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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. Yakobi

    Tebow may love Jesus, but Jesus loves Tom Brady more!

    January 10, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Brian Zwart

      over the lips, and through the gums... watch-out stomach, here it comes.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  2. TD

    I certainly do not condone what Stewart did, but 3 life sentences............Wow!
    The Judge must be an atheist or gay to have gone that far.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  3. Andy Wilson

    NIV says "would not perish", KJV says "should not perish". Would and Should are two different meanings. NIV has changed the meaning. That's why there are so many differnt churches today. Man has complicated the Bible and changed meanings. Dont Baptists use "shall not perish"? Should and Shall are different meanings also.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • TD

      You would have to go to the original Greek to know for sure.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • RAMullen

      Also, it says "Perish", not "Eternal Torment". Eternal torment is an idea created by man, not God.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @RAMullan,
      What about Matthew 25:46 or Revelation 20:15 or John 3:36.
      ("And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
      "If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire."
      And, "The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him."
      Respectively.)

      January 10, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Rhubarb

      Excellent point. You simply cannot go wrong with the King James Version. Definitely avoid the NIV, as it actually omits passages in some places and changes others. The KJV is inerrant, infallible and has never been proved wrong and never will be.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Timmy

      Doesn't matter what version you read.There are literally thousands of contradictions. Grow up. Why is your god so random, as to allow the "wrong" translation. Sort of weak and inattentive. Obviously it doesn't give a rip which one you read.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  4. kude

    Tell you the truth, while I'm not Christian, the ad thing does make me mad. They had no reason;nay, no right, to reject that ad. I sometimes wish I was born... well... any time in America's history except now. There's more social injustice and racism (towards religion) than ever.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  5. Brian Zwart

    God doesn't explain football, and football doesn't explain God.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Mark

      Thanks for your comment apostle Obvious

      January 10, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  6. Jennifer Morris

    I am Christian, but I have to say this: I think it's funny how people must think that God has a "favorite QB"...that is ridiculous AND hilarious!!! Not to mention, just because Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and some of the other GREAT quarterbacks in the NFL aren't SHOUTING IT FROM THE ROOF TOPS, does not mean that they too, aren't Christians. They are ALL having wonderful seasons without shoving their beliefs down peoples' throats. I'm sure they're praying for wins every weekend too, they just don't do it in front of 20 million people

    January 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Deep

      I agree with you. Moreover, I can't see how the Steelers were favorites with an injured quarterback. And I don't see how Denver is going to make it against the fitter and much better teams in the playoffs with or without the Almighty's grace.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Word of Life Christian Center

      Uh...he's not shoving religion down people's throats! No one is "forced" or coerced to believe anything Jen! Now, if you had a gun to your head, maybe you can say he's forcing the issue, but all Tebow is doing is expressing who he is, he's a christian! People are mad because he talks about Christ, if it were any other "religion" he wouldn't get as much flack about it. People are just against "Jesus" in general, and THAT'S RIDICULOUS!

      January 10, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Dave

      I actually have a hard time believing you are a Christian when you make a stupid comment like 'shoving it down peoples throats". Nice, a man is not ashamed of his faith, publically shows it, and it's 'shoving it down peoples thoats'.

      I also belive it was someone named ... er, ah, .. yeah, Jesus, that once commanded something like letting your faith shine like a candle and not hidden for noone to see- something along those lines. Many other parables and commands to share your faith .. so read your Bible ... CHRISTIAN?!!!!

      As for Tebow (or anyone) being God's favorite, certainly there are many Christians, equally on opposing teams. But I suggest again that you read your Bible to develop an understanding of God's will and purpose. You might develop a better understanding .. even that hmmm.... it appears even Jesus had a special bond with a particular apostle.

      Bottom line though, certainly, God does not choose a particular team and 'intercede' to make them win. But God can and does endow people that earnestly seek Him with special abiliites.

      So Tebow believes and acknowledges that publically, but this 'Christian' OP says Tebow crams it down people throats.

      Right ...

      January 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  7. Bob A.

    John Madden 3:16 For god so loved the world that he gave us football !

