I was seven years old. It was lunchtime, and my older brother used a word that was new to me. I asked what the word meant. Wow! I felt the thrill of discovery. I had encountered new words before, yet this was different. I understood for the first time that somebody could gift a word. I could hardly wait for the lunch break to end and for our creative writing class to begin.
I crafted my story that afternoon around a single word—DIRE! I recall my delight at creating a make-believe drama centred around this new word—gifted to me by my brother.
As I ponder this experience from a perspective of half a century away, I know that I have lived the meaning of the word DIRE many times in my life, sometimes through my stupidity or ignorance and sometimes through the actions of others and circumstances beyond my control. Have you endured dire consequences? Have you experienced extremely challenging, serious, dangerous or urgent situations?
Most good stories contain a situation with dire consequences. And in a great story, the hero or heroine finds a path through the chaos. Hearing or seeing a great story is one thing, but living a great story is another challenge entirely. Why? Because when I experience dire consequences, my response tends to be: ”I’m a celebrity . . . Get me out of here!”
There is, however, a life event that gets us all—death. No matter our celebrity protections, we cannot skip or insure against this one dire consequence. Is life like Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio story, which ends with ”What happens, happens, and then we are gone”?
I am not fond of this dire consequence we call death. So, for me, the promise of eternal life seems beautiful. In the gospel according to John (5:24, New Century Version), I read: ”I tell you the truth, whoever hears what I say and believes in the One who sent me has eternal life.”
Oh, how I want to believe this. Why do I hesitate? Why am I cautious? Could it be that our day-to-day experiences leave us reeling from the dire consequences of broken promises, scams, soured relationships, personal attacks, accusations and much more?
In his Tonight with Andrew Marr show, the UK presenter, in some comments about the troubled and soon-to-be short-lived Truss government, said, ”But we’re talking politics here, friends—language as slippery as a conger eel with ADHD in a bucket of marg”.1 In light of Marr’s comment, it is not surprising I’ve learned to be more distrustful, guarded, and cautious. ”Believe in the One who sent me?” Hmmm. I have responded to many attractive invitations and later felt the snap of the trap, the pull of the bit or the tug of the hook. Yet this invitation, if true, is the grandest, most valuable gift I could ever imagine! And John here is speaking in the present tense. This gift is not just a promise of pie in the sky for a future time, but a promise for now! Could this be true?
On the one hand, we want and need great news, but we are reminded that most ”too good to be true” stories usually are ”too good to be true”. So, as we experience life, we learn to protect ourselves from the ”slippery conger eels”. Is this offer of eternal life a slippery conger eel? The only way to know if an offer is genuine is to know the person making the offer. How do we do that with God?
Perhaps getting to know God is like getting to know any other person. It takes time; sometimes, we misunderstand and sometimes we are surprised. These elements play out in Paul’s journey to know God. Paul, whose name at an earlier time was Saul, was religious through and through. He was so holy that he hated and hunted the followers of Jesus. Saul thought he acted on God’s behalf. The Book of Acts says Paul was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus with a mandate issued by the High Priest to seek out and arrest followers of Jesus, to return them to Jerusalem as prisoners for questioning and possible execution. What a shock for Saul to discover he was persecuting God by persecuting His followers! For some years, Paul dropped off the map and, after that, he became a leader in the group he’d been actively persecuting.
No wonder Jewish leaders hated Paul and tried to silence him. No wonder, when Paul defended his actions before the Roman consul, Festus shouted, ”You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane.” To a politically motivated career man, what Paul was doing was crazy. Paul had placed his lot with the fledgling Christian church. Festus would have known Paul was never motivated to be freed by offering a bribe to his predecessor, Felix. Festus never even had anything to write about Paul to give to Caesar. The critical dispute was ”about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive” (Acts 25 and 26).
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he listed six groups of witnesses to the risen Lord. These included Peter, the Twelve, more than 500 of his followers at one time, James, all of the apostles, and ”last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him” (1 Corinthians 15:8, New Living Translation).
