Sermon 06-08-2021: “In Between Christ and Cain”

June 8, 2021

Scripture: 1 John 3:11-24

When I preached a series on 1 Peter last year, it was easy enough to compare and contrast Peter in the four gospels and the Book of Acts with the words that Peter wrote later in his letters. It’s harder to do that with John because John plays a much less prominent role in the gospels than Peter—Peter was so outspoken and impulsive. 

But still… John is one of the Big Three disciples, alongside Peter and John’s brother James. The two brothers are sons of a man named Zebedee, but the they also have a nickname: the “Sons of Thunder,”1 which sounds like the name of a professional wrestling duo. But the nickname makes me think that neither James nor John was exactly a shrinking violet!

In fact, we see a little bit of their “thunderousness” in the gospels, in Luke chapter 9, for instance. Jesus and the disciples are passing through Samaria—the Samaritans, you may recall, were distant relatives of the Jews, but there was no love lost between the two nations. They were enemies of one another. So Jesus and the disciples are passing through a Samaritan village, and Luke tells us that this village didn’t “welcome them.”

So James and John, the Sons of Thunder, have… a suggestion… “Lord, should we call down fire from heaven to burn them up?”2 To burn them up? For not “welcoming” them? These Samaritans weren’t attacking them with physical force! They weren’t using violence. They weren’t threatening them with harm… And what about “turn the other cheek” or “do unto others” or “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”?

James and John wanted to use supernatural power, if possible, to murder these people. What would motivate that kind of response from these two disciples if not… hatred… anger… wounded pride… A lust for vengeance. Regardless, Jesus rebuked them for even suggesting it.

And there’s another place in the gospels in which these two brothers get into hot water with Jesus. They ask Jesus, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”3 Naturally, the other disciples are outraged by their request. Who can blame them?

Have James and John learned nothing about humility from Jesus… after all this time? What about “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”?4 Or “last will be first, and the first last”?5 Or “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”?6

What would motivate this suggestion, if not pride. “We want to be recognized and praised and appreciated as your Number One and Number Two disciples. We want to bask in this glory for ourselves!” And they also showed a spirit of covetousness: They were likely afraid that someone else might get the glory, which they thought they deserved. If they couldn’t sit on the King’s right and left, they certainly don’t want any of the other ten disciples to do so!

I bring these two episodes in the lives of James and John to your attention because—gosh—they make these brothers seem a lot like a man named Cain in their attitudes and actions. 

Yes… Cain—the very person that John warns us not to be like in today’s scripture. 

Cain and Abel, you may recall, were the first sons of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer; Abel raised livestock. They both offered a sacrifice to God—Cain offers some of his crops, Abel offers “the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock.”7 God accepted Abel’s gift, but he didn’t accept Cain’s gift. Suffice it to say, Abel’s gift was more generous than the Cain’s, but even more: the motivations of the brothers were different. Cain proves this by his response to God: he’s angry and jealous… angry and jealous enough to murder his brother. And do you see the pride there? He perceived that his brother was getting something that he deserved? Why wasn’t he getting credit for his gift? Why wasn’t he getting the glory?

So… weren’t James and John acting a lot like Cain?

I ask because listen to what John says in today’s scripture—and, yes, this is the exact same John that we meet in the gospels—only about 60 years later. Listen to what John writes in verse 12: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother.” And then verse 15: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”

Okay, but haven’t I just shown you that John himself was guilty of these same things—he was a “murderer in his heart”—he would have been a murderer in real life if Jesus had let him have his way. John hated his enemies, he was filled with pride, and he wanted glory.

Did John’s own murderous thoughts and prideful actions back when Jesus was on earth prove that John wasn’t truly saved?

Not at all. We see this in several places in the gospels8, but one example is the the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus tells eleven of the disciples that they are already saved because of their faith in him. Jesus indicates that only Judas wasn’t saved9. And if you read John’s gospel, you’ll see that the apostle John refers to himself repeatedly as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”—Jesus clearly didn’t condemn John for his sin or hold it against against him. On the contrary, he loved him—and John himself knew and experienced this love in a profound way!

I want this to comes as a relief to us. Because we know our hearts… We know how often we fail to live up to the standard of love that John describes.

