Genesis 50 - How to Die. How to Live.
March 3, 2013 Speaker: Series: Genesis
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Genesis 49:28–50:26
[Text: Gen. 49:28-50:26] “How to Die. How to Live.”
The end of Genesis is really only the end of the beginning, but already we see transformation in the people of God. The covenant was changing the way they died…and the way they lived.
[Read Genesis 49:28-50:26 and Pray]
Genesis is the beginning of the Story of Redemption that runs throughout the rest of the Scriptures, reaching its climax in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Central to the Story is the Covenant– the relationship between God and His people – in which God began His sovereign work to rescue the world broken by our sin and rebellion. We heard the first seed of that hope planted in the hearts of Adam and Eve when God promised He would crush the head of the dark power of sin through the offspring of the woman. We heard how big God’s redemptive purposes were when He promised Noah that this covenant extended to all of creation. And we heard it again when God narrowed His redemptive focus to Abraham so that through his offspring, redemption and blessing would eventually come to all the families of the earth – including us.
Now, as Genesis closes, the people of God know where they came from. They know about the covenant, the relationship God made with them, which explains why everything had happened to them – from their years of slavery in Egypt to the greater purposes of the Exodus that followed. Because of His covenant promises, God was working to rescue them…but not just them. He was keeping His promise to take this world where things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be and make it new and whole again.
In this final passage of Genesis, we see the death of two patriarchs and a scene of grace and comfort being shown to those who were afraid. And in this the people of God would have seen how this covenant God had made with them could transform their walk as pilgrims in this world. Because in death and in life, they belonged to their God and nothing was going to stop the rescue He was accomplishing in the covenant.
The people of God needed this word because they needed to be assured of God’s love. Death, the consequence of the Fall, still loomed over each of them. They needed a testimony from their father and brother that death was not the end for the people of God. They needed to know that, even if their bodies lay in the ground, their God was active and alive and would accomplish all that He promised. And they needed further assurance of the grace of God toward sinners because there would be times when their own consciences would accuse them and made them afraid. Having the assurance that this was a gracious covenant would be the only way for them to live in peace before their Holy God.
And so, this covenant God gave to His people transformed the way they died and the way they lived. It still does today. The covenant teaches us how to die well and how to live well.
It teaches us to die well because, like the patriarchs, we have a sure hope in this covenant that (1) we are at peace with God, (2) we do not die alone; we belong to a covenant community and (3) we have the hope of the resurrection. And all this is more certain for us than it was for the patriarch because where they rested on the “bare promises” (as Calvin puts it), we rest on the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our peace with God, who made us members together in his body and who has already been raised from the dead to guarantee that we, too, will be raised.
And the covenant teaches us how to live because we, like Joseph’s brothers, are still afraid sometimes that the forgiveness once given will be taken back. But that is not the way the covenant works. In the covenant we can live well knowing that (1) the grace of our brother, Jesus, never fails; (2) we live under the watchful care of God and (3) we have his promises to us that he will come again.
So listen to what your older brother, Moses, wrote so long ago and consider this: if they could die and live with confidence and peace in the covenant, how much more can we die and live with confidence and peace now that Jesus has come?
We stopped last week near the end of chapter 49 in v. 27 as Jacob finished blessing his sons and the tribes who would come from them. Then he commands his sons to bury him in the cave Abraham had purchased some 200 years before in the land of Canaan. It’s the cave where Jacob’s family is buried – Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah and Leah. Then, as if he’s simply going to bed after a long day, he pulls his feet up into the bed, breaths his last and is gathered to his people.
What is striking about this scene is how peaceful it is. That’s the first thing to hear – those whose consciences have been cleansed by the grace of God can die in peace. But how does that happen?
Do you remember the sign of the covenant that God gave to his people; the sign of circumcision in Genesis 17? It was a sign and guarantee that God had truly cleansed them of their sin and forgiven all their wrong in the covenant. As the people of God simply believed God at His word and directed their faith toward Him in the covenant, they were counted by God as righteous in His sight. That’s how it began with Abraham. He “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; Romans 4:3). And after he believed, then the sign and seal of his cleansing was put on him. Abraham, together with his children and then grandchildren, received the sign of the covenant and could know that they were at peace with God simply through faith in Him. In the covenant, their consciences were clean and they could face death, like Jacob, unafraid.
Compare that to Sir Francis Newport, the head of an English atheist’s club. It is told that “(He) said to those gathered around his dying bed, ‘You need not tell me there is no God for I know there is one, and that I am in His angry presence! You need not tell me there is no hell, for I already feel my soul slipping into its fires! Wretches, cease your idle talk about there being hope for me! I know I am lost forever.’”
