How Big is Your God?
October 22, 2013
The email arrived from a student who had taken a course from me at Word of Life Bible Institute. She wrote a very brief note, thanking me for the class and then asking me this question: “What’s your favorite attribute of God?”
That question stumped me for several reasons. On one hand, we know that since God is ultimate perfection, he has no “bad” attributes. He is perfect love, perfect justice, perfect wisdom, perfect holiness, and so on. How do you choose among the attributes of God? And the second thought comes, should we even be thinking of God’s attributes in those terms?
It’s not like asking . . .
What’s your favorite color? (Green)
What’s your favorite food? (Fried okra)
What’s your favorite movie? (The Dirty Dozen)
What’s your favorite football team? (Ole Miss Rebels)
Now those are just personal preferences that could change over time. My food preferences depend on where I am, the time of day, and what I’m hungry for. This morning I ate a blueberry bagel with cream cheese and washed it down with a Diet Pepsi. That was better than fried okra to me. I like the color green but that really goes back to reading “The Wizard of Oz” in grade school. I don’t really know if green is my absolute favorite color or not. I said The Dirty Dozen because it just flashed into my mind. I am, however, solid on the Ole Miss Rebels. That’s a family thing. If you said, “Name your favorite NFL team” thirty-five years ago, I would have said the Dallas Cowboys, but now I would probably say the Chicago Bears or maybe give no answer at all. That’s what I mean when I say that many of my favorite things tend to change over time.
Our preferences change over time
I think you could easily apply that to the attributes of God. There are moments when you cling to God’s mercy as a drowning man clings to a life preserver. At other times you are overwhelmed by a sense of God’s majesty. Still other times God’s holiness exposes your sin and leads you to repentance. Often you will swim in the ocean of God’s love. When evildoers get away with murder, you will find solace in the truth that God is just.
All of this is a long response to a simple question, “What’s your favorite attribute of God?” After going through all of that in my mind, I do at last have an answer for the question. If you push me to the end of my faith and ask me what keeps me strong when all else around me seems to fall apart, I will answer that my faith rests upon the rock-solid truth of the sovereignty of God.
The Undisputed Boss
That means that God is in charge of all things at all times and in every situation. To call God sovereign means that he is the undisputed Boss of the Universe. He knows what he is doing, and he is doing it.
If God is not sovereign, then he is not God.
If God is not sovereign, then who is?
God’s sovereignty is the answer to the biggest question of all: “Who’s in charge here?”
Who’s in charge here?
In this series on the life of Joseph we are considering nine crucial questions. So far we have covered three of them:
Do you know why you were born?
Do you know who you are?
Are you willing to wait for God?
Now we come to the fourth question:
How big is your God?
No Bible doctrine is more obvious than the sovereignty of God. You can find it on every page. Here are a few examples:
“But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases” (Job 23:13). Job understands that he cannot demand anything from the Lord. In and of himself, he has no power to change his awful condition, and he can’t even demand a hearing to plead his case to the Lord. God does what he wants and Job is powerless to oppose him.
He does whatever he pleases
“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). This verse introduces the final chapter of Job’s saga. It comes after God has given him a theology lesson and a final exam on creation, which Job flunked miserably. He couldn’t answer a single question. Now thoroughly humbled, he confesses that God is all-powerful, he does what he wants, and no one stands against him. This confession leads him to deep repentance for his foolish questioning of God’s plan.
“Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (Psalm 115:3). That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? The Lord of the universe does whatever he pleases. Whenever I read this verse, I want to say, “Any questions?”
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:33-36). This wonderful doxology comes at the end of Paul’s declaration that the gospel is God’s answer to man’s sin, and his presentation of God’s future plans for Israel. No one could have foreseen how God would respond to human rebellion. No one gives God advice. No one can trace his path across the starry skies. God is never in debt to anyone for any reason. Everything is from him, everything is through him, and everything is to him. And he alone gets the glory.
Two Long Years
When we come to Genesis 41, Joseph has been in jail for two years.
Two long years.
