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. glenn

    "Despite Stewart's story, many sports fans continue the tradition of evangelizing at sports games by holding up John 3:16 on placards."

    With the word "despite" is the columnist suggesting that Stewart somehow discredited John 3:16?

    January 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • God

      Yeah! John 3:16 is awesome. Football is awesome! America is awesome! God is awesome! Hey, that's me! Thank you.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • Bruce

      No, the article is suggesting that in spite of Stewart making that action seem like something a crazy person would do, (apparently) non-crazy people did it anyway.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  2. AverageJoe76

    Here's the REAL deal: I've asked and asked questions when I was a wee lad about religion. Never getting a satisfactory answer for the hard questions. So I am apart of those who're naturally inquisitive, but not satisfied with the answers we were getting. So I looked, and guess what; science could explain some of those things in a manner that could be proven for the most part. So I am (if the Bible is true) "pre-destined" to be doomed. Because I have questions. Because I look at the stars and say, "I know there's more to this...". I can't believe in such a closed-minded God. How can he NOT know me?? God should know the way my brain works, my heart, and my intentions. Period. So to create me for a fiery demise, is cruel to say the least. I just want to discover the wonders of the universe. How can one be punished for that?

    January 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • God

      I do know everything! The world is 6000 years old and dinosaurs are a Jewish conspiracy. Thank you.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Rick Lowe

      You will be happy to know that the bible does not teach that people will burn in a fiery hell if they do not follow the word of god. This is a twisting scripyures of organized religion to maniipulate people into their church's ( and give ten per cent, which ended when Jesus died).
      I understand the things you mention, but DO NOT BE FOOLED , by organized religion. He does not torture anyone. The bible is very clear that when you die, you know nothing, neither does your soul....
      and to those who honestly believe that God would choose sides in a football are as dumb as the actual football itself.
      But I am happy to see that Tim Tebow is willing to act as a good role model for our youth. Lets hope he is not distracted by his industry.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Truth Teller

      AverageJoe76, please take comfort that you were not created for a fiery demise. You were created to have a relationship with God. When you get a chance, the book of John, yes that also has "3:16", is a great place to start reading about Jesus Christ. It will be my prayer that as you read it, it will make sense. Blessings to you for a great new year, and beyond!

      January 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  3. Preacher

    Kudos to those who are willing to share their faith. A truly secular country should not prevent a person from being able to share his faith. mutual respect is far more important than mutual tolerance between religious communities.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  4. Truly Sad

    I find it ironic so many people are taking the time to mock something they do not believe.

    I also find it amazing so many people mock Christianity merely because they know Christians who are not perfect.

    Christianity is not an exclusive club where only the perfect, the righteous, the sinless gather to attack the remainder of the world, condemning it do eternal damnation, although I'm sure most non-Christians belive this to be true.

    Christianity is an open gathering of failed people, who acknowledge their imperfection. True Christians will be the last ones to judge anyone, because they would then find themselves judged by God.

    In Christianity, God offers mankind complete freedom from perfection through His grace, brought about by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, although it is the goal of all Christians to live their lives as removed from sin as possible, there isn't one Christian who can boast of perfection, of sinlessness, of righteousness, apart from the grace of a loving and forgiving God.

    Anyone who thinks otherwise about Christianity and Christians doesn't know either.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Sir

      We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.
      G. Roddenberry

      January 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • momoya


      Imagine that you lived in a society where 90% of the population believed in the all-goodness of the easter bunny and a society where the EVERY president was a firm believer in the goodness of the easter bunny. Now imagine that this belief relied upon the easter bunny rigging a game whereby he had to sacrifice himself to himself in order to save his creation from himself. Now imagine that you were one of the very few who recognized the silliness of this pervasive belief. You're welcome.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • rick

      i don't mock christians because i do not believe. i mock them because of their evangelizing

      January 11, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • John

      @Truly Sad. This was one of the most intelligent responses I've read here in a long time. You've made the point clear and straightforward and in a very objective, non-offensive way. Kudos!

      January 11, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  5. SCOTT A.

    it means we can go to heaven when we die where there will be no more sorrow. or sickness or disease. all we have to do is tell GOD we are sorry for our sins and ask JESUS to save us and HE will. but if we continue a life of sin we will all perish in HELL forever. believe me HELL is no walk in the park or no party either its punishment for refusing GODS gift of salvation. HELL is forever and its HOT you will literally burn alive 24/7 forever. and your body will never be consumed by the flames. and every evil thought and word and action you ever did on earth wiil come back to haunt you forever. and HELL is total isolation you will never see or be able to interact with another human being ever again.dont think its real? i guarantee you the people that are in HELL now believe its real and wish they werent there. get saved today or if you continue on in your sins some day you will end up there and believe its real. but then it will be forever too late for you.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • OhPlz

      Based on what you wrote your god is a tyrant, not a loving god. Love me or burn for eternity. That is NOT a loving god.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • God

      It's so totally true, you guys. It says so right in that book I wrote 2000 years ago – Harry Potter. I mean, The Holy Bible. Hell is real. Heaven is real. I'm definitely real – your imaginary daddy issues in the sky. Coming at ya! Thank you.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • rick

      I agree with OhPlz, Scott. The being you worship appears to be a petty bully

      January 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • rick

      Why should we believe you about Hell, Scott? Have you been there? If we have no bodies, how do we burn? Do you spend lots of time on your knees?