What gifts would men give to die with a clean conscience? How many kings of the earth have offered their kingdom for another month of life? But what men would buy or earn, God offers freely in the covenant. The people of God only need believe Him at His word and embrace the covenant by faith. Then, they could bear death knowing that they had nothing to fear.
As you grow (yes, you can grow) in your assurance of God’s grace toward you because of Jesus, you, too, can face death (and life!) with this same peace because of a clean conscience. The book of Hebrews (where we will soon go for our next sermon series) tells us that because of the blood of Christ, offered as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, we can approach God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22 ESV) The writer pulls in something beautiful here that we need to embrace. He shows the remarkable connection between baptism (which replaced circumcision and all it represented) with the cleansing of our consciences. Just as Jacob and all Israel could look to the sign of circumcision, believing that it was a physical sign and guarantee of a spiritual reality, so you and I can look to our baptism believing that what God promised to us in Jesus He is really giving to us. By faith in Christ and by resting in his finished work on the cross, you can have peace even in death because you are at peace with God. Whether young or old, rich or poor, healthy or with failing flesh, those who belong to the faithful Savior, purchased by his blood, can die in peace with a clean conscience.
The second thing to hear is that if we die we die as members of the covenant community; we do not die alone. As Jacob dies in peace, trusting in the covenant promises of God, his death is an opportunity to urge those who live to embrace the promises for themselves. Jacob leaves behind a legacy here, even in his commands about his body, teaching the people of God about the nature of the covenant.
Think about how the grand, memorable funeral procession went as they obeyed Jacob’s command. The people of God, trusting in the promises of God about Canaan being their home, go up out of Egypt, skirt by the Red Sea, pass through the wilderness and enter into the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan. Sound familiar? It should. This is a pre-enactment of the Exodus that will come nearly 400 years later. And although Joseph and his brothers came back to Egypt (since God had not said their time in Egypt was finished) the people of God would know that there, in Canaan, in a cave belonging to their family, rested the bones of their fathers and mothers who lay as silent witnesses to the covenant promises. Their God had promised the Land would be theirs and the body of Jacob with his fathers’ and mothers’ held it in deposit.
As the people of Israel understood the covenant, they knew that they were members of one another. They weren’t just a collection of individuals who lived in a “me and Yahweh” mindset. They were a family – by blood, yes, but more importantly by faith – and they had obligations to urge each other to continue believing in the promises God had made in the covenant.
That’s how it still works in the covenant now that Jesus has come. He has united us together as His Body with himself as our Head. So, as you live and die believing the promises of God in Christ, you have the opportunity to bolster the faith of your brothers and sisters. As you make your exodus from this pilgrim life, you remind your family that they, too, will make that same journey safe in the arms of a God who keeps His promises in Christ.
There is one more truth in the covenant that has helped the people of God throughout time to die well. We hear it only quietly in the Old Testament, especially here so early in the Story. But there is a whisper that speaks of a hope beyond death – even a physical resurrection – for the covenant people.
We hear it from Jacob when in 49:29-30 he commanded his sons saying, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers…in the land of Canaan.” The spiritual hope is evident in the phrase “gathered to my people.” Though the exact nature of life after death is unclear, Jacob is confident that he does not go into oblivion, but into life with those covenant believers who have gone before him. But when holding that together with his directions concerning his body, it shows that his hope is not merely a spiritual hope, otherwise he would have no care for this flesh. Like Abraham in chapter 23, Jacob believes that the promise of God to give him the Land was certain. And since he died without it coming about, then God would bring it about at a later time, raising Jacob even from the dead to give to him what God had promised.
It’s only later in the Story, when Jesus comes, that we see clearly what Jacob greeted from afar. But in the resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that God made us body and soul and He intends to make both new and whole and perfect in righteousness and holiness. And in that hope we can face death unafraid.
The Curse of Sin continues to echo through Genesis here in the death of these two patriarchs. But louder than the echo of the Curse is the proclamation of God’s promises, spoken by these who were able to face death at peace because they believed God.
And as much as the covenant transforms how the patriarchs died, it also transformed the way they lived. Life changed for the brothers of Joseph because of the covenant. And what transformed them transforms us now that Jesus has come.
When Jacob died, the brothers (in 50:15) were afraid that Joseph would turn on them, that he had only been kind to them for the sake of their father. So, they send a message to Joseph about their father’s wishes saying Jacob wanted Joseph to forgive his brothers.
Now, whether or not Jacob really said that isn’t really important. The point is the brothers know their sin, they remember the evil they did against Joseph and now they need to know if they are truly forgiven. They are tormented by the fear that the grace once offered to them would be taken away.
