Collin Hansen – Author, Editorial Director for The Gospel Coalition
After watching many National Football League games growing up, I finally grew curious enough to walk into my parents’ office and pick up the family Bible. It seemed every football broadcast included shots of someone standing in the end zone, behind and between the goal posts, holding up a simple sign: JOHN 3:16. I knew enough about the Bible to locate the Book of John in the New Testament. When I read John 3:16, I wasn’t impressed. Turns out the verse was familiar, thanks to Sunday school. I guess I expected to read some sort of decoded message that would unlock a valuable secret. In some sense that’s exactly what I read, but I didn’t yet have the eyes of faith to behold the beauty of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that John 3:16 is the most-searched Bible verse, according to statistical analysis provided by the folks at Bible Gateway. They reviewed the behavior of some of the 8 million visitors who stop by their site each month, many of them chasing results provided by Google. I was intrigued to review the top 10 results, which I’ve listed in reverse order.
10.) Matthew 28:19: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
9.) Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
8.) Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
7.) Proverbs 3:6: “In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
6.) Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
5.) Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
4.) Philippians 4:13: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
3.) Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
2.) Jeremiah 29:11: “‘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.'”
1.) John 3:16: “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.”
Four verses come from the Old Testament. Two more come from the Gospels, and four may be found in the Pauline epistles. You’ve seen many of these verses on bumper stickers, bookmarks, plaques, and various other knickknacks you can buy in a Christian bookstore. Tim Tebow wrote some of them on his eye black, knowing cameras would zoom in on it during his days as Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at the University of Florida. In fact, when Tebow’s Gators won the national championship in 2009, John 3:16 topped Google’s list of hottest searches.
Overall the list represents a nice cross-section of Scripture and tells an uplifting story of God’s work in the world. He created it (Gen. 1:1); calls us to trust and submit to him, not conform to it (Prov. 3:5-6; Rom. 12:2); loves it enough to save it (John 3:16); and commissions us to traverse all of it making disciples (Matt. 28:19). From this list we learn that when most people turn to Scripture, they’re often looking for encouragement. They cling to these verses trusting that God is working for their good (Rom. 8:28), giving them strength (Phil. 4:13), planning their hopeful future (Jer. 29:11), and calming their anxieties by answering their requests (Phil. 4:6). If nothing else, these results help those of us who regularly preach and teach the Bible understand how many Christians and even non-Christians use the Bible.
Let me mention an omission. Maybe you caught it, too. Knowing the whole Bible and not just the most-searched passages, you realize that the absence is glaring. You won’t learn from this list why God needs to redeem the world he created. You won’t learn why his love is so significant. You won’t find any warning of what’s to come if you don’t believe. In short, you won’t read about our sin and God’s wrath. Actually, you need to follow the list all the way down to #19 and #20 to find sin. At #19, 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” And #20 reads, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
If we neglect sin and the Lord’s righteous wrath, then we haven’t understood even the basics of Scripture and God’s true character. D. A. Carson writes in The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism:
The point that cannot be escaped is that God’s wrath is not some minor and easily dismissed peripheral element to the Bible’s plot-line. Theologically, God’s wrath is not inseparable from what it means to be God. Rather, his wrath is a function of his holiness as he confronts sin. But insofar as holiness is an attribute of God, and sin is the endemic condition of this world, this side of the Fall divine wrath cannot be ignored or evaded. It is not going too far to say that the Bible would not have a plot-line at all if there were no wrath.
The danger of popping into Scripture from Google is that we miss the story for the verses. Each one of these top 10 most-searched Bible verses is a beautiful, moving testament to God’s loving faithfulness. We should memorize them, sing them, copy them, and remind one another of them. But without knowing the whole story, we don’t know why we should care that God loved the world enough to give his one and only Son. Unless we know about our sin, we will surely perish in it.
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir.