(Reproduced with permission from the Bible Advocate, March-April 2012)
By now, the world champions of football have been decided in the Super Bowl, and the National Football League rests comfortably in its off-season. We’ve forgotten most of the players’ stats, the fantastic finishes, the lame clichés recited in press conferences: “We did what we had to do.” “We made some plays.”
But one post-game statement we won’t soon forget. It was anything but cliché and, in fact, a bit daring in our politically correct culture: “I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Remember that line? It became the stock response of the Denver Broncos’ Tim Tebow, anointed their starting quarterback in October 2011. With microphones shoved in his face, cameras clicking and rolling, this young athlete placed honor for his performance where it belonged: Jesus.
This made him both popular and polarizing, and for Christians in the stands, delightful to watch. Here was a missionary kid we followed from his Florida Gators days, when he smeared John 3:16 on his eye black and ran up and down the field. In Denver, he didn’t slow down, displaying his faith as boldly as the No. 15 on his jersey. We cheered: Tebow was Apostle Paul in shoulder pads. On or off the field, one truth relentlessly pumped through his veins: “I am not ashamed of the gospel.”
While this gospel didn’t hold much pizzazz for many, they couldn’t shake what they saw and sensed in Tebow. When he bowed in prayer after a game, they bowed too — in droves. But to them it wasn’t praying; it was
“Tebowing,” and it popped up literally all over the globe.
While the press and Broncos coaching staff downplayed Tebow’s religion, they praised his high work ethic and positive influence in the locker room. Others weren’t as gracious. Tebow and his faith were razzed on Letterman and The Tonight Show and lampooned on Saturday Night Live. Some enterprising folks took their zeal to the point of sacrilege, manufacturing jerseys with Jesus printed above No. 15 and referring to Tebow as the “Mile High Messiah.”
They felt they had good reason to do so. Not long after Tebow started taking snaps full time, the Broncos logged six straight wins — two of them heart-stoppers in overtime. The word miracle became standard in game summaries, despite Tebow’s weak passing performance.
What turned heads, however, was the playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on January 8. When the young quarterback led in a stunning overtime win, even doubters saw the light. John 3:16 “sightings” sprang up everywhere: Tebow threw for 316 yards and averaged 31.6 yards per completion. The Steelers’ time of possession was 31.6 minutes. CBS reported the game’s overnight ratings as 31.6.
Following that game, John 3:16 ignited into the most-searched item on Google — reportedly by 100 million people. For their viewing and reading audiences not familiar with the scripture, every reporter and writer repeated the words that most of us know by heart: “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” (NIV).
Focus on the Family seized full advantage of the craze on January 14. Amid the pomp and pigskin of the Denver-New England playoff game that evening, Focus aired a thirty-second spot that featured children reciting John 3:16.
The Broncos’ season of miracles abruptly ended with that game; Tebow performed poorly. But John 3:16 scored again, sailing through the uprights and into the homes of millions. It quickly became the number-one trending topic on Twitter worldwide.
By now, much of the holy hoopla surrounding Tim Tebow has died down, but you have to wonder about the popularity of John 3:16. Perhaps people were just curious about it: Who is John, and why is “3:16” after his name? Or maybe the masses are hungrier than we think and responded to a commercial instead of to an altar call. Whatever the reason, the Word of God found the limelight — and it will not return void (Isaiah 55:10, 11).
One day heaven and earth — and football — will pass away. So will Tim Tebow. The highlights of his 2011 miracle season will age in the vaults of NFL films. But God’s Word will go on. Through other bold voices and different mediums, John 3:16 will find expression about a God who made His own plays and did what He promised to do: send His Son to die so we may live forever.