Parents have been using the lines from this song ever since to help make their children behave. “You better be good. You better go to bed. You don’t want to be on Santa’s “naughty list. You won’t get any presents…” So, every American child born since 1934 has been taught about this so-called “Naughty or Nice List.”
And that might sound innocent enough until we realize that many of those same children have grown up to believe that God is keeping such a list, and that the way to please God and receive the gift of eternal life in heaven, is to be good enough to be on His “Nice List” and work hard to stay off of His “Naughty List.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus told a Pharisee named Nicodemus that the only way to receive God’s greatest gift of salvation is through believing in His Son. We can receive God’s greatest gift.
Below is an automated transcript of this messageall right. Good morning, church. Wow, it’s a great season; don’t you love the Christmas season? I was hearing some other people talking about this. When you have a really late Thanksgiving, it just seems like Christmas comes on you so quickly, doesn’t it? But, I love this season, and we’re happy to be with you here on this Sunday morning.
Last week we began this series called “The Christmas Lists;” last week we talked about the wish list. I warned you last week that listening to that sermon might ruin the Nativity scene that you have on your mantel. Last week, do you remember what we learned from Matthew, chapter two? Jesus was already a child living in the house whenever the wise men came to see Him. We learned that we need to get the wise men and the shepherds in different parts of the house when we are building our Nativity scene in order to get the story right.
Today, we’re going to be talking about a different sermon that might just ruin your Santa Christmas tradition. Before you cover your kid’s ears, we’re really not going to be talking about the white bearded guy with a belly that’s like a bowlful of jelly. We are not so much talking about that guy as we’re actually talking about the naughty or nice list. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today; the naughty or nice list.
This idea of such a list was first introduced to American children when the song, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” was written and performed on the Eddie Cantor radio show in November of 1934. It’s music and lyrics were written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, and it became an instant hit, with orders of over 500,000 copies of sheet music and 30,000 records sold within 24 hours of it airing on the New York station. It’s been recorded by over 200 artists; people like Bing Crosb, The Andrews Sisters, The Jackson 5, Mariah Carey, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Chris Isaak, The Temptations and even Michael Bublé has recorded this song, “Santa Claus is coming to town.” You know the lyrics, right? This is where the whole idea of this naughty or nice list comes from. “You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice… Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping. (Which is weird, by the way.) He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good… You better watch out… You better not pout…you guys know it. It was written in 1934; it wasn’t written 2000 years ago. It’s only been around since 1934. Parents have used this song to try to make their children behave ever since. We’ll grab anything we can we say to our kids, “you better be good, you better go to bed, you don’t want Santa to show up if you’re awake, he will not leave you any presents…” These are things we say to our children. No wonder we’ve messed up a whole generation or two, right?
So every American child born since 1934 has been struck with fear by this idea that there’s a list being kept up in the North Pole called the naughty or nice list. If I were to ask this question of you, how you would answer? The majority of Americans, if you ask this question. And you said if you were to die today and you stood before a Holy God and he asked you this question, Why should I let you into my heaven? What would you say? And do you know what most people will say? The majority of Americans ? You know what they’ll say? They’ll say, I tried to be good. I’m a good person. They’re hoping that God’s keeping a naughty or nice list, and they’re hoping that they are on the nice list. You see, this whole idea has gotten more serious now, hasn’t it, because people are under the illusion that it’s about trying to be good, that Christianity is about pleasing God and is about trying to be good enough.
The Bible actually says we are all stuck on the naughty list. All of us, every single one of us, none of us are righteous. None of us are good, the Bible says, for everyone has sinned. We all fall short of God’s glorious standard.
This is great news, Gary. Thanks for sharing this on this Christmas season. We’re all on the naughty list. Well, I’m not finished. I’m just getting started, because the truth is, the only way to answer the question that God asks, “Why should I let you into My heaven?” is to say, “I have believed in His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the greatest gift ever given.”
That’s why we’re gonna be in John, chapter three today. We will be looking at John 3:16 – 21. We will see here that Jesus was talking to a man named Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, and strict in his religion. The Pharisees believed in being good enough for God. And He told Nicodemus that God so loved him and so loved everyone that he had sent his only son to die in their place and so that they might believe by faith. That’s what we’re talking about today.
We’re going to be talking about three spiritual truths we can believe in order to receive this greatest gift of all, which is Jesus. Let’s look at the text. This is a very familiar text; we’ll read these verses and hopefully the Lord, prayerfully the Lord, will speak to all of us today at Christmas time. John 3:16-21 (ESV) 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. 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 works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” This is God’s word.
