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. grammarmuch?

    Forget the topic... who let this article be posted without editing it first? First of all, it's "eternal life awaits all" not "eternal live awaits all." Secondly, the article is all over the place. Ones second I'm reading about Tebow and the next I'm reading details about another guy's courtroom drama? Make your point but stay on track with it instead of weaving all over the place. Seems likely that you wrote the article with the intent purpose of including this other story (courtroom play-by-play) to backhandedly infer that Tebow is nuts because of the outspokenness of his faith? Poor writing indeed – just another 'would be" journalist trying to ride the wave of Tebow mania hoping Christians, or Tebow's fans, would click on this article and read it. Disappointed in the quality (or lack thereof) of journalism that CNN allows.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  2. sunny lovetts

    Atheism is poison.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Adam

      Your a nasty one.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Earthling

      Lemme see, it was those atheists in the Spanish Inquisition that tortured all those innocent people, right? And wasn't it a bunch of atheists that set off on those crusades and killed thousands in the Middle East back a few centuries ago?

      Oh, wait...

      January 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • fred

      Careful or I will bring up atheists Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot with an estimated 285 million worshipers killed to create a better society. I think at best we can say man will use any god or no god if it suits the purpose.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • fred

      Watch out because god will use man if he is a god.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • xjdavid

      Yes, Earthling it was atheists who did that. And guess what, the Nazis, who twisted the Bible to justify their hatred of the Jews, the Crusaders, who exploited the religious beliefs of an uneducated population...they didn't actually believe in God either. That's such a lame argument against faith. Evil men will use any means to motivate people to their own ends, and they accomplished a lot more using faith to do it.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • fred

      Gottchya FRED
      Come on out you name imposter. My guess is you are Gerry or Paul from yesterday

      January 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Earthling

      That's right, Fred and xj, those guys were atheists. The difference is that they did not use atheism as the motivation and justification for their crimes, unlike the crusaders and the inquisition. I do agree that evil people will use whatever means they can find to enrich themselves. Just like televangelists and leaders of megachurches do. However Mao and Pol Pot and the rest did not use religion as their motivating factor, they used communism, instilling in their people the false belief that they (the leaders) were acting in the best interests of the people. Just like the two major political parties in America today.

      January 10, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Freethinker Seeking Reason

      Atheism is THE TRUTH.

      The delusion of religion poisons everything, including people's ability to think rationally, so it's no wonder so many people are still in denial of this fact.

      January 10, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      "Atheism is THE TRUTH"
      How so? Aren't you, atheist the ones who keep harping that there is no such thing as "TRUTH"?

      January 10, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  3. Sam

    Tebow is an amazing athlete, who piously believes God gives one Whit about football, or any other ridiculous human activity!

    January 10, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  4. ocekit

    I prefer Austin 3:16.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  5. VRage13

    This is one of the reasons I LOVE rodeo events. When the US flag circles the arena, everyone stands. When posted in the middle of the arena for the national athemn, everyone stands and removes thier hats and places their hand on thier heart. And there is a prayer prayed aloud over the intercomm and everyone says AMEN at the end. I dare someone to try to go tell a bunch of cowboys they ain't allowed to be publicly patriotic or have public religion.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Earthling

      Ah rodeos. The spectacle of public animal abuse, and the exaltation of the most successful of the abusers. Yeah, I have loads of respect for that crowd.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Catherine

      Forced/government sanctioned prayer does not = public prayer. People pray in public all the time and nobody gets arrested. Shocking, I know.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Who says "they ain't allowed to be publicly patriotic or have public religion?"

      They can do whatever the hell they like as long as the gubment ain't supportin' it and we, the taxpayer... ain't payin fer it.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Nonimus

      endorsin' is probably more accurate than supportin'

      January 10, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  6. PDEngineer

    3:16 =/= 316 =/= 31.6

    January 10, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  7. DC

    Why don't atheists form their own little club and scream about how 'God doesn't exist' ...oh wait, that would be reaaaallly laaaaaame!

