Those Biblical Oxymora

by Rick Shrader

The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. . . I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things.  The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural.  The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence.  But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring.

G.K. Chesterton1

There is nothing we seem to enjoy more than popularizing an old word.  Emerson said, “Every word was once a poem . . . Language is fossil poetry.”2 I remember when “scenario” was the only interesting thing about an opera and a “disorder” was a command to break it up.  But of all the reborn words going around today, I like “oxymoron” the best.  Oxys means “sharp, or keen” and moros means “foolish—more at moron.”  It is a combination of sharply contradictory or foolish terms.

Have you ever seen a “civil war?”  I doubt if there is such a thing. Can it really be ended by a “peace offensive?”  How about “old news?” Isn’t all information old when we get it?  Did you ever tell someone they were “pretty ugly?”  Well, they can take it any way they want I suppose.  Until I gained some weight I didn’t know what “tight slacks” meant.  I don’t think I want to find out why there are “death benefits.”  This is not to mention such oxymora as “even odds,” “awfully good,” “loyal opposition,” “conspicuously absent,” “benevolent despot,” “war games,” “elevated subway,” and the “living end.”  Now I am not sure about tongue-in-cheek oxymora such as “military intelligence,” “postal service” and “non-working mothers.”

This renewed dialectical interest ought to remind us that Christianity itself is an oxymoron.  From childhood we learn from the Scripture that that the way up is down, power comes through weakness, greatness is in humility and the first shall be last.  It is all too possible that we have learned these truths with the same “mindless thinking” with which we use our native tongue.

Consider these Biblical oxymora:  “But and if ye suffer for righteousness sake, happy are ye” (1 Peter 3:14); “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psa 2:11); “Who is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15); “And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (Eph 3:19); “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3); “having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost” (1 Thes 1:6); “and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14); “These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Rev 19:20).  I think that the central oxymoron of the Bible is “And this is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 3:23).

I have found the book of Hebrews to contain more than its share of these apparent contradictions.  “Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest” (4:11); “Without father . . . but made like unto the Son of God” (7:3);  “for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (11:27); “and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (12:1).  Of course, the writer of Hebrews presents us with the most apparent statement of all, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1).

My favorite oxymoron in Hebrews is an extended one in chapter 12 that illustrates chapter 11.  We learned in chapter 11 that faith endures present and real affliction for the sake of unseen realities.  Yet, “these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise” (11:39).  After seventeen verses in chapter 12 in which the author admonishes us to look to Jesus (“looking” at someone who is not visible to us) and remain faithful in chastisement, we are given a most amazing word picture.

Verse 18 begins with, “For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched” and verse 22 begins with, “But ye are come unto mount Sion.”  Now the fact is that those Jewish readers could travel to the Sinai and touch that old mountain if they wanted.  Their forefathers stood there long before and trembled at the sight and sound of God’s power.  Yet, for all the advantage of the greatest multi-media presentation known in history, those people could not translate the visible to the invisible and believe.  The writer of Hebrews was telling his first century readers that they must stay in the assembly of true believers and not return to the visible temple with all of its pomp and ceremony, smells and sounds, beauty and ornament.  The true worship of God is to see the unseen.

The true believer is now come to a real mount that has not yet been established, “unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel” (12:22-24).  Those Jewish believers had a better reality than Sinai or Herod’s temple, they had faith in these “things not seen,” in a “cloud of witnesses” that they do not see.

Oxymora are not real contradictions but only apparent.  Once they are explained, the initial misunderstanding disappears.  That “peace offensive” is seen for what it really is, a “peace initiative.”  We are commissioned by God to take the explanation of the reality of faith to a world that sees only with their natural senses.  We ask them to see the unseen, to rest in work already done, to prepare for a world to which they cannot travel.

A.W. Tozer wrote, “The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world;  we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of His Word.”3 May we ever see what we cannot see, but by the eyes of faith.

1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1994) 82-83.
2. Quoted by Gene Veith, Jr., Reading Between The Lines (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1995) 84.
3. A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit Of God (Harrisburg: Christian Publications, 1958) 13.