Balloons, Bible Verses, and Belief

10 Mar, 2024

By the Rev’d Hilary Willett

Season: The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9 | Ephesians 2:1-10 | John 3:14-21

Has anyone here ever heard of the Bible Verse Balloon Race? Hands up if you’ve heard of it. Can you explain the game to me?

The Bible Verse Balloon race is a relay game where everyone gets into teams of roughly equal numbers. The teams line up on one side of a room. On the other side of the room are a series of balloons. Inside each of these balloons is part of a Bible verse. One by one, each kid has to run to the other side of the room, pop the balloon, and grab the partial bible verse. Then they run back to the next teammate lined up and tag them so that they can run and get their balloon. The team then works together to put the verse together. The first team that can recite the verse to the leader wins.

When I was at Sunday School, this game was a real favourite. Not only did this game let a bunch of 5-10-year-olds run around in a mad riot, but we also got to yell, scream, and cheer. It was a lot of fun. A good way to make sure kids have used up some energy before sending them back to their parents. Sometimes, the leaders would mix up the game a bit so that instead of running, we had to hop, crab crawl, or forward-roll our way from one end of the room to the other.

If our gospel reading this morning had been in our relay balloon race, I suspect the game would have been over quickly. At least someone in the team would have been able to recite the verse well before we had all the pieces, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). For a child like me, a verse like that would have been gold. Not only did I attend Sunday school every week, but I also grew up in a Christian household and attended a Christian school. Memorising Bible verses through songs and games began before I knew how to write out my name. Which was great for these sorts of games. I had a cutting edge!

But what was gold for the Bible Verse Balloon Race is a little trickier for a sermon. What to do with passages of scripture that are so well known? Is there any sermon that will talk about these words in a new way? Possibly not. But what I can talk about is something that was new for me when reading the Bible verse this week. What does it mean to “believe” in Jesus?

I apologise. I realise that this sounds like a Sunday School question. Balloon races have clearly put me in a Sunday School frame of mind. If you’re being generous with me, you might think I’m leading up to a call for action: ” Believing in Jesus means that we behave like Jesus as best we can in the world.” But actually, my question is a bit more nerdy than that. Specifically, what does the word “belief” mean?

Now, probably, the more sane of you already have an answer to this question. “Belief” means to acknowledge something, to know that it is real! Therefore, believing in Jesus, as John 3:16 invites us to do, means that we have been convinced of Jesus’ reality. And, following the logic of John 3:16, believing in the reality of Jesus means you are caught up in the salvation of God. Easy. Done. Moving on. Now, let’s talk about the first reading, where Moses put a snake on a pole that healed people. What is that about?

As interesting as our first reading was, I still felt curious about the word belief. So, I decided to look at some translations. It turns out that the original word used in John 3:16 is pisteuó (pees-tey-uoh).[1] This word includes the basic “to be persuaded of” meaning.[2] Or in other words, pisteuó means to believe that something is true.[3] But, the meaning of pisteuó goes further. It also means “to trust”.[4]

Now, I don’t know about you, but trust has quite different connotations for me. I can believe something exists without trusting it. For example, I believe in the existence of lions. Do I trust them not to eat me if they were let loose in a zoo? Probably not. I believe in the existence of bungee cords. I cognitively know that most people do not die when bungee jumping. But… do I actually trust them enough to jump off a bridge? Not in a thousand years! I am very afraid of heights.

But what does the difference between belief and trust mean here, in John 3:16? Like, if we were to change the word “belief” in John 3:16 to “trust”, what does that imply? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who [trusts] in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, adapted). How does an emphasis on trust in the reading this morning change how we understand the meaning of this verse? I want to know what you think here. Let’s take a moment to think about it.

Five-minute break. Does anyone want to share their thoughts? How does the meaning of this verse change if we insert trust in there?

For me, the big change is that “trust” is not just a cognitive recognition. It isn’t just a scientific analysis, where we look at the world, measure it, and come to an intellectually satisfying conclusion. It is more. It is very much based in our core selves. Descartes once said, “I think, therefore, I am.” More recently, many neuroscientists have started implying that it would be more accurate to say, “I feel, therefore, I am.” But I want to say, that actually, from a Christian worldview, I trust, I hope, therefore, I am. Trust.

Trust in Christ is the big “why” behind the shape of who Christians are, the structure of the Church, and the core of our message. Why do we spend precious time on Sunday mornings sitting in this building, time that could be spent at any number of beautiful cafes down the street hanging out with friends? Why do so many of us volunteer freely to this building that needs to much work, to the community ministries that operate out of this place? That work is valuable. It could generate income in the private sector. So why do we volunteer? Why do we pray at night for help, for comfort, for peace in troubled times? It would be so easy to despair when we look at the world and see the violence, division, inequality, and pain that wreaks havoc on our communities.

Why do we do all of these things? I like to think it is because we trust. Because we hope. “Because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who [trusts] in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Belief in God is so much deeper than recognising the existence of God. It was trust in God that allowed Israelites healing in the desert.[5] It is trust in God that John wrote about in John 3:16. It is trust in God that will save a perishing world. So often, we think of perishing John 3:16 as a comment on eternity, that some are in and some are out. But what if we are already in a perishing world? Perishing from a lack of hope. Perishing because we have forgotten that human beings were never meant to be our ultimate place of trust. It is trust in God that leads to life. Not just belief. Not just a cognitive assent. We are called to something deeper. Relationship. Hope. Because God loves this world. We can believe this God. But we can also trust this God.

[1] Eric Sentell, “In John 3:16, ‘Believe’ Means More than Believe,” Medium, February 19, 2022,

[2] Bible Study Tools, “Pisteuo,” Bible Study Tools, n.d.,,to%20credit%2C%20have%20confidence.

[3] Bible Study Tools.

[4] Bible Study Tools.

[5] ‘“Faith” in the Bible is regularly understood as “trust” rather than “belief.” Moses did not challenge the people to “believe” in some doctrine about God. The aim of Moses was for the people to move forward trusting that God would keep the divine commitment to lead the people to a new land’ (Stanley P. March, “Numbers 21:4-9: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 248.).

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