What’s the difference between an antithesis and a paradox?
Or juxtapositions and contrasts?
Despite how much I love English, I’ve never really understood the difference between these literary techniques. After all, they all seem to refer to basically the same thing: the contrast or opposition of two things. (Don’t quote me on this in your essays though!)
But these conflicting themes don’t only occur in literary texts or lengthy English essays. Throughout the Bible, we encounter countless juxtapositions from the Old Testament and all the way to the New Testament.
From Isaiah’s prophecy that the virgin would give birth (Isaiah 7:14), to Jesus’ various seemingly outlandish statements such as “Blessed are the poor in spirit .. those who mourn … those who are persecuted for righteousness…” (Matthew 5:3-12), the Scriptures are full of these conflicting (and often confusing) themes.
As hinted at by the title, today’s article will explore two important contrasts that Jesus’ coming introduces (and learn a few definitions of these seemingly identical terms along the way!)
1. An Antithesis to the World
Definition: an antithesis is something that is a direct opposite of someone or something else.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ statements and actions pose clear contrasts with what the world holds as truth and real.
From making the blind see, the lame walk, the sick heal, the hungry full, to even making the dead alive, the coming of God turns the world upside down. For good reason! The very fact that God becomes human – that the Creator joins the Creation – is a paradox in itself that I still can’t even start to grasp.
What Jesus promises for His followers is also the complete opposite to what the world offers. The world offers a range of paths to salvation, but Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except me.” (John 14:6)
The world says we must be number one, no matter what tactics we use, but Christ says, “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43) In fact, this is what Christ does, throughout His life and in His death.
The world preaches that, to succeed and be happy, we must aim to reach a certain level or quality of life, but Jesus says that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Instead, he says that those who are truly blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and those who hunger for thirst and righteousness. (Matthew 5:3-12)
And finally, the world clings to a comfortable and pleasant life, but Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
So, what does this mean for us?
One thing that’s important to take away from all this is that the Christian message is one that’s radically counter cultural. You can’t claim to be a Christian, but hold onto the ways and beliefs of the world. You can’t take both sides. You have to choose one. Jesus Himself stated, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
What this inevitably means is that following Christ won’t be easy. Jesus Himself warns us of this countless times- “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” (John 15:18). The way of the cross isn’t a nicely paved pathway with neat flowers on the sides: it’s hard, and it’s lined with pain and heartbreak and sacrifices.
Jesus has laid out the risks. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it.
2. The Paradox of Happiness in Suffering
Definition: A paradox is a statement that’s made up of two opposite things that seem impossible, yet is indeed possible.
The way of the cross is hard, yes, and filled with trials, but Christ doesn’t leave us to go through it all alone. He gives us this amazingly paradoxical promise: that we can be happy despite and in suffering.
Now, before exploring what this paradox means for us, it’s important to clear up what it is not. The fact that Christians can be happy despite suffering doesn’t mean we find pleasure in pain, or that happiness itself is bad.
Rather, it’s because our ultimate happiness – our peace, satisfaction, contentment, joy – relies on something apart from anything the world offers. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life, such as our friends and family (after all, these things are also gifts from God), but in the end, the ultimate basis of our happiness aren’t (and can’t be) any of these things. When we receive gifts from our family or friends, what makes us more happy: the gift itself, or the loved one who gave it?
Hearts that are eternal need something eternal to fill it: otherwise, anything else is just like a single drop in an empty ocean basin.
One of my favourite quotes on this topic is by Blaise Pascal, who puts it this way: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every person that cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God. “
In Christ, the foundation of our joy is something both eternal and can fill the bottomless depths of our heart to the point of overflowing!
Unchanging and constant, our joy becomes an anchor and rock to cling to as the tides of life come in and out.
What’s more is that Jesus’ wonderfully paradoxical promises don’t stop there. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he points out one of the greatest truths we as Christians receive: “all things work together for good to them that love God.” (Romans 8:28)
All things – this includes all the bad, sorrowful, painful moments too. On the cross, Jesus defeated Sin and vanquished its hold over us. Although we still deal with the consequences of sin on this fallen world, Jesus has transformed the meaning of suffering – in fact, it works for our ultimate good, as God, in control whatever happens to us, uses whatever trial we go through to teach us, shape us, and instruct us, or to point out to us a hidden sin or idol that takes away from our happiness.
Such a promise is invaluable for the struggling Christian: for me, and for you. After all, the way of the cross is as it suggests: it’s hard and filled with countless opposition. But in Matthew 5:14, Jesus paradoxically says that Christians are blessed “when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. ”
How can we be happy when we’re in this pain? “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15)
What is this reward? That our joy, that persevered through suffering, will finally find its complete fullness when we are united with Him in heaven.
So there it is: suffering is paradoxically redefined for the Christian, because our joy thrives beyond any suffering we face. Even more, we have hope in suffering itself – that God uses the trials we face to bring us to more and more, and eventually complete, joy.
In Christ, the sinful world faces an antithesis never seen before.
In Christ, suffering and death has been paradoxically and wonderfully transformed.
And in Christ, we find a Saviour and Friend who will be with us all the way.