We’re looking for three truths that we can believe in order to receive God’s greatest gift. Here’s the first:
(1) Recognize God’s love.
Do you see it in verse 16? Do you see it in that verse? “For God so loved, He so loved he this world. So love dcomes from the Greek word ( ) We’ve heard it many times as we’ve studied the scriptures together. The Greek word, Agape, in the Greek language, was very accurate. As we have mentioned before, it had three different words for love. The word, Agape, is God’s kind of love; it’s unconditional. Then, the Greek language also had the word Phileo; the city of Philadelphia is named from that compound. Phileo means a conditional kind of love, familiar or brotherly love. ( ) means brother. So it’s the city of brotherly love. Then there’s the Greek word Eros, which is where we get the word erotic. It has to do with sensual love. So, there are different kinds of Greek words for different types of love. But the word, Agape, is unconditional. This is different from Phileo. Phileo means I love you because of. I love you because you’re my brother. I love you because you’re beautiful. I love you because you’re my neighbor, et cetera.
Agape love is I love you in spite of. I love you because I am love. That’s God’s kind of love. He loves you because he is love. This is what we see here, “For God so loved…” What a beautiful verse; what on astounding truth, that our God is love for He so loved.
Then, he says an amazing thing. This is Jesus speaking, by the way, to a man named Nicodemus. Jesus couldn’t see him during the daytime. He had to see him at night because he was afraid his other fellow Pharisees would find out he was talking to Jesus. He’s talking to this Nicodemus who’s a law keeping, kind of religious, list checking man. He had a naughty or nice list and he was doing everything he could to be on the nice list. But yet, he knew something was missing. That’s who’s talking to Jesus. And Jesus says that it’s about love. Did you know that it’s about? It’s about love and Jesus says, “For God so loved…”
Then Jesus says this astounding thing. We’re not talking about the worldly things. The Bible often uses the word worldly to describe the fallen condition of humanity. But here it speaks of the world here, the world cosmos in the Greek is the idea of, of all humanity. God so loved all of us that he did what? Well, what kind of love is this? It’s the kind of love that gives you Agape love. God’s kind of love is sacrificial. It’s not only unconditional, it’s sacrificial; He gave the world. Gave could also be translated, he offered, and he says this, here’s the greatest gift in all of heaven. It’s My Son. Do with Him as you will. I offer Him to you. Do with Him; respond to Him. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. To a person like Nicodemus, who was well educated in the Old Testament, he would have recognized this is a clear reference to Abraham and Isaac. God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, and sacrifice him and offer him to me.” We know how that story worked out; when Abraham was just about to do it, in obedience to God, God prevented him by sending an angel and providing a sacrifice in his place. This is a clear reference to that. I am convinced he said, I’m not going to make you do this, but my kind of love demands that I do it. I’m going to offer you my only son. There’s so much richness here. We know what that means. It means same or unique, and ( ) has to do with begotten.
So, we see in the King James version, his only begotten son, because he is created by the father or somehow comes out of the father in some sense. He’s unique and a one of a kind original. No one else like him. There’s no one like Jesus, the son of God. No one else like him. The greatest gift in all the universe and even beyond the universe. Because God created the universe and stands outside of it. And Christ has always been there; never was a time when Christ was not. And yet he interrupts history and he sticks his finger in the middle of history. He says, right there, right there, I’m sending my son Jesus, right in the fullness of time, his only son. And here he is.
He says this word “whoever;” whoever believes. Do you feel like whoever might include you? It includes you. That word, whoever, is in our text today. It is in verses 16 through 21 4 times. Whoever. Whoever .Whoever. Whoever. Whoever surely includes you, doesn’t it? Whoever believes; whoever believes in… Who? Him. Jesus, the only son.
Whoever believes in Him, first of all, should not perish. You will not perish The word, perish, has to do with being utterly destroyed. Cut off. Dead. You will not perish if you believe in this gift. If you receive and believe in this gift, this gift of God’s love, you will have eternal life, which is the opposite of perishing. Eternal life comes from the Greek word, Zoe. Is anyone here named Zoe? It has this idea of God’s kind of life. There’s a couple of Greek words for life. But Zoe is the one here. Eternal life. So, it is not just quantity; Zoe has to do the idea of quality of life, too.
