Groaning in Hope

Groaning in Hope

Once Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers conferred with one another over a nagging concern they shared. For despite the peaceful relations they had had with Joseph over the almost twenty years since they had learned that he was not only alive but serving as governor over Egypt, they nonetheless wondered what he might do to them now that their father had passed away. What if the reason Joseph had been kind to them was simply out of love and respect for their father? If this was so, now that he was gone might Joseph exact revenge for the evil they had done him when, at the age of seventeen, they had sold him as a slave and led their father to believe he had been killed by a wild animal? After all, Joseph still wielded the power he had once been granted by Pharaoh. And, if anything, his power and esteem had only grown in the eyes of the Egyptians. Therefore, since he didn’t need his brothers in order to live, might he punish or do away with them altogether now that their father had died?

We don’t know what, exactly, the specifics of the conversation Joseph’s brothers had with one another were. What we do have is a statement of the problem they perceived expressed in verse 15 of Genesis 50: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’” To me this sounds like the deliberation of a collective guilty conscience for nine of Joseph’s brothers—Reuben and Benjamin excepted—had been in on the initial plot to kill him which later turned into a plot to sell him off into slavery. But keep in mind that this regrettable—and regretted—event had occurred almost forty years earlier.[1] Not only that, but even at the time that Joseph first disclosed himself to his brothers, he made it clear that all was forgiven. Yet despite his gracious treatment of them since the time they had been reunited, Joseph’s brothers seemed unable to believe that Joseph had really forgiven them. They seemed unable to receive Joseph’s forgiveness.

Recall that when Joseph first made himself known to his brothers, he said to them,

I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt….[2]

After giving them instructions for bringing their father back with them in order that they might live in Goshen, “14 Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.”[3] In this earlier account from Genesis 45, it’s evident that Joseph understood all that had happened to him as having occurred by way of God’s providence, his protective care. This conviction is why he had told them,

“do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”

And, again, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”

And yet again, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.”

Joseph’s sincerity in making all of these points was evident not only in word but also in deed for he kissed not only Benjamin, his full brother by Rachel, but also all of his brothers and wept over them.

Yet despite their earlier reconciliation over fifteen years earlier and again, after almost forty years after they had sold him into slavery, Joseph’s brothers were nonetheless fearful about what he might do to them now that their father had died. The solution to their perceived dilemma that they came up with is stated in verses 16–17: 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly,’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” The fact that the brothers “sent word to Joseph” is an indication of the power differential that continued to exist between them for they were living in Goshen but he was still governor over Egypt. Additionally, notice that they appealed not only to their earthly father, Jacob, but also to their heavenly father: “please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”

Now the specific instructions from their father offered by Joseph’s brothers can’t help but leave us wondering: Did Jacob actually leave these instructions before he died—if so, wouldn’t he have also told them to Joseph?—or did the brothers fabricate them out of a concern and fear of what Joseph might do to them now that he was dead? We don’t know the answer to this but whether or not Jacob literally said these words to his eleven sons, they probably reflect his wishes for Jacob had borne twelve sons whose descendants would form the nation of Israel, that is, of Jacob. If his sons were to function as a united nation, they would need to learn how to get along. Even at a personal level we know that those who are parents generally want their children to get along. I still remember times when my brother and I fought as children and one of our parents would remind us that we were the only siblings we would ever have so we’d best figure out how to get along.

The end of verse 17 continues to leave us with more questions than answers in the seeming simplicity of what it states: “When their message came to him, Joseph wept.” Were Joseph’s tears due to his sorrow over the fact that his brothers were still carrying the guilt over what they had done to him almost forty years earlier? Or was it more that he was touched by the sorrow evidenced in their words? Perhaps he was saddened at the thought that after all this time they still didn’t know him for rather than trust in his forgiveness they yet feared him. Whatever the case, once his brothers came before his presence, verse 18, they “threw themselves down before him” and said to him, “We are your slaves.” But Joseph was having none of it. Though when he was but a child they had sold him into slavery despite the fact that he was their brother, he would not act in kind but would treat them as the brothers they were. He had no desire to make them his slaves as they had once made him a slave

