The Intermediate State

When a believer dies, his soul goes to be with God, though his body turns to dust. The soul does not sleep. This is proved by Hebrews 12:1, among other passages. The body awaits the resurrection, of which Christ’s resurrection is the first-fruits.

I would like to focus for a bit on how to minister to the dying and the bereaved. This is a vitally important ministry, and is misunderstood by many. Firstly, there is no need to be especially talkative to such people, unless they really want to talk. Often, it is the presence, the aura of peace that you bring that is especially helpful.

Secondly, it is not about the dead that people really wish to talk. Bereaved people really wish to know other things. This is why it is not really helpful to say, “Well, that person is in a better place now.” That’s great for the dead person. And it’s true, if the deceased by a believer. But how does that help the living person? It is much more helpful to say, “You will see that person again (in the case of talking to a believer about a believer’s death), talk to them again, touch them again, hug them again. There is resurrection, and you will know them again. You will recognize them (a question often asked, by the way).” They do want to know about the intermediate state, but the reality is that the pain is very much on a physical level: it is the physical presence that is missed. It is the person as he existed in the body who is missed.

If you can utter nothing but platitudes, then it is better by far to say nothing. They will not misunderstand you if you utter platitudes (that is, they will assume that you mean well), but they will not derive much comfort from your being there, if you utter platitudes. Instead, if you cannot think of anything to say, just be there, comfortable with silence. This is ministry, too. Do not think that you must say something. For many people, they would simply prefer you be there, but be silent. It can be helpful to ask them whether or not they wish to talk. Make yourself available for the form of comfort in which they are interested.

Do not ever underestimate the power of touch to comfort. They miss the person on a physical level very much. Comfort, then, on a physical level can be very helpful, especially holding their hand and hugging. Do not be ashamed or uncomfortable if they start crying. Cry with them.

Passages for bereaved people are: Psalm 23, Job 19, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4, John 11, Revelation 21-22

For the dying person, the Gospel is the focus, especially the resurrection aspect of it. Dying believers really need to know that this is not the end, but rather the beginning of victory. They need to know that Christ’s resurrection has turned death from defeat into victory. They need to know about the resurrection body. This gives inestimable comfort. 1 Cor 15 is key here.

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The Intermediate State

When a believer dies, his soul goes to be with God, though his body turns to dust. The soul does not sleep. This is proved by Hebrews 12:1, among other passages. The body awaits the resurrection, of which Christ’s resurrection is the first-fruits.

I would like to focus for a bit on how to minister to the dying and the bereaved. This is a vitally important ministry, and is misunderstood by many. Firstly, there is no need to be especially talkative to such people, unless they really want to talk. Often, it is the presence, the aura of peace that you bring that is especially helpful.

Secondly, it is not about the dead that people really wish to talk. Bereaved people really wish to know other things. This is why it is not really helpful to say, “Well, that person is in a better place now.” That’s great for the dead person. And it’s true, if the deceased by a believer. But how does that help the living person? It is much more helpful to say, “You will see that person again (in the case of talking to a believer about a believer’s death), talk to them again, touch them again, hug them again. There is resurrection, and you will know them again. You will recognize them (a question often asked, by the way).” They do want to know about the intermediate state, but the reality is that the pain is very much on a physical level: it is the physical presence that is missed. It is the person as he existed in the body who is missed.

If you can utter nothing but platitudes, then it is better by far to say nothing. They will not misunderstand you if you utter platitudes (that is, they will assume that you mean well), but they will not derive much comfort from your being there, if you utter platitudes. Instead, if you cannot think of anything to say, just be there, comfortable with silence. This is ministry, too. Do not think that you must say something. For many people, they would simply prefer you be there, but be silent. It can be helpful to ask them whether or not they wish to talk. Make yourself available for the form of comfort in which they are interested.

Do not ever underestimate the power of touch to comfort. They miss the person on a physical level very much. Comfort, then, on a physical level can be very helpful, especially holding their hand and hugging. Do not be ashamed or uncomfortable if they start crying. Cry with them.

Passages for bereaved people are: Psalm 23, Job 19, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4, John 11, Revelation 21-22

For the dying person, the Gospel is the focus, especially the resurrection aspect of it. Dying believers really need to know that this is not the end, but rather the beginning of victory. They need to know that Christ’s resurrection has turned death from defeat into victory. They need to know about the resurrection body. This gives inestimable comfort. 1 Cor 15 is key here.

