John 3:16. That's a simple reference that I highly doubt I need to quote here. It is probably the most widely-recognized verse in the entire Bible. It has been both championed publicly and mocked publicly in the world of pop culture. I am very familiar with at least one instance of each. When I was in high school, I was briefly a fan of the WWF (which became the WWE), mainly because they came to our local arena. I can remember that at the time, the biggest star in the business was Stone Cold Steve Austin. While he was a fan favorite, he unfortunately mocked the most recognizable Bible verse with his catch phrase and T-shirts that said "Austin 3:16". He also attached a saying to his reference which I will not repeat here. On the positive side of things, it wasn't that long ago that Denver Broncos' quarterback Tim Tebow used his somewhat miraculous winning streak as a platform to champion his faith in Jesus Christ. The culmination of his run was when his team defeated my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs in a game where Tebow threw for exactly 316 yards, causing many to once again make the connection between his faith in the only begotten Son and his football success. Whether the reference has been mocked, misused, or championed, it is no doubt the most recognizable Bible verse.
But I think Christians and non-Christians alike have a major problem with pulling verses out of their context and losing a lot of their meaning. Just to give you one other example, many of us know that Jeremiah 29:11 speaks of God's promise to "prosper us and not harm us". However, most of those people fail to realize that in the verse immediately before that, God tells Israel that "seventy years will be completed for Babylon" (Jeremiah 29:10). If you don't believe me, look it up for yourself! This was my point last week. We don't have authority to pick what we want from the Bible and leave out the rest. God DID promise to bless Israel, but He also promised seventy years of captivity before the prosperity. He promises us heaven, but He also promises that we'll have trouble in this world before we get to heaven. How tragic it is when we mislead ourselves and others by pulling the "feel-good" verses out of context and ignore the ones that present a hard truth!
I make that point regarding our opening reference, which contains our Word of the Week - BEGOTTEN, because I believe many more are the people who can quote the verse than those who can talk about the context in which Jesus uses it. While I'm not discounting the fact that the Holy Spirit speaks even through verses that we pull out of context, knowing the meaning of this verse within its context is life-altering. While most older translations of the verse use words like "begotten", "whosoever", and "believeth", the New International Version translates "only begotten Son" as "one and only Son". As Katie pointed out in Monday's blog, this is important because he's not just the only son of a father who is like any other father who has an only child, but moreso because he is the one and only Son of the Father! He's the only one of his kind because of his relationship to the Creator of the whole world. He's the only one of his kind because he's the only one who is perfect and could thus serve as our Savior. This point is made clearer by the context of the passage. The reference that we all learn to quote as kids is in the middle of Jesus' response to a very important question brought to him by the Pharisee, Nicodemus.
In John 3, we see that Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night, most likely because he knew such a decision would be frowned upon by his fellow Pharisees (it should give us reason to pause and think about the ways in which we have been half-committed to Christ due to fear of the wordly consequences). Jesus then introduces the concept of being "born again" and says no one can see the kingdom of God otherwise (v. 3). Obviously perplexed, Nicodemus asks Jesus to explain how it is possible for a man to be "born again" when he is already old (I wish we'd all ask that question more often rather than asking how we can be saved from eternal damnation without having to give up very much of what we want). Jesus then gives a lengthy answer which includes the reference with which I opened. In the verses just before it, Jesus says, "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). Wow! Who knew that a passage from Numbers would have such significance to the most famous verse of all time! Jesus sets up said verse by reminding Nicodemus (and us) that there was a time when God's people were suffering from something they could not escape on their own. In Numbers 21, we see where many Israelites were dying because they had been bitten by venomous snakes. Their only hope was for God to show mercy to them. Moses prayed and God told him to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole so that anyone who looked up at it could live. Anyone who chose not to follow God's instruction died. So in reality, the bronze snake was the "one and only" way for the people to be saved. It was used as both a literal savior for the Israelites at the time, and a foreshadowing of the one and only Son who would be hung on a cross so that whoever believes that he is in fact our only way to escape the penalty of sin is saved. It's quite simple: just as the bronze snake was the Israelites' only hope, so Christ is ours.
Through the context that many of us didn't know and the verse that we all did, Jesus explains to Nicodemus and the entire future of the human race that the only begotten Son is our "one and only" hope to be set free from the "snake" that we cannot escape on our own. Friends, it's not just a phrase or verse we quote to evangelize or declare our faith. The context explains just how hopeless we would be without it. You can search all you want for other ways to escape sin and its penalty, but NOTHING else can rescue you! May we all look at our lives and realize the other "saviors" we have pursued.