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Further In and Deeper Down: Chiseled to be His Masterpiece (Gen. 41:1-57)

ImageMichelangelo, was a Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer, who had amazing vision. He saw art where others only saw rock. He is quoted as saying, “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew [chop] away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

One of his most famous works was called “David” crafted between 1501 and 1504.[1] The actual piece of marble that Michelangelo received was already used. It had first been given to Agostino di Duccio who failed to complete the statue. Forty years later, Michelangelo was handed the hand-me-down stone, which had been left out in the elements and damaged. Despite being secondhand and mishandled, the marble, with Michelangelo’s tools and skill, became a masterpiece. It didn’t matter what the marble looked like or what happened to it, in the great Sculptor’s hands, He can transform it into what He wants. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” Michelangelo said about one of his creations.[2]

When we first met Joseph, he was like an unfinished piece of marble. He was arrogant and self-absorbed, lazy, unwise and immature spoiled brat. We know by the end of his story, he will turn out to be selfless, wise, hard-working administer who will be used by God to save a nation and bring reconciliation. How does this happen? It happens under the chisel of adversity in the hand of God. He has an image of us that is far better than we could ever imagine.

The story of Joseph is a living example of Rom. 8:28. God works all things for the good of those of who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Not all things are good, but God works all things for the good. What is the good that God is working all things for? No ones knows the following the verse in Romans. Paul tells us that the good that God is working is for us to conform to the image of His Son.

Chiseling is not fun. He hammers away at us and chops off things that do not belong. God does have to break us to bless us and save us. But He is always good. Nothing does He allow that we do not need to make us into His masterpiece. And not only to make us looking like Jesus Christ, but He wants to make us usable. As A.W. Tozer once said, “It is doubtful that God can use a man (or woman) greatly unless He has broken him deeply.”[3]

One blogger comments, “I don’t think this means that we are to look for experiences of suffering if we want to be used by God. Living in this broken world, few of us have to look for it. It finds us. But then we have the choice—will we see this as God being unkind or uncaring toward us? Or will we see in our suffering the loving hand of God preparing us for usefulness in this world, and purifying us for an eternity in his presence?”[4] Today we are going to look at how God chiseled a man who had a heart of stone and head thick as a marble into a man made usable by God for His purposes. How do we get there from marble to masterpiece? First:

I. Trust in the timely intrusion of God’s sovereignty (vv.1-13)

The text begins with “After two whole years.” Two whole years since what? Since the cupbearer forgot Joseph. This will make it 13 years for Joseph since he was sold to the Midianites (Gen. 37:28). He’s 30 years old, having spent almost half his life in slavery or prison. What a setback in our eyes, but it’s two years of further chiseling in God’s eyes. Joseph was probably sure that the cupbearer would have been his ticket out of the prison. One step forward. Two steps back. Actually these are not setbacks, but all advances in God’s eyes. What are we looking at today? All of the setbacks in our lives or the many ways God is using our circumstances?

Pharaoh has two dreams, well, more like nightmares.  The images of cows and grain all point to food. In the ancient Near East, royal dreams were believed to indicate a special bond with Pharaoh and the gods. In this dream, he is standing by the Nile river, which was the source of Egypt’s—and so Pharaoh’s—power, fertility, and life (cf. Ex. 7:15–18).[5] Why were the cows coming out of the Nile? To keep from heat and insects, cattle sometimes submerse themselves.[6] And these cows were apparently looking healthy, which means in the Indian culture, fat.

But behind the fat cows are these ugly thin cows and all of a sudden it turns into some Stephen King-like horror show. The thin cows eat up the fat cows. Cannibalistic Cows. Pharaoh wakes up startled, takes a deep breath, perhaps a sip of water, wipes his forehead and goes back to sleep.

He dosed off into a second fantastic dream in which seven “plump and good” ears of grain were devoured by seven thin, heat-shriveled ears of grain. The attack of the cannibal ears was again too much for Pharaoh, and he awoke a second time to discover that he was dreaming.[7] He is troubled because he is certain the gods are telling him something about the future. The Pharaohs attribute the bountiful harvests reaped during his reign to his good and magical relations to the grain god. One Pharaoh said, “I produced the grain, because I was beloved by the grain god. No one was hungry in my years.[8]

Remember Pharaoh is considered a god himself. He is seen as the Sovereign One. He always acts and never gets acted upon. He calls the shots in his day, but here he is a victim. He is the one in control and has all power, but now something or someone is robbing him of both his control and power. So he’s panicking. As we read this, we have to ask, “Who is really the Sovereign One here?”

