When challenged to believe the Bible, people who are unwilling to be persuaded often make the excuse saying, “The Bible is full of contradictions.” The critic who expresses such a claim is generally unable to point to one clear contradiction in Scripture. Christians who accept both the inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture know that the Bible does not and cannot contradict itself. Any so-called contradictions are only apparent contradictions. Claims of contradictions reflect a lack of knowledge on our part. If we knew more, we would understand the reason for what appears to us to be a contradiction. A paradox is an apparent contradiction. If you consult a dictionary you will discover that a paradox is a statement which appears inconsistent or even absurd and yet is really true. A number of paradoxes were used by Paul in his writings, but they must not be confused with irony. For instance, Paul repeatedly used irony in 2 Corinthians where his words take on a meaning opposite to their normal or apparent meaning. For instance, he told the Corinthians: “You put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise!” (2 Cor. 11:19 NKJV). However, the preceding verses alert us to Paul’s “tone of voice” here. He was speaking “foolishly” because, in reality, the Corinthians were anything but wise! Later he wrote: “We are glad when we are weak and you are strong” (2 Cor. 13:9), yet we know that spiritually Paul was stronger than the Corinthians. He was far from being “disqualified” (2 Cor. 13:6)! They needed to check their qualifications - hence his irony.
A Heavenly Key
Before looking at some of Paul’s paradoxes, there is a helpful key that can unlock the subject. John, in his vision in Revelation 5, encountered a paradoxical situation. He had wept much because no one – in heaven, on earth, or under the earth – was found worthy to open the scroll he had seen and read its message. One of the elders told John not to weep. “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” had prevailed and thus had authority to open the sealed scroll. John turned to see this Lion he had been told about, but instead of a triumphant, majestic, kingly creature, something very different came before his gaze. At the center of the throne, and in the midst of the living creatures and elders, stood not a lion but “a Lamb as it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6 KJV). Did John make a mistake? Hardly, for you cannot mistake a lamb for a lion! They are very different creatures. The Lamb before his eyes presented another paradox. It appeared to be slain and yet was standing. Normally a slain creature would be lying prostrate on the around. How could this Lamb be standing?
The remainder of the chapter unfolds the paradox. Yes, the Lamb had been slain, but now it was alive again. This explains its standing position. The Lion of the tribe of Judah that had prevailed, was in fact the Lamb that stood “in the midst of the elders” and later became the theme of heaven’s praise. Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). As lambs in Old Testament times were creatures offered in sacrifice, so Jesus came as their fulfillment. Unlike the lambs of old, however, He triumphed over death and arose from the dead. Thus, although bearing the marks that identified Him as the sacrificial Lamb, He now stood in resurrection life in heaven and was worshiped loudly by all. When He returns to earth the second time it will not be as a lamb but as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” who will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Death And Life
The paradox of the Lamb and the Lion is connected with weakness and strength and provides the key to understanding other paradoxes in Scripture. Consider the words of Paul in Galatians 2:20 (KJV): “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Paul looked back to the cross where Jesus was crucified and said, “I was there; I shared in that experience.” Normally a person who is crucified dies. Paul said that although crucified he lives. Thus he shared in the same death and resurrection experience as the Lord Jesus.
Notice, however, the first paradox in his statement. He does not say, “I was crucified with Christ” but “I am crucified with Christ.” This crucifixion was therefore an ongoing experience, almost a state of living death. How could this be? Paul’s next statement clarified his meaning. Though he said, “I live,” it is a different “I” than before the crucifixion experience. In reality, Christ was now living in Paul. To take matters further, the life he was now living, as a human being in the flesh, was being lived by faith in the Son of God who had loved Paul and given Himself for him. Recognizing the great sacrificial love of Christ, the love that caused the Lord Jesus to give Himself for others, Paul’s great desire now was to show his own love by giving his life to Christ and His service. The old self remained in a permanent state of crucifixion; the new self (Christ living in Paul) continued to live by faith in the Son of God.
