John 3:16: What does it really mean?

In The Lord of the Rings there was the one ring to rule them all. If there is one Bible verse to rule them all it is John 3:16. If you learned just one Bible verse as a kid in Sunday School or VBS I guarantee it was John 3:16. We see that verse most often on billboards and held up on cardboard signs at sporting events. I haven’t watched a baseball game in quite a while. The thing that drives me crazy is when I’m watching a baseball game and the camera angle switches to the view almost directly behind the pitcher, and there behind the catcher in the stands you see this guy holding a cardboard sign with John 3:16. Then, when he realizes from the monitor that he is on television, then he starts waving it all around. That is the one time I could easily become a bible thumper, that is, I could take a great big bible and thump it over that guy’s head. But since I don’t believe in violence I wouldn’t actually do that. Did you know there is a fishing lure company called 3:16 lure company. It’s a small company operated by a man named Mickey Ellis who had a pretty dramatic conversion experience. He makes some really good swimbaits. One’s called the mission fish. And the one I really like is called the rising son. I’ve caught some good bass on those baits.

So what does this most popular verse in the Bible mean? I want to unpack this by asking three questions related to this passage and its larger context. First, what does John mean when he talks about being saved? Second, what does John mean when he talks about eternal life? And third, what does John mean when he talks about believing in Jesus?

First, what does John mean when he talks about salvation. Now, you probably are aware that the word does not actually appear in verse 16, but it is used in verse 17 where John says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This word as used by John doesn’t mean exactly what it means in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but there’s a lot of overlap. In both John and the other Gospels one common meaning is healing. To be saved is to be healed. The physical healings in the Gospels are “signs” that point to God’s work of healing in our lives which can  take many forms. The Greek word for “healing” and “salvation” is the same word. In this very passage we could easily translate this: “in order that the world might be healed” or “made whole” or “restored.” Any of these renderings would be a reliable translation of the Greek word. Healing can be physical, but often it is emotional, or psychological, or relational. God is interested in healing our bodies, our souls, and particularly our wounded and broken relationships with God, with others, and with the earth itself.   

Another meaning, which I have talked a lot about lately, is liberation. To be saved is to be liberated from our sins and the destructive forces and “isms” that take root in our own personal lives and in the systems and structures of society that we are part of.

Another meaning that is common in John’s Gospel is enlightenment. To be saved is to be enlightened, to be able to see what really is. Often we can’t see what really is because our prejudices, biases, and sins get in the way to distort our vision. We can’t see the larger picture because we are too trapped in our own ego and our little selves. Our vision can be distorted by any number of things.

Enlightenment is a theme introduced in John’s prologue as a major theme in the Gospel. The living Word and the true Light of God, that became incarnate in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, dwells in all of us, but many of us rarely access that light. John says that the true light enlightens everyone coming into the world. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that the true light has the potential and capacity to enlighten everyone, because the light is inside of us. But too often the light has been darkened and hid by our greed or pride or self-centeredness. The light begins to shine when we open our hearts to God’s grace and truth and love.

Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus was an encounter with light that enabled him to see God, to see himself, to see others, and to see all reality in a new way. Thomas Merton’s mystical experience in Louisville on a busy intersection enabled him to see in a new way. In Merton’s case, it may have been truth he already knew, but his experience drove it home. With new, enlightened eyes Merton was able to see the dignity and divinity of each person. He could see this in total strangers he had never met. He could see that we are all connected. We all belong. We are one family in God. Merton realized that the life of God is in each of us, but normally we are blind to its radiance. Merton wrote, “If only we could see each other that way all the time . . . There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.” To be saved in John is to be enlightened to the light that is in every person.

And then finally, to be saved in John is to know and experience eternal life. The Synoptic Gospels speak more about the kingdom of God than they speak of eternal life, so this emphasis is somewhat unique to John. And this brings me to my second question. What does it mean to have eternal life?

Let me say what is obvious first. Eternal life is eternal. It is forever. It’s like the energizer bunny – it goes on and on and on. And about all we can really say about it is that it will be good, because God is good. The story I love to share at celebration of life services is the story of the little grub that lived at the bottom of the swamp. Some of you have heard this little story numerous times, so I will abbreviate it. The little grub gets the urge to swim to the surface, climbs out on a lily pad, and goes to sleep. As she sleeps the carapace of that little creature breaks open, and out emerges this beautiful rainbow colored dragonfly. She opens her wings and begins to soar in this bright new world. We can call this bright new world heaven, we can call it life after life, we can call it a new space/time continuum – it doesn’t matter what we call it really. It’s enough to know it will be good and glorious.

But there is a sense in which that little story is not a completely accurate image of eternal life as that phrase is used in John’s Gospel. Eternal life, in John’s Gospel, is a reality we enter into now and we get a taste of now. The little grub living at the bottom of the swam never gets a taste of that bright new world, but we do. We partially enter into this reality now. Eternal life is not just a quantity of life, it’s a quality of life that we access now by consciously and intentionally opening our hearts and lives to the grace, truth, and love of God that became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Eternal life is life in God, and in relationship with all that God is. It is the life of receiving and dispensing grace. It is the life of being blessed and being a blessing. It involves both the inflow and the outflow of the Spirit of God.

