If you would, turn in your Bibles to 1 John, chapter 3, verses 10 through 20. John says:
Everyone who does not do what is right is not of God, especially the one who does not love his brother. This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another, unlike Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. The one who does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
This is how we have come to know love: He laid down His life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need but closes his eyes to his need—how can God’s love reside in him?
Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action. This is how we will know we belong to the truth and will convince our conscience in His presence, even if our conscience condemns us, that God is greater than our conscience, and He knows all things.
This is the word of the Lord.
So, if you remember the story of “Cain and Abel,” it’s kind of like an old Drive-In “double feature” – the kind you wouldn’t take the nice Baptist girl from down the street to go see. It comes right after what we call “The Fall” passages in Genesis, chapter 3.
The story goes that in Genesis 1, God creates the world and it’s good. And we know it’s good because he says, “It’s good.” He created all the plants and animals and so on, and he created human beings to be “his image” on Earth.
And a lot of theologians have said a lot of different things about what that might mean, but the “common denominator” across two thousand years of Church history is that there is a sense in which when you look at another person, you are seeing something unique about God.
We are not God, but we see God in each other’s faces. And along with that comes the fact that anything we do for each other, we also do for God – and the rather frightening fact that anything we neglect to do for each other we have neglected to do for God.
Like in Matthew chapter 25 when Jesus says that a day will come when we stand before him at the judgment and he’ll turn to some folks and say, “I was poor and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was a prisoner and you visited me,” and some people will say, “I don’t remember visiting you in prison, Jesus,” and he’ll say, “Anything you’ve done for the least of these you’ve actually done for me.”
And he’ll turn to the other folks and say, “I was poor and you ignored me, I was naked and you didn’t give me any clothes, I was sick and you avoided me, I was a stranger and you didn’t take me in, I was a prisoner and you didn’t visit me.” And a lot of people will say, “If I had known that you were poor, or naked, or sick, or imprisoned, I would’ve done anything I could’ve for you.”
And Jesus will say, “No, you wouldn’t. Because you didn’t. Because everything you’ve neglected to do for the actual human beings you’re surrounded by, you didn’t do for me.” The belief that God created us in His image comes with a series of rigid, and difficult, and ultimately glorious set of obligations that we have to each other simply by virtue of existing.
And so after God creates us to be his image on Earth, he puts us in charge over the animals, the greenery, and so on. But something happened: Adam and Eve decided to rebel against God’s authority.
A talking tree-snake – which is weird – suggested that God had lied to them about what would happen if they ate from a certain tree in the garden, and said that the reason God had forbidden them from eating from the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” was because he wanted to keep back the benefits that it offered from them.
The serpent tells Adam and Eve that God had prohibited them from eating from that tree in the spirit of good old-fashioned competition. He says, “God wants to ‘corner the market’ on wisdom, and power, so he’s forbidden you from eating from this tree.”
But the problem is that they’d had plenty of time to come to know that that isn’t what God is like. He’s not the sort that keeps things back from you simply to keep them back. The reality is that whatever reason God had for forbidding the tree, it was for their own good.
But they couldn’t be bothered to trust the God that they had come to know, so they rebelled against his authority. All of humanity was meant to “rule over the Earth” as God’s image, but we abandoned our post because we wanted God’s throne.
So God banished us from the garden, not just as a punishment, but as the first step towards reconciling us to himself and restoring us to our role. That’s why in Genesis 3:15, God turns to the serpent and says, “I will put hostility between you and the woman’s ‘seed’. And you will bruise his heel, and he will crush your head.”
And the most obvious way to read that would be that God would bless Eve with a son, and the son would undo what the serpent had brought about. And so in Genesis chapter 4, we shift gears to Eve’s two sons, Cain and Abel.
But something strange happens: No one on planet Earth knows why, but God accepts Abel’s sacrifice, and rejects Cain’s sacrifice. It might have had something to do with unrepentant sin on Cain’s part, because Cain’s response tells us that there were about a million things wrong with him. But when God reject his sacrifice, Cain takes Abel out into the field and murders him, buries the body, and then goes on with business as usual.
Later on, God asks him where his brother is, and Cain says, “I don’t know, man, am I my Brother’s keeper?” – which would have given him away on the spot, because this was long before neighborhoods stopped being neighborhoods, and neighbors stopped being neighbors, towns stopped being communities; the obvious answer to the question, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” is “Of course you are.” You’re not just your biological brother‘s keeper. You’re everybody’s keeper, in turns.
So Cain might as well have written, “I did it” on his forehead in Sharpie. God says, “Your brother’s blood cries out from the ground, accusing you.” And so Cain is banished from the community that Adam and Eve and his other siblings have developed in the farmlands outside the Garden.
And throughout the rest of Genesis, we see the same story again and again and again: Adam and Eve rebelled against God and unstitched the community of God in the garden; Cain murders his brother and unstitches the community that they’ve built outside the garden; his descendent Tubal-Cain starts building weapons so that you can do what Cain did to Abel more efficiently and to more people than before; a few chapters later, a man named Lamech sings a very interesting “war song” where he says to his multiple wives, “Listen to my words, I killed a man for striking me; I will avenge myself against everyone who’s ever wronged me.”
