This text picks up on the thought expressed at the end of verse 10 – anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. John in these verses amplifies what it means to love our brother and exposes the difference between those who love and those who do not. In both verse 10 and in 2:9-11 he stated that the one who does not love is not a believer. Here he makes the same case even more forcefully and – as he tends to do – paints it in black and white terms that leave no room for negotiation.
Verse 11 is a restatement of what John expressed in 2:7 (and is somewhat of a parallel verse to 1:5). The original gospel message that Christ gave to the apostles and the apostles gave to the people has at its heart the admonition to love one another. What John’s readers heard and believed from the beginning – before the heretics started confusing things with their teaching – is based in love. This is fundamental to the gospel.
To love one another is the opposite of what Cain did (Gen 4). Cain killed his brother because Cain’s deeds were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Cain’s story is apparently well-known to John’s readers. Cain hated his brother because Cain was of the evil one – he was one of the children of the devil (10). Jesus said in John 8:44 that those whose father is the devil are murderers because they want to do the desires of their father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. So Cain is the opposite of the child of God – he is of the evil one and he hates and he murders.
But look again at the specific reason for Cain’s crime. His deeds were evil and his brother’s were righteous. He was rejected by God but Abel was accepted. The story in Genesis 4 says that Cain became very angry when his sacrifice was rejected and Abel’s was accepted. The interesting thing to note is the reason for his anger. It was not just that his sacrifice was rejected; it was that his brother’s was accepted. This is the only explanation for his crime. If he were just angry at God he would have had no reason to murder his brother. But he was angry at Abel (and perhaps God too) and so killed him. He could not accept that the Lord had regard for Abel (Gen 4:4).
This is still the world’s perspective (John uses Cain to represent the world in this text) and is why John makes an aside in verse 13. He says to not be surprised that the world hates us (note his use of brethren instead of ‘children’ to refer to his readers – in the world’s hatred of us we are all peers). Just as Cain hated Abel, so the world hates believers. And the world hates believers for the same reason – it hates that the Lord has regard for us.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his sermons on I John makes the point that the world does not hate Christians because they are good but because they are not of the world. Christians are not just morally good; morally good people are often loved and respected. Christians are different and Christians are accepted by One the world rejects. Jesus told His disciples that they would be hated by all on account of His name (Matt 10:22). It is His name that prompts hate. Being good is not offensive, but being good for His name’s sake is unacceptable. Living the Sermon on the Mount (which screams out “DIFFERENT!”), living Philippians 2, being born of God (2:29) and having God’s seed (3:9) – these are what bring the hatred of the world. The world hates what does not belong to it. The world hates those who are organically different from it.
The world hates us because it does not understand us or the life we have. It does not share this life with us, and it feels we are condemning it, even though we may not say a word. But because we are so different, it feels condemned. It feels lost, and it hates the feeling of condemnation, so it hates us. That was why the world hated our Lord. He never did any wrong, He was without sin, He preached that perfect message, He went about doing good, and yet they snarled at Him, the Pharisees especially. This was because by just being what He was, he condemned them. He showed them that He belonged to a different order, a different realm. He was God in the flesh, and everyone who reproduces this will get the same response and reaction from the world. Make sure, my friends, that you are not just good. Make sure you are Christians. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 95.)
At first reading Cain seems like an extreme example to use. We should love one another and not be like Cain? That seems to set the bar pretty low. It does not seem too hard to refrain from murder and thus claim to love my brother. But if we look closer we see that John is actually making a stark and sobering point that he explains more clearly in verse 15. To not love is to hate. And to hate is to murder. So we effectively have two choices – love one another as the gospel commands or hate one another and be a murderer like Cain. Once again John gives us a black and white choice with no gray area – love or murder.
The proof of our new life in Christ is our love for the brethren. We are new and different people. We have passed out of death into life. We are no longer dead in our sins. We will no longer come into judgment (Jn 5:24). We have a new nature from our Father and His Spirit indwells us. And the reason we know this to be true is that we have an abiding love for one another [Can John make this point any clearer? Love is the proof of faith. It is that simple. No love = no faith]. Our love for one another makes it obvious that we are children of God (10). And having passed out of death we are aware of our spiritual condition. We not unaware as those who are dead. We are alive and know we are alive.