No, when over fifteen years earlier he had reassured them that he understood the events of his life through the eyes of God’s providence, of his watchful care over him, he had meant it. As he now said to them, beginning with verse 19, “Don’t 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.” Notice in these words that Joseph didn’t let his brothers off the hook completely. Instead, he stated what they all knew to be the case: “You intended to harm me.” But evil human intentions can never outstrip God’s good intentions: “but God intended it for good.” Specifically, the good God had intended was “the saving of many lives.” For through Joseph’s able leadership at Pharaoh’s behest, during the horrific seven-year famine that had threatened all of their lives not only were the lives of Israel and his family saved but so, too, were the lives of the Egyptians along with those living in Canaan and surrounding nations. As one scholar observes, “God showed by these events that his purpose for the nations is life and that this purpose would be effected through the descendants of Abraham.”[4] Indeed, God’s promise to Abraham, Joseph’s great grandfather, that through him all nations would one day be blessed[5] was already coming to fruition.

Yes, this is why God had allowed the evil Joseph’s brothers did to him: in order that many lives might be saved during those seven dreadful years of famine and want. And once those years of famine ended, twelve years prior to Jacob dying, God made it possible for people to live and flourish again. Again, Joseph understood well that through it all, God had been with him; through it all, God had been for him; through it all, God had worked through him. Therefore, not only would Joseph not enslave his brothers as they feared he might but, as he went on to tell them, verse 21, “So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” Joseph would continue to provide for his brothers and their families even as he had throughout the famine; even as he had throughout the time their father was alive. For his care for them hadn’t been out of respect for their earthly father’s wishes; his care for them had been due to his knowing the love of his heavenly Father. It was this that now moved him to extend that love to his brothers as he not only forgave them in word but also evidenced that forgiveness by caring for them in deed. As stated at the end of verse 21, “And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”

In reassuring and speaking kindly, Joseph displayed divine behavior to his brothers. That is, Joseph demonstrated what grace, unmerited favor, looks like in action. I often tell Ron that I have an overdeveloped “justice gene” since I react so strongly when people—including myself—don’t always do what is right. And this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that God desires all of us to have well-developed “justice” genes. However, he also desires for us to have well-developed “grace” genes. He desires that we, knowing our weaknesses and having an awareness of the times when we haven’t done what is right, learn how to forgive and receive forgiveness. Justice and grace must both be embraced, even as Joseph did. For make no mistake. Joseph had all the power in this exchange with his brothers. Yet he chose to take the high road. He chose to take the godly road. Therefore, he forgave his brothers, knowing that God had used their evil deeds against him to save the lives of many. Joseph had well-developed justice and grace genes. He lived out what the apostle Paul later similarly testified to in his letter to the Philippians: “12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”[6] Joseph understood this in spades because he, too, whether strong or weak, had experienced the sustenance and strength of his heavenly Father.

The challenge of suffering—whether for Joseph or the apostle Paul or us—is that when we suffer, our vision can become myopic causing us to see nothing but that suffering as all other experiences in our life recede. For when we suffer, our primary desire is often to be relieved of that suffering. But what we’re reminded of throughout Scripture is the importance of persevering in life; of living our lives in a godly manner in times of both ease and pain; of seeking to do right in all circumstances; of always taking care to be just while ever extending grace, unmerited favor, to one another. And this is because a Scriptural perspective teaches us to understand that the entirety of our lives—the good, the bad, the mundane, and the ugly—is ever in the hands of our loving God. Therefore, come what may, our lives are to be lived in a manner that is pleasing to him.

This is one of the most important lessons to be drawn from the story of Joseph. It’s also the encouragement found in the New Testament passage read earlier from Romans 8. Notice how Paul begins this portion of his letter in verse 18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Though Paul was a man, he goes on to illustrate his meaning by using an image from childbirth. And though I’m not a mom either, I was recently talking with someone who is. She shared with me that she doesn’t remember the pain of giving birth to her son: all she knows is the joy her son brings her. When she shared this, I laughed and noted that I had also heard moms say that they do remember—vividly!—the pain of childbirth; but it was still worth it to them. Well Paul leans into this analogy in the verses that follow, portraying our present sufferings—no matter how small or great—as paling in comparison to the glory, the change into Christ-likeness—that will one day be revealed, be disclosed, be made evident in us. For God’s glory is a manifestation of his presence and he brings this about by the work of his Holy Spirit in us. In fact, one day the presence of Christ in us will be so magnificent, so glorious, that we’ll be able to look back upon our past suffering and testify: It was so worth it!

