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. Starrface

    What do these goof balls think Jesus only looks out for evangelical Christian football players and sways the games in their favor? I'm pretty sure God and Jesus likes everybody else who's normal.

    January 11, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • Joe

      Apparently god and jesus hate kids in Africa with diseases.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • oslo117

      @Starrface God loves everyone the same.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  2. BOB (burnt out bad)

    My favorite is Mary Jane 4:20

    January 11, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • rick

      If you worship it twice, it becomes 8:40

      January 12, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  3. KanneM


    Way to editorialize under the guise of reportage – "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."

    I'm not a Christian but I find it offensive that CNN is so biased it can't even report on a religious topic objectively.

    January 11, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Daisy

      It's not supposed to be a news story. This is posted under "Belief Blog", which is a blog about religion. Blogs are the opinions and musings of the people who write them.

      January 11, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Joe

      KanneM welcome to the internets. You should try out the google next. And the facebook. It's so awwwesoome.

      January 11, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  4. Doug

    great. I always wondered what the hell John 3:16 had to do with football. you never see religious fanatics holding these signs at other major sporting events. so the quote from the bible has nothing to do with Jesus preferring the game of football over all other professional sports?

    I guess the next time I go to a football game I should hold up a sign stating 'I don't like Mayonnaise', that would be just a relevant to the game as some bible quote I think.

    January 11, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  5. cary lacayo

    God loved us so much – even though we are sinners to the core – so much that He gave His one and only Son to die for ours sins on the cross. There had to be a sacrifice, there had to be a penalty for our sin which we couldn't pay off. Jesus paid the price for our sins. We are forgiven because of His finished work on the cross. Last words Jesus said on the cross, "It is finished"

    Why do humans try to fight against what God did for us. Well, if you believe in God that is...How can you not believe there is a God, a Creator that made us. Surely, you don't think we all came from a rock? A big bang that just made us all and this world we live in? No one knows what's keeping your heart beating right now as you read this...We know the truth, but because we want to feed self and it's sinful desires is why we choose to fight against God and not believe in Him.

    One day we will all face God alone, we will see Jesus with the nail prints in His hands and maybe God will bring up this moment when you read this simple reply to verify that you're without excuse of being presented His plan of salvation. That's what is going on now with all of the publicity John 3:16 is getting during these days...

    Please don't wait for that time to come...We are all going to die one day and that's a fact, so whether you choose to believe or not is your freewill choice. Please choose to trust in Jesus from this moment on...Take a chance and ask God to reveal Himself to you, ask Him to show you who He is...

    January 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • momoya

      So god set up the rules he knew we couldn't obey just so he would have to sacrifice himself to himself to save people from himself? Really? If your god can change people and make a perfect heaven, why didn't he just do that the first go round?

      January 11, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      I live my life as well as I can. I take care of my child, help those that I can, and am completely loyal to my family. All this devoid of the fear of "divine retribution". When I die if there is a god and he/she tells me that I can't enter even though I lived well because I didn't kowtow and worship him/her specifically then oh well not someplace I would want to be anyway.

      January 11, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • fred

      The creator argument is not same argument as Jesus one. Start with Jesus one. If god is a god, then how can sacrifice by god mean anything when he just pop out new son anytime he wants or he just turn back the clock and change history or even branch time.

      January 11, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Hahaha. Thanks for that dumb-ass, you made my afternoon.

      January 11, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • fred

      ignore fred until he stops impersonating fred

      January 11, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by cary lacayo contains the Appeal to Emotions fallacy as well as the flawed argument known as Pascal's Wager.


      January 11, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • sybaris

      Funny how this omnipotent god who allegedly created the first man out of dirt and who is supposed to be able to do anything had to use another mans wife to recreate itself and then could only do it once.

      Grow up and stop believing in fairy tales

      January 11, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • fred

      Please go away other fred. Enough.

      January 11, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • sybaris

      Cary Iacayo wrote, "Jesus paid the price for our sins"

      Uh, sorry, no he didn't. Sacrifice of the flesh is a human concept. Your alleged Jesus man borrowed flesh for it's time on earth. It's original form is spirit so the value of flesh is nothing, it sacrificed nothing.

