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. jeanne

    all this from a 23 year old kid and a football game.........awesome.....

    January 11, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  2. gggg

    I really don't mind if religion makes it's appearance in the public square. The problem is that those that are most vocal about religion in public actually mean Christianity in public. As soon as the governments start giving equal time to all the religions (required of them, by the way), the overboard evangelical Christians complain somewhat vocally, sometimes resorting to violence and crime (see bad example in the article). The only fair way to prevent the problems is to simply ban all religions from the public square. So, once again, everyone suffers because of one unruly kid. Of course, that begs the question, if we as people cannot share on this seemingly trivial issue, how are we going to handle the middle east?

    January 11, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  3. Curious

    Interesting article until the last sentence. Is Eric Marrapodi suggesting that anyone who displays 3:16 – including Tebow – is likely to hold people hostage and end up in jail, like Rollen Stewart???

    January 11, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  4. AceRyder

    It took a SWAT team 9 hours to free the woman?

    January 11, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  5. keith

    Cause Stone Cold Said So!

    January 11, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  6. lolita

    hypocrite!! fanatic!! what verse would he use if he hadn't scored ? Does God answer prayers among football players? How bout wrestlers and kick boxers ?? Oh dear God,,,,let me beat the crap out of manny pacquiao,,,Oh God, please give me a touch down???

    January 11, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Brasil1958

      John 6:13. "Whosoever useth the name of the Lord in order to glorify themselves when scoring a touchdown or any other sport in celebration and pointing skyward shall forever be damned to the minor leagues and never heareth from again. So it is written....so it is done".

      January 11, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  7. Brasil1958

    I always wondered what happened to "Rainbow Head". Saw him once at the Unlimited boast race in Seattle.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  8. Patty

    Read Judas My Brother by Frank Yerby to have your whole thought process about Jesus changed and what is written in the bible.. Raised a Catholic but not a practicing one. Consider myself an atheist I guess. I am a believer in the religion of kindness and forgiveness, but not organzied religion. Look at history and find how much killing can be traced back to an organized religion.

    What I think is if TT's God exists, I am surprised that he would demean him so much as to constantly associate such an important deity with a football game. This God that he speaks of certainly must be too busy too care what happens in the NFL on Sunday. On Sunday he wants to see you in church period. So find it rather ludicrous that TT who purports to be such a believer of his rightist Christian teachings that he would reduce him to the mocking of many by bringing him constantly into an insignificant event such as an NFL football game.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  9. S-Hug

    Peer pressure and brainwashing — that's what faith is. That's what conservatism is. Believe what we believe, or burn in Hell.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  10. Bill, Bloomington Il

    an article like this is why I do not like Tim Tebow. So what happens when he loses? Nailed to the cross? Died for our sins? I only wish Marion Barber of the Bears had an IQ above 10 and Tebow would not be in the playoffs.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  11. NotBuyingIt

    The entire premise of John 3:16 seems to be missed in religious debate. The idea of a "loving father" breeding a child for the purpose of sacrificing that child, violently and without conscience, so that he could have the world the was HE wanted it to be "again", so that HE could bear to look at people who, supposedly, HE is powerful enough to "forgive" of their sins without said bloodshed but chose not to... this is not only immoral butthe basis of mental and societal sickness. As a parent, I cannot imagine a more heinous proposal, especially when couched in terms of love. Hearing it makes me want to vomit.

    January 11, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • OnWhatBasis

      And your interpretation is based on what? ... that's what I thought, nothing but our own opinion.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Dave in Portland

      onwhatbasis – As opposed to the opinions of the 1000's of Xtian denominations out there all saying that every one but them will burn in he11?

      You are pathetically narrow-minded.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  12. Rainer Braendlein

    “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 8:17 am |
    • Reality

      . JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

      Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

      Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

      Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

      Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

      So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man would do or say?

      January 11, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      First, this is a belief blog, not an anti-belief blog.

      Mark 3: 31-35:

      There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. 32 And the multi-tude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. 33 And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? 34 And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! 35 For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

      As Jesus' mother and his brethren were devout, they believed what the scribes (modern word: theologian) told them. The scribes hated Jesus, because he was about to destroy their business (selling spiritual goods). Hence, the scribes told the people Jesus would be mad, in order to seperate them from Jesus.