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True Repentance

Genesis 42
In his book I Surrender, Patrick Morley writes that the church’s integrity problem is in the mis- conception “that we can add Christ to our lives, but not subtract sin. It is a change in belief without a change in behavior.” He goes on to say, “It is revival without reformation, without repentance.” How do you know if true repentance has taken place? You can find out by looking at the fruit of repentance: a changed life, a permanently changed life. Charles Hodge said this, “The sure test of the quality of any supposed change of heart will be found in its permanent effects. ‘By their fruits you shall know them’ is as applicable to the right method of judging ourselves as of judging others. Whatever, therefore, may have been our inward experience, whatever joy or sorrow we may have felt, unless we bring forth fruits meet for repentance, our experience will profit us nothing. Repentance is incomplete unless it leads to confession and restitution in cases of injury; unless it causes us to forsake not merely outward sins, which others notice, but those which lie concealed in the heart; unless it makes us choose the service of God and live not for ourselves but for Him. There is no duty which is either more obvious in itself, or more frequently asserted in the Word of God, than that of repentance.” What Joseph is doing in this chapter is finding out if the brothers have truly changed. All his actions are directed towards reconciliation. However, reconciliation cannot happen unless true repentance has taken place on the part of the brothers. In the same way, God wants reconciliation with us. But He will not do it unless He has first enabled repentance to take place in our lives.

It is therefore vital to describe what repentance is, and what it is not. Repentance is not merely a confession of sin. That is required, of course, but it is not the full definition of repentance. Repentance means a complete turn-around in a person’s life. One poor pastor said once that repentance is a complete 360 degree turn around from sin. You can see that math is sometimes important to know! I think 180 degrees would be a much more helpful way of putting it. Well, what does repentance mean for Joseph’s brothers? It means that they will not treat Benjamin the same way they treated Joseph.

We start off the chapter with Jacob finding out that there is grain in Egypt. So, he sends off his brothers, all except Benjamin. Verse 4 seems to indicate to us that Jacob didn’t really trust the brothers. The last time he sent off one of Rachel’s offspring to the brothers, Joseph got killed (at least in his own mind). So, he wasn’t taking any chances with what would surely be a fairly dangerous journey. He keeps Benjamin close by him. That probably had the unwitting effect of arousing the slumbering consciences of the brothers. They would have been reminded of Joseph by Jacob’s actions. They have that on which to ponder as they make their way slowly down to Egypt, the place where they knew that Joseph had been sold as a slave. Never in their wildest dreams did they think that Joseph would be in a position of power. It was in Joseph’s wildest dreams, but not in theirs.

Verse 6 shows us that the brothers cannot thwart the plan of God. Joseph’s dream had been that his brothers’ sheaves of grain (!) would bow down to his, signifying that they themselves would bow down to him. Now they do it quite unwittingly. Their grain being gone, they have to bow down to the seeming Egyptian, and his large store of grain. Probably Joseph didn’t have a lot of time to react. He had to make a decision quickly: how was he going to treat them? Would he forgive and forget? Or would he try for something even deeper: reconciliation through the repentance of the brothers? He knew that he could drop the facade at any time. So he decides to try to find a way to see if they have really changed or not. He accuses them of being spies. Anyone accused of being a spy starts telling their accuser all sorts of interesting things. Joseph noticed that Jacob and Benjamin were not there with the brothers. He wanted to find out if they were still alive. After wearing them down with repeated accusations, Joseph does get them to tell him that Jacob and Benjamin are in fact still alive. Their answers to his accusations are a bit hurried and disjointed, as you might expect from people accused of a crime of which they know they are innocent, though the accusation was quite sudden and unexpected. That combination of factors helps to explain why they almost stutter with protestations of innocence. Joseph has the edge here, because he recognizes them, since they wore beards, and there were 10 of them. They hadn’t changed nearly as much as he had. He was a smooth-shaven, well-dressed, powerful Egyptian, who used an interpreter, and spoke harsh Egyptian. No wonder they didn’t recognize him!

Now, Joseph’s accusations are entirely ridiculous. Who ever heard of a spy ring consisting of ten brothers, all in the same place, with donkeys obviously brought for taking back food? It is not really credible. However, as was said, this accusation had the purpose of keeping them from recognizing him, and telling him what he wanted to know. Calvin has this to say: “it was to be feared lest they, keeping their father out of sight, and wishing to cast a veil over the detestable wickedness which they had committed, should only increase it by a new crime. There lurked, also, a not unreasonable suspicion concerning his brother Benjamin, lest they should attempt something perfidious and cruel against him. It was therefore important that they should be more thoroughly sifted.” And it was important that this happen while the brothers were ignorant of his real identity. Jesus would similarly sift the Jews of His day. He spoke in parables in order to sift them, to see if they would repent or not. Candlish says this, “In this respect he fitly represents a greater than himself, one raised to a higher glory, for a wider purpose of grace. Jesus is “exalted, a prince and a Savior, to give repentance unto Israel, and the remission of sins;” -not the remission of sins only- but repentance and the remission of sins together. Joseph could have no difficulty about giving his brothers remission of sins; he has forgiven them long ago in his heart, and right gladly would he assure them of that at once. But, acting under divine guidance, he must so deal with them as to force upon them a deep and salutary exercise of soul, which in the end is to be blessed for their more complete peace, -their more thorough unity and prosperity,- in the day when the full joy of reconciliation is to be experienced.”

