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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – A Rift in the Family (3:11-17)
A Rift in the Family (3:11-17)

A recent story in a popular magazine gave some suggestions for "How to Heal a Family Feud." It was sprinkled with anecdotes of families torn apart by petty squabbles, carefully nursed grudges, perceived and real hurts, and substantial doses of anger. But there were also stories of happy endings as old wounds were healed and divided families were reconciled. The story included practical advice for bringing about such happy endings—prompt action, candidness, clear ing the air, moving ahead step by step and so on. It sounds simple enough. Why is it, then, that rifts and feuds in the family we know as the church are so seldom resolved with such clean and happy endings? And, more to the point for our discussion, why is it that John's own church could not settle its dispute and restore the bonds of fellowship?

To interpret the rift in his church family, the Elder uses the story of the first family and its two sons, Cain and Abel. This story does not have a fairy-tale ending with everyone living happily ever after. But two features of the story make it useful. First, the story of Cain and Abel is not the story of a two-sided feud, like the fabled Hatfields and McCoys, but the account of the evil actions of one brother, Cain. In his evil actions, Cain showed that he was no true brother to Abel. Second, Cain's evil act created such a great rift in the family that we can longer even speak of a break in the family: it created two entirely separate families.

Typical of the epistle, the contrast between these families is spelled out in absolute terms. Abel represents the children of God, who are characterized by righteousness (v. 12), life (vv. 12-15), love and pity (vv. 13-14, 17), righteous conduct (vv. 16-18) and fellowship (vv. 13-15). Cain represents the children of the devil (v. 10), who are known by evil (v. 12), death and murder (vv. 12-15), hate (vv. 13-14, 17), unrighteous conduct (vv. 16-18) and hostility to the children of God (v. 13). These descriptions do not mean that Abel never did anything wrong or that Cain never did anything right. Rather, John's dualistic language points both descriptively and prescriptively to the identifying characteristics of those in the light and those in the darkness. John now picks up one of these identifying marks as he speaks of the children of God as those who are to love each other.

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