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. sargeanton

    If the Bible is not spiritual truth, then there is no spiritual truth. If Jesus Christ is not God, there is no god. Put every book ever written to one side, the Bible on the other. There is nothing that begins to approach its brilliance. God wrote it. That's what it says. If it is not true, there is no truth.

    February 5, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • Oliver Sielski

      Guess there isn't any truth then. Moron.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  2. Barbara Galyean

    John 3:16 The Creator of the universe, God Himself, gave to all mankind His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, Who is God and sinless, a way out so we WOULD NOT have to go to hell. Why? Because God LOVED us so much. Only His Son Who was and is perfect could die for our sins, forgive us completey and give us eternal life in Heaven with Him to save us from eternal hell. God didn't create hell for us; the Bible said hell was prepared for the devil and his angels when they sinned against God in Heaven. Then God created Adam and Eve. Satan hated God and wanted to hurt Him so he tempted Eve to disobey God to eat of the fruit...well she did. This was the first sin and we all come from Adam and Eve so we are all born sinners. The punishment for sin was already made and that is why God made a way for every soul to be saved. A perfect sacrifice for our sin was the only way our sin could be covered. The lamb without blemish was a picture of what was to come-Christ, the perfect Lamb of God, was willing to bare the whole world's sin on Himself. He was born of a virgin about 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. Lived a perfect life and died on the cross for the sins of the world... before He died He said, "It is finished." and He gave up the ghost. Three days later He arose from the dead and now He sits at the right hand of the throne of God. We have a Saviour Who lives! He will save anyone who believes in Him....no one has to feel guilty over sin because you can confess it to God and He'll forgive you. But everyone has a choice to accept Him or reject Him. I know I'm going to Heaven because of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection for all my sins: past, present and future. This is what John 3:16 means.

    February 4, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • Bob

      How come your omnipotent sky fairy couldn't get the job done without having to "sacrifice" his bastard son in the process? And how can an omnipotent being sacrifice, anyway? It can't.

      It's just crazy, weird, stupid shit, what you Christians believe. No truth or sense to it. None at all.

      February 4, 2012 at 9:16 pm |

    • What happened to your goat, Bob?

      February 4, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Lorraine

      Barbara Galyean, Are you sure? Many have been mislead, is not the OT, supposed to be fulfilled by the NT, but saddenly, it is not. There are many changes in the NT, from the OT, unfortunately, for the Creator YHWH, of all life, says, in Malachi 3v6, that He changes not, so that we are not consumed. This means not of His law of righteousness, and His peace, for (all), not any in difference, nor greed, and hate, or poverty, but this is not what we do, we do idolatry, of idols in religions and these separate us, in the dividing, and controlling of the masses. YHWH is His true Hebrew Israelis name the Strong One of Israel, as He said in Exodus 3v16,18. His name is not God, Lord, lord, the El is considered as With us is the Strong One. But, yes, His name was taken out of the book of remembrance, the OT, 6800 times, and also in Exodus 4v22,23, YHWH (GOD's), what many of you call Him, His son, and firstborn is the chosen people, "ISRAEL' and there cannot be two firstborn sons. This is not taught by the priest, pastors, elders, rabbis, they have all angered YHWH the Creator, for He tells us this in Malachi 2, Ezekiel 20, Jeremiah 23v1-8, and many more scriptures in the OT, the book of remembrance says YHWH in Malachi 3v16. Also, no one can die for anyone else sins, as YHWH taught us in Ezekiel 14v14, and in Jeremiah 31v30, and none of this has chaned as they told us in the NT that it did, for YHWH says He changes not, so that we are not consumed. He also tells us that in Isaiah 44v22, that He has forgiven all of our sins, and has redeemed us, and to come back to Him, and do His law of righteousness, and He tells us in Isaiah 49v26, and Isaiah 60v16, He is our only Savior, and Redeemer. No man can be delivered from out of His hands, in Isaiah 43v13. Now christians say jesus is the son, then they say jesus is the father, the creator, then they call him michael the angle, its just too many changes, and remember, YHWH changes not, in Malachi 3v6, and especially His, not His law as said is why there is mayhem, no peace in our world according to Jeremiah 25 of His wrath for our being against His Word and law. YHWH does not condone religions, He is the spirituality of life.

      March 2, 2012 at 12:35 am |
  3. Barbara Galyean

    John 3:16 The Creator of the universe, God Himself gave to all mankind His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, Who is God and sinless, a way out so we WOULD NOT

    February 4, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • Bob

      How come your omnipotent sky fairy god couldn't get the job done without having to "sacrifice" his bastard son in the process? And how can an omnipotent being sacrifice, anyway?

