Two Prisoners’ Dreams

Sermon preached on Genesis 40 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/28/2024 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript –

We continue our Genesis sermon series in this section about Jacob’s twelve sons. Specifically, we’ve been considering Joseph’s time in Egypt after he was sold there into slavery. Last week we saw he was bought by Potiphar, captain of the guard of Pharoah. The LORD was with Joseph as he served Potiphar, but Potiphar’s wife lied about him, getting Joseph through into prison. Something I didn’t draw to your attention last week is that this was not any prison, but really the royal prison, where the King would confine his prisoners. Furthermore, this prison was under the ultimate oversight of Potiphar, Joseph’s master who imprisoned him there. So, we remember from last week that once Potiphar placed him in that prison, that quickly the master of the prison recognized how the LORD prospered whatever Joseph did, and quickly promoted him. Joseph was set in charge of the prison affairs, so that the prison master didn’t have to have any concerns. Today’s passage continues the story where we see two royal officials being cast by Pharoah into this same prison. They committed some offense against Pharoah that so angered Pharoah that he threw them into prison. Joseph then begins to serve these two prisoners.

As an aside, what an interesting picture of Christ. Innocent Joseph serves two criminals. Our innocent Lord Jesus would serve two criminals as he hung there dying on the cross. But stepping back, today we’ll dig into this passage and see what God is doing in the big picture even as Joseph attends to these two royal officials amidst their dreams they have.

For our first point for today, let’s talk about these dreams and their interpretation. Joseph says in verse 8, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” There he is talking with the cupbearer and the baker after they each have their dreams. They are unsettled by their dreams. They want to know what their dreams mean. In the Bible, we see that sometimes a dream was a way which God gives some prophetic revelation to someone. This section of Gensis particularly sees that happening. Back in chapter 37, Joseph had those two dreams that foretold his rise to authority. Next chapter, Pharoah will have two dreams that foretell seven coming years of tremendous agricultural plenty immediately followed by seven years of terrible famine. Here, these two officers of the court each have a dream and they think it is trying to tell them something.

Though, let us note that when God communicated something through a dream, it was a more cryptic form of communication than if he had instead directly spoken with him. In Numbers 12, for example, God says that in comparison to direct speech, a message through a dream is like a riddle. Indeed, as we see Joseph’s interpretation here, we see that the items of the dream are understood symbolically to convey some message. Dreams are not easy to understand, and that is why these two officials lament in verse 8 that they don’t have anyone to interpret them for them.

Let us think about that statement in the context of the lives of these royal officials. They were used to working in the royal court. Royal courts like this back then had wise men and magicians who would try to interpret dreams. So, when these two officials have their dreams, essentially they are saying, “If only we had access to such people who have the ability to interpret dreams.” But it is at that comment that Joseph corrects them. Joseph says that interpretations belong to God. In other words, no mere human, on their own strength, can know the meaning of the dream, without God revealing it to them. What these two officials needed was not the insight of any one man, but God to tell them the meaning of the dreams. Let us also understand that Joseph is saying that while he will interpret the dream for them, that it is actually God who is giving him the ability to interpret the dream. This will be confirmed at the end of the passage, when on the third day, Joseph’s interpretations come to pass. That proves Joseph gave them the one correct interpretation. But it also proves that Joseph could do that only because God was with him and gave him that interpretation. Because interpretations belong to God.

I’d like to pause and make a few applications in passing to the general idea of interpreting divine revelation. These dreams were divine revelation in the form of dreams. Other prophecies that have come from God were also divine revelations that came in one form or another. And God has preserved many of his divine revelations for us in the form of the Bible. The Bible itself is made of up of different forms of revelation, some as very direct communications from God, and others as records of more mysterious dreams and visions. But for all the revelation we have from God in the Bible, this is true for all of them, that interpretation belongs to God.

