What Is the Meaning of John 3:16?

The sporting world was shocked when former New England Patriot tight end, Aaron Hernandez was discovered dead, hanging in his prison cell from a bed sheet with the Bible verse “John 3:16” written in red ink on his forehead.

The verse, which reads, “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,” was also found written in blood on the wall of Hernandez’ cell.

Was Hernandez, who had been convicted for the cold-blooded killing of an innocent man, calling out for God to mercifully save him from his sins?

He certainly wanted forgiveness. “Hernandez had ‘God forgives’ tattooed on his arm, and was known to read the Bible with his coach, Urban Meyer, at the University of Florida. Investigators also found three handwritten notes — whose contents have not been released — next to a Bible in his cell.[1]

“Yet it is impossible to know why the 27-year-old convicted murderer and former Patriots player scrawled “John 3:16” on his forehead before he hanged himself with a bed sheet in prison on Wednesday.”[2]

Many wondered, “What’s so special about John 3:16?” Others ask, “How could God forgive a man who had so cruelly taken the life of an innocent person?” Does God really forgive murderers?

In order to understand what John 3:16 really means, and whether or not Hernandez could be truly forgiven for such a despicable deed, we need to go back to the original context of how the verse is communicated.

John 3:16 was recorded by John, a fisherman, who was one of Jesus Christ’s twelve disciples. John claims to be an eyewitness account of Jesus’ life and words.[3]

John 3:16 records Jesus’ words about eternal life with an important Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus (see John 2:24-3:21). Jesus’ miracles, his profound teaching and righteous life convinced Nicodemus that Jesus was sent from God. He believed Jesus knew the secret to eternal life.

However, since most of the other Jewish religious leaders were skeptical of Jesus, Nicodemus decided to visit Jesus secretly at night. After he found Jesus, he bluntly asked him how to have eternal life.

In John 3:16, Jesus unfolds mysteries to Nicodemus about God’s love, why, as the Son of God, he came to earth, and how we can have eternal life.

Jesus told Nicodemus of God’s love, leading to his mission to save a lost world. In other words, Jesus was on a rescue mission. He includes everyone as lost, but tells Nicodemus that God’s love reaches out to everyone as well.

So what did Jesus tell Nicodemus about the secret to eternal life?

Interestingly, Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus to become more religious in order to go to heaven. Neither did he tell him to give more money or do more good deeds.

In a shocking revelation, he told Nicodemus that eternal life is based upon what Jesus did for us, not on what we have done for him. In John 3:16, Jesus tells Nicodemus that those who believe in him will have eternal life.

It seems totally unfair that a convicted murderer like Aaron Hernandez could simply write John 3:16 on his forehead, and then be forgiven for taking another life just by believing in Jesus. The question is: what did Jesus mean by “believes” in him?

Since John wrote his Gospel in Greek, we need to look at the meaning of the word “believe” in Greek. The Greek word for believe (pisteuo) means much more than simply agreeing with the facts; it means personal commitment. In other words, in the original language of the New Testament, “believe” means a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, not merely intellectual assent.

For example, you or I might believe that the Queen of England is a real person, but simple knowledge of that fact doesn’t personally affect you. Likewise, you might believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, but apart from trusting in him as your Savior and Lord, he reveals that you will not have eternal life.

However, in the words of John 3:16 —”whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” — Jesus makes it clear that God doesn’t want us to perish. In fact, according to the eyewitness reports in the New Testament, Jesus endured great suffering, paying our debt in full, so that we can have eternal life with him and escape judgment for our sins. If forgiveness for our sins was based on our morality and good deeds, none of us would qualify.

John 3:16 says the reason Jesus came to earth and died on the cross is so we could be forgiven of our sins and have eternal life. Since none of us are worthy, Jesus’ death on the cross is the only way God will accept us.

But God will not force us to trust him. Eternal life is not based on whether we write the verse “John 3:16” on a wall or our foreheads. Faith in Christ is a heart issue, where we give him our lives. Only God knows whether or not Aaron Hernandez truly did that.

John 3:16 speaks to all of us. We each have the choice to accept or reject Jesus. Yet he encourages each of us to accept his free offer of eternal life.

Jesus admonished Nicodemus that such an important decision as eternal life shouldn’t be taken lightly. He taught that life doesn’t end at physical death, but continues forever and forever. The big issue is whether we will spend eternity with God or apart from him. The free choice is ours to make.

If you would like to better understand the reason Jesus came to earth and died, as well as your role in his plan, we encourage you to read “Is Jesus Relevant Today?”.

You can also watch the video “Begin Your Relationship with God” at JesusOnline.com.

If you would like to examine the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection see “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?“.


[1]     Michael Levenson, “Here’s Why John 3:16 is so Popular in Sports,” Boston Globe.com, April 20, 2017, https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/04/20/how-sports-spread-bible-verse-masses-sports/GTJ1YuGMeVTKsHHAwlYl3K/story.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] 1 John 1:1-4.