Abel: Worshiping in Faith
By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks. (11:4)
James Moffatt wrote, “Death is never the last word in the life of a righteous man. When a man leaves this world, be he righteous or unrighteous, he leaves something in the world. He may leave something that will grow and spread like a cancer or a poison, or he may leave something like the fragrance of perfume or a blossom of beauty that permeates the atmosphere with blessing.” Man leaves this world either a Paul or a Nero.
Dead men do tell tales. They are not silent, but still speak to those who will listen. From many thousands of years ago, Abel speaks to twentieth-century man. This man who lived when the earth was new, who was of the second generation of mankind, has something to teach modern, sophisticated, technological man. He lived in a far distant age, in a far different culture, with far less light from God than we have. But what he has to tell us is more relevant than anything we are likely to read in our current newspapers or magazines.
The obvious theme of Hebrews 11 is faith, and it is about faith that Abel speaks to us. He is the first in a long line of faithful persons who can teach us about the life of faith. He, and the others mentioned in chapter 11, illustrate a pure kind of faith that sharply isolates it from works. It is this distinction that the Jewish readers especially needed to see. They had to be shown that, from the very beginning, faith has been the only thing that God will accept to save fallen man.
Adam and Eve could not have been persons of faith in the same way as their descendants. They had seen God face-to-face, fellowshipped with Him, talked with Him, and had lived in the garden of paradise. Until they sinned, they had no need for faith, because they lived in God’s very light. Even after they sinned, they had the memory and knowledge of this unique and beautiful relationship with their Creator. Their children were the first to have need of faith in its fullest sense. Abel was the first man of faith, and it is important to understand that his faith had to do with his personal salvation.
Abel’s faith led to three progressive things: true sacrifice, true righteousness, and true witness. Because he believed, he offered a better sacrifice. Because he offered a better sacrifice, he obtained righteousness. Because he obtained righteousness, he is for all the ages a living voice saying, “Righteousness is by faith.”
God put Adam and Eve out of the Garden because of sin. Sin violated their fellowship with God and forfeited their right to be in His presence. But even as His judgment sent them out, His grace promised a way back. Through woman a man would be born whose heel would be bruised by Satan but who would bruise Satan on the head (Gen. 3:15). That is, this One who would be born from the seed of woman would conquer and destroy Satan, and thereby deliver mankind from sin’s curse. Within the very curse itself, a Redeemer was promised. While judgment was being executed, mercy was being offered.
Only one woman, the mother of Jesus, has ever possessed a seed apart from its being implanted by a man. The Holy Spirit placed the seed in her, and in this way it was the seed of woman that gave birth to Jesus, the promised Savior. Not only the coming of the Redeemer but also His virgin birth was prophesied in the first part of the first book of God’s Word.
From her comments after the birth of Cain, it is possible that Eve thought her firstborn would be the promised deliverer. His name probably means “to get” or “to get something,” and her statement, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the Lord” (Gen. 4:1), might be rendered, “I have gotten ‘He is here.’ ” If she thought this son was the deliverer, she was greatly mistaken. This son became mankind’s first murderer, not its savior. Even apart from Cain’s wickedness and faithlessness, he could not have been the savior, nor could any of Adam and Eve’s physical descendants. Flesh can only produce flesh. In Adam all died, and the sons of Adam could not give a life which they themselves did not have.
We do not know their age difference, but Abel was born sometime after Cain. The basic meaning of Abel could be “breath,” “weakness,” or “vanity,” carrying the idea of brevity. In any case, his life was indeed brief, cut off by his jealous brother.
Abel was “a keeper of flocks,” while Cain was “a tiller of the ground.” One was a shepherd, the other a farmer. Both were conceived after the fall and were born outside of Eden. They were therefore both born in sin. They were the second and third men ever to live on earth. They lived and functioned as all mankind since their time has lived and functioned. They had the same natures and capacities and limitations and inclinations that every person since then has had. In other words, in all the essentials of human nature, they were exactly as we are. In no way do they resemble the primitive beings of evolutionist fantasy.
Showing their preconceptions and biases, evolutionists and various interpreters of Scripture have argued that the Genesis account of man’s beginnings cannot possibly be correct, because Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and the others mentioned in the earlier chapters are far too advanced to have been the first human beings. Besides the impossible supernatural claims of Adam and Eve talking with God, critics reason that original man could not have domesticated animals, as Abel did, or plowed and planted fields, as Cain did—much less have invented musical instruments or metal tools (4:21–22).
The Bible is clear, however, that Adam and Eve were highly intelligent when God created them. Adam named all the animals, which required devising a creative vocabulary. Their sons understood animal husbandry and farming, and within a very few generations came the tools and musical instruments already mentioned. The Genesis account, brief as it is, gives the definite picture of people who were well-developed in language and in general culture.
