The Love Of God Is Shown Through Christmas

John 3:16-21 “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. 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 deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”


Every year at Advent we’re faced with the question of whether to continue on in whatever book of the Bible I’m preaching through or do something more Advent-specific. Over the years, for various reasons, we’ve done both. This year we decided to stick with John. Providentially, we’ve come to John 3:16, one of the most Christmasy passages in the entire Bible. Likewise, verses 17-21 aren’t unChristmassy either.

Over the next three weeks, then, we’re going to work our way through this passage in John’s Gospel at a slower pace than we’ve been going.

This week is John 3:16, The Love of God Is Shown through Christmas

Next week is 3:17-18, There Is No Condemnation through Christmas

And then on the 18th, we’ll work through 3:19-21, The Light of the World Has Come through Christmas

Because this week’s text is perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible, and because it is pretty dense, and because it gets us straight to the heart of Christmas, and because I hope this will provide a model for you of how to read Scripture slowly and carefully, we’re going to look at it clause by clause by clause—eleven in all. My main aim is to help you better understand and be drawn into God’s love in Jesus Christ. That is, I want to help all of us experience the genuine love of God in greater ways this Advent season as a result of the awesome truths and promises revealed in this single verse. Let’s pray that by God’s grace, it might be so.


If you were to walk around your neighborhood and ask everyone you meet, “What does Christmas mean to you?,” what kinds of answers do you think you’d get? If you were being totally honest, what is your answer—what is the main thing you think of when you consider Christmas? When it comes to family and friends, traditions and food, presents and music, there’s a lot to like, isn’t there? Even theologically, Christmas points to a lot of awesome things.

Above all, all that God does is for His glory. The means by which He has chosen to be glorified varies, but the ultimate goal of His glory doesn’t. In that sense, Christmas is mainly about God putting His glory on display for the world to see, honor, and delight in.

But God’s glory is not some mystical, subjective thing. It is the unlimited greatness of His unchanging being on display. It is the specific expression of specific attributes. One of the primary attributes of God on display in Christmas, once again, is His love. There are others as well—His grace, mercy, justice, patience, etc.—but central to Christmas is the love of God.

As a non-Christian kid, Christmas was definitely mainly about presents and parties. As a new Christian, I still liked the presents but the gospel certainly moved to the top of my list. To be honest, though, I don’t think it was until relatively recently that I really began to consider how central the love of God is to the meaning of Christmas.

That’s the heart of John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

This passage gets tossed around enough—even at sporting events, although I can’t remember the last time I saw a sign—that it’s easy to gloss over. It’s easy to miss the dense glory it describes. Again, for that reason, we’re going to work carefully through the main claims it makes as a means of more fully celebrating Christmas.


The first term to consider is the first term in the verse, “for”. In this case it introduces something important—namely, that what follows is a bit of commentary from John. (It’s an explanatory conjunction.) It is meant to signal to us the fact that in 3:16-21, John was explaining more about what Jesus taught in 3:13-15 (in particular). In other words, 3:16-21 is a further unpacking of Jesus’ teachings that He has come from God, that He will be lifted up to rescue mankind, and that whoever believes in Him will have everlasting life.


The second term is the second term, “God”. If you’ve been around Grace Church for a while, you’ve certainly heard us talk about the importance of letting God define God. Have you ever read Isaiah 44:13-17?

The carpenter … 14 cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

We read things like that and rightly scoff. It’s obviously foolish to grow a tree to use half for firewood and the other half to make a god out of. What kind of God shares an essential nature with cooking fuel and is created by the one who worships him? Who would be so foolish as to trust in a god carved by your own hands? The problem is that this is exactly what most people do. They aren’t as obvious as the carpenter in Isaiah 44, but they are no less foolish.

It’s always important to be clear on who God actually is, but it’s especially important around Christmas time when we focus so much on Him. Way too many people have created a god in their own image to believe in or reject; to celebrate or dismiss. In fact, we all do this to some degree. We all come to our understanding of God by taking some of this and some of that. For the rest of our time on earth, Christians are continually, prayerfully asking God to transform our minds through His Spirit and Word to know Him more; to know Him rightly.

Grace, God’s Word is where God has primarily and definitively revealed His true nature to us. Celebrating Christmas in the highest means being in the Word throughout Advent.

So Loved the World

We’ll pick up the pace a bit here in the third clause by considering four words, “so loved the world”. For God so loved the world! We’ll see shortly that God’s love took a particular form—sending Jesus (Christmas) to bring eternal life to all who would believe in Him—but for now, I invite you to simply marvel at the news that there is a manner in which God loved the world. It’s remarkable in large measure because of the nature of love and the nature of the world.

