Satan’s excuses precede lawless Christians.

1 John 3.7-12.

Many of the verses from today’s passage tend to be yanked out of context.

  • “Let no one deceive you” 1Jn 3.7 —used to refer to anything which might trick or mislead Christians, from heresy to the latest internet conspiracy theories.
  • “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil” 1Jn 3.8 —treated as though it’s the only reason Jesus came to earth, so certain dark Christians use it to justify their fixation on demonology instead of good news.
  • “Everyone borne of God doesn’t sin” 1Jn 3.9 —used to condemn Christians who do sin, instead of encouraging them (really, all of us) to go back into the light.
  • And of course those folks who wanna interpret the Cain and Abel story to make Cain an irredeemably evil person… instead of recognizing the LORD and Cain had a conversational relationship, Ge 4.9-15 and God obviously wanted to redeem Cain, not destroy him. (Otherwise he’d have destroyed him!)

All right, best I jump into the text before unpacking it.

1 John 3.7-12 KWL
7 Children, let no one deceive you: Doing what’s proper is right, just like Christ is right.
8 Doing sin is of the devil, because the devil sins from the very start.
This is why God’s Son appeared: To undo the devil’s works.
9 Everyone reborn by God doesn’t do sin, for God’s seed remains in them.
They can’t sin, because they’ve been reborn by God.
10 This is how God’s children and the devil’s children are identified:
Everyone who doesn’t act properly, who doesn’t love their fellow Christian, isn’t of God.
11 This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
12 Not like Cain, who murdered his brother Abel out of evil.
Why did Cain murder him? Because Cain’s works were evil.
The works of his brother Abel were proper.

John wrote this right after he defined sin as violating the Law. Parts of the Law are still totally valid. (The ritual sacrifice and ritual cleanliness parts are redundant, and the rules for native Israelis and Israel’s descendants don’t apply to nonresidents and gentiles.) Following those valid parts is still what God expects of a saved people: Now that we belong to Jesus, be like Jesus. He didn’t sin; we shouldn’t sin.

So John went on to say his readers shouldn’t let themselves get tricked into thinking otherwise. ’Cause plenty of us have been deceiving ourselves for years. Like the Christians who are anti-Law, who think Jesus nullified God’s Old Testament commands and therefore nothing’s a sin anymore. John cuts right through this rubbish: If you don’t resist sin, if you don’t behave as God’s children ought, you’re not one of his children. “Everyone reborn by God doesn’t do sin.” 1Jn 3.9 He doesn’t, so we shouldn’t.

No, this doesn’t mean Christians never ever sin. Of course we do. Hence grace. The proper idea, reflected in some translations, is N.T. Wright’s “Everyone who is fathered by God does not go on sinning.” 1Jn 3.8 NTE We don’t continue in a lifestyle of sin; we don’t wanna live that way. We want to follow Jesus!

And people who legitimately wanna follow Jesus, crack open their bibles and find out what Jesus taught so we can follow him. What they’ll invariably find is Jesus took the Law, expounded upon it, and closed all the Pharisee loopholes. We’re not to follow the letter of the Law, like any lawyer, politician, or activist judge; we don’t twist it till it suits us. We’re to follow the original intent of the Law, “the spirit of the Law,” the will of the One who gave it. How does Jesus interpret it? ’Cause we do that.

Those who don’t really wanna follow Jesus, but only look like they do: They prefer loopholes. The bigger the better. They like to quote “Christ is the end of the Law,” Ro 10.4 but they don’t mean, as Paul does, that Christ expresses it better than the Law does itself; they mean Christ ended it. Or “He taketh away the first [Law], that he may establish the second [Law],” He 10.9 not just updating the old covenant with the new, but abolishing it altogether, so that breaking the Law is no longer sin, 1 John 3.4—

1 John 3.4 KWL
Everyone who commits sin also commits an act against the Law.

—notwithstanding.

No, this passage isn’t about perfectionism either. John isn’t claiming Christians don’t sin anymore. He already objected to that idea in chapter 1. What he’s stating, is real Christians try not to sin. We no longer consider a lifestyle of sin to be acceptable. “Not perfect, just forgiven” simply isn’t good enough! We have God’s seed in us, the Holy Spirit within us, leading us away from sin and selfishness, and towards Jesus. If we’re following him, we recognize sin is the opposite direction. We don’t make excuses for it any longer!

And if we do make excuses for it… well we’re not God’s children. Really we’re Satan’s.

Children of the devil.

I translated John a bit literally: Ἀπ̓ ἀρχῆς ὁ διάβολος ἁμαρτάνει/ap arhís o diávolos amartánei, “from [the] start, the devil sins.” John used present tense, not past; not aorist. The devil sins now.

Yeah, this isn’t how this verse has been traditionally interpreted. Most translators tend to put it in past tense:

  • KJV “…for the devil sinneth from the beginning.”
  • CSB, NKJV “…for the devil has sinned from the beginning.”
  • ESV, ISV, NIV, NRSV “…because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”
  • GNT “…because the Devil has sinned from the very beginning.”
  • NLT “…who has been sinning since the beginning.”

This is one of those instances where Christian theology has bent our interpretation of the bible, rather than reading the text itself and beginning from there. John clearly wrote in present tense, but translators keep throwing it into past tense because they keep fixating on the story of the Fall: At the beginning of history, either before Adam was created or shortly after, Satan must’ve revolted against God and got thrown to earth, Rv 12.7-9 because here he is in paradise, in the form of a serpent, tempting Eve. Ge 3.1-5

So when your average translator reads ap arhís/“from [the] start,” their brains immediately leap to that start, and adjust the verb tense accordingly. And incorrectly. They get us to miss an important truth about how temptation works.

Don’t get the wrong idea: When we humans sin, that’s on us. We make the decision to do wrong. Blaming the devil doesn’t cut it. Eve tried it, Ge 3.13 and it didn’t work then either. We have free will; we never have to sin. God always provides his kids a sin-free option.

But when we sin, we usually adopt an excuse. Whatever loophole justifies us, excuses us, blames someone else, makes us feel we’re an exception to the rule, makes us feel like the good guy in the story. “Jesus did away with the Law,” or “I simply didn’t see any other option; I had to choose the lesser evil,” or “I’m not trying to achieve salvation by works,” or “I’m not a legalist,” or whatever. None of these excuses are new; they’ve been around forever. They predate John.

Guess where every last one of ’em originated? Duh; Satan.

Satan doesn’t have to actually be there, at the moment of temptation, nudging us to do evil. (Nor any other devil. Satan’s not omnipresent, remember? If you’re tempted by a devil, it’s not necessarily the devil—who’s probably tempting somebody more important.) But Satan set up all the common human arguments for why we’re not all that bad. Those arguments do its job for it. Once we humans embed the excuses in our heads, we can pretty much sin on autopilot. Satan sins first; we sin thereafter.

The bulk of the devil’s followers aren’t Satanists. They’re dupes, suckers, marks, the easily confused, the heavily prejudiced, the inattentive, the apathetic, the shallow thinkers, the gullible, the irrationally angry. They’re not using a lot of brainpower. They don’t need to. And they think their knee-jerk reactions, their gut instincts, are the right responses. Some of ’em even claim God put these reactions in ’em.

The devil ropes these suckers into believing there’s some sort of Christian foundation for the evil they do in Jesus’s name. Next, the sucker sins. Both bear responsibility for the sin. But here, John forewarns the Christian: Don’t let anyone deceive you. Proper Christians follow Jesus and his Law. False Christians, the devil’s unwitting followers, don’t.

Loving one another, as opposed to murdering one another.

When people read the Cain and Abel story, where the first murder took place between the first brothers, Ge 4.1-16 they constantly skip over the fact Cain heard God. And talked with him. And heard God’s answers. Cain heard God better than many Christians nowadays hear God. And no, this isn’t because these were prehistoric bible times, when just anybody could hear God: This is because Cain and God were much closer than, sad to say, many Christians and our God. Yeah, Cain murdered his brother. That was evil. Even so. Moses and David were murderers; Paul got people killed. Nobody’s irredeemable. Not even Cain.

John pointed to the story of the first murder, ’cause the writers of the scriptures regularly liked to point out hate leads to murder. Mk 7.21, Ro 1.29, Jm 2.11, 4.2 In our day murder is illegal, and prosecuted by the state… unless cops do it, but that’s a tangent let’s not go down today. In John’s day murder was also illegal, but there were no prosecutors: If you wanted a murderer dealt with, the victim’s family had to have influence with the government. Otherwise they’d get away with it—and a lot of murderers did. Some of those murderers were even right there in the church.

Murder’s a heinous crime, and for that reason murderers go out of their way to justify themselves. Nowadays it’s self-defense, or the victim “got what’s coming to them,” or otherwise karmically deserved it. The murderer was simply restoring balance to the universe. Life for a life, Dt 19.21 or something they consider just as valuable as life… like their honor, or their personal code of ethics, which assigns the death penalty to all sorts of offenses.

Because of how often murder took place in the first century, the bible’s various statements against murder aren’t just hypothetical worst-case scenarios. They aren’t just subtle reminders of how hate and murder are connected. Mt 5.21-22 The two are connected. People back then murdered their enemies. In some countries people still murder their enemies. Warlords and dictators do. Even criminals in our country do. And think they’re right to… and need to be reminded they’re not. Especially when they consider themselves Christian, as (believe it or not) some ganglords do.

Sheltered American Christians tend to reinterpret the anti-murder sentiments in the bible, to reflect their world where murder seldom happens. Hence “don’t murder them in your heart”—don’t hate anyone so much, it’s like they’re dead to you. Yeah, that’s one way to look at it too. We shouldn’t hate anyone that much. But John wrote to a culture where murder isn’t a metaphor, murder isn’t hypothetical. People murdered Christians for being Christian. And in a heat of passion, anybody might murder someone else, exactly like Cain had. We all have it in us to do something just as extreme, just as regrettable. Don’t delude yourself.

’Cause it’s the self-deluded who usually wind up becoming—to their great surprise and horror—murderers. If you know you have a temper, no matter how successful you’ve been thus far at keeping it under control, take steps to make sure it never escapes you. Those who tell themselves, “No; I never would; people are naturally good” never take such steps… and sometimes become the folks who “snap,” of whom everybody later says, “I never knew she had it in her.”

We should love one another, and reject hate in all its forms. Hate’s typically the product of sin. Cain’s works were evil because he refused to recognize the danger in him, even though God warned him his sin “has stretched out for you.” Ge 4.7 He was in denial, and the consequences of his denial were terrible. It could happen to us too. Sin stretches out for all of us.