What was the proof that Joseph forgave his brothers?

This post is built on one of the points in Christopher Wright’s sermon, Joseph: The hopeful believer.

The first thirty years of Joseph’s life were quite dramatic. He spent seventeen of them as a pampered son (and detested brother) and the remainder as first a slave then as a prisoner. Humanly speaking, the cause of his misery could be traced back to his brothers. When he first revealed himself to them years after they’d sold him into slavery, he wept over them, kissing and embracing them (Genesis 45:14-15).  Yet seventeen years after that first reconciliation, at their father’s death, we see the brothers wracked with guilt and still fearing retaliation  (Genesis 50:15-18).  Joseph’s response is summarised 50:19-21.

How could the brothers know they were really reconciled? Was it Joseph telling them not to be afraid (v. 19)? No, those could just be words. Was it Joseph pointing to God (v. 20)? Well, he could just be spouting theology. What was it then? It was when Joseph said he would care for them and their children (v. 21).

Some months ago we were studying the topic of forgiveness at Bible study. The leader asked how we could know that we’d forgiven someone. I answered something to the effect of, “When you stop wishing they’d slip on the stairs and fall, or similar thoughts.” Today my answer would be different. Not retaliating—in thought or in deed—is a necessary step, but it isn’t sufficient. True biblical forgiveness also involves doing good to the people who wrong us (as far as is possible).

Joseph promising to care for his brothers and their families was a practical, undeniable demonstration of love in action. He was obeying Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:27-28 centuries in advance. Joseph was also pointing forward to Jesus himself, who called them ‘ brothers’ those who had deserted him less than 72 hours before (John 20:17 and Mark 14:50 respectively). He was pointing forward to the One who died for His enemies (Romans 5:6-10).

In Romans 5:5 Paul tells us that God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. And it is only through that divine love working in us that we can not only refrain from harming those who have hurt us, but also actively seek to do them good. (I’m glad I serve a God who enables me to obey His commands!)