The nature of love. Just like the nature of God has been hijacked, so too has the nature of love by all sorts of people with all sorts of intentions. It’s interesting to see it hijacked on both ends too. Some redefine it to (in their minds) show the goodness of God. I have in mind those who speak of God’s love such that He is not angry with sin, but is glad for everyone who would come to Him on their own terms. In that sense, love is something like affirming people no matter what. And others redefine it to argue for God’s non-existence. There’s no way, they boldly assert, that a loving God would allow for the kinds of evil and suffering that exists in the world today. In that sense, love is something like the commitment to hold back the most extreme forms of evil and suffering from the most innocent among us.

But just like we are not free to redefine God, we are not free to redefine the love of God. He is not whatever we might make Him out to be and neither is His love. In simple and common terms, the love of God (as it is use in this passage) is the affectionate pursuit of that which is best for the world. It does not mean that He’s happy about everything the people of the world do (in fact, the love of God here is an expression of the exact opposite). And it does not mean that He will end all suffering (many reject His love). But it does mean that the rest of the verse describes God’s delight to bring to mankind what mankind needs most.

The nature of the world. That God has that kind of love for the world might sound normal and natural. In some ways it is. But before we can ever appreciate any of it, we must truly grasp what this means. It means that God loves the for the fallen, broken, treasonous people of the world. As the particular expression of the love of God mentioned in this passage makes clear, the love of God is not directed at the lovely in the world, but at the sinful rebel; at those who have willingly chosen to reject God and make Him their enemy. This is the only passage in the NT that explicitly describes God’s love for the world in this way. It is an awesome reality.

Again, then, to celebrate Christmas well means understanding who God is, what love is, and that both are right at the heart of what makes Christmas worth celebrating above almost everything else.


For the fourth clause we need to back up a bit (I suppose that means we only covered three words in the previous section). We need to briefly consider the meaning of “so” (“for God so loved the world…”). For many years I misunderstood what John was actually saying. I took it to be a reference to the quantity of God’s love for the world; as in, “God loved the word so much that He…”. But it’s not a description of the amount of love God had for the world, but the form. A clearer translation would be something like, “God loved the world in such a way that…” or “In this way God loved the world…”.

God-honoring Christmas celebrations and Christmas celebrations that have the most oomph behind them are rooted in the knowledge that God’s love is at the center and that it takes a particular form. We are not to celebrate generically or according to mere tradition or nostalgia. We celebrate the actual content of the love of God. What is that you ask?

He Gave

The fifth clause, “that He gave,” begins to explain the form God’s love took. He loved the world in such a way as to give it something (His only Son). The main point that I want you see in this clause is the intentionality and purposefulness it describes. God gave His Son.

Jesus was not taken from heaven. He was given by God.

Jesus did not escape from heaven. He was given by God.

Jesus did not end up on earth by accident. He was given by God.

Jesus was given as a baby, conceived by the Sprit and born of a virgin.

And Jesus was given to be an example, suffer, die, and rise again.

The term “He gave” seems way too simple to contain all of that. We’ll miss it—as we’ve all done so many times—if we don’t slow down enough to meditate on it. Christmas is good news of great joy and worth celebrating in the highest because it is a celebration of the intentional love of God in the giving of that which is best for us.

His Only Son

What, then, did God’s love drive Him to intentionally give? What is best for us? As I already said, the sixth clause in this passage tells us that, it drove Him to give His only Son. That’s quite a statement. Grace Church, I love you all in such a way that I got you all a $25 Chipotle gift card. That’d be pretty sweet. Grace, I love you all in such a way that I got you all a week in Key West, FL. That’d be something almost incomprehensible. Grace, I love you all in such a ways that I’m giving you my children. That’s kind of strange, of course, but also 1,000x more than Key West since they are the most important thing I have on earth besides my wife. I’d gladly give you all of my money and possessions before I’d give them. God gave His one and only Son. Christmas finds a great deal of its meaning and celebration fuel, right there.

Who, then, is the only Son of God, given in love by God, whom we celebrate at Christmas? His name is Jesus. And so far in John’s Gospel we’ve seen that He is the eternal Word of God (1:1-2), the One through whom all things were made (1:3), the unquenchable light and everlasting life of the world (1:4), the One of whom prophets foretold (1:6-8), the One who makes sinners children of God (1:12), the One who became flesh and lived among us(1:14), the one who is filled with the glory, grace, and truth of the Father (1:14), the One who makes the Father known (1:18), the Lamb of God (1:29), the One who takes away the sins of the world (1:29), the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (1:33), the Teacher (1:38), the Christ :1:42), the One who sees all things (1:48), the King of Israel (1:49), the miracle-worker (2:7-8), the temple-cleanser (2:15-17), the One who knows the hearts of man (2:24-25), and the One who will die for the sins of the world (3:14). And as if that were not enough, as we work through John’s Gospel we’ll see even more descriptions of the only Son, given by God.

Grace, truly celebrating Christmas is a celebration filled with a knowledge of and love for the Son of God. We simply cannot honor God in our Christmas celebrations if they are not directly attached to joy in the real attributes of Jesus. Advent exists for the very purpose of focusing our minds in exactly these types of things so that Christmas can be the celebration of them. Christmas is the good news that Jesus, God’s Son has come to dwell among us because of the love of God for us.