The first human inhabitants of earth, Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, lived and functioned as human beings in the ways that we do today.
Abel Made a True Sacrifice
By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain. (11:4a)
This verse takes us back to Genesis, where we read of Abel’s sacrifice: “So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard” (Gen. 4:3–5).
a place to worship
Cain and Abel had a place to worship. Because they brought offerings, some sort of altar must have been used on which to make the sacrifices. There is no mention of their erecting an altar at this time, and it may be that an altar already existed near the east side of the Garden of Eden, where God had placed the cherubim with the flaming sword to prevent man from reentering.
It seems perfectly consistent with God’s grace that, from the beginning, He would have provided for some means of worship. Perhaps the altar here was a forerunner of the mercy seat, a place where man could come for forgiveness and atonement. Very early in man’s history God promised a future Deliverer, and very early He provided a temporary means of worship and sacrifice.
a time for worship
There seems also to have been a time for worship. “In the course of time,” means literally, “at the end of days,” that is, at the end of a certain period of time. It may be, therefore, that God had designated a special time for sacrificing. God is a God of order, and we know that in later centuries He did prescribe definite times and ways of worshiping. The fact that Cain and Abel came to sacrifice at the same time also suggests that God had specified a particular time.
a way to worship
I also believe that God had designated a way to worship. Cain and Abel would know nothing about the need for worship or sacrifice, much less the way, had they not been told by God—perhaps through their parents. It is especially significant that the first recorded act of worship was sacrifice, a sin offering, the supreme act of worship in all of God’s covenants with His people. Abraham sacrificed to God, and through Moses came the complicated and demanding rituals of sacrifice of the Old Covenant. The heart of the New Covenant is Jesus’ perfect, once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. It is inconceivable that Cain and Abel accidentally stumbled onto sacrifice as a way of worshiping God. The fact that God accepted only the one sacrificial offering also seems to indicate that He had established a pattern for worship.
Abel offered his sacrifice by faith. Since “faith comes from hearing” (Rom. 10:17), Abel must have had some revelation from God on which his faith was based. He must have known the place and time and way in which God wanted the sacrifice for sin to be offered.
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with a grain or fruit or vegetable offering. The Mosaic covenant included such offerings. But the blood offerings were always first, because only the blood offerings dealt with sin.
Here is where the life of faith begins, with a sacrifice for sin. It begins with believing God that we are sinners, that we are worthy of death, that we need His forgiveness, and that we accept His revealed plan for our deliverance. That is the beginning of the life of faith. It was in such faith that Abel presented his sacrifice to God. And it was because of such faith that his sacrifice was acceptable to God.
When Abel did what God said, he revealed his obedience and acknowledged his sinfulness. Cain, on the other hand, was disobedient and did not acknowledge his sin. Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain because God had prescribed a blood sacrifice. Somehow Abel, and Cain as well, knew what God wanted. The difference between the two was that Abel gave what God wanted, whereas Cain gave what he himself wanted. Abel was obedient and Cain was disobedient. Abel acknowledged his sin. Cain did not.
Abel approached God and said, in effect, “Lord, this is what You said You wanted. You promised that if I brought it, You would forgive my sin. I believe You, God. I acknowledge my sin and I acknowledge Your prescribed remedy. Here it is.” Cain had the same knowledge of God’s requirements, but decided to worship in his own way. In the tradition of his parents, he did his own thing. In effect, he was denying his sin.
Cain believed in God, else he would not have brought Him a sacrifice. He acknowledged a supreme being and even that he owed Him some sort of worship. He recognized God, but he did not obey God. He believed in God, but he did not believe God. He thought he could approach God in whatever way he wanted, and expected Him to be impressed and satisfied. In so doing, Cain became the father of all false religion.
False religion is trying to come to God by any other way than the way God has prescribed. It says, “I can get to God by thinking myself into Nirvana,” or, “I can please God by meditation,” or, “I can satisfy God by my works or by following the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith, or Charles Taze Russell.” God’s Word says, “There is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). False religion says that there is another name, another way. False religion is any way to God that God Himself has not ordained. Proverbs 14:12 marks this truth: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
The idea that one way is just as good as another does not seem to be accepted in any area of life except religion and morality. When a person goes to a doctor with a problem, he first of all wants to know the truth. No one likes to hear a diagnosis of a terrible disease. But the sensible person would rather know the truth than live in ignorance of something that could ruin his health or even take his life. Once knowing the diagnosis, he then wants the right cure, not just any cure. He wants the best treatment he can find and will usually go to any lengths to get it. He would be insulted and infuriated with a doctor who told him simply to go home and do whatever he thought best—that one person’s opinion was just as good as another’s. The reason we think this way about medicine is that we believe there are medical truths. Medical science does not have all the answers, but a great deal is known and accepted as factual, reliable, and dependable. The reason this same kind of reasoning is not applied to spiritual and moral issues is that the absolute truths and standards God has given are rejected. In fact, the very notion of spiritual and moral absolutes is rejected. Cain rejected God’s standards and became the first apostate.
