Every now and then, there is a book that, with a series of calm and clear principles, makes sense of a lot of vague and half-formed ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a long time.
Every now and then there is a book that makes me cry while I read it.
Every now and then there is a book that I have to stop reading so I can write down the good bits or mark intriguing passages.
And every now and then there is a book that brings me to Jesus and to the Gospels in a way that makes me see them differently and more clearly than I have before.
Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew is one such book. I am happy to say now that Timothy Keller’s Jesus The King: Understanding The Life and Death of the Son of God is another.
Keller has been referred to as the modern century’s C.S. Lewis, which is precisely why I ordered several of his books through my local library. Jesus The King is the first of those books and the first of his that I have read, and if his others are at all similar in quality, I am in for a treat.
Jesus The King focus primarily on the Gospel of Mark. Keller gives a brief history of the Gospel itself, and approaches significant passages from the book in order to illustrate several key truths about the nature of Jesus. Keller states outright we often come to the Bible to engage it, being unaware that the Word desires to engage and work on us. In exploring the Gospel, he offers a hint of what it means to permit both Christ’s story and His example to truly work on the heart.
Structurally, Keller divides his book into two sections: the King and the Cross. He follows the Gospel – vis a vis several key passages – from beginning to end. I was delighted to find that he draws out the parallels between the Gospel’s key moments and the Old Testament, pointing out striking similarities (such as the Spirit of God hovering over the surface of the Water in the Old Testament, and then descending on Jesus post-baptism in the New) – as well as the differences that show exactly how and why Christ has come to change everything for humanity.
Two concerns occupy Keller for most of the book, and it is these two concerns that drew me in the most. In the book’s introduction, Keller explains (with a startling ease for such a difficult subject) the basic concept of the trinity. He describes the three-in-one and the one-in-three of the Trinity, the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as a dance: a dance of mutual glorification and love. Christ, he points out, has come to invite believers into that dance, where the great purpose and the great joy of being is the love of, and the glorifying of, God.
There is no other religion that does this, Keller points out. Most religions are based on giving advice about how to be a better person, or lead a better life; only Christianity says that the good news has happened, and that “the good life” is simply to be found by following the King and living to glorify Him. God desires us to join Him in His perfect happiness, in the happiness of what it means to love and glorify Him, and the sacrifice of Christ enables that invitation. Unfortunately, according to Keller, most believers don’t grasp the magnitude of what this means on a personal level.
It is here that the second theme of Keller’s work becomes clear: most Christians, he points out, have an unfortunate tendency to treat Christianity – and Jesus – as a means to an end. We serve, Keller points out, but often so that we can feel better about ourselves and as though we’re doing the “right” thing. We love, but often only so that others will love us back. We cling to redemption, and then feel superior because we come to believe we have enabled it ourselves in some way. If to be a Christian means that Jesus must be an end in Himself for believers – that we must do all that we do only for His sake, and not for ours – than any time we use Jesus as a means to another end, that end has become our savior instead of Christ.
This might all sound a bit obtuse and abstract, but Keller hammers his points home with wonderful close readings of Scripture. In fact, his reading of Mark 4:35-41 – when Jesus calms the storm – remains one of my favorite parts of the book. Pointing out that the disciples were “terrified” after Jesus had rebuked the waves and wind, Keller wonders if their terror was because the disciples had recognized His deity, or if perhaps because they finally understood that “Jesus was as unmanageable as the storm itself” – that a good and loving Messiah might indeed see it necessary for them to endure a storm, or wonder about their faith when they could not.
Throughout the book, Keller tackles all sorts of thorny issues: why God permits believers to suffer, why an angry God is inherently a loving God (when people seem to view these two attributes as mutually exclusive), what it means on the most fundamental level to follow Christ, and why money makes it so difficult to be faithful. He doesn’t shy away from difficult passages of Scripture, either, like Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman whose daughter is demon-possessed and their subsequent discussion over his ministry to Jews versus Gentiles. More than anything, Keller seems obsessed with showing us the incredible magnitude of what God has done – and how our lives must shift in equal magnitude with gratitude, wonder, and humility.
Keller is a wondrously easy read and an evidently intelligent man who is equally at ease discussing trinitarian theology, quoting Albert Camus, or quoting a Village Voice writer. Moreover, he is skilled at dismantling difficult theological and intellectual concepts, and equally as skilled at showing us the practical applications of those things. I tore through it in a day because I couldn’t stop reading, but it’s the sort of book that demands another, more patient read-through because it’s chock full of nuggets and good bits worth musing over.
As my final recommendation, I’ll simply say this: one of the perils, for the long-time Christian, is growing inured to the truth of the Gospel. We know what it is; we read about it a lot; many of us have heard a great deal of sermons about it. Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then certainly boredom. And if we’re not careful, we can lose the significance – the earth-shattering, cosmic, despair-destroying truth – of who Jesus was, what He did, and how much it should change us. Reading this book, and crying over certain sections the whole way through, brought me back to the Gospel with fresh eyes and a heart brimming over with gratitude, love, and humility.
If you could use the same, give this one a go.