Misunderstanding John 3:16
I initially titled this blog “Stop John 3:16 Overuse.” I realized, however, that we should never stop sharing this verse. This most quoted, most famous scripture of the entire Bible gives hope to all those who believe it. But can everyone understand, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life,” as a “stand alone” verse?
We use this verse as an all encompassing verse about the good news about Jesus. It is. We print the verse alone and plaster it around the world as if everyone who reads it will understand the meaning. But do they? Let’s consider how some people may misunderstand John 3:16 based on their religious perspectives.
1) Jews. Imagine the scene when Jesus spoke “John 3:16” for the first time to Nicodemus, a Jew. Jesus had just introduced the concept of a spiritual birth vs. a physical birth. Perplexed by this concept, Nicodemus then heard Jesus say “John 3:16.” With this verse, Jesus introduced the concept of God having a spiritual son. This radical doctrine went beyond the Jewish teaching “There is only one God.” Obviously, they didn’t understand the new revelation of God’s character. God revealed Himself as One God, yet three persons (the Father, the Son, the Spirit). The Jews’ idea of Messiah being a human vs. God explained the tension when Jesus claimed to be both the Messiah and God. Jews would turn a deaf ear towards the message of John 3:16 with its use of “only begotten Son.” With Jewish friends, be prepared to share the scriptures of Jesus claiming to be God and the Messiah.
2) Muslims. The Muslims may have a similar reaction to John 3:16 as the Jews in Jesus’ day. If we use John 3:16 to tell a Muslim about Jesus, they hear begotten Son and say, “No way. God is one. He doesn’t have a son.” And they think calling Jesus the Son defines Him as a separate God, making followers of Jesus polytheists. For these reasons, John 3:16 isn’t a good “stand alone” verse for Muslims. With Muslim friends, be prepared to share the meaning of God the Father and God the Son as a spiritual relationship, not a physical relationship.
3) Hindus. With the various gods they worship, the concept of God with a capital “G” doesn’t exist. And could God have a son? To take it further, John 3:16 promises eternal life through belief in this Son of God. They would not agree with this verse based on their “works based” paradigm for attaining spiritual completeness. And eternal life sometimes seems unattainable for them as they strive to end the reincarnation cycle. The Buddhist, of course, also would fit into this category. John 3:16 would not be understood without further explanation. With Hindu and Buddhist friends, be prepared to explain the Bible as the word of God (singular) and what the Bible teaches about reincarnation (false, of course).
4) Mormons. Sadly, a Mormon would agree with your quotation of John 3:16. However, they interpret the scripture differently. They wrongly use the words, “only begotten Son” to support their belief that God created Jesus. They use this verse to say, we too, can become sons of God and literally gods by a works-based system. This very simplified explanation of one aspect of their beliefs demonstrates the need for explanation of John 3:16, not just merely posting it around. With Mormon friends, be prepared to explain the Trinity and why Jesus needed to die for sins. Their works based system doesn’t leave room for a faith based Savior.
5) Jehovah Witness. Their version of the Bible, The New World Translation, sounds very similar to ours. “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.” So, they may even agree with the verse. However, they don’t believe Jesus was God. Therefore, this scripture has a different meaning to them. They don’t believe in faith alone to receive Jesus as their Savior. As another work-based religion, be prepared to share about faith vs. works with a Jehovah Witness friend.
6) Atheist. It’s obvious that the word “God” would easily turn off the atheist to the truth in this verse. How can someone accept the truth of God’s word if they don’t believe in God? These friends need a listening ear. There is usually something in their past that turned them against God. Asking questions about justice and supreme goodness may tear down their walls of disbelief. With time, prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, John 3:16 may be a great verse to use. But, initially it could be a great stumbling block.
As you can see, people can have various misunderstandings of John 3:16. Even though I love John 3:16 and the hope it gives to all people, I must discern when to quote it. Knowing what others believe helps me understand what to clarify when I share John 3:16.
When we see John 3:16 posted somewhere, we should turn to the reader like Philip did to the Ethiopian eunuch and ask, “Do you understand what you are reading?” His or her response may be the same, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” Followers of Jesus, be prepared to guide others in the truth of the Bible. Their eternity depends on it.