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. Time to be held accountable for crimes against humanity

    god did what he does best.. screwed up big bens ankle and took his players out.. Just like the bible.

    January 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  2. ReligionIs4Dolts

    Please explain Romans 2:14-16.
    "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."

    Makes me wonder why Xians still proselytize. Is or is not the bible calling them to spread the news to the goyim?

    January 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Andrew

      First thing that we must understand is that Jesus said that not everyone who emphatically declares me to be Lord will enter into the kingdom of heaven. Which is synonymous with, not everyone who says they are christian are truly christian. The verse that you have provided sir, is physical representation of what a christian should look like. Jesus says that anyone doesnt look like a christian is either lying or they're insane. Why? Because the Law of God is written on their hearts and they will walk in it. All thoughts that are in their heart come out of their mouth and their actions. Thats why on judgment day they will judged for their words, because all of their true thoughts come out of their mouths. Do christians sin? Yes. Can christians fall into carnality? Yes. But, can Christians live a Godless, worldly life all the days of their life? Absolutely not. People need to realize that their perception of the Church in America is flawed. Not everyone goes and comes out of those doors is truly a child of God. Paul wrote that in the verse that you quoted, and Jesus reflected the same sentiment in earlier texts.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  3. Ferris Bueller

    Two articles on Tim Tebow... hmmm? Looks like CNN has a Tebowner for Tim. CNN, pandering to the religious right will only lose more viewers. The religious right already has a home; Fox and the 700 Club.

    January 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Time to be held accountable for crimes against humanity

      a good place for the religious right to be.. Out of our hair. Tired of those delusional freaks.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  4. EnjaySea

    So god spawned a son and sent him to earth to be slaughtered by an angry mob, in order to benefit society? Sounds like a great religion. Where do I sign up?

    January 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  5. AdamtheDude

    This whole scenario is making me sick to my stomach....

    January 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  6. Tom

    If you wake up in the morning and your leg hurts you so much you can't stand it and pain medicine won't help don't expect a doctor to knock on your door to see if you need relief. If you need relief you must ASK. Matthew 11:28 says "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest...". You must ask.

    By the way! The doctor won't come to your door but God will. Read Revelation 3:20 which says, "Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone...". You can read the rest.

    Actually the doctor will come. The Bible calls Jesus the great physician. GO and ASK the great physician.

    January 11, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • rick

      That's nice. Go back on your meds, please

      January 11, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  7. Bob

    Anybody remember Austin 3:16?

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

      And that's the bottom line...

      January 11, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • StoneCold

      "Because Stone Cold said so!"

      January 11, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Brad

      Dude! That's the first thing that ran through my mind. I grew up out of church, and remember when I was like 8 digging out my parents old catholic bible and looking for Austin. I was SO confused.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  8. Eric

    I'm not an extremely religious person, but I fail to see why an ad with a religious message should be rejected solely for that reason. Too many "religommercials" would make the super bowl a real chore to watch, but I don't think one or two would be that bad. Pehaps a better policy would be to limit those spots to a certain number, and at certain times during the broadcast.

    January 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Ferris Bueller

      Because broadcasting systems are free to determine which ads they want to air. It's their right to say no.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • HRPuckinfutz

      If they allowed the Christian commercial, then they would have to allow commercials from every religion. They would not be allowed to limit them. By allowing the Christian commercial they would be opening a door that could never be closed.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  9. TAK

    Funny that the author would use Rollen Stewart, a lunatic and a criminal, as an example of preaching John 3:16.
    But according to christians, Stewart's place in heaven is secured, but Gandhi went to the other place. Nice. The most upside down belief system ever conceived.

    January 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  10. That's What's Up

    all these christians qouting verse has given jesus a raging Tebowner

    January 11, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  11. Roy Dufrain

    What a pantload!

    January 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  12. Abrondon

    In a sense, if Christians really believe what Jesus said - that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one gets to The Father except through him - then non-Christians ought to be insulted if Christians DON'T share that message. Keeping a secret like that would be like telling you you're not worth saving.

    January 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Michael

      That's a good point. Which is why those which turn away from following Christ when persecution arises show they were never born of God, the Root of the matter is not in them. Therefore do they wither and die when the heat of the day comes upon them.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • backup666


      "That he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one gets to The Father except through him." This is a myth and a scare tactic used by the church to either control their congregations or convert non-believers. Rev 20:11-12 states, "And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." Which in fact you believe your own hocus pocus of the bible, it would mean that EVERYONE will appear before GOD and there is NOTHING that Jesus can do about IT but watch.

