One day, when [Joseph] went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, [Potiphar’s wife] caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. (Genesis 39:11-12)
While the ultimate outcome of Joseph’s faithfulness was glorious, the immediate outcome was painful, and that is our focus in the story today. Please open your Bible at Genesis 39. We begin at verse 13.
The storyline that we are following today is simple.
- Joseph refuses the advances of Potiphar’s wife.
- Potiphar’s wife brings a false accusation against Joseph.
- Joseph loses his job and ends up in prison.
Reading the life of Joseph reminds me of a game I used to play called Snakes and Ladders. You may have played a very similar game called Chutes and Ladders. Either way, the idea is the same – you are going up or you are going down.
In the story of Joseph, he is going up and then down. He goes up in the eyes of his father as the loved and favored son. Then he goes down through the hatred of his brothers, who throw him into a pit. He goes up in the eyes of Potiphar, when he is made overseer of all that he has. Then he goes down at the hand of Potiphar’s wife, to whom he has done no wrong.
Joseph’s life is “all over the board” so to speak. The story reminds us that whatever happens in the course of your life, what really matters is whether at the end of the game you are on a snake or on a ladder, and Jesus Christ is God’s ladder from heaven and to heaven.
I want us to look at the story again today through the eyes of the three players: Potiphar’s wife, Potiphar, and Joseph.
Potiphar’s Wife: Spreading the Lie
The first thing we learn here is about the nature of true love. If your love is pure, it will remain even when you don’t get what you want. But if your love is selfish, its intensity can easily turn into hatred when things don’t turn out as you had hoped.
It is very easy for our interest in people to be shot through with us getting what we want from them. You court a person’s friendship because you think they can do something for you, then the answer is no. No, you are not going to get that money. No, you are not going to get that position or that contract. No, you are not going to have that relationship.
When that happens a pure love continues, even when it is slighted. But a selfish love is easily changed to a sinful hatred.  So, the deepest venom in the human heart is often directed toward friends, or churches, or employers we once said we loved. And where that is the case, it may say something about our love.
So here is a helpful prayer: “Lord, deliver me from the sinful love that so easily becomes hatred when I don’t get my way. I don’t want to be that person. Teach me more of the love of Christ that goes on loving even when it is slighted or wounded.”
Potiphar’s wife only knew one kind of love, and when she did not get her way, the true nature of her heart was revealed. She did great evil towards Joseph. She robbed him of his good name. She had him put out of his job. What she did was a great sin and a great injustice.
This speaks to the whole issue of injustice that stalks our world today. The Bible shows us the ugliness of sin so that we can see it for what it is, and then do everything in our power to keep ourselves from it. There are three parts to her evil:
1. Sowing disaffection
As soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us.” (Genesis 39:13-14)
Notice how she spreads the lie: She does not begin with a complaint to Potiphar. She begins with the servants, sowing the seeds of discord, fostering disaffection, and creating a climate of distrust.
She plays the race card: “See he has brought among us a Hebrew.” What does Joseph’s race have to do with it? That’s pure prejudice. Notices how she fosters a them and us mentality: “a Hebrew to laugh at us.”
Potiphar’s wife sows division among the servants, not only towards Joseph but also against her own husband: “See he has brought among us a Hebrew.” Who is the ‘he’? It’s Potiphar, of course. He was the one who brought Joseph into the house. So now she is turning the minds of these servants against their own employer.
In just a few words, this woman builds a consensus that Joseph does not belong in this household, and she builds the pressure on her husband to make sure that he is gone. When Potiphar comes home, he will be in an impossible position. The servants, who have bought in to her lie, will be watching and waiting to see what he does.
2. Repeating the lie
“He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” (Genesis 39:14-15)
First, Potiphar’s wife tells the lie to the servants. She puts it out to them so that people are talking about this story before Potiphar comes home.
Notice that it is a double lie: She presents Joseph as a villain and she also presents herself as a woman of virtue. She covers Joseph in the shame of false accusation, and she covers herself in a cloak of pretended innocence.
Then when Potiphar comes home, his wife repeats the lie. She tells him the same story (39:17). So now, she is lodging a formal complaint to the person in authority.
