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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. Rationalintn

    I wonder if Tebow was hoping he would be persecuted for his public display of faith. Suffering would make him more Christ-like. I was just hoping he would be persecuted by James Harrison. Maybe next season!!!

    January 11, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Patrick

      Tebow isn’t being persecuted. (please look up the word if you need to). What he is doing however is bringing a lot of bad press for Christians, and let’s face it… they don’t need any more.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  2. momoya

    Tebow is a nice guy with a nice scripture reference on his face paint. The Phelps gang are mean with mean scripture references on their signs and behind their activities. Bible scriptures can be used to support or vilify any position a person wishes to support or vilify. There's plenty of football players more fanatical and nicer, meaner, whatever, but they aren't as successful as Tebow and so nobody knows about them. Tebow is famous FIRST for playing the game well, and SECOND for his method of infusing his faith into his moments of airtime. Therefore, his success on the field is what is being praised, not his perspective on his faith.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  3. NotSoMuch

    @johnUtah – "Its because most people in this country are God LESS people who dont have any true direction in their lives." Really? I think religion is for those who can't find any direction in life and just need something to fill the void that reality fails to provide for them.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Knotme

      See ya on the other side...maybe not

      January 11, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Rationalintn

      Hallelujah NotSoMuch. People who think others are missing something because they don't make a display of living for Jesus make me laugh. There is a BIG difference between a public display of believing in Jesus, and actually living in a Christ-like way. The truly Christ-like don't need to put on a sideshow and draw attention to themselves. Serving others quietly, leaves no holes in your life.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Dave in Portland

      NotSoMuch – Agreed. Apparently some people are incapable of being moral without the threat of eternal d@mnation hanging over their heads.

      January 11, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  4. BloominIdiots

    "'You shall not cut the hair on the sides of your heads, neither shall you clip off the edge of your beard." – Leviticus 19:27

    I see plenty of believers who break this and many other commandments all the time. So much for following the commandments of your lord.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Jay

      Many of those commandments were required under the law handed down by Moses from God. Once Christ came, much of the Law was discarded. The Israelite priests offered sacrifices to God to atone for the nation. Christ death, with his perfect blood made the old law obsolete.

      Learn what the Bible REALLY teaches.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • willy

      Is that the members of the new testiment churches or the old testiment churches. It's all the bible but there is a difference. It's more complex then what is on the surface.

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

      "much of the Law was discarded."

      You claim to know what the bible teaches. Then please tell us where this law is rescinded.

      Hint: It's not. Many christians love to cherry-pick the old testament to oppress others. It's disgusting.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • momoya

      @jay
      Well, we certainly know that god changes the terms of his covenants every thousand years or so, but Jesus specifically said that he did not come to do away with Moses's law. Paulianity is responsible for the misconception that a more greco-roman style of worship is what god wanted from people several decades after Jesus left the scene. If christians read their holy text with an unbiased view they would notice a god who is very childish and vindictive throughout. If christians fairly judged the bible's shifting messages they would conclude that its god is described in such paradoxical terms as to make his existence very, very unlikely

      January 11, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Michael

      You don't understand because you are filled with yourself and have no love for God. Otherwise you would continue studying His Word and know the context of those things, that salvation is by grace, not by the works of the law.

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

      If you read the Bible, you would know that once Jesus died for our sins and paid the ultimate price the Old Testament Commandments were no longer applicable. God stated that now the commandments to follow were: (1) Have no other God before me, (2) love your neighbor, and (3) love your enemy. In the days before Christ, followers had to adhere to many rules and mandates to be a Christian. But after Christ came and died, belief and faith are all that is needed. If you believe in God and Jesus, then be the best father, son, husband, neighbor, etc. you can be–show love for others in your life.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • willy

      One would hope that those who criticize the bible and God have read it all the way through. On the other hand, it might be like studying chemistry without a teacher to help on points that do not seem to make sense.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Patrick

      @faithinnc
      Thank you for making an excellent point.
      (1)Have no other God before me.
      What is your religion called? Christian, as in Christ (not god). The religion by default and action is a violation of the commandments. And no the trinity doesn’t prove jebus is god. It is an attempt to reconcile the belief jebus was divine. Christianity is a knockoff of Judaism. Christians stole their god and made him their own. Jews do not believe jebus was divine or the son of god. Neither does Islam (another knockoff).

