Paradoxes are statements that seem contradictory, inconsistent, or absurd, but are nonetheless true. And the Bible is full of paradoxes! Learn about them below.
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The Bible is so full of paradoxes. Herbert Howell said, “Without paradoxes, there is no Christianity.”1
Henry Clay Trumbull was a pastor and author. He lived from 1830 to 1903. He wrote a number of books and one of them is called, “Practical Paradoxes; or, Truth in Contradictions.” I was able to get a free copy of it off the Internet on Tuesday, and I want to read the first few sentences of chapter one…
“The law of the Christian life is a paradox. It is made up of seeming contradictions. All its teachings are contrary to the common opinions of man. According to [God], giving is getting; scattering is gaining; holding is losing; having nothing is possessing all things; dying is living. It is he who is weak who is strong; it is he who defies danger who avoids it; it is he who loses his life who finds it. Self-interest is promoted by unselfishness; the pleasures of earth are surest to him who disregards them; happiness is found only when it is no longer sought; the clearest sight is of the invisible; things which are not, bring to naught things which are.”Henry Clay Trumbull, Practical Paradoxes (Philadelphia: John D. Wattles, 1889), 9.
God Exalts the Humble and Humbles the Exalted
This is probably the Bible’s most common paradox. In the New Testament:
- 1 Peter 5:6 Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time
- James 4:10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
This principle is expressed in the Old Testament as well:
- 1 Samuel 2:8 God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory
- Ezekiel 21:26 Thus says the Lord God, “Remove the turban, and take off the crown; nothing shall remain the same. Exalt the humble, and humble the exalted.”
Adonijah’s Example of Self-Exaltation
In the Christian life, the fastest way to be humbled is to exalt yourself. Think about David’s son, Adonijah:
Then Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king”; and he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him.1 Kings 1:5
Only a few verses later, while he was having a banquet in his own honor, celebrating receiving the throne:
Then Jonathan said to Adonijah, “No! Our lord King David has made Solomon king.”1 Kings 5:42
David’s Example of Humility
Conversely, the fastest way to be exalted is to humble yourself. David is a good example. Serving the Lord in the shepherd’s field, humbled by the majesty of God in creation:
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?Psalm 8:3-4
God took David out of that shepherd’s field and made him the shepherd of His people, and one of the most exalted men in history.
A Few More Paradoxes in the Bible
- In Matthew 23:11 Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be greatest, should be everyone’s servant.”
- In Mark 9:35 Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to be first, must be the very last.”
- In Luke 17:33 Jesus said, “Whoever tries to keep their lives will lose it, and whoever loses their lives will keep it.”
- 2 Corinthians 6:10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
- In 2 Corinthians 12:10 and 13:9 Paul said, “When we are weak we are strong.”
- James 1:2 says, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.”
Paradoxical Truths in the Bible
We can also think of many paradoxical truths that are found in Scripture:
- We see unseen things.
- We conquer by yielding or submitting.
- We serve others to be great.
- We choose to be last to be first.
- We give to receive.
- We find victory by glorying in our infirmities.
- We find rest under a yoke.
- We become wise by being fools for Christ’s sake.
- We are made free by becoming slaves…slavery is the opposite of freedom.
The Epimenedes Paradox
One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.Titus 1:12
This is the Epimenides Paradox. If Epimenides himself was a Cretan and all Cretans are liars, then Epimenides is also a liar. If Epiminedes is a liar, then the statement that “all Cretans are liars” must be a lie, which means all Cretans tell the truth, which means Epimenides tells the truth, which means the statement “all Cretans are liars” is both true and false.
God’s mercy is for those who fear Him.Luke 1:50
People who are most afraid of God have the least to fear from Him, and people who don’t fear God have the most to fear from Him. This is a paradox. It doesn’t make sense: if you fear God you don’t have to be afraid of Him, but if you don’t fear God, you have a lot to fear from Him.