But we see in Joseph that that would never happen. As he weeps over their unfounded fear, as he sees them submitting as slaves when they could be living as brothers, Joseph speaks to them, and his words have the effect of assuring them that they continue in his grace. He forgave them long ago and that will not change. He will provide for them and their little ones and that will not change. While they live they will live in the grace of their brother.
And, more than that, they will live in the grace of their Covenant God. See where Joseph roots his grace toward his brothers? Joseph is simply acting in line with what he has recognized God to be doing. When he asks, “…am I in the place of God?” he isn’t suggesting that he is withholding wrath because he expects God to execute revenge on their heads. He says that beneath and behind what they meant for evil, God was at work accomplishing good for the brothers and their families. So, for Joseph to be ungracious toward them would be to set himself in opposition to God and in opposition to this covenant of grace God had established!
While they lived Joseph’s brothers could live in confidence and peace. They didn’t have to be afraid because their God had chosen to be gracious toward them, to rescue them. They would live knowing that it was He who was keeping them alive.
There was one more thing, though, that would transform not only the way the brothers lived, but all the people of Israel who would be born in slavery in Egypt.
The end of Genesis 50 happens some sixty years later. Joseph had gotten to see the beginnings of his father’s blessings being brought into reality by his faithful God as he held his children, grand-children and great-grandchildren on his knee. Already, the people of God were growing and prospering in the covenant. But as his own death neared, Joseph spoke to his brothers, to all the people of Israel, about what was to come. And those words were meant to change the way they lived. They could live trusting in the promises of God.
We hear them in 50:24-26: “And Joseph said to 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.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.”
In the bodies of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that rested in Canaan, Israel already had a testimony that God would keep His promises. But in case those bones, so far removed from sight, lost their power to bear witness, Joseph commands that his own body should remain in Egypt until God visited His people. He identifies himself with his brothers and as Israel keeps care of Joseph’s coffin, they have among them a visual reminder that God was coming to them and would lead them out of slavery and into the Land where God and His people would be together again.
Israel could live during the coming 400 years of slavery believing that their God had not forgotten His covenant. Though they suffered oppression, though they were afflicted with burdens too heavy for them, though they died as strangers in a strange place – even so – they did not live or die outside of the covenant. Their God would come for them to bring them to Himself.
And He did come. In the Exodus God visited His people and the bones of Joseph went with Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land. But that was only a shadow of the fuller redemption in Christ, when God in the flesh visited His people in His Son, Jesus.
When we were lost outside of the covenant, lost because of our rebellion against God and without hope in life or death, God sent Jesus to fill up and give to us all the promises of this covenant of grace. He came suffering like Joseph to rescue us. And just as Joseph understood in hindsight that there was a purpose behind his suffering, Jesus knew the same thing beforehand – that through his death he would be rescuing a people for God. And Jesus stepped into it in willingly because he knew; through his death on the cross, pouring out his blood of infinite value, he would purchase our forgiveness and freedom.
When you and I simply believe in Jesus, resting and receiving the grace that he gives to us, we can live knowing that we live in the grace of our brother. His perfect love for us casts out our fear because there remains no punishment, no condemnation for our sin. He took it all for us on that cross. We can live knowing that the favor of God Himself rests on us and He will take care of us and our little ones in the covenant. And we can live trusting in the reality that God has already visited His people to rescue us from slavery to sin. And He has promised that He will visit us again, Hebrews says, “not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28 ESV)
By the blood of Christ, God has brought us into this covenant of grace so that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.” (Romans 14:8 ESV) Our part is simply to walk by faith in gratitude, working out this Gospel with the Spirit’s help in how we live and how we die; living in love for God and obedience that flows from love; living in love for each other and forgiving each other as we have been forgiven by Christ. Because for us, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
[Transition to the Lord’s Supper]
For you who believe in Christ, the good news you have heard from the Word of God is here presented to you in visible form. Far from depending on your love and faith, this meal is the assurance that what Christ purchased by his body and blood is certainly yours because he gives it to you. He gives you forgiveness. He gives you his own righteousness to stand with confidence before the Father. He gives you his peace in which you may live and die. He gives you himself to strengthen your faith and tell you that in this salvation he has accomplished he will provide for you your whole life long. Here, you only need to receive and believe him at his word.
 Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996).
More in Genesis
February 24, 2013Gen. 48-49 - Crossed Hands and Undeserved Blessings
February 10, 2013Genesis 46-47 - How God Supports His People
February 3, 2013Genesis 43-45 - Sovereign Grace