      Answer: It's just crazy, weird, stupid shi<it, what you Christians believe. No truth to it.

      February 4, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Oliver Sielski

      Barb you are a fool. god is a man made creation intended to ensure that people like you listen when government is not enough to tell you what to do. Religion and god keep you in line, moron. Pray to jesus about that one see what he tells you. Fool.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  4. CoCoDol52



    February 3, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  5. Edmond Dantès

    It is a puzzle why should evangelicals choose as their motto such double edged Bible verse.

    How would threatening 4/5 of humankind with eternal damnation endear you to the masses in a football stadium?

    Try "God is Love" next time.

    February 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Barbara Galyean

      God wants to give ALL eternal life and forgive EVERYONE'S sin......one must simply accept Him. The Bible says, "God is NOT willing that ANY should perish but that all come to repentence.....
      You have it backwards, Sir.

      February 4, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  6. Name*Chedar


    February 2, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  7. georger2012

    geroge is here

    February 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  8. Observer8


    February 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  9. Observer7


    February 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  10. Observer5


    February 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  11. Rational Libertarian

    My altennate take on the bible.

    A crazy despot in the sky imagined some sort of elaborate infanticide for his son. This despot sent his son to earth. The son had a very big mouth and annoyed some powerful people. Said people crucified the son, who became a zombie which somehow saved my soul (which I don't have, nor does anybody).

    February 1, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • jp

      Prove it!!

      February 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  12. brad

    I love when people always go to the "why does God allow suffering.." blah blah blah, these are people that haven't read the bible and my other favorite, why do bad things happen to good people. let me give you a heads up.. there are NO GOOD PEOPLE, we've ALL SINNED (atheist/agnostic/religious zealot alike).. what you should be asking is "why do GOOD things happen to so many BAD people".. again, my .02 and I'm broke

    January 31, 2012 at 1:59 am |
    • derp

      Maybe you should pray for some money.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Wayne

      It's kind of hard to sin if you don't believe in diety that says sin is bad. Like when a kid shoots you with his imaginary gun then complains because you won't act like you died. Your not playing his game as his rules for you are meaningless.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Joe

      I'm a good person.
      I don't cheat or steal. I've never harmed or wished harm on anyone. Any lie that I do tell is insignificant and harmless, and usually only to avoid hurting someone's feelings. I treat my wife with love and respect. I provide love and guidance to my three children. I've never broken any major laws. I served my country in the military. I volunteer at the food bank every few months. I can't really think of anything that makes me a bad person. So... yeah, I am a GOOD PERSON, thank you very much. And I think most people are GOOD too!
      I don't care what your Holy Book says.

      It's sad that Christianity has to break its followers down before consuming their minds.
      "You're a lowly sinner!"
      "You're unworthy of salvation!"
      "You don't deserve to go to heaven!"
      "You're very nature is fallen and sinful!"
      "You deserve to burn in Hell for of your sinfulness!"
      ...... "Just go to Jesus and it will all be better. There will be nothing to worry about.... You are getting sleepy."
      Pure brainwashing... And you do it to your KIDS!!!!

      February 1, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • fred

      Say it ain't so Joe !
      The only way to receive salvation is to ask for it thinking that we need it. You are right, if you have no sin in your life you most likely will never see Jesus during your life time. Now, what's the problem. Your ticked off because I asked Jesus to bail me out and he did? What is it to you if Jesus comes to rescue me and my family? There is not one single downside when you love God.

      February 1, 2012 at 1:59 am |
    • Anatomically Bombed

      @Joe – Agree 100%. For me I only have one daughter, but the rest is the same. I was raised a Christian and was even an ordained minister for over 10 years but it wasn't until I left all of the trite ritual behind and started opening my eyes to others around me instead of seeing them through the lens of condemnation did it all make sense.

      February 1, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • Anatomically Bombed

      @brad – there are no good things or bad things, there are only individual perceptions of time and unforeseen occurrence. We label it good or bad based upon how the event effected our lives or the lives of others and how we feel about the others that were effected. When the media reports an explosion that kills 18 people we here in America would think "Oh, though poor people, I wonder where it happened" which is followed by the report it happened in a small mountain village in the middle east and relief washes over you and you think "probably just some terrorists or Muslims..." and you flip the channel back to some "reality" show. Was it bad? Good? Both? Do you care now when it didn't happen to you or to someone of your same skin color you can relate to better?

