The Meaning of Immanuel

The Meaning of Immanuel

When last we saw Joseph, he had been sold by his brothers (minus Reuben the eldest and Benjamin the youngest) to some Midianite tradesmen who took him from his home in Canaan where they’d bought him, and brought him down to Egypt in order that they might in turn sell him.[1] Our story this morning picks up upon what happened next in his life.

The chapter opens by re-stating what we learned at the end of Chapter 37: “Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites[2] who had taken him there.” But despite all that he had been through, verse 2 reminds us that God’s providence and care were with Joseph throughout all of these trials. For despite:

having been heartlessly sold off by his brothers;

never having had the chance to say good-bye to his father Jacob who loved him so dearly;

and, at the age of seventeen,[3] having been taken away from his homeland to a foreign land,

we’re told that “The Lord was with Joseph….” Joseph’s brothers may have forgotten him—but God had not; Joseph’s brothers may have been against him—but God was not. For, again, the “Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered.” God hadn’t merely been with him but had caused him to prosper. He had helped Joseph not simply survive but flourish. For he, a mere slave, “lived in the house of his Egyptian master.” Since Potiphar was one of Pharaoh’s officials and the captain of the guard, he—and by extension Joseph—lived very well.

Not only that but Potiphar, an Egyptian, saw in Joseph’s life something that his family had missed for he saw, verse 3, “that the Lord was with him.” Contrast this Egyptian’s reaction to when Joseph had shared his God-given dreams with his brothers: they had become angry with him; they had rebuked him; their hatred for him had grown.[4] And this despite the fact they he was not only their own flesh and blood but also, together with them, Abraham’s offspring. Yet Potiphar, an Egyptian who was not a follower of the LORD—his name meant “he whom [the sun god] Ra has given”[5]—when Potiphar “saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant.” Whereas Joseph’s brothers hated him, Potiphar, an Egyptian, looked favorably upon him. So much so, as stated in the middle of verse 4, that he “put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.” Potiphar understood that the LORD was with Joseph. Therefore he handed over to him the running of his entire household and estate.

It was not Joseph’s brothers but Potiphar who was correct in his assessment of Joseph. For as stated in verse 5, “From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field.” Now do you remember what the LORD promised Abraham when he first called him to make of him a nation? Part of what the LORD told him was, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.”[6] As God had blessed Laban, Rebekah’s brother, because of Jacob Abraham’s grandson,[7] so now Potiphar was being blessed for his kind treatment of Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson. For Joseph, too, was part of the LORD’s chosen line. Through him God was fulfilling his promise to make of Abraham’s descendants a nation. Though Potiphar may not have known this, because he nonetheless saw God’s favor lavished generously upon Joseph, he, verse 6, “left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.” Having Joseph work for him made Potiphar’s life easy. What a gift Joseph was! The conscientiousness that he had ever displayed was now being acknowledged and rewarded.

But this isn’t a “happily ever after” ending for we’re provided a foreboding detail about Joseph at the end of verse 6—that he was “well-built and handsome.” As a result of his good looks, verse 7, “after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, ‘Come to bed with me!’” As Potiphar’s wife, this woman had power; as Potiphar’s slave, Joseph’s power was derivative. Thus we see how Potiphar’s wife sought to wield her power over the comparatively powerless Joseph. “But,” as stated beginning in verse 8, “he refused,” saying to her, “With me in charge…my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” Notice where Joseph’s loyalties lay—with his master, Potiphar, yes—far be it from him to take advantage of his master’s generosity! But Joseph’s greater loyalties lay with his Master, “capital M.” For Joseph to succumb to this woman’s demands would be “such a wicked thing” because it would cause him to “sin against God”—something King David later acknowledged when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, killed.[8] Ultimately all sin, first and foremost, is against God for he has made us for himself. Therefore, when we do things that go against his purposes for us, we are sinning against him. Because Joseph understood this, he refused to sin against Potiphar; because Joseph understood this, he refused to sin against the LORD. And he refused to do so not once; not twice; not three times. No, he refused to do so continually for, as stated in verse 10, “though [Potiphar’s wife] spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.” Joseph not only refused her but he straight out did everything in his power to avoid even being in her presence.