William G Johnsson speaks of Paul’s confidence in the risen Lord in this way: ”Of the various witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, this one—’I saw him’—was decisive for him, irrefragable. For the Corinthians, the very idea of resurrection—any resurrection—was impossible. For Paul, the thought that Jesus had not risen was impossible.”2
Did you notice that word? A word I had never before encountered—irrefragable. The Collins English Dictionary defines irrefragable as ”not able to be denied or refuted”. Then in the Mirriam-Webster dictionary , I noticed that the word’s etymology is from ”re- + -fragari” (as in the Latin suffragari, to vote for), akin to suffrage.
Notice the reference to suffrage, meaning to vote. Our sense of what is best, right or true is often gained by putting a matter to the vote. But some things aren’t able to be.
Remember when King Canute set his throne by the seashore and commanded the incoming tide to halt, and not wet his feet or splash his robes? The tide continued to rise and splashed him without regard to his royal person. King Canute demonstrated that commanding the tide was not a matter of vote. The tide turns—this matter is irrefragable.
Do we ask: ”Will the sun rise tomorrow or not? Let’s put it to the vote.” No. That is crazy! Why? This matter is not votable. The sun will rise tomorrow.
Strange things have been put to the vote. For example, in late-19th-century Indiana, the state’s legislators tried to pass a bill that legally defined the value of pi as 3.2!3 This idea to vote for an untruth about a mathematical constant did not change the truth about the mathematical constant and eventually died a ”quiet legislative death” in Indiana’s senate. The value of pi is IRREFRAGABLE. Paul sees the matter of the risen Lord in this same way. To him, the evidence is clear and irrefragable. No number of votes to the contrary would change the reality of the risen Lord. This reality has beautiful implications for us.
What is the promise when I help my granddaughter pick that first ripe apricot from my Dad’s tree? The promise is the crop to come. The guarantee is the abundance to follow. This is the meaning of the feast of firstfruits to the Hebrew people, who had observed this feast for a thousand years. The Hebrew word for firstfruits is bikkurim—which translates as ”promise to come”.
For many, the notion of the resurrection is just a fairy tale to help us live life in the face of ultimate destruction and death. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul takes up this fairy tale idea. He reasons: ”For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless” (15:13,14, NLT). Then comes Paul’s powerful argument. ”But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20). Paul asserts that Jesus has risen! He has risen indeed! And like a first fruit, Jesus guarantees the coming crop of resurrection! Is this story too good to be true? To the contrary, Paul exclaims it is so good that it is genuinely IRREFRAGABLE!
Each of us faces dire consequences, including death and separation. However, Jesus, the ”firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, gives us the certainty of life without end. As the song says, ”the fear of death is gone, for we carry His life in our veins.”4
I’ve been gifted with two words—DIRE and IRREFRAGABLE. For me, these words bookend more than 50 years of life experience and have now become interconnected with the story of Easter. DIRE reminds me of my great need; IRREFRAGABLE reminds me of God’s answer to my greatest need. The story of Easter creates a dynamic interconnection between God and His human family, a bond that cannot be broken—not by death—not by time.
I now gift these words to you. My prayer is that these words take root in your understanding and become a source of strength, beauty and confidence in a Creator God who will do anything and has done everything to make it possible for you and for me to share endless time in a loving relationship with Him and with each other.
1. <lbc.co.uk/news/andrew-marr-says-liz-truss-is-in-real-trouble/>, 12 October 2022, cited November 5, 2022.
2. William G Johnsson, “Christ is Risen! Risen Indeed!”, Adventist Today, 2022, Vol 30, No 2, p10.
3. <mentalfloss.com/article/30214/new-math-time-indiana-tried-change-pi-32>, cited November 5, 2022.
4. <thebereantest.com/sovereign-grace-music-turn-your-eyes>, cited December 24, 2022.
Craig Mattner is a teacher of mathematics and photography at Prescott College Southern in Adelaide, SA.