It appears that he has hit a dead end. He has been betrayed, sold as a slave (twice), falsely accused of rape, and thrown in prison where he was forgotten by a fellow inmate whom Joseph helped in a big way. When Joseph said, “Remember me when you get out,” I’m sure the man solemnly promised he wouldn’t forget him.
But he did.
He got out, went back to his old life, and promptly left prison far behind.
Prison time is hard time
If we ask what Joseph was doing during those two years, we could talk about how he prayed and served and tried to point others to God. No doubt that was true. But in one sense it doesn’t matter what Joseph did because every day in prison takes on a dull, monotonous sameness.
So Joseph sits and waits and wonders if he will ever get out of jail. I’m sure he asked himself, “Why has all this happened to me?” It seems like his whole life is two steps forward and three steps back. Nothing made any sense.
We all come to moments like that sooner or later.
Looking Through the Keyhole
So much of what goes on around us seems to make little sense. I’m thinking of the mysteries of life, how one person gets cancer and dies while another person is spared cancer and yet another person gets the same cancer, goes through chemotherapy and survives. Why does one child live and another die? Why is one family hit with a seemingly endless series of trials? Why did this husband decide to walk away from his marriage? Why did the car wreck leave this man crippled but the man next to him walks away unscathed? The list goes on and on and on.
Why was this person promoted and that one passed over?
Why do some people want to get married but never find the right person?
God knows what he’s doing even when we don’t have a clue
Most of the time we can’t see any clear answers to those questions. I ran across something John Piper wrote that really helped me. He says that every day God is doing perhaps 10,000 different things in your life, but you will only be dimly aware of perhaps three of those things. The numbers are arbitrary but the point is absolutely right.
We barely get a glimmer of all that God is doing in us and through us and to us and for us. We’re like little kids peering through a keyhole. At best we see a sliver of what lies on the other side of the door. We often mistake that “sliver” for the whole spectrum of reality.
God knows what he’s doing even when we don’t.
He’s never clueless even when we don’t have a clue.
Four Key Words
Joseph’s experience is a case in point. He’s about to discover that his two years in prison were not wasted. They prepared him for a future only God could see.
Although Genesis 41 is a long chapter (57 verses), we can summarize in four key words;
Joseph went from prison to the palace
Pharaoh had two dreams (vv. 1-13).
Joseph gave him the interpretation (vv. 14-32).
Joseph gave him the plan (vv. 33-36).
Pharaoh gave him a promotion (vv. 37-57).
The whole chapter is right there.
If we stand back and take a birds-eye view of Genesis 41, we see that it’s ultimately about the unlikely path that led Joseph from prison to the palace. If any chapter in Genesis reveals the sovereignty of God, it’s this one.
Let’s take a look at seven signs of the sovereignty of God in Genesis 41.
1. God Gave Pharaoh Two Dreams
One night Pharaoh had two bizarre dreams. In his first dream seven fat cows coming up out of the Nile River were eaten by seven skinny cows that came out of the same river. Pharaoh awoke for a few moments, considered his dream, and then went back to sleep. In the second dream he saw a stalk with seven plump heads of grain on it on it. Suddenly seven shriveled heads appeared that devoured the seven plump heads of grain.
The world has no answer for the things that matter most
Verse 8 tells us what happened next:
So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.
Though Pharaoh was the mightiest man on earth, he was helpless to understand his own dream. Money and power and worldly success may gain many things, but it avails nothing in the realm of the spirit.
The magicians couldn’t figure it out either. A thousand years of pagan religion could not produce what the king wanted. Thus a crisis exposes the futility of the world in the things that matter most. It reveals the true condition of the human heart apart from God. Without divine revelation, human wisdom and power can never discover the way of salvation. That must “come down” from God above.
2. God Reminded the Cupbearer about Joseph
At that moment the cupbearer remembered Joseph from his time in prison two years earlier:
“A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged” (vv. 12-13).
At just the right moment God joggled his memory so that he remembered how Joseph had correctly interpreted his dream and the baker’s dream.
Joseph was just doing his job
This “coincidence” is actually a remarkable link in the chain of God’s providence. If he had remembered Joseph earlier, Joseph might have been set free earlier. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been anywhere near the palace when the king had his dreams. As far as Joseph was concerned, he was just being faithful to God when he interpreted those dreams two years earlier.
