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January 10th, 2012
02:36 PM ET

Explain it to me: John 3:16

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) – When quarterback Tim Tebow threw an 80-yard touchdown pass Sunday to secure an overtime victory for his Denver Broncos over the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers, some saw a biblical connection.

The completion gave Tebow, an outspoken evangelical Christian whose penchant for last-minute heroics have given him a reputation as a miracle worker,  316 passing yards for the game. His ten completions averaged 31.6 yards a piece.

Those figures inspired plenty of conversation and debate about a connection some saw to one of the most famous verses in the Bible, John 3:16.

The New Testament verse is held up by Christians around the globe because it neatly summarizes some key points of Christianity:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life." (NIV)

In the third chapter in the Gospel of John, Jesus is having a late night discussion with a Pharisee, one of the Jewish teachers of the law, named Nicodemus. The chapter is also where the expression "born again" originates.

Jesus tells Nicodemus: "...no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." In his longer explanation of that idea, Jesus gets to the core of his message in verse 3:16.

The verse is popular with Christians looking to share their faith because it's short and information-packed: God loves humankind, man has sinned and is destined for eternal punishment, but eternal live awaits all who believe in God's son, Jesus.

John 3:16 also has a long history with football and pop culture.

During last year's Super Bowl, the Fixed Point Foundation, which promotes Christianity in the public square, tried to buy an advertisement pushing people to a website to learn about John 3:16 but the ad was was rejected.

The spot showed people watching a football game noticing the phrase John 3:16 on a player's eye black - a sticker or grease that players wear under the eyes to reduce glare from the sun. A man in the ad says he's going to look up the verse, while the ad directed viewers to www.lookup316.com.

At the time, Fixed Point Executive Director Larry Taunton told CNN that Fox Sports said it rejected his commercial because it contained "religious doctrine," though Taunton said the ad avoided featuring the actual words of the verse.

“Increasingly religion and Christianity is treated like smoking – you can do it but only in designated areas,” Taunton said. “They were saying there’s no place for (faith) in the public square. There’s a place for the soft core porn of Go-Daddy, violent movie trailers, and irresponsible drinking, but not for faith."

As a workaround, the Fixed Point Foundation ran its ad on Fox stations locally in Birmingham, Alabama and Washington, DC during the Super Bowl.

Tebow wore Bible verses on his eye black when he quarterbacked the Florida Gators in college.  In the 2009 BCS championship game, he wrote John 3:16 on his eye black. After he left college football for the NFL in 2010, the NCAA banned players from writing on their eye black, which some have called the "Tebow rule."

John 3:16 came into the pop culture view in the late 1970s and early 1980s at sporting events, when a man named Rollen Stewart would don a rainbow colored afro wig and a John 3:16 T-shirt. He was especially good at getting himself in front of the cameras at sporting and big cultural events, including the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

Stewart grew increasingly fanatical about his crusade. In 1992 he took a maid hostage with a loaded gun at a Los Angeles hotel, demanding a national press conference to proclaim his new message that the end of the world was near.

He plastered John 3:16 on hotel windows.  CNN reported at the time that it took a SWAT team nine hours to free the woman.

At his sentencing hearing Stewart had to be removed from court when he would not let the judge speak.  As deputies were dragging him out of the courtroom he screamed, "Don't take me out, I said.  God sends love to the world.  Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they're doing.  They know not what they're doing, Lord."

That last phrase is also biblical, attributed to Jesus while he was praying for his executioners as he hung on the cross.

Stewart was convicted and sent to prison in 1993 on three counts of hostage taking and is currently serving three life sentences at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California.

Despite Stewart's story, many sports fans continue the tradition of evangelizing at sports games by holding up John 3:16 on placards.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Sports

soundoff (2,029 Responses)
  1. Christy

    Nice job CNN relating some postive recent Christian exhibits to a mentally unstable man from decades past. By the way, I suppose you think the 3 consective life sentences for holding a person hostage while under mental distress is completely justified, while rapists, murders and the like who are clearly without any Christian influences, go free.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Richard

      Ever noticed some of the most religious people have caused some of the biggest atrocities in history? Look it up. Btw, look at the history of the Vatican from it's beginning to now and then tell me about evil.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  2. Jean

    Explain it to you?