However, so determined was she to have her way with Joseph that one day she found him alone as, verse 11, “he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside.” She took advantage of this opportunity. As stated in verse 12, “She caught him by his cloak and said, ‘Come to bed with me!’” But as in times past, this persistent woman yet again failed in her seduction for Joseph “ran out of the house.” Unfortunately, when he did, “he left his cloak in her hand.” And with this development, the familiar saying about hell having no fury like a woman scorned now played itself out.[9] Potiphar’s wife had had enough of Joseph’s rejection. Therefore, as stated beginning with verse 13, “13 When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, 14 she called her household servants. ‘Look,’ she said to them, ‘this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. 15 When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.’” This was, of course, a flat out lie. But, again, she had clearly had her fill of what she perceived to be Joseph’s rejection of her—as opposed to what was actually the case, namely, that Joseph respected her husband and his God.

After telling this lie to her household servants and thereby having attempted to turn them against Joseph who, she claimed, had “been brought” to “make sport” of all of them, she waited until her husband came home, verse 16. To him as well she presented the false account recorded in verses 17–19: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. 18 But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house…. This is how your slave treated me.” Potiphar’s wife highlighted the fact that Joseph was not only a slave but also a foreigner—and that her husband was the one responsible for bringing him into their household. She had Joseph’s cloak as proof of her account. Poor Joseph. First the beautiful robe his father made him led to his downfall;[10] and now the cloak he left behind did the same.

Potiphar understandably “burned with anger” upon hearing of such an abomination. Consequently, verse 20, he “took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.” However, it’s worth pointing out that first, it’s likely that the household didn’t believe the wife’s account for they had been witness to the many times their master’s wife had attempted to seduce Joseph—as stated in verse 11 this last attempt was the one time no one else was present. Second, it’s likely that even Potiphar hadn’t fully believed his wife’s account. Though being imprisoned certainly wouldn’t be a good thing, the fact that Joseph was imprisoned—as opposed to murdered—may suggest that Potiphar hadn’t entirely believed his wife’s story.[11] As one commentator states, “Though Potiphar’s anger may have initially been directed at Joseph, his subsequent action indicates that he doubted his wife’s accusation. Attempted rape of the master’s wife by a slave would probably have earned a death sentence, but Joseph’s punishment (confinement with the king’s prisoners) was relatively mild.”[12]

Whatever the case, by about this point in Joseph’s story we might be thinking to ourselves, “No good deed goes unpunished.” For as we assess his life thus far we see that as a result of having been a conscientious young man who reported truly on his brothers’ bad behavior and later shared his divine dreams with his family, his brothers came to hate him and eventually sold him off as a slave. And now, for having honored his Egyptian master by turning down his wife’s advances upon him, Joseph ended up in prison. Therefore we might not be blamed for concluding that God had given up on Joseph. But we would be wrong in arriving at such a conclusion for, as stated in verse 21, “the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.” The LORD was with him even when he was cruelly and unjustly treated by his brothers; the LORD was with him even when he was accused by Potiphar’s wife and subsequently—and unjustly—thrown into prison. The LORD was with Joseph. Though he suffered and was unjustly punished for doing what was right, like cream poured into tea or coffee, Joseph kept rising to the top. For just as Potiphar had once placed Joseph in control of his household and everything he owned, so now did the warden of the prison do. As stated beginning with verse 22, he “put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. 23 The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”

This is now the second time in three verses that the Scriptures tell us that the LORD was with Joseph. Now do you recall the apostle Matthew’s parenthetical comment when he told how Christ Jesus’ birth was in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”? Matthew then states, “(which means ‘God with us).”[13] Yet though Joseph lived long before the promise of Messiah, the promise of Christ, had come to fruition, he nonetheless experienced the meaning of Immanuel; the reality of Immanuel; the meaning and reality of “God with us.”