      January 11, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • fred

      I have been presenting the truth of God on this web site for 3 months now. If you had some positive things to say that were truthful I would let you use my name. At this rate "fred" regardless of which fred it is will be ignored on this site.
      Pick a number between 1 and 10 and if you pick the number I have selected I may just give you the name fred since it is about trashed anyway.

      January 11, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • fred

      Other fred, go fuck yourself. Pick an original name. Stop stalking me.

      January 11, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Starrface

      Come on Cary, give us a break. Your Holy Roller speech is making everyone sick.

      January 11, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  6. RightTurnClyde

    If you do not have any belief in God or the Messiah then it is an exercise in futility to talk about specific paragraphs in particular gospels. It comes down to merely baiting for a reply so you can debate it. I'll accept that you do not believe. That's your choice. Some do and some don't. Nobody cares but you which way you choose.

    January 11, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • momoya

      A reader understands a text to the degree that the reader understands the culture and language in which the text was written. Most christians haven't a clue as to the culture and language usage of the text they claim to understand. If you claim that the magic decoder ring of faith gives you some special interpretive powers, then that's just an empty claim that you can't prove but simply makes you feel good about your beliefs.

      As to you not caring about other people's "choice" to believe that's pretty hard hearted considering that you believe in harsh eternal consequences.

      January 11, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • fred

      and so many decoder ring versions with such different output for same input, too.

      January 11, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • fred

      which version of fred is this

      January 11, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  7. Bottom Line

    "You sit there and you thump your bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn't get you anywhere! Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16 ... Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!"

    January 11, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  8. oslo117

    Just because God made Himself known through Tim Tebow, who is a Christian, it doesn't mean that Christianity is the one true religion.

    January 11, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • One one

      What is the "one true religion"?

      January 11, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • oslo117

      @One one As of now there isn't any perfect religion.

      January 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • ttwp

      There is one true God and the Son has made Him known to us.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • oslo117

      @ttwp There is one God, but He is the God of the Old Testament also, so Judaism has to be seen as equal to Christianity.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  9. Antony


    January 11, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  10. Jason K

    John 3:16 is the single most misquoted, misinterpreted, and mistranslated passage in the bible. Everyone likes it because Schofield translated it in feel good way that resonates what what I call humanist christians. As it is read in the NIV English it insinuates that God loves everyone so much and wills that NONE perish but have everlasting life. And that all it takes is your belief in his son Jesus Christ. The thing is, nothing is farther from the truth. This passage was originally written in Greek, not English.

    The word "world" or "kosmos" in greek can be interpreted in one of 7 or 8 ways depending on if you're a Jew or Gentile. To understand John 3:16 or ANY of the bible you need to understand 2 things. The original language, and the context of who is being addressed at any given time. "Christians" want to assume that every verse is bristling with information pertaining to them. This is simply not the case.

    January 11, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Jason K

      The context of the passage is Jesus speaking to a Pharisee (sect of Jewish Theology). Jews have no concept of salvation. Based on their theology they are all "safe" because of their lineage to Issac and Jacob. Furthermore, Jews believe they are the chosen and only ones loved of God. Also if God "wills" that none perish then He fails as there will be some in Hell. Rather, "World" is pertaining to both Jews and gentiles, not EVERYONE. Read Romans 8,most completely ignore the doctrine of election.

      January 11, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • momoya

      Excellent point, but I don't know if this verse takes the prize or the one in Isaiah about "a 'virgin' shall conceive" which is completely taken out of context 99.9999999999% of the time. You have to know the culture and how that culture used the language.

      January 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Ohsnaps

      What are you, smart or something?

