The whole point of Christmas is beautifully summed up in the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16; NKJV). And it is the most famous verse in the Bible for good reason: it encapsulates in just a few words the central point of the Christian message.
The verse begins by saying “For God so loved the world . . .” This is itself is a remarkable thing. John almost always uses the word “world” in a negative sense: “For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world” (I John 2:16). The world is a world of lost sinners who are in rebellion against God and have given themselves over to sinful desires and vices. It is a world that is patently guilty in the sight of a perfectly just and holy God.
How, then, could God “love the world”? Certainly not in the sense that He found the world adorable, for it most certainly was not. Rather the word “love” is used in a different sense here. It is the pity and compassion that God shows towards a suffering humanity. It is a love which is directed towards the unlovable, and it is a love which is marked by self-sacrifice. “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7,8).
But how did God demonstrate His love toward us? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .” As noted earlier, when Jesus is called God’s “only begotten Son,” that means that He is God’s Son in some special and unique way. Jesus was God’s Son from all eternity, and shared the Father’s divine nature. That means that when God “gave His only begotten Son” He was giving up the one Person who was nearest and dearest to Himself – His most precious and beloved relation.
And the text says that He “gave” His only begotten Son. When one person “gives” something to someone else he surrenders control over it. And how did God the Father “give” His Son? By sending Him into the world to die on the cross. By letting His Son assume the guilt of lost sinners and bear the penalty in Himself. But letting Him die a slow agonizing death. The sky was darkened and Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” It had to have been the most horrible moment of Jesus’ entire existence. The Father punished the Son for our sins.
But why would God ever do such a thing? What could possibly be gained by it? Our text says, “that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The recalls the language of Daniel 12:2, where speaking of the future resurrection of the dead it says
“And many of the those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,
Some to everlasting life,
Some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Jesus Himself had warned His disciples, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28; the word translated “destroy” is a different form of the same verb translated “perish” in John 3:16). What is at stake here is nothing less than man’s eternal destiny. We will spend eternity in either heaven or hell. Salvation is what makes the difference, and that required an atonement for sin. Only Christ could do that.
But there is a condition attached to the promise. The promise of salvation is to “whoever believes in Him.” The phrase in the Greek (ho pisteuon eis auton) suggests more than just believing something about Jesus. It implies placing one’s trust in (eis) Jesus, relying on Him as our only hope of salvation. It requires a personal and conscious act of commitment on our part.
The birth of Christ, then, was an unparalleled demonstration of divine love toward a sinful and rebellious human race. And we miss its full significance unless we ourselves recognize our personal need. We are fallen sinners; Christ came into the world to save us. Let us go to Him in full repentance and faith to receive the forgiveness of our sins and new life from above!