Joseph’s brothers didn’t know how much they were truly loved until God used a crisis to reveal it to them. "And the famine was over all the face of the earth: and Joseph opened all the storehouses.... When Jacob saw there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said to his sons...Get you down thither, and buy for us.... And Joseph's ten brothers went down to buy corn" (Genesis 41:56; 42:1-3).
Twenty years had passed since their crime of selling Joseph into slavery and now he was Prime Minister of Egypt. For seven years he had stored grain in preparation for famine. Jacob's sons supposed they were going to Egypt just to get corn, but God had bigger and better plans. He sent them there to get a revelation of love! They were going to experience mercy, pardon, and restoration and learn what the grace of God was all about. Deserving nothing but judgment, they were going to receive pure grace.
Keeping in mind that Joseph is a type of Christ, I find it impossible to read this part of the story without tears. It is such a beautiful picture of the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ for all those who have failed him.
Twenty years of sin and subterfuge had kept the brothers out of touch with Joseph. They probably assumed he was dead by this time. When they arrived at Pharaoh's court and came before Joseph, they did not recognize him, but he knew them immediately (Genesis 42:8). There they were, bowing down before him just as he had dreamed. Was Joseph angry and vengeful? Never! His heart was filled with compassion at the sight of the brothers he loved so dearly.
Why, then, did he speak sharply to them and accuse them of being spies (Genesis 42:7)? I once thought Joseph was getting a bit of revenge, but that was not his motive at all. He was merely following God's directions. These proud men were not yet ready for a revelation of grace and mercy. First they needed to see the exceeding ugliness of their sins and face their guilt and shame. They needed to come to the end of themselves, so that nothing but mercy could help them. This is the message of the cross of Christ—unconditional love and forgiveness to all who have come to the end of themselves!
God showed this truth to Joseph, and Joseph put his brothers in prison for three days—not to punish them, but to give them a chance to face the truth about their sin. It was the law at work, showing them their evil natures. And it worked! "They said one to another, We are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us" (Genesis 42:21).
It is impossible to understand God's grace until we come to the end of our own resources and experience his mercy. That grace delivers from all shame and guilt.