Pro football was not the thing that made Tim Tebow famous. Yes, Tebow gave the NFL a few surreal moments in 2011—and a chill-inducing, 80-yard, game-winning touchdown with mere seconds left on the clock. But Tebow stole the national spotlight because he followed Jesus and made the football field a revival tent. So, when the New York Jets released him on Monday morning, the internet went crazy over the rather routine release of a third-string quarterback: did the NFL finally beat the Jesus-freak?
Tebow has always been an evangelist, and real evangelists preach wherever they are, with whatever pulpit happens to be handy. Tebow is not losing ground in the evangelical movement because he stopped delivering last-minute NFL victories. He still has over 2.2 million Twitter followers—twice as many as Rick Warren. He still encourages those followers to pray for tragedies like Boston and West Texas. He still stands for abstinence before marriage. He is still a top Christian author—his memoir Through My Eyes sold more copies in 2011 than even Love Wins, Rob Bell’s hotly debated book about heaven and hell. His Tim Tebow Foundation still provides resources for underprivileged children around the world.
Tebow’s identity grew from a divine calling that came years before football entered his life—he was dubbed the “miracle baby” for surviving in-utero complications that made his mother’s doctors consider abortion. His parents named him Timmy after St. Paul’s fellow missionary Timothy, whose name means “Honoring God.” Tebow grew up memorizing Bible verses and going on medical missions trips. Even after he became a football whiz-kid, he continued to preach in prisons, schools, and hospitals. Putting “John 3:16” on his eyeblack was his way of being a modern missionary, and a successful one—it set off 92 million Google searches for evangelicalism’s most famed Bible verse.
Now Tebow may even have more options open to him. He has an established platform and the ear of the American evangelical mainstream. He tweeted out Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
It is probable that a number of other Bible verses are also going through Tebow’s mind today, encouraging him to remember his spiritual calling as an evangelist no matter what the world says. There are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” There’s the encouragement that Mordecai gave Esther about her pivotal role for just a moment in history: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Then there’s the passage from the Apostle Paul that Tebow has always held as his favorite: “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of Christ Jesus.”
Tebow will, in all likelihood, do just that: press on to his primary life calling as a preacher and evangelist. Houston Rockets basketball star Jeremy Lin may have put it best when he wrote about Tim Tebow for the TIME 100 last year. “As athletes, we pour our hearts into winning games,” he said. “Tim is a reminder that life is about much more than that.”