Cain failed to acknowledge his sin and refused to obey God by bringing the sacrifice God required. He did not mind worshiping God, as long as it was on his own terms, in his own way. And God rejected his sacrifice and rejected him.
Cain’s disobedience of God and setting up his own standards of living were the beginning of Satan’s world system. Cain “went out from the presence of the Lord” (Gen. 4:16) and into a life of continuous self-will, which is the heart of worldliness and unbelief. By his own decision, his own volition, he turned away from God and God’s way to himself and his own way. We should not be sorry for him because God refused to honor his sacrifice. He knew what God required, and he was able to do it. But he chose instead to do what he himself wanted.
There are all kinds of people around under the guise of religion, even Christian religion, who are denying God. “Woe to them!” Jude says, “For they have gone the way of Cain” (v. 11). Cain is an example of the religious natural man, who believes in God and even in religion but after his own will and who rejects redemption by blood. Paul says of such people that, “they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:2–3).
In addition to being wicked and unbelieving, Cain was a hypocrite. He did not want to worship God but only give the appearance of worship. His purpose was to please himself, not God. His sacrifice was simply a religious activity designed to suit his own purposes and fulfill his own will. Cain was like the Pharisee in the Temple who Jesus said was praying “to himself” (Luke 18:11). He was patronizing God and worshiping himself. Also like the Pharisee, Cain went home unjustified; whereas Abel, like the penitent tax gatherer, went home justified.
God is not arbitrary or whimsical or capricious. He was not playing a game with Cain and Abel. He did not hold them accountable for what they could not have known or could not have done. Abel’s sacrifice was accepted because he knew what God wanted and obeyed. Cain’s was rejected because he knew what God wanted, yet disobeyed. To obey is righteous; to disobey is evil. Abel was of God; Cain was of Satan (1 John 3:12).
Abel offered a better sacrifice because it represented the obedience of faith. He willingly brought God what He asked, and he brought the very best that he had. In Abel’s sacrifice, the way of the cross was first prefigured. The first sacrifice was Abel’s lamb—one lamb for one person. Later came the Passover—with one lamb for one family. Then came the Day of Atonement—with one lamb for one nation. Finally came Good Friday—one Lamb for the whole world.
Abel Obtained Righteousness
Through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous. (11:4b)
The only thing that obtained righteousness for Abel was that, in faith, He did what God told him to do. That is the only thing that changes a man’s relationship to God. It is not how good we are, but whether or not we trust in Him, that counts with God. That trust is evidenced in obedience to His Word.
Abel was sinful, just as Cain was. But it is quite possible, even likely, that Abel was a better person than Cain. He was probably more moral, more dependable, more honest, and even more likable than Cain. It was not, however, these qualities of Abel that made his sacrifice acceptable, or the lack of these qualities that made Cain’s sacrifice unacceptable. The difference was the way in which the sacrifices were made. One was made in obedient faith; the other made in disobedient unbelief.
Abel’s was the kind of faith that allows God to move in on our behalf and make us righteous. True faith is always obedient. Jesus said “to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine’ ” (John 8:31). These people believed Jesus, but they had not yet trusted in Him, which Jesus said would be marked by obedience to His word. Obedience does not bring faith, but faith will always bring obedience and the desire to live righteously.
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 3–4)
We cannot claim to have faith in God and then continually disregard His Word. James must have known some people who thought this way, for he wrote, “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?… Faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:14, 17). Nonworking faith, disobedient faith, is not saving faith. It is not valid faith at all. Cain believed that God exists. Even the demons believe this, James goes on to say. “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (2:19–20).
James then drives the point home by reminding his readers that Abraham’s faith, for which he was counted righteous, was demonstrated by his obedience in offering his son Isaac as God commanded. “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected” (2:21–22).
James does not teach salvation by works. He is saying that our faith is only real when it issues in works. We cannot work our way to God, but having come to Him, works will become evident—and prove that our faith is genuine. The Christian, in fact, is “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
It seems to me that God’s testimony that Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable and that He counted Abel as righteous could have been indicated by His causing this offering to be consumed. On at least five occasions recorded in Scripture, God showed His acceptance of a sacrifice by sending fire to consume it (Lev. 9:24; Judg. 6:21; 1 Kings 18:38; 1 Chron. 21:26; 2 Chron. 7:1). In any case, it is clear from Genesis that God made His approval and disapproval of the sacrifices known to Cain and Abel. He did not leave them in doubt as to their standing before Him.
