Four Perplexing Paradoxes
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
[On April 5, 1981, at the end of point one in this sermon, I pounded my fist on the pulpit at First Baptist Church of St. John, and broke my left wrist.]
Christianity is a religion of paradoxes: Blessed are those who mourn, and those who are persecuted for righteousness; the first shall be last, the last shall be first, etc. In our text, Jesus spoke four perplexing paradoxes back to back.
John 12:23 (Holman) Jesus replied to them, AThe hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.@
Paradox one: the cross meant glory. The fact Greeks wanted to see Jesus (vv. 20-22) convinced Him it was time to die for the sins of all the world.
Judaism would no longer own Christ. Belonging to the world, He would now endure the crucible which would burst the Jewish husk in which His human life had thus far been encased.
We might have urged Jesus to leave turbulent Judea and seek tranquility in Greece. Had Jesus wanted to, He could have become Athens= new philosopher, or Sparta=s new ruler. He refused these honors. He was ready for Athe hour,@ His death and resurrection. Jesus= exaltation would come through degradation.
Life can surprise us with paradoxes aplenty. Things are not always as they appear to be on the surface. The world says a throne is better than a prison. Can you remember the name of the King who jailed John Bunyan?
Wearing a crown seems obviously better than being burned at the stake. Do you know the name of the King who executed Joan of Arc?
The world says it is more desirable to be a millionaire than to die as a lonely missionary in Africa. Can you remember the name of David Livingstone=s millionaire brother?
The world wants glory, and no cross, but Christ-followers know our lives are their best when we lay them down in utter brokenness. For Israel to receive life-giving water, a rock had to be struck. For the juice of a grape to bless, it has to be crushed. We must let God do whatever is necessary, however painful it be, to bring a blessing out of us.
Unbelievers are skeptical of Christ=s command to take up a cross and follow Him, but believers know no one ever loses by following Jesus. In embracing a cross of sacrifice, we receive our best glory.
John 12:24 AI assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop.@
Paradox two: death means life. Jesus knew countless lives depended on His death. He likened Himself to a grain of wheat. Unless it dies, it can barely feed the smallest bird. But if a seed dies and is buried, it yields a huge harvest.
For Jesus, a world-wide harvest was on its way, but could not be reaped without the shedding of His blood. He achieved universal success, using ways no other conqueror had ever tried in accomplishing international influence.
Alexander the Great marched relentlessly to the Indus river, crushing everything and everyone in his path. Considered the greatest man who ever lived, Alexander was given the title, AKing of kings, and Lord of lords.@
Once Rome conquered the Mediterranean world, Caesar enforced the Pax Romana (peace of Rome) with an iron fist. Due to this umbrella of protection Rome provided in the region, Caesar was hailed as ASavior of the world.@
Like Alexander and Caesar, Jesus eyed gaining the whole world, but His approach was totally different. By refusing Alexander=s throne, Jesus became King of Kings. By refusing to become Caesar, Christ became Savior of the world.
Alexander and Caesar won by living; Jesus won by dying and rising from death. They bore scepters; He clutched nails. Their crowns bore jewels; His was made of thorns. They mounted thrones; He took a cross. Their armies carried swords; His soldiers took Bibles.
By the world=s standards, Christ=s ways were very odd, yea bizarre. Nevertheless, He won. He knew death meant life.
For us too, the best life we can live comes through dying. Our life, like a grain of wheat, counts for little as long as it is selfishly kept safe. To succeed for God, we must die to our sinful self.
The most helpful grains of wheat are the ones that fall not only Ato@ the ground, but also Ainto@ it. We must in the same way let self be completely engulfed in Jesus= cause, and totally lost from sight.
Finding a place to bury our sinful desires is our best chance for giving God opportunity to accomplish in us a wonderful resurrection, yielding holiness. The highest life is built on the decay of a lower life.
We may not die a physical martyrdom, but we should die a spiritual one, laying down time, talents, and energy below the Master=s feet. Death means life.
John 12:25 AThe one who loves this life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.@
Paradox three: loss means gain. Hating life in this world means putting God first by loving spiritual life more than physical life. Be not obsessed with this worldly life, its stuff, desires, appetites, and affections. Keep them secondary.
The world cries, AGet!@ Christ says, ARenounce!@ He taught us, in renouncing we get. If we pursue getting, we never fully obtain it.
Selfishness gives us the worst life possible. Many people hug themselves to death, losing the best life by wallowing in pleasures that last only temporarily.
Everything this world has to offer must be viewed as unable to give lasting, true joy. If we fill our hearts= desires with perishables, our joy perishes with them.
We find in selflessness the best life possible. The believers most productive for Jesus have been those who renounced this world=s stuff, resisted its bogus temptations, and gladly embraced the spiritual life God intended them to live.
A life lived for God is the best life. By the world=s standard, Jesus failed. He never had wealth, met Caesar, owned property, held a political office, wrote a book, or led an army. The world views a life like His as an arrow shot in the air B a waste. But believers know Jesus got it right. His life was Athe life of all lives.@ He knew He had to give up much in the physical realm in order to find life=s best in the spiritual. Loss means gain.
John 12:26 AIf anyone serves Me, he must follow Me. Where I am, there My servant also will be. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.@
Paradox four: service means honor. Following Jesus, walking in His footsteps, imitating Him, is an honor. No greater compliment can be given to anyone than, AChrist-like.@ What leads to this high honor? Serving Jesus.
Soldiers want to be like Alexander; artists Rembrandt; philosophers Socrates; politicians Lincoln. Christians want to imitate Jesus who died on a cross. Who are our heros? Peter jailed at Jerusalem and later crucified upside down. Paul stoned at Lystra and beheaded at Rome. John exiled to Patmos. Adoniram Judson buried at sea without a funeral. Lottie Moon, whose remains were delivered to the Foreign Mission Board in an urn by a postman.
At first glance, our heros may not look heroic, but don=t be fooled. Serving Jesus brings honor. Jesus said, AWhere I am, there My servants also will be@ (John 12:26b). For the master to be where the slave is, is unheard of. Servants are usually isolated from their masters, but we who serve Jesus are welcome in the immediate presence of the Son of God. Service means honor.
Four perplexing paradoxes. The cross means glory. Death means life. Loss means gain. Service means honor. How can we undo our life-long cultural brainwashing and begin living by the four paradoxes? What sets us going the right direction is coming to the place where our bedrock conviction is, we were not made for us, but for God and others.
Love is guiding us when we seek to live outside ourselves, for God and people. Self is ruling us if we seek to live inside ourselves, for us.
We will have life=s best when we let love sacrifice self. We miss life=s best when we let self sacrifice love.