      Later, Mary and her sons changed their minds and acknowledged Jesus and thus became real (spiritual) relatives of Him. One brother of Jesus, called James, became the first bishop of Jerusalem after Christ's ascenscion.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Brad


      "Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction."

      The most remarkable thing about the apostles, including Paul is that they were a rather random assortment of men unlikely to become the religious leaders they later became. They were fishermen, a tax collector etc. Paul was a member of the Jewish establishment devoted to persecution of followers of Jesus. How were they able to become the writers and proponents of the stuff you mention? Why, even if they had the innate ability, would they? Jesus's example showed everyone a bad ending for anyone who might try. All but John are believed to have come to unpleasant ends.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Mike from CT

      Reality, its tragic that when you find something you like you cling to the doc.ument as proof but then reject the same doc.ument when it convicts you.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Reality

      Summarizing with a prayer:

      The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
      and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


      (references used available upon request)

      January 12, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  13. In search of the God Particle

    1. I do not prefer Tebow or Notre Dame when it comes to football.
    2. Science and religion are both faith based and rely upon belief in things which are intangible to you.
    3. When I said, "Be fruitful and multiply", I gave you the ability to understand and reason to take that statement as a suggestion, rather than a command.
    4. Five billion years ago, I created the universe which you live in. Six thousand years ago, I made you in my image, unlike the Neanderthals. Its like comparing apples to rocks.
    5. Not only did I give you my son, I gave you – you!
    6. Life is good.
    7. The bible is a manual with some basic instructions.
    8. Perfection isn't.
    9. The rest is up to you.

    January 11, 2012 at 5:05 am |
    • Reality

      (from Professor JD Crossan's book, "Who is Jesus" co-authored with Richard Watts)

      "Moreover, an atonement theology that says God sacrifices his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but it is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse, and may infect our imagination at more earthly levels as well. I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us."

      "Traditionally, Christians have said, 'See how Christ's passion was foretold by the prophets." Actually, it was the other way around. The Hebrew prophets did not predict the events of Jesus' last week; rather, many of those Christian stories were created to fit the ancient prophecies in order to show that Jesus, despite his execution, was still and always held in the hands of God."

      "In terms of divine consistency, I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time, including Jesus, brings dead people back to life."

      January 11, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • dash_bannon

      Science is NOT faith based. It's evidence based.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  14. Reality

    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 11:49 pm |
  15. Realitycheck

    Interesting the writer felt the need to discredit Christianity in general by including a story about a nut case from decades past. When the media is afraid of something...

    January 10, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  16. Phil

    @ Alexandria Lanai

    Again, you're wrong...as are most theists. Atheism is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. You say he exists...I say he doesn't, however, I'm more likely to be right.

    Let me propose something to you.

    You've lived your entire life, and you (and everyone else) never heard of god or religion. The concept hadn't been created yet.

    Along comes someone with the idea that there is a magical being in the sky (or wherever) and says that he watches everything you do and hears everything you say and think. This magical being will judge you one day after you die and if he doesn't like what he sees, he'll send you to burn in hell for eternity...which they add is this horrible place - etc. You must believe and convert to christianity right now to be saved. There's more to the story - but for the sake of this argument, I've condensed it to this.

    What are you likely to do?

    (a) Blindly follow the beliefs of this obviously mentally disturbed individual?
    (b) Walk away and never think about it again?

    You will, along with everyone else will choose (b).

    January 10, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • Realitycheck

      First let me say I used to be an atheist. My viewpoint was strikingly similar to yours at one time but once you get past the simplistic arguments against a creator and begin to see the complexities and wonder of the universe you begin to see there might be a thing or two mere humans don't know. If someone asked me if I'd rather live my life in fear of death or if I'd rather live it fully in peace without fear of anything, I know what my answer would be.

      January 10, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • John

      My dear Phil-

      You have forgotten one thing. God was here from the beginning. That person who never heard of God and was told of Him by a fellow man does not mean God does not exist.

