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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Disobeying the message (3:11-13)
Disobeying the message (3:11-13)

The command to love each other is the message you heard from the beginning (compare 2:7, 10). Indeed, it was given by Jesus himself (Jn 13:34; 15:12, 17). But earlier the Elder had summed up "the message we have heard from him" (1:5) as "God is light." There is clearly a close connection between these statements (Haas 1972:87). For love originates with God. Those who are then born of God and live in the light must and will reflect God's love to others in the family (2:9-10), just as they reflect his righteousness (3:4-10).

Cain provides a negative example at two points. First, he does not manifest love for his brother, and so shows that he belongs to the world and the sphere of death (3:12-14). But even worse, he is guilty of an act that robbed his brother of life; he is a murderer (v. 15). And although this is a story about two brothers, it is really Jesus, and not Abel, who provides the positive example for the Johannine Christians (v. 16). For where Cain hated, Jesus loved and gave the command to love. Where Cain murdered, Jesus granted fullness of life, for he himself is life (1:2; 3:16; 5:11-12, 20; John 10:10; 11:25; 14:6).

But the secessionists' actions of false teaching and creating schism in the church mirror those of Cain, not of Jesus. For those who follow them and their teaching leave the sphere of life for the sphere of death (3:14). The Johannine Christians are to be on their guard against those who would rob them of life. But they must also take heed lest in their own actions they fail to live out the love that was commanded and modeled by Jesus himself (compare v. 16).

Does the Elder's choice of Cain and Abel, a pair of brothers, to illustrate the hostility of the secessionists indicate that he still regards them as "brothers" to the Johannine Christians? Some commentators argue that brother really means neighbor, whether that neighbor is in the world or the church (Bultmann 1973:28-29; Schnackenburg 1963:195). This seems unlikely, for it contradicts the epistle's family imagery (3:4-10), where children belong either to one family or the other and are therefore siblings to those in that family. Cain and Abel are chosen because Cain should have acted as a brother: with love and pity. But instead he showed that he was no true brother at all, not a child of God (3:12, his own actions were evil; compare 3:6, 9).

Likewise, the secessionists may have appeared to be brothers, but that was a lie whose truth in the end was exposed (2:18-23). Cain, in fact, belonged to the evil one. In his behavior he showed himself at enmity with God. But he was no puppet of the evil one. Cain murdered Abel not because of any predetermined role or inescapable urge but because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous. Children of God will reflect the righteousness of God; those who are not children of God reflect the sinfulness that characterizes the realm of evil. As Jesus said, "A tree is recognized by its fruit. . . . The good [person] brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil [person] brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him" (Mt 12:33, 35). While for John it is inevitable that one's actions will manifest one's inner character, those actions are neither predetermined nor automatic. Cain made a choice: he disobeyed God. And he forsook his responsibility to his brother.

The same is true of the secessionists. In breaking fellowship with the Johannine church and separating themselves from the community, they have manifested what the author calls "hatred"—a strong term indeed! Hatred connotes fundamental opposition to the values and commit ments of others (Grayston 1984:68, 112; Smalley 1984:187). This is the way the world responds to God's children. But the world's hostility should not surprise the Johannine Christians (v. 13). They would surely remember the words of Jesus that the world will hate his followers just as it hated him (Jn 15:19-21).

Sometimes this passage is understood to imply that if Christians were to live truly in obedience to God's commands, the church would feel the full wrath of the hatred of the world. So Christians begin to wonder what is wrong if they are not being persecuted. But the Elder does not say that the more righteous we are and the more we live as the children of God, the more the world will hate us, as if the quantity of our obe dience determined the world's response to us. Rather, he states a simple fact: there is hostility between the world and thje children of God. They have conflicting loyalties and values (2:15-17), and the world attempts to dissuade Christians from their commitments (2:26; 3:7). The chal lenge to the present-day reader is to discern when the church is truly experiencing the hostility of the world. Not everything that the church undertakes necessarily comes from God, nor does all opposition to the church necessarily come from evil. While the world's hostility is to be expected, it is not to be made a badge of the quality of our Christian life. True assurance of who we are comes in a more positive way.

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