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Coffee Cup Doctrine: John 3:16


One night a Pharisee came to talk to Jesus. Somewhere in their conversation Jesus dropped an explosive statement that we read now as a single verse:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV).

January 8, 2012, three years after Tim Tebow first wore “John 3:16” in his eye black in front of millions of TV viewers, the then-Denver Broncos quarterback threw for 316 yards in a wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He averaged an unthinkable 31.6 yards per completion. The Steelers quarterback threw an interception leading to a Broncos field goal, a turnover that was produced on a third-and-16 play (ESPN). A lot of things were eerily connected to 3:16 that day.

There is clearly something special about this single verse that Jesus first spoke that night so long ago.

Coffee Cup Commentary

John 3:16 is you all you need for both personal comfort and evangelism.

This verse is the message that God did not want heaven without you, so He sent heaven down. God’s love is so big that He wants everyone in the world to be in heaven, and all we need to do is acknowledge Christ and accept Him. As an added bonus, this verse is so special that it may win you the occasional NFL playoff game. All you have to do is believe John 3:16.

Something about these words seems geared to infuse us with the warm fuzzies every time we see it on a shirt, mug, or card...

Biblical Context

...and that fuzzy feeling may, unconsciously, be the meaning we grow up bringing to the verse rather than the message the verse brings to us. There are layers of context to John 3:16 we miss if it is the only portion of Scripture we know. At best, don’t get all this text has to offer when we don’t pack it with all of the meaning the rest of the Bible contains. At worst, this verse becomes overused and cheapened to the point it is a handy evangelistic hook and reassuring nicety, but it won’t change how we live.

Two contexts to John 3:16 are often neglected: the entire Bible, and the immediate surrounding of John chapter three. People who read it in isolation have to draw their own conclusions about who God is,  what “believing” means, about what “eternal life” might be.

When Jesus said “God,” He alone was perfectly able to comprehend all that meant because He is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and the “exact imprint” of His Father’s glory (Hebrews 1:3). It is the God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” yet Who “will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7). He is a God before whom angels cry “Holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3), and any “eternal life” He gives has to be experienced in the context of His holiness.

The Bible also gives us more context for understanding what Jesus meant by “believe.” Believing, or having faith, is more than agreeing with who Jesus is. It is a “gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no man may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Believing in God is not something we generate. However, it will affect our lives because it will lead to action (James 2:14-26).

“Eternal life” is defined in Scripture by the plain words of Jesus, “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). God Himself is not merely the way to get the prize; He is the prize. Jesus is the do-all end-all of earthly and heavenly life. “From Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36).

What We Miss

Looking at the more immediate context of John 3 helps us find comfort in the fact that Jesus Himself could guarantee eternal life based on the fact that He is the one Who makes it possible (John 3:14-15). We never have to worry about whether we can really be saved. Christ reaffirms the assurance of “whoever believes” with verse 17, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17).

Biblical context cuts through the “easiness” with which the message of John 3:16 is presented and replaces it with something better: belief on Jesus that will change everything about our lives. Understanding that Jesus came is not enough (John 3:18-19). The way of eternal life involves repentance from sin and obedience to Him. The same God who gave us verse 16 gave us verse 36, “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on Him.”

There’s nothing wrong with a Christian football player promoting John 3:16. After all, God can intervene in a football game as much as anything else. However, Christianity goes beyond one verse. The more we understand the truth of the whole Bible, the more we appreciate John 3:16.

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