      I pitty those who believe we evolved from the chance where carbon came in contact with oxygen and a few acids to form one cell, which then "evolved" into all plant, animal, insect and every other living thing on our planet.

      In fact, it is obvious that THIS thought is the height of denial and simplistic thinking. It's origin comes from the fact that no person likes to be dictated to with threats, which is what the bible can be interpreted as doing when the "believe in me or burn in hell" line is used by the press and others who simply cannot bring themselves to accept that they are not the most superior living force in the universe.

      Once their superiority complex is overcome, they might have a chance. As for those who don't know of Him.... they will.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • Phil

      You were an atheist? What happened?

      I was born atheist. Indoctrinated into the catholic church and lived about 18 years as a catholic. I spent 10 years as an agnostic and the past 10 years as an atheist. I will never return to believing in something that defies logic and reason.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • Phil

      @ John

      No. god was not there at the beginning...nor before the beginning because there was nothing before the beginning. All matter in the universe was compressed into a space smaller than an atom. Just like protons, sub atomic particles can pop into and out of existence... This singularity was probably no different. It collapsed until it could no further and then expanded into what we see today.

      god had nothing to do with it. god didn't exist then and doesn't exist now. god was thought of billions of years later on this planet by man as a tool to manipulate and control people through extortion and fear.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • tallulah13

      Which god, John? Vishnu? Hinduism is older than judaism. Zeus? Osiris? Anu? Odin? Or was it maybe a goddess, like Isis, Ishtar or Athena? All of these were older than or contemporary with the god of the jews. All of them are older than christianity. Your god is very late to the party. This is probably because humanity has created, replaced and rejected thousands of gods throughout history to explain the unknown.Knowledge makes gods obsolete. Should humanity survive long enough, your god will join all the others in the mythology section of the library.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • Realitycheck

      As to your question of "what happened?" to cause the shift from atheism to Christianity I'd suggest reading C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity". He was a very bright, intellectual (and eloquent writer) that, like you, prided himself on using reason and logic. He was also an atheist that became a believer. tallulah13- I actually wrote college philosophy papers about Greek mythology and how as soon as we gained enough knowledge about science we'd have no need to believe in God anymore. The interesting thing that happened, however, was the more I learned (read the Bible for the first time at 50!) and shed the arrogance that I had all the answers and truly opened my eyes with a sincere desire to know the truth, it was there, right in front of me. Thanks for asking the question.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Dave in Portland

      Realitycheck – I truly hate to say this, and believe me when I say that there is no venom in my words.

      It sounds to me like the concept of your own mortality came crashing down on you and you reached out for some way to become less afraid. Of course I do not know if this is true, but it happens to many people as they age and realize that they are not immortal. At that point, many people feel comforted by the thought that they are not alone and that there is something to look forward to after this is all over.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  17. santaclaus

    what a crock of ....

    January 10, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  18. Nwvotes

    Do you believe in the power of Tim Tebow? Vote at Nationwidevotes.com

    January 10, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  19. John

    That whole passage in John Ch. 3 leading upto verse 16 , which is a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is amazing!

    January 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • Alexandria Lanai

      I thought it was purely amazing!!! 🙂 Almost teared up!

      January 10, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Gabriel

      Indeed, the whole realm of understanding spiritual things was made clear in that passage. It is a wonderful message!

      January 10, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  20. quest west

    This is the same verse that have been changed during a course of my short life time........the word "begotten son" has been change to "one and only" I wonder what christianity is turing into esp if they continue to make a claim that the bible is God words and words, verses, and contradiction parvades the book........confusion created by their scholars for worldy gains

    January 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Keith

      You have an excellent point. The newer versions eviscerate the Word of God. It is a shame and is demonically motivated.

      January 10, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • dash_bannon

      I agree. There's a political movement in America that wants to enforce their "Christian" beliefs on everyone and claim the Bible is literally true. They desire to make the abstract concrete. We're getting to a point where faith and mystical beliefs are trumping reality. (Global warming & evolution for example.)

      One's experience with God/Jesus/the Supernatural is a personal experience. One's belief should not be forced down the throat of others.

      Christianity went from being a religion to a political movement in my lifetime. Religion and politics don't mix. Look at Iran.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:57 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.