What is a paradox? The dictionary definition of a paradox is, a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well-founded or true. There are a number of paradoxes in the Bible, and we will address some of those prominent Biblical paradoxes within this article.
A truly humble man is hard to find, yet God delights to honour such selfless people. Booker T. Washington, the renowned black educator, was an outstanding example of this truth. Shortly after he took over the presidency of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he was walking in an exclusive section of town when he was stopped by a wealthy white woman. Not knowing the famous Mr. Washington by sight, she asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her. Because he had no pressing business at the moment, Professor Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to do the humble chore she had requested. When he was finished, he carried the logs into the house and stacked them by the fireplace. A little girl recognized him and later revealed his identity to the lady. The next morning the embarrassed woman went to see Mr. Washington in his office at the Institute and apologized profusely. “It’s perfectly all right, Madam,” he replied. “Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labour. Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend.” She shook his hand warmly and assured him that his meek and gracious attitude had endeared him and his work to her heart. Not long afterward she showed her admiration by persuading some wealthy acquaintances to join her in donating thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute.
The first example from the Bible that I want to mention is from the time King David was brining the Ark of Covenant to Jerusalem. “And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. Then David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, How glorious was the king of Israel to day, who uncovered himself to day in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovereth himself! And David said unto Michal, It was before the LORD, which chose me before thy father, and before all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the LORD, over Israel: therefore will I play before the LORD.” 2 Samuel 6:14–15, 20–23
The paradox from this example is repeated throughout the Bible and illustrated powerfully in Luke 18 with the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. In Luke 18:14 Jesus states the following, “every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” In terms of the logic adhered to by the world it does not make sense that if you are humble and lowly you will be exalted. The reality is that the majority of people in the world who become particularly rich or powerful have had distinct advantages in life that had nothing to do with them humbling themselves. Furthermore, even some of those people that have attained significant status in life, who started from humble beginnings, did not always attain their status merely through hard work. There was often a significant element of ambition, or willingness to use others as stepping stones in climbing the corporate ladder associated with their rise.
Clearly a certain level of ambition is an integral component within the character of a successful person. A healthy work ethic, or measured ambition, is an indispensable component of providing for one’s basic necessities. However, when one’s ambition becomes all-absorbing and distracts an individual from the spiritual matters of life, preventing them from ever establishing a connection with God, their ambition has become a self-destructive force. It is at this point that the Biblical principle of “he who has exalted himself will be abased” is fulfilled, because their desire for worldly success has jeopardized their prospects of eternal life.
Going back to the example of King David, in 2 Samuel 20:6 it is apparent that Michal accuses David of uncovering himself, and acting in a manner not fit for a king. Given the fact that David’s behaviour in this scenario was rather eccentric for a king, Michal’s accusation appears to contain an element of truth. It is commonly believed within our church that there are too many Christian congregations today who equate public displays of emotion while worshipping God, as the most accurate measure of how much an individual loves Jesus. It is essential to consider the inner motivation which inspires someone to praise God with a particular display of emotion, as opposed to a more subdued manifestation of their devotion to God.
David counters with, “It was before the Lord”, and, “I will yet be more vile than thus, and will be base in mine own sight.” v. 21,22. It is clear in David’s words that he is trying to convey to Michal the true reason for his conduct as being motivated by a genuine desire to praise and honour God during a very important moment which was obviously conducive to the spiritual health of Israel; and David’s statement that he will be base in his own sight suggests that David was ready to follow any course, however lowly it might appear even to himself, that would be for the honour and glory of God!
If someone is willing to take a similar course of action as David did to make themselves appear lowly or extremely humbled and perhaps even be embarrassing in order to effectively honour and glorify God, could we say that their motivation was one of displaying an exaggerated form of public religiosity in the interests of gaining the praise of men? I think it is safe to say that in this case David’s public display came from a genuine love for God and a desire to honour and praise Him to the fullest of his ability.
