Arthur Brooks wrote in the Atlantic about three years ago the article, “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.” It sounds dire, but it’s good medicine every now and then to face the facts. Now the ministry isn’t a “profession” in the sense that pastors or ministers keep working their way up some ladder. And success is defined differently in different sectors. Success in ministry is defined, for example, by what Jesus commends the seven churches for in Revelation: patience, enduring slander, holding to your confession, love and faith, not soiling your spiritual garments, and holding fast to Christ. That’s how you measure ministry.
But the point of that article was to examine why most people begin to stagnate in their professional life in their 50s. Doesn’t that seem early? But it comes for us all. Everyone thinks they’re the exception, but statistically you’re not. Most people begin to feel stuck, like they’re behind, or like they can’t produce anything as great as they did in the previous 20 years. He tells quite a few compelling stories about how well-known people, both in the arts and the sciences, reported feeling like they were slipping and that anything they contributed didn’t really change the game anymore or move their career forward. Entrepreneurs are in their 20s and 30s, not in their 40s and 50s.
And he asked the question, “Is that it? Is that all there is? Do we retire and play golf? Do we freeze to death in Maine or burn alive in Florida?” What he discovered was that the people who continued to have an impact past the normal period of professional decline were those who embrace it and begin to think more about the future and other people than themselves. He gives the example of someone who did it well, of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Baroque composer of the early 1700s. Nobody compared to him. Bach is Baroque music. He wrote real cantatas for the church every week. But once Baroque music’s popularity began to fade, his son Emmanuel Bach found himself in a similar position of greatness but in the classical style of music. But Johann stayed relevant, not by continuing to write music that didn’t impress anyone anymore, but by writing about the art of music and teaching others. He wrote about how fulfilled he was in his later years by supporting the next generation of musicians and tending to his own spiritual life.
Joseph was just 17 when we met him in Genesis 37. Even with his ups-and-downs, he had a stellar career as the food czar in his 30s and saved untold numbers of people from death and disaster. But do you know long that career lasted? Fourteen years. Now as we say farewell to him in Genesis 50, he’s 110 years old. Ninety-three years have passed between him being sold into slavery and him dying as second-in-command in Egypt. He’s blessed with knowing his great-great-grandchildren. For just under a century, he’s lived in Egypt. But if Joseph is about 30 when his brothers and father move to Egypt, and he dies at 110, then Moses skips about 80 years of this man’s life. Surely he didn’t hit the links and move to Del Boca Vista.
Scripture is actually very clear that Joseph’s final years were spent preparing the people for the exodus.
Nothing about Joseph’s life was wasted. He didn’t become irrelevant because he was old. He made way for those coming up behind him, but he spent the last half of his life reminding his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren about the promises of God. And he didn’t just remind them, but he discipled them in his old age to expect God to fulfill his promises themselves. There is significant difference between passing on information and teaching someone to obey.
So what’s happened up to this point, between him becoming the czar of food distribution last week to his death this week?
So about 60 years pass between the end of chapter 49 and the beginning of 50. Then Genesis 50:22 reads, “So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived 110 years.” It’s not that these years have no significance, but their significance comes in how absolutely normal they were. The entire second half of his life was spent with his family, settling them in Egypt, but preparing them for the exodus.
Egypt was temporary, but it was also always a part of the divine plan.
God told Abraham, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13). The whole purpose of getting the Israelites out of the promised land was to show God’s patience toward the pagans already living in it. God tells Abraham that the sin of the pagans living in the land is not yet complete, meaning that he’s not destroying them for just a few sins. As they continue in rebellion, he’s patient. But one day, they will be removed to make room for the sons of Israel.
We know very well how Joseph’s faith was tested during the first half of his life. It was eventful; he needed to rely on God and the assurance that he would fulfill his promises. But he needed to rely on God’s promises all the same in the latter half of his life. He knew that there would be a return to the land God had promised to Abraham. The only promise concerning Egypt was that they wouldn’t stay more than a few generations.
Joseph tells his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24).
For Joseph, everything hinges on God being unchanging.
We’ve rehearsed those promises throughout the last few weeks, so just in summary, God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations, that kings would come from him, that he would have land and that land would increase, and his heritage would be a blessing to the world. And Joseph knew that Egypt was not where that promise would take root. Joseph must make sure that his family doesn’t get too comfortable in Egypt.
And that’s the whole point of the second half of Joseph’s life. He’s not the food czar when there’s no famine, he’s not next in line to become the Pharaoh, he’s just Joseph. He’s dad, grandpa, great-grandpa, and great-great-grandpa. When Scripture speaks about Joseph, they don’t always focus on the early parts of his life. Some do, of course, such as Psalm 105:16-22, “When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron; until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him. The king sent and released him; the ruler of the peoples set him free; he made him lord of his house and ruler of all his possessions, to bind his princes at his pleasure and to teach his elders wisdom.”
