In the last essay we studied 1 John 3:1-10 in which we saw John teaching, first, about the hope of the children of God (in 3:1-3) and second, about sin (in 3:4-10). As we move into the next section of the letter, we are introduced to a third major theme. The first was light vs. darkness (1:5-10), which leads to a choice between walking in the light of Christ or the darkness of sin; the second theme, truth vs. error (2:18-25), led to a choice of following the truth of Christ or the error of false teachers. Now we come to the third theme, love vs. hate.
John develops his theme of love versus hate by two contrasting examples, one negative (Cain) and one positive (the Lord Jesus himself). He begins with the negative. “Do not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother.” The motivation in Cain’s heart was hate. Thus his story is a great illustration, because murder is the ultimate outward expression of the inner emotion of hate. What better case study can we have then the first murderer!
You remember the story and the motive. Cain, we are told, murdered Able, “because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” When the two brothers brought offerings to God, God honored Able’s offering. As Genesis puts it, “God had regard for Able and his offering” (Gen. 4:4). But that was not the case with Cain. God knew Cain’s heart. He knew that Cain had not really intended to honor God, and so God “had no regard” for Cain and his offering. And God communicated to Cain that he was not pleased (Gen. 4:6-7). This made Cain angry with God. It also made him jealous of, and angry with, his brother Able. And so Cain invited Able out to the field, apparently with the intention of killing him. It was a premeditated murder.
John tells us that this action was “of the evil one.” And of course that’s true. As John earlier taught us, all sin is of the evil one, the devil. When we turn away from the will of God, whether it be to do our own will or that of someone else, the devil gains a victory. And so Cain, for whatever reasons, turned away from God’s will and no longer worshiped him in spirit and in truth. And when his hypocritical offerings were not accepted, he turned the rage generated by his own wickedness into jealous wrath against his brother, whom he killed.
This is one of the most important lessons anyone could learn, whether we look at it from Cain’s standpoint, or Able’s. For those who choose not to obey God, as did Cain, the lesson (if such a person is open to truth at all) is to see how self-destructive it is to turn away from God. But that isn’t the only lesson John brings out. John highlights the perspective of Able in verse 13, “Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you.” You see Able represents those who love and serve God. And the world always hates those who love and serve God.
As William Barclay reminds us, evil men instinctively hate good men: “The life of a good man always passes a silent judgment on the life of an evil man” (The Letters of John and Jude, p. 101). And so Christians who are living out their faith can expect hatred from the world. We should be surprised when we are not persecuted rather than when we are persecuted.
Notice in verses 14 and 15 that John provides a quick but important contrast between the destinies of the “Cains” and the “Ables.” Those of us who “love the brethren” (rather than hating them), that is the Ables, know that we pass out of death into life. But the story ends differently for the Cains. Those who do not love remain “in death.” John continues: “Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (v.15).
Now we must pay close attention to this, because it is so important. It never ceases to amaze me how many people who claim to be Christians freely admit that there is someone they hate. Do you see what John is saying? He is saying that one cannot be a Christian and consciously hate someone. He is saying that to hate someone in one’s heart is a spiritual form of murder, which cuts the hating one off from eternal life.
And we can be sure that John is right. He is revealing to us that unrepentant hate will send a person to hell just as surely as unrepentant physical murder. And John is not saying something new here. Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount. He taught, quote: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (Mt. 5:21f.). Jesus also taught in the Lord’s Prayer that our forgiveness depends on our forgiving others.
After Cain’s example of hatred illustrates the negative side of the love versus hatred theme, John turns to the Lord Jesus himself for a positive example. He wants to illustrate what it means to be motivated by love: “By this we know love, that he [meaning Jesus] laid down his life for us” (v.16).
Love, the opposite of hatred, reacts to others in an opposite way. Whereas hatred leads to the taking of the life of another, love leads to one’s laying down his life on behalf of another.
As was the case with murder, the laying down of the life is more frequently figurative than literal. We rarely actually are called upon to give up our physical lives, though we should be willing to do that, as was Jesus. But we must remember that the death of Jesus was not just a spectacle to demonstrate that God loves us. As James Denney put it:
If I were sitting on the end of the pier on a summer day enjoying the sunshine and the air, and someone came along and jumped into the water and got drowned ‘to prove his love for me,’ I should find it quite unintelligible. I might be much in need of love, but an act in no rational relation to any of my necessities could not prove it. But if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning, and some one sprang into the water, and at the cost of making… what but for him would be my fate, his own, saved me from death, then I should say, ‘Greater love hath no man than this.’ (The Death of Christ, p.103).
Though we probably never will have to lay down our physical life, we always are called upon to give up our lives in a figurative sense. We need to ask ourselves regularly whether or not our lives are available to love others. When I ponder this question, I can only pray, “God, I repent. Help me I pray.”
John goes on in verses 17 and 18 to indicate one practical way that we can lay down our lives daily. Christian love is love that gives to those in need. If those of us who have so much are unwilling to give of our material goods to those who have little, it indicates that we do not have the love of God.
In summary, in this section of the letter, we have seen John’s third major theme, love verses hate. He illustrated it with two biblical examples, a negative one and a positive one. The negative example was Cain, who demonstrated hate by murdering his brother. And we learned that unrepentant hate is deadly for the hating one even if he or she doesn’t commit physical murder. John’s positive example was Jesus, who demonstrated love by giving up his place in the Godhead, becoming human, and dying for our sins. Thus we saw that whereas hate wants to take the life of another, love wants to give its life for another. Moreover, love meets the physical needs of others by giving of its resources. May God give us the grace to love rather than hate.