Abel was counted righteous, not because he was righteous, but because he trusted God. He stood righteous before God because He had faith in God. Abel was the same sinner as he was before he made the sacrifice. He did not even receive the Holy Spirit, as do believers today. He walked away with the same problems he had before. But He had God’s approval, and God’s righteousness credited to his account.
Abel Speaks from the Dead
God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks. (11:4c)
When the Lord confronted Cain after Abel’s murder, He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). Abel’s first “speaking” after death was to God, asking for his murder to be avenged. Like the souls underneath the altar “who had been slain because of the word of God” (Rev. 6:9–10), Abel asked the Lord to avenge his blood.
His voice also spoke to his brother. “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you; you shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 4:11–12). Every bit of soil on which Cain placed his feet would remind him of his wicked deed. The earth, in effect, rejected Cain as he had rejected God and his brother. Abel, though dead, continued to speak to his brother.
The primary meaning of Hebrews 11:4, however, has to do with Abel’s speaking to later generations of believers and potential believers. He still speaks. He says three things: man comes to God by faith, not works; man must accept and obey God’s revelation above his own reason and self-will; and sin is severely punished. This is Abel’s timeless three-point sermon to the world, which he has been preaching for thousands of years to those who will hear. It could be titled, “The Righteous Shall Live by Faith.”
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. (Heb. 11:4)
As we study this great eleventh chapter of Hebrews, we will discover the variety of things that faith does or accomplishes. We often think of this chapter as focusing on the heroes of the faith, on the people themselves, and certainly the writer of Hebrews does draw upon the wonderful histories of the Old Testament and therefore on its personalities. But ultimately it is not these men and women who are on display, in all their variety of experience, but rather the one faith that shows its various facets in their lives. Through these historical and biblical figures, the author personifies the faith he is commending, and we thereby see all the things faith does and the benefits it conveys.
In the previous chapter we saw two things that faith does. It makes present and real things that are future and unseen. By faith we presently lay hold of our possessions in Christ. Moreover, faith sees the Creator behind the creation; by faith we understand who made and sustains the universe. As we proceed through this chapter, we are going to see more of the many things faith does. Faith pleases God; it does good works; it looks upon a heavenly city; it trusts God’s promises; and it conquers over obstacles. This is what the apostle John had in mind at the end of his first epistle: “This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4).
Cain and Abel
The first example of faith that the writer presents is that of Abel: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.” This refers to the episode recorded in Genesis 4:1–5:
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. 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. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.
Hebrews says that Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s because of faith. There are two ways to understand this statement. The first is that because Abel was a man of faith and Cain was not, God accepted Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s. The issue was not the sacrifices but the men themselves. John Calvin held this view: “The sacrifice of Abel was more acceptable than that of his brother only because it was sanctified by faith.… Where did his pleasing come from other than that he had a heart purified by faith?”
You see the logic of this view, a logic we want to heartily endorse. God receives the man of faith and therefore his offering, rejecting the man who lacks faith. The apostle Paul spoke this way when he wrote in Romans 14:23, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” And in Galatians 5:6 he wrote, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (niv). According to that standard we see that because he lacked faith, whatever Cain offered had to be rejected, while faithful Abel’s offering was received.
We want to affirm this way of thinking, but it does not seem to be a sufficient explanation for what we find in Genesis 4. The Old Testament text seems to emphasize the difference between the two offerings, and not merely between the two men. It wasn’t that the two brothers brought the same offering, one that was received because of faith while the other was rejected for unbelief. No, the offerings were different, and in that difference we see the faith of one and the unbelief of the other.
We might begin by asking whether God had given commands or regulations at that time concerning the type of sacrifice his people were to offer him. “Just what,” we ask, “had God revealed to these first children or to their parents, Adam and Eve?” The answer brings us back to the prior chapter, and specifically to Genesis 3:21.
