What is the most read verse in the Bible? Not surprisingly, there is a website, topverses.com, that has “sorted the entire Bible by computing how often each verse was used across the Internet.” The top verse — again, not surprisingly — was John 3:16.
There are several reasons that John 3:16 is so beloved, including how it summarizes, in memorable form, some essential facts about the Good News. Father Ernest Lussier, SSS, in his study of the Fourth Gospel, “God Is Love: According to Saint John,” wrote that the verse “is a focal text, a kerygmatic, theological and biographical summary.” The word “kerygma” is not used often by Catholics, at least in ordinary conversation, but it is an important biblical term. It is from the Greek word “keryssein,” which means to proclaim, and it refers to the proclamation of the Gospel in its most basic, focused form. As Catholic evangelist Hector Molina summarizes in a blog post at Catholic.com, “To put it simply, the kerygma is the very heart of the Gospel, the core message of the Christian faith that all believers are called to proclaim.”
While John 3:16 does not mention the cross, it makes sense of the cross and is informed by the reality of the cross. Immediately prior, Jesus had told Nicodemus of his coming Passion: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Everything in John’s Gospel is rooted in the reality of the Incarnation (cf. Jn 1:1-14), and how the Son of God became man so that men could become sons of God.
“Spiritual birth happens,” wrote St. Augustine, “when human beings, being earthly, become heavenly.” How do we “become heavenly”? By being born again in the waters of baptism, as Jesus explained to the puzzled but seeking Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5).
Some Christians have, unfortunately, viewed the cross as a sort of cathartic whipping post upon which God expends his pent-up rage against sin. Yes, God does hate sin, but what is revealed at and through the cross is the unfathomable love of God, demonstrated in the humble gift of the Incarnate Son who, as St. Paul told the Philippians, “emptied himself” and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Mankind, mortally wounded by self-love and pride, could not bridge the chasm between the Holy Creator and the fallen creature. Only a perfect man, completely holy in every way, could offer himself up for the sake of the world, that “it might be saved through him.”
The cross, then, is many interconnected things, including the unique sacrifice of Christ and, in the memorable words of St. Rose of Lima, the “ladder by which we may get to heaven” (CCC, No. 618). The ancient Romans, known for their ruthless efficiency, used the cross to punish, kill and control. God used the altar of the cross to forgive, to destroy death and to offer eternal life.
The cross, wrote Joseph Ratzinger in “Introduction to Christianity,” “stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about.”
Carl Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.