    January 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Earthling

      We're too busy trying to keep nutjobs like you from poisoning our kids' minds by taking over public school agendas with religious nonsense.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Freethinker Seeking Reason

      Actually, spreading reason and knowledge is one of the most noble acts a person can perform. Spreading supersti-tion and fear of the ficti-tious supernatural is not only immoral it is utterly unpatriotic. No wonder the world is laughing at the religious nutters in the U.S. They're dragging us down like a boat anchor by voting against science, the environment, reproductive freedom, women's rights, gay rights, etc., etc., etc.

      Why worry about Iran and China when the religious right is destroying America from within?

      January 10, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Ah! It never fails.... It's always the " rights" to gratify the human lewd nature and fulfill its lusts, especially the se-x-ual kind, that cause people to rebel against God's laws and authority...They never fail to mention those.....

      January 10, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  8. Sam

    If we can have Christian slogans and sayings on athletes and commercials, then we must allow Atheists, Agnostics, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu slogans and sayings as well. I'm all for that!

    January 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Sam

      Besides, we all know that Jesus studied under a Hindu or Buddhist Guru before he started his teachings.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Marie

      Well, every religion DOES have their own version of "The Golden Rule," including Wiccans (which you forgot). Would be nice to see all the verses lined up on a commercial promoting to nice and not to pull a Dodger fan stomping...

      January 10, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Trevor

      "Lamb" is fiction!

      January 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  9. Brad Rainier

    Tbow is a genuine believer in Christ. Not to many people out there can say they genuinely believe in anything. God bless him! People would be wise to listen to him and go to church.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Mike

      Oh, please, he's a believer because he's been brainwashed his whole life; homeschooled by a missionary preacher father who threw Tim on the stage to preach by the time he was in his early teens in the Phillapines. Who WOULD'N'T be a believer with that background? That's no virtue

      January 10, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Freethinker Seeking Reason

      Or, perhaps one day Tim will see the light and rebel against his manipulative handlers (Focus on the Family, *cough*) when he sees that so many other young people in America are abandoning religion altogether. None's are a third and growing fast; wait until it tops 50% and then at last the rational people will finally get the chance to let their votes make a real difference. The religious right knows this is coming and will stop at nothing, including prosti-tuting Tim as a poster child of delusion in an effort to hold on to their last throes of power. The dustbin of history anxiously awaits their long overdue arrival. Pity Tim for the pawn that he is in this pathetic culture war, but wish him luck on the field in the hope that someday his ultimate betrayal will be all the sweeter. Wait for it.

      January 10, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  10. Carl

    Good to know. I'm an atheist, but I believe that Jesus, the human being, existed. I think he was a normal person that inspired a lot of people and generally gave good advice to live by (unfortunately a lot of his followers have corrupted his words). But since I don't believe in the supernatural I obviously don't think he was divine. However, since I believe he existed... and IF (and that's a big if) God exists that he probably was God's son, that would mean I get to go to heaven! Thanks John 3:16!

    January 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Joel

      The belief in Christ's diety is by faith. Faith is simple because it requires no skill nor proof. Faith is believing in what we cannot comprehend. ' Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.' We believe with our heart, our spirit. You actually use the same 'faith' to be an atheist, that a Christian uses to be a Christian. The onlly difference is that a Christian seeks communication with God with faith. The atheist however seeks to promote the idea that there are no consequences for words and deeds in this life when it has finished. If the Christian is wrong, he has lost nothing, but if the atheist is wrong he has lost his soul to an eternal damnation.

      The question then adddresses a gamble. A gamble in which our soul is the betting piece. Even in Vegas, most players choose the safest bet. Which bet will you choose, and what becomes your wager?

      January 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Bill P


      There are several posts by atheists and they are often very adamant, if not vehement. I find it best to let it alone. However, your assertion that “since I believe he existed” and “IF (and that's a big if) God exists” that that gives you a pass on not going to hell reflects that you do not actually understand. It is not the believing “that Jesus existed” is the issue. Indeed, there is sufficient independent secular record of it – along with the empirical data of His lasting impact for two thousand years. Here is a clarification from God’s Word: “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” (Romans 10: 9,10) Just acknowledging that Jesus existed, not unlike the fundamental failure of Islam in its erroneous assertion that Jesus was simply a great prophet, will not cut it. You will come up short and will miss what the wisest ever of all humans, Solomon, had to say about the meaning of life (Ecclesiastes chapter 12). “If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:15) There is no greater purpose in this life than to understand what it means and ensure having your name written in that Book. In the context of eternity, all else is nothing.