      January 11, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  11. atheist

    Deuteronomy 22:28-29

    January 11, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  12. Tanya777

    I thnk this is a sad way of the NFL blaspheming God. Football is a manmade sport and has nothing to do with the kingdom of God. It says in the end times He will be blasphemed. Remember just like God gives us gifts so does satan (when u worship him) and winning a game isnt something the HOly Spirit would take part in. Just like when a gambler says oh let this be the hand that lets me win he may win that hand but it doesnt mean it was God who had him do it. That money he prayed to win could be the curse that takes his life. How many stories have you heard of someone leaving the casino with winnings and were robbed and killed? Maybe they use them winning to drink or use drugs and this last drink causes them to crash and die, or the last bag of coke they buy with that money they won could be the bag that kills um. So becareful mixing God and Jesus name in with things of this world. This world belongs to Satan right now until Jesus comes back. The devil can recite scripture and also perform miraculous signs so be careful and watchful we are in the end times.

    January 11, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • rick

      Tanya: I can see that you are sincere. That is fine. How long have the "end times" been predicted?

      January 11, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      I always giggle when I see someone say "the end times" The fact that they sound sincere is even more hilarious. Don't worry Tanya, when your jesus zombie returns and you become one with him, i'll but a bullet in your head to put you out of your misery. Your welcome.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • atheist

      That's quite an active imagination you have! Do you have any evidence for any of your wild claims, or am I expected to believe your insane ramblings because it's in some stupid book written by Bronze Age sheepherders several thousand years ago?

      January 11, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  13. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    If Jesus came back today he would be shot in the head. That's what you do to put down zombies, otherwise they eat your brains.

    January 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • rick

      I think it is called a "double-tap"

      January 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      2 in the chest – 1 in the head

      January 11, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Mike G

      ... and yet He would not die.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • rick

      Michael G: Big claim to make. Have any proof?

      January 11, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Mike G

      Of course I don't have proof. I have doc.umented eye witness accounts, but no 'proof'. But on that note, neither side has proof and I'm comfortable with that.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • rick

      Mike G: Fair enough. Peace be to you

      January 11, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      He died once before (supposedly), why wouldn't he die again?

      January 11, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  14. vel

    Gee, god paying attention to footbal again and not actually helping people. As for John 3:16m I'd rather see it in context, so you can see how this religion damns anyone not born at the right place and time and that dares not believe in its nonsense. Christians rarely quote the whole nasty thing: 16 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son."

    January 11, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • momoya

      I would like to see more christians take responsibility for carefully parsing that last verse (18). It's implications are heavy and describe a very spiteful tyrant.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Rick W.

      ... or you could simply choose to believe he was sent to save you from your sin. The best part is we have a choice. Isn't that better than being forced into a belief? Verse 17 clearly states he was sent to save the world NOT to condemn it. You have the choice to decide for yourself.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • rick

      Rick W: Or we could just accept the idea that what Bronze Age man thought of as sinful doesn't correspond to what 21st century man does

      January 11, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Rick W.

      Rick... my point, you can choose o belive that. Do you get this irate when an Islamic woman walks around in this country with her head and face covered? It should since that is a display of her faith.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Rick W.

      Momoya... it also gives you the choice. Just because you dont like the penalty for your actions does not mean there is not one or should not be one. God is fair and just but not necessarily willing to be mocked by you just because you dont believe in Him (or as you say spiteful).

      January 11, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • rick

      Rick W: I have no issue with displays of faith. I do have an issue with someone saying they know the ultimate truth to the extent that they can preach it to you. I think that shows the height of arrogance

      January 11, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Rick W.

      Rick... who is doing that? Tebow? All he does is kneel and pray silently. What is he forcing you to believe. Everyone else is making this a religious debate. The simple fact is there will be believers and non-believers all the way to the end. If you mean me doing the preaching, well then all I can say is you are "preaching" your non-belief. I dont think I'm preaching. I'm not qualified. I can only give my testimony.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • rick

      he does more than pray silently. he prays silently on televised stage. still, i have no issue with him

      January 11, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • ttwp

      The height of arrogance is thinking you know more than God. There is a way that seems right to man, but in the end it ends in death. He lays before you life and death...choose life...choose Christ for he loves you.

      January 11, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • rick

      "The height of arrogance is thinking you know more than God."

