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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. Reality

    With respect to John's Gospel and John' epistles, from Professor/Father Raymond Brown in his book, An Introduction to the New Testament, (The book has both a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur from the Catholic Church),

    John's Gospel, Date- 80-110 CE, Traditional Attribution, (2nd Century), St. John, one of the Twelve,

    Author Detectable from the Contents, One who regards himself in the tradition of the disciple.

    First Epistle of John, Authenticity- Certainly by a writer in the Johannine tradition, probably NOT by the one responsible for most of the Gospel.

    From Professor Bruce Chilton in his book, Rabbi Jesus,

    "Conventionally, scholarship has accorded priority to the first three gospels in historical work on Jesus, putting progressively less credence in works of late date. John's Gospel for example is routinely dismissed as a source......

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_John#Authorship

    "Since "the higher criticism" of the 19th century, some historians have largely rejected the gospel of John as a reliable source of information about the historical Jesus.[3][4] "[M]ost commentators regard the work as anonymous,"[5] and date it to 90-100."

    "The authorship has been disputed since at least the second century, with mainstream Christianity believing that the author is John the Apostle, son of Zebedee. Modern experts usually consider the author to be an unknown non-eyewitness, though many apologetic Christian scholars still hold to the conservative Johannine view that ascribes authorship to John the Apostle."

    January 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  2. Colleen

    Imagine no religion. Imagine behaving well for the sake of behaving well and because its the right thing to do, not for fear of being punished for all eternity after death (seriously? haven't we evolved beyond this yet?) Imagine attributing your victories, achievements and personal triumphs to commitment, tenacity, creativity, hard work, goal-setting, desire, and yes, sometimes just pure dumb luck. Imagine.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • government cheese

      Ya, that worked out so well for Stalin, Mao, and Hitler.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Colin

      "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so."
      - Adolf Hitler, to General Gerhard Engel, 1941

      January 10, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Colleen

      Nevermind the crusades or jihads, right? Gimme a break. More violence has occurred on this planet for religious reasons than most Christians care to admit. Most atheists I know are more Christ-like than so many Christians.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • peter out

      I tell you the truth, the purist souls are not those who wouold do good for the reward of heaven (or the avoidence of hell), but those who would do good simply for the sake of good.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • webo

      Colleen – I'm afraid your imaginings sound a lot like what got us into this mess. The lie that Eve believed was that with a little more knowledge (that of good and evil) she could sort through things herself, without God. We were created by God, to exist with God. We are incomplete without Him, and thus we die. This attempt to live without Him has led us to the where we find ourselves now, described well in Romans 1:28-32. Take time to read it and see if it doesn't sound true.
      Oh, and it's been said that no one is in hell because of their sin, but rather because they've rejected God's provision for it. See John 3:16

      January 10, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Colleen

      Webo: your comments are totally irrelevant to me; There is no God. I don't believe in it, nor is there any credible evidence of it. You can posture and postulate all you want, but any reference to biblical writings holds absolutely no sway with me, and I am an ex-Catholic (baptized and confirmed). I've read the bible AND the Koran and parts of the Bhagavad Gita. I find the study of cultures and their ties to religion fascinating, but I believe it is the biggest most enduring myth ever perpetuated on man by man. I would never seek to deny anyone's right to their beliefs, I know the sense of hope many get from prayer and that for many, their church or synagogue or mosque is their safe harbor. For me, though, there is no more reason to believe in god than there is to believe in Santa or Zeus or the Easter bunny.

      January 10, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • webo

      Colleen- So what "myth" have you chosen to believe in? The one the says everything around you is here by accident? That so many years ago, in some chemical pool (we won't ask where the chemicals came from), some source of energy struck and "presto" here we, and everything around us, are? You say there is no credible evidence, but Romans 1:19–20 says, "since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."
      Take an honest look around you. See the order, the obvious signs of design. This is not all by accident. Seek Him. Ask Him to reveal himself to you. He will answer. I honestly felt convicted by God to reply to your post. He's reaching out to you. I'll be praying for you.

      January 10, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • Colleen

      Webo: Fine. I evolved, you didnt. Thanks for the concern, but I'm fine as I am. No need to pray for me. I should know better than to attempt a debate... You'll never change my belief system, I'll never change yours. Let's just leave it at that.

