Timothy Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (New York: Dutton, 2011), 256 pp., $26.95.
This is the book where Tim Keller hits his stride as an author. If you’re familiar with the four books he’s published in the last several years—The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, Counterfeit Gods, and Generous Justice—you might not learn much that’s new by picking up King’s Cross. But how can we ever hear the gospel too many times or fully understand its implications? Inspired by Jesus’ determination to fulfill his mission to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), Keller directs readers’ gaze toward the cross and will not allow them to look away. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the story that makes sense of the world. It is the story that exposes our idolatry and compels believers to worship the one true God. Keller has been preaching this message for decades and writing about it more recently. Perhaps more than in any of his previous books, Keller displays a gift for helping readers understand and worship the crucified and risen Christ.
King’s Cross is adapted from sermons that Keller, senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, has preached from the Gospel of Mark. He dedicates the book to Scott Kauffmann (executive director of Content Labs at Redeemer City to City) and Sam Shammas (curriculum manager) for their work in shaping the manuscript. The book is neatly organized into two parts, corresponding to the Gospel of Mark’s two halves: Mark 1-8, which reveal Jesus’ identity as king, and Mark 9-16, which reveal his purpose to die on the cross. Hence, the catchy title King’s Cross. Keller opens by presenting some context to explain Mark’s sources (nothing happens that Peter did not witness) and otherwise orients readers to Mark’s contribution, the shortest of the four Gospels. Keller explains that he hopes readers will understand by closely investigating the life of Jesus that his death and resurrection make sense of our lives—indeed, these dramatic events make sense of the entire world.
Within each chapter, Keller quotes a section of Mark, explains the background, illustrates the main point, and applies it for readers. So the book retains the essential elements of good preaching. The broad scope and significance of Jesus’ life, compared to Keller’s previous focus on the Prodigal Son story or the topics of idolatry and justice, makes King’s Cross the longest book Keller has published since The Reason for God. Fitting for Mark’s Gospel, though, King’s Cross moves quickly. Each of the 18 chapters focuses on a particular theme. The first chapter deals with the eternal “dance” of the Trinity. Revealing God as three persons existing from all eternal in loving relationship, Keller lays the foundation for the rest of his book:
Before God created the world, when there was only one divine person, there was no lover, because love can only exist in relationship. If a unipersonal God had created the world and its inhabitants, such a God would not in his essence be love. Power and greatness possibly, but not love. But if from all eternity, without end and without beginning, ultimate reality is a community of persons knowing and loving one another, then ultimate reality is about love relationships (9).
All along the way Keller liberally sprinkles anecdotes drawn from contemporary sources and his favorite writers from the past—J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Jonathan Edwards. Several themes common in Keller’s preaching crop up:
- Religion is advice, but advice cannot save. That’s why we need to hear the good news that the King calls us to follow him.
- People who seek ultimate happiness in anything but God learn when they finally get what they want that nothing but God can truly satisfy.
- Those who condemn the self-righteous for the sake of self-discovery do so with ironic self-righteousness.
- God is powerful enough to prevent our suffering but sometimes chooses not to. Such situations call for faith in the God whose ways transcend our understanding. His timing does not usually match our expectations.
- Go to Jesus, because he can help you. But know that you’ll give more than you think you can, and you’ll get far more than you imagined.
All these points are sub-themes to the book’s consistent emphasis on the character of the King who would submit to death on the cross. Forgiveness always costs the person who forgives. Unlike modern-day skeptics, ancient peoples feared divine wrath. They knew that debt required punishment. But they could not imagine that the divine Son of God would pay the penalty for sin himself and secure pardon for believers. This beautifully baffling self-substitution of God explains why Jesus’ disciples struggled to understand his mission, despite his many explanations. Keller writes:
If he were only a king on a throne, you’d submit to him just because you have to. But he’s a king who went to the cross for you. Therefore you can submit to him out of love and trust (107).
Christians will enjoy reading this book, because it will encourage them amid many dangers, toils, and snares that God loves us and deserves our trust. Resurrection follows the cross. Our story will have a happy ending when Jesus returns. Pastors can use this book as a homiletical commentary to help them preach the Gospel of Mark. Small group leaders can assign it in evangelistic studies of Mark, a popular book for introducing unbelievers and young Christians to Jesus. Keller points out that the Roman centurion who watched the crucifixion and proclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39) models an appropriate response to Jesus’ uniquely compelling death. Lent offers an especially opportune time to consider Jesus’ self-described mission. But whatever the season, King’s Cross will help you appreciate more deeply what the King secured for believers on the cross and in his resurrection. Keller writes:
In Jesus we find infinite majesty yet complete humility, perfect justice yet boundless grace, absolute sovereignty yet utter submission, all-sufficiency in himself yet entire trust and dependence on God (155).
That’s a God who is worthy of our worship, now and evermore.