“Prompted by his faith, Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain. God approved of his offering and attested to his righteousness. Through his example, he is still speaking to us today.” (paraphrased)
Whereas the first three verses of this chapter introduce the concept of faith, the remainder is a brief chronology of men and women whose lives best illustrate it. In the antediluvian (pre-flood) era, the first person to demonstrate faith amid the growing evil in the world is the second son of Adam. The name Abel means “breath” or “vapor” and is indicative of his longevity. James describes human life as “a vapor” (Jas. 4:14). Able is presented in Scripture as a young man who was humble, trusting, and sincere. He was the first person on earth we find serving God – and the first victim of fratricide. He is memorialized as a person who honored the Lord. The Biblical account provides us with the initial instances of personal sacrifice and contrasts the motives behind each one.
Although Adam and Eve sinned, God did not cut off communication with the human race. He established sacrifice as the way to approach Him. Offerings represent two fundamental things:
~ the voluntary surrender of everything to God
~ the acknowledgment of the need to atone for sin
However, Cain and Abel did not obey a divine command, for the concept of redemption would not be introduced for hundreds of years. They had no sacrificial tradition to follow. These first sacrifices graphically demonstrate the human compulsion to bless God through giving.
Cain was a farmer and his younger brother was a herdsman. The difference between them was not age or occupation – but character. Sacrificing is costly and its true value can only be determined by the integrity of the one who gives it. God looks past the gift and straight into the heart. We are not accepted by what we do but by who we are. If we have a grudge against a brother, Jesus commands us to leave our gift at the altar. After reconciliation, we are then free to come and offer our gifts (Mt. 5:23-24).
Offerings are only acceptable when faith is evidenced. Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain. “More excellent” (pleiona) means a more abundant, acceptable, and complete sacrifice. Abel’s offering was costly, appropriate, and carefully selected. The mention of “the fat” of Abel’s lamb proves it had been slain. He did not retain the best part of the animal for himself, but offered it to God. It was superior because it was prompted by superior faith.
Scripture is silent concerning the motives behind the offerings of Abel and Cain. Any hope of explaining their rationale takes us back to the story of their parents. Adam and Eve’s attempt to make clothing for themselves proved insufficient (Gen. 3:7). God then provided coverings of animal skins for them (3:21). To obtain these, blood was necessarily shed. God thus introduced the law of substitutionary sacrifice. The precedent was thereby established that the death of animals was divinely sanctioned in order to cover the shame of sin, symbolized by nakedness. Although the concept was embryonic, it is possible Abel’s motivation to shed blood as a covering for sin sprang from God’s interaction with his parents in this regard. In slaying his lamb, perhaps he was expressing thankfulness to God for providing animal skin as a covering for sin and shame. Abel’s lamb was sacrificed in gratitude, as were Noah’s burnt offerings after the flood (Gen.8:20). While it is rational to kill an animal in self defense, there is no logical reason to slay an animal as a sacrifice. The desire to do so in the antediluvian era is only explained by man’s inherent knowledge that the innocent must suffer for the guilty. The mention of Abel’s voluntary gift fits perfectly into this epistle that focuses upon the necessity of blood sacrifices.
Some propose fire came down from heaven and consumed Abel’s sacrifice, affirming its acceptance by God. Fire did come from heaven to consume offerings on several occasions. God did so with the sacrifices of:
~ Moses (Lev. 9:24)
~ Elijah (I Kgs. 18:38)
~ Gideon (Jud. 6:21)
~ Manoah (Jud. 13:20)
~ David (I Chron. 21:26)
~ Solomon (II Chron. 7:1)
However, there is no proof this was the case with Abel’s offering. Had this occurred, the writer certainly would have mentioned this supernatural event.
The author of Hebrews makes no mention of Cain apart from the brief comparison of the two sacrifices. The primary difference between these brothers is demonstrated by the offerings their faith prompted. Abel offered a living sacrifice while Cain presented lifeless vegetation. Very early in human history, God makes it clear that those who bring offerings can have very different motives.
One aspect of Cain’s rejection was his failure to give God his best. Because Cain’s heart was not right, the Lord had no interest in what he presented to Him (Gen. 4:5). God does not give or withhold His approval without good reason. Cain brought what was cheap and easy. John the Beloved gives the motive for this murder: “Cain was evil and Abel was righteous”. John further informs us Cain was prompted by Satan to kill his brother (I Jn. 3:12). His sacrifice was an abomination and his flawed theology led to murder.
Cain did not seem shocked when God spoke to him (Gen. 4:6). This suggests the same verbal familiarity with Jehovah his parents enjoyed (3:9-13). God asked Cain why he was angry and tried to reason with him (4:6-7). Cain may not have believed his sins warranted a more expensive blood sacrifice. God told him if he did right, he too would be accepted. Cain had the opportunity to repent, honor God, and sacrifice in faith. He was warned that hardheartedness will lead to worse sins (4:7). The story of Cain shows how persistent rebellion breeds envy.
