John 3:16 | Reclaiming the Bible’s Best-Known Verse

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Tucson, Ariz.

This is how much God loved the world: [God] gave [God’s] Son, [God’s] one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending [God’s] Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him. (John 3:16)

John 3:16, the Bible’s best-known verse

Perhaps you have heard the story about the bride and groom who ordered their wedding cake and requested a particular scripture verse written on the top with frosting. It was to be 1 John 4:18 (“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”) Unfortunately, the baker didn’t know the Bible all that well and put on John 4:18 (“You have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband…”) instead.

There would have been no such confusion or embarrassment if they had chosen John 3:16, a verse that almost everybody knows, whether they know their Bibles well or not. It is displayed on license plate frames and billboards, and most brazenly on banners that always seem to find their way into the background shots at football games and golf tournaments. “John 3:16” — the verse never has to be spelled out, because everyone already knows it.

I sometimes fantasize myself putting up some other verse, just to see if anyone would get it. Something from Habakkuk, or perhaps 1 Chronicles 26:18 (“and for the parbar on the west there were four at the road and two at the parbar.”) Or maybe my personal favorite, Isaiah 54:16 (“Behold I have created the smith.”) Some verses enjoy greater recognition than others, and some have greater personal meaning than others.

John 3:16, a first encounter with the verse

John 3:16 is one that has great recognition and personal meaning for many people. I think it must have been the first Bible verse I committed to memory. I was about five or six and went with a playmate to a house down the street where a Bible class was being offered to children in the neighborhood. I learned it in the old King James:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

I was too young to know what “only begotten son” meant, and fortunately the word “begotten” has been dropped from the NRSV. “Everlasting life” has become “eternal life,” which changes the emphasis from quantity to quality, and I think is closer to what the writer intended.

But, as I said, this was the first verse I ever memorized, and so it is close to my heart, even as I now understand it a bit differently than I did back then. I was taught at that neighborhood Bible class — as the verses which follow spell out — that the point of believing in Jesus is so that one will have eternal life; or, as Marcus Borg puts it, “Believe in Jesus now for the sake of heaven later.” And the corollary is — if you don’t believe in Jesus, then you will be spending eternity in a very hot and desolate place. (No, not Tucson.)

Not wanting to spend eternity in a place that was even hotter than where I already lived, I tried to believe in Jesus, which meant believing certain things about him — for instance, that he was the Son of God, sent from heaven to earth for the sole purpose of dying on the cross for my sins.

John 3:16 and what it says about Jesus

It meant that he was not really human, but only pretended to be, that he lived a sinless and perfect life, one that I could never hope to imitate but only venerate; that he performed miracles akin to feats of magic, and that his body literally rose from the grave, after which he was able to walk through closed doors, and then after 40 days literally flew up through the sky to heaven, where he waits until the time is right for him to come back and vanquish all his foes — that is, the ones who don’t believe all these things about him.

It wasn’t long before I began to wonder about some of this, and I think it was because of two things. One was that my home church never taught it quite this way. In Sunday school we were introduced to Jesus as a person: One who called children to his presence, who taught not so much about himself but rather what it meant to be a loving person, and whose life of love and service to others was something we could hope to imitate. He was a person we could follow, not just adore.

John 3:16’s lesson for us

And we were taught that loving Jesus means loving other people. I felt that love, in my family and in my church. And I was given plenty of opportunities to share that love with others. At 15 I volunteered to push the book cart on Friday mornings during the summer at the Beatitudes Campus of Care, and at 16 I went to work there as a busboy and dishwasher. I joined the Youth Group, where, in addition to weekly meetings, we had the opportunity to work on task forces, working with migrant workers, or at the State Mental Hospital, or at a local coffee house.

Then there was the annual work trip to Guadalajara. In all those years I was never once asked if I was “saved” — but many times I was asked if I would serve! I was never asked if I believed that “Jesus was the only begotten Son of God” — but many times I was asked if I would follow Jesus by putting his teachings into practice and by loving my neighbor as I love myself.

John 3:16 and the believer/non-believer

So I began to suspect that to believe in Jesus meant to believe in the things he taught and the way he lived, more than to believe certain things about him. (The religion OF Jesus, rather than the religion ABOUT Jesus.)

A second thing that happened while I was growing up that caused me to wonder about my earlier understanding of John 3:16 was that I was exposed to diversity. Specifically, I acquired Jewish friends! There were fine people, and from what I could tell, they lived as “good” a life as I did. The only difference was that they went to Temple on Saturday mornings, they had different holidays, and they didn’t use the exact religious language that I did. “They don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God,” I thought. “Does that mean they are condemned?”

And then I began to wonder about all the people who had never even heard of Jesus — the ones who lived before he was born, and the ones who lived in this hemisphere before the Europeans arrived, and the ones who even today have not been encountered by missionaries. And what about those who had, but who choose to remain Muslims or Buddhists or Jews, or follow their traditional spiritual paths?

What about Gandhi, a Hindu who also adopted parts of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith? Could it possibly be that there were other valid paths to God, other ways to be a “good person,” besides the one I was born into?

A very literal reading of John 3:16 — and the verses which follow — would seem to say “No.” Believe that Jesus is the Son of God and you’ll go to heaven. Nothing else matters. And I would assume that this is what those who hold their John 3:16 banners up at nationally televised sporting events mean to proclaim.

John 3:16 and possible alternatives

I would feel a little better about it if they would occasionally hold up something else. Why not Mark 10:21? (“Sell what you have and give it to the poor”) Or Matthew 5:43? (“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”) Or even Micah 6:8? (“What does the Lord require, but that you do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”)

If they would once in a while do that, then I might assume that they had a broader interpretation of the meaning of John 3:16 and of Christian faith — that it involved living a life, and not just believing. But unfortunately I have been disappointed in this, and so my assumption is that they mean John 3:16 to be taken in a literal, and thus exclusivistic, way. As I said, that doesn’t square with my own experience. Yet this verse remains near my heart, and that’s why I want to reclaim it!

John 3:16 a paraphrase?

One of the first questions I ask as I begin to do that is… Are these the words of Jesus? The Jesus Seminar says NO — in fact, almost nothing ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John can be traced back to him, historically. John was the last of the Gospels to be written, perhaps in the last decade of the first century, 60 or more years after Jesus’ life. It is a theological document, rather than a historical one, describing the encounter of the early Christian community with the Spirit of the Risen Christ, how they felt his continuing presence with them.

Jesus in John’s Gospel speaks from the vantage point of Easter, very differently from the more human, flesh-and-blood preacher in the other Gospels. In addition, even before the Jesus Seminar, there was debate over these particular words of our scripture lesson. Many interpreters and scholars believe that quotation marks were not part of the original documents, and that John never placed these words on Jesus’ lips — rather, they are the writer’s own commentary on the meaning of the Christ-event.

In short, while they still carry the weight of scripture, they were not spoken by Jesus himself. With that in mind, let’s look a bit more closely at this verse, which Martin Luther called “the Gospel in Miniature.”

John 3:16 and the nature of God

To me, a most important part of the verse is right there at the beginning: “God so loved the world…” Rather than being a standoffish Creator, who simply set things in motion and went away, God is involved in an ongoing relationship with the Creation, remains a part of it, and passionately cares for it.

This is seen throughout the Biblical story, as God calls Creation good, and through relationship with the people of Israel, leads them to the Promised Land. And through the prophets God speaks to the people, and seeks to get them to respond by living in the right way. God so loved the world… that God did all this — and finally, in a great act of love, gave it Jesus.

John 3:16 and Jesus’ divinity

John 3:16 describes Jesus as “God’s Only Son.” It has been a common test of faith: “Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God?” There are several ways to answer that. One is to point to the political ramifications of making that affirmation. At the time John was writing, the Emperor was calling himself the “Son of God.” So to affirm that Jesus was the son of God was to say the Emperor is not!

It is very similar to the earliest Christian creed, “Jesus is Lord.” If Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar; If Jesus is the son of God, and not Caesar — then it is not just a theological statement, but a political one, and a very daring, dangerous, and subversive one at that! Many of the faithful died for making just such a profession!

To affirm that Jesus is the Son of God today might not seem to have quite the same implications, when hardly any earthly authority claims that for themselves — but it can still be a dangerous thing to really live out your faith in loyalty to God first and a government second. Prisons around the world are full of folks who have.