Listen, for instance, to John’s words in verse 16—which are really just a paraphrase of Jesus’ words: John writes, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers”—when he says “brothers,” he means brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow Christians. We ought to lay down our lives for one another…

Speaking of which, last Monday, a video went viral on social media, featuring a 17-year-old young woman from Bradbury, California, named Hailey Morinico. Some of you saw it. The video was taken from security camera footage. This teenager heard her dogs barking on her back patio. There was a brick wall in back of the patio. Hailey thought her dogs were barking at another dog. So she went outside to see what was going on and saw a brown bear—a mama bear with her cubs—walking on the ledge of the wall. The dogs were just below her on the patio. And the mama bear was swiping at one of her dogs, and threatening to attack others. The dogs didn’t know the danger they were in. You don’t mess with a mama bear with her cubs! I wasn’t a Boy Scout, but even I know that! 

But in the video you see Hailey run out onto the patio and push the brown bear off the wall, scoop up one of her dogs in her arms, and shoo the rest of the dogs into the house.

Everyone is okay… Hailey, her dogs, and the bears.

Now, in case any of y’all are thinking about shoving brown bears around, Hailey and her mother both urge you not to do that. Hailey said, “Don’t do what I did; you might not have the same outcome.” That’s an understatement. Thanks, Hailey… I won’t go shoving brown bears. I’ll just leave them be.

A lot of people have either praised this teenage girl for being incredibly brave or criticized her for being completely crazy. But I don’t think she was crazy… I get it. I have beloved children… And you know I have the sweetest dog ever! I wouldn’t let a bear attack Ringo! 

Hailey’s the same way. She said, “I see the bear, it’s grabbing my dog, Valentina, and I have to run over there. She’s a baby. And the first thing I think to do is push the bear. And somehow it worked.”

No, I completely understand what this teenage girl did. She wasn’t thinking… She was feeling… And what she was feeling was great love for these beloved animals that belonged to her. 

And in today’s scripture, John says that’s the kind of love we’re supposed to have, in our hearts, for our brothers and sisters in Christ—the kind of love that just comes out when we’re not even thinking about it. Can you imagine loving someone so much that you would risk sacrificing your life for that person without even giving it a second thought?

That’s the kind of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, in the church—in this church—that we’re supposed to have. This doesn’t mean that we don’t also love non-Christians in an extravagant way, but the Bible says our love for fellow Christians comes first. They are our family!

Turn to the person on your left and say, “I would shove an angry mama bear for you.” Turn to the person on your right and say, “I would shove an angry mama bear for you.”

But would we? Because remember: we’re not talking about shoving an angry mama bear for one of our own children, or even one of own fur babies… 

In fact, ask yourself this: Is there someone in this church right now that you’re angry at? Is there someone that you’ve gossiped about recently? Is there someone that you’ve said mean or judgmental words about? Or maybe even just thought those things?

Was it me? No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know!

But would you shove an angry mama bear even for that person?

You’ve gotta admit… This is a frighteningly high standard of love that John gives us. And somehow we’re supposed to test ourselves against this standard. If we live up to it, then that’s one way we can know that we have eternal life—and “reassure our hearts before him,” as John says in verse 19. 

Yet, often, as John’s own experience attests, we fail to live up to this standard. John himself, as we’ve seen, often failed to live up to it. 

And sometimes we look at our lives and see how we don’t measure up to this standard of love and verse 20 describes what happens: our hearts condemn us.

We think, “If I’m really saved, why am I thinking and talking and acting like a lost person?”10

John recognizes that sincere believers are bound to feel this way from time to time. We can be plagued with guilty consciences. Our hearts condemn us.

So what’s the solution? What do we do when we have sincerely believed in Jesus, yet we don’t feel saved… because our hearts condemn us? John give us a couple of clues in today’s scripture. First, look at verse 23. John says that our confidence before God is based on keeping Christ’s commandment:

And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

This commandment isn’t simply about what we do… It’s also what we believe—it’s mostly about what we believe. 

Faith in Christ comes first. Believe in Jesus… and then love. Indeed, as I’ve said and shown a few times during this sermon series, love always follows—naturally—from genuine Christian faith. Paul makes this point in Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Faith comes first… and faith, if it’s genuine, will always be lived out in love. 

And this is what John means in verse 18 when he says that we are to love “in deed and in truth.” What “truth” is he referring to? The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ! 

The truth that apart from God’s grace we are helpless sinners who can do nothing to bring ourselves into a right relationship with God. The truth that God has done everything necessary to make salvation possible. The truth that our righteousness before God depends not on our works, but on the finished work of Christ on the cross. The truth that Christ gives us his righteousness as a gift. The truth that our good works are never a way of proving our worth before God, or paying God back for his grace, or adding anything to the finished work of Christ. The truth that there’s no good work we can perform—even after we’re saved—about which we can boast or for which we can take any credit. The truth that even the good works that we do are planned by God and made possible by his Spirit. The truth that even the desire to do good works comes from God. As Paul says in Philippians 2,

[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Apart from this truth, we will never be able to love the way John says we ought to. 

