How Many People Heard John 3:16?

John 3:16 is quite possibly the most famous verse in the Bible. It is the most read Bible verse on at the very least. We see it on posters (and eye black) at sporting events, it is printed on everything from fast food cups to bookmarks and stickers, and you’ve probably received it in a greeting card or even written it on your mirror once or twice.

When you think of the context in which the most famous Bible verse of all time was delivered, what do you think of?

  • Who said it?
  • Where did they say it?
  • When did they say it?
  • Why did they say it?
  • Who heard it?
  • How did the hearers respond?

I don’t know about you, but for as much as I value Scriptural context, I hadn’t given much thought to the setting of John 3:16 until recently. It works so well on its own. It seems to be a self-contained thought and a concise presentation of the Gospel–hence why it is so popular.

While context adds to the understanding, there are far worse popular verses to take out of context. For example, during graduation season we tell young people that God knows the plans that God has for them, and that they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them. While the sentiment it good, these verses were written from a place of exile and prison, not the graduation stage.

So, if we are going by our gut, the answer to the list of questions above might read something like this: Probably Jesus said it, but it could have been commentary or synthesis by the Gospel writer. However, if it was Jesus, he likely said it from a mountaintop or at the Temple in the middle of the day to a really large crowd. He was trying to persuade the masses to believe in him as the Son, or he was at least trying to get on the nerves of the Pharisees. The crowd rejoiced and immediately founded the first bookmark and sticker company to spread this nugget world-wide.

Ok, obviously this is not what happened. Jesus did say it, so 1 point for you, but he didn’t say it from a mountaintop or at the Temple in the middle of the day. He said it likely at a house or maybe at a camp site at night in private to one person. That one person was Nicodemus, and you are more than likely familiar with his secret night time visit to Jesus. I certainly was, and I even knew that happened in John 3, but I never put the two together.

Think about all the things you know about that secret visit. We have a recognizable man trying not to be recognized. We have a well educated and respected religious leader coming to the Son of God without realizing it and beginning the conversation with “Now, we know…” We have a “who’s on first” exchange full of confusion in which Jesus uses a word in one way and Nicodemus hears it in another. We have a buttoned up, strict, and proper Pharisee used to being in control completely thrown off by a new teacher on the scene whose resume includes humiliating the Pharisees and cleansing the Temple. Then, to this man who is always in control, Jesus begins to speak about birth and wind and spirit and flesh–things over which we have little or no control.

Nicodemus used religion to control his life, control his people, and even in a sense control God. If God worked by checklists, and he was in control of the checklist, he could work himself into heaven. Jesus tells him he has it all wrong. Instead, we leave our eternal fate in the hands of an uncontrollable God. Can you feel the confusion, tension, discomfort, and even fear welling up in Nicodemus?

It is into this space that Jesus then delivers the most famous Bible verse of all time, followed up by a pretty good one in 3:17 as well. God so loved, God gave, so that we would not perish, that we would have eternal life, and the Son was sent not to condemn but that we might be saved. This is not only a great presentation of the Gospel, but it speaks directly to Nicodemus in this moment.

John doesn’t tell us how Nicodemus responds. Jesus keeps talking and teaching, and then the scene is over. However, it had to have made an impact because Nicodemus, the man who hid his association with Jesus, stands up for Jesus in the middle of the Gospel and provides the equivalent of a royal burial at the end. It also had to have made an impact because the only way this private conversation becomes public is if Nicodemus shared it with someone else.

Today’s post from Seth Godin emphasizes simply that high impact ideas are not the ones with the biggest marketing budget, the most shelf space, the best logo… Ideas make a difference, as he says, when “people decide to tell other people.”

When we work faithfully on our content–whether it be sermons, small group lessons, blog posts, videos, songs–our primary concern should never be the size of the audience that hears it first. After all, the most famous Bible verse of all time started with an audience of one.

Lectionary Connections: Year A, Year B, and Year C Holy Cross; Year A Lent 2; Year B Lent 4; Year B Trinity Sunday

Image by Flickr user Gerald Tong. Used under Creative Commons License. Cropped from Original.

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