The name Rollen Stewart almost certainly doesn’t ring a bell with you. But Stewart had a profound impact on football and Christ-following in the 1970’s. He is credited with, if not starting, at least popularizing the practice of holding “John 3:16” signs at pro and college football games. According to the Boston Globe, Rollen, sporting a rainbow-colored wig, would dance with the signs in end zones at football games, behind home plate at baseball games, and courtside at basketball games. But it is arguably end zone shots during field goals and extra points at NFL games where the verse, perhaps the most famous in all the Bible, received the most exposure.
Douglas Webster, a professor of pastoral theology at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., explained the verse’s popularity to the Globe this way: ““If you were going to choose one particular verse to underscore the meaning of the Gospel and Christian truth, that would be it.” Indeed, it does: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV).
In fact, the Apostle John shares it after describing the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. We don’t know much about Nicodemus, but there is evidence that he came to believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. In a late-night meeting, Jesus explains being “born again” to a confused Nicodemus before John shares 3:16. As John writes in the past tense (gave his one and only Son), it’s likely the Apostle is summarizing what Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus. Any reader who might be as confused as Nicodemus gets a clear, concise explanation from John.
But I must confess to slightly misinterpreting the verse over the years. I assumed it was shorthand for “so much.” But John uses the Greek word “houtos” for “so.” This word translates to: “in this manner, thus, in the same way, likewise.” In other words: “This is how God loved the world…” And it’s more than a matter of semantics. As Oswald Chambers explained, we who accept Christ are not saved because God loves us. We are saved because God loved us enough to send Christ.
We are directly saved by Jesus’ work on the cross. We are indirectly saved by God’s love in that it resulted in Him sending Jesus. The direct ongoing cause of salvation is Jesus on the cross. As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ arrival on earth, let’s remember what we’re really celebrating. Because God loved the world “in this manner” we are free.