      January 11, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  5. Jay

    The scripture reads that God loved the "WORLD" not the United States. What is it saying is that Jesus died so that those who have faith in him could live. BUT, The bible also says FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD.

    Too many "christians" think they can live however they want, basically telling God what they want to do. They do not know what the bible REALLY teaches....

    Jesus said, "Not everyone saying to me, ' Lord Lord' will enter into the kingdom. But the one DOING the will of my Father who is in the heavens WILL."

    Learn what the bible REALLY teaches. If you stop seeking the opinions of "intellectuals", you'll find satisfying answers. Remember, the bible plainly says, "The wisdom of man is FOOLISHNESS with God".

    January 11, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  6. Dot8

    As a football player Tebow is mediocre, but as a religious person he has 100% Christian faith in him and that is why he creates miracles.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • HellBent

      What miracles has Tebow created? Because if that OT pass was a miracle, then Drew Brees is the second coming.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Ally

      Really? Out of all the people dying due to starvation, natural disasters, children with cancer...god decides that football is more of an important priority in the miracle? Yah, he really is a loving god isn't he?

      January 11, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  7. Benjamin

    I like this verse from the Bible: "See, darkness covers the earth. Thick thick coulds cover the people, but upon you the Lord shines and over you appears his glory" (Isaiah 60). Jesus is the light of the world and those who listen and obey his teachigns fill the earth with truth, justice, peace and love.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  8. JHaas

    How about James 3:16? "For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice."

    Now go to youtube and look for "Tim Tebow Shuts Up Michael Irvin Without Realizing It".

    January 11, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  9. Scott

    So I only have to believe in Jesus to have eternal life... I don't have to actually follow any of his teaching? Cool, thats easy. Its kind of bizarre really that the entire christian faith is based upon just believing him... not on results. You don't have to be a good and decent person to get into the kingdom of heaven, just believe in him. Heaven must be full of some real A holes if thats the case.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Jason Stiehler

      Wow Scott, you really need to read the bible and stop assuming what being a Christian really means.

      Your ignorant statement only makes you appear as bitter.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Sam

      There are TWO sense of "believe in" as in "I believe in my brother.":

      1. It means "I believe my brother exists."
      2. It means "I trust in my brother's values and character."

      John 3:16 is referring to the SECOND sense (which assumed the first sense is true as well), so we should trust in the values and character of Jesus, which means we should live by his example.

      Merely BELIEVING that Jesus exists is not enough, according to John 3:16. The second sense requires that we believe Jesus exists AND we follow his moral example in order to have eternal life. So death bed conversions will not cut it.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Scott

      Why would anyone be bitter? Christians have only been running around murdering everyone who didn't agree with them for the last 2000 years... why would anyone be bitter about that?

      January 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Patrick

      @Jason Stiehler
      I’ve read the bible twice (if you count my students bible). I’m engaged to a Christian and have Christian friends and family. I have access to the internet and Tv. Most importantly I have read many history books. Christians are a diverse group without question. Scotts comment is an accurate one for many Christians, who won’t state openly as such. But live it. As an outsider with multiple views I’d wager I have a much better understanding of what a Christian is than a person who drinks the Kool- aid with an obvious bias. Historically (counting modern times) speaking, carrying the Christian flag is nothing to be proud of.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  10. Sam

    There are TWO sense of "believe in" as in "I believe in my brother.":

    1. It means "I believe my brother exists."
    2. It means "I trust in my brother's values and character."

    John 3:16 is referring to the SECOND sense (which assumed the first sense is true as well), so we should trust in the values and character of Jesus, which means we should live by his example.

