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By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones. (Heb. 11:22)

Everyone hopes in something, but not everyone displays that hope in the same way. Often, that hope is embodied in what is sometimes referred to as a person’s “last request” made just before he passes away. In Hebrews 11:22, the forward-looking faith of Joseph in the promises of God is displayed in a rather peculiar fashion in his final request. At the end of Joseph’s life, he made the rather unusual arrangement with his brothers (the sons of Jacob) that when the exodus finally happened, Joseph’s bones would be carried up from Egypt into the land of Canaan. At first glance, this would appear to be a very strange desire. After all, by the time this request was fulfilled, the body of Joseph would have long since expired, and the bones of Joseph would be well on their way to dust. To carry a coffin on a long journey through the hot wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula would be both burdensome and creepy. But such was the hope and insistence of Joseph at the end of his life. It was his dying behest. So, why did he make such a plea?

It is worthwhile to observe that before Joseph made this request, he rehearsed for the sons of Israel the promises that God had made to His people. God promised Abraham that to him and to his descendants He would give the land of Canaan. Joseph himself was “about to die” (Gen. 50:24), but his brothers would live and, more importantly, the promises of God would live on through them. Joseph believed that God was not only the maker of covenant promises but was also the keeper of those promises, and that in time, God would again visit His people and fulfill His promises. The English word visit is taken from a rich Hebrew word that often connotes God’s coming in history either to bring judgment on His enemies or blessings on His people. In the case of Joseph and the sons of Israel, God would visit them with His covenant blessings and would bring them out of the land of Egypt and into the land of Canaan.

What each of these geographic places symbolizes is significant and helps us understand Joseph’s strange request. Egypt was a land of bondage, cruelty, and death. It represented sin and its curse. For the people of Israel, it was the land of their darkest hour, when the promise of God seemed like a dim echo of the past that was fading away, or so it seemed, with the passing of each generation. For four hundred years, Israel pined away in Egypt, shackled to a life they would desire to happily forget, toiling at the beck and call of harsh taskmasters. It was life under the sun and yet it was best understood as the darkest of days. The life of slavery experienced by Israel in Egypt is the unambiguous backdrop of the “slavery to sin” vocabulary often used in the New Testament.

The hope of God’s people is not longer life in the land of the dying, but eternal life in the land of heaven above.

By contrast, Canaan represented redemption, freedom, and life. When Israel came out of Egypt, it was through the mighty hand of God reaching down into history to “visit” the Egyptians with judgment but also to bring the people of God out of slavery and into a blessed land flowing with milk and honey. Canaan was the earthly antithesis of Egypt and was the much-hoped-for destination of the people of Israel. Though time might dim the memory and hope of Israel, the promise did not dim in the mind of God, and as surely as He pledged, He would also fulfill. Joseph’s hope, then, was in the sure and steadfast promises of God. God had already proven Himself faithful to Joseph. The dreams God gave to Joseph in his early days were prophetic, and they spoke of things to come in Joseph’s life. Though the providence that brought God’s promises to fruition was not always easy to bear, Joseph learned to hope beyond that which he currently embraced, and to believe in that which he could not yet see. Ironically, Joseph’s stay in the Egyptian prison would turn out to be a dramatic preview of Israel’s future. As Joseph was forgotten and imprisoned, Israel would also be enslaved in Egypt when there arose a new Pharaoh who “did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8).

In the light of these things, we might understand what it was that Joseph was actually requesting. Joseph had very little use for his bones; he knew that. But it was of utmost importance for him that his hope in the promises of God be actively and dramatically displayed. Indeed, Joseph’s request would serve as a catechizing echo of the past, not only as a reminder of what God had already done in Joseph’s own life but as a harbinger of what God would do for the corporate people of God—bring them out of sin’s bondage and into the blessing of covenant life. In a very real sense, then, Joseph’s hope was nothing less than a display of the hope of the resurrection. Joseph would die, but his bones, the very emblem of his life, would be brought up out of the land of the dead and into the land of the living. It was as though Joseph were saying: “Bury me in the land of the living, where the blessings of God ceaselessly flow. Do not leave my bones—even my bones—in the land of bondage and death. Bury me in the land of the living!”

God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living (Matt. 22:32). The hope of God’s people is not longer life in the land of the dying, but eternal life in the land of heaven above. In a sublime agreement with the author of Hebrews, Joseph might have said, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Joseph was seeking the lasting city. Though his request may appear somewhat strange to us, his hope is strikingly familiar—he was hoping in the promises of God and in the power of the resurrection.

What is our hope in this life? The Heidelberg Catechism has a wonderful way of summarizing and answering this in its first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Answer: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.” Everyone hopes in something. What is your hope in life and in death?

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