Genesis 3 tells the tragic story of man’s fall into sin. Verses 1–7 record how the serpent deceived the woman so that she ate the fruit from the forbidden tree, then how Adam ate it with her and joined her in transgressing God’s commandment. Verses 8–13 relate God’s confrontation of our first parents in that primordial sin, and their pathetic attempt to shift the blame even as they confessed their misdeed. In verses 14–19 come God’s curses, first on the serpent, then on the woman, and finally on Adam. Then, in verse 21, we see God’s action to deal with the problem of their sin, which we must consider central to God’s message of salvation because it is his most direct response to sin: “The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” God dealt with their sin by slaying an innocent animal, a spotless substitute. God had said that sin would produce death and here we see that it did—not the death of Adam and Eve, although death did come upon their race—but the death of a substitute that would shed its blood in their place and offer its own innocence to clothe their guilty stains. The great evangelist George Whitefield rightly connected this to Jesus and his death upon the cross:
What were the coats that God made to put on our first parents, but types of the application of the merits of the righteousness of Jesus Christ to believers’ hearts? We are told that those coats were made of skins of beasts.… Those beasts were slain in sacrifice, in commemoration of the great sacrifice, Jesus Christ, thereafter to be offered. And the skins of the beasts thus slain, being put on Adam and Eve, they were hereby taught how their nakedness was to be covered with the righteousness of the Lamb of God.
In this way, God revealed the manner by which sinful man was to approach him. Here he taught sinners what kind of sacrifice they ought to bring. This is how we must evaluate the fitness of Abel’s versus Cain’s offering: “Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground” (Gen. 4:3). There must have been much to commend such an offering to Cain. Here was a portion of what arose from his own hard-fought labor. God had said to Adam in his curse, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). So what Cain brought to God came only by hard labor, just as farming continues to demand today. Furthermore, it must have been beautiful, pleasing to the eye, and sweet to the taste.
What, then, was the problem with Cain’s offering? It did not involve the shedding of blood. This was the key difference between Abel’s offering and Cain’s: Abel “brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Gen. 4:4). In keeping with the pattern that God had established with his parents, and that had undoubtedly been taught to him by Adam and Eve, Abel brought a sacrifice that pointed forward to the atoning death of a spotless substitute. By faith Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s, not just because Abel’s faith made it better, but because by faith he offered the sacrifice God had established as the means by which he would accept sinful mankind.
The One Way
We learn several important lessons from this episode. First, we see that sinful man is justified, or accepted by God, only by faith in the blood of the sacrifice that God has provided. This is a doctrine the Book of Hebrews has repeatedly stressed. Chapter 9 spoke of the blood of Christ which opens up heaven for those who trust in him: “Christ [was] offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28). Similarly, Hebrews 7:27 tells us about the meaning of the cross: he sacrificed for our sins “once for all when he offered up himself.”
This means that you cannot come to God any way you choose. You do not just say you believe in God and then decide for yourself how you will draw near to him. That was Cain’s problem. He would decide the terms of his coming to God; he would offer a sacrifice according to his own devising. How bitter he was when God rejected him and his self-righteous worship.
There really are only two kinds of offerings, two ways to come to God—those that point to our own work, our own merits, our own righteousness, and those that point to Jesus Christ, crucified in our place to pay for sins. Unless we come to God confessing the guilt of our sin and our need for his grace, and embracing the gift of his own Son to die in our place, we reject the one way that he has provided. We then will be rejected, condemned for our sins, and made to suffer the eternal pains of hell. But people nonetheless persist in rejecting the way provided by God, especially in churches that deny or downplay the gospel. James M. Boice wrote of this in his commentary on Genesis: “That is the problem with so many ‘good, religious people.’ They come to God with their heightened sense of esthetics and want to be received by God because of their beautiful offerings. But God rejects them and their godless worship. There is no blood, no Christ and, hence, no true Christianity, however beautiful their service might be.”
We should offer our best to God. We should offer beautiful worship to him because he is deserving of our very best. There is no higher privilege than for us to do all we can to honor and bless his name. But this comes only after the blood, only after we have confessed our guilt and placed our faith in the blood of the sacrifice. Boice continues:
If one comes first through faith in Christ and his shed blood, then he can present all the beautiful things he is capable of finding or creating. And God will be pleased by this, because the person does not trust these things for salvation but rather is offering them to God just because he loves him and wants to show affection. It is only on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ that one can come.
You may say you are coming to God by any of a number of ways. You may say you are coming because of your sincere heart. You may say your religion is based on your good works. You may trust sacraments or religious tradition or church membership. But apart from the blood of Jesus Christ all of these will be rejected, like Cain’s offering, because you have not come by faith in the way God has provided. The apostle Peter said to the Sanhedrin, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus taught, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). These passages refer not merely to some vague belief regarding Jesus Christ but to his atoning blood, to which Abel’s sacrifice pointed and on which it relied, his substitutionary death in our place upon the cross. As Hebrews 9:22 tells us, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
Justification by Faith
If there is any doubt about the importance the writer of Hebrews attaches to faith, Hebrews 11:4 removes any ambiguity. Here he tells us that it was by faith that Abel was declared to be righteous: “By faith … he was commended as righteous.”
By faith Abel was declared righteous, or justified, by God. This is one of the great teachings of the Bible: the doctrine of justification by faith. This is why those early Hebrew Christians who first received this letter were exhorted not to abandon their faith, as they were tempted to do: because by faith in Christ alone are sinners justified by God. This doctrine is at the core of the gospel, the good news God offers us in Christ, because it declares exactly what we see in the case of Abel, how a sinner can be accepted and declared righteous by the holy God.
John 3:16 declares that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” By believing on Jesus Christ, by resting on his saving work for the forgiveness of our sins, by accepting God’s Word and coming to him the one way he has provided, we are forgiven and are, as our text says, “declared righteous by faith.” We are not righteous by works, which declare our supposed merit—that was Cain’s mistake and the cause of his rejection—but by faith, which declares our need and our acceptance of God’s gracious gift.
We find this truth emphasized in the Genesis account. Abel was a sinner, being the son of Adam and bearing sin’s corruption in his fallen human nature. Yet when he came to God bearing the blood of a substitute, “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering” (Gen. 4:4). The blood turned away God’s wrath by speaking of the coming cross of Christ, and on that basis God received Abel with gladness. This acceptance was not available only to him; Cain could have been justified this same way. As God explained to a bitter Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Gen. 4:6–7).
Justification by faith makes the same claim to everyone reading these words. It is not just those who were born into Christian families, who have the right connections, who have the proper appearance or works or money to offer, but everyone may come in this way. That is why God said to Cain, “Why do you not come in the way I have graciously provided?” God offers each and every one of us salvation, forgiveness of sin, and restoration into fellowship with him by the sacrifice he has provided, even the blood of his own Son.
This point is forcefully made in the early chapters of Genesis. We have seen the first sacrifice, when God clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of innocent animals (Gen. 3:21). Although Adam did not die, his sin barred him from the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3:22–23 tells us he was no longer fit to dwell with and serve God there, to eat from the tree of life and live forever. But then verse 24 adds a remarkable detail: “[God] drove out the man, and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” East of Eden, into the curse-blasted world of sin went Adam and Eve, their way back barred by angels with flaming sword.
This imagery would become important later in Israel’s history, in the time of Moses, when instructions were given for the construction of the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the place where people came to meet with God and where God dwelt in the midst of his people. At its center, in the holy of holies, rested the ark of the covenant, God’s throne on the earth, where he kept the tablets of the Ten Commandments, his law.
The tabernacle was a movable structure made of wooden frames and curtains. The writer of Hebrews made a careful study of it in chapter 9. There was an outer court where sacrifices were offered and the priests were cleansed before entering. The outer room, called the holy place, was where the priests served. Finally, there was the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, where God himself dwelt, separated by a thick veil from sinful mankind. What is striking when we read the instructions in the Book of Exodus for the construction of the tabernacle is that the image of cherubim was to be worked into the curtains of the tabernacle: “You shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them” (Ex. 26:1). This detail evidently carried great significance because it is repeated four times in the Book of Exodus (26:1, 31; 36:8, 35). Just as the cherubim guarded the way to God in the garden with a fiery sword, so the symbolic cherubim on the curtains in the tabernacle kept sinners away.
We may infer from this that after their sin and expulsion from the garden, Adam and Eve still came to worship God at the entrance to Eden. It was to the guarded way between the cherubim that they came with sacrifices of blood. Likely, this is where Abel and Cain came, one with a sacrifice of blood and the other with an offering representing his works. Abel would have been like the later priests of Israel, able to come to the gate, to the holy place, to live and serve in God’s reflected light, but barred from the inner sanctum by the guardian angels, just as the thick veil with the image of cherubim kept Israel’s priests out of the holy of holies.
But that is not the end of the story. The Book of Exodus gave further instructions concerning the mercy seat, the atonement cover for the ark of the covenant within the holy of holies:
You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. (Ex. 25:17–21)
Although no sinner could come directly into God’s presence, just as neither Adam nor Abel could return to the garden, there was one day of the year, the day of atonement, when Israel’s high priest could enter into the holy of holies. This one day prophesied an entire age to come. When the high priest came, he was confronted by the sight of the two cherubim. The atonement cover of the ark of the covenant thus graphically portrayed the gate to the garden. There two mighty angels faced each other, with wings upswept, casting down the shadow of their presence. Their eyes gazed downward to the ark which contained the tablets of the law of God, broken by sinners. They saw that man is barred from the garden and from the presence of God. Because he is a transgressor, man is under the sentence of death and therefore cannot enter back into life.