Think about Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. The Assyrians were known for their cruelty and brutality. They mutilated people, resettled entire populations, and rejoiced over butchering their victims. They had absolutely no fear of God, and as a result had every reason to fear God. Jonah told the people:
“In forty days God is going to destroy your city.”Jonah 3:4
The people became afraid of God and dramatically repented. As a result, God’s mercy toward them became so great that when Jonah still wanted to see them judged, God rebuked the prophet for his lack of mercy:
“Should I not pity these people?”Jonah 4:11
The simple points:
- When they didn’t fear God they had everything to fear from God
- When they feared God, they had nothing to fear from God
The Most Important Paradox
Three things to know about this paradox:
- While the previous paradoxes could be quoted, there isn’t one specific verse to capture this paradox.
- Even without one specific verse, this paradox is a truth maintained throughout the entire Bible.
- This is the most important paradox in the Bible as it determines where individuals spend eternity.
The paradox is this: people who think they’re righteous will be declared unrighteous by God, and people who declare their unrighteousness will be declared righteous by God.
Justification is the process by which God declares unrighteous sinners to be righteous. In other words, people are justified when God has declared them righteous. It isn’t about them being righteous; it is about God declaring them to be righteous. The Bible is very clear that there is only one way for individuals to be justified (or declared righteous by God), and that is by faith:
- Romans 3:28 We conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
- Romans 5:1 Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Galatians 2:16 A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Christ. We have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Individuals declaring their righteousness think they’re good, trust in themselves, do not seek the righteousness that is available by faith, and therefore will not be justified by God. Individuals declaring their unrighteousness recognize they’re not good, don’t trust in themselves, seek the righteousness that is available by faith, and therefore will be justified by God.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
This paradox is most clearly seen in this parable:
- Of the Pharisee it says he “prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” (Luke 18:11, 12).
- Of the tax collector it says, “standing afar off, [he] would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ (Luke 18:13).
Then Jesus said, “I tell you, this tax collector went down to his house justified, rather than the Pharisee.” (Luke 18:13).
This is a paradox. The individual who – by all outward evidence – was exceptionally righteous shouldn’t be declared unrighteous and the tax collector – an individual the Bible identifies as terribly unrighteous (Matt 9:10, 11:19, Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30, 7:34, 15:1, 18:13) – shouldn’t be declared righteous. Those who believe they deserve heaven and are good enough to enter it will find themselves infinitely far from it, and those who know they don’t deserve heaven and could never be good enough to enter it will be welcomed.
The Paradox in Amazing Grace
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.John Newton
These are the words of what might be the world’s most famous hymn, but one of the problems with being so familiar with it is we might sing the words without giving them much thought. We should ask, “Which is it? Grace makes me fear or grace relieves my fears?”
John Newton’s life gives the background we need to understand these lyrics. Before he became a Christian, he lived a pretty wild life. He was a hard-hearted, profane sailor who worked on a slave ship, and at one point he even became the captain of his own slave ship. One day it dawned on him that when he died he would stand before God and give an account of his sinful life. This made him fear, and drove him to find a Savior for his sins. He learned the Gospel that Jesus died on a cross to pay the penalty his sins deserved if he repented and believed. He surrendered his life to Christ, but as he looked back on his conversion he didn’t want to take credit for the fear that led to his salvation. He wanted to give the credit to God, so he wrote, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear…” In other words, it was God’s grace that gave him the fear he needed to be saved.
But then he also wrote, “and grace my fears relieved.” He said “fears” plural meaning the grace that saved him is the same grace that relieved him of his fears of death and judgment. When grace brought him to fear God and he was saved, it also relieved him of these other fears; therefore, grace caused him to fear and grace relieved him of his fears! This is the beautiful paradox of the Gospel:
- People who fear God have nothing to fear, because of His care for us
- People who don’t fear God have everything to fear, because they’ll face a holy God who will judge their sins.
These paradoxes are why God says:
My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.Isaiah 55:8-9
And these paradoxes are why Paul can say:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how unfathomable His ways.Romans 11:33