Hope and the reality of death – Genesis 48-50

During the week I was walking past Rog’s office. He was talking with Steve, and I heard him say: Old age has its own vulnerabilities. Steve agreed, and it seemed to me that these two older gentlemen that I work with were both speaking from experience.

To his credit though, Rog has been trying to ward off some of the vulnerabilities of old age through attempts at exercise. Two weeks ago I mentioned his attempt at cycling, this week I mentioned to him some basic exercises I’d seen in a 7 minute workout, he said he’d give it a go with his kids. The next morning Carolyn sent me a text with a picture: You should hear the grunts and groans coming from this exercise routine. He was obviously putting in a lot of effort. Soon afterwards I got another picture with these words And a few minutes later, girls hard at it, Roger nowhere to be seen!

Explode of rainbow woldIt’s fun to tease Rog and Steve, but the reality is we’re all getting old at the same rate they are. No matter what age we are, or how much exercise we do, there is an inevitable destination we are all heading to. That destiny, seems to be a main focus of these last 3 chapters of Genesis. It finishes with two deathbed scenes – first Jacob, then Joseph. it’s as though in these chapters, God wants us to think about death. The Bible says it’s good for us to think about death:

It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

It’s good for us consider the reality of death, to take it to heart, so let’s do that today as we consider  three points: 1. Painful reality of death 2. Certain Hope in death 3. Present Impact of hope in death

1. Painful reality of death

 Death is a theme in every section of these last 3 chapters. You can see that in this outline (below). Chapter 48 begins with Jacob ill, and we get these two deathbed blessing scenes:

Overview
1 Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh (48:1-22)
2 Jacob blesses his sons (49:1-28)
3 Jacob’s final instructions, death and burial (49:29-50:14)
4 Joseph reassures his brothers (50:15-21)
5 Joseph’s final words and death (50:22-26)

Death is a theme in every section. We don’t get many of the details of his last 17 years of Jacob’s life in Egypt, it’s as though it races through that, then right at the end of his life it slows down and gets us to take in his death over these three chapters. After he dies Joseph lives for another 50 years or so but we hear almost nothing of that time, it races through it until it slows down at the end to focus on Joseph’s final words and his death.

Death is in fact all through Genesis, from Genesis 3 where humans first to turn from God to Genesis 50,. the words, die, died, death or dead occur over 80 times.  Genesis 5, the earliest list of names we have in the Bible give us each person’s name, tells us how long he lived, that he had children, and ends with the phrase ‘and then he died’. That phrase ‘and then he died’ repeats again and again through the chapter reinforcing the reality that death is inescapable.  Ecclesiastes is right: death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

Death is a painful reality. If you look at 50:1 you see Jacob breathes his last and Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him. You see the affection Joseph had for his father, the grief he feels at being separated from the father who had loved him so much. He knew his father would die, yet it was still painful. Death is painful. That’s true in all cultures. We get a glimpse of ancient Egyptian culture here 50v3 says they mourned for him seventy days. Then after they travel up to Canaan for the burial, v10 says they lamented loudly and bitterly and there Joseph observed a (further) seven-day period of mourning for his father.

To us culturally that might seem like a lot of mourning, yet whether we mourn loudly and openly and officially, or grieve more quietly and privately grief can last much longer than the mourning period here. Not everyone grieves the same way, grief goes go through various stages, it can hit you more at sometimes than others, yet there is a sense in which the heart of grief never fully goes away, humans will always long to see our loved ones again.

Some try to say that death is natural. But if death is so natural, why is it so painful, the Bible says death is a curse, that has come into the world because we’ve turned our backs on God. It is a painful reality.

I’ve been reading some Famous Five books with one of my daughters. Sometimes we finish a chapter at night and leave it hanging with the bad guys closing in and the famous five in danger. When that happens my daughter says to me, don’t worry dad, they’re going to be alright  – there are lots more books in the famous five series, so it’s obvious they’ll survive. She’s only 6 but she knows that in a series like that the good guys never die.

A couple of years ago my wife gave me the Bourne movie trilogy, and we just recently got around to watching them. The Bourne movies are a little like famous five, for grown-ups. There’s a bit of a mystery, both series follow a bit of a formula. The Bourne movies are chase movies, in the first one he’s getting chased across Europe in the second he gets chased in India, then Russia, then in the final one he gets chased in North Africa then America. I don’t think I’m spoiling it for you if I say, that in a Bourne movie, like the famous five stories, the hero gets chased, but he never dies. It’s a movie franchise, you want to keep the main character alive in case you want to make another sequel.