    Another religious zealot who feels compelled to 'testify' to the rest of us heathens.

    Keep it at home, huh Teebow?

    January 11, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • 12ga

      What a strange post jean, I can't recall a time when Tebow ever said anyone was a heathen, or testified anything really. But such as the freedom of religion, may not be your thing but he is not pointing a finger at you.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  3. Mike D.

    So, interesting article, but who the heck is proofing these articles once written. Glaring errors abound.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  4. The Jackdaw

    Garbage. God does not care about a football players success. I'm sure that if by some slim chance he exists, he has better things to worry about.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • 12ga

      I don't see a problem with anyone taking the time to thank their god. I have respect for him not acknowledging all the negativity about it and continuing.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Bob

      Like trying to show you that he exists?

      January 11, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • TonyB

      God cares about everyone's success. However, perhaps He is using a football player, or game, as a way of spreading his message.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      Bob – for a supreme being, God does a pretty Krappy job of demmonstrating his existance.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  5. Umm, hello?

    I'm sure he hasn't seen you in chuch in a few decades. :) I'm kidding, you all are sure do take this serious. Why care or do you even concern yourself with it? Sound like a bunch of sore losers to me.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  6. duckforcover

    How would people react if it said Praise Allah?

    January 11, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  7. Rationalintn

    I guess Steeler fans just didn't pray hard enough.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  8. zoft2000

    I think that game was an answer to all the critics especially that annoying and rude comedian who was constantly joking about Tebow. God can't keep this up forever, he got better things to do...

    January 11, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  9. sielingfan

    Only in America would Christianity be this much of a problem.

    I went to Guatemala to build orphanages (look up the James Project, give them money). People down there have real problems. In this country it's "Oh, someone said Jesus on TV, I better write my congressman."

    January 11, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  10. galespoint

    to add to the fun, Tebow is quoted as saying "When I saw him scoring, first of all, I just thought, `Thank you, Lord,"' Tebow said. "Then, I was running pretty fast, chasing him - like I can catch up to D.T! after throwing the winning touchdown to Dameryus Thomas who finished with 204 receiving yards, and coincidentaly is born on the 25th of December. John: 20.4 So they both ran together and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first

    January 11, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Richard

      Tebow is crazy and for the last time Jesus was not born on 12/25 and Christmas didn't originally have Christ in it.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Kurt

      @Richard of course it didnt Christ was not born Christmas came after his birth..silly rabbit..

      January 11, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • galespoint

      again it was for fun, and Christmas is on the 25th of december like it or not. whether it was Christs birthday or not.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • galespoint

      what's even better is that Tebow's faith and success drives haters like you Crazy.
      Go Broncos!!!!!!!!!

      January 11, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Richard

      @galespoint, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday and it was the church that decided it would also be celebrated as Jesus' birthday because they realized they couldn't compete with the traditions of the pagan holiday.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Richard

      @galespoint, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday and it was the church that decided it would also be celebrated as Jesus' birthday once they realized they couldn't compete with the traditions of the pagan holiday.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  11. Barry G.

    We who are Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God, and he was given (and gave himself) as a sacrifice to atone (pay) for and take away our sins.

    We also believe that he is the eternal God, that he became human and lived among us for a while, and then returned to heaven.

    We believe that by believing in him and what he did for us, but trusting him (and not our own righteousness), and by obeying his teachings, our sins will be forgiven, we will be able to stand before God on the day of judgment, and we will have eternal life.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @Barry G.

      Which denomination do you belong to?

      January 11, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • D. Carter

      Beautifully explanation.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Richard

      Super creepy and btw when is it considered sacrifice to die when you know you will come back as the god or ruler of not just the universe we see but every possible thing ever created and not yet even thought of? Don't say that because he was the almighty just the idea of being human was low enough for him. I'm human and in all of my crazy imperfections I could never be that egotistical and maniacal. I won't even get into how crazy it is to think that I could forgive my brother, my neighbor for doing something horrible to me but that Jesus or whatever can't get pass someone not believing in him and hence burning their soul for eternity. The whole thing is so incredibly insane and ridiculous.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • myweightinwords

      And those of us who are not Christians do not believe that.