In fact, we must be aware of the risk of merely praising God in a public manner in order to somehow prove our level of devotion or compete with others to make it appear that we are the truest Christians. We also must be aware that if there is no outward manifestation of our love for Jesus, due to the fact that there is indifference and apathy in our hearts, then at this point our apparent dignity becomes formalism.
William Barclay tells the story of Paedaretos who lived in Sparta in ancient Greece. A group of 300 men were to be chosen to govern Sparta. Though Paedaretos was a candidate, his name was not on the final list. Some of his friends sought to console him, but he simply replied, “I am glad that in Sparta there are 300 men better than I am.” He became a legend because of his willingness to stand aside while others took the places of glory and honour.
“Have I committed an offence in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I have preached to you the gospel of God freely?” 2 Corinthians 11:7. What does Paul mean here when he says he had abased himself in order that the Corinthians would be exalted? It is apparent that Paul was working in a very self-sacrificial manner by supporting his own ministry and not expecting any financial support from the Corinthians. He was working hard for their salvation and being a servant unto them. Part of our humble lot in this life is also working for the benefit of others! Now why did Paul not choose to receive financial support from the believers as was his right, and as the other apostles did? He repeatedly asserts that he has this right, but then he chooses not to assert it.
“For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me. What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel. For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.” 1 Corinthians 9:16–19. It is clear according to these verses that Paul chose not to accept financial support from the believers because he wanted to ensure that he was able to preach the gospel and offer salvation without any kind of charge being incurred! He did not want there to be any chance of anyone thinking that his motivation for his labours was financial gain rather than a sincere love for souls and a desire to win as many as possible to Christ. Now, what reward did Paul receive in thanks for his self-sacrificing efforts on behalf of the Corinthians and others? Well, in relation to his self-sacrificing efforts for Corinth some of his opposers asserted that his significant self-sacrifice was actually evidence that he did not deserve support for preaching the gospel as the other apostles received and had thus tacitly admitted that he was not a genuine apostle or labourer for Christ! Have you ever felt that your best efforts for others were not appreciated, or your self-sacrificing efforts were even misconstrued or misinterpreted completely?
Let us look at some other Bible verses which are associated with being humbled and abased in order to be glorified! “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:18–25
The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’s strength! What a paradox that many in the world today think as did the unconverted Jews and Greeks during the time of Christ, that the things of God are foolishness. Believing or trusting in God are courses of action typically taken by the uneducated, ignorant, or easily persuaded. Just like the Jews and Greeks in Paul’s day, many today see any belief in God or true dedication to His cause as foolishness and they mock it, when in reality a belief in Him is the one thing that would have power to save them.
In verse 20 Paul asks, “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” Here he points to the complete unreliability of all forms of human thinking and reasoning in terms of the ability to achieve salvation independent of a belief in God! With all their apparent knowledge of the Torah and their knowledge of prophecy the Jews did not accept Christ as the promised Messiah, despite all the miracles they witnessed as direct evidence of His divinity. What good did their pride and self-exaltation in relation to their deep understanding of Scripture do for them in terms of attaining salvation?
Why did Jesus choose fishermen? Partially to show that He is not dependent upon a specific type of human agent and that He can use anyone to do His work. Also because they were humble enough to recognize their need of being saved! In terms of the Greeks, what good did all their deep understanding of worldly philosophy and philosophical debate and arguments do for them when they heard the gospel laid out with power and clarity and refused to accept it?
Earlier I mentioned Paul and his self-sacrificing efforts on the behalf of others, and I now turn to Christ who sacrificed all on behalf of others! “And with Him they crucify two thieves; the one on His right hand, and the other on His left. And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And He was numbered with the transgressors. And they that passed by railed on Him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, Save Thyself, and come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; Himself He cannot save. Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with Him reviled Him. And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Mark 15:27–34
What paradox do we see in the closing scenes of the life of Jesus? It says in verse 31 that “likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; Himself He cannot save.” We see a paradox that, at this moment, the chief priests and scribes who hated Jesus bitterly became gospel preachers as they sarcastically said that “He saved others; Himself He cannot save.” Was it true that Jesus saved others? Absolutely; it was true! But what about the charge that “Jesus could not save Himself”?
