NOTES on Hebrews 11:20-22 (click here for study)

These three verses in Hebrews allude to the complex stories of three generations of Abraham's direct descendants: Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Each of these patriarchs represents years of conflict with an older brother or, in the case of Joseph, brothers. Each of these men represents God's sovereign choice and blessing. Each received the family birthright even though he was not the eldest son. Each of these men received the promised blessings of the covenant God made with Abraham.

This passage in Hebrews recounts the instructions and blessings these men gave at the ends of their lives. Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph have their place in the biblical hall of fame not because of their amazing acts during the courses of their lives but because they ended their lives strong and full of faith. Their lives illustrate that ending well is one of the blessings God gives those who live with integrity and openness before him. People alive with faith in God do not become crotchety, negative, and brittle as they age. Their faith keeps them humble and growing in love and confidence in the goodness and blessings of God.


Chosen Younger Brothers

Isaac, the son of promise, had twin sons, Jacob and Esau. God told their mother Rebecca before their birth that the older would serve the younger. Jacob was the second born twin, but through trickery and deception he succeeded in receiving the birthright from his father. (see Genesis 25 and 27) The two brothers were opposites in temperament, and after Jacob's deception, Esau nursed a grudge against Jacob and plotted to kill him. Rebecca learned of the plot and sent Jacob to live with her brother Laban in Haran.

In spite of his unscrupulousness, Jacob was still God's chosen man. Before he was born God chose Jacob to receive the covenant blessing passed down from Abraham and Isaac. Jacob was not God's chosen one because of his goodness. Rather, in spite of his treachery, God's choice of him was sovereign and irrevocable.

Jacob and Esau are reminiscent of Ishmael and Isaac and of Cain and Abel. Ishmael, Abraham's firstborn and the son of the Egyptian slave Hagar, was not the son God promised. Isaac, born 13 years later, was the son of promise. He was born to Abraham and barren Sarah long after her childbearing years were past.

Abraham wanted God to bless Ishmael, and it grieved him to send Ishmael away when Isaac was weaned. Yet Ishmael was cruel to Isaac, and he and Hagar had to be sent away. The miracle son of God's promise could not live with the natural son.

Isaac, the younger son, was the one God chose before either of the boys was born. It was not anything either of them did that earned Isaac the favored position. God's sovereign choice determined Isaac's selection.

Years earlier, the sons of Adam and Eve had been in a similar situation. Both Cain, the elder, and Abel brought sacrifices to God. For reasons we are not told, God found favor with Abel's sacrifice but not with Cain's. In spite of God's reasoning with him, Cain refused to give up his bad attitude toward Abel, and Cain killed him. The younger son found favor in God's sight, but it was not because of his actions. God's favor toward Abel was the result of God's sovereign choice.

Not Abel, Isaac, or Jacob received God's favor because they had been good. God chose them for reasons he alone knows. God's choice and calling are sovereign. All who respond to his call and commit their lives to Him are responding to God's grace. Their acceptance into the heart and family of God is not a result of their goodness or deeds. It is solely the result of God's love and mercy and salvation.


Joseph's Blessing

When Jacob blessed his sons before his death, he broke with tradition. Reuben, born to Leah, was Jacob's eldest, but he had arrogantly slept with his father's concubine Bilhah. (Genesis 35:22) Legally, the firstborn inherited his father's concubines when he received the birthright, but Reuben had not yet received his inheritance. His act was presumptuous, and because of it, Jacob did not grant him the birthright. Instead he gave it to Rachel's eldest (his eleventh son), Joseph.

Jacob gave Joseph the double portion by blessing his two firstborn sons. His blessing, however, was more than a pronouncement. It was an adoption.

"Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine," he said, "just as Reuben and Simeon are mine." (Genesis 48:5b)

Jacob's adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh resulted in each of them having a tribe named after him.

The blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, however, marked the third generation of a younger brother receiving the inheritance normally reserved for the older. When Joseph presented the boys to his father to be blessed, he led the elder, Manasseh, to his father's right hand and the younger, Ephraim, to his father's left.

Jacob, however, crossed his arms and put his right hand on Ephraim. Joseph "was displeased; so he took hold of his father's hand to move it from Ephraim's head to Manasseh's headBut his father refused and said, 'I know, my son, I knowNevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.' " (Genesis 48:17-19)

For reasons not even Joseph knew, Jacob "put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh". (Genesis 48:20b) In his sovereignty God chose the younger son to receive the greater blessing.


Prophetic Significance

When Jacob told Joseph that he wanted to adopt his two sons, he designated them as "your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here." All Joseph's later sons would be Joseph's, but their inheritance would be reckoned under the names of Ephraim and Manasseh. (Gen. 48:5-6)

Ephraim and Manasseh were Joseph's two eldest sons born to him by his Egyptian wife, Asenath, daughter of Potephera, the priest of On. (Genesis 41:50) These two sons were two of the links in the chain that led to Hosea's prophetic statement, "Out of Egypt have I called my son." (Hosea 11:1)

Egypt, the pagan enemy nation from which God helped Israel escape, nevertheless provided nurture and safety repeatedly throughout the history of God's people, from Abraham to the toddler Jesus.

The phenomenon of second brothers receiving God's blessing during the pre-Israelite years is prophetic as well. It prefigures the reality of the first and second Adams. 1 Corinthians 15:45-46 says, " 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam, a life giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual."