But on the day of atonement, the high priest came and poured the blood of the atoning sacrifice upon the mercy seat between the cherubim. And thus the way that was barred now was opened. This provides an important insight about the guardian cherubim: they not only kept shut the way to God without the atoning blood, but they also secured the way for the great day to come when the true sacrifice would open wide the gates to Paradise. That one day a year when the high priest came before the cherubim with a blood offering symbolized an entire age that would be opened by the true high priest with the true blood he himself had shed. God therefore said to Moses, concluding his commands for the mercy seat: “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you” (Ex. 25:22).
God met with his people between the cherubim—not in the garden, but at its gate. God met with them at the place where the blood was poured to cover the breaking of the law. Between the angels on the ark of the covenant sat the mercy seat. In Greek this is the hilastērion, the very term the apostle Paul used in Romans 3:25 to describe what God presented to us in the death of Jesus Christ. “God put [him] forward as a hilastērion,” that is, a mercy seat. The English Standard Version precisely defines this as “a propitiation,” and the New International Version gives the more general translation, “a sacrifice of atonement.” The point is that what the angels were looking for all along was Christ, whose coming would end their watch, and therefore they guarded the way to God until his coming.
That great day for which the angels looked did come. The Gospels tell us about it. The day came when the curtain with its cherubim was not merely pulled aside temporarily but torn from top to bottom, removed altogether, the angels thus relieved of their ancient task. Matthew 27 tells us of the death of Christ: “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (vv. 50–51).
Finally, the true high priest had come to the gate between the cherubim, and there he offered his own blood once-for-all. The gate was opened, the angels went their way rejoicing, taking with them the sword of death. Now the way is open wide and secured by Christ himself, who is the way. Now it is to him that we come, not merely to the gate but into the garden to walk with God. Between the cherubim, Abel was declared righteous by faith, because he looked to the sacrifice to come. Now through faith in Christ every sinner can come to be accepted into fellowship with God and to receive everlasting life.
What Angels Longed to See
Hebrews 11:4 concludes by saying of Abel, “And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” Faith bore testimony to Abel, that he was accounted righteous, and now Abel bears testimony about faith—about its value, its worth, and its power to justify those who trust in Christ.
Shortly after making his faithful offering, Abel was killed. Cain tried to silence his testimony; we learn in Genesis 4:8 that instead of repenting, Cain murdered his brother to put away the testimony about faith and the righteousness it brings. And yet the man of faith still speaks to us in the Word of God. Faith in God is never silenced, because God himself keeps alive the testimony of his faithful servants.
When I think of Abel, I often recall Peter’s statement about the gospel: “Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12 niv). Abel’s faith spoke to those angels; it declared to them the wonder that sinners might come back to God, that those under the curse might meet with him at the place the angels guarded. What a wonder it was to the guardian cherubim when Abel by his sacrifice of faith was accepted and approved of God.
The same must have happened when Abel was killed: the first man to die, but also the first to appear in heaven. What an event that must have been! For the first time a sinner appeared in the holy courts of glory, cleansed and clothed in the righteousness of God’s Son. How the angels must have marveled at this mystery of grace! G. Campbell Morgan writes:
It was a great occasion when this first soul representing a fallen race appeared in the unsullied light of the home of the unfallen. He came by faith, ransomed by love, at the cost of sacrifice. As the Scripture declares that “the angels desire to look into” these things, this must indeed have been a mystery of life and love demanding their close attention, and not perchance, even fathomed by them, until the explanation … was wrought out upon the Cross of Calvary.
Before the time of Jesus Christ, Abel—though dead—spoke of a sacrifice yet to come that would take away our sin, and of faith in the sacrifice that declares the sinner righteous. Now that Christ has come, Abel speaks of it still, with a voice that fully rejoices. Many of our hymns echo the words that Abel, though dead, must speak about his Savior. Horatius Bonar’s words would be welcome and familiar to the lips of Abel, who brought a sacrifice of faith in the work of the Savior’s blood:
Not what my hands have done
can save my guilty soul;
not what my toiling flesh has borne
can make my spirit whole.…
Thy work alone, O Christ,
can ease this weight of sin;
thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,
can give me peace within.…
No other work, save thine,
no other blood will do;
no strength, save that which is divine,
can bear me safely through.…
I praise the God of grace;
I trust his truth and might;
he calls me his, I call him mine,
my God, my joy, my light.
Thus speaks the voice of Abel. And so shall we, if we are justified by faith in that same blood, clothed in that same righteousness, and thus accepted into the love of God, just as Abel was before us.
4. By faith Abel offered, &c. The Apostle’s object in this chapter is to shew, that however excellent were the works of the saints, it was from faith they derived their value, their worthiness, and all their excellences; and hence follows what he has already intimated, that the fathers pleased God by faith alone.