      Revelation 7:3-8, "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until after we have sealed the servants of God on their foreheads." And I heard the number of the sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:"

      Revelation 14:3-5, "And they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. For it is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless." These are virgins Israelites NOT CHRISTIANS so will you be saved???

      January 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  13. Ray

    This religious stuff is getting old, are we really supposed to believe that God is helping Tim Tebow win games? If there is a God, and he is capable of performing miricles, wouldn't he stop the natural disasters that kill so many people, or stop all of the child molestation in the churches? Would he really help win football games, isn't there far more important things that he could use his miricles on?

    January 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • 12ga

      no you can believe what you want, he chooses to believe and thank his god. nobody is asking you to do anything. however I wonder based on your opinion, if you couldn't use a little prayer.

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

      Exactly. If there's a god and you credit him for helping Tebow win games, do you also credit god for NOT helping little kids get molested?

      January 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • 12ga

      i don't know who you are asking david but i have to say he just played better, not my job to fathom why. polluting the issue with your specific question has nothing to do with Tebow's freedom to thank his god. just as others have the freedom to not have a god.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Ed Medved

      Tebow is using his publicity to proclaim his devotion to God. He did not say God is helping him win, in fact he himself said God doesn't care who wins football games.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  14. Sean

    What a coincidence. A co-worker and I were just discussing this yesterday.

    As often as this verse is quoted, it's amazing how few actually know what it's saying. This author didnt.

    If you think this verse is a complete statement on how/why god forgives and offers eternal life, youre mistaken.

    All english translations leave out an important phrase in verse 16 – "in this manner" or "in this way". The greek word is "houtos".

    "For IN THIS WAY God so loved the world." Okay. What way?

    I'll be watching for answers.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Mark1020

      The context is Jn 3:14-15 whch states, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." The Israelites were saved from from the deadly serpent bite if they looked upon the brassen serpent lifted up upon the pole (Numbers 21:2-9). Thus, salvation is looking upon Jesus, not what man does. Salvation is faith alone and not earned. Also within the Numbers passage is the concept of repentence.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Praise of God, not the praise of man

      You are right. "In this way" it literally means. Jesus. "The WAY, the truth and the life". Through "Faith in Him". "For it is by grace, through faith you have been saved, not by works lest no man may boast". However, "faith without works is dead". We are therefore to be "doers of the law not simply hearers lest we deceive ourselves." Even Jesus said, "He who obeys my commandments, He is the one who loves me." "He who loves me will be loved by my Father and I too will love Him and show myself to him."

      John 3:16 is simply the beginning. That salvation is a "free Gift From God lest any man boast". We cannot earn our salvation, we can only come to Jesus. However, we are to keep ourselves "pure" by "obeying His Word". The reason is because Jesus is The Word. His New Name will be "The Word of God" when He returns.

      I encourage all of you seeking to keep yourselves through the Holy Spirit free from sin and as Paul tells us to be "perfect". God tells us to "be Holy for I am Holy."

      So "In this Way" means to "offer your bodies as living sacrifice Holy and pleasing to God" because we "die daily". In addition, "In this Way" means we are to "take up our cross daily and follow Him". That means we are to withstand temptations, go through sufferings and trials for Jesus. This is because the "trial of your faith is more precious than gold, through it be refined through the fire."

      We need to do this because God cannot be near sin. He is perfect and Holy and so we need to be as well through Him. "Blessed is the man who endures temptation for when he is tried, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to him who loves Him."

      So to born again brothers and sisters out there. We are not to just "do church". We need to obey His commandments which are written down in His Word because He is the Word. His Word also commands us to "Study".


      January 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Sean

      Mark1020, excellent job. Twenty two pages of posts and only one guy can figure out the answer. Not a bad cross section for seeing who can actually read and apply the texts.

      However, I will take issue with this statement: "Thus, salvation is looking upon Jesus, not what man does."