Jesus says this in John 10:10 (ESV) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. This word, Zoe, here has to do not only with quantity but abundant life. Quality of life. When does eternal life begin? Does it begin in the hereafter? No. It begins at the very moment that you believe. That’s the moment that eternal life begins.
In John’s first letter, he wrote this amazing description of God. He says, 1 John 4:7-10 (ESV) 7 … God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. That’s a big word, propitiation. It means that he paid the price that we couldn’t pay. He took our death so we could receive His Zoe life, his life, his eternal kind of life. He died in our place. That’s how much God loves you. He loves you this much that he would die on a cross. So the cradle points to the cross. The cross overshadows the cradle. This baby came as a gift to pay the price of your death in your place to get you off of the naughty list. Because there’s only one person on the nice list and that’s Jesus Christ. He’s the only one who has lived a perfect, sinless life. And he offers this on the cross. It’s the great exchange. He offers his life for your death. He offers his righteousness for your sinfulness, and he offers his sonship that he’s right with the father for your separation from the father.
Oh, don’t you want to get that kind of exchanged gift this year? It’s better than standing in line at WalMart to exchange something. Trust me, it’s much better. What do you do? You believe in Jesus and you receive this great exchange that comes motivated by God’s love. Do you recognize how much God loves you? He so loves you that he gave Jesus. Do with him as you will. This is the question God’s really asking. He’s not asking if you were good enough. He wants to know one thing. What did you do with the gift I sent you?
Here’s number two. Here’s the second truth.
(2) Understand God’s purpose.
We are at verses 17 and 18 now. He begins to tell us what his purpose is not. And I think this is unusual unless you remember who he’s talking to. He’s talking to Nicodemus. The Pharisees consider themselves like judges; they’ve got the book. They’ve got the list of rights and wrongs; they are judging and keeping up with who’s good and who’s bad, and they’re condemning those who are not condemning. Condemnation was kind of like the theme of being a Pharisee.
A lot of you are here today and you think that’s what Christianity is about; you think it’s about condemnation. It’s not about that. How do I know it’s not about condemnation? How do I know the purpose of God in sending his son, Jesus, is not to judge you or condemn you. How do I know that? I can read. That’s how I know it, “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world…” Do you see it? That’s not his purpose. The purpose of the church, which is the body of Christ, the purpose of Jesus coming was not to condemn you.
He says it to Nicodemus, I didn’t come here to condemn you, Nicodemus. I didn’t come here to condemn anybody. That’s not his purpose in coming. What is God’s purpose? What’s the next part? But in order that… order is a revealing word in purpose, the world might be saved through him. Why did Jesus come to save you? He came to save all those who would believe. That’s his purpose. He didn’t come to condemn. The word,condemn, is in this passage three times, in verses 17 and 18. These two verses. He’s not here to do that.
My friends, listen, be careful. Be careful on your social media and all the places you’re talking. Be careful that you’re not a condemning kind of person because that is not the purpose of the Lord Jesus. He came as a savior. He came as a sacrifice. He came as a son to be in relationship with you. He said to Nicodemus that he didn’t come here to condemn him. I don’t know why you snuck in here tonight; I didn’t come here to condemn you. I didn’t come here to condemn anybody, he says, because in verse 18 it says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”
Then he says a very startling thing. “But whoever does not believe is condemned already.” What’s that? Here’s what he’s saying. I didn’t come here to condemn you because I don’t need to come here to condemn you; you’re already under the condemnation of death. The minute Adam and Eve sinned, sin was introduced into God’s good creation. There’s a thorn on the rose. There’s death mixed with life. There’s a bentness to humanity. The image of God sort of remains, but it’s warped by sin. And so there’s this mixture. So God needs to repair this land, so he sends his son Jesus. We’re already under the condemnation of sin and death. It already reigns, I don’t need to convince you of that. Just watch the news. It’s just true. You know this, right? The world is a mess. So Jesus didn’t come to condemn that, which was already condemned. He came to get us out of condemnation so we could believe in him. I didn’t come to condemn you because you are condemned already. You’re already under condemnation. You walked in here this morning like that if you don’t know Jesus. If you know Him or if you decide to believe in Him today you can leave here free of condemnation, knowing that God loves you and He has a purpose for your life. It’s to set you free so that there’s no record of wrongs in your life.
