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Vol. 5, Sermon 2 - Joseph's Forgiveness of His Bretheren

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached June 18, 1851

      "And when Joseph's brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him. And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him. And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants. And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now, therefore, fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them."-Gen. 1. 15-21.

      Christianity is a revelation of the love of God-a demand of our love by God based thereon. Christianity is a revelation of Divine forgiveness-a requirement thereupon that we should forgive each other.

      "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another" (John xiii. 3 4); "Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well, for so I am. If I, then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you" (John xiii. 13-15); "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" (Matt. vi. 12); "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another" (I John iv. 11); "Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Ephes. iv. 32).

      Now these duties of love, forgiveness, service, are called "new commandments." But we should greatly mistake if we suppose that they are new in this sense, that they were created by the Gospel, and did not exist before. The Gospel did not make God love us; it only revealed His hove. The Gospel did not make it our duty to forgive and love; it only revealed the eternal order of things, to transgress which is our misery. These belong to the eternal order and idea of our humanity. We are not planted by Christ in a new arbitrary state of human relationships, but redeemed into the state to which we were created.

      So St. John says, "I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you; because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth "-old, because of the eternal order of love; new, because shown in the light of the love of Christ. Christianity is the true life-the right humanity.

      Now the proof of this is, that ages before Christ appeared, they who gave themselves up to God to be led instead of to their own hearts, did actually reduce to practice, and manifested in their lives, those very principles which, as principles, were only revealed by Christ.

      Here, for instance, three thousand years before Christ, Joseph, a Hebrew slave, taught by life's vicissitudes, educated by God, acts out practical Christianity-one of its deepest and most difficult lessons. There is nothing in the New Testament more childlike than this forgiveness of his brethren. Some perhaps may be shocked at dwelling on this thought: it seems to them to derogate from Christ. This is as if they thought that they honored Christ by believing that until He came no truth was known-that He created truth. These persons tremble at every instance of a noble or pure life which can be shown in persons not enlightened by Christianity. But, in truth, this us a corroboration of Christianity. Christianity is a full revelation of the truth of life, into which every one who had been here had, in his measure, struck his roots before. It is simply "the truth, the same yesterday, to-day and forever." And all instances of such a life only corroborate the truth of the revelation.

      We divide our subject into two parts:

      I. The petition of the brethren.

      II Joseph's forgiveness.

      1. The petition was suggested by their own anticipations of vengeance. Now whence came these anticipations? I reply, from their own hearts. Under similar circumstances they would have acted so, and they took for granted that Joseph would. We suspect according to our nature, we look on others as we feel. Suspicion proves character, so does faith. We believe and suspect as we are. But unless there had been safety for them in Joseph's heart, a guaranty in the nobleness of Joseph's nature, their abject humiliation would have saved them nothing. Little they knew the power of hate, the sweetness of revenge, if they fancied that a grudge treasured up so many years would be foregone on the very verge of accomplishment for the sake of any satisfaction, prayer, apology.

      Now the error of Joseph's brethren is our error towards God. Like them, we impute to God our own vindictive feelings, and, like them, we pray a prayer which is in itself an insult or absurd. We think that sin is an injury, a personal affront, instead of a contradiction of our own nature, a departure from the Divine harmony, a disfigurement of what is good. Consequently we expect that God resents it. Our vindictive feelings we impute to God: we would revenge, therefore we think He would. And then in this spirit, "Forgive us," means, "Forego thy vengeance. Do not retaliate. I have injured Thee; but lo! I apologize, I lie in the dust. Bear no malice, indulge no rancor, 0 God!" This is the heathen prayer which we often offer up to God. And just as it must have been unavailing in Joseph's case except there were safety in Joseph's character, so must it be useless in ours unless in God's nature there be a guaranty which we think our prayers create. Think on that God, if revengeful, can be bought off by prayer, by rolling in the dust, by unmanly cries, by coaxing, or flattery? God's forgiveness is the regeneration of our nature. God can not avert the consequences of our sin.