Scripture provides us with a number of situations in which an older brother was spiritually outclassed by the faith of a younger one:
~ Jacob earned and received his father’s blessing. After Esau heard this, he endeavored to kill him (Gen. 27:41).
~ Joseph’s older brothers knew their father favored him and sold him into slavery (Gen. 37:27).
~ The elder brother learned his father was celebrating the prodigal’s return and became angry (Lk. 15:28).
Had God killed Cain immediately for his sin, a great lesson would have been lost. Cain patronized God, but his offering was not accepted (Gen. 4:3-5). He refused God’s counsel and ignored His warnings concerning the need to spurn sin (Gen. 4:7). As the eldest, Cain should have set a godly example, loving Abel and keeping him from harm and evil. Instead, seething with jealousy, he deceived him. Cain tried to cover the murder with perjury (Gen. 4:9). Judgment soon follows an unheeded warning, for he was sentenced to hard labor and banished for life (Gen. 4:12).
Cain was more concerned with his sufferings than his sin. He complained about his sentence, implied God was unfair, and displayed a negative attitude toward correction (Gen. 4:13-14). He was convinced people would kill him for what he did (Gen. 4:14). He expressed fear, knowing he had forfeited divine protection. God put an identifying brand upon Cain. It seems logical this sign was highly visible, perhaps facial. This was both a mark of protection and an act of mercy. By doing this, the Lord showed he would not allow Cain to be subjected to private revenge and promised a seven-fold punishment on anyone who harmed him (Gen. 4:15). This epic homicide verifies the rapid development and spread of sin since the day Adam and Eve were banished from Eden.
Abel’s offering represents the appropriate sacrificial attitude. God looked with pleasure upon his gift and accepted it (Gen. 4:4). He testified he was a righteous man and bore witness to his faith. Through the Biblical narrative, the Lord has continued to honor him for thousands of years. Three times in the New Testament, Abel is deemed “righteous” (dikios), the same Greek word for “justification.” Abel is called dikios in this verse and in Jude 11. He is also declared dikios by Jesus Himself (Mt. 23:35).
The story of Abel teaches a number of epic truths:
~ We can approach God and worship Him.
~ Offerings and humility must accompany true worship.
~ Sacrifices must be costly.
~ We are only accepted by God through demonstrative faith.
~ Those God accepts will face envy.
~ He will vindicate those who are wronged.
~ God will bless those who confirm their faith in Him.
Abel recognized God as his superior and understood sacrifice was a vital aspect of true worship. He realized God was willing to accept the death of a substitute for offenses committed and believed He would honor his sacrifice. Abel’s story warns us to beware of the hatred and envy of religious hypocrites, for those who are carnal hate those who are spiritual (Gal. 4:29). Abel would caution us to be wary of professing Christians. His death is also prophetic, for the Messiah was destined to be murdered by jealous men. Jesus knew that “envy” motivated the chief priests and elders to crucify Him (Mt. 27:18). Jude calls spiritual hypocrisy “the way of Cain” (Jude 11).
Abel typifies everyone who is persecuted by the enemies of God. Cain stands for those who honor Him verbally – but whose “hearts are far from Him” (Isa. 29:13). Such persons give to God grudgingly and sparingly. They pay token homage, recite creeds, attend church, and attempt to patronize God…..while resenting those who truly serve the Lord. Cain and Abel represent the ecumenical and evangelical churches respectively. Liberal religion is typified by Cain and conservative Christianity by Abel. One who loves God always gives Him their very best – and desires to do more.
Abel’s godly life was the direct cause of his death – but that could not silence him. A man’s legacy continues to testify about him long after he is gone. Cane is infamous and Abel is famous. We read Abel’s blood is “crying out to God from the ground” – and it is a plea for vengeance (Gen. 4:10). Jesus pledged to vindicate those who cry day and night for justice (Lk. 18:7-8). Abel still speaks to us about faith, from the era before the flood, through the permanent record of God’s Word.
QUESTIONS: THE FAITH OF ABEL
1. After Adam and Eve sinned, God cut off communication with the human race. True or False?
2. Abel was the fourth son of Adam. True or False?
3. Whose name means “breath” or “vapor”?
4. Abel was:
E. all of the above
5. According to Matthew 5:23-24, before we can offer a gift to God, we must do what?
6. Scripture conclusively proves fire came down from heaven and consumed Abel’s sacrifice.
True or False?
7. Several younger brothers who suffered because of their older brothers include:
D. The Prodigal
E. all of the above
A. was convinced people would kill him
B. asked God if he could take refuge in Sodom
C. implied God was unfair
D. confessed his sin
E. only A and C
9. God put a mark on Cain so that the first one to see this mark would kill him. True or False?
10. Relate an instance when you gave a special offering to God – and how He blessed you for it.