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. Frank Tillery

    God help us!

    January 10, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Brian Zwart

      God save us from christianity, its alot of bs.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  2. Truth Tellerz

    Jesus is Real.

    I found out late in life.
    Believing inHim means you follow Him, Obey Him, Trust Him.

    Even the devils believe and tremble. Carry your cross and follow the Doctrine of Jesus Christ. Most christians just raise up His office, without following His doctrine

    January 10, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Timmy

      Yeah, it's sad. Some people do get loopy when they get old.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Ted

      Most people do start believing in god when they get old. You start to hedge your bets. Christopher Hitchens didn't. And he was an amazing man. SHOW ME SOME PROOF.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • zeus_z

      Timmy, Ted, for your proof- just like apples "theres an app for that" the bible as an answer for your "prove it to me comment,=.. looke up John 20:29

      January 10, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "Even the devils believe and tremble. "
      I just love this... if you don't believe in one imaginary being... here's another imaginary being that does believe...

      January 10, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Timmy

      Re your "app for that"...try a Logic course. Using the babble to prove the babble is "circular".
      "The two most abundant things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity." - Albert Einstein

      January 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  3. Leaf on the Wind

    I don't see professional football as an appropriate place to express one's beliefs, but if Tebow feels like he needs to thank his god for every touchdown or completed pass, so what? It's a free country.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  4. Yuri

    On what basis is it asserted that "(God) gave his one and only son"? Technically speaking - and if we can attribute any truth at all to the story - it was more of a loan than a gift since Jesus (so the story goes) is back sitting at the right hand of his 'father'. Doesn't that negate the so-called sacrifice? I can't fathom how people so ardently believe this illogical, self-contradictory mumbo jumbo.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Ted

      Because most people are brainwashed with this since the time they are able to understand human language.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  5. Mike

    Stewart was arrested in 1992 after a standoff in a California hotel during which he entered a vacant room with two men he was attempting to kidnap and surprised a maid who then locked herself in the bathroom. THAT'S why he got 3 life sentences.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  6. Peter

    Come on all you Christians out there....Jesus was a Saints fan all the way.....

    January 10, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  7. Earl

    Funny how CNN deletes all the posts with reason, that note how ridiculous the bible and organized religion is. So much for your first amendment rights around christians, I suppose.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • zeus_z

      Are you kidding? Christianity in this nation has taken a back seat to atheism. All of us Christians are persecuted even more

      January 10, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Ted

      zeus_z are you out of your mind. CNN has a Religion Blog for god sakes! Do you see an opposing blog? Or a blog that will at least let you discuss it? No.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
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      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
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      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
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      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!

      January 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Leaf on the Wind

      Zeus, get some cheese to go with that whine, why don't you? Christians are not persecuted, so get over yourself. Nor does Christianity trump atheism in our society. Proof of which: has there ever been a candidate for high political office (president, House, Senate) who admitted to being atheist? No one would dare, not if they wanted to get elected in this country.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  8. Brian Zwart

    It's always funny you can check the tags on all the statues in any nativity scene, and you see the words "made in china" on them.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Joe

      Hope this guy is not trying to feed a family with that type of poor journalism....sure this wasn't writen by a junior high writer?

      January 10, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Leaf on the Wind

      Same goes for American flags. If you want one made in the USA, don't shop at Walmart. Or Target or KMart or any other primary retailer.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  9. Smokey

    Do people in this country really need to have the message of the gospel explained to them, has it really come to that? I'd expect every American to know this bible passage.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • What?

      Thankfully we are getting away from it. Yippee!

      January 10, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Nonimus


      January 10, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Leaf on the Wind

      Don't be silly, Smokey. Many of us Americans are not Christians. If someone was raised as a muslim or a jew, would you still expect them to know Christian doctrine? That's very arrogant of you.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  10. Mark

    The Christian deity loves football, and takes a particular interest in who wins. I'd say this is just another sign that he's as real as Santa Clause, which by the way is an anagram for Satan.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Notorius G-O-D

      And kram is an anagram for mark... so you can just mark-it.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
  11. Spagati

    Once I prayed almost constantly for months that the chemotherapy would cure my grandma from cancer, it didn't work. I'm glad you guys think praying will help millionaire meatheads win a stupid game.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  12. Mr.Butters

    But then John 3:16 isn't working. If I had to have it explained to me, then it's apparently not working. I've seen it before but never bothered to look it up. You're better off just holding a sign saying Jesus loves you even though you sinned. That works better.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  13. Brian Zwart

    I have a strong inclination that if you can't explain it, god has something to do with it.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  14. hal9thou

    I'm not wearing my underwear. I'm definitely not wearing my underwear.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  15. The Phist

    If any of you had been paying attention, you'd know that jesus was found in a grave (with his mother, father, wife and son) a few decades ago. It was made public in 2007. No resurrection happened. This stupid religion called christianity is down the toilet.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • zeus_z

      Where in the wolrd did you hear that? keep making up stories.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • The Phist

      Look it up online genius. It isn't made up. Sorry to burst your bubble and set fire to your parade.

      January 10, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  16. Bryan

    Austin 3:16 says I just kicked your ass.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  17. The Phist

    The guy jesus from the bible fathered a son with his own mother. They messed up the bed sheets together a LOT.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  18. Timothy

    Wasn't his name Yeshua anyways. I can just picture his return. Crowd of holy rollers: "YEAH, IT'S JESUS PLOOPING FROM A CLOUD."

    Yeshua: "Who?"

    If it were me, I'd throw them all in hell just for that. If you're gonna praise someone and pretend to walk in his way and carry his message, after he's died for you, I would think you'd actually call him by his given name rather than a Greek translation.

    January 10, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • iBELIEVE

      what are you talking about

      January 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Cuervo Jones

      Christos (the messiah) vs Jesus(Yeashua) i beleive @iBelive

      January 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Cuervo Jones

      according to their own testament the hypocritical are among the worst, thus they would believe they are themselves faithless believers unworthy of salvation.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Timmy

      Exactly. Yeshua bar Josef.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  19. Amy Tannehill

    If there is a god out there, he's got much bigger fish to fry than football or any sport for that matter. Give me a break!

    January 10, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  20. fred

    So Rollen Stewart kidnaps 1 person and gets 3 LIFE sentences? How is is this even legally possible? Where is the outrage? What judge was able to hand out this sentence without backlash? I never heard this story of Stewart before. Has anyone else (or is it just me)? Sounds like incredible Christian bashing and discrimination to me. What say ye oh mighty world of posters?

    January 10, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Leaf on the Wind

      Kidnapping is a capital crime in some states. Loaded gun, hostage, making demands . . . the guy is a nut job and we're lucky he's still locked up where he can't hurt anyone. His religion has nothing to do with it, other than being the prompt that got him into trouble.

      Why do Christians still, after all these centuries, have such a big persecution complex? No one is throwing you into the arena with hungry lions anymore. Get over yourselves.

      January 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Get Real


      I remember this guy. There are lots of articles about him that you can easily find.

      "The day of the standoff, Stewart picked up two transient laborers and took them to the Hyatt, promising them jobs. He led the men to the seventh floor, where he went into a room that was being cleaned by Paula Madera-Chan, 39.

      When Stewart, who had a pistol, tried to force the men into a bathroom with Madera-Chan, they fled and she locked herself in, then telephoned the hotel management. During the standoff, police said, Stewart threatened to shoot at planes flying into LAX and plastered signs that read "John 3:16," referring to a Bible verse, to the hotel room windows.

      Stewart was convicted... of taking the maid hostage and making terrorist threats."


      January 10, 2012 at 5:57 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.