If you know one Bible verse, it’s probably John 3:16. From football games to AWANA programs, it has become perhaps the Bible’s best known quote. It’s so well known, in fact, that we’ve gotten a little too familiar with it. The verse’s power and truth get a little muted by how many times we’ve heard it. That’s why author and pastor Max Lucado wrote a book about it, called 3:16: The Numbers of Hope — in an effort to shed some new light on something that’s become so normal we forget how radical it is.
This article is part of our New You series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
That book was published in 2008. And now, it’s been re-released, with some brand new observations, for our brand new era. Lucado joined our Senior Editor Tyler Huckabee to talk about why he wanted to revisit the book, what he thinks we miss about the verse and how God saved him from life as “an old drunk.”
This conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
First things first: I know you’ve had a health scare. How is that going?
I’ve got such a wonderful report on that. Last summer, in august, I was diagnosed with what’s called an aortic aneurysm in the ascending aorta. I didn’t know what that meant. The only reason I know now is because I got the diagnosis. It’s large and it’s just shy of what would have to be treated by surgery and that surgery is a very difficult, painful surgery and so I didn’t want to do that.
So I got the diagnosis but the doctor said let’s measure it one more time in about three weeks. So I came back three weeks later and the aneurysm was smaller instead of larger it was smaller and the doctor was surprised. My wife was with me and — you would love my wife — she was unsurprised. She said she could see it coming. She knew that a lot of people had been praying and so she just told the doctor, “God did that.” So it’s still large but it’s not surgery level.
That’s great to hear. So, to the matter more directly at hand, why did you decide to revisit 3:16?
The 3:16 book is a book based on the scripture John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave us His one and only son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” I love that scripture. I love it. I think I love it because number one, I’m such a bad sinner apart from Christ. And number two, I’m not very bright and the scripture is so helpful because it summarizes the Christian Gospel and every word matters.
So if a person wants to really ponder the great ideas, the great promises of our Christian faith, one way to do that is to take a good look at John 3:16. I felt like reintroducing that book which considers John 3:16 would be timely.
Because I do think that many people who think they are rejecting the Christian faith are actually rejecting something other than the Christian faith. They’re rejecting someone else’s abdication of the Christian faith or co-opting of the Christian faith. They’re thinking that the Cristian faith is far-right politics or they’re thinking that the Christian faith is a particular view on a particular topic.
I like the idea, Tyler, of every so often re-calling people back to: here’s the Gospel. Here it is. Right here. Accept it. Reject it. But here it is: God loves. God gave. We believe. We live. That’s it. It’s that simple.
Why do you think this verse has become so ubiquitous? It’s become so familiar that we almost do it a disservice. Like, we’re too familiar with it.
Well, you’re getting it right. It’s so familiar that we assume that we get it and that plays against us somewhat.
I think we just need to overcome that and say there’s a reason that it’s so familiar and it has been for centuries. Martin Luther said, “If there’s one scripture that can heal my ailments, it is John 3:16.” Of course, John Newton, the great author of “Amazing Grace,” cherished John 3:16 and called it his life verse.
I’m an old drunk. I mean, I was rescued by the Gospel. I’m not just stating that. I was rescued. I mean, I was a train going over the cliff and the Gospel really rescued me. The question was not “Is there a God?” The question was, “Could God forgive a jerk like me?” And John 3:16 says “Yes, for God so loved Max that He gave His one and only son.”
That’s the reason John 3:16 has become such a cherished verse in my life and and always has been.
I think our idea of “eternal life” has been shaped by a lot of old paintings and bad movies. We’re sitting in the clouds, maybe in bathrobes, and it’s just a neverending church service. That doesn’t sound all that exciting. So what does everlasting life mean from John’s perspective?
We tend to take the physics of this life, the limitations and rules of this life and assume that we’ll take those with us into the next life.
For example, the reason we get bored in this life is because their mental capacity is limited. My brain gets tired, my eyes get tired, my body gets tired and so my mind wanders. So I think, “OK, well, I’m going to go into eternal life with a brain that gets tired, my mind will wander, oh my goodness, eternal life sounds horrible.
Nothing could be further from the case. I get so excited at the opportunity to discuss the Bible’s promise of heaven. And the Bible’s promise of Heaven, number one, we will live on a renewed earth. Restored completely in its pristine beauty, ever growing, ever changing, that Garden of Eden that we were intended to know. More importantly, we will live in a renewed body. A body that knows no aging, no pain, no weariness, no illness, no grave, no tears. It’s beyond what we could ever imagine. A restored relationship with our heavenly Father in which we will understand who He is and will receive our assignments for eternity.
I don’t think we can ever quite comprehend what it’s going to be like. But I trust our heavenly Father and He is preparing a place for us to live with Him forever
How does our day-to-day life change when we internalize John 3:16? It’s easy to see the ramifications for eternity. What does it mean for us right now?
Well, I think, at the risk of oversimplifying things, the whole purpose that we’ve been placed on this planet is: to say yes or no to God’s grand invitation. And the grand invitation is: Would you be a part of my great idea for redeemed society and live with me forever in a perfect world on a restored planet in a renewed body in a restored relationship with me and enjoy me forever and I enjoy fellowship with you forever in a tearless and fearless world. That’s God’s grand invitation. So my thinking is that I’ve been placed on this planet to say yes or no to that.
I can say no, and billions of people do. Or I can say yes. And if I say yes, then God takes up residence within me and says, “What I’m going to do is use the remaining years I have allotted for you on earth to shape you into the type of vessel through whom I can issue this invitation to other people. I’m wanting to get the word out and I’m choosing people as my tool of getting the word out. When I say yes then then I am enlisted in that.
Now here’s the deal. The reason life is so hard for many people is that people mistakenly assume that the purpose of life is to be happy, or the purpose of life is to be wealthy, or the purpose of this life is to have six pack abs.
Some days, life meets my expectations. Some days it fails to meet it. Consequently, I am gonna go through some uptime and some downtimes but if I can say, “OK, the purpose of life is to say yes to this grand invitation, I’m gonna say yes to that.”
I appreciate your ability to break down these complicated and sometimes familiar truths into something simple that doesn’t lose any of its power.
I appreciate you seeing that. But please remember, I’m an old drunk. You know. I don’t know if I really was a six-pack a night guy, but I was close to it. I was rescued from a life out of control that I just treasured the Gospel. I really was a train headed off a cliff. I’m so thankful that God did forgive me and has given me a new lease on life.
What turned you around? Did you have a Road to Damascus moment?
There were a couple of profound moments. My dad knew I was a mess and so he said: if you go to this college called Abilene Christian University, a small college in West Texas, I will pay your tuition. I wanted to go to the University of Texas and he said if you go there you pay your tuition. If I had gone there, I would have just hung out with the same group of guys. He needed to get me in a different culture. I may be dumb but I’m not stupid. When he said he would pay the tuition, I said “OK, Dad. I’ll go there and that college, still to this day, has daily Bible classes in daily chapel and so I was being exposed to scripture and after four semesters of that, my heart began to warm. During the spring semester of my sophomore year, there was a very profound moment in which I said, “OK, I’m coming home. And I could take you to the chair in the church auditorium where the pastor was teaching.
So, I can’t say it was Saul becoming Paul. But i can say I did get knocked off a high horse and I began the journey back home.