“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.” (John 3:16 NIV)
When I was really young I used to see people holding the John 3:16 posters up at sports events on the TV and wonder why. I couldn’t understand what it was all about partly because I had virtually no biblical knowledge, partly because I didn’t see why one verse was so important amongst so many and partly because I couldn’t understand the point in holding that up without the words of the verse being with it.
I still don’t really get how it’s meant to achieve anything, to be honest. Following Jesus is all about relationships. Relationships with other followers, with people who aren’t and with Jesus himself. I don’t see how holding up a piece of card with one word and two numbers on it from, often, a foreign country, with no chance of building that relationship is going to have much, if any effect.
I also don’t see how quoting it out of context is going to do any good. What does it actually mean in practice? Who is God’s son, really? Who is God? How does he give us eternal life? What does it even mean? We need to go beyond one verse to even get close to answering those.
However, if you asked people to quote you a Bible verse, the chances are that they would quote you this one (or “Jesus wept”, which comes a bit later). This means that, despite whatever the poster bearer’s intentions, this is a great conversation point. What does John 3:16 actually mean? And why is it so famous?
The fact is that it’s the verse used by remote, faceless evangelists because, more than any other verse, it sums up why Jesus came. He came because God, the Father, loves us. Not because he wanted to judge us or punish us, but as an act of love.
He came because God gave him up. He gave him up to us as a gift of love so that we can learn from him about life, about love for him and for each other and about God’s kingdom. He also gave him up to death. I once took part in a Church music as l called “A Man Born To Die”, which describes Jesus well. His teachings were important, but his death and subsequent resurrection are what leads to the final part of the verse.
Eternal life is a tough concept. I don’t know what it looks like, but then, I don’t want to. Not yet. I want it to remain a mystery, a surprise, if I get it. I do know that Jesus overcame all of the wrong things we’ve done by dying, as sin is what really kills us spiritually, and by coming back to life. This is how he gave us eternal life, I just can’t explain how it means. I tried him that it’s worth it, though.
And that’s the point. Whoever believes in him gets it. When Jesus speaks of belief here he means that we trust what he says and follow him. Simple as that. It’s not about having a rigid set of rules and regulations. It’s not about ritual, avoiding doing certain things at certain times and doing others on a regular basis. It’s about listening to what he teaches us, trusting that he is the way to go and following him. It’s about helping others along the way; loving them, guiding them, comforting them, feeding them, sharing everything with them. It’s about life.
What it’s not about is religion. I try to avoid the word because it has so many negative connotations, and rightly so. Religion is a system of rules, a system of control, a system of separation and segregation. Religion is man-made and has been used as the justification of so many bad things throughout history. I mean, read the Bible itself! There are enough examples there of how religion has been used to justify evil, including Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus didn’t come to found a religion. He came to give us life. To show us the way to live, fully, eternally. He came to help us to break free from the control that those in power have over our hearts, minds and souls and to show us how to love each other and him so that we can truly live. Believing in him means all of this and more. Not control, not religion, not rigid rules, not condemnation, but love and life.
Who wouldn’t want to believe in that?