      January 11, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • rick

      Empty proxy threats are the tools of those who have no rational argument. "Believe me, or rot in Hell forever". Seriously, do you find that this apporoach works on people? And, if you believe to avoid hell, you are not a child of god, you are a prisoner of god.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  6. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    "I ain't lookin' for help from on-high. That's a long wait for a train don't come." – Malcolm Reynolds, "Serenity"

    January 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  7. rpatter

    Maybe the bumper sticker wisdom is true. "I like your Jesus, but not you Christians." That's sad for those of us who are Christians.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Jesus

      Dear Christians – I always liked the one, "God, please save me from your followers." I really identified with that. Thank you.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  8. God

    Jesus, I told you to beat the spread!!! Thank you.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  9. Jesus

    Attention Christians – I have risen in the form of a holy roller football player. I just wanted to bang some hot cheerleaders before saving the world, fighting anti-me and resurrecting your dead relatives. Don't worry. That thing about living forever after you die. TOTALLY still happening. Thank you.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • momoya

      Dear Jesus, I am wearing an article of clothing that has TWO, count 'em, TWO different materials. I dressed in the dark this morning and so I accidentally broke the commandment against wearing such items of clothing. If I do everything else right, am i still going to everlasting hellfire just because of this mistake? Please help!

      January 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Jesus

      Dear momoya – sorry, my dad, the Hebrew God, is kind of strict. You're screwed. Thank you.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • God

      Who for thou wears white after Labor Day!!!?

      January 11, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  10. Jesus

    Attention Christians – I bring you an 11th commandment – mo money, mo problems. Thank you.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • A-postle-1-son!!!

      Please say 3 "hail mary's" and 4 "money ain't a thing's" while throwing money out the roof of your convertible. Amen.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Jesus

      Attention Christians – it ain't nothin' but a g-thang. Thank you.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  11. Satin

    Please stop confusing me with Satan. I am a silky and luxurious fabric, not some fallen angel. Though if you get sheets made out of me, you will feel as if you knew heaven's embrace. Thank you.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  12. Jason

    Some of you folks need to ask yourselves, "What has Jesus done to you that you have so much hatred towards Him and brothers in Christ"

    January 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Bruce

      Can't speak for everyone, but for me, I don't appreciate the notion that if I personally can't overcome my incredulity with regards to a story that may or may not have happened two thousand years ago, that if I can't personally force my opinion of whether or not that story is true and accurate into some form of belief, that I will be tortured for an eternity in hellfire.

      It's harsh, and it's also very insulting to my intelligence to posit that my mere opinion somehow trumps what Jesus allegedly did for me, that in spite of his sacrifice (if it indeed happened) that he did to save me from eternal damnation, that at the end of the day my personal control over my opinions regarding the truth of the story and the trustworthiness of the people who tell this story to me is more important than the truth of the matter of whether or not what you say happened actually happened.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Jason

      Bruce – Again, what has He ever done to you. You DO have the right to make your own choices and you DO have the right to reject Him. Praise the Lord that we are not puppets which He controls.

      God Bless.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • rick

      I find the hubris of those who claim to know the mind of god (to the point of preaching it) to be annoying. So, I suggest they have marital relations with themselves

      January 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Jason

      rick – and I don't like the color brown. Does that mean everything that has gone wrong in my life should be blamed on that?

      January 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • rick

      Really? That is your argument? I do not blame anything in my life on Jesus or his alleged followers. How many of the pious blame Satan for what has gone wrong in their lives?

      January 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • momoya

      Jesus hasn't done anything for me; his followers have treated me quite harshly, though. I second Bruce's reply!!

      January 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Jason

      momoya: I am very sorry to hear that. I can tell you that folks who truly believe in Jesus' message of helping others and bringing them to Christ are good people.

      God Bless.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Superstar

      1. God has no "son."
      2. "Son" of God is man-made fraud.
      3. There exist one God; all else related to religion is man-made fantasy.
      4. There is no "son" of God. God has no dog Spot nor a neighbor named Clyde.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Martin

      It's not hatred towards Jesus, it's a simple fact that most Christians are completely brainwashed into believing that God helps them in ways that they don't understand.

      God never helped ANYONE that didn't go out and sort out their lives themselves. God given talent? Don't make me laugh. People work incredibly hard to get their "god given talent" to the level where they can play in the NFL.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • rick

      "I can tell you that folks who truly believe in Jesus' message of helping others and bringing them to Christ are good people."

