So the Nativity story is basically found in two places. It is found in the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke. In Luke 1 we find the story of Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel who tells her that she is going to give birth to Jesus. And then she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist, and sings her song, the Magnificat. Then in Luke 2 we have the traditional Christmas story, with Mary and Joseph making the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus is born and the story of the angel appearing to the shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks. In Matthew 1 we have the genealogy of Jesus and then the nativity story from Joseph’s perspective as he is thinking about divorcing Mary after finding out that she is pregnant, but an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him to take Mary home as his wife and that the baby will be Immanuel, which means “God with us”. Then in Matthew 2 we have the story of the visit of the magi, which happens at some point after Jesus’ birth, but is still considered part of the nativity story. That is where we would typically turn. But what if I told you that there is another place in Scripture that gives us some insight into the nativity story, which is not in either one of those places? And it is not one of the prophecies about the birth of the Messiah, but rather it is probably the most famous verse in the Bible.
I am talking about John 3:16. Well, I think John 3:16 belongs with the nativity, or at least fits with the story of the nativity, in that it gives us just a little glimpse into the mindset of God as he sets into motion this plan of sending his son to earth.
Please turn with me in your Bibles to the Gospel of John, chapter 3. This is part of a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a member of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews, and he came to see Jesus one night to talk with him, and Jesus told him that in order to see the kingdom of God, he needed to be born again. And then Jesus followed that up with talking about spiritual rebirth, and then a little bit about himself and a hint of what he was going to do.
And then we arrive at this famous verse, followed by some lesser-known verses. Let’s pick things up in John 3, with verses 16 and 17: “16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
So like I said, this passage is actually kind of like a nativity passage. I know that seems kind of strange considering this takes place about 30 years or so after Jesus’ birth, but let’s consider for a moment what we find here about what is going on inside the mind of God as he gets ready to send his Son.
God’s motivation for this is love. Not our love for Him, but simply His love. God’s love for us is agape love, which is a Greek word referring to love that is not based on merit or emotion, but based rather on will. He determines to love us. We talk about how God is a god of love, but this puts that into practice, it is not just theoretical. He shows us his love by what he does here. What does He do? He gave his Son. What does that mean? It means he sent him to earth with the purpose of reconciling the world to himself, which would be accomplished through his son’s death on the cross. And he did all this because he loved us.
Now let me also point out that Jesus is talking with Nicodemus here about himself. It is easy to get detached from that reality. These are not just some words about Jesus, this is Jesus speaking about himself and about God’s plan for the world. Earlier we mentioned that Nicodemus was a Jewish teacher. With that in mind, it might have been difficult for Nicodemus to understand the concept of God loving the world this much. He probably had never thought of God loving anyone other than Israel. The people of Israel believed that they were God’s chosen people and he loved only them. So Jesus saying that God so loved the world would have been a revolutionary concept for Nicodemus. Jesus isn’t telling him that God loved Israel so much that he sent the Messiah; he is saying that he loved the world so much that he sent his Son. This might have been a revolutionary concept to Nicodemus, but it was always God’s plan. Even way back in the life of Abraham God’s plan was to bless the whole world through him and his people. He chose Israel as his chosen people to display himself to the world, but he loved the whole world. That was true in the Old Testament, it was true when Jesus came, and it is true today.
God loved us so much that he gave his son. Basically, this is the first ever Christmas gift. I know that sounds a little cheesy, but I think it is important to understand the concept of God giving up his son. We can’t really quantify God’s love, but this idea of him giving up his son to die for us, helps us understand the depth of his love for us, at least a little bit.
Why did God need to send his son, according to verse 16? Verse 16 points out that the world is perishing. Not just physical death, but spiritual. Ever since sin entered the world, we are born as sinners, separated from God because of our sin. That means that people are dying every day without a savior and are facing an eternity of separation from God. God gave Jesus to the world so that people might not perish. That does not mean so that they would not die, but so that when they die, they don’t need to die without a Savior, without being brought back to a right relationship with God.
The word salvation refers to rescue, like a drowning person being thrown a lifeline. Jesus did not come to bring condemnation or judgment, but rather to save people from perishing. He came to give us the possibility of eternal life.
So what do we do with this information? How do we respond to such an amazing act of love? Belief. It is like the person who was drowning and is thrown a lifeline they can choose believe that the lifeline is real and they can be saved by grabbing hold of it, or they can ignore it and continue to drown. These verses remind us that God’s plan of salvation was for the whole world. He sent his Son for all of us. He sent us a Savior. Unfortunately, some choose not to believe in him.
Take a look at verses 18-21: “18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
So verse 17 spoke of how God did not send Jesus to the world to condemn it, but rather to save it. However, by that very point, those who choose to not believe in Christ, are condemned, not because of Jesus, but because of their refusal to believe in him.
In these verses we see this reference between darkness and light. It is an interesting picture of people who are living in darkness and yet actually prefer that darkness rather than the light. Why would anyone want darkness instead of light? Darkness hides the evil things that they do or want to do. Maybe because they are comfortable where they are or indifferent or because they think they are fine where they are. For whatever reason, they are choosing to not believe and are choosing to stay in the darkness rather than coming into the light. Notice even these verses speak of their works. Some people might be staying in the darkness simply because they think they can save themselves or that something other than Jesus is what will save them. Maybe they are trusting in their own abilities or the good things that they do, but salvation is not about doing anything. It is about what has been done for us. That is a major difference between Christianity and other religions. Salvation is a free gift that we did not and cannot earn, but must freely receive.
The response to the Gospel is simply belief. It is not doing something, it is simply believing. That is pretty amazing. It actually reminds me a little bit of some of the Christmas movies we see out there during this time of year about Santa Clause. The focus in many of them is on the need to believe. We just have to believe in Santa and he will be real. Like in the movie Elf, when the only way that Santa’s sleigh will fly is if people believe in him. The problem is that Santa is not real and no amount of belief is going to change that. It is fine for the movies, but not for real life.
The great thing about the Gospel is that it is true. It is not some fairy tale or some Christmas fable. It is truth that is backed up by Scriptural prophecies from hundreds of years before Jesus was born that could only have been fulfilled in Jesus. And by solid testimonies of believers who saw Jesus’ life and ministry and died telling others about what they saw. The Gospel is true, so believing in Jesus is not like believing in Santa Claus. He doesn’t need us to believe in him in order for him to be real. He is the real deal and worthy of our belief. Make no doubt about it. Jesus is the Savior of the world. That is a fact. Whether people believe in him or not, he came to save the world. The choice is whether or not we will believe.
With all of that in mind, let’s move back up to verse 16. I don’t know what you get out of Christmas, but the thing that I most want to remind us of today is God’s love. This verse gives us just a glimpse into the mindset of God sending his son and we see the motivation was love. He loved us so much, that he sent Jesus. An important thing for us to understand as we approach Christmas is that it all begins with God. He is the one who pursued us, not the other way around. It is not like we pursued him so hard that he decided to do something for us. He loved us so much that he sent his son to bring us back to a right relationship with him so that we could spend eternity with him in Heaven.
This Christmas season, celebrate that it all starts with God. Celebrate his love. Celebrate how much he cares about you. I know sometimes we don’t feel loved or we feel unlovable, but if nothing else, let Christmas remind us that that is not true. We are loved. God is not looking to condemn us or judge us, he is looking to save us. He went out of his way to do everything he could to save us so that we could be with him forever. That is love.