The Bible tells us that Satan is the ‘father of lies,’ and that lies are his ‘native language’ (Jn. 8:44 NIV). Lies are the devil’s language. Every lie carries the echo of his voice. That’s true of lies when we accuse another person of something that may not be true, and it is true when we pretend to have a virtue that we do not possess.
The Bible says, categorically, that “all liars” end up in the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8). So, if we take this seriously, we must make it our business to turn from lies, and to pursue the truth in every area of our lives.
3. Passing blame
“The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me.” (Genesis 39:17)
You see what she is saying, “Potiphar, this is all your fault! Now what are you going to do about it?”
So here are sins with which we must have nothing to do – sowing the seeds of disaffection, repeating a lie, and passing blame. We must see their ugliness. We must remember that they are sins which are condemned forever in hell.
Potiphar: Suppressing the Truth
Did Potiphar believe his wife’s story? There are several indications that at the very least he had his doubts.
The first is that Potiphar did not have Joseph killed. If he believed what his wife said, that would surely have been the outcome. But Joseph was not killed; he was put in prison. In this we see the protecting hand of God, but we may also see Potiphar’s doubt over his wife’s story.
The second is that some time later, when the King’s cupbearer and baker were put in the prison beside Joseph, we are told that the captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them (Gen. 40:4). Potiphar himself was the captain of the guard (Gen. 37:46). So, it seems clear from this action that Potiphar still trusted and respected Joseph.
A third observation is that when Potiphar’s wife told her story, the Scripture says of Potiphar that “his anger was kindled” (Gen. 39:19). It does not say that Potiphar was angry with Joseph, just that he was angry.
Put all that together with the trust Potiphar had in Joseph, and the integrity that Joseph had always shown, and I think it is reasonable to conclude that Potiphar was angry because his wife had put him in an impossible position.
All the servants are watching when the great man comes home. They’ve been primed by Potiphar’s wife, and they bought into it. Then Potiphar is presented with this story. What is he to do? What will his life be like if he sides with Joseph? Potiphar’s wife has put him in an impossible position, and he is angry. And Potiphar’s anger and led him away from the truth.
This scene reminds me of Pontius Pilate. Seeds of disaffection had been sown in the crowd, accusations had been made. People were saying, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (Jn. 19:12). Pilate is in an impossible position.
Then Jesus says to Pilate, “Everyone who is on the side of truth listens to my voice.” But Pilate doesn’t feel that he can afford to do that, so he says to Jesus, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:37, 38). Truth must be sacrificed. Jesus must be put on the cross. Because other interests must be served. That’s the history of injustice in this world, in a nutshell.
We like to think of ourselves as open-minded people who are guided by the facts, fair and objective, etc. But we are not neutral when it comes to the claims of God. The Bible lays this out in Romans, chapter 1 (check this out, if you’re not familiar with it). There is enough light in the creation around us for every person on the planet to know there is a living God and he has great power. Somewhere deep in our hearts we know this. 
But we suppress the truth (Rom. 1:18). We push it down; push it away. We exchange the truth about God for a lie (Rom. 1:25). Why would we do that? Because if there is a God, I must find out what he requires of me, and that may put me in an uncomfortable position.
Isn’t that what Potiphar and Pilate are doing? And the Bible says that is what we all do by nature. We suppress the truth because, like Potiphar and like Pilate, we don’t like the position that the truth would put us in.
Facing the truth would be far too costly, so the truth has to go. Joseph is in the prison. Jesus is on the cross. So we read in verse 20, “Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.”
It is interesting to me that Joseph did not try to defend himself, “You haven’t heard my side of the story!” Why did he not plead his case? He knew that he did not have an honest judge. Potiphar was not seeking the truth. He was looking for a way out. I wonder how Potiphar slept that night. Or the night after. Or the night after that. Not very well. He knew.
Our Lord was in the same situation. And like a sheep that is silent before her shearers, Jesus opened not his mouth (Isa. 53:7). Why not? Because when he was accused, he didn’t have an honest judge. He wasn’t seeking the truth.
Thank God this world has a better judge than Potiphar or Pilate. Think of the long list of godly people who have been falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned: Joseph and Jeremiah and Daniel, John on Patmos, Paul in Philippi and Rome, and Jesus in the house of Caiaphas.
There is a long line of thousands on every continent and throughout history who were falsely accused, could not get a fair trial, and were wrongfully imprisoned. Thank God that there will be a day of judgment when God himself, who knows the hearts of all people, will be the Judge. No secret is hidden from him. All truth is open before him.
