Every year most of us in America celebrate Christmas. Even the most nominal of church attenders can tell you that the reason we celebrate Christmas is because it is Jesus’ birthday. Christians will argue about whether Jesus was actually born in December (He probably wasn’t) and many atheists, not wanting to acknowledge that fact that Jesus was born at all, want the holiday to be renamed something more innocuous like Winter Holiday, or Festive Season, but the fact remains nearly the whole country celebrates Christmas.
It’s interesting to me that the Bible doesn’t include any record of the early church celebrating Jesus’ birthday. Which is why we have no real idea of the actual date. Most of the Apostles lived for many years after Jesus’ birth, but none of them record anything about a tradition of celebrating Christmas. Of course these days Christmas has been hijacked and commercialized to the point that the early disciples, and probably Jesus Himself would not recognize the modern celebration of Christmas anyway.
As we are getting ready to celebrate Christmas once again I find myself asking a question that I’m note sure I’ve given much thought to before. Actually not so much a question as a distinction... Does it matter THAT Jesus came, or does it matter WHY he came? You see, most people have no problem recognizing that Christmas is a celebration of the fact THAT Jesus came to earth. Even atheists have a hard time denying the historical evidence that a man named Jesus was born in the Middle East a couple of thousand years ago, and that had a profound impact on the political and spiritual culture of the day. The disagreement comes when you ask the question WHY did Jesus come.
The most familiar passage in the Bible says that God so loved the world THAT He gave His only begotten son... and everyone seems happy to acknowledge THAT Jesus came, but Christmas needs to be about more than the fact THAT He came. We need to let people know WHY He came. Everyone loves the imagery of Christmas - a tiny newborn baby, wrapped in cozy swaddling cloth, quietly sleeping under the warm and gentle glow of a candlelit manger scene, his mother and father looking on adoringly while a star shines brightly overhead in the still evening air. What an idyllic, peaceful, and hope filled image... What’s not to love?
The John 3:16 passage I quoted above is part of a broader dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus which John records for us. The context for John 3:16 is John 3:14 ... "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the son of man be lifted up". Now, that may seem like an obscure statement, but the story is recorded in Leviticus 21. Read it for yourself to get the whole picture, but the gist of it is this. The people had sinned greatly against God by grumbling and complaining against Him. So God sent poisonous vipers into the camp and many people were bitten and died as a consequence. The parallel for us is that we also have sinned against God and the sting of sin (Satan, the serpent) leads to death. See Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23 for the references: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...”, and “the wages of sin is death.”
Moses cried out to God to remove the snakes, but God answered and said “I will not remove the snakes but I will provide a way of salvation so that whoever is bitten doesn’t have to die”. God instructs Moses to construct a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole outside of the camp, and then tells Moses to tell the people “If any of you are bitten you must look upon the bronze serpent on the pole so that you will not die”.
When we read John 3:14, 15, and 16 together we get the whole picture. In the same way that Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness so that whoever looked at it and believed, even though they were condemned to die from the sting of the serpent, they would instead live. In the same way Jesus must be lifted up on the cross so that whoever looks at Him and believes, even though they are condemned to die because of of sin, they would instead live.
For (in the same way) God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
We must never separate the love of God from the cross of Jesus. People love to celebrate THAT Jesus came... but we must never separate that from WHY He came!
John 3:16 doesn’t tell us THAT God loves us, it tells us HOW He loved us, and WHY He had to send Jesus into the world in the first place.
We might never be sure about WHEN Jesus was born, but at least we can be certain about WHY.