      Thats not what the author of John is saying. For the author of Johns gospel, irony and gods way are one in the same. The way you expect god to behave? Get ready, because hes going to do the opposite. Words in the gospel like "hupsothenai" are strong indicators for themes in the gospel. In this case, it can mean either "raised up" or "brought down" and thats exactly how the author wanted it to be read. That which is brought low is raised up in glory, just as the son of man is brought low, he is raised in glory.


      January 12, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  15. Tim Tebow - Devil Man


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

      Ummmmm..... what? Just because you can ramble weirdness on video and post it on the web doesn't mean you should.

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

      Ugly freak. Get a life.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  16. The Witness Elijah

    "...no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." – This statement gets misconstued by so many people. You see, we do not die and go to heaven, but rather we are born into heaven. Heaven is not an afterlife, but rather humanity is pre-life. We are God's answer to abortion. He does not wait until we born to judge us. He does this prenatally – because God gives the right of choice to life itself. Oh and by the way – the kingdom of God is made up of dark matter.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Greg s

      “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8)

      Im gonna take the Apostle Paul over what you have to say my friend.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • The Witness Elijah

      @ Greg – And what does Revelations tell you about me my brother? I'll give you hint. The beast from the sea already suffered the mortal head wound. We called him Usama bin-Laden. Today, we know him as the one-eyed Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. And when the beast rises from the sea we shall know him Usama bin-Laden once again.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  17. Last Call

    @Rainer Braendlein – Which version of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are you reading? If it’s Eric Metaxas’ book it does not speak about what you write. You say “God considers the fact that we cannot grasp the gospel by reason…” How small is your God?

    January 11, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  18. rationalfew

    Isn't it a line from the Poke Mon movie.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  19. Ray E. Georgia

    800 responses already. Well that ought to explain it!

    January 11, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  20. Michael

    IIn John 3:16, the Lord Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God is saving Gentiles(the world) as well as Jews. Jews are not in the kingdom because they are Jews, but you must be born again ("born" being a verb, not part of a "born again" noun, which people use falsely, not knowing the LORD who gives birth to new creatures in Christ). The Spirit of God does the rebirthing. The new birth is an act of God. It is of God's will, not man's will. Men who use John 3:16 to compel men to believe of themselves by their own will, is spiritual suicide, both to the free-will preacher and those who believe them.

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

      Actually, it isn't spiritual suicide, because that would suggest they are alive to begin with. The point is they are dead in trespasses and sins. No one can make himself to be born, or born again. It is something that happens to them. A dead man cannot rise up and walk until God commands him to live. Then he lives, rises up and walks. Salvation is completely and only of the will of the LORD.

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

      I love it when christians can't even agree among themselves on the meaning of a bible verse.

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

      I bet you love it even more Antony when it's me explaining myself more accurately. Huh?

      January 11, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Joe T.

      Antony, I also love it when people spend time debating the meaning of a text that was written 2000 years ago about a myth and false promise.

      January 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Greg s

      It means exactly what it says, Folks just like to put there own spin on things. Its the truth concerning any written text being discussed. I find it funny that Joe T. Assures us there isnt a God. He has nothing but his gut feeling to base this own and he is going with his gut on this and with his statement hopes others will go with his gut as well. We on the other hand have A 3400 year old text that is over 50 percent prophecy that has not to this day been proven false. And of course our gut to go on. Those who don't believe in God have nothing to offer as proof that there is no God other then there own best guess. There #1 tool to attack a believer is to Mock them, Insult them, Imply that due to a believers low intelligence they cant grasp what those with a higher IQ have come to realize thru diligent study. Right diligent study, I prayed to God once and he didn't save my uncle Tim so there inst a God!! Uncle Tims lif and death was Gods Business not yours The Lord God Almighty does not look at death the way mortal man does....So uncle Tim Died and now you hate God...Thats a High IQ for ya...OR How could a Loving God allow all the horrible things to take place in the world, Hmm thats Called Free will folks, If God Lived our lives for us what kind of life would we have. Believers on the other hand have the Bible. The word of God penned by men inspired by God......That bothers unbelievers because if its Gods word it should be printed and written by God...really hmmm If there is a all powerful God then that all powerful God would make sure his book was written the way he wanted it written, It would say what he wanted it to say, It would be Written in such a way that it could not be proven false because once one thing in it is proven to be false its not worth toilet paper. That hasn't happened yet. So Joe T good luck Im going with the Bible you go with your Gut...:)

      January 11, 2012 at 12:57 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.