The paradoxes of Jesus: His tool for drawing us deeper

paradoxes of jesus

What is a paradox, and why would Jesus create them?

Jesus is a master teacher, in fact, the Master Teacher. He unwraps spiritual truths to anyone willing to listen. He urges people to think deeper, to “stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24; cf. John 8:15). He wants people to remember what He told them, to mull it over in their minds, to think deeply about it, and to make a firm decision based on its probing, penetrating, transformative truth.

Paradoxes – statements that on the surface run against conventional wisdom but conceal then reveal a deeper truth – are perfectly suited as a tool in the hands of the Master Teacher. For those whose minds are already closed to Him, the paradoxes of Jesus, just like His parables, only serve to confirm them in their unbelief (see Mark 4:11-12). To those open to Him, however, His paradoxes pull them down into a deeper understanding.

Consider these four paradoxes in the Gospel of Mark: 8:35; 9:35; and 10:43-44. Not only are they memorable, embedding themselves into the heart and soul of the hearer, but with an amazing verbal economy, they help define the essence of the life and ministry of Jesus.

Lose your life to save it – Mark 8:35

Just after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus reveals to his disciples the necessity of his suffering and death, as well as the mystery of his resurrection. After rebuking Peter sternly for rejecting this path, Jesus warns the crowd as well as the disciples that following Him involved carrying a cross. He adds, “For whoever wants to save is life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

Conventional wisdom would warn us that in perilous times you have to take care; only those who are truly scrupulous about avoiding risks will survive. But Jesus turns the tables by claiming that losing your life for him and the gospel is the only way you will be able to save it. In this verse the Greek word for “life” is psychē, and can be can mean physical life but is also translated “goods” or “wealth,” which seems to fit the echo of the paradox in the next verse: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” It seems that Jesus is playing off this double entendre.

This paradox is about values, or about the ultimate value. Jesus invites us to weigh the worth of following Him. Is a life with Him worth giving up your routine, giving up your other pursuits, even giving up your accumulated wealth? Is it worth giving up your physical life? Jesus reassures us that fellowship with Him is indeed worth every sacrifice, even martyrdom.

Be last to be first – Mark 9:35

Shortly after the Transfiguration, in which Jesus allows the inner circle of disciples a glimpse of His divine glory, Jesus catches them arguing with one another about who was the greatest. He offers them this paradox: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Worldly wisdom would say that being waited on, supported, and served is integral to what it means to be on top. But Jesus points in a different direction, remote from the pampered salon, detached from the throne room full of lackeys, and disconnected from counting the members of one’s personal staff as a measure of one’s success.

The greatness of serving – Mark 10:43-44

In response to the request of James and John that at his acclamation He would appoint the two brothers as His closest advisors, the other disciples became upset, feeling the sting of oneupsmanship. Then Jesus reveals to them all that His kingdom would be wholly different from what observing Gentile rulers would lead them to believe: flouting power and giving orders. “Not so with you,” He says. “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

This is counter to how the professionals would manage political careers. Who calls whom, who speaks first, and what favors you can demand are all part of climbing the ladder. Jesus knocks the ladder down, esteeming humility as more valuable than self-assertion. His disciples must learn to serve if they want to lead.

The paradoxical life of Jesus

Jesus practices what He preaches. He is willing to serve, even willing to slave to meet the needs of those around him. He avoids publicity, dismisses enthusiastic crowds, and shushes the newly healed. He is then willing to risk everything for the sake of truth, when at His capital trial He boldly confesses His identity as Son of God and the prophesied Son of Man. He demonstrates the wisdom of losing his life to find it, abasing Himself to be exalted, and serving all to earn the loyalty of His followers.

To the world it is as if during His entire ministry Jesus is walking backwards. Yet now nearly all acknowledge His overwhelming success. He has lived out His paradoxes, proving their validity to an astounded world.

Want to go deeper?

Below are some additional paradoxes of Jesus. Are these just as foundational to His ministry as the three we have already considered? How are they different from what conventional wisdom would say?

1) “The last will be first, and the first last” – Matt. 19:30, repeated in 20:16, with the Parable of the Hired Workers sandwiched between them.

2) “I have come to bring fire on the earth…. Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” – Luke 12:49, 51.

3) “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” – Luke 14:26.

4) “It is more blessed to give than to receive” – Acts 20:35.

For a more extensive list of the paradoxes of Jesus, along with pertinent comments, see the following:

The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings by Robert Stein, rev. ed. (Philadelphia, Penn.: Westminster, 1994), 19-20: http://ow.ly/SGfYs.

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website, DeeperStudy.com, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

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