4 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 to understand exactly what this statement means. Faith is a nebulous and sometimes mysterious thing to us. We claim to possess it, but we’re not exactly sure what it is or even looks like. Is it something we have to muster up or is it given to us by God?
Even when we think we have faith, we wonder if we have enough. While most of us would define ourselves as a “people of faith,” we regularly wrestle with the concept and even question whether our faith measures up. So, the author of Hebrews has provided us with a much-needed lesson on the subject. Chapter 11 has been called the “Hall of Faith.” In it, we find a list of Old Testament men and women who exemplify the life of faith. Their stories, familiar to the author’s predominantly Jewish audience, are intended to demonstrate the non-negotiable nature of faith. Long before Jesus appeared on the scene, the people of God were expected to be people of faith, placing their hope and trust in the One who had created them and revealed Himself to them.
The author starts out by reminding his readers that “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command” (Hebrews 11:3 NLT). No one was there when creation took place. There were no witnesses to God’s grand display of divine power and creativity. 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 exhibit 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 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 uses the phrase, “by faith.” His point seems to be that faith was both the motivator and the power behind the actions of each of the 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 brother. 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 simply states:
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. The first family must have established a habit of offering sacrifices to God., but 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. By this time in the creation narrative, both young men were old enough to have joined their father and mother in keeping the creation mandate.
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:28 ESV
Despite the fall, they were still caring for the world that God had made. One son had become a shepherd and the other had become a farmer, and there is no indication from the text that one occupation was deemed to be better or more acceptable than the other.
Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and Cain brought the fruit of the ground. One brought animals while the other brought produce. We are not given any insight into the quality or quantity of their offerings. So, it doesn’t appear that God’s response to the two men had 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 that which he had given. It also doesn’t say that he gave God the best of his fruit. He simply gave God a portion.
Yet, concerning Abel, it says that he gave the “firstborn of his flock and their fat portions.” This would seem to indicate that some kind of blood sacrifice was involved. In the sacrificial system that God would later mandate for the people of Israel, the fat, kidneys, and lobe of the liver of an animal were given to God as a burnt offering. These were considered the best portion of the animal and were reserved solely for God.
When Abel brought his offering to God, he not only gave the best of what he had, but he made a permanent and costly sacrifice. He didn’t just give the firstborn of his flock to God, he sacrificed its life. This means that Abel would never receive any benefit from that firstborn animal again. He would never be able to breed that animal to produce more sheep. It would not produce more of its kind, and it would never serve as food for Abel’s family. He had given the best of what he had to God and placed his faith in God that He would provide for his future needs.
We know from the Genesis account 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 this first recorded case of fratricide.
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 offering was deemed unrighteous by God because of his lack of faith. He was not trusting God for His future provision. He had not given God the best and what he had, therefore he was not having to trust God to provide for his future needs. He was simply going through the motions. And when God rejected his offering, Cain became angry. And God’s response to Cain’s display of anger reveals a lot about what was really taking place in the young man’s heart.
“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 meet his needs. He lacked faith in God and his offering demonstrated it. His offering required no sacrifice and displayed no sense of dependence upon God.
By sacrificing the life of the firstborn among his flock, Abel was putting his hope of future provision in the hands of God. There can be 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 actions demonstrated that his hope was in the One who had provided all that he had, including the firstborn of his flock. Cain’s faith was in the fruit he had grown and his own ability to grow more. Whatever fruit he had given, he still had the tree or vine from which it came. So, in a way, his offering was more of a statement of self-reliance. It was as if he was declaring to God, “look what I have done!”
Yet 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. In other words, it was a clear demonstration of “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.