John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
What better summary of the meaning of Christmas could there be than Christ’s own summary of the significance of that first Christmas Gift, and its resulting life, death, and resurrection!
When I was on the mission field—my very brief foray into residential mission work and a slightly longer ensuing oversight-coordinating role of some pioneer mission opportunities in the same region of the world—a team member of ours from Denmark said that the Danish Christians called this verse “the little Bible.” Whether or not that is true, and I have no reason to doubt it (perhaps Danish friends will write and tell us otherwise!), it is a great explanation of the significance of this very well-known verse. In its brief statement, it encompasses a Tardis-like universe of meaning, bigger on the inside than it is apparently on the outside.
It tells us that God loves the world. In John, the “world” does not primarily mean the world as in the whole vast population of the globe, though surely the cosmos in that sense is in view too, but the world as in “the world in rebellion.” What is extraordinary about this statement, then, is not that Jesus loves so many people but that he loves such bad people. In that sense, then, Christmas and its true significance can never really be grasped without a right perspective on the extraordinary love of God for you and for me, bad people as we are. The heart is wicked, deceitful above all, and its wickedness is only surpassed by its blindness to that wickedness. And yet, God “loved the world”! Oh glorious thought!
God’s love is not passive, but active, and it overflows into action. He “gave his one and only Son.” Passing on by with “deliberate neglect” (as I heard Alistair Begg once call this technique), not delving into the intertextual or theological niceties of the grammar of this great incarnation claim of the eternal generation of God the Son, we can say that this “only” Son is God eternal, and God much loved. God’s love—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is so bountiful it overflows into a Christmas morning Gift, a Gift beyond parallel (“sans parallel” as the French say) and beyond marvel.
The Gift is not passive, but also its blessings are not automatically received. This Gift requires opening. There is no point looking at the gift beneath the Christmas tree and leaving it unopened, thinking to ourselves what a beautiful gift, how nice and shiny. Sometimes we are tempted to do that with gifts we may receive, knowing by experience that the anticipation is often better than the receiving. And sometimes we have to mouth inglorious platitudes of polite pleasure at the opening of the gift to well-meaning relatives, knowing full well that we would have preferred something slightly different than what actually arrived, even if also we know the point is the giver and the heart behind the gift, not the actual physical item itself. But this Gift is never disappointing. It cannot be. It not only represents the divine heart of the Giver, it is itself the divine Gift. There is no reason to stand back and wait. Go on and open it! “Believe”!
And if we do, then, to use one of John’s favorite words in his writings in the New Testament, “life” is the result. We will not “perish,” meaning the eternal judgment and condemnation of hell, but instead we will have life, the fullness of life, and “life eternal.” This “life” is such that it overwhelmingly continues into a boundless eternity.
With all this on offer on Christmas, then whatever else is true—whatever else has happened, whatever else has been said, whoever else we may miss or wish were here, or whatever regrets we may have—then we have this truth, this “little Bible,” invested in the “little babe,” who tells us, “silently pleading,” of a joy without ending, and a life forever.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.
(“Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts, 1719)
This piece was originally published Christmas Day 2015 as part of an Advent series at God Centered Life.