John 3:16 deals with the profoundest mysteries of the faith, with life and death, a bloody sacrifice and an eternal hope. It calls for a response, an existential choice between light and darkness.
In a sign of changing times, the Bible verse that a totemic Christian reference point in the 20th century has given place to one that’s more in tune with the spirit of the age.
According to analysis from Bible Gateway, John 3:16 has been replaced by Jeremiah 29:11 in the affections of the internet.
‘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,’ says Jesus in John’s Gospel.
While Jeremiah says: ‘”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”‘
And it’s the latter verse that is now more likely to be shared on social media.
The analysis was undertaken at the end of last year, but was reported today in the Daily Telegraph with a comment from Rev Dr Peter Phillips, Director of CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology of St John’s College at Durham University.
‘People don’t want to put a verse about Jesus’ death upon the cross on social media, it’s a bit heavy,’ Phillips said.
The difference between the two verses is fascinating. John 3:16 – beloved of Billy Graham – focuses on God’s gift of Christ, through whose death we can have eternal life. It’s so widely known in Christian circles that its impact is blunted. But it’s a verse that deals with the profoundest mysteries of the faith, with life and death, a bloody sacrifice and an eternal hope. It calls for a response, an existential choice between light and darkness.
What about Jeremiah? It’s been described as one of the most misused verses in the Bible. Originally a promise to Israel of restoration after years in exile in Babylon, it’s now used as a feel-good affirmation that ‘God has a plan for our lives’ and that everything works out for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This is a long way from Jeremiah’s intention – and a long way from real biblical exegesis, which doesn’t support the idea that God has our futures mapped out for us.
At its worst, Jeremiah’s verse helps people avoid responsibility for their own choices. It’s a comfort blanket, enabling people to feel that whatever they do – how hard they work, whether they study, whether they work at a marriage or a relationship or a church – doesn’t really matter, because it’s all part of God’s plan.
And that’s not really how it works. The Bible is clear that the world is a place of moral effort, of responsibility. We aren’t to tempt God by leaving everything to him: he’s given us choices. Yes, we can rely on his guidance and his care for us, but he still expects us to choose well.
John 3:16 is far more demanding than Jeremiah 29:11. It’s not as shareable in the Instagram age, because it asks too much of us. It doesn’t make us feel instantly better; it worries us.
But if we don’t grasp it and grapple with it, we’ll be left with an Instagram faith – quick but shallow, rootless and fruitless.
Mark Woods is the author of Does the Bible really say that? Challenging our assumptions in the light of Scripture (Lion, £8.99). Follow him on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods