The Way of Cain

The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features the first portion of Chapter 10: Woe to Them! Cain, Balaam, and Korah.

Previously: Where Does Jude Get This Story?


Woe to them! For they have traveled in the way of Cain, have abandoned themselves to the error of Balaam for profit, and have perished in Korah’s rebellion. (Jude 11 HCSB)

We all have role models. Athletes, actors, and rock stars are among the most popular people we seek to mimic – even when their legendary falls from grace are captured in tabloid headlines and social-media hashtags. Unfortunately, we often take for granted those who exemplify honesty, integrity, and hard work, choosing to conform our behavior to those whose actions – no matter how outrageous – get noticed and rewarded. This is a process Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, refers to as “vicarious reinforcement.”

Maybe that’s why entertainers like Miley Cyrus, athletes like Dennis Rodman, and selfie-stick wielders like Kim Kardashian are so popular. It seems the more shockingly they behave, the more their celebrity grows. History takes a longer view and tends to judge such characters more harshly. After all, there aren’t too many baby boomers named Adolf. And it’s doubtful that moms and dads want their little boys growing up to be like Charlie Sheen.

In a similar vein, Jude reminds his readers of some unsavory role models in Israel’s past, men whose wicked deeds so overshadowed whatever good they accomplished that they are forever held up as examples of how not to live. In warning against false teachers, and in urging believers to earnestly contend for the faith, Jude reminds us of three characters who are not to be emulated. Yet the first-century false teachers unwittingly model their lives after Cain, Balaam, and Korah.

Stealth teachers

Jude already has described the false teachers in unvarnished terms. They are “certain men” that have come in by stealth, ungodly, turning God’s grace into promiscuity, and denying the Lord Jesus Christ. They are dreamers who defile their flesh, despise authority, and blaspheme glorious beings. Like the unbelievers God rescued from Egypt, and like certain fallen angels and the wicked men of Sodom and Gomorrah, they are destined for destruction.

Moving on, Jude pronounces woe on these interlopers and ties their behavior to the way of Cain, the error of Balaam, and the rebellion of Korah. Let’s take a closer look at these three examples and see how false teachers from the first century – and today – fall victim to the same schemes.

By the way, so-called “woe oracles” are common among Old Testament prophets, a form of public rebuke that Jesus employs in Matthew 23 to denounce the religious leaders and their wicked ways. He paints the scribes and Pharisees as “hypocrites” for locking up the kingdom of heaven from people; for devouring widows’ houses and making long prayers for show; for expending great effort to make one proselyte, who then is twice as fit for hell as they are; for being blind guides; for being sticklers for the letter of the law while abandoning its spirit; for being externally righteous but inwardly vile, like whitewashed tombs; and for boastfully disregarding the fact that they are of the same mind as the leaders of old who murdered the prophets. “Snakes!” declares Jesus. “Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell?” (v. 33).

By comparison, Jude’s woe seems mild-mannered. But keep in mind that if Michael the archangel defers to the Lord in rebuking Satan, Jude is cautious not to out-reprove Jesus.

What is the way of Cain?

Perhaps Jude chooses Cain because he, like the false teachers of the first century, embraces wickedness over goodness. He thus becomes a model of sin in later writings, such as 1 John 3:12, where Cain is the antithesis of love – a murderer, a man of the evil one, and a doer of evil deeds.

Philo, a first-century Jewish philosopher, portrays Cain as a man enslaved to self-love. In the Targums, Cain reportedly boasts, “There is no judgment, there is no Judge, there is no other world, there is no gift of good reward for the just and no punishment for the wicked.”

Cain, of course, is the first-born son of Adam and Eve. Perhaps hoping this child is the promised “seed” (Gen. 3:15), humanity’s first parents soon discover that Cain is anything but the one who crushes the head of Satan and redeems the fallen human race. He is, as commentators note, sullen, haughty, vindictive, and defiant even in his attitude toward God.

His story plays out in Genesis 4 as Cain is a tiller of the soil, while his younger brother Abel becomes a shepherd. In the course of time, possibly on the Sabbath, the two brothers present their offerings to the Lord. Abel’s offering, consisting of some of the first-born of his flock, pleases the Lord. But Cain’s offering from his crops fails to prompt the same divine response.

Cain is “furious” and “downcast” – literally, “his face fell” (v. 5). The Lord asks Cain, “Why are you furious? And why are you downcast? If you do right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do right, sin is crouching at your door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it” (vv. 6-7).

Unrepentant, Cain urges his brother to “go out to the field” with him (v. 8). There, Cain attacks Abel and kills him. When the Lord inquires as to the whereabouts of Abel, Cain’s notorious reply is, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9 KJV).

The Lord responds with a curse: “So now you are cursed [with alienation] from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood you have shed. If you work the land, it will never again give you its yield. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (vv. 11-12).