      Simple really.

      Thankfully, we live in a nation where both of us are free to believe as we do without fear of recrimination from those who believe differently.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Barry G.

      I am simply a Christian.

      Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night that he was arrested, that his believers be one, even and he and his father in heaven are one.

      In the first three centuries a person either worshiped the Roman gods and the emperor (Caesar), or they worshiped Christ. It was either Jesus is Lord, or Caesar is lord.

      Christians were imprisoned, tortured and executed based upon whether they would worship Caesar or Jesus. Of course many denied the faith, to save their skin.

      I am a Christian.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Barry G.

      myweightinwords,

      We are aware that you have rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

      We who are Christians were very much a minority (and a persecuted one at that) from the beginning and for the first three hundred years; and, we are comfortable with this position.

      Jesus told us that we would be rejected and mocked, as he was; and he told us that few would be saved.

      What hope do you have, as you face the inevitability of death and the grave?

      We have the promises of God and of his son, Jesus Christ.

      Think about that, as you await death.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • griz5106

      Something I pondered for a while Barry: How exactly does a blood sacrifice take away my sins? Can you explain how that works? Seriously, I cannot figure it out.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • HellBent

      The concept of an omnipotent being making a sacrifice is illogical and nonsensical

      January 11, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Christy

      After reading some of Richard's posts I am beginning to wonder if perhaps some people did in fact evolve from apes. Richard is a strong argument in favor that theory. I wonder too if he works in advertising and could be partially responsible for the ads that actually make it to air during the Super Bowl; nah, must be some who have managed to evolve slightly more.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Captain

      "...Jesus is the son of God, and he was given (and gave himself) as a sacrifice to atone (pay) for and take away our sins." Now, there is a statement that could use more than a bit of explanation. Where did the whole concept of "original sin" come from and why does anyone in their right mind believe it?

      January 11, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • HellBent

      @griz – understanding the concept requires consuming large amounts of said "blood"

      January 11, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Richard

      @Barry G.
      Don't really care. If you believe and go to church no one cares. It's when you blast it all over the place and make rules for everyone based on it that people care. Otherwise more power to you for believing as you do. I wish I could believe that blindly. My life would be so much less complex.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • TonyB

      @Richard,

      Anyone who says they know you will be condemned for not believing is lying. Nobody knows the mind of God, and He can do anything he wants. Just because the bible says "the only way to the Father is through me (Christ)" doesn't mean you have to be a believer. We as humans are simply not qualified to judge.

      Your point about the sacrifice is interesting and has been debated over the life of the Church. The issue is that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. Did he know he was divine during his humanity? It isn't clear, there are no teachings. He certainly did not want to die, as the bible tells that he asked God to spare his life. He was also tortured before being crucified. So while you may ask yourself how much of a sacrifice it was in the long term, it is clear that he was fearful of the events about to occur, yet went willing to sacrifice himself for all of us.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Richard

      @TonyB
      He was talking to GOD! He knew it was true and real...he understood why he was dying and what he was doing. Btw, he wasn't the only man to die that way during that time period. Women as well as children died on the cross and were tortured during that time. I can think of many people through history that have had it worse yet they didn't have the comfort in knowing they were talking to god.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • myweightinwords

      To Barry,

      We are aware that you have rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

      I have rejected only that which I found to be untrue. I have accepted Love unlike anything I have ever known.

      Jesus told us that we would be rejected and mocked, as he was; and he told us that few would be saved.

      Who is rejecting you? And in what way? Personally, it is none of my business what you believe or why, and I would defend your right to do so with my life.

      What hope do you have, as you face the inevitability of death and the grave?

      Death comes to us all. What matters is not what comes after. None of us can know that with any certainty. What matters is how we live THIS life and what we leave behind when we go. I am unafraid of death. In my belief, we are reunited with those who came before and to some degree I believe we are offered choices to come back and learn.

      We have the promises of God and of his son, Jesus Christ.

