For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.1 John 3:11-15
John begins the next section of his letter with his central theme -- love:
"For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another." (3:11)
It's amazing that Christians need to hear the message, the command, of love so often -- and still many people who claim to be Christians don't get it. Our churches are full of selfish, bickering people and people who teach hate. The world knows the church for its judgmentalism and rigidness, not for its love and joy. How very sad, and especially so for LGBT Christians. Jesus would embrace the churches that preach love, and He and John would call those who teach hate the antichrists, for as I said last week, they are the opposite of Christ.
It's likely that John's opponents in Ephesus were characterized by their hatred of the faithful, orthodox Christian community. But it's also likely that the true Christians were responding in an unloving manner, too.
John begins this teaching by exploring the relationship between love and hatred, and between hatred and the spirit of murder.
"We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you." (3:12-13)
John refers, of course, to the ancient and familiar story of the brothers Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:2-8). Cain was a farmer; Abel was a herdsman. When it came time to make an "offering" to the Lord, Cain offered the fruit of the ground, while Abel offered an animal sacrifice. We're not told why Cain's offering was rejected while Abel's was accepted. There seems to be no inherent reason in this instance why a cereal offering would have been inferior to an animal sacrifice. The reason Cain's offering was rejected seems to stem from his unrighteous actions, his sins, since God exhorts him:
"Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." (Genesis 4:6-7)
Cain hadn't repented of his sins, but is angry and jealous that God favors the sacrifice of his righteous brother Abel. In a fit of jealousy Cain slays Abel -- and that is John's main reason for introducing the story here. This story is probably more allegorical to what anthropologists believe were the first wars between herders and farmers over land and grazing ground, but that a whole different issue.
"And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you." (3:12-13)
John is explaining why the opponents hate the believers -- and why the world hates them. They can see the stark difference between the believers' righteous behavior compared with their own. John's teaching echoes Jesus' words:
"If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.'If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me." (John 15:19-21)
The world says that it hates Christians because they are "holier than thou" and a bunch of hypocrites. And these charges are often true of many people who claim to be Christian. But the real reason for the hatred is that when Christians seek to live righteously, it exposes the sin and corruption of those not committed to Jesus, stimulating both shame, anger, hatred -- and persecution energized by a spirit of murder.
Don't miss the important link here between anger and murder. That's why John calls on the story of Cain and Abel.
Love, says John, is a mark that we are different from the world.
"We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers." (3:14)
There's an echo here of Jesus words:
"Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me ... has crossed over from death to life." (John 5:24)
Notice that this love first manifests itself in the Christian community itself, "because we love our brothers" (3:14). This, too, echoes Jesus' words:
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:12-13)
Sadly, churches are so often loveless places. We sing, we pray, we worship, but we do not love. I have no complaint with the rise of large churches, but unless people connect with a small group within these churches, they are doomed to a loveless model of the Christian congregation. We cannot afford the outward show of success, if at the core of the church we are missing the essential element of "love for the brothers and sisters." I remember going to church with a friend of mine while I loved in Mississippi. They had large screens in front of the church to show what were basically advertisements about happenings at the church. Later those screens were used for the words of the hymns. However, in this large church, no one spoke to each other before or after the service. They merely stated up at the screens. It was so sad to me. There was no community in that church. I grew up in a very small and intimate rural church of Christ. We have always had between a dozen and three dozen members. We talk and get to know everyone and how they are doing.
Now after speaking about brotherly love, John goes back to murder that he introduced with the story of Cain and Abel:
"Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him." (3:15)
Certainly there's a difference between hatred (an attitude) and murder (an action). But the spirit that underlies both hatred and murder is exactly the same spirit. Recall Jesus' own troubling teaching on this from the Sermon on the Mount:
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment...." (Matthew 5:21-22)
This hits home for us when we begin to catalog the people with whom we are angry. Inside we seethe with anger when we suffer unrighteousness -- or even blows to our pride. Anger, of course, is a common, God-given response to cause us to take action. Vital, but dangerous.
Anger comes and goes with the situation. But when we hold onto this anger, it becomes a resident bitterness within us. It produces an unforgiving spirit that Jesus warns us against. Following his teaching on the Lord's Prayer, Jesus says:
"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:14-15)
Of course, full forgiveness can be granted when there is full repentance (Luke 17:3). But we are required to flush our souls of the unforgiveness that manifests itself in harbored anger -- which is in us the spirit of murder. We must! So long as we hold anger towards another, we cannot love him or her as Jesus calls us to. I hope and pray that the community of Christians in this world will understand the true nature of God's love and the love that he command us to have for our brothers.
John says that if we teach hate then we teach murder. I don't believe anyone, at least anyone sane, would believe that murder is acceptable. If we don't see murder as acceptable, then how can we see hate as being acceptable. Love is life; hate is death. Don't be turned away by Christianity because some teach hatred, bitterness, rigidness, and judgmentalism. Instead, embrace the love God gives us, and rejoice in the joys of life.