How have we gotten to this point? In evangelical Christianity, how have we arrived at the place where one verse dominates all others? How have we granted one particular verse the right to be the filter through which all others must pass? Why is John 3:16 always the first verse taught in Sunday School? On top of that, how have we arrived at the place where John 3:16 is not only ubiquitous in presence but also in misinterpretation?
One of the reasons for the ubiquitous presence of John 3:16 is that it is a fairly concise summary of the gospel (as single verses go, I prefer II Corinthians 5:21, but that is another matter). Also, John 3:16 is simple for almost anyone to memorize. Therefore, parents and Sunday School teachers like to teach it to children. I have no doubt that John 3:16 has helped some children understand the basics of the gospel for the first time.
John 3:16 is a beautiful verse. I cling to its truths. For example, I'm thrilled that God loves the world. I am overjoyed that He gave His one, unique Son. I'm extremely happy that God has said that whoever believes will not die eternally, but instead will receive the gift of eternal life. I'm happy that I memorized John 3:16 early on in life and have never forgotten it.
The problem for evangelical Christianity has come with the ubiquitous misinterpretation of the verse. Because the verse is the first one that many people learn, and because it summarizes the basics of the gospel, it holds a great deal of importance. If it is not interpreted correctly, this will cause many problems. This, unfortunately, has occurred and is still occurring in most of evangelical Christianity (at least in the USA) today.
The problem comes with over-interpretation. In other words, more meaning has been granted (by well-meaning people) to John 3:16 than the verse actually says. John wrote the verse to mean one thing; many people have added to what he wrote to make it mean more. I have written about this before, and will summarize it here: John 3:16 offers a simple, beautiful promise to us. We are instructed that God loves the world and gave his son. Because of this, whoever believes in Christ will receive eternal life. This is a straightforward cause-result statement.
John 3:16 does not tell us that God desires that everyone be saved. It does not say that God wills for everyone to be saved. It does not say that everyone can be saved. It does not tell us that men have freedom of the will.
Despite the fact that John 3:16 does not say the things in the above paragraph, most evangelicals believe and teach that it does. What we have today is a sort of “reign” of John 3:16. What do I mean by this? Not only is the verse misinterpreted, but it passes judgment on all other verses. I have experienced this several times. Here is a prime example: When I bring up Ephesians chapter 1, which says that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world,” I have been repeatedly told that this verse cannot possibly mean that God actually “chose” us. Then I am told that this is because man has free will. Why? Because, so I’m told, John 3:16 says so.
What can we do about this? First, we need to teach adults (especially Sunday School teachers), youth, and even children how to properly interpret scripture. After this, we need to encourage all people to memorize many verses, not just John 3:16. At a proper point, after the folks understand proper principles of interpretation, John 3:16 itself must be addressed. This must be done fairly, calmly, and methodically. As this is done, there will be some resentment and opposition.
Despite the opposition, we must teach the real meaning of John 3:16. We must also exhort people to take this verse off its throne, and place it within the whole counsel of God’s word. Let’s encourage Christians to read scripture for what it says instead of passing it through some sort of artificial John 3:16 filter.
The bible deserves proper interpretation. We can begin with, “For God so loved the world…”