This is what He says. “Whoever does not believe are condemned already because you’ve not believed in the name of the only son of God. The name. Why the name? There’s something about that name. The songwriter wrote, “Jesus, Jesus, there’s something about that name.” It says, in Acts 4:11-12 (ESV) “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” This is Peter and John talking to the religious leaders and they’re asking them to do this. They’re saying to them that they need to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. It’s okay to come to temple and everything, but stop talking about Jesus. And then they say this passage. No, there’s something about the name. There’s something about the name, Jesus. You could talk about being good. You could even say I’m a Christian. You can talk about God all day long, but if you say Jesus, it kind of divides the sheep from the goats. Have you ever noticed that it kind of stirs up things when you say the name, Jesus? There’s something about that name.
Jesus says this in verse 18, “Whoever does not believe is condemned already because he’s not believed in the name of the only son of God.” The only name, the only Son. So he’s unique, but he’s also the only way. As John 14:6 says, this is Jesus speaking, “ I am the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except by me.” And so, do you understand God’s purpose? God’s will is that you would believe.
John 6:40 (ESV) “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” That’s God’s will for you. You come in here today and you may be wondering what God’s will is for me as well. Here’s Jesus answer: God’s will for you is to believe in the Son. Believe in Jesus and you’ll have eternal life and you’ll be resurrected from the dead.
Here’s what Jesus said to those who were saying to Him, Why are you hanging out with sinners all the time? The Pharisees are coming to him asking, Don’t you realize that that woman who’s washing your feet right now is a bad person? He knew what the Pharisees thought. He asked them, When I come in, why didn’t you wash my feet? He pointed out their hypocrisy.
Here’s what he said in the book of Luke. Jesus speaking, Luke 19:10 (ESV) “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That’s why Jesus was hanging out with people that were sinners. Remember what He told the woman that was caught in adultery? They thought they could trick Jesus, and they brought a woman caught in adultery. And they quoted the law, “Doesn’t the law say that if you’ve committed adultery, you should be stoned to death?” And Jesus says to them, “He that is without sin, cast the first stone.” One by one, beginning with the older men, they begin to drop their stones and walk away. Jesus stood up and He says to the woman, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she said, “Noone, Lord.” Jesus said, “ Neither do I condemn you. And from now on, sin no more.”
Do you hear him speaking to you now? He did not come to condemn you if you will believe in Him. He says, I will not condemn you. I am the salvation, the gift, the greatest gift of all given. Christ did not come to condemn you. He came that you might believe in him and be saved. Do you believe it? Do you recognize his purpose for your life? He loves you and he has a purpose for you.
Finally, this third truth.
(3) Respond to God’s light.
We are in the final few verses, verses 19 through 21. This is the judgment; this is the conclusion of the matter. The word, judgment, here is the same word in the Greek as the word condemnation. It could, in some translations, assist and this is the condemnation. It could have easily said that, but in the judgment and here’s what He’s saying now. There’s a new thing happening since 2000 years ago that wasn’t happening before because now the light has come. Now the light is not a thing here. It’s a metaphor for a person. Can you guess who it is? He’s using metaphoric language here to stretch old Nicodemus a little bit. We know Nicodemus is a little dull. He already had to explain to him how to be born again there earlier. Nicodemus says, “What am I supposed to do, Rabbi? Climb back into my mother’s womb to be born again?” Jesus says, No. You claim to be a teacher in Israel, and you can’t understand. If I can’t explain physical things to you, you’ll never understand spiritual things. No, Nicodemus, you must be born again of water and of the spirit. And so when the woman’s water breaks, you’re born once. But when you’re born of the spirit, you’re born again. You need to be born again, and he’s trying to explain some things.
Here he begins to talk about light. I think he brings light up because Nicodemus came to him in secret, in the dark. You know, “Nick at night, ” is what we have here. I waited the whole sermon to let that one out. Here he is. He comes at night. So what does Jesus talk to him about? He talks to him about light, and he says the light has come into the world and people love the darkness rather than the light. Who’s the light? Jesus. He’s come into the world. And He has caused all those who love darkness to go scattering and scurrying into the darkness. Even Nicodemus, he’s letting him go right there. Look at you. Look at you, who claim to be a rabbi and a leader among the people; you know the book, but you don’t know the Son. The light has come. And here you are, in the night.
