If you ask any evangelical Christian what the most important verse in the bible is, you are likely to be met with an enthusiastic reply of, “John 3:16.” — For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . . This verse is so important to Christians that almost every person in Church World has memorized it. Famous football players paint it on their faces. Conservative, dedicated, bible thumping preachers put it in their tracts. Seminaries devote classes to it. Sunday School teachers make sure that the little ones in their charge not only learn it, but that they understand it. We are reminded of its gravity in bloody reenactments of the crucifixion.
It is, indeed, a very important verse. But I don’t think it is the most important verse. I have long taught that the most important verse is Hebrews 11:6. It teaches that without faith it is impossible to please God. It goes on to explain why. A person must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him. A person who doesn’t believe such things won’t draw near to him. This is a simple truth, really. If you don’t trust that your company is going to keep paying you, then you won’t go to work. If the treasure hunter doesn’t believe there’s a chest at the bottom of the ocean, he won’t go on hunting. If a pastor no longer believes in his calling, he will no longer shepherd.
Some believers have glimpsed the importance of this verse, but have applied it improperly. They tend to focus on the rewards portion of the verse, and then apply that to earthly benefits. If you have faith, they argue, then you will be blessed with money, or health, or a spouse, or some worldly pleasure. Of course, it is true that God provides those things on earth. But he isn’t primarily interested in those things for your life. In fact, his greatest followers often suffered without earthly pleasures. Our greatest example was a suffering servant (Isaiah 53, 1 Peter 2:21-25). Notice that Hebrews 11:6 is nested squarely in the middle of a passage about how some of the bible’s greatest heroes obeyed God because of what they believed, and not about how they were rewarded. In fact, Hebrews 11:13points out that all of them died without receiving what was promised. Their reward was in heaven, and that reward is far, far greater than any prize they could enjoy on earth.
Read Hebrews 11:6 again. It is impossible to please God without faith. The verse is about pleasing God – not receiving rewards. If you don’t believe that God exists, then you won’t believe it when he tells you that you need a savior. You won’t believe his love for you, and John 3:16 will be meaningless. You certainly won’t love him back. Most importantly, if you don’t believe and trust God, then you won’t obey him when he tells you to do something in the service of his will.