The Bible is more realistic than a famous five book, or a Bourne movie. In the Bible, the main characters consistently die. Just as in life, you and all those you love will die. Death is a painful reality

2. Certain hope in death

When I was younger I was often afraid of dying. I’d sometimes get anxious at night and check my heart rate or my pulse, to make sure I was still alive. It’s very common for humans to feel anxious or fearful about death, there’s so much about death we don’t know and the fact we often don’t like to talk about it, can make that fear or anxiety worse. In these chapters we see Jacob then Joseph talking very openly about their deaths, they know it is coming, yet there is a confidence and hope as they approach death.

Look at the phrase Jacob uses to refer to his death in 49:29 he says I am about to be gathered to my people. That phrase is repeated again in v33 Jacob breathed his last and was gathered to his people. That phrase echoes God’s earlier promise to Jacob: You…will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age (Genesis 15:15). Jacob dies in peace, he’s gathered to his people, with a certainty and confidence in God and his promises.

If you were to choose an event from Jacob’s life that demonstrates his faith, what would you choose? His persevering despite his uncle’s deceptions? His wrestling with God as he prepared to meet Esau? The writer to the Hebrews picks Jacob’s deathbed blessings:  By faith Jacob when he was dying blessed each of Joseph’s sons (Hebrews 11:21)

Turn back to Genesis 48:15-16 and read Jacob’s words of blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh: May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, 16 the Angel who has delivered me from all harm may he bless these boys. Jacob looking back on his hard and difficult life, knows that the God has been his shepherd, constantly caring for him, delivering him, will keep his covenant. He looks forward to the future, dying with a confident hope in God’s promises.

If you had to pick an event from Joseph’s life that showed his great faith, what would you chose? His resisting the temptation of Potiphar’s wife? His integrity as a slave then in gaol? His forgiving attitude to his brothers? The writer to the Hebrews picks Joseph’s deathbed instructions: By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones. (Hebrews 11:22).

Both Jacob and Joseph are very definite about being buried NOT in Egypt, but in the promised land. They both make their descendants swear to do it. They were both embalmed or mummified, so that they could be taken out of Egypt. They are saying, our future is not here, our future is with God and his promises. Look at the huge crowd that goes out for Jacob’s funeral. 50 v7 All Pharaoh’s  officials accompanied him. v8 all the members of Joseph’s household...all those belonging to his father’s household . This huge crowd going from Egypt to Canaan is a prelude or foretelling of the Exodus, when all the Israelites will leave Egypt to go to the promised land.[1]

Joseph speaks of that Exodus in his final words, look at 50v24 Joseph said to his brothers, I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place. Genesis begins with God creating a beautiful paradise, and ends with Joseph’s bones in a coffin. It sounds despairing, yet those bones are a sign of hope, a sign of faith in God’s promises. When the Israelites became enslaved as God said they would, for hundreds of years Joseph’s bones in a coffin remained with them, a physical reminder of God’s promises.

Joseph’s bones were carried out when God rescued his people, and they were buried in the promised land, but ultimately Jacob and Joseph, were looking beyond Canaan. In the words of Hebrews:  ‘they were longing for a better country, a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11:16). They were looking forward not just to the Exodus, but to the resurrection.

Jesus says: But about the resurrection of the dead have you not read what God said to you, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. (Matthew 20:32). Jacob who has been dead for centuries, is still living to God. God is still in a covenant relationship with Jacob. From God’s perspective, Jacob is living, and Jacob will one day be physically raised, because God will keep his promise to be his God.

Jesus not only spoke of the resurrection of the dead, he also made it possible: Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death that is, the devil and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15).  Fear of death, can enslave us, but Jesus death can free us from that fear. Jesus death is the sacrifice that undoes the hold that sin had over us. His resurrection points the way to our resurrection. Through Jesus we can have confidence in the face of death.

David Powlison says a friend of his often asks people, Who are you looking forward to meeting when you get to heaven? People tell him about their loved ones, or interesting people from the Bible, but almost no one says, Jesus. Which is strange because it is only through Jesus that we can have confidence in the face of death, if we trust him, he should be the one we most want to see.

You cannot face death with true, honest courage unless you are looking forward to meeting Jesusthe One who faced death for you and who is now alive and with you. (David Powlison)[2]

We see this in Jesus followers. Stephen, as he was being stoned, died with confidence praying: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. (Acts 7:59). Paul speaks of death says: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far (Philippians 1:23). For a Christian, to die, is to be with Christ. Through Jesus we can face death with certain hope.