      January 10, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • webo

      Colleen – We're all evolving, both physically (micro, not macro) and spiritually. My hope is to change the direction of your evolvement. :) I'm also not trying to convince you of the existence of God, as I feel only He can truly do that. I am hoping to convince you to take a look outside the walls you've seem to have built and seek Him, perhaps for a second time. Someone once said the only sure way to never find the truth is to be convinced you've already found it. The following is a link to a song by Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), he's asking the right questions, responding to the call of Romans 1:19-20. I hope you'll listen to it, it's a great song regardless. http://youtu.be/o_EyJ9tmRU4

      January 11, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  3. government cheese

    Religious bigots are foaming at the mouth today.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • suliwen

      What a poorly written story. I have read better-written stories in high school journalism.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  4. Reality

    SHOUTING about Jesus being the savior will not make it so. John 3:16 by the way is a single attestation in the NT i.e. found only in one passage of the NT) and many contemporary NT scholars to include Professors Crossan and Ludemann have concluded that it was not said by the historical Jesus. It was, they conclude, an addition to embellish the life of Jesus to gain converts/money to/for the cause.

    And from Professor Gerd Ludemann, in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 416,

    "Anyone looking for the historical Jesus will not find him in the Gospel of John. "

    January 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • aln0110

      In a football game there is a winner, and there is a loser. To say God would involve Hiimself in any situation where someone has to lose is certainly silly, isn't it?

      January 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Jimmy

      That is one man's opinion. The histrocity of Jesus Christ is larger than Alexander the Great, Ceasar and anyone else in the first 1500 years after Christ death. Christ's existence is reported in over 23,000 writings written during the first and second century. Anyone that looks at the evidence can only conclude Jesus Christ lived and walked the earth as reported in the Bible.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Reality

      From Professors Crossan and Watts' book, Who is Jesus.

      "That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the Creed states, is as certain as anything historical can ever be.

      “ The Jewish historian, Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus both agree that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea. And is very hard to imagine that Jesus' followers would have invented such a story unless it indeed happened.

      “While the brute fact that of Jesus' death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. "

      “My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.

      I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that a few examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those "last week" details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered."

      See also Professor Crossan's reviews of the existence of Jesus in his other books especially, The Historical Jesus and also Excavating Jesus (with Professor Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion) .

      Other NT exegetes to include members of the Jesus Seminar have published similar books with appropriate supporting references.

      January 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  5. yoshi

    Okay God, we got the message. Thanks. For you unbelievers, one close game, sure it was luck. Two close games, more luck. Three close games...hmm, could be something. Check the Chicago game, sooooo many things had to happen for the Broncos to win...and they did....The Broncos were 9 point underdogs on Sunday...The Steelers could have had a shot at a winning field goal...Geez, what is it going to take? I'm convinced there really is a message here.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Colin

      re-post in a week, after New england.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • AmericanSam

      Are you joking? He wins some close games and therefore God exists? God is controlling football? What happens when the Broncos lose? You pick out a few signs that should justify your position and then ignore the details that don't. Tebow wins games because he's good at football. God would not care about a football game.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  6. KC

    I don't believe in a god but if I was God, I would just once flick the ball up into the upper deck and put on the jumbo-tron "Listen kid, I'm busy trying fix the problems in Darfur, caused by the people that pray to my cousin. Will you stop the buzzing in my ear with this trivial crap. Keep it between you and your receiver. Take all the credit cause 'I aint got nothin' to do wth it'".

    January 10, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  7. Alex

    In paragraph 7, "eternal live" should be "eternal life".

    January 10, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  8. Chad

    “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 p*rn of Go-Daddy, violent movie trailers, and irresponsible drinking, but not for faith."

    =>truer words never spoken.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Yeah, sounds ok to me. So you guys will start that immediately?

      January 10, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Colin

      Hello Chad, do you still believe in the talking snake theory of galactic formation?