There will be a day of vindication for those who have been falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned. The problem for Potiphar’s wife and for all like her who spread the lie, the problem for Potiphar and for all like him who suppress the truth, is that one day we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Before him all hearts are open and no secret is hid.
Think about that and you will soon find yourself saying, “I dare not speak the lie. I dare not suppress the truth. Where I have lied, where I have made false accusation, where I have pretended to a virtue to the hurt of another person, I must confess! I must repent! I must seek forgiveness from God and from the person I have wronged.”
Joseph: Standing by Faith
Joseph had been in a pit before, and now he was there again. Only this time it was worse. Psalm 105:18 tells us, “His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron.” This was surely the lowest point in Joseph’s life.
What has been the lowest point in your life? God was blessing you and then you were cut down. You were working hard, and the reward you got was that false things were said about you and people who were once your friends turned against you. God was blessing you and then what he had given was taken away, and suddenly you found yourself in great darkness.
There are stories of loss are all over this congregation: Loss in your career, a sudden loss of health, loss of loved ones. This story speaks right into our lives because we know the pain of loss, and if we don’t know it now, then some day we will.
Now I want you to notice something very striking about this story. When the Holy Spirit records for us the lowest point in Joseph’s life, the Bible does not say a single word about how he felt.
When we read in verse 20 that “Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison,” you would expect it to say, “and Joseph cried out to the Lord, ‘Why did you allow this to happen? When will there be justice on the earth? What are you doing in my life?’”
The Psalms are full of that kind of thing – expressions of human pain over false accusation, injustice, and loss. I don’t doubt that Joseph felt gutted. His pain and his loss were great, and he must have had many questions and struggles.
God passes over every reference to what Joseph felt, because he wants to direct our attention to something else: How Joseph got through. How did Joseph survive? How did he keep walking with God through all this pain and sorrow and loss and injustice?
The Lord was with Joseph and he showed him steadfast love. (Genesis 39:21)
God went to prison with Joseph. God was with Joseph in the lowest point of his life, in the darkest place. One author says, “Think not that the presence of God with His people is limited to palaces or to churches. It has often been manifestly seen that He was with them in prisons, in caves or dens, on gibbets, and in fiery furnaces.” 
God goes with his people to the lowest point. God will be with you, “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” – not at the lowest point, not at any point in your life.
Joseph had been given a dream. It had come to him with all the power of the Word of God. God had revealed the future to Joseph. So when this man comes to the lowest point of his life, Joseph could say, “God is with me here and it doesn’t end here. It can’t end here because I have the promise of God. And what God promises he always fulfills.”
The LORD was with Joseph… and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed. (Genesis 39:21-23)
Matthew Henry says, “A good man will do good wherever he is.”  Out of Joseph’s suffering comes a remarkable ministry. The blessing of God is on Joseph, and wherever Joseph goes, he brings this blessing with him.
If God brings me to the lowest place, let me be the person who brings his blessing to others who come there. If God brings me to a place of sorrow, let me be the one who ministers to others who sorrow. If God brings me a place of loss, let me use that to bring his blessing to others who experience loss. If God allows me to face false accusation, let me reach out to others who suffer the same injustice. The hardest things in your life may open the door to the most fruitful ministry in your life.
Put Your Name Here
Put your story in here. You worked hard and you were blessed by God. You sought to live with integrity and to honor the Lord by your commitment to walk by his commandments,
but then you were cut down. Your life changed, and it happened so quickly that it took your breath away. But God is with you, and his promise stands firm. And God has a purpose for you even in your suffering, and he can use you even in your loss.
Christian brother or sister, no lie, however vicious or injustice, however perverse, can ever take the presence of God from you. No loss can ever thwart his great and loving purpose for your life. God’s promise stands sure. God’s great purpose for you and through you will be accomplished. All his promises are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ because of Christ Jesus.
 Adapted from Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible.
“Chaste and holy love will continue, though slighted; but sinful love… is easily changed to sinful hatred.”
 “Although they knew God, they did not honor him” (Rom. 1:21).
 George Lawson, Lectures on the History of Joseph, p. 46, Banner of Truth, 1972
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible.
© Colin S. Smith
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