      January 10, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Earthling

      Joel, you are describing Pascal's Wager, a famous attempt to use logic to justify an illogical position. If we accept your approach, must we not then choose to believe exclusively in all gods? How can you be so sure that your christian god is the right one? There is every bit as much evidence showing that the Invisible Pink Unicorn, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Cthulhu and Thor are each individually the only true god. By your reasoning, you have a very slim chance of choosing correctly. There are hundreds of gods.

      And Bill, quoting from the bible does not prove anything. Nowhere does the bible claim to be "the word of god". It's a collection of stories told by various people, handed down verbally for many generations before ever being written down, and altered uncountable times since then, both intentionally and accidentally. Your assertion that Solomon was the "wisest ever of humans" is ludicrous. It is an interpretation of a fictionalized version of a character from thousands of years ago whose alleged exploits have been inflated (like those of many other characters in that book) to serve the purpose of big-time christianity, namely assimilation of the ignorant.

      "There is no greater purpose in this life than to understand what it means and ensure having your name written in that Book." Wrong. There is no greater purpose in this life than to help those less fortunate than yourself. If you're right, and your christian book of myths and legends is accurate in that assertion about the nonexistent book of life, then I want no part of it. Helping other creatures on this planet, whether human or not, is what I do. If your god is so much a five-year-old child that the only criterion he looks at is whether or not I'll kiss his butt, then he's a jerk, and screw him.

      January 10, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Dave in Portland

      Earthling – Well said and thank you.

      I would like to add that those people who are embracing faith 'just in case' or are 'hedging their bets' are the worst kind of hypocrites. If your religion requires faith based upon fear, then it is evil. If there really is a god and heaven/hell (I'm agnostic), they'll certainly be taking the elevator down.

      January 11, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  11. koga

    There is NO place for religion in the public forum, It should be done only in designated areas and done in such a manner to not disturb the rest of us.
    Religion is poison.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • mike

      Thats the truth, one day people will realize this.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • WW

      Then if you have a problem with it don't read it.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • GWillis

      I think that is pretty much the way the founding fathers said it. Your cnesorship of religion is the real poisen.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Freethinker Seeking Reason

      Religion is like the meth of critical thinking. It's impossible to engage in rational thought when you're high on it.

      January 10, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  12. bcinwi

    boo religion.....religion is only around to keep peoples minds off of whats really going on in the world

    January 10, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Didi

      You forgot making money, eliminating that pesky need to think for oneself, and learning the art of denying the evidence of your own eyes.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  13. Alexandria Lanai

    Phil: Haha, sorry, I just had to share this! Did you know that even athiests need God? Yes, they wouldn't be atheists if it weren't for God, because they base their whole philosophical life on believing that there is no "God". You'd really wouldn't be athiests if there wasn't no "God" – because there'd be nothing for you to "Not Believe" in! 🙂 Not everyone believes in God, but truth is EVERYONE NEEDS GOD! 😀

    January 10, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • achepotle

      all children arte born pure, innocent and without gods until some evil pervert poisons ther mind 😉

      January 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • mike

      I guess everyone needs Thor too, seeing as nobody beieves in Thor and they need him to not believe in him.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Marlye

      God is the ultimate perversion on this planet.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Timmy

      Wrong. The absence of belief is not belief in absence. The delusional position that "teir whole phiosopical life is bla bla bla" is False Premise fallacy. Sorry genius. Gonna have to do better than that.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Earthling

      That's pretty ridiculous. The same as saying that the only reason religious people believe in their fairy tales is so they can use them to avoid believing in evolution.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • SanFranRick

      That is about the lamest "argument" I have ever read. Not only is it circular, fallacious, and really stupid. It is downright ignorant. Neither side (religion vs Atheism) can "prove" anything. All of the FACTS tend to side with the statement that god doesn't exist but proof or "need" is unobtainable. You don't KNOW if god exists and I don't KNOW that he/she/it doesn't. Belief is the only valid statement in this equation. Study up b4 you mouth off.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • maartje

      The atheists can believe in evolution, that they are here by accident, a freak of nature. Christians believe they were put here for a purpose. If the atheists are right the Christians have nothing to lose. If the Christians are right, then atheists will have all of eternity to be wrong.