Now his faithfulness will be rewarded in an amazing way.
3. God Gave Joseph the Interpretation of the Dreams
After changing his clothes (v. 14), Joseph is brought before Pharaoh.
What a sight!
An unknown Hebrew slave stands before the mightiest man in the world.
Who but God could do this?
Twenty-four hours earlier no one could have predicted this, least of all Joseph.
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” (vv. 15-16).
Once again Joseph refuses to take any credit.
He knows that only God can give a true interpretation.
7 good years followed by 7 bad years
The interpretation is a good news-bad news situation. First there will be seven years of plenty in the land. The rains will come, crops will be plentiful, and everyone will have more than enough to eat. But the seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. And the seven bad years will be worse than the seven good years are good.
Then Joseph adds this:
“And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (v. 32).
In other words, “O King, you’d better take this seriously because God does.
4. God Gave Joseph a Wise Plan
Having explained the dream and its meaning, Joseph goes on to suggest that Pharaoh find a “discerning and wise man” (v. 33) to administer the economic affairs of the nation during the seven good years so that one-fifth of the grain is stored in granaries in all the cities of Egypt. The four-fifths that is left will still be more than enough to feed the whole nation. That way there will be grain for the people when the seven years of famine hit.
Pharaoh needed a man like Jospeh
This was a simple and clear plan, but its success depended on finding a man of exactly the right character. Pharaoh needed a man who was gifted in administration, loyal to him, and honest in all his dealings. Obviously with that much grain being stored, there would be many opportunities for fleecing the people and lining one’s own pocket. Thus Pharaoh must choose carefully or this whole plan will fail.
5. God Moved Pharaoh to Choose Joseph
Not surprisingly, Pharaoh recognized that Joseph was the man he needed:
And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you” (vv. 38-40).
Though he was a pagan ruler, Pharaoh recognized the work of God’s Spirit when he saw it. He made Joseph the second-in-command, which really made him the second most powerful man in the world. Then he sealed the deal in regal fashion:
He gave Joseph his signet ring (like having the King’s credit card).
He gave him linen clothing (a sign of high honor).
He gave him a gold chain (another sign of royal authority).
He gave him a chariot for transportation (so he could go wherever he wished).
He had the soldiers call out “Bow down!” when Joseph passed by (so everyone got the message).
The wife came with the job
‘”Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt” (v. 43).
Not bad for a Hebrew slave.
They even gave him an Egyptian wife named Asenath who was the daughter of a pagan priest. I tend to think that the wife came with the job. Pharaoh wanted Joseph to become a family man.
All of this happened when he was only 30 years old. Thirteen years earlier he was tending the flocks with his brothers. Now he is the Prime Minister of Egypt.
How much of this did Joseph see in advance? Not a bit.
How much of it happened by chance? None of it.
Who was behind it all? God.
6. God Caused the Years of Plenty and Famine to Come
It all happened as Joseph had predicted. First came the seven years of plenty when there was more than enough food. Even with one-fifth of the grain put into storage, everyone in Egypt had plenty to eat. But eventually the seven years of famine came. As crops dried up and hunger spread, this is what happened:
When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph. What he says to you, do” (v. 55).
It all happened exactly as Joseph had said it would.
It all happened exactly as God had planned.
Joseph still could not yet see the big picture of what God intended.
As far as he knew, he was doing God’s will as the prime minister of Egypt.
Nothing more, nothing less.
But God had bigger plans in mind.
7. God Gave Joseph Two Sons
Finally there is a wonderful note of hope in this story:
Before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph. Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore them to him. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (vv. 50-52).
Note that Manasseh and Ephraim are Hebrew names. Even though he was living in Egypt and even though he married an Egyptian woman who was the daughter of a pagan priest, Joseph gave his two sons names that would remind them forever of their true heritage. It tells us that though he appeared to be Egyptian on the outside, on the inside he still worshiped the God of his fathers.
He named his firstborn son Manasseh, which sounds like the Hebrew word “forget.” He even spelled out the meaning so no one could mistake it. “God has made me forget all my hardship and my father’s house.” He didn’t mean he had forgotten his family. As we will see later in the story, they remained always close to his heart. But it means that God had enabled him to forget the pain of the rejection and betrayal by his brothers.