      Once you realize that then you understand why you cannot blame any "things" on God. Things happen to us all, just being alive is a thing, most would call it for themselves a "good" thing, though i'm sure there are always some who disagree and try to take all the "things" for themselves and only things they deem "good" for them shall remain. And they think only then shall their be peace, when only Christians remain, a "good" thing. Disgustingly hypocritical, but they can't even see it.

      February 1, 2012 at 2:29 am |
    • Anatomically Bombed

      through/those ... too late at night for the right word let alone use...

      February 1, 2012 at 2:32 am |
    • fred

      What lens of condemnation. We are to love as God loved us first. God created the heavens and the earth speaks volumes of a personal God that wanted relationship. The garden was a perfect creation for man. If I could gather you under my wings as a mother hen. I have come that you may have life and life eternal. Father I pray not only for those you have given me but for all that believe in me because of them. I pray not that you take them out of this world but, protect them from the evil one. For in Him was the light of man. And the train of His gown filled the temple.

      February 1, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • Sarah

      Joe, you may be a morally good person. But you in all your "good deeds" are not "good" as defined by God. We are all guilty and not worthy. Yet in our unworthiness, God has made a way for ALL to be saved. We are really not as good as we think we are. Too many people think "good" is relative, but God is absolute. Even if you've only told one lie in your entire life, then you are guilty; you are not good.

      The real GOOD news here is that despite our sins and wickedness, God did love all of mankind that He sent Jesus to be the propitiation for our wicked deeds. Choose life in Jesus.

      February 1, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Joe

      fred: "There is not one single downside when you love God."

      Sure, if you're a Deist and don't have any doctrines. But the fact is you're not a Deist, you're a Christian. You HAVE TO believe in Jesus. You HAVE TO believe you are a wicked sinner in need of redemption. You HAVE TO believe that an all knowing deity is watching every thought you make. All of this with no empirical evidence to back any of it up!
      Sounds like some pretty big downsides if you ask me.
      As soon as you allow some preacher, or a crusty old tome, to start telling you what to do and how to think... well, there goes your freedom. Because if you can't be free in your thoughts and beliefs then you're a SLAVE.
      And that's a REALLY BIG DOWNSIDE.

      February 1, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  13. careworn

    IJesus' brother, James, the First Bishop of Jerusalem (who reputedly only drank water, never wine – even at th elast Supper?) also said "Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they're doing. ." as he was being stoned to death while buried to his waist in a pit.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • stan miller

      the why did you kill jews for two thousand years?

      January 30, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • careworn

      I personally haven't killed any Jews (maybe because my children have Jewish blood?) but perhaps the answer to your question is that Jews are being killed becausse Jesus and james both asked God to forgive their killers. Nothing threatening to banish theor murderers to hell to act as a deterrent is there?

      January 31, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  14. not really no

    I like to go to football games and hold up signs that say "ACTS 2:15!!" next to especially rowdy fans.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  15. Listening

    Interesting article, but as expected from a liberal network, the angle is that John 3:16 is merely a sales tool to convert people.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • MidwstrnGrl

      liberal..schiberal...so tired of the stupid. and that is your type...

      January 31, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  16. Kruelgor

    Don't forget in the same game, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception on 3rd down and 16. True story.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
  17. GrannySmith

    Read Matthew 6:5-6

    January 29, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • GrannySmith

      OK, here it is "5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. "

      January 30, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  18. Wayne dunham

    First of all, everyone reading this must understand what "sin" is. Sin is simply not obeying God's Commandants! And everyone is guilty of that! We have all broken God's Commandments!'That is why God required the  Jewish people  to "atone for their sins" each year. Read Leviticus 17:11 Moses wrote "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make Atonement For Your Souls, for it is the Blood that makes Atonement by the life! (emphasis by me) That is why the Jews observe the Passover each year and to celebrate the freedom God provided from Egyptian captivity. And again in Hebrews 9:22 "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins".
    We cannot overcome sin through our own efforts. If we could, there would have been no need for Christ to be crucified. We can only overcome our sin through the power of the Holy Spirit.
     But the question I want to put forward is: Who do we say Jesus is? The Jewish prophets foretold of Him over 700 years before He was even born!
    Read Isaiah 52:12 through chapter 53 and ask yourself, who do you think the Prophet Isaiah is talking about? Isaiah is certainly not talking about the Jews, He is talking about the SUFFERING SERVANT". simply observe the use of the "personal pronouns" Isaiah used. he couldn't possibly  be talking about the Jews or Israel!
    The famous writer CS Lewis once wrote that Jesus' life and message were so unique that he simply demands a response from us today. If Jesus was just another huckster religious leader, then he was a liar and can be ignored. But if Jesus really was who he said... then no matter how messed up our lives are, we can find real meaning and hope. It means there's a way to break out of the pain and frustration of everyday life and have a purpose. The Christian faith is based on the belief that Jesus was exactly who he said he was.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  19. Frances