Think with me of some of the conclusions that we can draw from this. One, there is a right and wrong interpretation to any Bible passage. Two, the correct interpretation of any Bible passage is not based on the human reader but the divine author. In other words, we shouldn’t ask when studying the Bible, “What does this mean to me,” but, “What does God mean here.” Note, that is different than saying, “How does this apply to me,” which is a good question. But to have good application, we first have to come to the correct meaning of a passage, and that belongs to God. God is the author of divine revelation, and so he is the authority to define what he means in his words. This is why yet today, if we are going to properly understand God’s Word, we will need God to give us understanding. He used Joseph to give understanding of these dreams to these Egyptian officials. And we are thankful that he gives us the Holy Spirit to help us in the work of interpreting the Bible. Even then, we should recognize that he has not made all passages of the Bible equally clear. Christians with the same Holy Spirit can sometimes come up with different interpretations on those harder passages. Both can’t be right. But apparently God desired us to wrestle through and seek out his truth even through some of these more difficult parts of the Bible. But let us praise God for the beauty of such Bible study even as we agree with Joseph that interpretation belongs to God!

Let us now in our second point for today turn to consider his different interpretations of these two dreams, considering verses 9-19. First, we see Joseph interpret the cupbearer’s dream. The interpretation is good news for the cupbearer because it interprets the dream as foretelling the soon forgiveness and restoration that the cupbearer will experience from Pharoah. In just three days, his head will be lifted up so that he is freed from the prison and restored to the office of cupbearer for Pharoah. Again, we can note the symbolism in the dream, with the three branches representing three days, as verse 12 tells us.

But then we come to the dream of the baker. Verse 16 says that he also wants his dream interpreted by Joseph after he sees that the cupbearer’s dream was a favorable interpretation. Let us stop right there and be reminded against being presumptuous. Just because the cupbearer’s dream brought good news, doesn’t mean that the baker’s dream will also. Let us never presume upon grace. For indeed, both of these officials had done wrong and that is why they were in prison. It would be grace that the cupbearer was restored. But we’ll see that the baker does not receive such good news.

No, the interpretation for the baker is bad news for him. Joseph gives the interpretation there in verse 16. In three days, he will have his head lifted up too, but this time to be hung. Again, there is the symbolism of the three baskets representing the three days pointed out. No, the baker will not be returning to his former position. He presumably gets the punishment that he deserved.

What I’d like to consider for a moment is that these two dreams had such different outcomes. The baker didn’t think that wouldn’t be the case. He presumed he’d receive the same grace the cupbearer received. In this section of Genesis, this particularly stands out because as I mentioned this section contains three sets of dreams, each set with two dreams. In the other two sets of dreams, the two dreams basically both give the same message. In other words, two dreams are told as a pair to prophesy the same thing. But this set of two dreams breaks that pattern. These two dreams have opposite outcomes for these royal officials. We might ask why one was saved and the other was not, and really we don’t have enough information to answer that, except for maybe to say it was Pharoah’s good pleasure to mercifully restore the one and to justly execute the other.

Yet what happens here is certainly what we see elsewhere. I already mentioned Jesus hanging on the cross with two criminals, one is saved, and the other is not. Yes, we could point out that one was repentant, but then again wasn’t it the LORD who so chose to soften that criminal’s heart and leave the other to his doom? When I think of this, I am remembering Romans 9, where Paul speaks of some people predestined for salvation in Christ Jesus, and some who are destined instead for destruction. Paul addresses any who would object to this by saying that the potter has the right do with the clay what he wants. And of course, Paul already spoke there in Romans how everyone on their own sinful volition chose to willfully rebel against God, merit divine condemnation, and are without excuse for their great sin. Paul’s point could be to say that everyone deserves judgment and none should presume upon grace. Yet, God does choose some to be merciful toward and to forgive and restore. God could have, in theory, chosen everyone to be so saved in Christ. But God didn’t. Like we could ask that question here with the baker and cupbearer, we can ask it for the larger matters of predestination when it comes to our salvation in Jesus.

And so in Romans 9:22, Paul suggests this as part of the answer. He writes, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” In other words, that the reprobate are actually given justice and destroyed, vividly shows to the elect how gracious God has truly been to them. Like the cupbearer and the baker, they both had to sit with this information for 3 days, a period of patience, inviting reflection and consideration on these matters. For us Christians, we have this period of patience right now, knowing that many are just biding their time until Jesus soon returns, and they will be destroyed. But it causes us who are the elect to all the more appreciate God’s grace, instead of presuming upon it. It should make us all the more full of gratitude when our salvation all comes to pass as God has told us it would.

