So I’m stuck in traffic this one time and I was right behind this big tractor trailer truck. I’m guessing you’ve been in this position before… On the back of the trailer, there’s the usual stuff—the company’s name, the how’s my driving sticker, and in the corner in simple but plain letters: John 3:16.
So sitting there, thinking about this, it occurred to me how strange this was. I mean, what is the point of slapping a bible verse on the back of a truck? Not the actual text, mind you. Just the chapter and verse. I assume it’s an evangelism strategy. Imagine I’m this twisted broken person driving in my car—because twisted broken people have to commute to work, too. And there, in my twisted brokenness, I see this truck. And suddenly I know: “Wow, God did so love the world, I better fix my twisted brokenness right now in the middle of this traffic jam!”
Okay, perhaps I’m being a little too snarky. But this whole strategy assumes a lot of things. First off, it assumes that I even know it’s from the Bible, and not just some serial number. And even if I knew what the word and numbers mean, it assumes that I have the passage memorized or that I have a Bible handy to look it up (that is, if I could actually find it in the book and drive the car at the same time).
I guess all of this to say that this type of evangelism—throwing out Bible passages and hoping they stick—is probably ineffective and maybe a little lazy.
But at least it’s John 3:16, right? I mean, you can’t really go wrong with this one. It’s not like we’re talking about Obadiah 8:10 or something like that. John 3:16 is right up there with Psalm 23 and Micah 6:8 for being the one that we all know and love. So much so, that we don’t even seem to think about what it’s truly saying.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Let’s break it down a little, starting with some background. Jesus says this as he is meeting with a religious leader named Nicodemus. He was this respected, wise scholar—but he knew that when Jesus showed up in town, there was this huge gap in his understanding about God.
So, he does what all of you should do when you have a question about your faith, he called and made an appointment with the pastor. Now, he goes to Jesus in the dead of night, under cover of darkness because he was afraid of being seen asking questions. And Jesus talks to him about belief and eternal life and God’s love.
“God so loved the world,” Jesus says. When Jesus says, “the world,” he’s not just talking about a place on a map or our little blue speck of a planet. The word here is kosmos, all of creation, everything that has ever been or ever was or ever will be. And God loves all of it.
That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it. And already our understanding of John 3:16 expands just a bit.
Jesus continues: “he gave his only Son…” It’s interesting here, Jesus is talking as if his own death has already happened. But, then, Jesus always seems to be talking about his death. And here he draws a comparison to Moses lifting up the serpent to save his own people. When Jesus is on the cross—through all of that pain and death, through rejection and humiliation, he wins the final victory—he is lifted up both physically, but also lifted up, exalted. Victory through defeat, life through death. I’ll let you scratch your head over that one. Nicodemus certainly did.
But Jesus isn’t going to wait for you to catch up here: “…so that everyone who believes in him may not perish…” Now, we’re getting into the thick of it. I suspect, this is why the chapter and verse is plastered on the truck. Belief. You’ve got to believe. And if you don’t, well you’re in trouble. So you better look up that verse and believe.
But here’s the thing: The word “belief” shows up a lot in John’s Gospel, so you know it’s important. We see it 98 times…that’s triple the amount in all the other gospels combined. So, belief is really, really important. What does it mean, then?
Belief in John’s gospel means action. It’s not just something that happens up here. To believe in Jesus, means to trust Jesus. To surrender everything we have to Jesus. To submit to and obey Jesus. This is not about checking the right boxes when you recite the creed. It’s not about arguing over history or doctrine. It’s about placing your heart, your very life, in Jesus’ hands.
And we either do that or we don’t. There’s no half measure in John. Plenty of people reject Jesus, the choose to go another way. But when the do that, they miss out. They miss out on knowing the abundance of God’s love. It’s like they’re stumbling in darkness, not knowing there’s a light switch on the wall.
Nicodemus was one of those people. He came to Jesus in the dark and he departed from Jesus in the dark. And for most of John’s story, he remains in the shadows, a spectator to the action. It’s not until the very end, when he witnesses that victory on the cross, that he takes his first steps into the light. But better late than never for Nicodemus. And better late than never for us, too.
Try this today: When we recite the creed, take John’s expansive definition to heart. Think about what it would be like if instead of saying, “I believe in God the Father,” we say instead, “I trust in God the Father—I obey Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord—I place all of my hope in the Holy Spirit.” How would that change things?
Well, for one, I think we’d begin to understand a little more about this “eternal life,” Jesus is talking about. “Whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Again, this is not just heaven we’re talking about. Eternal life begins here, begins now, whenever we put our faith in God. We receive God’s peace. We see God’s abundance. We don’t have to be afraid. We are one with God’s community, we are God’s children. We serve and love and help those who still struggle in the dark. And we live in joy, knowing that we receive God’s forgiveness.
John 3:16 is not just a prerequisite or a requirement, it’s not a warning, it’s not a slogan. It is a sign of God’s love that we see lived out through Jesus Christ. It points us to the reality of God’s light in our lives. It’s a promise that we are children of God because we are created by God, because God lifts us up, because we trust God.