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Pondering a Paradoxical Proverb
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By Roland Clarke

Photo by ABDALLA M on Unsplash

Sixty years ago Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” This paradox echoes the wisdom of Jesus, “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. ... unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (Mark 8:35; John 12:24-25, NLT)

Jim Elliot truly believed and followed Jesus, laying down his life as a martyr so that the Waodani people could hear and receive eternal life through Jesus Christ. A movie and book showing the life-work of Elliot and his team mates (including the astonishing impact of his martyrdom) was produced in 2005, titled, End of the Spear. This film “was one of the few independently released Christian movies to draw more than $1,000,000 in its first three weekends of release.”

John chapter four recounts how Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well and sparked her curiosity by offering her 'living water.' He explained that 'living water' is, in fact, a gift from God, 'eternal life', adding that who-ever drinks this special water will never thirst again. She didn't quite understand what he meant, thinking she would no longer need “to keep coming here to draw water.” This puzzling, if elusive, word picture of 'living water' resonated with the longing for eternity which God planted in the human heart. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

On another occasion Jesus presented a similar thought provoking paradox; “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:44-45)

What did Jesus mean by giving his life as a ransom? The psalmist provided a clue some 900 years earlier pointing to the hope of a redeemer who pays the required ransom. “I listen carefully to many proverbs and solve riddles with inspiration from a harp. Why should I fear when trouble comes, when enemies surround me? They trust in their wealth and boast of great riches. Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom riddles to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough to live forever and never see the grave.... But as for me, God will redeem* my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave.” (Psalm 49:4-15, NLT) Notice the allusion to eternal life, i.e. living forever.

In John 3:14-16 Jesus spoke about eternal life using a perplexing analogy, “And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 'For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.'”

What does the expression 'lifted up' mean? We know that Jesus was lifted up on the cross and laid down his life as a ransom in the place of sinners. (John 1:29) He was slain as a perfect lamb in fulfillment of sin offerings as required under the Law of Moses and in fulfillment of prophecy. (“God himself will provide the lamb ... he was lead like a lamb to the slaughter” [Genesis 22:8, Isaiah 53:7])

Humanly speaking the sacrificial death of Jesus appears foolish, yet Scripture declares it was God's wise plan. By means of dying the Messiah overcame/defeated Satan who holds mankind enslaved to the fear of death all their lives. (Hebrews 4:14-15; cf. Genesis 3:15; 1 Corinthians 1:18ff) Make no mistake, Hebrews 4:14-15 is profoundly puzzling and paradoxical, similar to the earlier passages.

Another paradox is presented in Revelations 5:5. Jesus the Messiah is acclaimed as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, [who] has won the victory.” Interestingly, the very next paragraph spotlights Jesus as the Lamb (5 times) in stark contrast to the powerful, kingly imagery of a 'Lion'. So why does Scripture repeatedly exalt Jesus using the title, Lamb, which implies gentleness and humility? Christ humbly submitted himself to God, even to the point of laying down his life. Revelation 5:9 and Isaiah 53:7 describe Messiah using the imagery of lamb because Jesus was willing to be slain in order to ransom people for God.

You may also want to read the article, Redemptive Riddle, which further explores puzzling implications in the 'strange' analogy in John 3:14 where Jesus compares himself to the snake 'lifted up' by Moses.


A Cherokee proverb says, “When you were born you cried and the world rejoiced ... Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

King Solomon also viewed death as 'better', implying that we may rejoice, looking forward to a better life in the hereafter. A wise saying of Solomon goes like this; “A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born. ... A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4, NLT)

A thousand years after Solomon the apostle Paul testified that the hereafter is indeed, 'better' than life on earth as we know it. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:21-23)

Endnote: * Redeemer & Lamb in Scripture

The truth of God as redeemer (Psalm 49:15) is rooted in two epic stories embedded in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt and Abraham's test whereby God ransomed his son through providing a lamb. Down through history Jews, Christians and Muslims have deeply struggled to make sense of God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his first born son, illustrating what is, perhaps, the most mind-bending riddle in the Bible. However, to 'unlock this riddle', it is necessary to carefully examine Abraham's prophecy about God providing the lamb. Indeed, the imagery of a lamb lamb plays an important role in the unfolding message of the prophets (e.g. Exodus 12, Leviticus 4, Isaiah 53) and then climaxing with John the Baptist in John 1:29 where he points to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Not only so, the Lamb is mentioned 19 times in the book of Revelation which further underscores its importance. John Gilchrist has written a brilliant piece, titled, Isaac: The Reflection of the Father's Love, showing how Abraham's prophecy about God providing the lamb was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Another helpful article is, The Mystery of Abraham's Sacrifice by Roland Clarke.