The first epistle of John was written when John was about 95 years old. He was the only living apostle at that time. All the others had been killed. John had seen the day of Pentecost and the tremendous revival with which the Church of Jesus Christ had started. He also saw in his time the decline of many of the churches that had started in revival.
Perhaps the other apostles who had died earlier had not seen this decline to the same extent as John. But John saw that many churches that had once begun with tremendous power, great fervency and the Spirit's fullness, had declined to the place where they had lost their first love and backslidden in other ways too (as we read in Revelation 2 and 3).
But the elders (messengers) in those backslidden churches were still sitting on their thrones. One of the elders only had a name that he was alive, when he was actually dead. Another was so lukewarm that the Lord warned him that He would spit him out of His mouth. Yet another was allowing the false prophetess Jezebel, to lead people astray. All these terrible things were happening in their churches and yet those elders just sat back and did nothing about it. Both churches and elders had lost their zeal. This was the condition of those churches at the end of the first century.
Imagine how grieved John must have been and how he must have sorrowed. With this burden in his heart, he writes his first epistle. That's the background of this letter.
It is important to see what John emphasizes in his letter and what he doesn't - because Christendom's condition today is very similar to what I have just described.
There were great spiritual movements in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in different parts of the world - mighty movements that God started through men who knew Him. These movements were born in revival, but they have all descended to the same level as the churches in John's time. Compromise and corruption are rampant among them. Elders have gone the way of Balaam, seeking after money. They permit immoral standards among people in their churches. That too is part of the way of Balaam, for he led Israel astray by making them sin with the daughters of Moab.
We see so much similarity in what's happening in Christian churches today with what happened at the end of the first century. The problem is not with doctrine primarily, but with life. Evangelical churches and charismatic churches have all gone the way of the world. The spiritual power they once had is gone!
Bearing the burden of the backslidden churches on his heart, John writes much in 1 John 3 about loving one another. "By this, the children of God, and the children of the devil are obvious." (1 John 3:10). John divides all people in the world into two categories here - "children of God" and "children of the devil". And he says that the way to find out the difference is this: "Anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God. Nor the one who does not love his brother." This is a very clear distinction. One who does not love his brother is not of God. He may perhaps have many reasons why he cannot love his brother, but he is not of God.
In verses 11 and 12, we read, "For this is the message, which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. And not be as Cain, who was of the evil one, and slew his brother Abel."
When Jesus spoke about righteous people, he began with Abel. He said, "From the blood of righteous Abel, to the blood of Zechariah......" (Matt.23:35).
So Abel was righteous. But Cain, as we saw, belonged to the evil one, because he killed his brother. 1 John 3:12 goes on to say, "And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brothers were righteous."
Now I want you to read that verse carefully. It does not say that Cain's deeds were evil after he slew Abel. No. It says that his deeds were evil even before he slew Abel.
Why did Cain slay his brother? Because he was an evil man. We have often heard it said that God accepted Abel because he offered a blood-sacrifice, and that God rejected Cain because he didn't offer a blood-sacrifice. But there is more to it than that. See what it says here about Cain. "His deeds were evil; his brother's deeds were righteous."
And John goes on to say in verse 13, "Don't marvel brethren if the world hates you." He's talking about Cain hating Abel. Don't marvel if the world hates you. Hatred is the mark of the sons of Cain, and all who follow "the way of Cain" (as Jude calls it in verse 11 of his letter).
In verse 14 John says, "We know we have passed out of death into life" - not because we were baptized and not because we partake of the bread and the wine, no, but "because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death." John is still thinking of Cain as he writes this.
We are to love everyone. It doesn't matter which church those others belong to. "He who hates his brother is a murderer." Everyone who hates someone else is a murderer. "And you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." The way of Cain, is the way of hatred.
In contrast, in verse 16 John says that the proof of love is this that instead of slaying your brother, you slay yourself! You lay down your life. "We know love by this, that He laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren."
Notice that in both cases there is a death. In one we kill our brothers and in the other, we die ourselves!!
Cain killed his brother. That's the way of evil. The children of the devil manifest themselves by slaying their brothers and sisters. The children of God are revealed by their putting their own self-life to death.
Cain smashed Abel's head in with a rock. But today people are gentler - they don't use rocks, they use their tongues! When you tear down your brothers and sisters with your tongue, speaking evil of them and making them look bad and small in the eyes of others, you're actually slaying them.