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This Week: Jesus the King

John Stonestreet interviews Dr. Timothy Keller, who defends the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels, and unpacks the cosmic implications of Christ's resurrection.

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Why are the life, death and resurrection of Jesus so important? Can the gospel accounts really be trusted as history? What are the cosmic implications of the events we commemorate each year during Holy Week?

In today's edition of "BreakPoint This Week," we welcome Dr. Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City to unpack the answers to these and other questions which he addresses in his book, "Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God."

Dr. Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City
Keller, who has written numerous books including the New York Times Bestseller, "The Reason for God," explains that his goal in writing "Jesus the King," (formerly titled "King's Cross"), was to reintroduce many in our culture to a conception of Jesus as not only Savior, but as Sovereignsomething he says may pose challenges to our way of thinking.

"It doesn't play well in this country, in this culture, to call Jesus a King," says Keller. "But if you think about it, the implications of grace and forgiveness are that now, I don't belong to myself. Paul says 'You're not your own, you were bought with a price.'...You now belong to someone else...In this culture, people like the idea of forgiveness but they immediately say, 'Well, I can kind of live the way I want.' And 'Jesus the King' gets across the fact that your entire life belongs to Him because of His grace, and I think that's a hard sell in our culture, but it's true."

As John Stonestreet points out, not only do we often underestimate the reach of Jesus' claim over our lives as King, but the scope of the four gospels, themselves, is often overlooked. We tend to think about the "Gospel message" as a call to repentance or justification by faith. But this is merely how we, as objects of redemption, receive the Gospel. It is not the heart of the story. That, says John, lies in the Subject of the redemption, namely Christ Himself, and His work on our behalf. And of course, that's why the four accounts of His life are called "gospels."

"Substitution, Mark chapter 10 verse 45," adds Keller. "'The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and the give His life a ransom for many.' The word 'for' there is the word 'anti,' which means 'in place of.' And so the gospels directly say that Jesus came to do something in our place. He came to die in our place."

In "Jesus the King," Dr. Keller focuses especially on the Gospel of Mark, a book which he believes reveals vital features of the Jesus narrative, and offers us an especially powerful apologetic for the trustworthiness of the New Testament.

"We're coming up on Easter season," says John. "And you know what that means. We know that TIME Magazine and The Discovery Channel and the History Channel...are all going to talk about how we don't know who the real Jesus was, that it's all been clouded by church history."

But, John reminds us, the manner in which the Apostles are portrayed, especially in Markthe Gospel which tradition tells us St. Peter influenced most stronglyprovides outstanding evidence of accuracy.

"[Bishop] N. T. Wright has made something like the same case," agrees Keller. "If you were making these gospels up in order to promote the wouldn't be making up gospels that made the Apostles look like such idiots...The gospels are just counterproductive for accruing power on the part of the leaders. Another one N. T. Write mentions which I'll point out is that in that culture, women had very, very low status. And yet in Mark and all the other gospels, the first witnesses of the resurrection of Christ are women, at a time in which women were not even allowed to testily in courts, Jewish or Roman. If someone had made that up, they would never have made women the first eyewitnesses. The only reason the women [are recorded] as the first witnesses in the gospels is because they were! There's all sorts of really great evidence that you can take Mark and the other gospels serious as history."

If you've enjoyed this week's interview, we hope you'll visit the Colson Center online bookstore, where you can pick up a copy of Dr. Keller's book, 'Jesus the King,' as well as our insightful and all-new Easter study series, "He Has Risen."

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Mr. Stonestreet,

Thank you for addressing my questions. In some cases you answered them, in some you may have misunderstood them, and in some we just disagree.

1) I didn't say having a king means you are not free, although in many cases that is true. It depends whether he is a good king or a bad one. The problem with a mortal king is, since we have no choice of who gets to be king, we're stuck with whoever he turns out to be. And even if he is a good one, his son might be just the opposite. Just read I and II Kings. A good king might even change his mind in his old age, or tomorrow, and become a bad king. That's why I suggested that the average American, if you said we are replacing our constitutional republic with a monarchy, would fear the possibility at least, even the likelihood, of losing freedom. And what I did say was that being a slave is generally thought of as being not free. Even scripture talks about the population as "bond and free". When there was slavery in the US, what were African Americans who were not slaves called? Freedmen. And of course I agree that Jesus is a good King. As I said, He makes us free.

2) As I said, it was non-believers who came up with alternative explanations. And of course it was undoubtedly motivated by rebellion. But the point is, I thought the purpose of the experiment was to convince the non-believers that the Christian way works better. But if they are just going to generate one alternative explanation after another to avoid the Truth, what good is it?

3) I'm not sure how a person can deserve both justice and mercy. In the case of a sinner, which we all are, the two have opposite results.

