There is a small detail in the Hebrew text of the Joseph narrative that is like the masterstroke of a great artist in a masterpiece painting. When Moses describes the envy and jealousy of Jacob’s severely dysfunctional family in Canaan, he writes that the hatred of the brothers against Joseph was so intense that “they were not able” to speak to him in peace (Gen. 37:4). But after recounting twenty-two years of the outworking of God’s redemption in the covenant family of Abraham and after describing how Judah offered himself as surety for his brother Benjamin, Moses writes that Joseph was so filled with overwhelming love toward the brothers who had wronged him that “he was not able” to restrain himself any longer from telling them that all was forgiven (45:1). What a measure of the magnitude of the redemption God had wrought!
Joseph’s wisdom had been to discover the redeemed hearts of his brothers. But God’s wisdom had been to redeem them in the first place. The Scripture teaches that the love of the brethren is the test of true faith (John 13:35;
1 John 4:20–21). Joseph demonstrated authentic love when he was able to fully forgive the brothers who had hated him (Gen. 37:4), humiliated and betrayed him (vv. 23–24), displayed a callousness toward him when he pled for his life (42:21), sold him into bondage among the ungodly (37:27), and, perhaps most wickedly of all, separated him from the love of his father (v. 33).
Nonetheless, Joseph had a heart able to forgive all these great offenses. It is a miracle of love that worked in him a wonder of forgiveness. Can Joseph’s example instruct us in how to forgive those crimes against us that appear to be unforgivable? What was it that informed Joseph’s ability to forgive, filling his heart not with resentment and anger, but with compassion and love? Forgiveness, it seems, is a work of faith. It is the recognition that whatever men intend against us for evil can only transpire if God intends it for good. It is the awareness that God keeps covenant with His own people, and that His ongoing work of sanctification will one day make possible the perfection of forgiveness and love.
When Joseph made the stunning disclosure to his brothers, “I am Joseph,” we are told once again that the brothers “were not able to” speak, for they fell into a terror (Gen. 45:3). Now all the trials they had been through suddenly became clear. They understood why Joseph had accused them of capital crime, why he had taken Simeon in bonds, why he had shown such strange hostility to them and yet such favor to Benjamin. Now they were completely at the mercy of an oriental potentate who could justly condemn them and who had the power to be fully avenged against them.
But Joseph noticed that his brothers could not speak, and so he gestured for them to come near to him (Gen. 45:4). He assured them that he understood God had ordained everything that had happened to preserve life, not to take it (vv. 5-8). And so Joseph extended his full forgiveness and embraced his brothers in love. What a picture of redemption! Here are the twelve sons of Jacob who are to be the fathers of Israel, the covenant family of the Lord. All enmity has been put away. And so Joseph dried their tears, and spoke comfort to them as they embraced one another in love.
Many years after Joseph, the apostle John was given a vision of the heavenly city. In his vision John saw the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem, each made of a single precious pearl. Over each of these gates was written a name of one of the sons of Jacob, of Joseph and his brothers (Rev. 21:12, 21). The gates of the city eternally interlock and embrace one another as a picture of the unity God has wrought among the covenant family of Abraham. All the tribal rivalries that set asunder the people of God in the old covenant have been quieted forever and eternally forgotten. The seer of Revelation was made to see that the embrace of Joseph and his brothers in full forgiveness and love had been a preview of the heavenly city itself!
But what is more, John saw that the twelve gates of the heavenly city surmount twelve foundation stones, precious stones inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev. 21:14, 19–20). What a serendipity of grace! The Lord told Peter that he would be named a “stone.” But now we see his name inscribed upon a precious gem. And likewise all the apostles have their names written upon precious stones, the very foundation of the church of the living God. Jesus has wrought a far greater unity than Joseph, for Joseph embraced all Israel in peace, but Jesus has unified all the people of God, whether Jew or Gentile. He has laid the foundations of His city through the good news of the apostles to the nations, and the patriarchal gates of His heavenly Zion are made glad in the Gospel of their God. Lift up your heads, O gates, and be glad in the God of your redemption! Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise, for such is His city of love and full forgiveness.