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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Shadows and Symbols of Someone Supreme


“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles…" Acts 7:9-10

This past week, Boris Johnson signed off from his final time of answering PMQ’s – Prime Minister’s Questions – in the grand surroundings of Parliament’s House of Commons. He finished by quoting some words from the past, spoken by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg character in the 1991 movie ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day.’ Boris said ‘Hasta la vista, baby!’ ‘Hasta la vista’ is Spanish – it translates as ‘see you later’.

This incident connects with Acts 7. In Acts 7, it was ‘Judgement Day’ for a Jesus follower named Stephen. He was on trial before the grand surroundings of the Jewish religious council. He was accused by Israel’s elite, of going against their history with all his talking about ‘this Jesus of Nazareth’ (Acts 6:14). At the end of this chapter they will say ‘Hasta la vista’ to Stephen. He is soon to be stoned to death – martyred for his extra-ordinary faith.

Israel’s elite were not as elite as they thought they were! Acts 6:10 tells us that his opponents ‘could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke’. This continues during his trial. With great wisdom, Stephen introduces events and characters from the past. He challenges them to take a fresh look at their own Old Testament history. It’s as if he is saying, ‘Let’s look at life through a new lens - let’s look at Old Testament life through a lens that you haven’t been using - the lens of truth. Why don’t you dispense with your rose-tinted glasses and see the picture that God’s word really paints about your ruinous past?’

The first character that Stephen introduced was Abraham. Last time in Acts, Stephen had just finished with Abraham, having shown that Abraham had a real relationship with God through belief. Abraham believed God, and because he believed what God promised him, Abraham was prepared to take his life in the direction that God dictated, even though that went against the culture of the day, and must have gone against Abraham’s natural instinct. Abraham’s obedience resulted in the birth of a new nation. Acts 7:8 tells us about the birth of his son, Isaac, and then his grandson, Jacob. Jacob would eventually be given a new name – He would be called ‘Israel’. He would have children, including twelve sons, and verse 8 finishes with that – ‘Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs’.

‘Patriarch’ – that isn’t a word which regularly features in our language. It means the male head of a family or tribe. It has a twin – ‘Matriarch’ – which is the female head of a family or tribe. The patriarchs which Stephen refers to are Jacob’s twelve sons. They were, in effect, the Founding Fathers of what would become the nation of Israel. The original twelve tribes of Israel all had a different name. Each tribe bore the name of one of Jacob’s sons.

Stephen is taking his opponents back to the birth of the nation of which they were oh so proud. He is saying, ‘Let’s look through the lens of truth – If we do then we find a disturbing picture. Let’s look at how these Founding Fathers behaved.’ We know why Stephen wants to do this because we have already read further on in this chapter. Stephen wants to show what their ancestors were really like, before he tells them, in verses 51 & 52, ‘You are just like your ancestors… was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?’. So, what were their ancestors like? Was there really a ‘prophet’ that the Founding Fathers of Israel persecuted?

Verse 9, gives us a concise answer about their behaviour. The sin of jealousy rears its ugly, serpent-like head, and bites. ‘Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt.’ We may know the story of Joseph and his brothers quite well. Their father, Jacob/Israel, loved Joseph the most, and it showed. ‘He made an ornate robe for him’. Apparently, the meaning of the Hebrew word, which the NIV translates as ‘ornate’ is uncertain. Other versions call it a ‘beautiful robe’ (NLT), or ‘a coat of many colours’ (AKJV). In the TRALWV – which is the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber Version – it’s called an ‘Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, although, as good as those two men undoubtedly are at writing musicals, their paraphrasing of Bible stories is a bit too extensive even for my liking, so we can treat that one with a pinch of suspicion! What we do know, is that Joseph’s coat was pretty special and made him stand out. But, then, in the Bible’s record, Joseph was really special and he really stood out.

In Hebrews 11, we have a list of Old Testament characters, male and female, who truly feared God and had a relationship with him because they trusted him and believed him. The Bible calls this, ‘faith’. The chapter confirms this right at the start – ‘faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.’ Commended by who? Commended by their God. The lives of these characters have so much to teach God’s followers, that Hebrews refers to them as ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1). Surely, Israel should expect most, if not all, of its Founding Fathers to make that list. At its earliest beginnings as a nation what vision and pro-active, God-active, witness should we expect to see? But, we don’t see much faith. We do see much failure. Eleven out of the twelve don’t feature in Hebrews 11. It is so sad - so dark. And yet, we have one bright shining light. One that stands out. One, and only one, that makes that list. Some of you will already know, others will have guessed - his name was Joseph.