    Maybe if god wasn't so busy watching football games he could get around to feeding some hungry and dying children in Africa, India, and heck, anywhere in the world. Just wondering, did they pay YOU to promote their website in your article, or did you do that out of your own belief system? Christians, stop pretending that you are so persecuted, especially in the USA. Try being an atheist and admitting it. Then you'll see persecution.
    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?"
    – Epicurus

    January 29, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Frances: "Maybe if god wasn't so busy watching football games he could get around to feeding some hungry and dying children in Africa, India, and heck, anywhere in the world."

      Don't forget, He's also VERY busy watching sparrows fall and counting the hairs in people's heads. No wonder he never gets anything else done.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Anon

      This is what it looks like when people are uninformed about when they are insulting and instead take too much time looking up quotes that make them sound smart

      January 29, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • Eric

      Frances, evil originates from within the human heart. God created us with the capacity to freely choose what to believe and what to do. That is where evil and wickedness arise from, from us and not from God. God laid down the rules of our universe, if we choose to ignore them or reject them then we must also be willing to accept the consequences. Being an atheitst in America results in no persecution, so do not lie. Atheism rules the educational system, public square, media, and entertainment industry. Try being a Christian in a society which worships Victoria Secret, super models, X-rated programming, and is increasingly intolerant of belief in Jesus Christ. Atheists are not censored in what they can say in public, but Christians are. Atheists are allowed to speak profanity in almost any situation today, but prayer is too threatening to be allowed in public. Atheists may teach any sort of curriculumn in our public schools without the approval of the majority of the parents, but the Bible can't ever be opened up and discussed.

      You ought to simply admit that belief in God and in Christ Jesus scares you to death because deep down inside you understand that if it is true, then you are up the creek without a paddle. Thus you can't tolerate being reminded of it and must control its access into the public place.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • MidwstrnGrl

      Eric: that is because your Deist founders of this country saw the problems that come with religion too closely tied with government and decided to keep them separate. Therefore anything financed through public funds cannot contain religion. The government cannot choose a particular religious belief system and teach it in schools. You are allowed to send your children to a private school based on your religion or to home school them also. Science is not a religion. Religion is belief in something that cannot be proved. And religion has no factual basis or proof at all.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • Kenneth

      Eric might be upset that schoolchildren can't open a Christian Bible or pray in class, but I'm sure he'd be even more upset if they opened up the Bible AND the Koran AND the Tao Te Ching AND all the others, or if they started announcing when Muslim prayers should be given five times a day and showing students which direction Mecca is. He wants HIS religion to be publicly proclaimed, but probably would be upset if his kids were exposed to other religions just as strongly.

      That's why we keep it out of schools and public places, because here in America you're free to choose for yourself, and everyone has a right to be free from others trying to foist it upon them.

      February 2, 2012 at 2:32 am |
  20. Brian W.

    Now, the thing is, I've always wondered what 'born again' means. To practically every culture it means something different. No one has a monopoly on truth, however the organized religions who have tried to force their version violently(Islam and Christianity) seem the most unsure of their beliefs. What these religions HAVE done is create societies who, at their zenith, encouraged literacy, an environment where scientific research could take place and in Islam's case, a society where great advances in mathematics, astronomy, and physical arts such as architecture occurred. Now, these societies are in a period of decline, probably to be surpassed by some other society with a cultural which can create an environment for spiritual and scientific advance. Science and the stability for research and advancement seem to be linked to a culture based on a common spirituality. At least that's what this dumb canuck believes.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • hampsterboy

      I hate you

      January 29, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Lena

      Brian W., born again means, you become a new creature by accepting the gift of salvation. I was born into a Christian
      family, but later in life I decided to go into the world. I was miserable, I just about had it with going clubing, etc, I had no
      joy inside of me. I broke off with my boyfriend and felt so bad that nothing could make things better. Then, I realized I
      made a mess of my life. I knelt by my bed and asked GOD to forgive me of my sins, and for Him to take over my life.
      Almost immediately, I was filled with such a peace and joy. I was a new creation, things have been different since....

      January 30, 2012 at 2:04 am |

    • This is a blank look.

      February 2, 2012 at 1:11 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.