But whether saying “Jesus is the Son of God” is a political statement or a theological one, it is surely not a biological one! I have come over the years to understand the term “son of God” as a metaphor. There are many images used for Jesus in the Bible and in the Gospel of John in particular. He is described as the “lamb of God,” the “word of God,” the “light of the world,” the “bread of life,” among others.

John 3:16 and Jesus’ sacrifice

Surely no one believes Jesus is literally a lamb, with wool and bleating. It was a powerful image for those who were part of the Jewish sacrificial system: Every year they would sacrifice an animal to God, in order to earn God’s favor and get back in God’s good graces. The early church’s conviction was that Jesus, in dying on the cross, has become the final sacrifice, ending their need to sacrifice animals on a regular basis. And so he was now called “the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” But he wasn’t literally a lamb.

In the same way, while there is a word “Jesus,” he is not literally a word. What would that be? Nor is he literally light or bread or any of the other images that are used to describe him, although they are powerful images which inform and strengthen our faith.

Images are necessary! Son of God is a wonderful image — an image that suggests a relationship, not with an impersonal force, but with a personal caring creator, like a father or a mother. And the Bible also tells us that we are all children of God; like Jesus, we are God’s sons and daughters — not literally of course, for we all have human parents. But it is a powerful and life-giving thing to imagine ourselves as being God’s children.

And so in John’s understanding this Jesus was given so that we might believe in him and thus receive the gift of eternal life. What does it mean to believe? Not to ascent to certain facts, or as John A. T. Robinson once put it, “swallowing nineteen unbelievable things before breakfast.”

John 3:16 and the nature of belief

Rather belief is faith, and faith is trust. To say “I believe” is to say “I trust,” and to then live as if I do trust. It means living my life in trust — trust that God is good, that God cares, that God is love, that God surrounds me with love, that I am called to love and serve others. It is placing my trust in God — not in money, not in armaments, not in earthly powers, not in all the things we usually trust for our security and well-being.

It means trusting Jesus’ vision of the realm of God in our midst, and all of the possibilities and responsibilities this sets before us. Believing means trusting means doing. It means giving one’s heart. And this is what leads to eternal life.

The point of Christian faith is not “believe in Jesus now for the sake of heaven later,” but “trust in the vision that Jesus proclaimed and live eternal life now.” Eternal life is the life that is lived in the awareness of God’s presence, life lived in the manner of Jesus, life lived in the realm of the spirit, life that is full, whole, abundant. Eternal life is about quality, not quantity.

John 3:16 as the gospel in miniature

Well, that is how I have come to understand John 3:16. God loves this world so much that God enters the world, is in relationship with us, comes to us in the man Jesus, calls us to trust in the vision of life that Jesus proclaimed, and bids us give our hearts and lives to following and seeking and serving, and thus experiencing that quality of life called eternal. It is, as Luther said, the gospel in miniature, the good news… It is what I want to reclaim, and thus proclaim, as I live my life in relationship to God.

I want to leave you with words of one whose poetry and prose touches me very deeply — Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. Once, while on a spiritual retreat with some monks at the foot of Mt. Sinai, he meditated upon a crucifix and was moved to write:

I kept gazing at Christ’s virile, ascetic figure in the gentle glow of the candles. Perceiving the slender hands which maintained a firm grip on the world, and kept if from falling into chaos, I knew that here on earth, for the full span of our lives, Christ was not the harbor where one casts anchor, but the harbor from which one departs, gains the offing, encounters a wild tempestuous sea, and then struggles for a lifetime to anchor in God. Christ is not the end, he is the beginning. He is not the welcome, he is the bon voyage! He does not sit back restfully on the clouds, but is battered by the waves just as we are, his eyes fixed aloft on the North Star of God, his hands firmly on the helm. That was why I liked him; that was why I would follow him!

The question is, will you not just believe in him, but follow him?

O Christ, as much as question as you are an answer, as much a prodder as you are a comforter, save us from too much gazing into the clouds in hopes of your return… lead us instead to recognize you as already present in the face of our neighbor… that by sharing your love, we may declare with our lives that you are indeed with us always. Amen.

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