Joseph gives them a taste of their own medicine by putting them in prison for three days. This has at least two purposes: one is to give himself some time to think about how he will pursue this reconciliation. The other purpose is to make the brothers aware that this is exactly what they did to Joseph. In the book The Horse and His Boy, Aslan, the Christ figure, gives the main character five scratches, to help the main character know what someone else had gone through. Aslan’s comment was this, “It was necessary that you should feel what this other person felt.” Joseph does exactly this, and the result is exactly that for which he had hoped. The brothers are thinking only about Joseph. We said earlier that their consciences had already been awakened. Now, their consciences are in full force. They all agree that it was because of their treatment of Joseph that they were going through this trial.

Now, Joseph had required that one of the brothers go back and get Benjamin. Otherwise, he would not believe their story. In verse 20, Joseph tells them that their words will be verified only if they bring back Benjamin. Joseph knows that they will have to come back, since there is at least five more years of famine left. So, the brothers in prison are surely discussing which one of them will have to go back to tell Jacob that the youngest brother will have to go back if all the brothers are to survive. Reuben does not want to do it. That is the reason for his self-justifying comment here in verse 22. However, Reuben’s comment is not so compelling. Reuben actually recommended that they throw Joseph into the pit. He is here claiming credit for his god intentions, though his good intentions were not strong enough to overturn the other brothers’ bad intentions. However, it is a piece of information which Joseph had not known before. It is Reuben’s comment that makes Joseph turn away and weep. He sees that the brothers are not completely hardened. It is also Reuben’s comment that makes Joseph pass him by and instead take Simeon to be the hostage. Simeon will have to cool his heels in Joseph’s prison until the brothers come back with Benjamin. As we will see, that is quite a long time.

Well, the brothers are ready. After Joseph unexpectedly gives them leniency, and reverses the number of those who will go versus the number of those who will stay. Joseph unexpectedly gives them their money back. Probably, this had more than one motive as well. Joseph wanted to care for his brothers. He had long forgiven them in the past, as is very clear from his statement later on when he says that it was the Lord’s doing. However, Joseph also wants to up the ante here. They are going to have to come back afraid, thinking that they would be labelled thieves in addition to the charge they already have of being spies.

After the brothers tell their father about their encounter, selectively removing anything that appears bad, they empty their sacks, and discover that their money has been returned to them. Now, we have a difficulty here. Earlier the text says that one of the brothers opens his sack to find his money. And in chapter 43, verse 21, the brothers tell Joseph on their second trip that they all found out at the same time at the stopping place. How come chapter 42 seems to imply that only one of them found out at the stopping place, and that all the rest of them didn’t find out until later? Liberal scholars say that the answer lies in the theory of two sources, and that there is no way to resolve the contradiction. I disagree. I believe that the reason has more to do with how good the brothers want to look to their father. Notice that they leave out the part of the one brother finding his money returned to him. Probably what happened is that they all found out at the stopping place. But they pretended that they had not found out. They wanted to have as much credibility with their father as possible. So they wait until they can all find out together, so that when Jacob found out (as he surely would), he wouldn’t blame the brothers. This was a needless deception on the part of the brothers, but they did it anyway.

The main point of this whole chapter has to do with guilt and repentance. That is Joseph’s entire aim, as we have seen. And in this chapter, we have seen that the brothers have admitted their guilt before God. This is an essential step in the reconciliation process. However, as we said at the beginning, we need not only to confess our sin, but also to turn away from it.

So, if you have faith, have you repented? That is, have you left behind your enslavement to sin? We admit, as good Reformed people, that only God can make us do that. But the call is to people: have you repented? It is impossible to say that you believe in God, and then to say that you can still live a life of sin. To quote Candlish again, “Thou art called to deep and salutary exercises of penitential sorrow. If instead relief for thy burdened conscience is granted, and he whom thou hast pierced utters at once the words, “Be of good cheer, it is I, thy sins be forgiven thee;”- with what a flood of tears shouldest thou be graciously mourning for these very forgiven sins? And if it should be otherwise with thee,- if it should seem as if this assured forgiveness were long of coming, and the prince, the Saviour, were long of showing himself,-surely thou canst not pretend that thou hast any right to complain. Thou canst no more take it amiss than Joseph’s brothers could, that thou shouldest have bitter days and nights to spend in thinking over all thy heinous guilt.” Repentance is a sorrowing turn away from sin. It is sorrow that we have sinned against God, not merely sorrow for sin’s consequences. Rather it is sorrow for sin itself. That is the message of repentance, and of our chapter.