Henri Malan, wrote this hymn that was updated recently by Bob Kauflin:

It is not death to die
To leave this weary road
And join the saints who dwell on high
 
Who
ve found their home with God
It is not death to close
The eyes long dimmed by tears
And wake in joy before Your throne
 
Delivered from our fears
CHORUS
 
O Jesus, conquering the grave
Your precious blood has power to save
 
Those who trust in You
Will in Your mercy find
That it is not death to die

3. Present impact of hope in death

Jacob and Joseph both had faith in God and his promises that gave them certain hope as they approached death. They were longing for the ultimate heavenly country, yet they weren’t so heavenly minded they were of no earthly good. Instead their faith and hope in what was to come, freed them up to do good in the present.

We’ve seen some of the good Joseph achieved in his life, God used him not just to save his own people, but also to help the Egyptians, and others from the nations around him. We’ve seen, his willingness to forgive his brothers, and we see it again in chapter 50. Joseph’s brother’s come to him with a story, which looks totally made up, about their father saying I ask you to forgive you brothers. Let’s read Joseph’s response 50v19 Dont be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, dont be afraid. I will provide for you and your children. And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. Joseph knows he is not God. He’s not the ultimate judge. His faith is in God. He knows God is completely sovereign over everything. So sovereign that what his brothers intended for harm, God always intended for ultimate good. Joseph’s big view of God helps him not just as he faces death, but in his ordinary relationships. He’s able to forgive others in the present because of his confidence in God.

In the first three centuries the Christian church grew from a small group of frightened followers to a time when over half the Roman empire called themselves Christians. Historians have tried to work out why the church grew particularly in the face of so much persecution. During that time, the Roman empire went through two periods of plagues that last about fifteen years each. One began around 165AD  another around 251 and during their peak thousands of people were dying.[3] Many pagans of the day left Rome, to try and escape the plague. But the Christians mostly stayed. They weren’t worried if they caught the plague, or even died because they knew they had far better to come. When someone got sick among the pagans, their own family members abandoned them – they just left them to die. In contrast the Christians not only cared for their own family members who got the plague, they also went out and cared for many pagan people who had been abandoned by their families. Many of the people they cared for got better, and the number of Christians grew during the time of both of these plagues. The Christians were heavenly minded, and because of this, they were being of earthly good, caring for others. It was the pagans who didn’t believe in heaven, that were of no earthly good, they were just living for themselves, abandoning people and getting out of town. The Christians belief in God and in eternity made them willing to serve others in this life.

If you read history, you will find that Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman EmpireEnglish Evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on the earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with HeavenAim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in: aim at earth, and you will get neither. (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, 118).

There’s a youtube clip, some of you may have seen with an illustration by Francis Chan where he gets a rope like this one and he says: Imagine this rope is much longer and goes around the world a few times. Now imagine that this rope is a timeline of your existence, it just goes on forever. This short part of it here, represents your time on earth. The Bible says our life is like a breath, we’re here for such a short time. Yet beyond that stretches an eternity. For Christians that involves the unimaginable glory of the new heavens and the new earth.

What’s amazing is that you can spend all of your time, all of your attention focusing on this part. You can be here near the beginning and think, I can’t wait till I’m here. Or you think, I’m going to work really hard here, so I can enjoy this little part at the end. That’s just crazy, because you’re not thinking about this, or this, or this (further along rope). There’s a close relationship between the two sections on the rope. What we believe about the section that represents eternity, will determine how we live in this section that represents our life, and what we believe and do in our life, will determine where we’ll spend all this section (eternity).

What’s something you don’t own, that you really like to own? If your trust is in God, you’ll think, I may never own that thing because I’m spending my money here to seek first God’s kingdom, to help others know about Jesus, and that’s OK, what does it matter if I never own that thing I really want in this section, I’ve got God, and he’s worth more to me than anything and I’ve got all that to enjoy him and his glory.

What’s something you’d really like to do? Something you’d put on your bucket list if you use that term. If your trust is in God, you’ll think, even if I don’t ever get to do that thing in this life, it doesn’t matter, because I’ve got all this to enjoy far more with God.

Paul says: For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17). He’s saying that even the most painful things we have to go through in this life, like the real pain of death, is light and momentary compared to the eternal glory.

Hope in death, through Jesus, transforms how we live in the present.

While I draw this fleeting breath;
When my eyelids close in death;
When I soar through realms unknown,
bow before the judgement throne,
hide me then, my refuge be
Rock of ages, cleft for me.
(Ruth Buchanan / Augustus Toplady)

Transcript of Sermon preached at MEC on 1 September 2013. Audio here

photo credit: Matthew Fang via photopin cc


[1] Jacob’s burial procession from Egypt to Canaan is doubtless seen as a pledge or acted prophecy of the nation’s future move.’ (Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 488)

[3] Ronald Starks, The Rise of Christianity.

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