The short answer is yes — gift giving is biblical. But yes, there is probably a better way to do it since nothing we do is perfect. There’s always a better way to do it.
It’s good to ask about what aspects of our giving and getting are merely cultural and what are shaped by Christ to magnify Christ. I thought it might be helpful to develop a short theology of gift-giving at Christmas by weaving together some of the biblical passages.
I want to talk through three steps, from God’s giving to us, to our giving to Christ, to our giving to each other and to those in need. I think it would be helpful just to step back and get the biblical perspective on these three things first; then we’ll be able to articulate why are we doing this and why are we sharing gifts from a pretty deep biblical vision.
God’s Gifts to Us
Step number one: God giving to us. Here’s the way Christmas is described in the most famous verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Paul puts it like this in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake” — this is referring now to Christmas — “he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” In other words, a huge gift comes to you by his poverty. The meaning of Christ’s stooping to become man was to raise up his family to glory. Amazing.
Then there’s the simple, short, spectacular exultation of 2 Corinthians 9:15: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” The very essence of Christmas includes a divine overflow of generosity, kindness, grace, giving — doing for us, giving to us, what we could never do for ourselves or get on our own.
The ultimate gift is God. God gives God, like it says in 1 Peter 3:18: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” This was all so that we might have God as our supreme, all-satisfying gift or treasure. At the heart of Christmas is God giving God for the enjoyment of his people, whom he saves by giving his Son to suffer. That’s breathtaking. It is the heart of Christmas.
Our Gifts to God
Here’s step two: our responding by giving to Christ. Now, I know this is dangerous. I feel this more keenly than anyone else. I’ve written whole chapters on why you shouldn’t give to God — he’s the Giver — but it’s biblical.
It’s dangerous in one sense to speak of giving to Christ because our giving to Christ dare not be seen as a paying him back, as if the transaction were done because he needs to get our services. Mark 10:45 offers such a warning: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
He didn’t come to get our service; he came to give his life as a ransom for many. He did not come to find a labor force to supply his need; he came as the servant and the giver. Nevertheless, the Bible pictures people giving to Christ.
Here’s the picture in Luke 7, in the story where Jesus comes to visit Simon, and a woman comes in and starts washing his feet with her tears, and Simon gets bent out of shape. Jesus says to Simon,
Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. (Luke 7:44–47)
This is a giving that is not purchasing anything. It’s not trading for anything. It was overflow of affection and thankfulness for her forgiveness.
We see the same thing in John 12, where Mary took a pound of expensive ointment, made of pure nard, and just poured it out on the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair, and the house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume (John 12:3). Judas was ticked about this because he was a thief. But Jesus defended her and said it was like an affectionate anointing in advance for his burial.
Of course, giving to Jesus is connected with Christmas by the wise men, right?
Going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)
Part of worship is finding ways to show how much we admire and reverence and trust and value Jesus. Part of that is making sacrifices — that is, going without things, valuable things, not because Jesus needs them, but because he owns them, and we can be happy without them if we have him.
Our Gifts to Others
Here’s the third and final step in our little mini-theology of gift giving at Christmas: (1) the giving of God to us, (2) our joyful readiness to show affection in giving to him, and (3) those two things overflow in giving to others.
One of my favorite expressions of this dynamic is the way this works in the Christian heart in 2 Corinthians 8:2: “In a severe test of affliction” — imagine yourself at Christmastime in some kind of trouble and distress (and a lot of people are) — “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed.” What overflowed? Their “abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”
Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices” — that is, worship — “are pleasing to God.” Even our giving to others is viewed as a sacrifice of worship to God.
Here’s the sum of the matter. I think all of our gift giving should seek to form a mindset about giving at Christmas that helps the children and the adults to (1) rejoice in God as the great and first giver of the greatest gift, (2) seek the mindset that offers back to Christ the gift of trust, hope, admiration, joy, and affection, and then, finally, (3) seek the mindset that overflows with joy in giving to others — not primarily the mindset of getting, but the mindset of joyful overflow: giving.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “Why Do We Give Christmas Gifts?”
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