In a sense Paul had experienced something of the lamb and the lion paradox. Identified with the Lamb in crucifixion, the power of the Lion now controlled Paul and enabled him to live by faith in and for the glory of his new Master. This is a profound verse, and no amount of reasoning and explanation can exhaust or do justice to its meaning. Although it remains a paradox, it should still be true in our own experience.
Assessment Of Trials
As mentioned earlier, a number of paradoxical statements appear in 2 Corinthians. Having considered the key to understanding them, we shall now look briefly at some of Paul’s paradoxes. They concern life and death and relate to time and eternity. They need to be reviewed against the background of the Lion and the Lamb in Revelation 5.
In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul described the difficulties he had encountered in his service for the Lord. In spite of all the hardships, there is a note of triumph in his writing: ”We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9 NKJV). It seemed that Paul, who lived, was “always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake.” Why did the Lord allow His servant to suffer in this way? The reason was “that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (4:11). Christ’s life was seen in Paul’s death-doomed body. He was given the grace to suffer patiently as Jesus did and was divinely strengthened with a power that was not his own. Like Gideon’s men with their jars of clay, Paul had the “treasure” of the gospel in a weak human body (an “earthen vessel”) so that the surpassing power might come from God and not from himself (2 Cor. 4:7). Thus the ultimate glory was God’s and not Paul’s.
A Genuine Ministry
A similar paradox is in 2 Corinthians 6. Paul was concerned not to offend or bring his ministry into disrepute. The marks of genuine ministry are not popularity and success, but pain and suffering. Paul lists some of the features that marked his service: “much patience … tribulations … needs … distresses … stripes … imprisonments … tumults … labors … sleeplessness … fastings” (2 Cor. 6:4-5). False teachers would never have rated these things highly! Paul had continued his service “through glory and dishonor, through evil report and good report” (2 Cor. 6:8 JND), for people had different opinions of him. He seemed a deceiver, yet in reality he was true; he was “unknown, and yet well known” (2 Cor. 6:8-9 NKJV). According to the Amplified Bible, the meaning of this paradox is that though “unknown and ignored by the world,” Paul and his co-workers were “well-known and recognized by God and His people.”
Further paradoxes abound in this chapter: “As dying, and behold we live … as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing all things” (6:9-10). Facing death constantly, Paul was still alive and able to preach as he wrote. Though sorrowful through the disappointments experienced and through being misunderstood, he was still able to rejoice in the Lord. Paul was poor in terms of this world’s goods, and like a beggar. He often knew what it meant to be in want (Phil. 4:12). How could he then make many rich? The paradox was that Paul enriched others spiritually, for though he had nothing materially to speak of, yet he possessed all things spiritually and eternally. His resources in Christ were boundless.
One further paradox sums up the life of this esteemed servant of God. In 2 Corinthians 12:10 he exclaimed, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Many suggestions have been raised as to the meaning of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” and this article will not highlight one rather than another. The context of Paul’s statement in verse 10 is interesting. Using irony, Paul wrote of a most exalting experience that “a man in Christ” had when he was transported to heaven and had visions of glory. Even though such an experience could make one boast, Paul would not glory in any such thing, but rather in his infirmities. In order for him not to be “exalted above measure” or inflated by his experience, Paul was sent “a thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. In spite of three appeals to the Lord it was not removed; instead God’s grace was supplied to aid him in his weakness. He thus could “take pleasure in infirmities” and difficulties for Christ’s sake, for when he was weak in himself he could become strong in Christ through the power supplied. This was the outworking of the principle considered earlier: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live” (Gal. 2:20).
Appearance Or Reality?
It is so important to distinguish between appearance and reality. The eye of faith sees beyond the things of time and sense. Just as the earthly tabernacle was only a picture of heaven’s reality (Heb. 8:2), so we must come to recognize the greater value of the things that are unseen. Like John, we need a fresh vision of heaven and the triumphant Lamb of God. Seeing Him by faith will equip us to face the trials of life with greater purpose, and to be able to express with Paul those paradoxical words, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
By Martin Girard
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org