Manasseh must come before Ephraim
Recently I ran across this quote: “We can move on from things we will never get over.” That strikes me as profoundly wise. Sometimes people glibly say, “Just get over it.” How do you “get over” hatred, envy, conspiracy, attempted murder, betrayal, and being sold into slavery? You don’t ever really “get over” things like that. They mark you for life. Some things that happen to us leave scars on the soul that time does not erase. Joseph would never forget what his brothers had done, but he would forgive them.
It is a great advance spiritually to say, “God has made me forget the pain of my past.”
The second child he called Ephraim, which means made fruitful. The Hebrew is a form that means something like “super-fruitful.” The “land of my affliction” refers to all that he suffered in Egypt-the false accusation, the unjust imprisonment, and the years of total abandonment. Yet in that place where he had suffered so much, he now experiences untold blessing.
The order of these names is important.
Manasseh must come before Ephraim.
First we are set free from bitterness, then we experience God’s blessing.
That too was because of God’s sovereignty.
When a man believes in a sovereign God, he can let go and move on.
I have often mentioned the First Law of Spiritual Progress, which is really a series of three statements:
I can’t go back.
I can’t stay here.
I must go forward.
There is no going back for any of us
There was no going back for Joseph, no way to undo what his brothers had done to him, no way to undo the lies of Potiphar’s wife. Likewise, there is no going back for any of us. We can’t stay where we are because life is a river that flows ever onward. The only thing left is to go forward with God’s help and by God’s grace.
We all go through hard moments. Long ago the wise man said, “Into each life some rain must fall.” For some reason, while I typed those words I could picture the girl in a yellow dress holding an umbrella on a carton of Morton Salt. Their slogan is, “When it rains, it pours.” We all get hit with a thunderstorm eventually.
A Voice from the Past
I was reminded of that recently when Marlene said to me, “You’ll never guess who sent you an email.” She mentioned the name of someone I haven’t seen in more than a quarter-century. It brought to mind an extremely painful time for me and my family. Through a long series of strange events and foolish mistakes (some of them made by me), a shared dream crumbled into the dust.
It is a great advance spiritually to say, “God has made me forget the pain of my past.”
Fingers were pointed.
Bitter words spoken.
That was a long time ago both in real time and in “life time.” This particular person wrote out of the blue (but not by chance) to say, “I am not sure you remember me and if you do it is probably a bad memory.” I had hardly thought about those bad times in many years. So much has happened since then that it never comes to mind. I was glad to write back these words that same day:
It was so good to hear from you. I was very happy to hear that you are doing so well and that God has blessed you in so many ways. As for what happened, well, that was a long time ago. I thought about it today and realized that most of what happened is hazy in my mind now. It was strange the way things worked out, but this week I am preaching on the life of Joseph and making the point that God is in charge of both the good and bad times of life. Things didn’t work out the way any of us thought they would. But please know that I have no bad memories of you.
Every word I wrote was true. I can say with Joseph, “Manasseh.” God has made me forget the pain of the past and freed me from bitterness. And I look at my family and say, “Ephraim.” I have seen the blessing of God in ways I couldn’t have imagined all those years ago.
I simply say, “God is good”
I can’t change the past and I don’t want to.
I simply say, “God is good.”
We need a big God.
We need a God big enough to cover all our pain.
At the beginning of Genesis 41, Joseph languishes in prison.
At the end, he is the prime minister of Egypt.
How much of this did he see in advance? Zero!
Who did this? God did!
So we come back to the central question of this message:
How big is your God?
Is he big enough for your problems?
Is he big enough for your future?
Is he big enough for your pain?
Is he big enough for your fears?
Is he big enough for whatever you’re facing?
If he isn’t, maybe you need to trade him in for the God of the Bible.
This story is about to get amazing. The scene is now set.
The greatest drama is about to begin.
Back in Canaan, the brothers think Joseph is long dead.
Boy, are they in for the shock of their lives!
Stay tuned. This story is about to get amazing.