    Merely BELIEVING that Jesus exists is not enough, according to John 3:16. The second sense requires that we believe Jesus exists AND we follow his moral example in order to have eternal life. So death bed conversions will not cut it.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • mpouxesas

      I would suggest that before you proclaim beLIEving in anything that you examine first....

      January 11, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Shifter

      So what about the thief on the cross next to Jesus? I'd say that was a deathbed conversion. Who are you to say that sincere faith can't happen on a deathbed? That's not what Scripture says.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • JustAThought

      I agree wholeheartedly with your definition of what it means to "believe" in Jesus. I want to take it a bit further though. Jesus' first message to the crowds were to "repent" because the Kingdom of God was at hand. So I think there are two steps here. First: we have to "believe" as you've pointed out. Second: because of that belief...we then repent. Meaning, we turn away from whatever habits, deeds, etcetera that would be considered a "sin" by God. "Sin" meaning...to miss the mark. God's standard of righteous living is our target. Anything that falls short of that is a sin. Just wanted to add to your statement about "belief" because it's not just trying to mold our lives after Jesus.

      I also have a question for you regarding your last sentence about death-bed conversions.

      What do you do with the story about the thief on the cross?

      January 11, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Sam

      The thief was not an example of a bad person who decided to believe "Jesus is Lord" at the last minute. The thief was probably a good person who believed in good values all along. A thief under Ancient Roman tyranny isn't necessarily a bad guy.

      John 3:16 does NOT say that *mere* death bed conversions (e.g., of BAD people) are okay, since you must do more than believe that Jesus Christ exists. You must also live a good life.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  11. Vote with your life, not merely a ballot

    this article has jack to do with the message of Jesus, Tebow or Orthodox Christianity's view of the message of John 3:16, way to take shots and completely avoid a real conversation about the role of Faith in a jacked up world..

    The use of the Stewart guy is like connecting Obama to communists because he has been to China, its ridiculous to say the lease, I may need to stop reading these articles as they clearly lack balance and/or credibility.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Patrick

      @Vote with your life, not merely a ballot
      I agree. Go read the bible instead its chock full of balance and/or credibility. *cough*

      January 11, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  12. sylecioius

    Maybe TT is praying for safety for him and his team, maybe he is praying that he won't screw up and sleep with a lot of people and give a bad name to Christians who openly profess their faith. Maybe he has allready given a bad name to Christians who openly profess their faith. Maybe he is praying that he would be used to bring people to faith. Maybe he is praying that he would win the game. Maybe he is praying that there won't be a line at his favorite restaurant after the game.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  13. Tami

    Why is it when we discuss/report on faith or a love for God; it is necessary to focus or redirect the conversation on a fanatic who is not a representative of who Jesus is?....

    January 11, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Shifter

      Because, like the article sites, Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor obviously thinks there is no room for faith in the public square...

      January 11, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Jason Stiehler

      Because the media in this country focuses so strongly on any hypocricies they can find relating to Christianity.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Patrick

      @ Jason Stiehler
      Sorry jason, but history has proven you wrong before you were ever born.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Tami

      Patrick, The hypocricies you speak of are in the people not Jesus...all we can do is strive to be like Him and love and respect others as opposed to criticize....as my son would say..'That's what Jesus would do'

      January 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  14. Jason Stiehler

    This article is yet another example of CNN attempting to demonize Christianity and everything related. CNN tries SO hard to discredit ANY hope God may give this country and calls it a fluke. CNN even has the audacity to shame those who proudly display 3:16, comparing them to Rollen Stewart.

    I'm sure this article never would have been written had Tebow decided to follow Allah...

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

      Paranoid christians with a HUGE chip on their shoulder are SO annoying. Please get over yourself

      January 11, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • steelerguin

      Non-Christians with a chip on there shoulder are equally as annoying Hellbent.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Jason Stiehler

      HellBent: Actually you sound like the one who needs to get 'over yourself'

      January 11, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • HellBent

      Boohoo. I'm sitting here crying a river for all of you poor, oppressed, persecuted xtians. My heart bleeds for you.