      We must get rid of these heathen ideas of God. God's forgiveness is properly our regeneration. You can not by prayer buy off God's vindictiveness; for God is not vindictiveness, but love. You can not by prayer avert the consequences of sin, for the consequences are boundless, inseparable from the act. Nor is there in time or eternity any thing that can sever the connection. If you think that you can sin, and then by cries avert the consequences of sin, you insult God's character. You can only redeem the past by alteration of the present. By faith in God's love, by communion with His Spirit, you may redeem yourself; but you can not win the love of God by entreaty unless that love be yours already-yours, that is, when you claim it.

      2. Next, observe the petition was caused by their father's insisting on their asking pardon.

      He recognized the duty of apology. For Jacob knew that Joseph bore no malice. Not to change Joseph, but to fulfill their obligations, he gave the charge that required satisfaction. We know how false conceptions are of satisfaction: in the language of the old duel, to give satisfaction meant to give one who had been injured by you an opportunity of taking your life. In the language of semi-heathen Christianity, to satisfy God means to give God an equivalent in blood for an insult offered. No wonder that with such conceptions the duty of apology is hard-almost impossible. We can not say, "I have erred," because it gives a triumph. Now the true view of satisfaction is this-to satisfy, not revenge, but the law of right. The sacrifice of Christ satisfied God, because it exhibited that which alone can satisfy Him, the entire surrender of humanity. The satisfaction of an apology is doing the right-satisfying-doing all that can be done.

      It may be our lot to be in Jacob's circumstances: we may be arbiters in a dispute, or seconds in a quarrel. And remember, to satisfy in this sense is not to get for your friend all his vindictiveness requires, or to make him give as little as the other demands, but to see that he does all that should of right be done.

      His honor! Yes; but you can not satisfy his honor by glutting his revenge, only by making him do right. And if he has erred or injured, in no possible way can you repair his honor or heal his shame except by demanding that he shall make full acknowledgment. "I have erred " it is very hard to say; but because it is hard it is therefore manly. You are too proud to apologize, because it will give your adversary an advantage? But remember, the advantage is already given to him by the wrong that you have done, and every hour that you delay acknowledgment you retain your inferiority; you diminish the difference and your inferiority so soon as you dare to say, "I did wrong; forgive me."

      3. Plea-as servant of the same God (ver. 17). Forgiveness is not merely a moral but a religious duty. Now remember this was an argument which was only available in behalf of the Jews. It could not have been pleaded for an Egyptian. Joseph might have been asked to forgive on grounds of humanity; but not by the sanctions of religion, if an Egyptian had offended him. For an Egyptian did not serve the God of his fathers.

      How shall we apply that? According to the spirit in which we do, we may petrify it into a maxim narrower than Judaism, or enlarge it into Christianity. If by "servants of the God of our fathers," we mean our own sect, party, church, and that we must forgive them, narrow indeed is the principle we have learnt from this passage. But Judaism was to preserve truth-Christianity to expand it. Christianity says, just as Judaism did, "Forgive the servants of the God." Its pleas are, "Forgive: for he is thy fellow-servant. Seventy times seven times forgive thy brother." But it expands that word "brother" beyond what the law ever dreamed of-God is the Father of man. If there be a soul for which Christ did not die, then that man you are not, on Judaistic principles, bound to forgive. If there be one whom the love of God does not embrace in the Gospel family, then for that one this plea is unavailing. But if God be the Father of the race, and if Christ died for all; if the word "neighbor" means even an alien and a heretic; then this plea, narrowed by the law to his nation, expands for us to all because the servant of our Maker and the child of our Father, therefore he must be forgiven, let him be whosoever be may.