Paul first applies the birth analogy to God’s creation as a whole. As recorded in verse 29, “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” What might Paul mean by this? Why does the creation wait “in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed”? The answer is hinted at beginning in verse 20: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” What I believe we have here is an allusion to when God created Adam and Eve. Having created them in his image, God appointed them to be stewards over his creation.[7] However, part of the judgment that occurred when they chose to follow the ways of Satan, that ancient serpent,[8] rather than the ways of God was that the creation whose care had been entrusted to them suffered as a result of their disobedience. Therefore, as Eve would bear children in pain as part of God’s judgment upon her,[9] now the ground would be cursed, producing thorns and thistles, as part of God’s judgment upon Adam.[10] But as God didn’t give up on his image-bearers, promising that he would one day send One who would crush the serpent’s head,[11] neither did God give up on his creation as a whole. For not only would this promised One provide a way for fallen humanity to be liberated from Satan and sin, but “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Paul then develops the childbirth analogy by introducing what I’ll call a theology of groaning: as women groan when giving birth, so too does creation, humanity, and even the Holy Spirit who lives in and among followers of Christ. The dictionary definition of groan is “make a deep inarticulate sound in response to pain or despair.” However, as Paul goes on to teach, in Christ all pain and despair is transformed into hope. As a groaning mother’s pain is transformed into delight at the birth of her child, so too will the groaning of God’s creation and image-bearers be one day transformed into delight when God completes his purposes for them.

Turning back to our passage, Paul first applies this theology of groaning to the creation, verse 22 : “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Although creation is experiencing the results of the Fall and, consequently, makes “a deep inarticulate sound in response to pain or despair,” by God’s working on behalf of that very creation, it will one day be redeemed. It will one day become what God intended for it. Creation’s groaning will be transformed into hope.

Next Paul applies his theology of groaning to the human portion of God’s creation, verse 23: “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” Notice that Paul isn’t addressing the entirety of human creation, but specifically followers of Christ, those “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit.” The only ones who are able to bear the fruit of Christ’s Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control[12]—are those who have repented and turned away from their sin and turned instead to him. To these Christ has given his Holy Spirit as a sign and seal[13] of their “adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” Yet for the time being, those who know, love, and serve Christ “groan inwardly.” We “make a deep inarticulate sound in response to pain or despair.” But as was true for God’s creation as a whole, in Christ our groaning is transformed into hope. As stated in verse 24, it is “in this hope,” this belief in God’s promises, this confidence in things unseen (to use the language from Hebrews[14]) that “we are saved.” For if the promises had already been delivered, then there would be no place for hope. As Paul rhetorically asks, “Who hopes for what they already have?” No one! “But if we hope for what we do not yet have,” verse 25, “we wait for it patiently.”

Last, Paul applies his theology of groaning to the Holy Spirit, the member of the Trinity who seals and indwells all who believe and receive Christ as their Savior and Lord.[15] So we see that as creation groans (v. 22), and we groan (v. 23), so too, does the Holy Spirit (v. 23). Paul goes on to note that one of the ways in which Christ’s Spirit “helps us in our weakness,” verse 26, is by praying for us. That’s right. God the Holy Spirit prays for those who are his. He prays for those who believe Jesus is the Christ, God’s promised Messiah, Son of God who came as God in the flesh. And we need the Holy Spirit’s prayers for, as Paul states, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Although Ron and I pray for all who are gathered this morning almost on a daily basis—this is but one of the great joys of being a house church!—we can’t possibly know everything going on inside each of you or the circumstances surrounding each of your lives. But God does. And isn’t it awesome to know that God the Holy Spirit—who is one with the Father and Son and who, as God, knows us better than we know ourselves—prays for us. And he does so “through wordless groans.” So the Holy Spirit, too, “makes a deep inarticulate sound in response to [our] pain or despair.” As the Holy Spirit makes evident, the pain and despair that resulted from Satan’s hatred of humanity and the rest of God’s creation and his subsequent desire to kill and destroy it causes God to make “a deep inarticulate sound in response” as he prays for us.