His Only

The seventh clause, concerns the words, “His only” [Son]. What does that mean? I thought we were sons and daughters of God. Isn’t that what John himself taught in 1 John 3:1, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”?

In what sense is Jesus the only Son of God? As the Chalcedon and Nicene Creeds state so well…

[The] Son, our Lord Jesus Christ… complete in Godhead … truly God … of one substance [homoousios] with the Father … begotten of the Father before the ages…Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us… (cited in Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church [London: Oxford Univ., 1967],51-52)

I believe in … one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

The primary thrust in the expression “only” Son of God is in the facts that Jesus alone is the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Word, the only begotten of God. Christmas is not about celebrating just any man, but the everlasting, perfect, God-man. The more we can come to know the true nature of Jesus, the more full and joyful our Christmas celebrations will be. Nostalgia, decorations, cute kids, presents, events, and all the rest combined and multiplied by 1,000,000 are no substitute for a genuine, Holy Spirit-given understanding of the glory of the only Son of God.

That Whoever Believes in Him

We all know that the whole world does not experience the love of God in Christmas. We are right to ask, therefore, how this works. How does God’s love for the world relate to what we actually experience? Is it that He loves everyone, but only a few receive it or something else?

John plainly answers these questions for us. The eighth clause to consider is that the love of God for the world was expressed in the giving of His Son and it is able to be received by whoever believes in Him. Grace, the good news of Christmas is that every single person, no matter your age, ethnic group, sex, language, education level, popularity, income, appearance, health, past sins, religious background, or anything else, can know the true love of God right now.

This is good news indeed. Tell your friends, your neighbors, and your family. The love of God is ready to flow freely and wonderfully to whoever will believe in Him. Christmas is great news because it is for all who will receive it.

Believes in Him

Ninth, however, as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, the love of God is for all who will truly believe in Him. There are many forms of unbelief and, perhaps, even more forms of unbelieving belief. Those will not do. They are not what John is talking about. Unbelief and unbelieving belief alike will not allow us to experience God’s love. By “believes in Him,” John means genuine belief, in the gospel, flowing from the Spirit’s work. It is the kind of belief that results from having apprehended the holiness of God, our own sinfulness, the wages of our sin, and the sufficient grace of Jesus. It is the kind of belief that increasingly trusts in the promises and delights in the commands of God. It is believing belief.

Christmas is for believing believers. In fact, our growing joy in celebrating the coming of the Son of God is one mark that our belief is genuine.

Should Never Perish

The tenth clause helps us to see that there are even more ways the love of God is expressed to everyone who believes; that is, Christmas is about even greater news still. God’s love for the world is such that on account of it Jesus was given for those who believe in Him, and in such a way that we will never die. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish…”.

I should explain that just a bit. This is not a promise that we will never die physically; most likely all of us will. It is a promise that true believers will never die spiritually. As we saw last week, because we are all born alive physically but dead spiritually, if we are to believe in God, we need to be reborn (or spiritually born). Once we are spiritually born, then, even if we die physically (before Jesus returns), we can never die spiritually. Physical death is merely the doorway for our spirit/soul to live with God in heaven. If we are made spiritually alive, we can never spiritually perish.

What’s more, the spiritual perishing that will never happen for all who believe in God, because of God’s love in Jesus, is hell. This is no small promise. The ultimate blessing, which we’ll see in a moment, is eternal life. But that news is doubly good because we get it (eternal life) instead of spiritual death. It is the matchless love of God that keeps us from the everlasting destruction we deserve.

Let me ask you one simple question before we get to the last point…what have you ever seen that can compare to these things? What can the world possibly offer that comes within a thousand miles of the truths contained in this single verse? What is more worth celebrating at Christmas time than these things?!

But Have Eternal Life

The eleventh and final clause is sort of the other side of the coin from the last point. Not only does the love of God in Jesus Christ make those who believe unable to die spiritually, but it also leads to everlasting life as well. Christmas is ultimately about God lovingly sending the means by which we can be reconciled to Him and restored to the kind of fellowship with Him we were made for. At Christmas, Jesus came to dwell among us so that we could dwell with God forever. Awesome!


When Christmas is rightly understood as the love of God, manifest in the person of Jesus, and for the eternal life of all who believe, then it is truly worth celebrating. Grace, I hope you’re seeing how different (and better!) a John 3:16 informed Christmas is than what much of the world knows; tragically, even than what much of those in the Church know. Each of the eleven points are what we ought to be focusing on. These truths are what make good Christmas decorations and tree ornaments. These are the truths that are worth singing about. It is when these truths take proper root in our minds and hearts that most of what makes up most of Christmas for us makes sense and honors God—all the food, parties, gifts, decorations, etc. Tragically, those things have outright replaced the truths of John 3:16 for many, and at least partially for all of us. And yet it is the truths of John 3:16 that makes those things make sense. May God help us to see these things in order that we may truly celebrate them in Jesus!