But the next passage moves on to say, “Then Israel came to Egypt; Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham. And the Lord made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes. He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants” (vv.22-24). So even here, the point of Joseph’s life is to get Israel to Egypt for protection but then to get them out by turning Pharaoh’s heart against them.
The primary focus is on Joseph being used by God to prepare his people for an exodus. We read in Hebrews 11:22, “By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.” There’s no mention of slavery, injustice, betrayal, restoration, prison, dreams, royalty, a new family, any of that. It’s about the final days of Joseph. And what about his bones? Egyptian burials were ornate. The process of mummification was intense. It took 70 days to totally embalm a body. And unlike his father, Jacob, Joseph isn’t buried. Once the family buried Jacob in Canaan, they all went back to Egypt. Once Joseph died, his body was placed in a coffin and left with the family. Joseph was left unburied and not taken to Egypt because the presence of his bones was a reminder that they will be buried, but they will not be buried here.
Egypt was not a nation of yokels. There are some ideas, but the fact is no one knows how the pyramids were built or how they’ve lasted this long. There is evidence that there were plans for a second Great Sphinx that was never finished. The biological expertise of embalming was unrivaled. The Egyptians had astronomers. It seems as though Egyptians are to blame for mathematics. This was the culture that gave Joseph his status, his dominion, his authority, his wealth, and his wife. But all these things weren’t enough to make Joseph an Egyptian. Sometimes we think that we have to disavow all worldly pleasures to truly be a Christian. While many things of this world are truly traps, many are not. Joseph enjoyed the best this world had to offer.
But none of it owned him. By enjoying the things of this world while looking to the country that was to come, he showed us how to keep from being held hostage by trinkets. Before reminding us of Joseph, we read in Hebrews 11:13-16, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
From age 17 on, Joseph never saw the things promised. He only knew of them from afar. Even then, Joseph was not just satisfied with the land of Israel. That’s not all he saw laying ahead. Looking back, Hebrews tells us that what Joseph and the others actually desired was a heavenly city prepared for them by God. In a nation as prosperous as ours, what bigger barrier to discipleship is there than the illusion of security? It’s not easy. We turn our minds to the things above, where true security lies.
Jesus tells a parade in Luke 12:16-21, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
No amount of money compares to the riches of God. There is no amount of stuff in this world, as good as it is, that compares to the riches of God. The things of this world can be so deceiving, so Paul tells us in Colossians 3:1-2, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
Maybe especially those of you in the latter half of your life, are you living a life that serves as an example to the next generation to obey all things Christ commanded? Are you living a life that expects the heavenly city prepared by God? Do you realize the opportunity you have? Are you spending your life preaching the right things? The main thing? We determine to know nothing among our families and neighbors and nations but Jesus Christ and him crucified. Our violin has one string. But a Stradivarius, even with a single string, still sounds better than a dime store fiddle with four strings.
Joseph says to his brothers and to his whole family, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24).
For the one expecting the heavenly country, death loses its grip.
Grief and fear are not opposites. We can grieve the loss of the ones we love while not fearing death ourselves. As a chaplain, especially when it comes to believers, I’ve seen enough people in the last days of their lives to know that those who are about to die usually welcome it while it’s the people beside the bed who are at a loss. That’s not to make light of the pain of it. It is to say that for the one who knows death is imminent, and for the one who knows that the heavenly country awaits him, fear is the last thing on his mind.
In the upper room, Jesus says to his disciples, “You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’” (John 13:33). The disciples are understandably upset that their teacher says he’s leaving without them. Soon after in John 14:1-4, Jesus then says, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.”
When Thomas, one of his disciples, then comes back and says that no, actually, we don’t know the way, Jesus corrects Thomas’s misunderstanding of a physical place by saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). So where is Jesus going? To the Father. How do we get to where he’s going? Through the Son.
A few verses later, still in the upper room, Jesus uses the same words and clarifies what he’s talking about when he says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home (or place, as in v.2) with him” (John 14:23). On into chapter 15, Jesus tells them, “Abide (the same word as place) in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
Jesus ascended to the Father to present his once-for-all sacrifice. Jesus prepared our place in the heavenly country by taking our place. By dying and being raised, Jesus prepared a place for us. And through the indwelling presence of the Spirit, the Father and the Son then make their home with us. And the ultimate goal, the heavenly country to which Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and all the Old Testament saints looked, is the eternal state when God dwells among us, when he is our God and we are his people, when every tear has been wiped away and death is no more.
Joseph’s final years were spent preparing the people for the exodus, showing them how to look forward to the heavenly city. Are you living your days out in this city looking forward to the heavenly city?