Paradoxes are statements that seem contradictory, inconsistent, or absurd, but are nonetheless true…and the Bible is full of paradoxes…
Here’s one of the most common: God exalts the humble and humbles the exalted:
- 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.”
Here are a few more paradoxes:
- 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.”
- 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.”
Other paradoxes are subtler. For example, Luke 1:50 says God’s mercy is for those who fear Him. 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: in Jonah 3:4 the prophet told the people, “In forty days God is going to destroy your city.” 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 saying, “Should I not pity these people?” (Jonah 4:11). The simple point is this: when they didn’t fear God they had everything to fear from God, but when they feared God, they had nothing to fear from Him.
I’d like to mention one more paradox, but there are three things I’d like to say about it first:
- 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.
This paradox is most clearly seen in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
- 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.
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” (Isa 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” (Rom 11:33).