So he calls for everyone he knows who can help him interpret this dream. Magicians, wise men, Oprah, Gandalf the Great, Deepak Chopra, etc. all show up. These people, by the way, were supposed to be very intelligent, working with magic and probably all kinds of demonic activity. When it says, “none who could interpret them to Pharaoh,” it doesn’t mean, they looked into all their dream manuals and were like, “Sorry, there is no chapter on cannibalistic cows and grain.” Rather, it means that Pharaoh was not happy with any of their interpretations. Most likely, none of them wanted to tell Pharaoh what they really thought it meant. Pharaoh does not like bad news and who do you think want to be the bearer of bad news. They know that Pharaoh can very well shoot the messenger if he doesn’t like the message.

Then, it just so happens, that in Gen. 41:9, Mr. Forgetful Cupbearer is standing right by. And it just so happens that he remembers on that day where it just so happened when Pharaoh had a dream, which no one could interpret. And it just so happened that a couple of years before, where the cupbearer ended up in prison with a Hebrew slave named Joseph. And it just so happened that Joseph was falsely accused of rape by Mrs. Potiphar to end up in that prison. And it just so happened that Joseph was sold off by his brothers as a slave to the Midianites who would sell him to Potiphar. What a wonderful coincidence right?

There are no wonderful coincidences. There are only God-incidences. God is in control here. He has always been in control. And in His time, His sovereignty subtly intrudes into the ordinary events of life to turn it around. Dr. Chuck Swindoll talks about the situation with Job in Job. 23:1-9:

“Dear old Job, beaten black and blue by calamity, the death of ten children (imagine it!), the destruction of his home, the loss of everything he owned, including his own health. He didn’t even have the comfort of caring friends. He had nothing. I don’t think anyone would cluck his tongue at Job for saying what he does in meditating on his plight, searching for God’s answers. Job is saying, “I wish I could find God. I wish He and I could just sit down and talk openly about my situation, and I could ask Him why I’m going through these things. I want to have all my ‘Why?’ questions answered. I want to have all my ‘How long?’ problems solved.”

Despite everything he has been through, Job still believes that God will listen to him. “Would He slap me across the face and say, ‘Be quiet, Job, and sit there’? No, He would pay attention to me.” Though he believes this, Job still questions why: “What He’s doing, I don’t know. Where He is, I can’t find Him. What He sees, I can’t see. But I know this . . . I know this,” says Job. I love this statement of faith in verses 10-12:

“But He knows the way I take; When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot has held fast to His path; I have kept His way and not turned aside. “I have not departed from the command of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food.”

The key phrase in that statement is at the beginning of it: “when He has tried me.” You see there is no hurry-up process for finding and shaping gold. The process of discovering, processing, purifying, and shaping gold is a lengthy, painstaking process. Affliction is gold in the making for the child of God, and God is the one who determines how long the process takes. He alone is the Refiner.

Job was not saying, “When He has tried me, I will make a million!” Or, “When He has tried me, I’ll get everything back that I lost.” Or, “When He has tried me, my wife will say she’s sorry and will make things right.” Or, “When He has tried me, everything will be like it once was.” No, it’s not the externals that are promised, it’s the internals. The Lord promised Job, “When the process is finished, you’ll come forth as gold. Then, you’ll be ready to serve me where I choose. Then, you’ll be able to handle whatever promotion comes your way.”[9]

Have you ever realized that Job never hears about the dialogue between God and the devil? He never gets answers. Why? Because what the devil said then would come true. The devil said that Job only follows God because of what God gives him. And if God gave Job answers, it would be true. Job’s in it because of what He gets from God rather than the fact that he’s in it because He has God.