[Emmaeus] “The disciples were reasoning with each other concerning the events of the past few days, and marveling how the fact of Jesus yielding Himself up to a shameful death could be reconciled with His claims as the Son of God. One maintained that He could be no pretender, but had been Himself deceived in regard to His mission and His future glory. They both feared that what His enemies had flung in His teeth was too true—‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save.’ Yet they wondered how He could be so mistaken in Himself, when He had given them such repeated evidence that He could read the hearts of others. And the strange reports of the women threw them into still greater uncertainty.” –The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3, p. 207
These terrible words of the scribes and Pharisees that “He saved others; Himself He cannot save”, would undoubtedly be on the minds of others as well! It is true that the message of mercy will get out to this world through the people in God’s church, but if we fail to preach it the very stones would cry out! The Scribes and Pharisees, (the leaders of God’s chosen nation) whose every action throughout their lives was to oppose Jesus and counteract His influence here unknowingly spoke some truth in regards to the mission of Jesus—“Jesus could not save Himself”?
Imagine the paradox of Jesus dying on the cross, who had only ever been merciful and whose tender hands sought to alleviate human suffering at every possible turn; and now, knowing that He could alleviate His own suffering but in order to save others, he refused to save Himself. Jesus, who had the power to raise others from the dead, would now allow Himself to die for you and I. Jesus, who had power over all nature and could calm the storm, but now allowed chaos to reign in the events surrounding His death. Jesus, who had the power to cast out legions of demons, but now allowed Satan and his evil angels to do their evil work in securing His death, and it was all for you and I.
Phillip Brooks, a pastor in the 1800’s, living in the United States who supported the North during the Civil War in their opposition of slavery, made an apt comment when he said, “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is.” We must compare ourselves to Christ because that is what makes us realize how faulty and sin-filled we actually are, and this in turn makes us feel our need of Jesus and our need to surrender all to Him! It all begins with beholding Christ and comparing ourselves to His character.
It is when we compare ourselves to people around us who are just as faulty as we are that we start to feel proud and lifted up. Or when we look at our own selves and the achievements we have made, without any focus on God, that we begin to feel pretty great about ourselves. But, when we look at our own achievements while considering Christ we realize that everything we have accomplished comes from Him anyways, and the greatest thing we have done is nothing compared to what Jesus has done for us. This great achievement means nothing unless it led us closer to Christ or led others around us closer to Christ.
We should be more like Paul in this regard. He stated, “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” 1 Corinthians 15:9. “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Ephesians 3:8. “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” 1 Timothy 1:15. What do you notice about all those three verses? What stands out as being significant? He wrote the words in 1 Corinthians in approximately A.D. 59, and in Ephesians in approximately A.D. 63, and in 1 Timothy 1:15 in about A.D. 64. First he writes that he is the least of the apostles, then he writes that he is the very least of the saints, and finally that he is the foremost of sinners.
Throughout his life would we say that Paul’s experience with Christ was getting deeper and his faith growing, or not? It was definitely growing, and the paradox is that as his opinion of himself grew lower and he became more painfully aware of his weaknesses and shortcomings due to the fact that he was beholding Jesus, simultaneously he was able to preach the gospel with greater power and reach more hearts. This low opinion of himself was his greatest asset because he trusted entirely in Christ!
To the world and the people in it, our choices in terms of being humble and choosing to be a servant to others seem ludicrous and pointless. How is humbling yourself and choosing to have less rather than more in this life going to improve your quality of life or lead to exaltation at all? That is because they are thinking merely in terms of this world and if there was no hope of heaven or anything other than this world it seems logical to grasp for all you can in this life and spend your time in pleasure-seeking and self-exaltation. It is my wish and prayer that we will accept Jesus and truly humble ourselves, thus ensuring our own salvation and the salvation of many others that we reach through our influence! Amen.