Saturday, June 21, 2014
Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
Whether in war, sports, or any other endeavor, we always love the happy ending sometimes known as “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.” We root for the underdog and are thrilled when he or she prevails against all odds, often at the very last possible moment, triumphing against the oppressor or against the ringer who was a shoe-in to win.
In Scripture, examples are David as a youth felling the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17), Gideon defeating the mighty Midianite armies with 300 men (Judges 7); and the repentant thief on the cross. Although the thief was no doubt a “loser” and a criminal, justly condemned, by his own admission, to an agonizing death, he had a totally unexpected blissful ending. Rather than spending eternity in hell to suffer everlasting punishment for his sins, he recognized Jesus as his Lord. Because of his faith and God’s grace, Jesus promised him that he would be with Him in Paradise that very day (Luke 23:40-43).
This story in and of itself proves that we are saved not by our own merit or works, which are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) in God’s sight, but only by God’s grace through our faith. The thief had no time to do any good works or even to be baptized, yet Christ pardoned him immediately and accepted him into His Kingdom. Numerous other passages support salvation by grace, not works (2 Timothy 1:9; Acts 15:11; Ephesians 2:5-9).
No doubt the crowd that day could not appreciate the thief’s story, much less its significance. Crosses were tall structures erected high on the hillside, where they would serve as a severe warning to all who might be tempted to break the law. So when the unrepentant thief mocked Jesus and the other thief acknowledged Him as Lord, the onlookers may not have heard their faint cries, or their feeble, dying gasps. If they did, they probably dismissed the thief’s prayer and Christ’s promise as gibberish from oxygen-deprived brains.
Rather, the crowd probably thought that Barabbas was the one who had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Also a hardened criminal and even a murderer, he escaped a gruesome death when the crowd’s hatred for Jesus demanded that Pilate release Barabbas instead, as it was the custom at Passover for one on Death Row to be pardoned (Mark 15:7-15; Luke 23:17-25).
But was that truly a victory for Barabbas? Did he seize on this opportunity to turn over a new leaf, repent of his sin, trust God, live a dedicated life of service and helping others, and find abundant and eternal life? (John 3:16; 10:10) One would hope so, for to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). But there is no indication in the Bible that his reprieve accomplished anything other than an opportunity for continued sin against God and harm to others.
So I believe Barabbas did not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat – he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Given this once-in-a-lifetime, totally unexpected and undeserved chance to start over, this time on the right path, I think he completely blew it, no doubt ending up in the hell he deserved. God’s mercies are new every morning, yet we do not always use this clean slate to ask Him to renew a right spirit within us and to transform our minds (Psalm 51:10; Ephesians 4:23; Romans 12:2).
Sadly, that is the result of our fallen sin nature (Romans 3:23), which is why snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is so much more common than the opposite. We see this all the time when lottery winners ruin their lives rather than using their newfound wealth to transform not only their own situation for the good, but to provide amazing benefit for others in need. Scripture tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10), and history proves over and over that absolute power corrupts absolutely. When we’re on top, there seems to be no place to go but down.
We see this even with great heroes of the faith and with those God blessed with extraordinary gifts and talents. Samson, raised to be a Nazarite priest set apart for God’s service, had legendary strength enabling him to tear apart an attacking lion with his bare hands, and to slay a thousand enemies with the jawbone of an ass. Yet his life was a downward spiral, breaking Mosaic law by eating honey from the unclean carcass of the lion, taking lovers of pagan nations, destroying property, stirring up strife, and ultimately killing himself as he pulled down the pillars of the palace on himself and his captors (Judges 13-16).
Solomon was born to King David, a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), and was gifted by God with the greatest human wisdom ever known and with wealth, power, and innumerable other blessings (1 Kings 4). He started out with countless advantages, yet at the end of his life he left God’s perfect will and followed after strange gods. To serve the idol of political power (and perhaps the idol of lust as well) he married many pagan wives. To keep the peace, he built altars and burnt incense to their false gods, and he may even have sacrificed his own children to Molech, the fire god. God punished him for his idolatry not only through the loss of fellowship with Him, but by taking away his kingdom (1 Kings 11:1-12)
As the saying goes, God is not so much interested in our location as in our direction. No depth of depravity is too low for His grace to reach (Psalm 139:8), and no pinnacle of our own achievement is so lofty that we do not need His grace even to take our very next breath (2 Samuel 1:19,25; John 15:5). So in God’s eyes, it is far better to be the thief on the cross who turned away from his sin and to Christ, than to be a privileged king who drifted away from God to false idols.
With Solomon, it appears to have been a relatively gradual wandering off from God’s plan, but what really shocks me is Elijah. After experiencing a superlative spiritual victory, calling upon God and witnessing His dramatic power in bringing fire down from Heaven to shame Baal and his false prophets (1 Kings 18), Elijah caves overnight. When the wicked queen Jezebel threatens to kill him, he seemingly forgets God’s great power and deliverance and runs away like a bullied schoolgirl, hiding under a juniper tree and begging God to end his life (1 Kings 19).
But thank God, He did not leave Elijah alone to wither away, or grant his prayer to end his life. He cared for him by sending the angel of the Lord to minister to him, and He spoke to Elijah with a still, small voice, preparing him for continued victories to come. Praise God that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Once we are born again (John 3:5-21) as His children, snatching the victory of eternal life from the jaws of everlasting death in hell, we can trust in His faithfulness to deliver us.
Even Jesus experienced great trials after mountaintop experiences – forty days of fasting and temptation by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11) after His baptism and proclamation by God Himself (Matthew 3:16-17); the triumphal entry followed by false trial and crucifixion; death and burial followed by resurrection. Yet He realized that without the cross, we would have no crowns. He knew that these trials did not represent defeat, but the necessary seeds of victory itself.
Praise God that Jesus snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, not only for Himself, but for all who place their faith in His death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) as the only Way (John 14:6) to eternal life! Because of His finished work on the cross, sin and death have no victory, and the grave has no sting! (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
© 2014 Laurie Collett