      Good for you. I hope you get what you have been promised.

      Think about that, as you await death.

      I'm not waiting for death. It'll get here when it gets here. In the meantime, I'm busy living a life that I can be proud of, that I can learn from, and hopefully, I'm making a bit of a mark as I do. I hope my legacy is one of kindness, compassion and generosity, along with creativity, beauty and spunk.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Captain

      "...Jesus is the son of God, and he was given (and gave himself) as a sacrifice to atone (pay) for and take away our sins." Now, there is a statement that could use more than a little bit of explanation. Where did the whole concept of "original sin" come from and why does anyone in their right mind believe it?

      January 11, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Richard

      @Christy
      Congratulations on the witty remarks but can you at least come at me with some facts? Everything I've said about the Vatican is true and the same goes for Christmas. You can choose not to believe in something you can see and touch or you can believe in little fairies with wings or humans with wings. Btw, I do believe in something for the same reasons why I don't believe in most religions. There is a mystery and miracle in the idea of existence but our belief in something as archaic, as imperfect, as politicized and as man-made as most religions simply doesn't fit. If you look at the history behind religion, the bible, and Jesus you start to realize that Christianity has literally build Jesus from various parts of many other cultures and beliefs. Even the way he looks is borrowed from a Greek mythology. If you believe Jesus had blue eyes and was light skinned you're probably really off and most of that came from western society and their unwelcome indoctrination of the early Americas and the rest of the world.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Randy

      I agree, Barry, but would modify your statement slightly, changing "by obeying his teachings" to "by TRYING to obey his teachings".

      Too often there are people who tout they are Christians and they do harm thinking it's OK, because Jesus forgave me and I'm going to heaven. Or worse, they proclaim that while not caring about their actions.

      We Christians have to do our best to obey Jesus' teachings. Sometimes we'll do it right, other times we'll fail and sin. Repeat.

      I've seen too many people say they are Christians as they lie, cheat, and steal, because they think they are in the clear already and their actions aren't sins any longer.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Randy

      @griz5106 – In the Old Testament, people were told by God to sacrifice animals by cutting their throats, and the act of the sacrifice and their blood running out would wash away the sins of the person.

      Jesus sacrificed himself, and his blood, being the Son of God, replaced the sacrificial animals blood.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Randy

      @myweightinwords – I think (assumption on my part) that when Barry answered and referred to the persecution, he was talking generally.

      I'm fine with your beliefs, just as you seem to be with mine (also a 'practicing' Christian). I think Barry is too, he's just quoting the Bible where it said Christians would be persecuted – by the masses. I don't feel that every single non-believer persecutes me, and while I don't persecute non-believers, I know there are "Christians" (using the word loosely) that do.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  12. Rainer Braendlein

    Should Christians practice mission in daily life?

    I am convinced (although I cannot prove it by the Bible) that ordinary Christians should not evangelize in daily life (at work, at home, at school, etc..) In daily life Christians should prove practical love and practical righteousness. They should just live the Good Life without many words.

    Of course, Christ has commanded mission. I assume that this task should be settled by the Church as a whole. That means particularly educated and appointed members of the Church should practice mission. They should invite people for lectures or speeches and then tell them the gospel. I guess, they could even go from house to house and invite the people (in order to avoid any confusion with the Mormons or Jehovas' Witnesses they should wear a special sign).

    Please notice: Although ordinary Christans should not evangelize in daily life, they are supposed to confess their faith in certain situations, for example when people ask them about their faith or when people make wrong statements about faith (for example a Muslim workmate would claim that Jesus is not God, I had to contradict him rigidly).

    A very serious situation is it, when a Christian is required to deny Christ or to adore another God (idol). Here he must refuse at any rate, even at the cost of his life.

