Webster defines the word “paradox” to mean “something that is made up of two opposite things that seems impossible but is actually true or possible… a statement that seems to say two opposite things but that may be true” (www.merriam-webster.com). Clinton Lockhart explains that it is “a statement apparently absurd for emphasis” (Principles of Interpretation, p. 179). Terry Hightower explains that a contradiction would be: P is true and P is false in the same respects; while a paradox would be: P is true and P is false in different respects (Shenandoah Lectures, Rightly Dividing The Word, Vol. II, p. 300). Johnny Ramsey used to say that a paradox was “truth standing on its head to gain attention.” The word is from Greek origin: “para” meaning “beyond” and “doxa” meaning “thought.”
Let us consider a few Biblical paradoxes which cry out: “look at me!” “Pause and ponder this!” “Consider closely these words!”
- Proverbs 26:4-5, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
Verse four, let me suggest, is a caution about method and tone. We might put it this way, “Do not act like a fool just because another does. Do not lower yourself to his level.” When one becomes loud and angry, we should be very careful that we do not respond in like manner. Consider these passages: Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” Colossians 4:6, Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” When answering a fool we should be very careful that we do not conduct ourselves in such a way that onlookers cannot distinguish which is the fool.
Another possibility is that verse four is setting forth a general principle. Ordinarily, it is best to avoid the questions of fools. Consider the following passages: Proverbs 23:9, “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words.” Matthew 7:6, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” 2 Timothy 2:23, “But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes…” (cf. Titus 3:9).
Verse five has to do with the answer itself. Sometimes even the fool needs to be answered, “because he or others may think to their own harm that he cannot be answered” (ESV Study Bible). While foolish speech is not to be imitates, the fools own speech should frame the answer. This is what Paul did in showing the implications of what some taught (1 Corinthians 15:12-20). Any doctrine which implies a false doctrine is itself a false doctrine. A wise debater said, “If your opponent is practicing some things that in principle are exactly like the things he opposes, you may charge the inconsistency upon him with the hope of getting him to see the point and abandon his position.”
- Mark 8:35, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (cf. Matthew 10:39; John 12:25).
The point is: we must be willing to give up (if necessary) our physical lives in service to Christ, if we desire eternal life in heaven. Thomas Warren has written, “What is the point to this paradox? Many people seem to be convinced that preserving their own lives is the greatest privilege – even the greatest responsibility. They hold that while, as the general rule, they may act in an unselfish way, they also hold that ‘when the chips are down’ one will – even must – do anything to save his own life. This view amounts to saying, ‘Everyone should look out for ‘number one’.’ But Jesus taught that pleasing one’s self is not the first obligation of any person. He taught that men must love God (and obey Him) above all else (Matthew 22:37 cf. Deuteronomy 6:5). The second commandment is to love one’s neighbor as himself… one must – in a profound sense – lose sight of himself (as being his only concern) in order to find himself (as being his only concern) in order to find himself (in the eternal purpose of God…) In effect Christ says to each person, ‘Lose your life in Me – become a Christian… and be faithful to Me, even at the cost of your life, and I will give you eternal life’” (Jesus – the Lamb Who is a Lion, pp. 7-9).
- Mark 9:35, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (cf. Mark 10:42-44; Matthew 20:25-27; 23:11-12; Luke 22:25-26).
Greatness in Jesus’ plan is very different from how the world generally views greatness. Three illustrations are given. (a) It is not uncommon for government leaders to think that true greatness is found in authority. They reason that greatness is found in how many people serve them, and in how many they can order (Matthew 20:25; Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25). (b) It is not uncommon for religious leaders to think that true greatness is found in their positions, titles, and dress (Matthew 23:1-7). (c) It is nearly universally thought that the one who is served food is greater than the one who serves (Luke 22:27). However, in the kingdom of Christ true greatness is found in service. Jesus Himself is our great example. He reminds, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
- Luke 18:14, “I tell you that this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
These words close out a parable about self-righteousness (Luke 18:9-14). He who would receive God’s mercy be humble enough to recognize and acknowledge his own short-comings. Someone has said, “The only ones going to heaven will be those who realize that they do not deserve it.” I think this is accurate. We must admit our faults and humbly approach Him for forgiveness. Consider the words of the song Rock of Ages: Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to the cross I cling / naked come to Thee for dress; helpless look to Thee for grace / vile, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die (Song Rock of Ages by A.M. Toplady).
- Mark 10:31, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (cf. Matthew 19:30).
This seems to be a warning against the pride Peter appears to have possessed (cf. Mark 10:28). The words tie in nicely with the parable which follows in Matthew’s account (cf. Matthew 20:1-16). Coffman’s Commentary quotes Barker who says, “How often do we think that because we are ‘old timers’ in a congregation we have proprietary rights over the program and the property! Everyone has met the superchurchman who lets it be known that ‘I have been coming to this church for years,’ meaning that he has been promoted to Senior Vice President to God, Inc.” (Commenting on Matthew 19:30).
- 1 Timothy 5:6, “But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives.”
The word translated “pleasure” refers to “riotous living” (cf. Luke 15:13, 30). The one who lives this way is alive physically, but dead spiritually (cf. Ephesians 2:1; 2:5). This one may not realize that she is dead. But, she is and without repentance will remain so through eternity. She is of the walking dead.
- John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”
Verse 25: Though, one may physically die before Jesus returns (belief will not prevent such); yet, he shall live in glory. Note: This is speaking of obedient belief (cf. John 5:28-29; 8:51).
Verse 26: If one is physically alive and believing when Jesus returns (some will be, cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17), then he shall never see physical death.
Moreover, the faithful will never see death (John 8:51). That is they will never be a part of the second death (Revelation 2:11; 20:1-15).
- Revelation 2:9, “I know your… poverty (but you are rich)…” Revelation 3:17, “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked –”
What a contrast! The church in Smyrna was materially poor, but spiritually rich. The church in Laodicea was materially wealthy, but poor spiritually, poor in what counts. Spiritual success cannot be assessed by material success. They are two different things. Material wealth is not inherently good or bad. But it does not last. Let us seek to be rich in what does last. Jim Palmer has written, “How much did Andrew Carnegie, Howard Hughes and William Randolph Hearst leave? How much will Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and you leave? All of it” (Faith and Finance, p. 64).