Dear radio friends,
Luke 2 is the Bible’s most detailed account of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. It is very familiar to us. It is the chapter that is read perhaps more than any other chapter in the Bible. It illustrates that God’s Word never grows stale. It shows that God’s Word has a depth that cannot be plumbed. It is a straightforward, simple story of what simply cannot be comprehended in the human mind or heart. For it is the message of the wonder of the incarnation. Eternal God, second person of the Trinity, made flesh for us sinners.
Mary and Joseph were brought by the providence of God to the city of Bethlehem, where, in a stable, the eternal Son of God was born in our flesh in order that He might open for us the door of heaven. Really the whole Bible is written to explain what happened as it is recorded in Luke 2. The whole Bible tells us what happened there, why it happened, and the result of it happening. Apart from the explanation of the Bible, you could never understand what happened in the birth of Jesus Christ. You would have to be like those in Luke 2:18 who, when they heard these things, wondered at what was told them by the shepherds and passed on, never understanding in their heart.
The Bible tells us that what happened was the wonder of God’s grace. What better verse of Scripture to tell us what the birth of Jesus Christ really was than John 3:16. That is probably the most familiar verse in the whole Bible. If Luke 2 is the most familiar chapter, John 3:16 is the most familiar verse. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
What I would like to do today is to place John 3:16 over the top of Luke 2 and hear God’s explanation for the birth of our Lord — hear the only explanation for Christmas.
I know that much controversy has swirled around John 3:16. This verse is one that has been terribly distorted in the false assumption that the word “world” means “all men head for head,” and it is used to teach that there is a universal love of God for all men. But that is not the Bible. Nor is it the verse itself. For the world that is referred to in John 3:16 is the world that believeth in Him. And the Bible tells us that those who believe in Him do so because God has elected them and given them that faith.
But my purpose is not only to tell you what John 3:16 does not mean, and to defend it over against those who would distort it. My purpose is to demonstrate that John 3:16 shows God’s great love for the world; for the church of all ages; for His church out of every race, nation, and time; for you and for me and for every one who by His grace is come to believe in Jesus Christ. Never did the love of God shine so brightly as when the baby Jesus lay in the manger.
Let us listen to the only explanation for Christmas.
A good explanation always answers three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? And what does it mean for us now that it has happened?
What happened? God gave His only begotten Son. That is what happened in the birth of Jesus Christ.
The virgin Mary had been told about this when the angel Gabriel appeared to her as she was in the city of Nazareth. After being told that she would have the great Son Jesus, who would sit upon David’s throne, she asked the question: “How can that be, for I know not a man?” She was not married. She was a virgin. The angel Gabriel answered her in Luke 1:35: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow (or envelop) thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
What happened? God conceived human life in Mary’s womb. He overshadowed her. He enveloped her by His hand, and by the power of His will He impregnated her so that the child, the embryo, within her womb was sinless. It was real human flesh. It was flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. But He was sinless. In the words of II Corinthians 5:21, “He knew no sin.” He was completely, really, truly, fully human, bearing the traits and the heredity of His mother. Yet, in the words of Hebrews 7:26, He was holy and undefiled.
But there was more. He was not only a real human being. He was the eternal and natural Son of God. He was the only begotten of the Father. He was the second person of the eternal Trinity, God the Son, who had now united Himself to the human nature. We think hard. We ponder. A mystery, a great mystery. Not a myth! But something real, something true.
In the virgin Mary, in her womb as she is now with child, is the child called “Immanuel—God with us.” Truly a babe, sinless, and truly God of God. Nine months had quickly sped by. Now Mary and Joseph, Mary being great with child, are brought down to Bethlehem, for God has said that “out of Bethlehem shall he come forth unto me who is to be ruler in Israel.” He said that in Micah 5:2. Bethlehem was the city of David, which is the house of bread. Out of the city called the house of bread was to come the Bread of Life.
So, Caesar Augustus, we read in Luke 2, that great Roman leader, that originator of Pax Romana, that great leader of men, is used as a pawn in God’s hand. He decrees a taxing that is the occasion for Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth and to come to their hometown in Bethlehem. And since there was no room for them within the inn, they must lodge in a stable, a grotto, a cave, a smelly place with manure and spiders — a terrible place. In the darkness of the night, in that place where cows and camels bedded down, Mary went into labor. Did the birth pangs begin earlier that day as they approached Bethlehem? Probably. She was great with child we are told. Was hers a quick delivery? Probably. It might have happened so quickly that Joseph was not there, for we read in Luke 2:7, “She brought forth her firstborn son and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” No mention is made of Joseph. Perhaps he was not there at that moment. Perhaps the birth came very suddenly indeed.
