When I was living in Grand Rapids about 15 years ago, I was reading through Hebrews 11 and I stumbled across Hebrews 11:22
By faith Joseph [when] dying called to mind the going forth of the sons of Israel, and gave commandment concerning his bones.I found that verse terribly interesting, because it's the only mention of Joseph in Hebrews 11. It seemed odd to me that someone of whom Scripture speaks so highly would only get this slight mention. And it seemed even odder that it would be about the commandment concerning his bones: there's no mention of him saving Egypt, no mention of his testimony to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, no mention of his saving Israel – the only thing Hebrews 11 talks about is his calling to mind the "going forth of the sons of Israel."
This story is mentioned three times in the Old Testament that I can find: Genesis 50:24–26; Exodus 13:19; and Joshua 24:32. It's only mentioned in the New Testament in Hebrews 11:22. In fact, the story of Joseph is only referenced three times in the New Testament: John 4:5; Acts 7:9–15; and Hebrews 11:22. He is named a few more times, but only as one of the patriarchs: it's not really Joseph they are referring to, but his descendants.
I have heard time and again that Joseph is a type of Christ in the Old Testament; but there really isn't a lot of evidence this is true. Christ never mentions him, the Epistles only mention him once, and Stephen gives him a view verses in his overview of the history of the nation of Israel in Acts 7. There are a lot of very clear parallels between the life of Joseph and the Son of God. But when it comes down to it, the New Testament never compares Jesus Christ to Joseph, notwithstanding some very interesting features in John 4. Perhaps we'll talk about those another time.
Having said that, Hebrews 11:22 commends Joseph.
I spent quite a bit of time thinking about Joe's bones over the years, and I eventually found some audio messages by John Phillips ("The Bones of Joseph" and "The Bones of Joseph"). Both those messages are worth the time and effort to listen to them. Still… I find myself wanting something a little less whimsical.
John Phillips says it was the bones of Joseph that kept Moses going – it was Moses who carried them out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19). He says the bones were a reminder that there was a destination: God had promised them a land, and they were to carry Joseph's bones to it. I think he's right.
But there's more: the bones of Joseph were a reminder of death in Egypt. Genesis ends with this verse:
And Joseph died, a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him; and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. Genesis 50:26Someone said that Genesis starts with a tree in Eden and ends with a coffin in Egypt. It's the story of how death came into the world, and all the consequences of that. The final consequence is that a very good man died away from his home and was put into a coffin in a foreign land.
When Jacob died in Egypt, they carried his body back to Canaan and buried it there (Genesis 50:4–13). Certainly they could have carried Joseph's body back the same way. But Joseph asked them not to: he asked them to leave his body in Egypt until God visited them to take them back to Canaan (Genesis 50:24 & 25), and then they were to carry his bones with them.
I don't know how much Joseph understood of what God would do, but he certainly understood at least part of it. And he wanted to have a part in the deliverance too. Perhaps this would remind us of the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18), where those who have died in Christ won't be left out.
So Joseph's bones accompanied Moses out of Egypt, and they were a reminder that there was nothing in Egypt for him but death.
There might be an application here for us. The Lord Jesus asked us to remember Him by eating bread and drinking wine (1 Corinthians 11:23–26): the bread is to remind us of His body, the wine of His blood (1 Corinthians 10:16). And we're told that whenever we do this, we are announcing His death. The question is, are we listening to the announcement? I have to admit that I frequently find myself thinking and acting like I have a life here in this wicked world. The bread and the wine that the Lord Jesus has asked me to eat and drink should be a reminder to me that there's nothing but death here for me. A good Man has come into this world, and all He found here was death, much like Joseph.
And like Joseph, the Lord Jesus' request for us to eat bread and drink wine centers on the sure promise that God will visit us and take us away. Joseph foresaw Moses, the Epistles promise that Christ Himself will come to get us (1 Corinthians 11:26; Philippians 3:21; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). So it's not a stretch to say that we, too, have something like Moses had: a reminder that there is a destination ahead, and a reminder that there's nothing but death behind us.
Exodus 13 is the second mention of the bones of Joseph. The third is in Joshua 24, where we're told that the children of Israel did eventually bury Joseph's bones in Shechem, in the field that Jacob had marked out for him (Genesis 48:22; Joshua 24:32). As near as I can tell, that was where Sychar was eventually built, where the Lord Jesus met the woman of Samaria (John 4:5). So the Lord Jesus comes to Samaria, and it seems like He stops right where the bones of Joseph were buried.
Shechem holds an interesting place in the Old Testament: it's where Jacob buried the idols his family brought back to Canaan (Genesis 35:2–4), it's where Joshua told the people they had to choose which idols they'd worship if they wouldn't worship the Lord (Joshua 24:1, 14–15), and it's where they buried Joseph's bones (Joshua 24:32). So we might think of Joseph's bones as signifying decision: it takes us to that place where idols are given up.
I can't help but think of 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10 whenever Scripture mentions giving up idols. The Thessalonians turned to God from idols, and they were waiting for the Son of God from Heaven. They had nothing here, their expectation and their hope was with the Son of God up there.
Shechem is the place of decision, and the story of Joseph's bones reminds us that the wilderness journey is to be undertaken decisively. We don't get to sort of half-heartedly step out of Egypt and then kind of stumble into Canaan. It is an eleven-day journey from Horeb to Kadesh-Barnea (Deuteronomy 1:2), but it took the Israelites 38 years. And the question is, why did it take them 38 years? Hebrews 3 answers that question: their carcasses fell in the wilderness because they did not believe (Hebrews 3:7–19). And so Hebrews gives us an exhortation (Hebrews 4:1–3): we ought to fear seeming to come short of the promised rest of God.
And I should point out that it's entirely possible for a true believer to die in the wilderness, never coming into that rest down here. It's possible to have what John Phillips called "a saved soul, but a lost life". There is a sin unto death (1 John 5:16; 1 Corinthians 11:30), and it's possible for us to fall into that. Let's not make the mistake of thinking that those who fell in the wilderness weren't born again, or that those who fell asleep in 1 Corinthians 11 weren't true believers.
There is a path through the wilderness, which the vulture's eye has not seen (Job 28:8). The bones of Joseph remind us we need to walk decisively as we follow the Lord along that path. There is nothing but death behind us, there is a sure destination ahead; let's walk decisively.