Jacob invoked blessings over the sons of Joseph, as we saw in Hebrews 11:21. The mention of Joseph means that there is no better example for the author of Hebrews to choose next in his survey of models of true faith from the Old Testament than Joseph. So, in today’s passage he turns to an episode from Joseph’s life to teach us about what authentic trust in God’s promises means.
We read the story of Joseph’s life in Genesis 37–50, where we see his rise to second-in-command over all Egypt through the course of several hard providences that the Lord turned around for the good of Joseph and his family. Several episodes from Joseph’s life could have been chosen as examples of what faith looks like. Joseph resisted the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife by faith (39:7–13). Certainly, he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams only by faith (41:1–36). But the author of Hebrews chooses as an illustration of faith the request of Joseph for Israel to take his bones back to Canaan when God redeemed His people from Egypt (50:25).
Again we see the future-oriented character of faith in Joseph’s request. The exodus was yet four hundred years in the future for Joseph (Ex. 12:41), but he believed that it would happen even though he would not see it in his lifetime. Moreover, Joseph’s request reveals where his true hope lay. Here was one of the most powerful men on the planet in his day, with riches and success far beyond the dreams of the vast majority of people who have ever lived. It would have been easy for him to believe that Egypt was to be the permanent dwelling place of God’s people. Yet, Joseph knew that the Lord had promised the exodus to Abraham (Gen. 15), and he believed God that Israel would go up out of Egypt and back to Canaan. He understood that he belonged to Israel and had to be with Israel wherever Israel was. As John Calvin notes in his commentary on Hebrews, Joseph’s success did not make him blind to the promise of God to His people.
One modern commentator notes that Joseph “refused to recognize in death any threat to the fulfillment of the promise.” Though he would die before the exodus, Joseph wanted to be a part of the exodus that was sure to happen even if it was only his bones that would make the journey. Yet, in keeping with the forward-looking faith of the others mentioned in this chapter, Joseph’s hope was not ultimately in being buried in Canaan but in dwelling in God’s presence in the new heaven and earth (Heb. 11:13–16).