One image John uses to convey the meaning of eternal life is the image of living water. (Spiritual truth, enlightened truth can only be communicated by symbols and myths, by parables and metaphorical stories. That’s how religious language works). Flowing water is a symbol of God’s life that we participate in.

Brother David Steindl-Rast illustrates the life of blessing that is the essence of eternal life by observing the flow of the Jordan River. The Jordan flows down from Mount Hermon pouring out its blessings as if flows – living water, life-giving water for parched soil. Nowhere is the richness of life it brings more evident than by the Sea of Galilee. The shores around the lake are a paradise of fields, orchards, and gardens. The water in the lake is clear, teeming with fish. It’s all full of life. There’s abundant life in the water and around the water.

Now, from the lake of Galilee the Jordan river meanders down to another body of water called the Dead Sea. What a contrast! The water is a salty brine. Several years ago I was able to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. We spent an afternoon at the Dead Sea and its surroundings. We went swimming in the Dead Sea. Actually we went floating. The water is so dense with salt, you can’t sink, you float. The shores of the Dead Sea are dead; completely barren. Desert all around. Nothing lives in the Dead Sea, which, of course, is why it is called the Dead Sea. Its water is even unfit for irrigation.

Now, it’s the same water that feeds the Sea of Galilee. But here’s the difference. In the Sea of Galilee, the water flows in and then flows out again; the Dead Sea does not pass its water on. It just gathers in one place and stagnates. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that life and blessing that stops flowing becomes a curse.

I was affiliated with a church once where the largest group in the church was a Bible study group that met as a Sunday School class, and usually through the week for some kind of special Bible study. We would keep going to this group for help. We had some new, young families with children attending, and not enough workers to help teach and care for them. We went to this group: We need your help. No response. The senior group needed some help with some homebound members. We went to this group again. We need your help. Here’s how some of you can be a blessing. Here’s an opportunity to serve others. No response. And whenever someone within the group thought about serving the children or the senior adults or in some other capacity in the church, they got pressure from the leader and the rest of the group to stay put.

They were more like the Dead Sea than the Sea of Galilee. Inflow but no outflow. They wanted to get the blessing, but seemed to have no interest in passing the blessing on to others. More complaints came out of that group than any other group in the church. I spent a great portion of my time just trying to pacify that group.

Whenever we bless someone, whenever we offer encouragement or give of ourselves in some way to enhance life, to show love and kindness, to make life better for someone, we are simply returning what has been given to us as a gift. Life is not bought or earned, it’s received and given away. It’s all grace and gift.

I love the way Brother David Steindl-Rast expresses this reality in a prayer: Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time / This new day, in this place, is your gift. / Make me live gratefully. / This day is opportunity / To receive your blessing in a thousand forms / And to bless. / To listen to your word in all that I hear, / And to respond in obedience of heart. / To drink deeply from your life, / And to make others come alive. / By radiant smile, by cheerful answer, / And by a secret blessing.

We are blessed as we bless. We receive as we give. The eternal life of God, which is now and forever, flows in and out of our lives like living water. We step into the flow and participate in the eternal life of God when we bless others.

Now, this brings me to the third question, What does it mean to believe in Jesus? For Christians, for you and me, believing in Jesus is the way we appropriate and experience salvation. It’s the way we participate in the healing, liberation, enlightenment, and eternal life of God. It’s not the only way. We don’t have all the truth or all the answers. But it is our way.

Let me suggest first what believing in Jesus doesn’t mean. It’s doesn’t mean believing mentally or intellectually propositions or doctrines about Jesus. Believing mentally is just one component and it’s not the most important. Obviously, if we are going to follow Jesus we must believe that Jesus is worth following, we must have enough confidence that the way of Jesus will lead us into participation with God. But believing stuff mentally is not the main thing. Otherwise, people who are mentally challenged would have no hope of experiencing the life of God.

To believe in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the life Jesus lived and the values he embodied. Jesus is the pattern for our lives and relationships. In other words, to believe in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the love and grace and truth Jesus made known to us as the Living Word of God. By trusting in and being faithful to the way of Jesus we step into the flow of God’s life. We learn from Jesus how to give and receive divine love. We learn from Jesus how to be a blessing to others.

I wish all parents and Sunday School teachers who teach their children John 3:16, and all those who hold up signs at sporting events could realize this is what John 3:16 is really about. Who knows? Maybe they will.

Gracious God, you have showed us just how much you love the world, and that means all of us. Your light is within each us. Let us have eyes to see and ears to hear. Because too often, Lord, we listen, but we don’t hear. We see, and yet we are blind. May our lives become full and running over with your love and grace. Let us be inspired to give, so that we might receive. Compel us to bless others, so that we will be blessed with the joy and peace of your Spirit. May our lives become fountains of living water.  Amen.


  1. Thank you, this is beautiful. It makes so much sense. I feel so much better now.


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