Jesus is challenging Nicodemus here because this is the judgment. Now the light has come and it’s going to separate those who love darkness from those who love light and those who love darkness love it for a reason because their works are evil and they want to keep them secret . They don’t even want to know about themselves. They don’t like anybody bringing the light to that situation and letting them know that they are evil. For everyone who does wicked things, verse 20 says, hates the light. It’s not just that they love the darkness; they hate the light. Who’s the light? Who we talking about again? We are talking about Jesus; he’s using that metaphor, We are talking about a certain aspect of the character of Christ, aren’t we? We are talking about Him as the one who reveals God to us. We’re talking about the One who reveals. As he comes near us, we begin to recognize that we are sinners compared to Him. When he comes nearest, we begin to look at ourselves and say, “Oh, I need a Savior.” He’s righteous, so he reveals righteousness to us, he reveals divinity, he reveals the Father to us. He’s a revealing character.
This word light has to do with His revelation characteristic of who He is. He’s the fullness of God being revealed to us. He comes in, and people who love darkness hate Him. Why? Because he shows them for what they are. But whoever does what is true, whoever wants to know the truth about themselves, whoever does what is true, whoever wants to know where they stand, recognize that they want to repent of what’s wrong with them. Come on, Lord, show me what’s wrong with me, Whoever does that so that it may be clearly seen. In other words, exposed to me. Jesus exposes your true nature to you so then that person who believes in God and walks in the truth begins to do good things because Jesus shows them how.
Here’s what Jesus says in case you’re concerned that I’ve gotten the light part wrong. The light has come into the world. Who is this light? It’s Jesus, he says, John 8:12 (ESV) Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” He says, in John 12:46 (ESV) I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. He’s the light. He’s the final and fullest revelation of God.
Look at Hebrews 1:1-2 (ESV) 1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world. So this whole section that we call the Old Testament, God told the prophets what to write and they wrote it. But what we call the New Testament, which is the new covenant, is all in response to the coming of Jesus who speaks to us in these last days. He’s the fullest revelation of God. He is the light.
What do you do when the light shows up in your life? Do you run for cover or do you walk before Him and come into His likeness? It’s okay, Lord, go ahead and show me because I know you’re not here to condemn me. I am going to go ahead and show you the blackness of my heart and the secret things that even my closest friends don’t know about me. I can trust You because You will not condemn me. You love me and You came to cleanse me and make me holy so I can be right with God. I wanna walk in truth. I wanna walk in light. And this is what it means to be a Christ follower. We admit that we’re sinners We admit that we’re on the naughty list. We admit that we need a Savior. We’re not afraid to come into the light. In fact, we love the light which loves us. Oh, this is the greatest gift. He loves us. He has a purpose for us. And He has revealed Himself to us through Jesus. You see, the truth is, if there is a naughty or nice list in heaven, there’s only one person on the nice list, and that’s Jesus. But when you believe in Him, you are found in Him and you are given eternal life and you are fully accepted by God, who sent Him with the very purpose that we might be saved. Let’s quit teaching your kids about the naughty or nice list. I noticed that you all have it memorized. I wonder how many scriptures we have memorized. But we know we know that song. And we teach our kids it’s about being good because we’re trying everything we can to try to get them to be good. But let’s not accidentally teach them a lie about God. He loves us and has no cynicism to condemn us but to save us. And he sent us the light that we might know him personally. This is Christmas. This is what it’s all about.
Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, Thank you for speaking to Nicodemus. Oh, you’re speaking to us and we hear your voice. We know that you love us. We know that you didn’t come to condemn us because we’re condemned already. If we are honest with ourselves. We know it. You came to save us and you came to reveal the father to us that we might know him. Oh, Lord, I pray for the one that came in today, came in out of the darkness today, that is encountering you right now. Is that you, my friend? Oh, I’m praying for you. Right now, the Lord Jesus is present in this service. Do you hear him speaking to you? Would you open up your heart right now to him and say, Come on in, Lord, I believe you died on the cross for me that you rose from the grave and that you live today. I invite you to come into my life right now as my Lord and Savior . Forgive me of my sin. Make me a child of God. Oh, I want to know the father. I want to be right. I want that abundant life that you came to give. If you’re praying that prayer right now believing in your heart, the Bible teaches us, Jesus promises that you’ll be saved. Others are here today, and the scripture affects us because some of us are like Nicodemus; we are secretive about our belief. We only talk about it, whispering about it, at night. Oh, come into the light. Be bold about what you believe, Christian. Some of us are condemning always judging others. Oh, Lord, forgive us. This is not your purpose for us. It’s that we would tell people the good news. Lord help us to tell people the good news that you love us and that you died for us. Oh, we thank you in Jesus’ name. Amen.