A single murder gradually evolves into an entire culture in which, rather than walking towards each other, people walk away from each other; rather than seeking to understand each other, people only concern themselves with protecting themselves from each other.
We are “made in God’s image,” but all throughout the book of Genesis, Moses chronicles the way that we have refused, in one age after another, to “image” the love of God on Earth, because demanding our own way is easier.
Like, Never talking to your sister again after the incident at the family reunion is easier than reconciling with her. Being suspicious of the family that just moved in down the street is easier than taking a cake you made to their doorstep and inviting them over.
And all of this comes to a head in “the Tower of Babel” in Genesis chapter 11, where all of humanity is gathered into one place – which I guess was easier because there were less of us – and we “rehearse” exactly what Adam and Eve do in the garden, exactly what Cain does to Abel, exactly what Lamech and others like him do: We said, “Let’s build a ‘ladder to heaven,’ so we can go up to ‘the realm where the gods live,’ and take it over, and make a name for ourselves.”
Whether it’s “picking a fruit you’ve been told not to pick” or “building a tower to go conquer the gods,” the same sin lies at the root of it: Refusing to “image” the God who created you, and instead attempting to be your own God.
And when your goal is to “Be Your Own God,” you will hate your brothers.
It might not be obvious: Very few people are, like, drooling at the mouth, axe-wielding sociopaths, right? But John says that Cain murdered his brother because “Cain’s works were evil and Abel’s works were righteous,” and then says that we shouldn’t be surprised when the world hates us in the same way.
That’s strange, because reading the “Cain and Abel” story, it’s easy to get the idea that Cain was the sort of guy who ought to be on a No-Fly List. All we really see is that pivotal moment in Cain’s life when he decided to murder a man because the Lord didn’t accept his sacrifice. But we know that Cain had a wife, he had parents – he was a normal dude. Cain is like you and me, and John says we shouldn’t be surprised when people who are just like us hate us.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are a lot of “high-profile” Christians that the world hates for good reasons: This is unfortunate, but throughout the 20th century, quite a few Southern Baptists picked up on a PR campaign that was technically effective but was also probably the worst thing to happen to us in a long time. Quite a few Southern Baptists realized that, throughout history, infamy has always been an airtight way to draw people to your group.
Whereas the earliest Christians, according to Luke in the book of Acts, “found favor with all people and were adding to those who joined them every day,” quite a few Southern Baptists in the second half of the 20th century realized that if you were on bad terms with almost everyone, bad terms with the city, bad terms with everybody with a different political persuasion for so long, always making a racket, always shouting controversial things in the streets and the pulpit and on television, people would come to your church out of morbid curiosity.
And a lot of those people would join. Some of those people would stay for life. And since throughout the 20th century we became addicted to padding our numbers, that seemed very much like “Revival” was happening at first.
But the problem with that is that every pastor is going to die. Every “Christian leader” is going to die. And when you’ve built your church on a foundation of controversy and racket – when the beginning-and-end of your church’s draw to the general public is that you can find ways to entertainingly stoke their anger – nearly all of them are bound to fall away, because you haven’t converted them to anything. You’ve “drawn people in” by giving them what they want, by providing an outlet where they can pour out all their basest instincts and feel godly doing it, but you have not won of them to Christ.
So when you die, most of them just leave. Most of them go back home, watch four hours of “tabloid news” per night on television, and then die one day and spend an eternity outside of God’s Kingdom. And in the process, you’ve been able to tell yourself that you know you’re on the right track “because the world hates you, and the world hated Jesus first.”
But when – not if; when – the world hates us, it should be because we preach that our sin was so nauseating that God himself had to give himself up to be murdered in our place in order to save us.
It should be because we have decided that God’s commands are God’s commands, so we’re going to follow them regardless of whether our culture has the patience for them.
When we are preaching the gospel clearly and straightforwardly, we don’t have to go out of our way to make people hate us. It comes naturally. Because normal, decent folks do not want to be told that their sin nailed the God of the universe to a cross.
John says that “The one who does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” A good rule of thumb with the “letters of John” is that if you flip his “confusing sentences” around, you can get a better idea of what he’s saying: So he says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him,” and it’s a weird sentence, but the point is that “When eternal life is residing in you, it will mold you into someone who does not hate their brother.” When eternal life resides in you, it will turn you from “Cain” into “Abel.”
Which maybe makes you nervous, but keep tracking with John here. Because John says that Jesus “laid down his life for us,” and that “this is how we have come to know love.” We were all Cain, and Jesus came to be our “Abel,” and by being the “Abel” to our “Cain,” Jesus took all of our sin onto himself so that we could be forgiven.
And that’s kind of like when somebody is riding their bike down the street, and you look down, and you see that you have a stick in your hand, and when they ride by, you just jam the stick in their wheel.
They fly off their bike. It’s funny. Don’t do that. You’ll go to prison. But as a dumb metaphor, you know, it works: Laying down his life for us jams a spoke in the wheel of that pattern that you see developing in the early chapters of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden for rebelling against God, and then Cain rebels against God by murdering his brother who was created in His image, and then Lamech rebels against God, and then everyone at Babel rebels against God by building a tower to literally go take over the heavens.
