Sometimes small words can make a big difference.
Take this example: Harry carried Sally and Harry carried off Sally. In the first sentence, Harry is simply lifting up and moving Sally—perhaps as gesture of romance or to help her due to an injury. The second sentence has an altogether different meaning. It conjures up the image of some rogue young man carrying off his bride, perhaps without her permission or the assent of her family. What makes the difference? One small word: off.
That principle seems to be at work in one of the most beloved and often-cited verses of the gospels, John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.
If you’re like me, you’ve always read the core of this verse like this: ‘so that everyone who believes Him.’ But that’s not what it actually says. Read it again: ‘so that everyone who believes in Him.’
That’s a bit strange, if you think about it. When we talk about believing someone, usually there isn’t a preposition. If Harry says he had good intentions when he carried off Sally, you either believe him or you don’t. Either way, you don’t believe in him.
But the Gospel of John indicates that belief in Jesus is something quite different. When Jesus tells us that He is the giver of eternal life (John 10:28), is one with the Father (John 10:30), is the bread of life (John 6:35), was the pre-existent ‘I am’ (John 8:58), and the light of the world (John 8:12) we ought not simply believe Him. We must believe in Him, so John suggests. (And yes this is an accurate translation of the Greek, where we find the preposition, eis. But more on that below.)
Often the claims made by others concern the world around them. The weatherman says a blizzard is on the way. A politician says he saved money in the budget. A news reporter reveals government corruption or an injustice in society. Then there are claims people make about themselves: their wealth, their intelligence, their athleticism.
What these all have in common is that while we may believe them, not a lot is on the line. The politician may have been lying about his budget cuts, but the most that is going to cost me is higher taxes. In other words, I believed him, but I wasn’t too committed to that belief.
It doesn’t work that way with Jesus. The claims He makes are so extraordinary and the One making them is so extraordinary that they demand a total, radical commitment from us.
One mid-twentieth century Protestant biblical commentator, C.H. Dodd, put it this way, referring to the Greek word for believe:
It would seem that pisteuein [“to believe”] … so inevitably connoted simple credence, in the sense of an intellectual judgment, that the moral element of personal trust or reliance inherent in the Hebrew or Aramaic phrase—an element integral to the primitive Christian conception of faith in Christ—needed to be otherwise expressed.
As helpful as this insight is, as Catholics, we can take it further. We do not believe in a Christ who walked this earth two thousand years ago and now is removed from us in the inaccessible reaches of heaven. We believe in a Christ we encounter through the sacraments. Indeed, as members of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, we are in a sense ‘in’ Him.
This interpretation is further confirmed by the context. Remember, this is the chapter of John where Jesus instructs Nicodemus on the importance of baptism. And baptism, the New Testament elsewhere tells us, allows us to radically participate in Christ. As St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And again in Colossians 2:12, “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
And when we take a closer look at the Greek, we get yet another twist. Notice how in Galatians 3:27 it says we were baptized into Christ. That is a better way of translating the Greek word eis, which is the same one in John 3:16. With that meaning, the verse might more literally read “believing into” Jesus, according to another commentator, Frederick Dale Bruner.
Into implies motion that remains incomplete. There’s a certain dynamism to it, a sense of becoming. And that is exactly what happens to us in baptism. We are called to a new fate, a new life in Christ and in His Church. Baptism is not the end, but the beginning of the Christian life. It is the beginning of a lifelong journey into which we are remade in the image of Christ.
This is the true message of John 3:16. It is that when God Incarnate walks the earth saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” it is utterly inadequate and almost a bit silly to respond with a simple, “I believe you.” Such a claim demands much more than casual belief. It calls for a faith that totally commits us. When we believe in Christ we truly must go “all in.”