Sisters and brothers, Joseph’s story highlights the fact that for the LORD to be with us doesn’t mean that we will be spared suffering in this life; for the LORD to be with us doesn’t mean that we will never experience hardship or pain. No, part of what the story of Joseph teaches us is that for the LORD to be with us means that no matter what happens to us—whether good, bad, or mundane—God is always there. He is always with us; he is always for us. The story of Joseph illustrates the Scriptural teaching that God is ever with those who know, love, and seek to serve and please him. This is why our passage begins in verse 3 by noting that despite Joseph’s being cruelly treated and sold off by his brothers, “The LORD was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.” And it’s also why our passage ends by noting that despite Potiphar’s wife having framed Joseph, accusing him of trying to violate her—when in fact the opposite was the case—so that he ended up in prison, we read at the end of verse 20 into verse 21, “But while Joseph was there in the prison, 21 the Lord was with him.” He showed him his kindness. He granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. And again, the reason the “warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care,” verse 23, was “because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”

For, practically speaking, the meaning of Immanuel, the meaning of the LORD being with us, is that no matter what happens to us; no matter what we may undergo; no matter what we may experience, God is ever with those who know and love him. Even if, like Joseph, we should suffer and be unjustly punished for our right behavior, we can nonetheless be confident that our kind LORD is ever Immanuel; we can be confident that our kind LORD is ever with us; we can be confident that our kind LORD is ever for us.

In our New Testament passage from 1 Peter 3, Peter highlights the importance of avoiding what is wrong and doing what is right—even as Joseph did. Beginning with verse 9 he commands, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”[14] We were called by God to repay evil with blessing. Paul similarly teaches, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.”[15] And if Peter and Paul don’t convince us, perhaps Jesus might for he, too, taught, “43 You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[16] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”[17] You get the idea. Those who know and seek to emulate and please God will bless not only their friends but even their enemies. For blessing can turn former enemies into friends. Blessings multiply themselves and can extend the circle of those who may inherit them.

Beginning with verse 10 Peter goes on to quote Psalm 34 as the source of what he’s just said, “10 For, ‘Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. 11 They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’”[18] Evil and holiness are such opposites that believers must always choose holiness. Believers must always choose goodness. This stark contrast is grounded in God’s initial creation of the world. Upon completion, God “saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”[19] God’s creation was very good because it displayed the goodness of its Maker and LORD. And if the opening chapters of Genesis provide the source of the goodness of creation, so too do they provide the source of evil found in the serpent in the Garden.[20] But, again, goodness and evil; holiness and evil, being opposites, have nothing in common:

Whereas God is light,[21] “Satan…masquerades as an angel of light.”[22]

Whereas God is life,[23] Satan “was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”[24]

God has ever been against Satan and the evil he sows. This is why all who love and seek to please and obey God “must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.” This is why they must not only “turn from evil,” but also “do good.” They “must seek peace and pursue it.” It isn’t enough simply to avoid evil—though we would be wise to do so—but if we are followers of God, we must also actively seek to do good even as Joseph did. Because all who love and seek to please and obey God know that his eyes “are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer” even as the LORD was attentive to righteous Joseph. For conversely, “the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” Therefore let us seek to do what is right!

Peter goes on to ask, verse 13, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” As one commentator observes, “whatever happens to the Christian, no external force can cause spiritual harm.”[25] Yet Peter goes on to state in verse 14, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.” Any earthly harm done to us as a result of our doing good is but temporary harm that results from living in a fallen world. But such suffering doesn’t take away the fact that those who know and love God are blessed by him. Peter again turns to God’s Old Testament Scriptures for support as he references Isaiah 8: “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”[26] If God is Immanuel, if God is with us, we have nothing to fear for even if, like Joseph, we “should suffer for what is right,” nonetheless we are blessed if we know and love God for in all circumstances we can rest assured of the fact that he knows and loves us.

Next Peter states the opposite of fear in verse 15, namely, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.” Jesus Christ is Immanuel. Jesus Christ is God with us. Therefore we’re to revere him as Lord. What is more, Peter exhorts, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” Our testimony to God’s goodness should reflect that goodness. It should therefore be offered “with gentleness and respect.” It should be a true testimony reflecting Christ who is the Truth[27] and therefore should be done with “a clear conscience.” For holiness is greater than evil; goodness defeats evil; right behavior, righteousness, will always win over wrong behavior, sinfulness. And God may even use our right behavior to the end that those acting wrongly and making false accusations “may be ashamed of their slander”—even as we noted a few weeks ago when Judah acknowledged his wrong behavior and declared Tamar to be more righteous than he.[28]

Peter goes on to exhort, verse 17, “For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Not only Joseph but none other than our Savior and LORD, Jesus Christ, is the greatest example of this. As stated in verse 18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” Did you catch the reason Peter gives for Christ’s suffering? It’s nothing less than to bring us to God. As Ed Keazirian similarly noted last week, though Christ Jesus is Savior, the reason he came to this world is in order to bring us to God.