      January 10, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Freethinker Seeking Reason


      Sheeesh. Fearmonger much?

      Why don't you try to twist your statement to argue for the existence of Santa and the Easter Bunny, too, while you're at it?

      January 10, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Earthling

      No, Maartje, the SCIENTISTS have PROVEN that humans and all other species currently present on Earth have evolved from earlier, usually less advanced species. Your paraphrasing of Pascal's wager does not make it any more valid. What makes christians right and Hindus wrong? How about pantheists? Or followers of the IPU or FSM? There are hundreds of gods to choose from. Pascal's choice to believe in christianity "just in case" is a complete shot in the dark. There is no legitimate way to choose which god to believe in, because there is no evidence for any of them.

      January 10, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  14. jimmyhoffa

    You cant deny that the 316 #s are ironic, spin it anyway you'd like...

    January 10, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Irony

      1 : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) : an event or result marked by such incongruity

      January 10, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Grant

      Unless you know what ironic means.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  15. Tony

    If god loves the world so much, don't send his only son. Send a truck full of food to Africa to feed all the starving kids that are currently literally being eaten alive by flies.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Falcon 78 in Northern VA

      Tony, You are being called to be the person to deliver that truck of food to the children of Africa. You've identified a very valid need. Go forth and make it happen.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Marlye

      Jebus was busy at the game throwing back some brews and munching on Nachos.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Tony C

      I work food lines from time to time. Too bad not enough people do. But that's precisely the point. My church serves five times more people than the local state run shelter...

      January 10, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Earthling

      Maybe if churches paid taxes, the state shelters would have enough money to serve all those needy people.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Tony

      Hey Falcon, I'm not God. If I were, you and every kid in the world would be eating and sleeping on delicious and nutritious marshmallows that don't make you fat.

      Now, If I'm being called for deliver food, good! Where's the truck, where the food, and where's my funding?

      January 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  16. achepotle

    What a great revival! People all over America are selling their goods, giving thie money to the poor and following Jesus..wait...what's that's that? They are hating on gays, praying for war with Iran jailing the poor and blowing money making multi-million dollar game players richer?? Well...maybe if we just pray harder...

    Yep, America is a Christian nation all right,..just not followers of Jesus....he was a libtuurd witha lefty, sociialist base, the disciples 😉

    January 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  17. mouse

    Okay...I'll explain. Every now and then when I am bored at work I'll take a peek at the clock to see what time it is. Because I do this often enough I have seen 3:14 quite a bit and as this is my b-day I always "pretend" this must be my lucky day but in reality if you do something enough times you will run into coincidence. There, I explained it!

    January 10, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  18. Joey

    Why do all the naysayers have to always jump on the negativity band-wagon and make a rude and thoughtless comment? If you don't believe, then like Paul McCartney said, "Let It Be".

    January 10, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Steve O

      Or as Lennon said:
      "Imagine there's no heaven
      It's easy if you try
      No hell below us
      Above us only sky
      Imagine all the people living for today"

      January 10, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Tony

      right...the same way right wingnuts "let it be" around this country and the world?

      January 10, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  19. Tony in New York

    Dear Lord – I love you and thank you every day, and ask for only three things: strength, wisdom and love.. Today, however, I ask for one other thing – please protect us from your deluded fan club. Most of those who call themselves "Christians" have forsaken your message and claim to "know" you when, in fact, what they "know" is only what is fed to them by demagogues.

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

      Keep your Eyes on Jesus and not the men because men fail you but Jesus Christ wont.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Earthling

      Jesus has been dead for millennia. He won't be doing anything.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Tony, perhaps you should also ask for protection from people who claim to know what other people know.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  20. Peter

    Football was pretty big back in the Holy Land.Nothing Jesus loved more than a bunch of self absorbed egotists who are all about the $$$$$$,act like thugs,and constantly make bad headline news.Then along comes Tebow who feels his prayers won't be heard unless he prays while the camera is still on him rather than when he is alone back on the bench,and now JC says"I just love this guy,I'm going to help him win some games"Love it.Christians will believe anything.

    January 10, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Johnny Orlando

      He prays, the camera finds him. Thats about it. You need to figure out what you are saying first.

      January 10, 2012 at 6:03 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.