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, brethren, that the world hates you.
– I John 3:11-13
In the narrative of Genesis 4, after Cain has murdered his brother, and God has sentenced him to wander the earth, Cain goes out east of Eden to the land of Nod. And there he promptly builds a city—not exactly the behavior of a man who has accepted the consequence of his sin. Cain adds to his murderous violence by pushing his disobedience even further.
There is a sad irony to this, because submitting to the Lord and embracing the call to wander might have been Cain’s redemption. The life of a wanderer would have given him the opportunity to live by faith, to roam the earth (with God!) without putting his hopes in the powers and comforts of this world. In other words, he would have been like Abraham (Heb. 11:8-10). It is probably the case that, far from seeking to eternally condemn him, God had Cain’s restoration in mind.
But alas, Cain will not have it. As he sees it, God’s call to wander is not evidence of His love, but proof that He cannot be trusted. Cain sees—after all it is his view of things which matters—that he must procure his own blessing and secure his own standing in the world. He is not very different from his parents, it turns out. (It is tempting to make puns about the apple not falling far from the tree, but that would just be too juicy. :-))
So Cain builds the Bible’s first city, and it amounts to a great symbol of man’s effort to engineer his own destiny. His progeny is responsible for the first urbanized civilization. The Bible’s earliest look into the politics of humankind comes to us as the urbane Cain builds his polis. As if to make certain that we do not miss the connection between Cain’s offspring and his civic project, the author shows us how he names his little town after his son.
Cain’s descendants then become the original progenitors of the arts and sciences, the first spinners of culture and society. One generation in particular seems to have been especially productive. “Jubal… was the father of all who play the lyre and pipe” (Gen. 4:21), and so come the Arts. “Tubal-cain [was] the forger of all implements of bronze and iron” (v.22), and so begin the Sciences. Jabal, Jubal’s brother, is mentioned as “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (v.20), but this does not mean that he is at all removed from the over all scene of the dawn of worldly civilization; he is probably best understood as the original wealthy suburbanite and rancher. Nothing specific is mentioned about Naamah, Tubal-cain’s sister, but given that her name means something like “lovely” or “pleasing,” we might surmise what aspect of civilized culture she represents.
Does all this culture make the descendants of Cain more refined? Perhaps. Does it make them more righteous? Definitely not. Lamech, the father of the four characters we have just seen, seems to be the ultimate expression of the quality of these Nodian urbanites. With blustering arrogance, Lamech makes a speech to impress his women-folk:
Adah and Zillah,
Listen to my voice.
You wives of Lamech,
Give heed to my speech,
For I have killed a man for wounding me;
And a boy for striking me;
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold. (Gen. 4:23-24)
It is a speech more befitting of public enemy number one, but he delivers it as a leading citizen. Perhaps he is the original Henry F. Potter, building his little empire at the cost of anyone who gets in his way, crushing any peon who has illusions of resisting him. At any rate, it is obvious that we are to see him as a chief figure among the sons of Cain. They are smart, they are wicked, and they are gaining momentum. Soon it will be the case that the great heroes of humanity are those who achieve power and fame through violence and malevolence (Gen. 6:4-5).
Far later in the history of the world, the apostle John writes a brief but beautiful work of literature designed to help Christians see the differences between the children of God and the children of the devil. As we read the book of I John, we find the writer concerned to help us understand how to know whether people—especially ourselves—really belong to the Lord.
Cain is the only Old Testament figure mentioned in I John. In fact, he is the only person, other than Jesus, mentioned by name at all. The righteous Abel is not even named here; instead, he is merely referred to in context with Cain as “his brother.” That Cain is the only named person in I John other than Jesus is significant. It means that John sees something about Cain that is of elemental theological import. John casts a picture of Cain as the archetype of all who choose evil. Or as John R. W. Stott puts it, Cain is “the prototype of the world.” In Cain and his line, we see the seeds of all the world’s treacherous wickedness, as well as its empty glory.
Read, again, the words of John:
“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” (I John 3:11-12).
John likes to draw word pictures in the most contrasting terms (e.g. truth/lie, light/darkness, sin/righteousness, life/death, children of God/the devil). As he writes about our call to love one another, the contrast or the opposing idea that comes to mind for him is not one of mere uncaring. He immediately mentions Cain and his murderous ways.
If we stopped a hundred people on the street and asked them what the opposite of love was, practically everyone would say, “Hate.” And yet John immediately thinks of murder. In fact, in the sentences which follow the material on Cain, he does use the word “hate,” but he does so only to equate it with murder: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer…” (v.15). If we will not be people of love, the alternative is to follow Cain, who followed the evil one and became a murderer.
John does us the favor of telling us the motive of the crime… sort of. What he actually gives is a kind of enthymeme, an argument with a missing premise, which the reader is expected to fill in for himself. In this case, it would go something like this:
Premise 1: Cain’s deeds were evil.
Premise 2: Abel’s deeds were righteous.
Premise 3: — ? —
Conclusion: Therefore, Cain murdered Abel.
What might we see as belonging in premise three? Perhaps we might just say that “Evildoers hate workers of righteousness to the point of murder.” However we might word the connection, it is a truth with no need for substantiation. There is something about being exposed in wrongdoing while someone else is being held up as a good example of having done what is right that incites the human spirit toward acrimony. How many of us have not tasted the bitter resentment that seems to well up within us as we feel shown-up by “that goody-goody” or “that suck-up”? I certainly have. And I can tell you: It tastes of death. It is sin crouching at the door with plans to enslave us. I think this is why John uses the language of exodus in verse 14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. Whoever does not love abides in death.”
For John, we either love our brothers and sisters, or we do not. And if we do not, we have serious cause to wonder whether we truly belong to Christ. (Theologians and Bible teachers call this a lack of assurance.) If we do not love, we abide in death. Those who do not love, show themselves to be the sort of people who have not left Egypt, not gone out of death into life, following the God who is love. Instead, they have chosen to love the world of death and slavery.
In this world we respect those who have worked hard to establish society and their place in it. Rarely do we think of them as lazy or cowardly. And yet it is often the case that the most urbane and accomplished people in society are motivated toward worldly achievement largely out of fear—fear of the unknown, fear of having no control, fear of what it would mean to live in faith. Which is easier, to work hard at securing for ourselves a seemingly solid place in this world, or to wander, trusting God each day for our daily bread? Many, it seems, would rather take their chances with their own strength and their own bootstrap pride.
But what happens when such people are faced with the reality that there are some who do live by faith? They taste bitter resentment, and their hearts begin to fill with murder. What does John say immediately after his words about Cain? “Do not be surprised, brethren, that the world hates you” (v.13). The children of God, merely by living humble lives of faithfulness and truth, expose the lies of the children of the devil. As they glorify God through their own lives laid down each day in love for one another, they show the emptiness of the world’s glory, clutched and grabbed by those who put themselves first.
In a certain twisted way, the world does love its own (John 15:19). The world loves to exalt its heroes, the “successes,” who have “made it.” But what about the many who do not achieve stardom? The world will love and accept any who will at least join in the worship of its idols. The world will show care for those will get on board with its definitions and values, who will sing its songs and chant its mantras. “They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (I John 4:5). And so the world’s people go about congratulating one another on this or that accomplishment in the “progress” of their ongoing city development. They encourage each other to find new ways to refuse to wander.
This is Cain’s world. It is a world which does not know Christ. And so it does not know Christians (I John 3:1). It is a world which hates both Christ and Christians. It is a world at war against God, His Messiah and His people. But it is also a sad world which does not even know that it has already lost (John 16:33; I John 4:4).