      January 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Chad

      Do I believe Genesis? Absolutely

      January 10, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  9. chris

    Whats with all the mistakes in the article: "but eternal live awaits all", "but the ad was was rejected." I'm dyslexic and have terrible grammar, but somehow you make me look good.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • J-Ex

      I used to send istakes to CNN on a daily basis and then figured out I was becoming their free online editor....I read our local newspaper online as well and have yet to find a mistake on their site even with their small budget

      January 10, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  10. Terry

    Tebow appears to be just a man that has a faith and it just so happens he expresses it in public. Some do in private. it's the stupid press/media that has taken his actions and tried to get people fired up and interested in this. Everybody has an opinion and the pres/media knows this and plays on this to sell papers and to get people to watch the news. One key thing to observe is, when he loses he still demonstrates his faith.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Jenna

      That's not a key thing at all. That's just a manifestation of his schizophrenia.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • LaLa

      Agreed. He's not saying God is favoring him. Rather, that everything he's done is for His glory. A good bit different than some inn the media have been trying to make it.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  11. peter out

    God does not care about football! Mankind is foolish to think God would use divine intervention to influence the outcome of a game. People should keep God on a pedestal, not bring him down to man's level of shallowness. Tebow is as deep as a tea cup, so are those who think God is concerned with their trivial, Earthly interests.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Jennifer Morris

      AMEN!!!!! If God cares sooooo much about football then we are in REAL big trouble....

      January 10, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • ripfuel45

      obviously, you know very little about Jesus Christ. And there is one particularly ironic statement in your comment that could not be more false. God doesn't want to be on a pedestal. In fact, he willingly lowered himself to be with us ... and to die the death we should have died. If you knew God at all, you would know that he cares about things much bigger than football ... as well as subject much smaller ... and trivial in your eyes ... because He loves those who follow Him.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • peter out

      ripfuel45, I was not refering to Jesus, but his Father who demands we respect him and put him above all things, which sounds like a pedestal to me. Do you dismiss all the verses in the Bible in which God commands his followers to put no god before him and consider him all powerful and all knowing? Doesn't sound very humble to me. Sounds like God, who created everything. I wouldn't consider lowering him, if I wanted to respect him.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  12. read this

    APOPHENIA

    January 10, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  13. COlady

    Get your facts right. Tebow threw for an 18 (eighTEEN) yard pass, while Thomas RAN for the 80 (EIGHTY) yard touchdown. Yet who's getting all the credit for the actual work??? You people need to get a life!

    January 10, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  14. george

    Whats a WorldNetDaily story doing on CNN

    January 10, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • 316

      Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  15. Nyarlathotep

    Jesus tells Nicodemus: "...no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again."

    Born again? "Scuse me for getting it right the first time.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  16. Ed

    So what will be his excuse when Brady kicks his ass next week?

    January 10, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • read this

      Brady is the devil, we all know that!!

      January 10, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  17. moonster

    Eric sensed a bit of sarcasm with your reporting....what is up with that?

    January 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  18. Rich Carrillo

    What a ridiculous article trying to associate Tebow with someone who holds someone hostage. I know CNN is liberal but please, do a fact check and see if Tebows ever been arrested.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • AmericanSam

      This is an opinion piece by a religious person. No one is pretending the article isn't biased.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  19. Nyarlathotep

    Best riff on John 3:16? Probably that T-shirt that reads "Drunk 24:7"

    January 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  20. jimbo

    Well that settles it then. I am agnostic no more. All this time I've been wondering why god didn't just give us irrefutable evidence of his existence... like being coded into Pi or drawn onto some mountain somewhere. Rascally god put it in Tebow's passing yards. Who would have guessed?

    January 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Charlie

      Oh... if that's all you need, you should really research the Fibonacci number. Mathematical pattern found throughout all of nature, also called "Fingerprint of God." Whether you're agnostic or not, it's a fascinating characteristic of nature.

      I hate being in a position to defend Tebow, because I've disliked him for a long time, but he's actually made it a point to tell people that he's more concerned about the time he spends with sick kids than he is a football game. He's also made it a point to say that God has zero interest in football; he's simply using his situation to thank and praise God for blessing him (Tebow).

      January 10, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • jimbo

      Aren't those the numbers that "show up" in nature in terms of ratios (like branches from a tree)? No doubt there are some crazy things out there (but would be allowed for given common ancestry). As an agnostic, I am quick to say that I don't disbelieve in a creator/designer/etc. I just don't think we have any clue as to what that is/was. To say that we know the answer to the biggest question out there, and that it was figured out by people who had so many other misunderstandings of the natural world/cosmos is ridiculous. I also see that it is plausible not to have one either. That is the key. I don't know, and can't pretend that I do. I don't dislike Tebow either. He seems like a good person. I don't think you need religion to be a good person or care for sick children. I just get a sense that he is preaching from his pedestal. But I can't seem to answer this fundamental problem: If god wanted someone to go to great lengths to help dying children, why would that same god give children these cruel diseases to begin with. God works in mysterious ways is a cop out.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
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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.