During the 2009 college football national championship, University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow painted “John 3:16″ under his eyes. As a result, some 94 million people Googled the verse.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” is what they found.
The verse, which refers to the core Christian belief that God sent his son Jesus Christ to live and die as a human to grant eternal life in heaven, is considered by many to be the best simple summation of the Christian faith found in the Bible.
It also has a legacy in sports, where not only Christian fans are familiar with the words “John 3:16.”
Sports media exploded when in one game Tebow threw for 316 yards and averaged 31.6 yards per pass.
Stone Cold Steve Austin, a popular professional wrestler, appropriated it into a catchphrase (“Austin 3:16″) that became one of the genre’s most popular, alongside “Can you smell what the Rock is cookin’?”
But this week, it surfaced in a less uplifting venue.
Massachusetts State Police revealed that Tebow’s teammate during that championship game, former NFL player and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez, had written “John 3:16″ in red ink on his forehead before hanging himself with a bedsheet in a prison cell where his body was found April 19. He also scrawled it in blood on the wall of his cell, according to state police, the Associated Press reported.
Exactly what message Hernandez was attempting to convey with the verse in this particular context is unknown.
That did not stop some from speculating.
“Aaron Hernandez, through his struggles, either came to Christ, or was already there and was feeling remorse,” Brian Bolt, a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., told the Boston Globe. Bolt is co-chair of Sport and Christianity, a group of Christian coaches, administrators and theologians.
Joseph L. Price, professor of religious studies at Whittier College, told the Globe “it might have been ‘an ultimate protest,’ a final act of defiance to use such an affirming verse at the culmination of such a violent life.”
He likely knew it would be recognizable to football fans.
It’s not entirely clear how the verse came to be identified with sporting events, but a search of newspaper archives revealed the first stories mentioning the two together began appearing in 1980 with an outsized character known as Rainbow Man or Rock ‘n’ Rollen.
Rollen Stewart was described by The Washington Post in 1980 as a man who “covets attention.” And attention he got, by attending sporting events wearing rainbow wigs. At first, he simply wore such outrageous garb simply to be noticed.
“I had watched television, seen all the angles and said: ‘A person could stand in the background in all of these shots and become instantly known,’” he told The Post. He added, “To stand there as a person would be fine, but I could do twice as good If I had a color scheme or something.”
But after that year’s Super Bowl, he “discovered God had sent me out to preach his word on the street, to people who do not go to church.”
Some Christians already brought “John 3:16″ signs to stadiums as a means of spreading the faith, so Stewart followed suit and began carrying his own sign while adding to his eclectic wardrobe T-shirts bearing phrases such as “Believe in Christ Jesus” and “Repent Your Sins.”
The difference, though, is that Stewart managed to get on television constantly. Somehow, he always managed to get seats in highly televised areas of the stadiums, such as behind football goal posts and home plates.
Though he claimed to be a born-again Christian, he was a sports agnostic. He would dance with his sign and wear his bold clothes at football, basketball, baseball and soccer games. He once claimed to have driven 60,000 miles a year to attend various sporting events, Forbes reported.
He even attended the 1980 Olympics can specifically with the intent of being detained by Soviet police and ending up on the news. (His plan worked.) He later managed to get himself on camera at Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding.
“He was able to capitalize on the increasing number of games that were televised,” Joseph L. Price, professor of religious studies at Whittier College, told the Boston Globe. “But the contrast between his attire and his conservative sign raised curiosity. How could someone who looked as though he were a hippie have such a standard, conservative verse?”
Stewart became such an expected figure that viewers would scan their televisions looking for the kooky rainbow man. Chet Forte, ABC’s former director of Monday Night Football, told the Los Angeles Times Stewart was “a terrific distraction.”
Larry Cirillo, NBC’s former golf producer, told ESPN that he advised his cameramen not to film Stewart, threatening their jobs if they did so.
More “John 3:16″ signs began appearing the stands. If he was indeed trying to spread the Bible verse to Christians and non-Christians alike, his plan was certainly working.
But his antics took a dark turn as “he became convinced that God had given him a sign to use more negative tactics,” George Winter, Stewart’s biographer and unofficial spokesman, told Forbes.
His stunts first grew rude and annoying, like when he blew an air horn and detonated a stink bomb as Jack Nicklaus putted at the 1991 Masters.
Soon, though, they became downright frightening. In September 1992, he locked himself in a room at the Los Angeles Hyatt and held a maid hostage at gunpoint for eight hours until a SWAT team broke in and arrested him. He threatened to shoot down airplanes taking off from LAX, and he plastered the hotel’s windows with — what else? — John 3:16.
For this, in 1993, he was condemned to three life sentences, which he is serving in California. During the sentencing, The Post reported, deputies had to wrestle him to the courtroom floor as he screamed “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they’re doing” (a rough translation of Luke 23:34).
Price told Forbes he doesn’t think other Christians, such as Tebow, who advertise John 3:16 at sporting events, have much in common with Stewart, other than their method of spreading their faith.
“His wig and tie-dyed shirt and jumping around seemed to be about getting attention for himself,” he said. “It was more ego-driven than an affirmation of religious invitation.”
Either way, Stewart brought the verse to mainstream audiences — and it’s certainly stuck.