By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. – Hebrews 11:4 ESV
This chapter of Hebrews opens with the familiar words, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But as 21st-Century Christians we struggle understanding exactly what the author means. Faith is a nebulous and sometimes mysterious thing to us. We say we have it, but we’re not exactly sure what it is or what it looks like. We’re not sure if it is something we have to muster up or if it is given to us by God. When we think we have it, we wonder if we have enough of it. So while we would define ourselves as a “people of faith”, we regularly wrestle with the concept. So the author of Hebrews has given us the content of chapter 11 to help us. He starts out by telling us that “by faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3 ESV). We weren’t there. We didn’t see it happen. So we have to take God at His word – by faith. The book of Genesis tells us how the universe was created by God, and we must believe that it happened just as it says it did. When we do, we are exhibiting faith. We are giving evidence of a “conviction of things not seen”. Faith involves trust. It requires belief. And it is based on hope. But we tend to use the word “hope” in a purely speculative sense. We say things like, “I hope I win the lottery!” or “I hope I he asks me out!” Our hope usually lacks assurance or a sense of confidence. It tends to be little more than wishful thinking. But that is not what the author of Hebrews is talking about. So he gives us further evidence of faith from the lives of the Old Testament saints.
Nineteen different times in this chapter, the author will use the phrase, “by faith”. His point seems to be that faith was both the motivator and the power behind the actions of those individuals he lists. What they did was done because of faith. Faith in something hoped for and as yet unseen. Faith is God-focused and future-oriented. It has its roots in the faithfulness of God. It gets its strength from the promises made by God. So when Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, is said to have “offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain”, faith is central to understanding the difference between his sacrifice and that of his brothers. It has less to do with the content of their individual sacrifices than the hearts of the men who made them. The question we have to ask is why either of these two sons of Adam and Eve were making sacrifices to God at all. Where did they learn to make sacrifices. We don’t see evidence of this practice in the Garden of Eden. We see no command given by God to Adam and Eve to offer up sacrifices to Him. So why were their sons doing so? If you go back to the original story in Genesis, which the author’s Jewish audience would have known well, it tells us:
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. – Genesis 4:2-5 ESV
The phrase, “in the course of time” would seem to indicate that this was a regular occurrence, that the first family had established a habit of offering sacrifices to God. There is no indication that this was something that God required of them. It appears to be wholly voluntary. And each son brought an offering that was consistent with his area of expertise. Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and Cain brought the fruit of the ground. One brought animals while the other brought produce. The issue does not seem to be with the quality or quantity of their offerings. It does not appear to have anything to do with the content of their offerings. The issue was their faith. Cain gave an offering of the fruit of the ground. He most likely gave grain, dates, figs, or whatever else he had grown. But keep in mind, he gave “the fruit of the ground.” He did not give God the tree from which the fruit grew. So he was assured of having more fruit to replace what he had given. It also does not say that he gave God the best of his fruit. He simply gave God a portion. And yet, of Abel it is said that he gave the “firstborn of his flock and their fat portions.” In other words, Abel gave the best and he gave them God permanently. He didn’t just offer them to God, he sacrificed them. Abel would never benefit from them. They would never breed and produce more sheep. They would not grow up and produce milk. They would never serve as food on the table for Abel’s family. He had given them to God and placed his faith in God that He would provide.
We know that Cain went on to kill his brother. Why? The author of Hebrews tells us that Abel’s offering was “commended as righteous” because he made it based on faith. The apostle John provides additional insight into what is going on. “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12 ESV). If Abel’s offering or deed was commended as righteous because of his faith, then it would seem that Cain’s deeds were deemed unrighteous by God because of his lack of faith. He was not trusting God for His future provision. He wasn’t giving God his best and trusting God to provide for his future needs. He was simply going through the motions. And when God rejected his offering, Cain became angry. God asked him, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7 ESV). What did God mean by “if you do well”? It would seem that He was talking about faith. Cain hoped for more crops. He hoped for abundant fruit. He wanted success. His concern was for future provision. But rather than trust God, he chose to trust in his own effort to supply his needs. He lacked faith in God and his offering demonstrated it. His offering required no sacrifice, no dependence upon God.
By sacrificing the lives of his firstborn flocks, Abel was putting his hope of future provision in the hands of God. There is no doubt that he wanted his flocks to grow, but by offering his firstborn to God, he was having to place his assurance in God, not his flocks. He was showing that his faith was in God, the one who created the entire universe. Abel’s faith was in the God who had created his flocks. Cain’s faith was in the fruit he had grown and his own ability to grow more. His offering was more of a statement to God of “look what I have done!” Abel’s offering was an expression of thanks to God for all He had done and a statement of faith in all that God was going to do in the future.