So trust in the timely intrusion of God’s sovereignty. Surrender yourself to the Great Sculptor’s hands. And let me ask this question: What are you more interested in? The painstakingly slow process of refining our character into gold in the fire of our circumstances or the quick, timely relief of pain? God has a greater purpose for us than the immediate relief of our pain. He is interested far more in our character than our comfort. Treasure the words from His mouth more than answers for your situation. Trust him. In Joseph’s story we see that God’s sovereignty encompasses even the ungrateful forgetfulness of a self-absorbed cupbearer. God even uses those who ignore, irritate and forgets you as part of His great purpose. The nail thinks the hammer is always the enemy, but the Carpenter knows that both the nail and hammer are simply instruments in His hand for His purposes. He’s chiseling away at you, making you usable, but you must wait and trust in the timely intrusion of God’s sovereignty.

Secondly, when God’s sovereignty intrudes into our life and changes things around:

II. Give the total glory to God (vv.14-38)

When Pharaoh hears of Joseph from the cupbearer, he sends for him. Look at this situation. Pharaoh, the sovereign god, looks desperate here. He is powerless and helpless, talking to a Hebrew slave. Hebrew men, in contrast to Egyptians, wore beards. So in a flash Joseph was shaved, sanitized, Egyptianized, and presented to Pharaoh. The young Hebrew had gone from the pit to the palace in an instant.[10]

Pharaoh looks at him and says, “I hear you are the answer man of the dream world.” How would Joseph reply? Gen. 41:16 is the reply. And Joseph’s reply is the product of 13 years of being under the chisel of adversity: “It is not in me; God will…” See the contrast? Remember the 17 year old arrogant snob always talking about his dreams, rubbing them like salt into the wounds of his brothers: “I’ll be ruling over you one day!” Kidner remarks, “While Pharaoh naturally thought of expertise in the ‘science’ of dreams, Joseph almost explosively disavowed this whole approach (the exclamation, It is not in me, is a single word). With hasty brevity he points from himself to God (the position in the sentence makes it emphatic) as sole revealer….”[11]

Joseph is in a sense disregarding Pharaoh and the gods and pointing to God (singular) as the singular Sovereign of the Universe. Once again, given a chance to self-promote, He gives credit to God.

He could have easily been tempted to say, “You want to know what your dream means? I can tell you. For a price. Give me promotion and freedom.” Or he could have said, “Before I answer, you need to do some things for me. I have some scores to settle. First, give me the head of Mrs. Potiphar. Second, I want Mr. Forgetful Cupbearer killed.” No fear of man, selfish ambition, and no resentment. It’s not about me. Let’s listen to God.

In Gen. 41:17-24, Pharaoh tells him the dream. And in Gen. 41:25-32, listen to Joseph interpret it. Notice the repetition of God again and again! (vv. 16, 25, 28 and 32). Basically Joseph says:

  1. Both dreams announce the same thing.
  2. Seven refers to the number of years.
  3. You will have seven years of abundance, which will be followed by seven years of famine.
  4. God gave you two dreams with the same meaning to emphasize its certainty and immediacy.

God controls the economies Pharaoh. He controls our very lives, not you or the Nile or cows or grain gods. Notice also Joseph’s respect for Pharaoh. He never says, “you” (always referring to him in the third person) and never speaks ill of him, even though he is a flat out heathen. I wonder if we can learn from Joseph in treating people of opposing political parties with similar honor?

Then Joseph is bold enough to suggest a solution to this problem. This is risky. A slave is now giving a sovereign King advice? But Joseph is not in the minority, because God Himself stands with Him. He proposes to Pharaoh in Gen. 41:33-36, that he needs someone to oversee to create a saving system to ration off the food in the next seven years, before everyone starves and dies during the following seven.

But notice all throughout this proposal that Joseph appeals to Pharaoh’s authority and does not promote himself. It would have been easy to say, “And I am your solution. I volunteer myself.” What has Joseph learned? That it is the sovereign God who raises you up, not yourself. Pharaoh could have very well hired anyone and have forgotten about Joseph.

But this was the time God had decided for Joseph to be raised up. And out of the lips of an unbeliever, Pharaoh picks up Joseph’s talk: “Can we find a man like this in whom is the Spirit of God?” (Gen. 41:38). Joseph is fulfilling the promise given to Abraham, to be a blessing to the nations. A pagan polytheistic Pharaoh who considers himself to be a god, praises the God of Israel.