    January 10, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  8. Sanity

    Barack Obama – March 30, 2011
    The President says he's been doing "a lot of praying" in recent weeks while faced with tough choices on Libya and other crises at home and abroad.
    "I am praying that I'm making the best possible decisions, and that I've got the strength to serve the American people well," he said in an interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer.
    "My prayers sometimes are general: Lord, give me the strength to meet the challenges of my office," he said. "Sometimes they're specific: Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance. Where there will be boys, Lord, have that skirt get longer as she travels to that dance."
    "My Christian faith ... has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years - all the more so when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time," Obama said last month. "We are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we're being true to our conscience and true to our God."

    January 10, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  9. Phearis

    Has nobody seen Family Guy? John 3:16 – "And the Lord said, Go Sox!"

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

      we'll see about that in this baseball season!

      January 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  10. Joe

    I can't wait until tebow has a crushing defeat. Then all this nonsense will go away. As if god could give a crap about who wins a stupid football game. Are you kidding me? There are so many bigger things in the world to devote attention to. Stuff like this makes people flee Christianity even faster than before.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Blue

      "God does not care who wins football games" Tim Tebow

      January 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • TD

      Could not disagree with you more Joe. If someone is that turned off by it, then they were not chosen in the first place.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Kerstin

      Even WHEN the time comes that Tebow/his team suffer a loss and are defeated he will STILL give glory to God. In good times and in bad, all the glory goes to God.

      People who think it is all about winning kill so many activities...

      January 10, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Lucius

      53 million people watched that game last Sunday. So there are bigger things to God than 53 million people watching someone glorify him? You may be missing the point. You don't have to like it, and it doesn't really effect you unless you allow it. For me, it works. If it didn't I wouldn't let it bother me.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Rhubarb

      You're right – God doesn't care about who wins the football game. And the Broncos may likely soon lose. But consider the facts: Yesterday, the #1 Google search in the world was the biblical verse John 3:16. That means that 100's of millions of people read the verse. God said that His Word would never come back void. That means they read the verse and made a decision: interest or non-interest. Eternal life or eternal separation from their heavenly Father. And that is FAR more important that winning or losing a football game. I urge you to ask Christ to forgive your sins and thus gain eternal life.

      (This article focused on some criminal who apparently justified his acts biblically. His actions were not Christian by any stretch of the imagination and he deserves to be in prison. And THAT story has nothing to do with the true meaning of John 3:16, and neither does this CNN article).

      January 10, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Timmy

      Ya ya. It's always "my version is the "true" version. Yawn.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  11. magnus

    screw all this analysis about this and that. i hope Tebow and the Broncos can beat NE. Please, beat the evil empire.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  12. James

    Another hit job. Find a nutcake who spouted John 3:16 , and lump him together with all who believe. That makes them all nuts,right? What a shame!

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

      You are exactly right. That is the goal of the article. What else should we expect from CNN.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Rhubarb

      Amen and very well put !

      January 10, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  13. DC

    The picture and headline of this article may have led you to believe it would be about Tim Tebow and his religious beliefs. WRONG! Instead, it's a biopic about the insane Rollen Stewart. Nice job CNN, you've proven again why you have zero journalistic integrity what-so-ever.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Regis990

      Hmm, I could've sworn that the first mention of Stewart didn't come until the 7th to last paragraph...buy hey, why let facts interfere with your message. I guess there's no doubt you're christian.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  14. zappafrank

    Check out Austin 3:16!

    January 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  15. Victor

    It's about time media gives Jesus Christ a spot, it seems there is no spot for Him in alot of humans. Read the Bible, the truth will set you free and you will not spend eternity in the lake of fire. It doesn't matter what happens in any future game, it is all about the glory he gave to Jesus Christ in verse John 3:16. His name is truly in the Lamb's Book of Life, is yours? If not, your knee will bow at the Great White Throne Judgment and then it will be too late. Bless anyone who gives the glory to Jesus Christ our Lord.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Regis990

      The bible is a book of fairy tales written by men seeking to control other men through fear.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Jon