      'scuse me – I just threw up a bit in my mouth typing that.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Patrick

      @Jason Stiehler
      I agree this is rather embarrassing for Christians but a direct attempt by CNN to make you look stupid? Had he decided (been born to a Muslim parents) Christians would be protesting in the streets, boycotting games and demanding he be ejected from the stadium. If not outright burned at the stake.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  15. Mike

    Maybe before the next game he should check out Mathew: 6:5-6.

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

      I completely agree!!

      January 11, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • McJefferson

      I think you missed what Matthew 6:5-6 encompasses...

      January 11, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  16. stateaffairs

    Well written explanation.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  17. cary lacayo

    One day we will all face God alone. We will all face the question and answer dead on that John 3:16 proclaims to all of us. If you have read John 3:16, you are accountable to what it says, your without excuse whether you believe it or not. It is either lunacy or a lie...Or you can choose today to believe that it is the truth and trust in it with your life...

    January 11, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • HellBent

      Please google Pascal's Wager because you just fell victim to this oft-repeated fallacy.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • steelerguin

      Hellbent, to infer Pascal's wager in the context of either believing or not believing that Jesus is Lord and Savior is lunacy. If you read John 3:16, you either believe it or you don't. It is your choice. It is called free will, but there are consequences to a "yes" and a "no" answer, albeit , the consequences are different.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Patrick

      @ cary lacayo
      “your without excuse”

      You’re*

      January 11, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Zeppelin

      Nope, nope, nope!

      January 11, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Deb

      "If you have read John 3:16, you are accountable to what it says, your (sic) without excuse whether you believe it or not."

      False. By your account, there are millions of people who would be "exempt" from this (making them either saved by default or incapable of being saved) simply by virtue of being:
      1. Illiterate
      2. An infant/child who is not yet capable of reading
      3. Many autistic or otherwise mentally impaired people
      4. Geographically remote tribal communities with no access to any type of literature (which is all that the Bible is, btw--a collection of writings of HUMANS (not God), specifically men and eve more specifically men who had a specific agenda they wanted to impose on others by heavily censoring which of those historic writings would be included in (and which would be omitted) from the publication to be known as "The Bible.")

      GOD DOES NOT NEED TO DEPEND UPON ANY MAN'S WRITINGS TO TEACH HIS MESSAGE(S) TO OTHER PEOPLE. God speaks to each of us individually, in a way that each person can understand and which is pertinent to each person for that particular time of his/her life. He did not choose such an inaccurate and fallible method as translating mere human words. There is MUCH that is "lost in translation" because there are many thoughts for which no translatable word or phrase even exists between/among various HUMAN-created languages.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • HellBent

      @steelerguin, hate to break it to you, but not all xtians interpret John 3:16 the same. So, yes, this is still very much Pascal's Wager.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  18. e

    " but eternal live awaits all who believe in God's son, Jesus."

    Obviously there are no proofreaders employed at CNN. The word is, "life."

    January 11, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  19. johnUtah

    Its because most people in this country are God LESS people who dont have any true direction in their lives. They fool themselves into thinking there is no creator. Thats like saying there is a cup in the middle of the room and I dont see who created so it "just appeared there" These people are truly the fools.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • crispy

      If there is a cup in the middle of the room and I don't see who created it I would think "I don't know how it got there".

      January 11, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Patrick

      Then prove us wrong. It should be easy if it is so obvious. Come on now, why are you keeping this great revelation from the world? You could put an end to the debate once and for all.

      Yea… that’s what I thought.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  20. truth-teller

    I crapped this morning and it was exactly 3.16 inches. Biblical connection?

    January 11, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • truth-teller

      Possibly.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • jOE

      That means you still have to be thankful.

      January 11, 2012 at 11:45 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.