Christmas is a time filled many wild and wonderful traditions.
For instance, the Japanese celebrate Christmas with their favorite holiday meal—Kentucky Fried Chicken. Since 1974 KFC has been the Japanese’ Christmas meal. If you traveled to the Philippines in this season, you’d come across a festival of giant lanterns, where 11 different village compete to build the largest and most elaborate lantern.
If you go to Europe, you will find the Austrians pair Saint Nicholas with a demonic figure named Krampus. St. Nick rewards the good boys and girls; Krampus punishes the bad ones. And if you go up to Iceland, you will hear of 13 Yule Lads—13 tricksy trolls who break into homes and lick spoons, slam doors, and steal yogurt.
Here in America too, Christmas is filled with tradition. From gifts under the tree to long lines at the mall, from Santa Baby to the Trans-Siberian orchestra, our country celebrates the season with all sorts traditions that make us feel the Christmas spirit.
One Tradition That Stands Above the Rest
But none of these local traditions actually gets to the best part of Christmas, because Christmas is more than a man-made tradition. It is a day that remembers the birth of Christ, the day God became a man and dwelt among us.
In this way, there is a ‘tradition’ stands above all others because it is not reserved for one nation or one culture. Rather, the birth of Christ is for all the world—for all people at all times in all places. And this tradition is passed down in order to communicate God’s love to the world. As John 3:16 puts it: “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.”
John 3:16: A Christmas Verse
Maybe you don’t think of John 3:16 as a Christmas verse, but it is. For God so loved the world, he gave his Son. What is the giving of the Son, but a pregnant reference to the Christ child born to give his life as a ransom for the sins of the world?
This is what Christmas is all about, and it is the tradition that started, sweetens, and sanctifies all others. It is a tradition that tells us love is not a human emotion worked up with gifts and games. Christmas, as a celebration of Christ’s birth, is a tradition that passes down the good news, that God’s love has come down. And in John 3:16, we find three words that help us appreciate what this love is.
‘God’ is a familiar word, but one that needs to be defined. ‘God’ is not a reference to some god of our own making. It is not a generic reference to a divine being that different religions call by different names. No, ‘God’ in John 3:16 is the God of the Bible.
It is a reference to the maker of the universe, the Lord of history, the righteous judge, and the almighty redeemer. Specifically, it is a reference to God the Father who sent his Son into the world. It is not a generic reference to deity; it is a personal word of address to the God who far exceeds anything else in creation.
This is the God of Christmas, and the one who sends his love by sending his Son, which leads to our second word: Love.
In context, John 3:16 says that God loved the world. The world is the object of his love. But does that mean? Who is the world?
The reference to the world certainly means that God’s love is as wide as creation itself. is love extends to all mankind and he gladly welcomes any repentant sinner into his royal family (see John 1:12–13; 6:37) Still, there’s more going on in John 3:16 than a generic reference to God’s infinite love. In John’s Gospel, the world is a place of darkness, sin, greed, pride, and idolatry. John 1:9–10 says,
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.
Like a child ogling his gifts, while refusing to honor their giver, so the world has rejected its Creator. We have all rebelled against our good God. And worse, the one nation that should have known better—Israel—rejected God’s Messiah too. Verse 11 continues, “We came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
To be sure, this verse does not single out ancient Israel for special judgment. Not at all. It reflects on all of us. If the one nation that God chose for his own purposes has refused to acknowledge God, what chance do any of us have? In this regard then, the cosmos is a reference to the world’s badness, not its bigness.
In our sin, we have traded our Creator for creations of our imagination. And thus God has every right to condemn us, destroy us, and discard us. But he doesn’t—not without offering redemption. This is how God loved the world.
In our rebellion, he loved us. In our sin, he loved us. While we were yet sinners, he loved us (Romans 5:8); even as enemies, he loved us and made a way to save us from our sin. Which brings us to the third word: gave.
God so love the world he gave.
Too often we make this verse a sentimental greeting card. The teddy bear on the front of the greeting card says, “How much do I love you?” The inside of the card, gives the answer: “THIS MUCH” with bears arms open wide. We apply this greeting card reading to John 3:16 and we get: How much does God love the world? So, SO, SOOOO Much!
And yes, God’s love is infinite, but that’s not how we should read John 3:16. The “so” (οὕτως) is a word that relates to how God loves us, not how much he loves us. This is the message, “God loved the sinful world in this way: He gave his Son.”
How does a sinful world stand in the presence of a holy God? It doesn’t! Not without some means of propitiation. And this is what ‘gave’ means. God gave his Son to pay the penalty for our sin and to remove all obstacles to God’s love.
As Scripture teaches, God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). His wrath burns like the husband who just learned his wife’s infidelity. How can that holy, righteous God share his love with a sinful, idol-worshiping world? Here’s the answer: God gave his Son. The Son who is God became a man to pay man’s debt. In love, the Father sent his Son and the Son willingly obeyed his Father, and became the gift God gave to save the world.
Centuries ago, a man by the name of Anselm asked the question: Why did God become man? His answer included two truths that led to one conclusion.
(1) Only a man can pay the debt humanity owed to God.
(2) But only God had the resources to pay the debt.
Therefore, God had to become a man.
Wonderfully, this is what he did. God gave his own Son into the hands of wicked men, so that by Jesus’ death, God’s wrath could be satisfied by his own loving gift. The Son of God took the place of the world, so that the world could be saved from eternal death.
The True Meaning of Christmas
This is what John 3:16 teaches about Christmas. And that all who believe in the Son may find life and love in him. And that’s why we celebrate Christ’s birth. It is not merely another tradition of the world. It is the good news that God’s love has come into the world, making a way for sinners who repent and believe to have life in gift of his Son.
So today, enjoy the traditions passed down by your family, but do not trust them to satisfy your heart with love. Only God’s love in the gift of his Son can do that. And thankfully, that is good news for everyone.