      No, the height of arrogance is thinking you know the mind of god.

      January 12, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  15. Austin 3:16


    January 11, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  16. Michael

    To those who are so offended by Tebow displaying John 3:16.

    I am SOOOOOO sorry that your lives must be so miserable that you have to gripe about anything anybody does that might bring any joy.

    What sorry losers you must be...

    January 11, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • vel

      Offended? not at all. I am laughing at the arrogance and the ignorance that some football player thinks his god cares more about football than helping people. So much for JC's recommendation that one pray alone and not show off how pious you are.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • ellid

      I'm not offended by the Biblical verse. I am offended by Tebow's self-righteous and unscriptural piety, which directly contradicts the injunction to pray *in private* since only hypocrites pray in the street.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Michael

      Ellid: "I'm not offended by the Biblical verse. I am offended by Tebow's self-righteous and unscriptural piety, which directly contradicts the injunction to pray *in private* since only hypocrites pray in the street."

      Really? I believe it comes down to the fact that you are a loser and Tebow (a man of faith) is successful.

      That just burns you up inside, doesn't it?

      January 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Rick W.

      It also says to pray consistently. I guess he can never leave the house huh? Maybe the verse means to not pray out loud. I never heard Tim Tebow pray. I just see him kneel and "Tebow" or point to the sky (which plenty of non-Christian athletes do too). At least when Tebow does it I feel it genuine.

      January 11, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • rick

      Michael: Believe what you wish. Believe that a spirit knocked up a virgin with himself, and that a talking serpent talked the rib woman into eating a piece of fruit. I will believe what I believe, and no ancient comic book will change my mind

      January 11, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Wrigley

      Clearly all these 'pray in private' comments have been taken out of context. But what's new?

      January 11, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • atheist

      Who's offended? It's illiterate, medieval, and moronic... not offensive.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  17. Kookla Fran and Ollie

    "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."

    THAT, my friend is NO COINCIDENCE.

    January 11, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  18. Willie The Pimp

    Wayz all the nig gers?

    January 11, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      “An Ass put on a Lion's skin and went
      About the forest with much merriment,
      Scaring the foolish beasts by brooks and rocks,
      Till at last he tried to scare the Fox.
      But Reynard, hearing from beneath the mane
      That Raucous voice so petulant and vain,
      Remarked. O' Ass, I too would run away,
      But that I know your old familiar bray'.
      That's just the way with asses, just the way.”
      Aesop (620-560 BC)

      January 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      "Do you know what I am saying?" – Butters the pimp

      January 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Willie The Pimp

      Shut up, nig ger.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  19. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    Mitchell: See what we need is, we need Superman to fly around the ship really really fast.
    Carter: If you only knew how ridiculous that sounds.
    Mitchell: It only sounds ridiculous until you hear yourself say, "I am trapped on a spaceship stuck in a time dilation field."

    January 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  20. Michael

    To those who are so offended by Tebow displaying John 3:16.

    I am SOOOOOO sorry that your lives must be so miserable that you have to gripe about anything positive in this world.

    What sorry losers you must be...

    January 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin


      January 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • rick

      I am not offended by Tebow displaying John 3:16. I am soooo sorry that you feel the need to believe in what can be described as a petty punk

      January 11, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • slamwich


      January 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • sheepish

      See, what's interesting (slamwich) is that you mean the "baaaa...." comment in bad way. Jesus described himself as a shepherd, and yes, his followers as sheep. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them", he said. By following him, we go with him to where he is, and he will make us like him. Heaven would be miserable place for anyone who would not want to spend forever being with and like Jesus. The only biblical alternative, however, is worse. Nowhere does the Bible ever say we get to do what we want. If we do, it calls us sheep, too... lost ones. "All we like sheep have gone astray, turned ever one to his own way."

      January 11, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      sheep are stupid, but pretty tasty when stewed with guinness

      January 11, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Fred Evil

      "What sorry losers you must be..."
      Why? YOU'RE the one with your saliva on Tebow's junk...

      January 11, 2012 at 4:43 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.