But this we know. The days were accomplished that she should be delivered — the days that God had determined, the moment that He had determined for this miracle, for this wonder. Each day, each hour, each minute had counted down when this wonder of wonders was to be performed. God’s only begotten Son, God of God, second person, the One before whom angels tremble with joy — He now is clothed in human flesh. And He is held in the arms of a virgin.
Stop and think. Ever since Adam had sided with the devil and corrupted himself, every child born and every child born since the birth of Jesus Christ was born and is born as an enemy of God by nature. But not this child. In a world of men in whom there is absolutely no good thing of themselves, this child is now (Heb. 7:26) holy and undefiled and separate from sinners.
But He is so much more. He is God (Heb. 1), who had created all things and who by His own hand upholds all things. He is Himself, as God, uncreated. He is God everlasting. He God infinite. He is God almighty. Is He cradled in the arms of His mother, Mary? Yes. But at the same time He holds her and all creatures in His hands. John 1: The Word, the eternal Word, who was with God and who was God, is now made flesh. God gave His only begotten Son. That is what happened.
Never was there a giving like this giving. In that word “gave” is poured all the wonders of grace. We should read it this way: “God so loved the world that he gave over his only begotten Son.” He did not loan His Son. He did not dismiss His Son for a little while with no definite purpose. But He gave Him over, He gave Him up. He consigned Him to a specific place. He sent Him for a clearly chosen purpose. He gave Him over for us. He sent Him into our place, to assume the place of judgment for our sins.
Let the Bible tell you. In Isaiah 53 we read, “God laid on him the iniquity of us all; surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” God gave His Son as the substitute for the sins of His people. God gave His Son over to the place that was ours, the place of judgment. Do you see the sentence of God hanging over you? You are a guilty sinner. You deserve eternal execution. God gave His Son over to the place. That is what happened. That night in the stable in Bethlehem God gave His Son over to the place in which we would otherwise stand before His justice, so that now this baby must answer to God for my sins.
You say to me, “Pastor, it’s Christmas! Must we burden this Christmas joy, this story, with the baggage of theology—sin and guilt and punishment and God’s holiness and God’s justice?” I am not burdening the story. I am explaining to you the wonder of it. And if you want to know what happened in Bethlehem, yes, you need to know these things. If you are to truly be a happy person and to know the wonder of grace, you need to know these things personally. It is there. I am not bringing it in. God writes all over the birth of Jesus Christ. He wrote it all over the walls of the stable. He wrote it all over the manger, those wooden slats where hay was placed and licked smooth by camels’ tongues. He wrote it all over. He wrote the gospel of sin (my sin) and grace (His grace).
What was the message that the angels felt a burden to give to the shepherds? It was this: “And this shall be a sign unto you: ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” This shall be a sign — this shall show you that a Savior has been born. It will be a sign that God had given His Son over to be wrapped with all of our sins. Did Mary take the only things that she had—torn strips of cloth—and wrap them snuggly around her new baby to comfort Him and ward off the chill of the night air? Yes, she did. But that was a sign. It was a sign that God, who loved His Son with a perfect love, in a moment in time wrapped around His Son now in the flesh, bundled Him tight with all our sins — every last one. The sins of the world, the cosmos. World is literally cosmos. The unity of the elect of God — all those whom the Father graciously had chosen to give to Jesus Christ out of a fallen humanity, the elect, a vast multitude spanning now some six thousand years. All of their sins and all of the punishment that those sins would deserve were imputed to Him. How can we fathom it? How can we fathom it when we begin to know a little bit about the magnitude of our own sins? Do you see Jesus in the manger by faith? Do you know what happened? The only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, the delight of the Father, was given over to bear our condemnation so that we would not have to bear it. Angels bowed in silent praise.
