These days it’s easy to lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas, for the things we see and hear so often are not what it’s really about. It’s about the birth of a very special child; the Christ child. But his birth alone is not what made Him special, it’s what He did with His life and death that makes Him our savior and Lord.
Before I begin to explain this let me say that if you are a non-Christian and you’ve ever felt put down or condemned by Christians; this was not the message of Christ, and it certainly is not the message of Christmas. It was the message of the messenger, not the One who sent him. That will not be the message here.
The core truth of all Christianity is eloquently expressed by the apostle John in what is probably the most well-known bible verse: John 3:16 & 17:
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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
But to get the full meaning out of John 3-16, or any bible verse for that matter, we need to take into account a couple of things: one is that these words were written long ago by a man who lived in a civilization that was vastly different from the world we live in here, today. Second is that these words were written in a different language than what we are reading; therefore words sometimes have a different meaning, or more meaning than we might realize with a casual reading. To really understand the meaning of the Bible, we sometimes have to dig a little deeper and look at the meanings of the words when they were written, and why they were written. So let’s take a closer look at John 3:16 and dig into the deeper meaning of a few key words.
Let’s start by kernalizing the statement. Andy Stanley did a wonderful job of this by stating it as:
In Greek, the language much of the New Testament was written in, words often had many layers of meaning. And in many cases there were several words used by the Greeks to express different levels of meaning and all of them are translated into English as one single word.
Even in English the word ‘love’ has multiple meanings; “I love chocolate” carries a much different meaning than, “I love my wife” – or at least it had better! The Greek language has four words that are translated as love (actually I’ll be using the Latin transliterations of the Greek words, which would be unintelligible to most of us because the Greek alphabet is so very different from ours):
Storge – which describes a natural affection, often within a family setting.
Philia – which describes a dispassionate friendship and is the root for our word philanthropist.
Eros – you may recognize as the root for erotic and describes a passionate, sensual love.
And agape – which indicates a deep, unconditional, sacrificial form of love.
It is the word agape that is used in John 3:16, God so unconditionally, sacrificially loved the world…
Jesus is a very special person. Born of a woman, he was born fully human. He had no superpowers – except that as he lived his life he was able to avoid sin. It is sin in our lives that blocks our communion with God. Jesus kept that channel open so God was able to communicate freely with Him and channel His power through Jesus. The spiritual aspect of Jesus – His soul – is divine. That portion of him had been with God – indeed part of God – since before time began. That part left Heaven to become Jesus. You could say that the one aspect of the immortal, triune God was implanted into Mary’s womb, was born a human child, lived and grew among humans, and yet remained untainted by sin so that this extraordinary young man could teach the people around him about God’s love.
Imagine yourself a parent. The parent of a single child; a child that is very talented, and obedient and of whom you are very proud. What would it take for you to willingly hand your only child, over to a gang of ruffians to be tortured and killed?
God gave his only son, a uniquely talented and righteous man and a source of great pride for God… to serve as the unblemished lamb required as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind.
The words that translate here as believe were actually a unique construct of Greek words and this was the first time this construct appeared in the Bible (or most anywhere). The root word here is the Greek word pistis, which indicates “faith”. By attaching any of several prefixes the word can mean having faith or showing faith, or exercising belief in. But by attaching a suffix and forming the word pisteuo, John created a term that indicates a movement or transition through faith.
The word, “believe” in this passage states that we move or transition from one state of being into another. This is a much deeper form of “believe” than saying, “I believe that Alexander the Great conquered the world.”, or “I believe you are telling the truth”. These are acceptance belief, but the belief of John 3:16 is a transformational belief, we believe into Jesus, not just believe in Jesus.
Also note that the word “whosoever” means, quite literally, everyone: rich or poor, good or bad, young or old, you, me, our friends, our enemies, everyone. No one is excluded from God’s offer.
When we are willing to believe into Jesus, God grants us the gift He holds out to all mankind. Again, words like “salvation”, “redemption” and “forgiveness” don’t carry the depth of meaning conveyed here. There are two phrases we need to study. The word translated into English as “perish” is important.
The word “perish” in John 3:16 translates the Greek word apollumi which is a combination of the Greek preposition apo, and the Greek verb ollumi, that means “to destroy.” The preposition intensifies the verb action, therefore together they convey the idea of utter destruction.
The flip side is the promise of eternal life. Most assuredly it is not mere eternal existence, for the Bible clearly states that all souls will exist eternally, but eternal life is the exact opposite of everlasting destruction. The final abode of those who refuse God’s offer is called “the second death” (Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14). Since “death” always connotes the idea of separation, in some form or another, the final death is obviously eternal separation from God, not an end to existence.
Conversely, eternal life is everlasting communion with God, along with all the wonders that involves. It is a state of glory, rest, and happiness in God’s presence.
It Began With a Birth
The conception and birth of Jesus, the Christ child, began a process that fulfilled over three hundred prophesies from the Old Testament; a process that culminated in Jesus’s defeating death and ascending back into Heaven. The successful completion of that process gave us the means to claim eternal communion with God as well – if we choose to believe into Jesus. This is what we celebrate at Christmas: the birth of our savior, the beginning of that process, the result we may now claim, if we choose to.
Christmas is not about condemnation; it is about hope. Christmas is not about shopping; it is about love. The activities and icons of Christmas are meant to remind us that Christmas is about Jesus.
With this in mind, I wish you a very Merry Christmas!
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