Often, three questions come to mind when we open a present: Who is it from? What does it do? And finally (perhaps a little guiltily!), how much did it cost?
The Lord Jesus Christ is the greatest gift that was ever given, and I want to use those three questions and a verse of the Bible, to show you why.
The Bible verse is from the New Testament book of Romans (6:23), where the apostle Paul writes: ‘The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’.
Who is it from?
We probably expect gifts from our own family, but would be astonished to get one from the Queen. Why would she even notice us? The ‘gap’ between us and God though is much greater, and his gift is astonishing.
God, the almighty maker of heaven and earth; who knows all that there is to know about us (the bad as well as the not-so-bad); whose holiness is so bright that even the angels cover their faces rather than look at him — the one true and living God, awesome in power and majestic in glory, has given us this awesome Christmas gift!
What does it do?
The second question is, ‘What does it do?’ When I was about ten years old, I woke on Christmas morning to see what looked like a giant plastic metronome, by the side of a realistic-looking rifle.
What was this for? It turned out to be a clever target game, where flashes of light ‘fired’ from the rifle’s barrel and a light-sensitive device made a bell on the metronome ring. I can still feel that joy that this single present brought — once I understood what it was for!
Come to the stable where Jesus was born and gaze for a moment on God’s great gift. What is he for, this brand new baby?
When the angel commanded Joseph to take Mary to be his wife, he was told that the child she was carrying was God’s own Son. The angel added: ‘And you must call him Jesus [which means “God saves”], because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21).
Jesus is a great religious teacher and a great example of how to live. But those are not what the Bible focuses on. The big truth about Jesus is what the angel said to Joseph, ‘He will save his people from their sins’.
The New Testament refers to him often as ‘our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’, but never as ‘our Lord and example’ or ‘our Lord and teacher’. Instead, God’s own explanation is the one we must take seriously: he came to save us from our sins.
Sin is an unpopular word and many people only have vague notions about what it means. ‘Sin’ does not just mean ‘the wrong things we do’. The main point of the word is that the wrong things we do are wrong against God, who made us and who sets the rules.
One story in the Old Testament makes this point very well. After King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, he arranged the death of her husband Uriah to cover up his wrongdoing.
But David was eventually brought to see the enormity of what he had done. He cried out to God for forgiveness. His prayer is recorded in Psalm 51. Incredibly, looking back on his wrongdoing, David says to God, ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned’ — not Bathsheba; not even Uriah. Sin is, first of all, against God.
Imagine that you have a hospital appointment, where the doctor describes a difficult operation he needs to do on you. Before you say ‘yes’, you need to understand what is wrong, and what will happen if you do not have the operation.
Similarly, we need to take a little time and space here to think about what is wrong with each of us spiritually. What is sin?
Sin is taking a gift God has given and perverting it, like the leader who uses the gift of leadership to become a bully. The twisting of a good gift is sin.
When we cross a boundary that God has set, that too is sin. Just as bright yellow lines are often painted close to the edge of a railway platform to stop us going too close, so God has set limits to our behaviour for our own safety.
Yellow lines on a railway platform are not there to limit our freedom; and God’s boundaries — that is, his commandments — are not there to spoil our enjoyment of life, but to enable us to live life to the full as he intended.
Then, when we fall short of the standards God has set, that is sin. Yet ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). God is glorious, and if our lives were lived as they should be, they would reflect his glory perfectly. But we fall short of God’s glory; we sin.
Does any of this matter? Who cares? The answer is, God cares. Every sin is a rebellion against his authority. It is this rebellion that has brought the world to the ugly and unhappy state that it is in. It is the cause of all the suffering in God’s universe, and makes us guilty before God. We break his laws, and we deserve his penalty.
So sin destroys those who sin — for ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23), eternal death. And it is to deal with that rebellion and guilt that God gave his Son.
God gave his Son at Christmas, so that he could die at Easter; ‘God saves’. God sent his Son to save us from our sins. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for sinners, with their sins charged to his account. He paid the price, ‘every last penny’, until at last he cried out, ‘It is finished!’ (John 19:30).
That phrase from John’s Gospel is just one word in Greek, one precious word that could be stamped across a bill to show that no more was owed.
What did it cost?
How costly is the gift? When we come to God’s great gift, that is a vital question.
The Bible answers in these words: ‘This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and gave his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).
The Bible’s teaching about Jesus is overwhelming. Jesus is God, it says, and yet he became a servant and humbled himself to death, ‘even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8). Crucifixion was one of the most barbaric forms of execution ever devised. We cannot overestimate the cost of this great gift, as Jesus bore our sins in his own body on the tree.
Even worse than the physical pain of crucifixion was the spiritual pain that Jesus bore on the cross. As Jesus died, the Father first laid our sin on him and then poured out his own anger against sin on him. No wonder Jesus cried out in agony: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46).
No gift in the universe has ever been as costly as this. No gift could ever equal it. And yet this is a true indication of how much God loves us. To think about it is breathtaking.
Some years ago now, I was bought my first SatNav. It has been an enormous help. ‘Oh,’ I say, ‘I just could not manage without it!’
But I had managed without it for years, and could do so again. I appreciate and value it, but it is not absolutely essential. Is it like that with God’s great gift? Can we manage without it?
No, we cannot! One day we all have to stand before God. Can we manage there without God’s great gift?
Although God is kinder and more loving than we could ever imagine, he is also holy. His holiness demands that sin should be punished. ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23), yet his love cries out for mercy to us. That is God’s big ‘problem’, and the Lord Jesus Christ is the answer!
By bearing our punishment, dying for sinners, the holiness of God is satisfied, and his love is set free to be merciful to us.
What do we have to do to earn this mercy? Nothing. Like all gifts, the price has been paid by the one who gives it. But we have to accept it, and the Bible calls that acceptance ‘believing’, or ‘trusting’.
‘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).
Gary Benfold has pastored Moordown Baptist Church, Bournemouth, since 1997. He and Elaine have two grown-up children, who are both active in the church, and three granddaughters.