelation 7:9-10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

Matthew 28:18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Here Jesus makes explicit the link between His sovereign authority and our responsibility:

As a result of Jesus’ authority and power, knowing that He intends to establish a thriving church within all the people groups on this planet, He tells us: Go!  Make disciples of all the nations! Do it! Go to the hard places and the easy places; go to those nearby and to those far away; go whether that might mean losing your life in the process, or enjoying a long life. He has all authority. He has all power. He has ordained that the nations will come to Him, and that they will come through the witness of His people. So do it!

6) Finally: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ!

Acts 17:30 “Now he commands all people everywhere to repent”

Romans 10:9 If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Are you to be around that throne of God with that multitude that no one can number? Are you to rejoice in the presence of Jesus for all eternity? Has God ordained that?

God may have planned that – but part of that plan is your response. Have you responded?

Ask Him, “Lord, give me a heart to know you, to desire you, to trust you, to delight in you! Enable me to see You for who You are! I know that I am a rebel; I know that I am a sinner in Your sight. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for me! I believe that He is Lord of all creation. I acknowledge that He is King of Kings. I believe He is coming back. And I want to serve You, to be part of this process of bringing all nations to You. So Lord, will you change my heart? Do it, I pray, for Your own glory!”

God is sovereign. Praise Him! And He uses our actions to bring about His plan.

So submit to Him! Trust Him! And step out in faith for His glory!

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 10/24/04. Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 3, Genesis 37-50, Baker, 1985, 1998) were helpful in the preparation of this sermon. The quote above is from Waltke, p. 536. He quotes von Rad’s volume, Genesis.

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