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As we move through the Christmas season, so often despite our best intentions, we can lose the proper focus. We know that there is no Christmas without Christ, but we can become practical secularists, worried about making sure there are enough cookies baked, that the house is ready for the arrival of out of town guests and of course that the right presents are purchased, wrapped and delivered to the right people.
But as we celebrate Christmas, it is of the utmost importance that we remember the first Christmas gift ever given. I am not referring to the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought to the Christ child, but to the Christ child Himself. That Baby was the first Christmas gift, given by God the father to all of mankind.
John 3:16 is the most memorized verse in the bible. Devout believers and unbelievers alike can quote by memory. For God so loved the world that he gave His only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. God the Father Gave God the son to the world as an expression of His love.
When we hear that verse we often fixate on the word so, and we take it to mean that the Father loved the world so very much that He gave his son. And that is true, but there is more to it than that. So here is not just an expression of degree, but also of means, like thus and so. This verse could also be translated as “this is how God loved the world, he gave his only son…” God’s love for the world is expressed in the giving of Jesus.
And God gave this first gift for a purpose, so that whoever would believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. This first and greatest of all Christmas gifts is only beneficial to those who believe in Him. If God gave His only son so that those who believe in Him would not perish, what does that tell you about the fate of those who do not believe? It tells you that apart from faith in Christ there is nothing but judgment and destruction. There is no second chance after death, there is no purgatory and there is no reincarnation. As the book of Hebrews says, Man is appointed to die once, and after that comes judgment.
Now John 3:17 tells us more, it tells us that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Saved from who or what you might wonder? Saved from the righteous wrath of God against sin, your sin. God’s standard if perfection. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, that you must be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. That is the standard. One sin is enough of an offense against the infinitely holy God to result in eternal condemnation. Now that might not sound much like Jesus came not to condemn, after all, who is perfect? Who has never sinned, let alone never had a single sinful thought? Jesus said you must be perfect, and no one is perfect. You probably weren’t even perfect today, I know I wasn’t. And there is a good chance that you won’t be perfect the rest of the day either. Do you have to assemble a present tonight? If in your frustration if you have an unkind thought about the person who wrote those instructions, if that is the only sinful thought you ever had, you would not be perfect, and would fall short of God’s standard. If you have one unkind thought toward your fellow motorists in traffic, you have fallen short of the standard. In fact Paul says in Romans 3:23 that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
The only person ever to walk the earth to have lived a perfect life is Jesus, and it is that perfect life that made Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross acceptable to God the Father. God required a perfect spotless lamb, and only Jesus was perfect.
And so whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the only son of God. Anyone who rejects Jesus as savior, scripture tells us, is condemned already. Anyone trusting in their own goodness before God for salvation is already condemned. They stand guilty, because of their unbelief. And because of their unbelief they will be judged. If you have rejected Jesus, you stand condemned right now, and you don’t know how long you have. People often think that they have time to think about their eternal destiny later in life, but the reality is that none of us know when our life will be required of us. Even today, many who thought they had decades to live will step into eternity and face the judgment of God. That is a frightening thought, except that Jesus came not to condemn but to save those that believe in Him, in the Son of God.
So what does it mean to believe in the name of Jesus? It is more than just agreeing that He lived in Israel 2000 years ago. It is more even than thinking that His resurrection is a historical fact. To believe in Jesus is to recognize your own sinfulness before a holy God, that you have no merit of your own, and that you deserve eternal separation from God and eternal punishment for your rebellion against Him. And you have to believe that Jesus lived a perfect life, and that he went to the cross not as an example of self sacrifice, but as a perfect sacrifice to atone for your sins, and that He rose again in defeat of sin and death.
The key to understanding the first Christmas gift is to understand that little word “for”. Any time you see a for in the bible, you need to look what came before it, so that you can rightly understand what comes after it. And what Comes before John 3:16 is John 3:14-15; “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”
When Moses was leading the Israelites in the wilderness they began to grumble and speak against God. And so as judgment for their blasphemy, God sent a plague of poisonous snakes to them and many were bitten and were dying. But Moses plead with God and begged for mercy, so God instructed him to build a bronze serpent and to carry it on a pole and tell the people that if they were bitten to look to the bronze serpent and then they would live. And that is exactly what happened.
And our sin is far deadlier than any snakebite. A poisonous snake may end your life here on earth, but the poison of sin will condemn you for all eternity. But as the serpent in the wilderness was lifted up, so was the son of man, Jesus, lifted up. He was lifted up on a cross, although he had lived a perfect sinless life, and although he committed no crime, he was executed in the most painful way imaginable as a sacrifice for the sins of men, that whoever would look to the cross, repent of their sins, and place their faith for salvation solely in His sacrifice might have eternal life.
Christ was born so that he could die. God the Father gave God the Son as a love gift to mankind knowing that in order for the Giving of His Son to result in the salvation of men, that He would have to sacrifice His only Son.
Yes we celebrate the birth of Jesus, and it is a joyous occasion. But it is only joyous because God gave His only son knowing that He would be lifted up on the cross as a sacrifice for sin. Without the cross the manger is meaningless. But there was a cross, and there is an empty tomb, so we joyously celebrate the greatest night in human history, when the eternal God took on flesh and was born as a helpless babe. And so we celebrate that night so long ago when the light of the world came into the world to save us.