      If only I could become the next world savior if I preached the word of God, performed a few tricks, and got crucified. The whole 'sin' thing is a good pick-up line also. There was sin before Jesus and life was fine, there's sin now and life is still fine.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Victoria

      Yes, because you can't find a mention of Jesus anywhere in the media <>

      January 10, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • John

      If you can prove any of that without the Bible then I might believe you. Experiments on concepts of reality have to be able to be replicated.. otherwise it's as reputable as me saying that Jesus was actually the father of God, not the son, and he is also his own grandfather, and through this holy generational trilogy were are all connected as one, regardless of age.... it's really easy to talk out yer a_s.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  16. John from Buffalo

    Who cares. Tebow is the son of God and shall deliver us a Super Bowl ring / trophy.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Rhubarb

      No, Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He has all power in Heaven and on Earth (HE said so). Watch your mouth.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  17. GASocaler

    I think it is fascinating on such a dramatic moment in his NFL season going into overtime and achieving a stat THREE TIMES in the same night. If it was just a coincidence it is extremely coincidental and should still be something to be in awe that it was the same 3 digit number he spent promoting through his college games. I didn't see it but maybe it is there, but this number happened THREE TIMES! 316 yard, 31.6 average (10 completed plays of the 21 attempted) and **IN OVERTIME THEY HAD BLOOMBERG REPORT 31.6 MILLION VIEWERS FOR THE OVERTIME PERIOD**.

    Hello God.

    "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;" – 1 Corinthians 1:27

    January 10, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Coincidences don't prove there's a god. It just proves that there are coincidences.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Rhubarb

      Amen and Amen!

      January 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  18. Scott

    3:16 stands for 3 minutes and 16 seconds. The average amount of time it will take the Patriots to score a touchdown on the Broncos each time they have the ball. End of story.

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

      Better watch your mouth, Scott. That's the most important verse in the whole Bible and you're trivializing it.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Timmy

      Rhubarb.
      Fuck god...... Ooooh......waiting......waiting.....no lightning yet.....still no lightning.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Dave in Portland

      Rhubarb – You keep telling people to watch their mouths. Who the he11 are you to tell anyone what to say and what not to say? If you believe in the sh1t you spew, you would know that we have free will. That would mean that people are free to say what they want as long as they are willing to deal with any (if any) consequences may happen later. Therefore, perhaps rather than telling others to watch their mouths, you should actually shut yours.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  19. Sanity

    On Feb 3, 2011, Obama said "“A call rooted in faith is what led me, just a few years out of college, to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the south side of Chicago,” he said.

    “And it was through that experience, working with pastors and laypeople, trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods, that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my Lord and Savior.”

    Dd you folks jumping on Tebow now jump on Obama then? If not, why not?

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

      Because jumping on people is wrong.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Dave in Portland

      Does Obama consistently pray on camera or make a show out of his devotion? Didn't think so.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  20. george k1

    what utter nonsense!

    no other country is interested in American football, only the USA. Ask them to take off the pads and play rugby like real men. an they run for 100 minutes? No, just big and fat and overpaid.

    And now you've got a mindless bible thumper to complete the picture.

    January 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • jordan14

      No other country is interested in football, because you'll can't handle it. Take your nonsense elsewhere and stick with your boring rugby of a game.

      January 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Blue

      All the guys get to group hug in rugby and other countries like soccer where the number one skill is how to fake an injury like a pansy to get a card on the other player. I do not like American football but it is not as gay as rugby or soccer.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • TD

      Rugby the game where men do not need pads because there not trying to kill each other on every play and come to think of it they don't even have any plays they just chase a ball up and down the field like a bunch of misguided children who every so often have to stop and act like a giant crab pushing itself around. It's hilarious!

      January 10, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Blue

      It is not a crab it is a group hug so they can talk about their feelings.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • TD

      Sorry my mistake.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Rhubarb

      George K1, I totally dare you to repeat your post while standing in front of an NFL player. It's easy to have a big mouth anonymously on the internet, right?

      Ignore the Holy Bible at your own eternal peril, sir. But please don't. Please accept Christ.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:54 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.