      II. Let us consider, in the second place, Joseph's forgiveness.

      1. Joseph's forgiveness was shown by his renunciation of the office of avenger-"Am I in the place of God?" Now this we may make to convey a Christian or a heathen sense, as we read it. It might read-we often do read it-we often say it thus: "I will not avenge, because God will. If God did not, I would. But certain that He will do it, I can wait, and I will wait, long years; I will watch the reverses of fortune; I will mark the progress of disease; I will observe the error, failing, grief, loss; and I will exult and say, 'I knew it, but my hand was not on him; God has revenged me better than I could myself.'" This is the cold-blooded, fearful feeling that is sometimes concealed under Christian forgiveness. Do not try to escape the charge. That feeling your heart and mine have felt, when we thought we were forgiving, and were praised for it. That was not Joseph's meaning. Read it thus: "If God does not, dare I avenge? 'Am I in the place of God?' Dare I

      "'Snatch from His hand the balance and the rod,
      Rejudge His justice, be the God of God?'"

      So speaks St. Paul, "Vengeance is mine." Therefore wait, sit still, and see God's wrath? No! "Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink." This is the Christian revenge.

      I say not that there is no such thing as the duty of redressing wrongs, especially those of others. There is a keen sense of wrong, a mighty demand of the heart for justice, which can not be put aside. And he who can not feel indignation against wrong can not, in a manly way, forgive injury. But I say, the only revenge which is essentially Christian is that of retaliating by forgiveness. And he who has ever tasted that Godlike feeling of forbearance when insulted; of speaking well of one who has slandered him (pleasure all the more exquisite if the slanderer does not know it); of doing service in requital of an injury; he, and only he, can know how it is possible for our frail humanity, by abnegating the place of God the Avenger, to occupy the place of God the Absolver.

      2. Joseph forgave, or facilitated forgiveness, by observing the good results of what had seemed so cruel (ver. 20). Good out of evil-that is the strange history of this world, whenever we learn God's character. No thanks to you. Your sin dishonored you, though it will honor God. By our intentions, and not by the results, are our actions judged. Remember this tenaciously: forgiveness becomes less difficult, your worst enemy becomes your best friend, if you transmute his evil by good. No one can really permanently injure us but ourselves. No one can dishonor us: Joseph was immured in a dungeon. They spat on Christ. Did that sully the purity of the one, or lower the Divine dignity of the other?

      3. He forgot the injury. He spake kindly to them, comforted them, and bade them fear not. An English proverb has joined forgiving and forgetting. No forgiveness is complete which does not join forgetfulness. You forgive only so far as you forget. But here we must explain, else we get into the common habit of using words without meaning. To forget, literally, is not a matter of volition. You can by will remember-you can not by an act of will forget-you can not give yourself a bad memory if you have a good one. In that sense, to forget is a foolish way of talking. And indeed to forget in the sense of oblivion would not be truly forgiving; for if we forgive only while we do not recollect, who shall insure that with recollection hate shall not return?

      More than that. In the parable of the forgiving debtor, you remember his sin in this sense was not forgotten. Fresh sin waked up all the past. He was forgiven; then he was reminded of the past debt, and cast into prison. Not for his new offense, but for his old debt, was he delivered to the tormentors-it was not forgotten. But the true Christian forgiveness, as here in Joseph's example, is unconditional. Observe-he did not hold his brethren in suspense; he did not put them on their good behavior; he did not say, "I hold this threat over you if you do it again." That is forgiving and not forgetting. But that was a frank, full, free remission-consoling them-trying to make them forget-neither by look or word showing memory, unless the fault had been repeated. It was unconditional, with no reserve behind. That was forgiving and forgetting.

      To conclude. Forgiveness is the work of a long life to learn. This was at the close of Joseph's life. He would not have forgiven them in youth-not when the smart was fresh-ere he saw the good resulting from his suffering. But years, experience, trial, had softened Joseph's soul. A dungeon and a government had taught him much; also his father's recent death. Do not think that any formula will teach this. No mere maxims got by heart about forgiveness of injuries-no texts perpetually on the tongue will do this-God alone can teach it: By experience; by a sense of human frailty; by a perception of "the soul of goodness in things evil;" by a cheerful trust in human nature; by a strong sense of God's love; by long and disciplined realization of the atoning love of Christ: only thus can we get that free, manly, large, princely spirit which the best and purest of all the patriarchs, Joseph, exhibited in his matured manhood.

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