The Prisoner

The first Baptist missionary, Adoniram Judson, set sail to serve in Burma arriving in Rangoon on July 13, 1813. Judson would spend the rest of his life suffering for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Judson buried two wives and seven children in Burma. It took six years from their arrival to baptize their first convert. On June 8, 1824, after moving to the capital city of Ava, Judson was dragged from his home and became a prisoner.[1] He would spend the next 17 months in jail. He sat in chains during the day, and at night a bamboo pole lifted him up so only his head and shoulders rested on the ground.[2] His pregnant wife, Ann, would walk miles each day to plead for his release. After his daughter Maria, was born, Ann became sick and was unable to care for their daughter. Judson was allowed to leave the jail at night and beg for village women to nurse his starving daughter.

            Judson spent 17 months as a prisoner before being released to interpret a deal between the government and England. Ann would never recover from the physical and emotional strain of the imprisonment, dying on October 24, 1826 followed by their daughter only six months later on April 24, 1827. Three months after his daughter died, he received word that his father had passed away eight months earlier. The three deaths broke his spirit and almost took his faith. He wrote in a letter, “God is to me the Great Unknown. I believe in him, but I find him not.[3]” Judson felt forgotten by God. Have you ever been there?

            Although Judson felt forgotten, God was always with him. We have already seen with Joseph that even in our darkest days, when we feel forgotten, God is always with his people. God was with Joseph in his rise in Egypt and in his sudden fall. God is with him even when he is a forgotten prisoner.

The Forgotten Prisoner

            After being arrested on the basis of Potiphar’s wife’s false allegations, Joseph was in prison. Joseph was placed with King’s prisoners (Gen. 39:20). He received favor with the warden and was placed in charge over all the prisoners. One day Joseph meets the King’s cupbearer and baker. They each have a dream, but no interpreter. Joseph replied, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell me” (Gen. 40:8). Joseph explains that the cupbearer will be restored and the baker will be hanged. Joseph said to the cupbearer, “Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit” (Gen. 40:14-15). Joseph wants to be released from prison and to return to the “land of the Hebrews.” He was placed in the pit before and was rescued. He is placed in the pit again and is pleading to be rescued again.

            The chapter ends after the Joseph’s interpretations prove correct, with narrator adding, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” The next chapter begins with, “After two whole years...” The forgotten prisoner waited for two years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. I think Joseph’s waiting is instructive for us. We need to develop more inner strength when we are going through trials. God is with us. Let us not bemoan God during times of difficulty, but wait for his Providence to be revealed. Joseph sat in prison for two years, apparently forgotten, but we know the rest of the story.

John Onwucheka writes, “The entitled heart says ‘why me?’ when God doesn't give them what they pray for. The humble heart says ‘why me?’ when He does.[4]” The entitled, proud Joseph will become the humble, faithful Joseph only through trials. Beloved, trust God in your trials. Adoniram Judson buried two wives and seven children in Burma, but what sustained him through even his worst trials was an unwavering trust in God’s sovereign providence. He said, “If I had not felt certain that every additional trial was ordered by infinite love and mercy, I could not have survived my accumulated sufferings.” Beloved, prepare yourselves for trials by trusting in the divine providence of God. Keep your faith, like Judson and Joseph, when you feel like a forgotten prisoner.

The Faithful Prisoner

            While God was pruning and purifying Joseph’s faith in prison, God was beginning to fulfill his plan of blessing all the families of the earth through dreams to a pagan king.

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke. And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream. So in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.

 Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.” Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. Genesis 41:1-14)

Notice, this is the second time we see Joseph being drawn out of the pit (Gen 37:27). This brings to mind David’s great exhortation in Psalm 40:1-2, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. The story continues,

And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh.  And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Behold, in my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile. Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Seven other cows came up after them, poor and very ugly and thin, such as I had never seen in all the land of Egypt. And the thin, ugly cows ate up the first seven plump cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had eaten them, for they were still as ugly as at the beginning. Then I awoke. I also saw in my dream seven ears growing on one stalk, full and good. Seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them, and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. And I told it to the magicians, but there was no one who could explain it to me.” (Genesis 41:14-24)

Joseph did not trust in himself, but he trusted in God’s providence. He knew that God would give the answer. As Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dream, notice his emphasis on God’s providential hand in the bringing the famine upon the land.

Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, and the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind are also seven years of famine. It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt, but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt. The famine will consume the land, and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe. And the doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.” (Genesis 41:25-36)

Joseph stood before the highest authority of the land, but he was standing for and trusting in an even Higher Authority. Joseph was a faithful prisoner. (Think about how many great things have occurred through men being thrown in to prison: Apostle Paul’s letters, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Dr. King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail, etc.)

            Israel would have heard Joseph’s story in their own famine (of sorts) in the wilderness. They would be reminded that God spoke through Joseph to Pharaoh as God spoke through Moses to Pharaoh. God uses the faithfulness of his people when they speak for Him. Beloved, never be ashamed to speak for God. As his ambassadors, God will use our words to bring about his purposes.

The Favored Prisoner

            Joseph does not only interpret the dream, but gives Pharaoh a battle plan to overcome an economic recession. Pharaoh notices that Joseph is different than others for he has the Spirit of God and therefore places him as ruler over Egypt.

This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph's hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. Moreover, Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphenath-paneah. And he gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. So Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.

Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt. During the seven plentiful years the earth produced abundantly, and he gathered up all the food of these seven years, which occurred in the land of Egypt, and put the food in the cities. He put in every city the food from the fields around it. And Joseph stored up grain in great abundance, like the sand of the sea, until he ceased to measure it, for it could not be measured.” (Genesis 41:37-49)

The forgotten prisoner becomes the exalted prince of Egypt, second in line to the throne. John Walton observes,

On the surface, Joseph is being ‘made’ by Pharaoh. Everything he is given comes from Pharaoh’s hand: his office, status, privilege, name, wife—everything. He is ‘reborn’ as a servant of Pharaoh. The irony is that from the standpoint of Genesis, it is not the hand of Pharaoh that has remade Joseph, but the hand of God. For all that Pharaoh did, God brought Joseph to the recognition of Pharaoh, and God gave Joseph wisdom and success. In the end, Joseph is not first and foremost Pharaoh’s man, but God’s man. He is not Pharaoh’s instrument of economic survival; he is God’s instrument of salvation.[5]

God used Joseph to bring about his purposes.

            Joseph could never become God’s instrument of salvation unless he first suffered as a prisoner. Suffering always comes before exaltation. Joseph gives us a picture of Jesus Christ. Joseph suffered as a prisoner, then was exalted, given a new name and all of Egypt was commanded to “Bow the knee” (Gen. 41:43) before him. Now one greater than Joseph has come. Jesus…

emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Jesus suffered unto death to become God’s instrument of salvation. Jesus died so others could live. Beloved, the glorious rise of Jesus and of Joseph make the suffering worth it. Joseph thought so…

The Forgetful Prisoner

The Old Testament used names to remind them of God’s providence. We have seen names play a significant role throughout Genesis. God changed Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel. Abraham and Sarah name their son Isaac to remember how God gave them laughter. Abraham named the top of mountain, “The Lord will provide.” Naming people and places were a crucial way for God’s people to remember God’s favor. Joseph is no different. Genesis 41:50-52,

Before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph. Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore them to him. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father's house.” The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

Every day when Joseph would look at his sons, he would remember how God was faithful in the midst of suffering. He would remember that the suffering was worth it.

            Beloved, we must view our hardships in light of the cross, the resurrection and the glorious inheritance that awaits all followers of Christ. Paul, one who was familiar with suffering, writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” How do you view suffering? Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, false accusations sent him to prison, he was forgotten by the world, but was never forgotten by God. God exalted him to such a high place that his sufferings were not worth comparing with the glory he received. 

The Feasting Prisoner

                Adoniram Judson saw one convert in his first six years on the field. He lost his wife, his daughter and his father within nine months. His brother died at the age of 35 on May 8, 1829. Although one would think this would push him into further depression, it actually began his recovery. When Judson left England, his brother was lost and far from God, but had come to faith in Christ. Knowing that his brother did not die into “outer darkness,” but was ushered into God’s glorious inheritance, Judson began to come out of his own darkness to bring the light of the gospel to the dark world of Burmese. Judson’s suffering was intense, but God made him fruitful in the land of his affliction. Judson wrote in 1831,

The spirit of inquiry… is spreading everywhere, through the whole length and breadth of the land.” [We have distributed] nearly 10,000 tracts, giving to none but those who ask. I presume there have been 6,000 applications at the house. Some come two or three months’ journey, from the borders of Siam and China—’Sir, we hear that there is an eternal hell. We are afraid of it. Do give us a writing that will tell us how to escape it.’ Others, from the frontiers of Kathay, 100 miles north of Ava—’Sir, we have seen a writing that tells about an eternal God. Are you the man that gives away such writings? If so, pray give us one, for we want to know the truth before we die.’ Others, from the interior of the country, where the name of Jesus Christ is a little known—’Are you Jesus Christ’s man? Give us a writing that tells us about Jesus Christ.

Judson’s darkness enabled him to give the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ to a nation. Judson arrived in Burma with no believers, but because of his work and the work of others there today there are over 4.5 million.

God sent a suffering servant to help save the lost people of Burma. Egypt was a lost, pagan nation, but God sent another suffering servant there to save them. Genesis 41:53-57,

The seven years of plenty that occurred in the land of Egypt came to an end, and the seven years of famine began to come, as Joseph had said. There was famine in all lands, but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph. What he says to you, do.” So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.

There was bread in Egypt because God sent a suffering servant. There is bread for us because God sent a suffering servant for us.

            Friends, God provided bread in Egypt to save sinners from physical death. God provides the bread of life to save us from eternal death. Jesus said, “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:33;35;51). Jesus took the bread and broke it and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” We are like the Egyptians in a spiritual famine. Without, the bread of life, we will perish for all eternity. Our sin puts us in eternal danger with God. But we can now live because God sent us the Bread of life, Jesus Christ, who was broken for us so we could feast for eternal life. Have you feasted on the bread of life? Jesus was willing to suffer and die so that you could feast with God at the great Marriage Feast of the Lamb. Friend, if you have never tasted the sweetness of following Christ, repent of your sins and trust in Christ. Jesus offers himself to save sinners. He offers his body broken for you. Turn and trust him.

            Beloved, Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” If you are a believer in Christ, our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us. We can endure our present trials because we know that the Lord will lift us out of the pit and set our feet in glory. We must view all our trials ordered by our God of infinite love and mercy. Feast on Christ and you shall not hunger. Feast on Christ and you will be nourished in your trial. Feast on Christ and offer the bread of life to the world. Feast on Christ for He is the bread of life broken for you. Feast on Christ and be satisfied.


[1] John Piper. Adoniram Judson: How Few There Are Who Die So Hard. (Desiring God, Minneapolis, 2012), 15. The biographical sketch is taken from this sermon delivered at a Pastors Conference by Dr. Piper that can be found here and as a ebook found here

[2] Ibid, 15.

[3] Ibid, 18.

[4] John Onwuchekwa. Taken from his Twitter account June 9th, 2016. Remember how Joseph was proud and arrogant before his brothers. God will use his trials to bring humility.

[5] John Walton. (quoted in) Preaching Christ in Genesis by Sydney Greidanus, 409.