The story of Jesus Christ is so interesting many think it couldn’t be real, that the gospels are a collection of myths that never happened, and that he is a personification rather than a person who lived, died (and possibly) rose again. The question is when (and where) these myths could have started. Was Paul a real person? Was Peter? How far back does the story go? We know there were Christians throughout the Near East by the end of the first century. Who were they praying to? Could they conjure a person out of thin air whose life occurred within historical memory? And why would anyone believe them if they did?
The likeliest explanation is the simplest. Jesus was a man who preached a few years in ancient Israel before being executed by the Roman authorities. The contemporary critics of Christianity disputed his resurrection, not his existence. We know his followers grew from a few dozen at the time of his death to a movement spreading throughout the Roman Empire within a generation. We know they eventually conquered the empire from the inside out, with Christianity becoming the most influential religion in world history. Jesus is the most famous person who ever lived, and there’s no way to tell the story of humanity without talking about an itinerant preacher from Bethlehem who died without a penny to his name. We are, after all, living in the year 2016 AD.
How was he able to change the world? The gospels, collected from eye witness testimony and used for nearly two millennia, are the best place to learn. The problem is he was was preaching to a very different society in a very different world than our own, and it’s easy to come away from them with nothing more than a vague sense of the need to treat others kindly. “Jesus the King” is Timothy Keller’s attempt to bridge the gap, a reader’s guide to the Gospel of Mark that gives the societal context to what is happening. Keller is one of the most popular authors in evangelical America, and this book is a good example of why. It features simple and powerful writing, accessible to believers and non-believers alike. If you want to know what it means to be a Christian, “Jesus the King” is a good a place to start.
Keller divides the book (and Mark’s gospel) into two sections - “The King” and “The Cross”. The first half is who Jesus is, the second is explaining why he has to die. Everyone knows the basics of the story - Jesus is the son of God who died as a substitution for our sins. What gets missed is the connection between two. In a market economy, things are valued by the price someone will pay for them. If the price of our salvation was the death of God, how much must each of us be worth? Christianity starts with basing your self-worth not on what you have done, but on what God has done for you.
Everyone is searching for an identity, for something to justify our existence and some way to put our stamp on the world. Humans have been searching for immortality since the beginning of time. We all want to do something with our lives, and we all look to something to make us feel better about ourselves. Who am I as a person? And why am I important? The answer to those questions controls us. That’s at the core of identity, and the struggle for identity is at the core of the human condition.
For some, it’s their career. They get identity from their professional lives, and what they do defines who they are. Others are driven by money. The more money they have, the more they feel like they matter. Sex is a big one, and the desire to be validated is what drives the hook-up culture, as much, if not more, than hedonism. Many feel worthwhile when other people are investing in their lives, and they look to family, friends and romantic relationships for meaning. Fame is that same principle on a bigger level. It doesn’t matter what you are famous for, as long as people are talking about you.
In a narcissistic society, what we think of ourselves is determined by what others think of us. The root of anxiety in the modern world is the difference between who we are and who we portray ourselves to be. Social media exists to erase the distinction between our image and our identity. If a tree falls in the forest and no one can hear it, did it make a sound? What if you do something and don’t share it? Do we do anything for its own sake or so that other people can see we are doing it?
What no one can answer is what happens when you get what you are searching for. How much career success do any of us need? How much money? What number of likes will make us content? Or do those things only leave us wanting more? Keller talks about the hedonic treadmill, and how people return to their previous levels of happiness after a dramatic life change. Winning the lottery leaves most people worse off than when they started. Famous people are some of the most miserable in the world.
People often turn to religion when they realize how empty a life dedicated to the pursuit of selfish goals becomes. They try to become a better person, rather than a more important one. Many religious people end up defining themselves by their good deeds and the purity of their beliefs, and any ideology can become a religion if people base their worldview on it. Liberalism is a religion. Conservatism is too. They can't fail. They can only be failed. The problem is that mindset leads to the true believers feeling like they are part of the elect. The world divides into Us and Them, and their identity comes from being more righteous than everyone else.
True freedom comes from basing your identity on a gift you received, not what you did to earn it. When that happens, the things you do, and those that happen to you, don’t have the power to change who you are. When you don't need the approval of others, they can't control you. If your self-worth doesn’t come from your career, losing a job isn’t a life-shattering event. If money doesn’t define you, then not having any doesn’t make you a failure. The biggest reason people can’t pick themselves up from setbacks is because they lose the source of their identity in the process. Our generation was raised on the importance of self-esteem, but self-confidence is a lot less resilient than confidence in something bigger than yourself.
The key is basing your identity on something you can’t lose. Your life is built on a foundation. The only question is what that foundation is going to be.
Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
- Matthew 7:24