Joseph realizes here that it was not him who walked thus far, but a God who carried him thus far. Alan Redpath, who was the pastor of Moody Church during the 1960s, was a great pastor and preacher. After he had a stroke, sins that he thought were long gone from his life, resurfaced themselves. “Sinful thoughts, temptations to impurity and bad language were all the shattering experience of those days.” His despair was so great that he wished he could just die and go to Heaven. But God seemed to say to him, “I want to replace you with Myself, if you only allow me to be God in you, and admit you are a complete failure and the only good thing about Alan Redpath is Jesus.”[12]

Could we honestly say that about us? We like to say, “The good thing about me is my personality and Jesus,” or “My looks and Jesus,” or “My career and Jesus.” You never know Jesus is all you need when He is all you have. And all Joseph had when he was stripped of everything, was God and God was enough. He didn’t one day just stand up and give credit to God. I think over 13 years of a lot of failing, clinging, hoping, despairing, trusting, etc. He leaned on those everlasting arms and the more He leaned, the stronger He realized they were. Redpath also said, “Faith is two empty hands held open to receive all of the Lord” and “The best place any Christian can ever be in is to be totally destitute and totally dependent upon God, and know it.”[13]

Will you with empty hands hold them open to receive all of the Lord for your life right now? Give all glory to the Lord, for the roses and the thorns. Trust in the timely intrusion of God’s sovereignty and give total glory to God and lastly:

III. Stay truly humble of whose you are (vv.39-57)

Joseph goes from pit to palace in one day. Actually Joseph is going further in and deeper down into trouble now more than in prison. Why? Because there is the temptation to forget God and to be a glory thief. Look what happens. Pastor Kent Hughes notes, “On the spot Pharaoh ceremonially bestowed upon Joseph the paraphernalia of power. First, the king removed the signet ring from his own hand and slipped it onto Joseph’s…The ring was used to press Pharaoh’s seal upon official documents, therefore delegating to Joseph the ability to operate with Pharaoh-like authority. Second…Joseph would be clad in fine linen, the garments of the powerful and well-connected. Third, a gold chain was hung around his neck as a gift and a symbol of highest distinction.

Joseph now rides with Pharaoh. In present-day terms, “chariots were the limousines of the day, so it is arranged that Joseph will ride in style. The men going before him clearing the way are the equivalent of the Secret Service protection that is offered to important dignitaries and officers in the United States.” What a rush that must have been for Joseph. He had been bowing and scraping to everyone for the last thirteen years of his life. He had been the “Hey, you” guy both in Potiphar’s house and most recently in prison where he had served Pharaoh’s servants. Now he rode in a royal chariot that plowed through masses that divided before him like a sea on bended knee. Nobody can do anything without Joseph’s ok.

Think of it. In the morning he was in a dirty, stinking pit. But at nightfall he was sitting in the palace, dressed in designer clothing, servants fanning him and brushing the flies away, his menu drawn from the haute cuisine of the Nile, and in the stable his chauffeured limo was ready to transport him everywhere through worshipful crowds.

It is evident that Pharaoh was intent on Egyptianizing Joseph because he gave him a new name and a wife. “Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah” (v. 45a), which is generally understood to mean “God speaks and lives.” Now an Egyptian name is one thing, but an Egyptian wife is quite another—because we see how thoroughly Pharaoh intended Joseph to become identified with Egypt. I don’t know how much say he had in the matter. There is also a novel written in the first century AD that suggests that Joseph’s wife became a follower of Yahweh.

But Joseph was well-connected—and ominously in danger of Egyptianization. His clothing was Egyptian, his name was Egyptian, his language was Egyptian, his wife was Egyptian, and his father-in-law was the leading Egyptian sun-worshiper.  Joseph’s soul was in greater peril than at any other time in his short life. It is one thing to remain believing and God-centered and faithful in the pit; it is quite another to be faithful at the pinnacle.

The pit instilled dependence upon God. Days, months, and years in the pit graced Joseph’s soul with an ever-deepening sense of need and dependence upon God. There was only one way to look while in the pit, and that was up—to God. On the other hand, the pinnacle of Egyptian life inclined the soul toward pride and independence. At the top, looking up to God was not so natural. It was far easier then for Joseph to look down on humanity and to depend upon servants to meet his needs. And the fact that Joseph’s name, speech, clothing, and wife were Egyptian all encouraged him to forget where he came from.