But because he is God, verse 27, the Holy Spirit “intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” As one commentator observes, “The relationship between the Holy Spirit and God the Father is so close that the Holy Spirit’s prayers need not be audible. God knows his very thought.”[16] This is why the Holy Spirit’s prayers for us—unlike the prayers we may pray for one another—are always in God’s will. And because they’re always in God’s will, they will always be answered. All praise and glory be to him!

Perhaps this why Paul so confidently asserts, verse 28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (emphases added). Again, we can know this because God is love. He’s demonstrated his love by taking on human flesh in the Person of his Son who suffered, died, and rose from death for us in order to take away our sin and in its place give us his salvation, a salvation that he, the Savior, freely offers and bestows upon all who believe in him. This is a salvation we can never lose. For our dear Lord Jesus loves us so much that once we turn to him, he chooses to unite himself eternally to us, both individually and as a family, by sending us his Holy Spirit as a seal and promise that he will carry us from human death to heavenly, never-ending life.

Joseph is an example of one who understood that “all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Because Joseph loved God and sought to live for him, he saw even the evil that his brothers intended being used for good by God who is good. God used the evil done him by his brothers not only for Joseph’s good but even for the good of the brothers who had perpetrated the evil and for the good of many who didn’t even acknowledge God as God.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, let us follow Joseph’s example as seek to live out the truth that for those who know and love God, even evil that is done to us can be transformed into good.;

Let us remember always, in Betsie ten Boom’s immortal words, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”[17]

Therefore, let us develop our justice gene and seek ever to do right to others;

Let us develop our grace gene and extend unmerited favor to those around us;

Let us seek to forgive and let us extend forgiveness[18] as we follow Joseph’s example and seek to reassure those who have wronged us of our forgiveness and speak kindly to them;

Let us embrace the fact that one day all of our groaning over pain and despair will be transformed into a glorious hope[19] as our dear Jesus himself wipes every tear from our eyes as he welcomes us into his glory;[20]

Let us ever, as stated in the third verse of our closing hymn,[21] “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; [Knowing that] Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.”

Dear ones, let us ever seek that smiling face which we now know by faith but will one day know by sight!

Let us pray.

Benediction: Colossians 3:12–14: 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

[1] Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:2, 28); thirty years old when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams (Genesis 41:46); thirty-nine when he brought over his family from Canaan—seven years of plenty had passed and two years of famine had begun (Geneiss 45:6, 11); fifty-six when Jacob, who lived in Egypt for seventeen years, died (Genesis 47:28).

[2] Genesis 45:4b–8.

[3] Genesis 45:14–15. See sermon preached on April 25, 2021, Joseph Weeps a Third—and Fourth—Time on Genesis 44:18–45:15.

[4] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 50:20.

[5] Genesis 12:3: I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

[6] Philippians 4:12–13.

[7] Genesis 1:27–28: 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

[8] See, e.g., Revelation 12:9: The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

[9] Genesis 3:16a: To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.

[10] Genesis 3:17–18: 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.”

[11] Genesis 3:14a, 15: 14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!…. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

[12] Galatians 5:22–23: 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

[13] Ephesians 1:13–14: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

[14] Hebrews 11:1: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

[15] 1 Corinthians 6:19–20: 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

[16] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Romans 8:27. (Emphasis added.)

[17] According to Corrie ten Boom’s account in The Hiding Place, Betsie spoke these words to her when they were at the concentration camp at Ravensbruck. For a thoughtful summary of the ten Boom sisters’ lives, see

[18] See Benediction. Also Ephesians 4:31–32: 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

[19] 2 Corinthians 4:16–18: 16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

[20] Revelations 21:4: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[Isaiah 25:8] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”; Isaiah 25:8:  6 On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. 7 On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.; See also Matthew 25:23:  “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

[21] God Moves in a Mysterious Way, William Cowper.