Dear ones, ultimately, Jesus Christ is how evil has been defeated. It is through him that we are to bless our enemies. It is through him that God’s blessings can be multiplied. It is through him and him alone that anyone can be brought to God. So let us tell others, in word and deed, about him.

For Jesus Christ is the meaning of Immanuel. By his Holy Spirit he is ever with us; by his Holy Spirit he is ever for us. Though our circumstances may change, he will not. It’s because of his unchanging faithfulness that we can rest assured that in all circumstances and at all times, he is Immanuel—he is God with us not only now but for all eternity.

Let us pray.


As I mention in footnote #11, after I preached this sermon my husband Ron and I continued to talk about this passage on Sunday afternoon. He suggested what I now believe is a more likely reason for Potiphar giving Joseph such a comparatively light sentence—namely that, as noted, because Potiphar saw that the LORD was with Joseph and that Potiphar himself had prospered due to his treatment of Joseph, he may have been hesitant to murder him since he realized that doing so might result in his own misfortune. Had I opportunity to preach this sermon again, I would focus on this as the primary reason for Potiphar giving Joseph such a light sentence—although I do think it’s also possible that he didn’t entirely believe his wife’s account since I imagine that her reputation must have preceded her.

Benediction: Philippians 4:4–7:Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.


[1] Genesis 37:36: Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

[2] As previously noted (see sermon preached on January 31, 2021, The Importance of Sowing Godly Seed, on Genesis 37:15–36), The Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 37:25 indicates that Ishmaelites is the broader category that would include the more specific Midianites.

[3] Genesis 37:3: Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

[4] Genesis 37:8: His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

[5] According to the Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 37:36.

[6] Genesis 12:3a. In context, Genesis 12:1–3, “1 The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 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.”

[7] Genesis 30:27: But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you.”

[8] As David confesses in Psalm 51:3 concerning his sin: Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight

[9] The line is from William Cosgreve, the British playwright’s, The Mourning Bride, written in 1697. The full quotation is, “Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.”

[10] Genesis 37:3–4, 23, 31–33:   Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.….23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the ornate robe he was wearing— ….31 Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.” 33 He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”

[11] See brief addendum at the end of the sermon. After preaching this sermon, my husband Ron and I continued to talk about this passage on Sunday afternoon. He suggested what I believe is a more likely reason for Potiphar giving Joseph such a comparatively light sentence.

[12] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 39:19, 20.

[13] Matthew 1:23 quoting Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

[14] This was the apostle Paul’s practice. As he wrote in 1 Corinthian 4:12–13a: We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly.

[15] 1 Thessalonians 5:15.

[16] He’s referring to Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The “hate your enemy” part isn’t from Scripture but is false teaching from the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

[17] Matthew 5:43–45a. Verses 45b–48 go on to teach, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” See also Romans 12:17–21: 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[Deuteronomy 32:35] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[Proverb 25:21, 22] 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

[18] Psalm 34:12–16: 12 Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, 13 keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. 14 Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. 15 The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry; 16 but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to blot out their name from the earth.

[19] Genesis 1:31a.

[20] See Genesis 3:1: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.” In the verses that follow, the account of the serpent’s seduction of Eve and Adam is recounted.

[21] John 8:12: When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”; John 1:1–5: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

[22] 2 Corinthians 11:14.

[23] John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

[24] John 8:44.

[25] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on 1 Peter 3:13. It goes on to reference Psalm 56:4: In God, whose word I praise—in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?; and Luke 12:4, 5: 4 I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

[26] Isaiah 8:12: “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.” See also See also Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:10–12:10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

[27] John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

[28] Genesis 38:26: “Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.” See sermon preached on Genesis 38, Unexpected Lineage of a Gracious LORD, on February 2, 2021.