Why did God do that? “For God so love the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” Christmas day is the celebration of the love of God. Christmas is the great and everlasting celebration of the unconditional love of God. That is what we must make this day. God found it in His heart to love us, to draw us to Himself that we might be with Him. God longed for us with a longing that could not rest until we were brought unto the highest good. God in love sought us and He found us. He found us under dirt and under the manure and under the filth of sin! And He loved us and gave His Son for us.
John 3:16 emphasizes that the love of God is always expressed. God so loved the world. That word “so” does not mean so much, as to the measure or to the depth of God’s love. But it means “like this, in this way.” Just as you children use that word “so” when you are teaching your friend how to ride a bike or a skateboard, you say, “Do it like so.” God showed His love. How? Like so — in this way. God manifested His love in that He gave His only begotten Son. God’s love did not remain a feeling locked away in His heart. It showed itself. We need to remember that. A husband says, “My wife knows I love her. She ought to know I love her.” A father says, “My kids know I love them, they ought to know I love them.” God does not love that way, husband and father. God does not behave that way. In every action He takes, He is earnest to show His love.
And, oh, how He demonstrated His love toward us when He gave His only begotten Son to be born in a stable, to be rejected, to be forsaken. Anyone who knows the agony of loneliness, of going down the dark valley of the shadow of death, when even the closest wife and children must leave you, knows what it is to be forsaken. God loved us this way: He gave His dear Son to be forsaken, to be forsaken of Himself, for us!
Let me put it as simply as I can. God gave His Son to our everlasting hell. Have you sat down and reckoned with the reality of hell? Those sins deserve something, those sins that now are wrapped around God’s Son in the flesh. They are our sins. They deserve something. They deserve in themselves the unchangeable, pure justice of God in the everlasting flames of hell. But God gave His Son because He loved us — that He might bear that punishment away.
This is the way God expressed His love. Why did He have to do this? Why did God’s love act this way? Because only His only begotten Son could bear away our sins. Only God of God can bear the punishment of God against sin. No other creature can do this. He had to love us this way. He had to give His own son. There was no other way. It was the only way. Only God the Son in the flesh can be Savior.
We say, there are lots of ways to show love. FTD says, “Say it with flowers.” Nordstrom will say, “Nothing says it like a diamond.” God says, “There is only one way for Me to show My love. The church, my elect, will perish if I do not give My eternal Son, the only one who can bear away their sins.” This is how God loved us.
Do you bow in wonder today before the love of God? The Christmas spirit, you know, is not the giving of material things. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with gifts. But do not confuse your children. Do not say, “God gave Jesus and we give gifts.” Do not mess them up! Christmas is God gave Himself. Christmas is the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. He gave Him for the world of His good pleasure, for the entire host of His elect. In His love for us, He gave His Son.
Now what does that mean? “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” All who will believe in Him will not perish! Faith — that gift of God whereby we personally are united to Jesus and embrace Him with our hearts. Faith — that wonderful gift of God. It is the way whereby we receive this very gospel that is being expounded to you at this moment, whereby, though we are worthless sinners and have nothing of ourselves, through faith we become rich.
It was expressed so tenderly by Mary. We must never sell the virgin Mary short. We read that Mary kept all these things (all these words, literally) and pondered them in her heart. She had a lot to ponder, but it was the words she thought about. “Unto you is born this day a Savior which is Christ the Lord.” She had heard that. She pondered that in her heart. Shall we?
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Those who do not believe in this Christ-child will perish. To perish is not just to die. All will die, of course. But perish means to fall into everlasting ruin. It means never to die. It means always dying.
But those who believe in Jesus shall never die. They have everlasting life. And that is not simply life going on forever and ever. But it is to know the love of God and to be with God in glory and to enjoy. It is right now. It is today. I will not perish. I have everlasting life through the Christ-child because God so loved me and gave over His Son to my condemnation so that now, believing in Him, I will not perish but have everlasting life.
Do you say that? Is that your confession? Oh, praise God. Then you know what Christmas is all about. You know the only explanation.
Then there is just one thing left for us to do. Bow and worship. Today and every day. Every day over and over again. And live because God has so loved us.
Let us pray.
Father, praise be to Thee for the wonder of Thy love and grace. How good and how glorious Thou art. O Lord, what Thou hast given for us! Thou hast given Him. Now, Lord, may this Word enter into our hearts and may all our joy center in Thee and end in Thee, world without end. Amen.