The one who does not love, however, abides in death. He will face judgment for his sins one day but in actuality he is already dead. He abides in death. It is where he lives currently. He is dead to spiritual awareness and dead to the Spirit of God. He has no idea of his true condition. He is the one who walks in the darkness and does not know where he is going (2:11). The one who abides in darkness actually abides in death.
This is the second contrast of the passage. If we have passed out of death into life we will love the brethren. If we do not love the brethren we abide in death. Again, two choices with no gray areas.
In verse 15 John effectively echoes the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said that to hate our brother makes us as guilty as a murderer (Matt 5:21-22). John says the same thing even more bluntly – to hate is to be a murderer. That is why Cain is the example of those who hate. He was the world’s first murderer and the first one to clearly demonstrate the logical outcome of hate. He hated and his hatred festered and resulted in murder. No one murders without first hating. And hate is really nothing more than a desire to see the person hated removed from our lives. So to hate is really to be guilty of murder – in one sense – because that is where hate leads.
In equating the hater and the murderer John is faithfully reflecting the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21ff.). This is no exaggeration. It shows Jesus’ supreme concern for what goes on in the human heart. Hatred is the wish that another person was not there; it is the refusal to recognize his rights as a person; it is the longing to hurt or ultimately even to kill him. If I hate somebody, I am no different from a murderer in my attitude toward him. And with God it makes very little difference whether I actually have a chance to carry out the desires of my heart or not. People who hate are murderers according to Jesus and according to John and “you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” John is not denying the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for the sin of murder. The thief on the cross is an example that that can and does happen. What John is stating is the general principle that to take life is to forfeit life and no murderer has eternal life as a present and abiding possession. (Steve Roy, Love: A Matter of Life and Death; Note on I John 3:15.)
John is obviously using extreme language to make a point. If we do not love we hate. And if we hate we are as guilty as those who murder. And those who murder obviously are not children of God – they do not have eternal life abiding in them. Their hatred leads to a murderer’s punishment – they abide in death.
Do not miss what this says about the Christian, however. If the one who hates does NOT have eternal life abiding in him – that means the one who loves DOES. The believer has passed out of death into life and has eternal life abiding in him. This is NOW. We are in life NOW. We have passed out of death into life – so having passed we abide in that life. The love we have for one another is proof that the life of Christ is in us already. God’s seed abides (present tense) in us (9). We experience eternal life to a certain extent even now.
Thus the final contrast: if we have eternal life abiding in us we will love. If we do not love we hate and are murderers. Love or hate – no middle ground.
If we equate Cain with the world and summarize what John says about both the world and the believer in this passage, it looks like this:
- does not love
- is of the evil one (12)
- hates the believer (13)
- abides in death (14)
- does not have eternal life abiding in it (15)
- is of God (opposite of 12)
- is hated by the world (13)
- has passed out of death into life (14)
- has eternal life abiding in him (opposite of 15)
John’s severity in this passage is somewhat hard to accept. His black and white style of instruction is nowhere more evident. We love or hate – nothing in between. The opposite of loving one another is Cain, who killed his brother. The one who does not love is the one who abides in death. The one who hates is a murderer. Thus to not love is to hate. And that is hard to fully grasp. Are there not people we do not necessarily love but also do not hate? Can we not be ambivalent about some? John emphatically says, “No!” There are only two camps and you are in one or the other. Even more, the Christian can only be in one camp. The Christian who does not love does not exist.
Which begs the question – can a non-believer love? In one sense the answer is obviously ‘yes.’ We all know people who are not believers but who we would classify as loving people. But in the sense in which John speaks the answer is ‘no.’ John’s kind of love is not based on family or friendship or mutual interests and experiences. It is based on God’s love for us. We love because He first loved us (4:19). It has nothing to do with someone being worthy of love; it has to do with reflecting the love of Christ on others. It is love for Christ’s sake and not for the loved one’s sake. This kind of love is unknown to the non-believer just as the righteousness that believers practice (2:29, 3:7) is unknown (and unattainable). Both are based on God’s nature in us and both are impossible apart from that nature.
We love one another IF:
We are born of God. We are children of God. We are like Him. We abide in Him. We practice righteousness. His seed abides in us. We have passed out of death into life. We have eternal life abiding in us.