I saw it again the other day—an enthusiastic Christian holding up a sign in a stadium: “Jn 3:16.” As if those letters and numbers were some kind of magical code that could, somehow, transfix an unbeliever watching a TV screen far away and instantly change her life.
Those familiar with the Bible will know, of course, that the code refers to a Bible verse beloved by evangelicals—the 16th verse of the third chapter of the gospel of John—which begins: “For God so loved the world…”
Then a random thought struck me. What if it really is a code? What if 3:16 is a cryptic reference to a whole series of special messages?
I already know that there’s another significant 3:16 in the evangelical vocabulary. Paul’s second letter to Timothy (even though scholars now agree it’s highly unlikely that Paul himself wrote it) declares, “All scripture is inspired by God…”
Believers love quoting that verse to squelch any dispute about the Bible’s authority. After all, if the Bible derives its authority directly from God, who can challenge it? And it must come directly from God, because the Bible itself says so….
It’s a circular argument, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
So I started chasing some other 3:16’s. 1 Samuel looks good—that’s the young boy learning to say “Here I am,” to his calling. But 2 Samuel 3:16 is about King David abducting another man’s wife.
- Genesis 3:16 tells us that women will suffer pain in giving birth.
- Joshua 3:16 assures us that water doesn’t always flow downhill.
- Isaiah 3:16 calls the daughters of Israel haughty, and promises to cover them with scabs. Ecclesiastes sees wickedness everywhere. Lamentations offers the image of teeth grinding on gravel. And Habakkuk expects a day of calamity.
The New Testament looks a little more promising:
- Matthew 3:16 the Spirit of God settles on Jesus.
- Mark 3:16 Jesus appoints 12 disciples.
- Luke 3:16 John the Baptist promises that a more powerful messenger will come.
But then the 3:16 references go downhill again.
- Romans 3:16 Paul promises ruin and misery.
- 1 Timothy 3:16 religion is a mystery.
- Hebrews 3:16 everyone was rebellious.
- 2 Peter 3:16 Paul’s letters are hard to understand.
- Revelation 3:16 I will spit you out for being lukewarm.
Indeed, if 3:16 is significant, God apparently didn’t have a message at all in Ezra, Esther, Psalms, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Haggai or Zechariah, because the third chapter has no 16th verse. Ditto for Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the letters to Titus, Philemon, and Jude, and the second and third letters of John.
I must be doing this wrong. Maybe 3:16 is the wrong code. Maybe, like the people in The Imitation Game who broke the German “Enigma” code in World War II, I need to analyze every possible combination and sequence of letters, until I crack the cipher.
Or maybe there isn’t a coded message at all. Maybe there’s just a story, the ultimate story, of humans trying to understand their relationship with Holy Oneness.
The Bible is a great book. In the western European world, it is the most influential book of all time. But it is not an encrypted code-book that needs to be deciphered.