That is so true. Life at the top can make people imagine themselves so original and so wise—a one-of-a-kind that deserves all he or she has. Extended time at the top of society can work an incredible ugliness of soul…Today we especially see this kind of ugliness in those who have had a meteoric rise—pro athletes, prodigies, media personalities, and children of the rich and famous. Accordingly, young Joseph, second only to Pharaoh at age thirty—a preternaturally handsome man with acute mental capacity—recently risen from nowhere and suddenly living in relentless luxury—was in great danger.”[14]

How will Joseph respond? Well he has children and he names them with Hebrew names! (Gen. 41:51-52). He gives glory to God. God has chiseled a man of God out of a block of marble and the sculptor gets all the glory. John Walton notes, “On the surface, Joseph is being “made” by Pharaoh. Everything he is given comes from Pharaoh’s hand: his office, status, privilege, name, wife—everything. He is “reborn” as a servant of Pharaoh. The irony is that from the standpoint of Genesis, it is not the hand of Pharaoh that has remade Joseph but the hand of God. For all that Pharaoh did, God brought Joseph to the recognition of Pharaoh, and God gave Joseph wisdom and success. In the end, Joseph is not first and foremost Pharaoh’s man, but God’s man. He is not Pharaoh’s instrument of economic survival; he is God’s instrument of salvation.”[15] Joseph knows not who he is, but whose he is.

Conclusion

Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Literally, we are His poem. It means we are His work of art. Have you ever seen a masterpiece destroyed or defaced? It’s a tragedy. We are His masterpiece that has been destroyed. Art is an expression of the inner being of the artist.  But like Michelangelo took that piece of marble that was damaged and brought beauty out of it, so does the Lord.

God is working hard, chiseling away to make us into His masterpiece, a piece of art that looks like His Son. But God says, “Trust me under my hand.” Don’t resist my chisel. Really for all of our sin, God should crush us under His mighty hand. Our sins have marred us from being a masterpiece. But He will not throw us away. Why? Because there was another one, one greater than Joseph.  He was the truly hated One, the truly despised One, the truly forgotten One, the truly Forsaken One and the truly Falsely Accused One. He is the greatest example of one who suffers great humiliation, only to be exalted to the highest place of authority; the One who to whom every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord. When he suffered, God held back all the angels from intruding and changing the circumstance. God did not intrude for Him, because He had to die, so that we could live. This One, Jesus Christ, was crushed under the weight of our sin, so today you and I are not crushed and thrown aside, but all our problems are instruments in His hands to chisel and make us into His masterpiece. Jesus died on the cross not just to show us that He loves us to also make us beautiful. You are His masterpiece.

No matter what shape our lives are looking like right now, let us with empty hands come to the Lord. Let us run into His arms.


[1]“Michelangelo’s David,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_(Michelangelo) accessed 9 November 2012.

[2]Desmond, Jaletta Albright. “Life Lessons from Michelangelo’s David,” http://davidsonnews.net/blog/2011/08/05/life-lessons-from-michelangelos-david/ accessed 9 November 2012.

[3]Tozer, A. W. (1986). The Root of the Righteous. (157). Camp Hill, PA.: WingSpread.

[4]Guthrie, Nancy. “Must we be hurt deeply to be used significantly?” http://www.crossway.org/blog/2010/02/must-we-be-hurt-deeply-to-be-used-significantly/ accessed 9 November 2012.

[5]Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A Commentary (530). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word (476). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[8]Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (530).

[9]Swindoll, C. R. (1998). Joseph: A Man of Integrity and Forgiveness. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[10]Hughes, R. K. (477).

[11]Kidner, D. (1967). Vol. 1: Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (206). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[12]Lutzer, E. (2008). Seven Reasons to Trust the Bible (170). Chicago: Moody Press.

[13]As quoted in https://twitter.com/search/%22Alan%20Redpath%22 accessed 9 November 2012.

[14]Hughes, R. K. (485-487).

[15]Walton, J. H. (2001). Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary (691). Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan.

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