      That may be, but many of them are arrogant to feel that their views trump everyone else's because they believe it so certainly

      January 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest


      The reason I reject Christianity is because while I do not know whether there is a God or not, I find it impossible to believe that a supposed being of infinite wisdom, omniesence (no idea how to spell that word), patience, love, acceptance, etc. etc. could be petty enough to condemn those that live very full and good lives by any measure merely for not bowing and scraping to his/her/its eternal glory and awesomness. I would rather adhere to knowledge and living as well as I can because if I go to hell simply because I chose not to worship even though I live as well as I can then that is not a God that I would want to be around.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Bruce

      Jason: What Jesus has done to me is to allow his followers to represent him in a way that makes my mere opinion of the their trustworthiness and truthfulness the be-all and end-all of my eternal existence. Whether he allowed this by simply not existing or by existing but encouraging his followers to do this or by existing and not making his followers and the story in question more believable to me, well it doesn't matter all that much.

      That is what Jesus did to me.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Jason

      Bruce: I'm glad to hear you believe. At least that is a good first step.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Bruce

      Jason: I'm confused. What exactly did you hear from me that indicated belief? I do *understand* what is claimed to be at stake, but I think I have made it abundantly clear that I have not overcome my personal incredulities with regards to even whether or not Jesus existed two thousand years ago, let alone the stories regarding his death and resurrection.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  13. Jinro

    The First Amendment guarantees our right to free speech and freedom of religion, whatever religion (or non-religion) you follow. Attacking people because of their beliefs is just as discriminating as racism, and the people who do attack others' beliefs and rights are egotistical, fearful, arrogant children who can't grow up and get on with their lives.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  14. Andrew

    In the last command Christ gave before ascending to heavan, He told believers to spread the gospel. It is callled The Great Commission and it is a part of Christian faith to "spread the word". That is why Christians do things to bring attention to who Christ was, the sinful nature of man, and His death and resurrection. If they are doing it for the right reason, it is because they love you. You don't have to listen, and can choose what you want.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Void

      The gospels "chosen" to be spread didn't even exist in 33ad. They were hand picked a century or more later by people who were not even there. Most were thrown away because they didn't serve the purpose that these men thought important at the time.
      So what you are spreading is at best what some middle age people decided was best for you to spread.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • rick

      And if they are doing it for the wrong reason? Perhaps they just want to appear "godly"

      January 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      There is a very big difference in spreading the word and bullying people to accept your point of view. Look at the extreme parts of the Christian faith. They will condemn you, bully you, and attempt to put enough fear in you to convert you all in the name of "spreading the word of God" and "saving your soul from the devil". This is not giving people a choice, this is attempting to remove the choice that people have.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  15. Anonymous Samurai

    Misquoted. NIV says for god so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. KJV says for got so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Big difference in should and would...

    January 11, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Lacking Evidence since 14 Billion BCE

      if you follow the story he didn't really give anything too big. He knocked up a virgin to give birth to himself to sacrifice himself to himself to forgive the world that he created. And if jesus comes back to life and goes to heaven where's the sacrifice. I'll give you my life saving right now if I knew you were going to give me 100 billion dollars in 3 days.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  16. Bruce

    It's funny that Jesus is recorded as saying these words before his death and resurrection, as if believing that the death and resurrection happened has absolutely nothing to do with the belief he was talking about that gives people eternal life...

    January 11, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  17. Jeremy

    I think you should be fired for wasting your writing on this piece of garbage

    January 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Catch-22

      Hey Jeremy... check out the nearby article about mean people. You may learn something about yourself.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  18. i think for myself

    i'm such a loser, I better get a job and stop replying to every comment in this article... if I could be like Mike, I mean, Tebow.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  19. yo momma

    I find it interesting that so many people are highly opinionated and dump their egos into this on either side of the debate. It sounds like there is fear and uncertainty across the board. Allow people to be as they are and row your own boat.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  20. Fred May sr.

    Why should we care what an athelete does. If he believes than so be it. For those that don't so be it. Who knows where this world would be if we all were believers. Has world peace come to mind? Maybe we all should ask for World Peace.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • go4it

      You mean if we were all believers in the same religion. We've already seen what happens in a world of all believers. It's not pretty.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      So, you have seen a world without Atheist?

      January 11, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • go4it

      That's pretty much what the middle ages were.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Jim

      We've certainly seen what a world with those tolerant atheists in charge of much of it (the 20th century) – over 100 million dead in less than one century.

      People are people and prone to violence and oppression of others no matter the, "erason" they use.

      January 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Happy Jack

      Jim – Which non-belief of these 20th century athiests caused all this carnage. The non-belief in Allah? Zeus? The flying Speghetti Monster? The Tooth Fairy?

      January 11, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • rizzle

      Because the more religion is tossed out of society the world seems to be becoming such a greater place.... Er... yeah..

      January 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Void

      rizzle – Would you rather live in the middle ages?
      Have you seen any miricles lately?
      All the advances you take advantage of today came about despite religion.
      And by the way, if today is so bad compared to the middle ages, maybe it's because the world is still overwhelmingly religious.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:06 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.