As an example, look at verse 17… This is just after he says we’re supposed to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ. He says, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

What happens when we attempt to love in this way without also “believing in Jesus,” and “loving in deed and in truth”—which means remembering what Jesus did for me and believing it, remembering the truth of the gospel?

I can tell you from personal experience… In my line of work, I’m often asked to help people who come by the church office in need of financial assistance—to pay rent, to pay utilities, to pay for gas for their car, to pay for groceries… you name it. 

But here’s the thing: Sometimes, even when I help, I am not doing it in love—even if the action, the deed, looks indistinguishable from love. But it’s not love. Because in my heart, I’m feeling judgmental—like, what did this person do to mess up their lives so badly? They need to get their act together and show me that they deserve help before I’ll help them! Or I believe they’re lying to me, or taking advantage of me, or pulling a fast one on me… But that’s my pride and anger… because I’m a lot like Cain!

By contrast, when I love “in deed and in truth”—when I remember the truth of what Jesus did for me, and believe it—I tell myself something like this: “God did not wait for me to get my act together first before he intervened to help me. He did not wait for me to become “lovable” before he loved me. He did not wait for me to prove that I “deserved” help before he helped me. In fact, whatever good thing I possess, whatever good I’ve accomplished, it all comes from him. It’s all grace. Indeed, the old saying is true: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ So who am I to feel judgmental or hard-hearted? Who am I not to extend grace to others—when I’ve been the recipient of grace upon grace?”

In fact, Jesus said in Luke 7 that there’s a direct correlation between the extent to which you’ve experienced God’s grace and forgiveness and the extent to which you love others.11 They go hand in hand. Loving in deed and in truth means remembering the grace, the mercy, the forgiveness that God has shown you.

And when that happens, something else really good happens. John makes one of the most ambitious promises in all of scripture in verses 21 and 22:

Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.

Whatever we ask we receive from him

Once again, John is reiterating a promise Jesus himself makes in several places in the gospels12, including when he said the following:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”13

And the moment I share this promise with you, I feel this urge to qualify this promise, to nuance it, to tell you that it isn’t as straightforward as Jesus makes it sound: “After all, Jesus teaches that God isn’t going to give us something that isn’t good for us, and the Bible says that we often don’t know what’s good for us; only God knows. We don’t know how our answered prayer might affect everyone else in the world, what the consequences will be in the future. Only God knows.” 

So I feel this urge to protect you from the pain of unanswered prayer… After all, what if we pray and God doesn’t give us what we pray for? That can hurt.

But I read something this past week, from a theologian named Frederick Dale Bruner, that helped me. He said that we don’t pray nearly as much as we think we do.

[W]e carry around heavy bundles of wishes that never become askings. We talk to ourselves about our problems in the form of much thought, worry, and sleeplessness; we might talk about our problems with those close to us, too, but even we Christians are strangely reluctant to talk about our problems with the Father.14

Is he right? Do we carry around “heavy bundles of wishes that never become askings”? Do we talk to ourselves and talk to our friends about our problems more than we talk to our Father? I do! I’ll bet you do too. Why?

One reason for our reluctance, John says, is because our hearts condemn us… 

Brothers and sisters, it’s not supposed to be this way! Let’s believe the truth of the gospel. Let’s believe in Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” “God works all things together for our good.” “Our Father is not against us; he’s for us.” “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s time for us to go to throne room of God with renewed confidence, renewed boldness, renewed perseverance and tell God what we think we need and ask him to give it to us. As the old hymn says: “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer.”


  1. Mark 3:17
  2. Luke 9:54 NLT
  3. Mark 10:37 NLT
  4. Matthew 5:5 ESV
  5. Matthew 20:16
  6. John 15:13 KJV
  7. Genesis 4:4 NLT
  8. See, for instance, John 2:11; Mark 10:29-30; Matthew 12:49-50
  9.  See John 13:10-11.
  10. Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary,vol. 14 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2017), 96.
  11.  The point of Jesus’ words in Luke 7:44-47.
  12. Matthew 7:7-11; Mark 11:24; John 16:23-24
  13. Matthew 7:7-8 ESV
  14. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 343.

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