4) I don't think I accused Keller of making the claim that the end of Mark didn't belong theologically, but I just said that I had heard some say so. Specifically, the late Dr. Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute, has. I know I have a tape or mp3 file of his in which he makes that case, but I don't recall which one. It is probably either "Inspiration of Scripture", or one of his messages on Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses.
Thanks for these thoughtful questions. It's encouraging to know you listened so carefully. A few thoughts about the issues you raise:
(1) Freedom does not mean having no one in authority over you. In light of how the Bible describes who we are as Imago Dei, and how sent has bent/broken us, Christ restores us to God's creative intent. One is most free not when doing whatever they want, but when being what they were made to be. This is what Christ brings back to humanity. Also, Paul talked the language that though he was free, he made himself a slave in order to share that freedom with others. Only one who is free first has that sort of choice.
Also, I don't see why a king means no one is free. The best kings enhance freedom, despot kings steal freedom. This King Jesus makes us free.
(2) I may not have understood your point here, but I do agree that alternative explanations are always possible (and commonly generated by non-believers) to even the most obvious truth. Sometimes that is a function of confusion, sometimes of rebellion, or sometimes it means someone is insane. Still, denial doesn't change reality. Reality is what reality is. And, there also will be others that will acknowledge reality while others deny it. This is why Jesus told us to live the truth, "that others will see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven." For example, the naysayers did not prevent others from seeing the truth being lived out and fought for by believers like MLK, the Apostles, Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer (who had more naysayers than believers then but that has reversed since his death and so his legacy continues), and Colson (state prisons are now inviting Prison Fellowship in to help at a very encouraging rate, mostly because the recividism rate is so high and the rate of PFM grads is so low!)
(3) I agree with you that it is difficult to understand, and I admit I don't either. Still, just because one prisoner would see something like this as license for more evil, others will see it as a re-birth (much like Jean Valjean in Hugo's Les Mis). Another helpful explanation involves that God's nature requires full measures of justice, mercy, and grace - which seem contradictory. How can everyone get exactly what they deserve (justice), while some get what they don't deserve (grace), and others don't get what they do deserve (mercy)? The Crucifixion offers a way. In Christ, the second Adam, all men get what they deserve (I like Lewis' language about this about Aslan's death in Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe..."when someone who has committed no treachery dies in a traitor's stead, then death itself will start to work backwards." Only this was not just someone, it was the Creator). Because Christ takes on the punishment of every man, then God while being just can be gracious and merciful which is His character throughout. Again, I think there are tons of questions remaining, but this has helped me think about it...
(4) Note that Keller doesn't suggest that it doesn't belong because it doesn't agree with the theology. After all, there are plenty of strange things that are not questioned in the Bible (see the entire book of Jude!). It's a textual issue not a theological issue. That portion just wasn't in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel that we have found. The earliest manuscripts end at the empty tomb. So, it seems (especially since, as Keller said, the rest of the book of Mark focuses in on Jesus actions and not Words) as if it may have been added. I'm undecided on this one, but agree that even if it is there, it doesn't justify the snake handling (and the Paul reference makes more sense as you say). To me, this is more of an interesting "insider" question, and was a fun way to end the interview.

Whew! Perhaps more than you wanted, but you got me thinking this morning. Thanks.
So many questions
This program addresses several questions that are difficult to answer, and I have heard or read several people attempt to answer them, but I don't find any of the answers satisfying. This is no exception.

1. The fact that the idea of Christ as King is hard to accept certainly resonates with me. I wouldn't use the word individualism as the characteristic of American culture that makes it hard, though it is close. I would use the word freedom. If you are, as the New Testament puts it, a slave of Christ, then we are not free. Which brings to mind another scripture: If the Son therefore shall make you free ye shall be free indeed (John 8:36). How do we reconcile these two concepts? This interview does not even raise this question, let alone answer it.

2. Having Christians and non-Christians live out their lives for a generation or two to see which group fares better sounds like a good idea, but there are many problems with it. For one thing, it takes so much time, that before the dust settles, many of the people on the other side will have been so damaged by their wrong choices that it is too late to benefit from the experiment, and many will have died and gone to Hades (Hell, in the sense of Gehenna, of course, is yet to come), so it will be too late for them. Aside from that, I have made similar arguments about other issues with non-believers, for example, about how much more successful Christian drug rehabilitation programs are than government programs, and found that they are really good at coming up with alternative explanations for why it looks like the Christian way is better, or that the Lord's involvement explains the success. I'm sure the same thing would happen here.

3. The question of why the crucifixion of Christ was necessary is certainly one that I have heard attempts at explaining, but none are satisfying. For one thing, to say that we cannot raise our children well without sacrificing prompts the obvious response, "Yes, but we are not omnipotent; God is." I once read of an atheist writer who said that the idea of the vicarious atonement of Christ, the punishment of the just for the unjust, if true, would be neither just nor efficacious. We can, of course, agree about the unjust part: it certainly wasn't fair to Christ; yet we are told that He willingly endured it, knowing that it would result in an ever-growing body of born-again believers, the church, who would love and serve Him and fellowship with Him for eternity. So in the long run, the benefit outweighed the cost. Fine. But what about the efficacious part? How does Christ's sacrifice enable our salvation? Why couldn't God save us anyway? The usual answer is that God is just and demands a payment for sin. Either the sinner or Christ must pay. That sounds artificial. I mean if I said, of some serial killer or whatever, "let me take his/her prison sentence (or even execution) and let him/her go free," does anyone think that that would do any good? Would the killer really be more likely to repent, or to say to himself/herself, "What an idiot! Now I'm free to commit more crimes. How lucky for me." As a believer, of course, I accept by faith that it is true, but I don't understand it.

4. Don't get me started on the end of the last chapter of Mark! Let me just say that I have heard some say that it clearly does not belong because it does not agree with the theology of the rest of the New Testament. They say that it teaches baptismal regeneration, that Christ appeared in another form, and that we should handle snakes. I disagree. If you look at the text carefully, at least in the English (I don't read Greek), you find that it says, "he that believeth not shall be damned." It doesn't say, "he that is not baptized shall be damned." The part about Christ appearing in another form has been used by cults to justify belief in, for example, spiritual rather than bodily resurrection. But that's just a misinterpretation. It could just mean that He appeared in the form of a celestial, spiritual, immortal human being, just as we shall be in the next life. And as for handling snakes, that is a misinterpretation by the snake-handlers of the Ozarks. Maybe it just means that if we accidentally pick up a poisonous snake in the course of doing the Lord's work, it will not kill us, just as it did not kill Paul on Malta (Melita), in Acts 28:3-6.