God's transforming power comes after humanity's sin. Adam sinned and left us his death as our inheritance. Jesus was born spiritually alive and did not sin; he restored life to dead humanity. In the stories of these sets of brothers, God's sovereign choice is the second son. The divine blessing that extends to the nations comes through the second brothers.

Ishmael was the natural son; Isaac was the miracle. Esau and Manasseh were firstborns; Jacob and Ephraim received the divine blessing. Even before the nation of Israel existed, much less the laws that defined and governed it, God was foreshadowing the reality of our Redeemer. He was illustrating that He would sovereignly give us a Savior, a God-man who would defy human logic and choice.

There is a further significance in the elder/younger brother motif. In the history of mankind, God has had two "spiritual children", or chosen people. The first was the nation of Israel. To Israel God clarified the promise of the Messiah and gave the symbols of salvation and the laws for holy living. To Israel God revealed himself, commissioning them to represent him to the world.

But Israel failed. They did not honor God, and they did not represent his love to the world as they should have. They were not able to keep their law, and they continually retreated to paganism. Their disobedience ultimately resulted in their arrogant rejection of the Messiah for whom they longed.

Because they dishonored and rejected Jesus, God ultimately extended salvation directly to the Gentiles. Israel was no longer the messenger of salvation. Gentiles could approach God directly.

Israel gave up its birthright by being disobedient and proud. Now God has a second spiritual child: the church. After coming as a man and dying for our sins and rising from the dead, Jesus reconnected fallen man to himself by sending the Holy Spirit to live in us. Christ-followers, the Body of Christ, take the living presence of Jesus into the world. The "second son", the church, has received God's special blessing. It has received the birthright: the indwelling Holy Spirit and entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

The miracle of the reality of God's two "children" is this: the first son, Israel, can also become part of the church, the "second son". Everyone who believes in Jesus and accepts the new birth is part of the chosen "second son". The church is the miracle hidden from the Israelites. In the church there is no inherited position or honor. All people are equally chosen in the sight of God, and God honors everyone who accepts Jesus.


Identity with God's People

Even though Joseph spent most of his lifetime in Egypt as God's appointed servant, still he identified with the people of God, his brothers and their descendants. Joseph, like Moses later, would consider the honor of Egypt to be nothing compared to being identified with God's people. He gave instructions for his descendants to take his bones with them when they finally left that country for good.

In spite of his miraculous success in Egypt, Joseph considered that country to be "the land of [his] suffering." (Genesis 41:52) Although he looked and talked like an Egyptian, in his heart he was a Hebrew, and he always knew he belonged to God, not to paganism. He knew of the covenant God had made with his grandfather Abraham, and he knew he was part of the blessing God had promised.

Joseph could have been entombed in an Egyptian pyramid, but he wanted to go with his own people when they finally left that land, even if he was already dead. When the people of Israel left Egypt, they took both Joseph's and Jacob's bones with them to the Promised Land.



God is asking you to live by faith as did the patriarchs. He is calling you to trust him and to give him all of your life so that you not only live productively but also finish strong. God wants you to grow in grace and love as you mature instead of growing bitter with disappointment and regret. God wants to be so real to you that living in him becomes your reality instead of vainly hanging on to youth and strength. Only in Christ can you experience the respect and the peace that makes maturity a reward instead of a bitter loss.

God wants to transform your losses into new places to experience his love. He knows that some things in your life can never be restored. Some things in your life come to you broken, and while they can heal, they can never be flawless. God wants to reveal his love to you in those places where you take on brokenness. He wants you to let his love fill the cracks that cannot mend without scars.

Jesus, the second Adam, is the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29) He identifies with us in our humanity, and when we submit to him and let him give us a new heart, he brings assignments into our lives that require us to step out of the way so His love can bring change. He asks us to be vulnerable to loss and hurt for the sake of bringing others to experience his grace. Jesus asks these things of us knowing intimately what they will cost us.

Jesus wants to transform the "Egypt" in your life into a monument to his faithfulness. He wants to redefine your incredible loss or pain so it becomes the place you discover his eternal love. God doesn't want the sadness and regret in your life to cripple you. He doesn't want the loss you experience to diminish you. He himself leads you through the crises and chronic traumas of your life. Jesus wants your soul to be imprinted not with crippling grief but with the reality of his peace.

God is calling you to be a "second son". He's asking you to let go of your first son status, your natural, "deserving" self-interest. He's asking you to give up what you perceive as your rights in this life and to take on his death instead. He's asking you to be willing to go through a death of your dreams and desires, your identity and your power. He's offering you forgiveness for your guilt, love for your resentment, rest for your control.

Jesus is offering you His Spirit for your dead one and a new birth for your life. Jesus is longing to transform you into a person of Spirit instead of a person of flesh. He wants you to claim the birthright you could not attain as a natural, firstborn son. Jesus wants you to inherit the blessing he promised to Abraham millennia ago.

Let go of your tight control with which you've held your sadness and grief in check. Give Jesus your fearful and broken heart. Let his love fill it and heal you. Face the reality that your life cannot be what you wanted it to be, and let Jesus give you a new reality.

God wants you to live in love. He wants your heart to be at peace and rest. He wants to be your wisdom and comfort. He wants you to experience your new birthright.

Jesus wants to be your reward.

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