Ostensibly, so apparently but not actually, his brothers hated him because he was daddy’s favourite. Actually, they really despised him because he was truly loved by heaven’s Father - Israel’s God. They claimed to hate him because of his rainbow hoodie, but what they really couldn’t live with was his rainbow faith. He trusted in a covenant making, covenant keeping, personal, relational, God. ‘And’ verse 9 tells us the result – ‘And God was with him’. Joseph was the first one of the Children of Israel to experience persecution for his faith. He was despised and rejected by his brothers. But he was also the first to prove the reality that his God was, and is, and will always be, ‘a friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24). But was Joseph a prophet? This is really important if we want to connect Stephen’s quoting of Joseph’s life with what he says later in verses 51-53. Let’s consider what a prophet is.

The prophets that come later in the Old Testament are, perhaps, more obvious. People like Isaiah and Jeremiah do what we think prophets should do – they delivered God’s words to Israel. They were like divine postmen! A prophet is one who proclaims the will of God. Did Joseph do that? Did he witness to God’s will and plan and purpose, in the wonderful way that, say, Isaiah did? Hebrews 11 and 12 is helpful in its using of the word ‘witnesses’. Joseph was one of the ‘great cloud of witnesses.’ It wasn’t just his words that witnessed about his God. His life, and his actions, had some very powerful things to say as well.

I have a picture (again)! It is a shadow. Whose shadow is this? It’s mine! Some of you would have seen that instantly. Others may not have been so quick, but when it is pointed out, they can look and see that, indeed, it is my shadow. Although it lacks the detail that a full image of me would give, it has very recognisable features. There is a lack of hair, ears out at the side… plus really long legs! Indeed, that feature is exaggerated considerably. But, despite this, it still allows you to identify it. Why do I mention this? Because ‘shadows’ feature in the Bible. Joseph’s life is a shadow. God in his Old Testament record gave us shadows, like Joseph’s, for us to look at features to allow us to understand the image that was pictured by that shadow. Not so that we could just understand and identify Joseph, but so that we could identify that, actually, ‘something greater than (Joseph) is here’ being pictured for us (see Matthew 12:42). Something is being symbolised (see Romans 5:14 (NLT)) in the ‘pattern’ of Joseph’s life that we need to grasp. What do I mean?

Well, let’s start with that word, ‘pattern’. Like ‘shadow’, ‘pattern’ is a Bible word. Some of you may have recently watched the BBC’s competition series called ‘The Great British Sewing Bee’. Sometimes, on that programme, the contestants are given a pattern. It may be of a dress that they have to make. The pattern isn’t the dress. It isn’t the finished article. Otherwise, the programme would be a minute long rather than an hour! The pattern is an outline of all the parts that will make up the finished item. The contestants can look at the pattern and have an understanding of how the dress will look at the end.

In Romans 5:14, Paul is talking about the first man on earth, called ‘Adam’. He says this, ‘death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.’ Paul sees Adam’s life as a pattern of the life of someone who was coming in the future. He goes on to explain what he means. He tells us that in Adam’s life, the way he lived his life - his pattern - affected a whole load of people. In fact, it affected the lives of everyone who followed after him. Adam brought sin into the world by breaking God’s command. Sin brought death. Every life since has been affected by that one life.

We have been considering the Founding Fathers of the nation of Israel this morning. Other nations have their Founding Fathers, and Mothers, too. The USA is a now great nation, but its history is relatively recent. One of its Founding Fathers was a multitalented man called Benjamin Franklin. He once said something that is now very famous – ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. But it isn’t quite true. It’s difficult, but it can be possible to get through life without paying any tax. (Put ‘google’ into your search engine of choice!) But there are two things that you cannot escape. Sin will affect your life. Sin’s consequence - death - will end your life. Why? Adam.

How is Adam a pattern? Who is his life a pattern of? Paul tells us that it is Jesus. Just as Adam’s life has negatively affected the existence of everyone who followed after him, so the life that Jesus lived will positively affect the lives of everyone who truly, with their hearts, follows Jesus. Paul says, ‘For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.’