History is a series of “Cain and Abel” stories, just with different players, in different places and different times. But Jesus is the true Abel whose blood “cries out from the ground” with forgiveness instead of condemnation.
He allows us to murder him and then forgives us for it.
He “turns what we meant for evil into good.” And so when other people hate us, when other people want to be the “Cain” to our “Abel,” Jesus shows us exactly what to do: John says, “We have come to know love because Jesus laid down his life for us, so we should also lay down our lives for our brothers.”
Because Jesus has become our Abel, we can love the people who hate us in ways that we couldn’t beforehand.
And John does dive into specifics: Verse 17 says that “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need but closes his eyes to his need, how can God’s love reside in him?”
Like I said beforehand, if you flip that statement around, it’s a little bit clearer: When God’s love resides in you, you will “open your eyes” when you see your brother “in need,” because John says in verse 18 that “We must not love with words or speech, but with truth and action.”
The love of God that resides in us doesn’t just move us to talk about the love of God from a pulpit on Sunday; it moves us to reflect his love onto other people even at great cost to ourselves. Since God has “brought us from death to life” by “laying down his life for us,” we should “lay down our lives for our brothers” – and “If the love of God resides in us,” we will sacrifice our own “goods” for the sake of other people, even the folks who want to be our enemies.
Because Jesus has been the Abel to our Cain, and that turns us into people who love the folks who hate us just as much as we love the folks who love us.
So it’s a little bit like a story I heard a few years back: There was a church in the Texas – I don’t remember where, you can Google it – who put up a “nativity scene” downtown around Christmas. There was a man who was deeply bothered by it, and so he went directly to City Hall to try to have it removed. He kept going up the ladder and eventually sued the church and the city take it down.
But he couldn’t make his court date because he got desperately ill. And I remember a ton of articles started circulating the internet around that time from Christian websites celebrating that this man had gotten critically ill so he wasn’t able to carry out his lawsuit.
A bunch of the “shock jock” preachers that I talked about earlier made it into sermon illustrations about how “God will cut you down” if you stand in the way of his interests, and so on.
But the church itself didn’t feel that way at all. So they had a special offering one Sunday morning where they talked about the man’s situation, about how he couldn’t pay his medical bills, and they asked their people to reach into their pockets, to see to it that he was able to get the medical attention that he needed.
So they did, and every dime of that man’s hospital bills were paid. Because Jesus has become the “Abel” to our “Cain,” and it turns us into people who love the folks who hate us just as much as we love the folks who love us.
The end of that story is that the guy who was suing them stopped suing them, and he moved to be closer to that church so that he could start going every Sunday and be friends with these folks who decided to be a friend to him while he was trying to be an enemy to them.
Because John says that “Loving with truth and action rather than simply with word or speech” is how we will “know that we belong to the truth.”
And that’s another interesting sentence. You’ll notice that, in verse 19, John doesn’t say, “If you ever doubt your salvation, think back to that time when you walked down the aisle and said the prayer, and take comfort in knowing that reciting the Sinner’s Prayer guaranteed your spot in heaven.”
What he says is, “Look at what God is doing.” “Look at the way that God is molding you into someone who lays down your life for your brothers.” “The eternal life that is residing in you will cause you no longer to hate your brother, but instead to open your eyes to his need.”
Don’t let a “Doomsday-Revival-preacher” bait you into doubting your salvation so that he can pad his numbers when he talks about his “conversion stats.” When your conscience is heavy, and you doubt your salvation, look at God’s faithfulness, not your unfaithfulness.
Because John says that “God is greater than your heart.” He knows you better than you know you. He knows your thoughts, your motives. He knows every evil thing you’ve done and he knows every good thing you’ve done – and he knows the real reasons behind why you’ve done what you’ve done. But if the love of God is changing our hearts so that we love our brothers through actions, rather than just through speech, then we can see the evidence that we are genuinely his children.
For anyone who’s new, or visiting, we do something called the altar call, here. I’m going to stand at the altar in a few minutes, and while we sing I’ll be available to pray with you, or have a conversation with you, or anything.
We have no interest in entertainingly stoking your anger, or baiting you into doubting your salvation and saying the Sinner’s Prayer for the 27th time in your life. If you are a believer in Christ, your sin is already paid for. Your citizenship is already in God’s kingdom. Jesus has already been the Abel to your Cain and his blood already cries out from the ground with forgiveness instead of condemnation. You are already forgiven. Your role, now, is to obey his commands. To love your brothers and sisters with a love that looks like Jesus.
If you are not a believer in Christ, we want you to be. At Mt. Zion, we believe that the role of every church on planet earth is to spread the gospel into every corner of its city, and you are one of the corners we want to spread the gospel into. We don’t have a bait-and-switch for you. We’re not gonna ease into it. We have no interest in manipulating your emotions so you walk down the aisle ‘cause you’re caught up in the feeling. We want to convert you to Christ.
So as we are singing, you can come talk to me, and I will walk you through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus.