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. – 1 John 3:12 ESV
John has a tendency to use terms and images that portray striking opposites. He loves the use of contrasts. Darkness and light. Sin and righteousness. Lies and truth. Old and new. Love and hate. The temporal and the eternal. Death and life. Abiding and forsaking. Then right in the middle of chapter three, he uses what appears to be a contrast between two Old Testament figures, Cain and Abel. At first glance, this is a very perplexing and difficult to understand passage. Seemingly, out of the blue, John brings up an event that happened all the way back in the story of beginning of the earth, recorded in the book of Genesis. The context is Jesus' command that we love one another. Then, all of the sudden, John tells us, “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 John 3:12 ESV). That's quite a contrast. John goes from talking about love to warning about murder. In the well-known story of Cain and Abel, Cain killed his own brother. But why? John says it was “because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous” (1 John 3:12 ESV). So is John saying that Cain killed Abel because Abel was a righteous person? Did he murder his brother out of some form of jealousy or resentment? That was probably the surface cause. But there is something far deeper going on in this story, and we need to go back and look at the actual event to get a better handle on what actually happened and in order to see why John is using this story as an object lesson about love. Back in Genesis 4, we read, “Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:3-5 ESV). Both brothers brought offerings to the Lord. There is no indication that God had indicated the type of offering that was to be given, so God's rejection of Cain's offering does not appear to be about what he brought. But it clearly says, “but for Cain and his offering he [God] had no regard.” The word “regard” in the Hebrew means “to look on with favor.” So when it says God had “no regard” for Cain, it means He did NOT look on him with favor. Cain's offering was an extension of his heart. The offering was not the issue, Cain was. There was something wrong with Cain that caused God to reject him and his offering. You have to go all the way to Hebrews 11 to discover what was going on behind the scenes. There we read, “By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts” (Hebrews 11:4 ESV). Notice those two words, “by faith.” They are key to understanding the story and getting the point of John's inclusion of this event in his discussion about love. The motivation behind Abel's gift was faith. He believed in God. And his gift was directed at a God he had never seen. That is an important point. You have to remember that neither Cain or Abel had ever seen or heard God as their parents had. After the sin of Adam and Eve, they were banned from the garden and from God's presence. Their sons had never seen Eden or had the joy of intimacy with God. What they knew about God they had been told by their parents. Both had heard the same stories, but it would appear that only Abel believed what he heard.
What is interesting is that the writer of Hebrews goes on to say, “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV). Abel had faith and his offering was pleasing to God. Cain did not have faith and his offering was displeasing to God. Cain did not believe in God. When it says that Abel offered a “more acceptable sacrifice than Cain,” the word “acceptable” in the Hebrew refers to “greater in quantity, greater in quality.” But it was not the sacrifice that was the issue. It was Abel's faith. His faith gave his sacrifice its value. His belief and trust in God was what made his sacrifice acceptable. And according the writer of Hebrews, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Abel had faith in a God he had never seen. He had hope and assurance in God and gave his sacrifice out of love and gratitude. Verse 6 of chapter 11 of Hebrews says, “without faith it is impossible to please him,” but there is more, “for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Abel believed God existed. Cain did not. Oh, he gave a sacrifice, but it was not from the heart, and it was given in a spirit of doubt and disbelief. Interestingly, in early Jewish and Christian writings, Cain is used as a model for those who deliberately disbelieve in God. Cain lacked faith in God. Cain didn't love God. He didn't abide in God. Cain loved Cain. His inability to love God made it impossible for him to love his own brother. And John warns that we should not be like Cain. We need to abide in Christ. We need to remain dependent upon Him and believe that He exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Our faith in God will produce fruit. Our love for God will produce love for others. Cain didn't love God. Cain loved Cain. And Cain was incapable of loving Abel. The lack of love is hate. Love is saying “No” to one's own life so that others may live. The to key loving others is faith in God. It is when we believe in Him and know that He loves us that we will be able to love others more than we love ourselves.