    Regarding Tebow: I am not very enthusiastic about his behaviour. He should stop that. It is enough, when he is a fair player.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Joe

      Rainer you should practice shorter posts in your daily life and stop blathering endlessly on about details of a religion that no one cares about.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  13. pacmann

    THERE IS A GOD.WEATHER HIS NAME IS JESUS OR NOT.THE WORLD DOES NOT GIVE HIM ENOUGH CREDIT FOR THE GREAT THINSG HE DOES AND WE DONT REALIZE.IF U ASK ME HE SHOULD B BROUGHT UP MORE OFTEN.WHO CARES ABOUT SPORTS ,GLEE OR, WHOSE DATING WHO.NONE OF IT PRETAINS TO THE BIBLE.KEEP SHOUTING 3:16 AND ANY OTHER VERSE THATS ON YOUR HEART.TEAM GOD!!!!!!!

    January 11, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      weather = like the weather is bad outside. whether = (used to introduce the first of two or more alternatives, and sometimes repeated before the second or later alternative, usually with the correlative or ): It matters little whether we go or stay. Whether we go or whether we stay, the result is the same.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      ".THE WORLD DOES NOT GIVE HIM ENOUGH CREDIT FOR THE GREAT THINSG HE DOES " – Like what exactly? Tornados, hurricanes, severe weather around the world killing and displacing 1000s. Disease, death, Santorum, slaughter, poverty, starvation and chaos across the globe. That's just from this past year.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  14. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    That's what it means.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  15. Rainer Braendlein

    Faith and discipleship are a unit.

    “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life." (NIV)

    This verse seems to be easily to get. But one should not make a mistake about the meaning of the verse.

    What is meant be the term "believe in him"?

    Just regarding the gospel as true or more?

    Of course, more! "Believe in him" is connected with discipleship or following Jesus. Bonhoeffer has figured it out that true faith exists only within discipleship and true discipliship is only possible by faith (faith and discipleship are a unit).

    The second term, which we should regard, is "eternal life".

    The text of the verse says that God wants to give us "eternal life". Many Christians may misinterpret the verse and understand that God merely wants to give us forgiveness. However, the text says that God wants to give us "eternal life", and this is a little bit more than mere forgiveness.

    In a word: John 3: 16 says that God wants to give us a "new life", when we believe in Jesus. It is clear that this "new life" means following Jesus. This "new life" will please God and thus if we keep this life we remain in a state of forgiveness or grace.

    Forgiveness is for free and new life is for free, but we are supposed to stay in the new state of grace, which God has brought us in.

    The locus in space and time, where the Christian life definitely begins, is the sacramental baptism (object of this baptism is Christ's atonement). After we have heard the gospel, we get baptized and our faith gets sealed (infant baptism is valid and shall not be repeated, just refer to it).

    January 11, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Helena Troy

      Bloody, human sacrifice to appease an angry god seems so, very primitive...

      January 11, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  16. mike

    i would condider myself agnostic, i just can not get past human suffering since the beginning of time. If god so loved the world why would he make his children of all ages suffer so much???? My reading of Bible tells me that his love is the foundation of the christian religion. I can not believe that there is any reason to buy into the teachings of the bible.

    January 11, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Erik in Houston

      Agreed. Eternal life is a fairy tale to control us and make us feel better about death..

      January 11, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Mike from CT

      Erik, great statement. Now why do you put your faith into such a statement?

      January 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Dave in Portland

      Mike from CT – Belief does not equate to faith.

      One can decide based upon personal observations and experiences to believe that something is true.

      Faith is blind devotion to something that has no proof and no basis.

      January 11, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Believer in Jesus as my Savior

      Actually, the vast majority of suffering is due to other humans (look up WAR, GENOCIDE, etc) not God.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Mike from CT

      Dave,
      Blind faith is a devotion to something that has no proof and no basis.
      Faith is for the things hope for (based on a promise, history or tradition for example) but have yet to come to pass.

      Hope that clears it up.

      The question still stands why does erik, "believe that something is true."?

      January 12, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  17. LKG

    Tebow 3:16 says "Despite completing less than half of his passes, he will find a a way of triumphing over severe adversity. And he will proclaim: "I just whipped your butt.""

    January 11, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  18. That's What's Up

    jesus has a raginig Tebowner

    January 11, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  19. Bill

    I don't get it. His name isn't John...

    January 11, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  20. mrgmorgan56

    Pitiful...

    January 11, 2012 at 10:21 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.