Cain replies, “My punishment is too great to bear! … whoever finds me will kill me” (vv. 13-14). So the Lord places a mark on Cain to protect him, threatening vengeance seven times over to anyone who kills him. Cain goes out from the Lord’s presence and lives in the land of Nod, east of Eden. His descendants are enumerated to the sixth generation. Gradually, they become so corrupt that God’s sends a deluge to prevent the final triumph of evil.

That’s the story of Cain in a nutshell. So, in what way are the false teachers of the first century similar to the first-born son of Adam and Eve? What is “the way of Cain?”

Simply put, the way of Cain is the way of religion without faith, writes Warren Wiersbe.  It is the way of pride, a man establishing his own righteousness and rejecting the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Christ. “Cain became a fugitive and tried to overcome his wretchedness by building a city and developing a civilization (Gen. 4:9ff). He ended up with everything a man could desire – everything except God, that is.”6

Cain rejects God’s way of salvation, though he is not ignorant of it. By clothing Adam and Eve with the skins of animals (Gen. 3:21), God evidently makes it clear that the only way of forgiveness is through the shedding of blood. Cain would have none of it, preferring to approach the altar with the fruits of his own labor. Why does God reject Cain’s offering? Because Cain’s heart is not right before Him.

The writer of Hebrews summarizes this tragic episode in early human history: “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By this he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts, and even though he is dead, he still speaks through this” (Heb. 11:4).

Raising Cain in the early church

Let’s consider a few similarities between Cain and first-century false teachers:

They are religious. Cain brings his offering to God, just as the false teachers fully engage the early church with their doctrines. But as the apostle Paul warns Timothy, we should avoid those who are “holding to the form of religion but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Among other traits, Paul describes these religious imposters as lovers of self, without love for what is good, and lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. At their very core, they seek to redefine God and refashion His plan of salvation. Satan always has been an advocate of religion, as long as he’s in charge; it’s worship of the one true and living God that he opposes.

They are arrogant. The Lord tells Cain, “If you do right, won’t you be accepted?” But rather than give God a proper offering by spilling the atoning blood of a sacrificial animal, Cain defiantly spills the blood of his innocent brother. In a similar way, the false teachers of Jude’s day turn the grace of God into promiscuity and deny their only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 4).  The fact that Cain’s bloodless offering is not accepted implies that God previously told him what constitutes a proper sacrifice. Similarly, the false teachers of Jude’s day reject God’s revelation and operate arrogantly according to their own self-styled religious practices.

They are devious. Cain deceives his brother, kills him, and then denies knowledge of Abel’s whereabouts. Similarly, the false teachers of Jude’s day come into the church by stealth, gain the trust of God’s people, then destroy their faith – all the while insisting that their libertine dreams and visions come directly from God.

They are clever, twisting the words of God. Cain complains that he must hide himself from God’s presence (Gen. 4:14), but the Scripture never records God saying that. Just as Eve adds to the warning of God by telling the serpent she is not to touch the forbidden fruit – something God never says; He only instructs her not to eat of the tree – Cain adds to the punishment God pronounces on him by making himself a victim, and crafting God as a merciless tyrant. In a similar way, Jude’s first-century false teachers convince the followers of Jesus that grace equals license to sin, alleged dreams and visions trump sound doctrine, and flattery is the ultimate spiritual gift.

They are spiritual rebels. Cain most certainly knows the reason his sacrifice is rejected. But rather than humbly receive the Lord’s correction, he lashes out against his righteous brother and bears God’s judgment without expressing the repentance it is designed to produce. Likewise, Jude’s interlopers are Cain’s spiritual brothers – unholy, resentful, sharp-tongued, taking the fast lane to hell so as to leave a good-looking corpse.

They are self-centered. Cain’s words and conduct reveal a corrupt heart that seeks only to satisfy his sinful desires. He does not seek to abandon worship; rather, he insists on worshiping his own way, unwittingly making himself the object of his own obeisance. Similarly, the false teachers of Jude’s day are all about themselves. They defile their flesh in self-indulgent living, slough off the authority of Christ and His apostles, speak arrogantly to demonic forces, nurture themselves without fear, embrace sinful desires, and flatter people for their own advantage.

Both Cain and the false teachers of Jude’s day have a form of godliness, but it is an empty shell. Rejecting the revelation of God, they determine to meet Him on their own terms, and if God rejects those terms, they simply reject Him. That is the way of false religions and counterfeit forms of Christianity. They wrap themselves in elaborate ceremonies, arduous rules, and complex doctrines – all in an effort to attract God’s attention and earn His favor without submitting to His authority. It is bloodless, grainy religion, and God rejects it out of hand.

In contrast, the way of Abel, like the way of the cross, is a bloody way. As the penalty of sin is death, so is the provision for sin – the death of an innocent substitute. In Old Testament times, it was a spotless animal whose shed blood atoned for, or temporarily covered, sin. Every turtle dove, every lamb, goat, or bull pointed to the day when the Lamb of God would not simply atone for sin – He would take it away. John the Baptist captures it remarkably well: “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29b).

Despite the tragic way of Cain, we may thank God that He sent His Son to take the bloody path to Calvary, where He who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21).

Next: The Error of Balaam