What about the Bible word ‘shadow’? Well it appears in Hebrews 10. It touches upon something that Stephen’s opponents has failed to grasp. They thought that the Law of Moses, their religious system of ritual and ceremony was everything – everything they needed to be in relationship with the Almighty. Hebrews 10 says no, it’s just a shadow. Hebrews 10:1 (NLT) says, ‘The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves.’ It goes on to refer to the animal sacrifices that were repeated day after day after day by Israel. Those things didn’t cancel out sin. They just foreshadowed something that would – someone that would. Hebrews 10:10 says, of those who follow Jesus, ‘we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Tim has recently gone through Colossians 2. That refers to some of the things found under the Old Covenant system of rules and regulations, such as the ‘Sabbath Day’. That was a day of (sabbath) rest (as Exodus 31:15). The Israelites were not allowed to work on that day. Colossians 2:17, says this ‘These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.’ When we come to faith in Jesus we have reached the reality of the day of rest. We aren’t now to try to ‘work’ to earn our salvation. God is saying, loudly and clearly, ‘Stop working – Start believing!’ (see Hebrews 4:1-13).

Joseph was a prophet - his life proclaimed God. Joseph’s life was also a pattern. It gave an outline of the life of God’s Son, Jesus. It was a shadow of a greater reality, that was, at that time, still in Israel’s future. Joseph saved Israel. Israel’s beginnings could have been quickly followed by an early demise. After all, they would have deserved it. But, through Joseph, Israel didn’t get what they deserved. They got rescue. Stephen summarises this for us in Acts 7. The wisdom of God shines through. The order of events, in Stephen’s mind, gives such glory to God. God doesn’t just react to the ‘famine’, described in verse 11, which brought ‘great suffering’ and hunger. No, he had already acted, as described in the previous verse, appointing Joseph to high office in the land, in order that Joseph can do the things that are needed to save his own people from death. How like Jesus is that?

And there is another thread that runs through Stephen’s discourse. Stephen believes that God has a plan in place – He has pre-planned. But alongside, indeed wrapped up within, God’s promise and plan and purpose, is the perniciousness of people. Something that is pernicious is that which brings great harm, or utter ruin – it is destructive. That is Israel’s history. That actually, is all our history. They did - we did - rebel constantly against God. Rebellion, hindrance, uncooperative behaviour were the order of the day. But rather than actually hindering God’s plan, Israel’s behaviour only served to advance God’s plan. How can that be? Because God was one step ahead. He was so, in this story of early Israel. He was in the beginning – at the very origins of the human race. He was and always will be. We might want to put the blame at God’s door. We might ask the question – to my shame, I know that I have asked it in the past – ‘Why did God allow sin to enter into the world’? But God didn’t author sin. The devil did, and we delighted in our cooperation with him. God didn’t bring sin into this world. He was one step ahead (as Revelation 13:8). God brought salvation into this world through Jesus his Son. And, if you have put your faith in Jesus, be assured of this – It’s not down to the way that you helped God out. You didn’t. It’s all down to the fact that God was always one step ahead of you. Hallelujah!

Stephen’s account of Joseph’s life finishes with Joseph’s death, and the subsequent return, many years later of the bones of Israel’s ancestors to the Land of Promise. Why did that happen? Hebrews 11:22 tells us that is was because of the faith of this man Joseph. ‘By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.’ God had promised. Joseph believed that promise.

Before that happens, though, Joseph did something else. In Acts 7:13, Stephen says, ‘Joseph told his brothers who he was’. They believed that their evil actions had silenced their upstart brother for ever. They believed that he was long dead because of what they had done. Suddenly, their dead brother reappeared. How like Jesus was that? That Old Testament account reminds me so much of Peter’s proclaiming of Jesus as the suffering Saviour, on that Day of Pentecost described in Acts 2. Many Israelites that day realised their awful error. ‘They were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.’

When Joseph ‘came back to life’, both the reaction and the solution was the same as in Acts 2. ‘His brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.’ But they weren’t rejected by the one they had previously rejected. ‘Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no ploughing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance’ (see Genesis 45:1-7). How like Jesus is that?

There in the pages of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, in the life of Joseph, the New Testament pattern is already outlined. God’s promise is in shadow, but the detail in those symbols is awesome. Other prophets will follow Joseph. One of them, which Stephen won’t mention, (but I will!) is Jeremiah. Wrapped up in his words from God to Old Covenant Israel, the New Covenant detail is also seen. I will finish with some of his words this morning. If you have put your faith in Jesus then these words are written personally for you. Jeremiah 29:11 says this, ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’


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