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Pondering a Paradoxical Proverb

What did Jesus mean who said, "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 give his life as a ransom for many.”

by Roland Clarke—


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, bold font added)

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 made over $1,000,000 in its
first three weekends of release.”

The paradox about 'saving/losing' our earthly life has a wider application: we may hold tightly onto earthly
possessions and not share with the poor and needy. Such stinginess is foolish. As Solomon wrote, “Give freely
and become more wealthy; be stingy and lose everything. The generous will prosper; those who refresh others
will themselves be refreshed.” Jesus Christ also preached this virtue, “It is more blessed to give than to
receive.” (Proverbs 11:24-5, NLT; Acts 20:35; cf. Luke 6:38; Mark 10:21-30; Luke 14:12-24; Deuteronomy

Likewise, Arabic proverbial wisdom says, “If you do charity your house will always be rich.” (NB not just
materially rich but in the truest sense, spiritually) A Kurdish proverb perhaps captures the paradox better,
“What you give away you keep.” When we pour out our lives in sacrificial service to others we're not
impoverished but enriched and blessed in the truest sense, spiritually. Indeed, this wise principle is
acknowledged in proverbial sayings across the world.*

A thought-provoking Statement

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 every 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.” (Gospel of Mark 10:44-45, NLT, bold font added)

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 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, bold font added) 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.'” (NLT, bold added)

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, NIV])

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 (NLT). 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. Why then
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 from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (NLT)

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.” (Interestingly, Iranians and Indians have a similar proverb.)
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, NIV, bold font added)


Footnote 1

The virtue of 'giving rather than receiving' is evident in wise proverbial sayings around the world as seen in the
following examples:

Giving is not losing; it is keeping for tomorrow. Lozi, Zambia
To give is to save. Ndonga, Namibia

Every man goes down to his death bearing in his hands only that which he has given away. Persian
Giving much to the poor doth enrich a man's store. Romanian

He who does kind deeds becomes rich. Hindu

Avarice hoards itself poor; charity gives itself rich. German

The generous man grows rich in giving, the miser poor in taking. Danish

The generous man enriches himself by giving; the miser hoards himself poor. Dutch

Charity gives itself rich, covetousness hoards itself poor. German

All that is not given is lost. Indian

A rich man's money often hangs him. English

Men would not be richer for being miserly; generosity does not make a man poorer. Jewish
The rich man who is stingy is the worst pauper. Jewish

We should not be surprised that generosity is recognized globally as a virtue. Three thousand years ago
Solomon's wisdom was disseminated worldwide. As the Scripture says, “From all nations people came to
listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.” (1 Kings 4:34)
However, Jesus Christ, who claimed to be greater than Solomon, expanded and deepened the meaning of
generosity. According to Jesus, the ultimate form of giving involves laying down one's life to save others.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) “I tell you the truth,
unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new
kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care
nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” (Gospel of John 12:24-25, NLT)

Footnote 2. 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 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.

As Jesus defeated Satan through his sacrificial death in Hebrews 4:12, so too, in a similar way, Christian martyrs
overcome Satan, “For the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down to earth—the one who accuses
them before our God day and night. And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony.
And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die.” (Book of Revelation 12:10-11, NLT)

Appendix: Missing puzzle piece
This article does not mention sin but anyone having a basic familiarity with the Bible knows that John the
Baptist's declaration of Jesus as the Lamb of God says he “takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29, NLT)
Similarly Isaiah prophecies that the Messiah is led like a lamb to the slaughter, “Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was
pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on
him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own
way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open
his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not
open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:4-7, NIV, cf. Leviticus chapters 4-6)

Concluding invitation: Revelation describes a heavenly vision in which the apostle John saw a vast crowd of
martyrs who had “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. ... they stand in front of
God’s throne and serve him day and night in his Temple. And he who sits on the throne will give them shelter.
They will never again be hungry or thirsty; they will never be scorched by the heat of the sun. For the Lamb
on the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe every
tear from their eyes.” The book concludes in chapter 22 by inviting readers; “Come.” “Let anyone who is thirsty
come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life.” (NLT) Will you accept this invitation? If you
say, “Yes,” please write and let me know as I'd love to encourage you. Write to

  • 8 November 2022
  • Author: Guest Blogger
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