This leads us to our third point to consider Joseph’s request to the cupbearer. We just said this cupbearer should be so thankful that he was saved even when the baker was not. Likewise, that cupbearer should then recognize that God was with Joseph when he interpreted those dreams. So, in anticipation of this, Joseph makes a request of the cupbearer. It’s there in verse 14. He says to the cupbearer, “Only remember me when it is well wit you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharoah.” As an aside, here’s where we are reminded that while Joseph is in some sense a type of Christ in this passage, here’s where we remember that he’s not the Christ. For the repentant criminal who died on the cross alongside Jesus had to say to Jesus, “Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” But here, lowly Joseph is the one who has to plead to the cupbearer, “Remember me when you get restored in the kingdom.” But I digress.

Notice the explanation that Joseph gives the cupbearer why he needs to be mentioned to Pharoah. He explains that he was mistreated and shouldn’t even been in that prison, let alone a slave. He explains that he was stolen out of the land. Joseph explains that he didn’t become a slave out of his own free will, but rather he was the victim of the evil crime of manstealing. He also explains that he didn’t do anything to be put into this pit. There he refers to the prison or dungeon that he is in, though we draw a connection between the literal pit his brothers had thrown him into before, and all the more sympathize with him. But his point here is that he, unlike them, didn’t deserve to be in that prison. So, he pleads that the cupbearer would remember him when the dream comes to pass. And, of course, the proof that Joseph is indeed innocent as he here claims is when the dreams come to pass, for interpretations belong to God. In other words, God would have to be with him to be able to so interpret these dreams.

I want us all to notice then what Joseph has been doing all this time. Whether it was last chapter in Potiphar’s house, or now in Potiphar’s prison, Joseph has been a faithful servant. He has been trustworthy, diligent, wise, fruitful, and accountable. But then we hear his story, and you have to ask yourself, if that was you, would you be such a good servant? I think if this was me, I’d be tempted to be kicking, screaming, complaining, and crying the whole time. I’d find it really hard to accept my position as a servant. I don’t think I would find myself content, let alone to serve my earthly master like I am serving God. But Joseph clearly, absolutely, without question did. But that also does not mean he wouldn’t seek his freedom when the opportunity presents itself.

Interestingly, this is exactly the counsel the Apostle Paul would give Christians centuries later in 1 Cor. 7:20-24. There Paul says to us, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” In other words, Paul is saying, obviously, if you are a slave and you can get your freedom, do it. And if you are not a slave, don’t sell yourself into slavery. But if you nonetheless find yourself as a slave, then as a Christian seek godly contentment as a slave. For, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). Joseph here, very literally, models what Paul would later write about.

Unfortunately, our passage ends noting that the cupbearer did not remember Joseph after the dream came true and he was restored. It says that he instead forgot Joseph. That was ingratitude on the part of the cupbearer. Yet, while this would have been disappointing to Joseph at the moment, the LORD was in this too. For, as we’ll see next chapter, Pharoah will have his two dreams. Then, the cupbearer will thankfully remember Joseph and introduce him to Pharoah at the perfect time. This is another example how man’s sinfulness can be used to further God’s perfect plans that unfold in the perfect time and way.

And so, as God’s children, maybe at times you might feel forgotten. As a whole, we can think of the hardships Christians face as Christians. Individually, we know Christians can go through some very hard times of all sorts. But let me remind you today that God doesn’t actually forget you. While the world may forget us, while even loved ones might forget us, God never forgets us. In the right time, according to his perfect plan, he will remember us and exalt us and save us. Indeed, we might seem so “last” right now, but he has said the first will last and the last will be first. He has not forgotten us. But let us trust his wise providence.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, with that hope, let us take application today to seek a life of godly contentment, even if you find yourself last in this life. Yes, if you find reasonable ways to advance your lot in life, take it. But don’t make it your chief end. If you make it your chief end, that only shows that you have not known contentment yet in your current circumstances. For if we would find this sort of contentment, it means that we are remembering that this life is not our final hope. It gives us the ability to set our hearts on his coming salvation. For when he comes, it will be to exalt us to a far greater position than we can even ask for or imagine. Again, if you were Jospeh, you didn’t think this all would lead him into becoming the second in command of all Egypt, yet he did. And our final exaltation will be far greater than that even. But Joseph had to wait a while. We’ll see next week that he had to wait even two more years in prison before it happened. So, remember that, when you realize that you’ll only have to wait for next week’s passage for just nine more weeks. I look forward to continuing this with you then, after my sabbatical.


Copyright © 2024 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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