Now he commends faith here on two accounts,—it renders obedience to God, for it attempts and undertakes nothing, but what is according to the rule of God’s word,—and it relies on God’s promises, and thus it gains the value and worth which belongs to works from his grace alone. Hence, whenever the word faith is found in this chapter, we must bear in mind, that the Apostle speaks of it, in order that the Jews might regard no other rule than God’s word, and might also depend alone on his promises.
He says, first, that Abel’s sacrifice was for no other reason preferable to that of his brother, except that it was sanctified by faith: for surely the fat of brute animals did not smell so sweetly, that it could, by its odour, pacify God. The Scripture indeed shews plainly, why God accepted his sacrifice, for Moses’s words are these, “God had respect to Abel, and to his gifts.” It is hence obvious to conclude, that his sacrifice was accepted, because he himself was graciously accepted. But how did he obtain this favour, except that his heart was purified by faith.
God testifying, &c. He confirms what I have already stated, that no works, coming from us, can please God, until we ourselves are received into favour, or to speak more briefly, that no works are deemed just before God, but those of a just man: for he reasons thus,—God bore a testimony to Abel’s gifts; then he had obtained the praise of being just before God.
This doctrine is useful, and ought especially to be noticed, as we are not easily convinced of its truth; for when in any work, anything splendid appears, we are immediately rapt in admiration, and we think that it cannot possibly be disapproved of by God: but God, who regards only the inward purity of the heart, heeds not the outward masks of works. Let us then learn, that no right or good work can proceed from us, until we are justified before God.
By it he being dead, &c. To faith he also ascribes this,—that God testified that Abel was no less the object of his care after his death, than during his life: for when he says, that though dead, he still speaketh, he means, as Moses tells us, that God was moved by his violent death to take vengeance. When, therefore, Abel or his blood is said to speak, the words are to be understood figuratively. It was yet a singular evidence of God’s love towards him, that he had a care for him when he was dead; and it hence appears, that he was one of God’s saints, whose death is precious to him.
4 The first human being in the Genesis story who is “commended” is not Adam or Eve (who represent rebellion rather than faith) but Abel (Ge 4:2–8). As the first victim of murder, he would form a suitable model for those who faced the possibility of martyrdom at the hands of their faithless “brothers.” The Genesis account does not explain why Abel’s animal sacrifice was more acceptable to God than Cain’s vegetable offering, but for our author, the fact is enough. His character as a true worshiper of God is demonstrated from the title “righteous” (used of Abel also in Mt 23:25; 1 Jn 3:12—and based on God’s words in Ge 4:7, which imply that Abel, unlike Cain, did “what is right”), from the fact that God approved his sacrifice (Ge 4:4), and from his continued “speaking” even after his murder. This last point is an inference from Genesis 4:10, where God tells Cain that his dead brother’s blood “cries out to me from the ground”; it will be mentioned again at 12:24. From this admittedly limited evidence, our author concludes that what distinguished Abel from Cain was his “faith,” a healthy and living relationship with the God whom he worshiped.
11:4 / Although the details of the Genesis account (Gen. 4:2–16) are far from clear, Abel’s offering was for some reason acceptable to God whereas Cain’s was not. We do not need to know the details, however, to accept our author’s argument that faith—that is, unreserved commitment to the reality of God and the absolute character of his claims upon us—was the decisive difference. Cain in some way held back from God, whether in the offering itself or in his heart; Abel held nothing back, but acted in a way consistent with his inner conviction. It was this that made Abel’s sacrifice better (this word is a general term of comparison that can mean “more adequate,” “more acceptable”). niv spells out by faith (for the literal pronoun “by which”) in the next two sentences in this verse. Was commended, as in verse 2, is literally “was well attested,” referring to the account in Genesis, as is clear in the deliberate allusion to the words of the lxx of Genesis 4:4, God spoke well of his offerings. By his faith, and the action springing from it, Abel was thus attested as a righteous man (cf. v. 7). The first murder produced the first martyr, and Abel’s innocent blood was not forgotten (12:24; Matt. 23:35; cf. Gen. 4:10). Having died for his faithfulness, Abel continues to speak the message of faith.
Abel recognized his obligations before God (11:4)
Abel offered a sacrifice which was more acceptable than that presented by his brother Cain. Its acceptability was not simply that he made a blood offering and a valuable offering (‘the firstling of his flock’), but also that he gave a sincere offering. Abel offered a pure heart as well as the best gift. Cain could not overcome the powerful tyrant, sin, which was couching at his door. Later, Jesus testified to Abel’s purity of heart and John to Cain’s sinful desires.4 God bore witness to Abel’s righteousness by accepting his gifts. Although Abel was murdered by his evil brother, he is still speaking; the story of his faithful achievement speaks to people in every generation, not only about the quality of their offering to God, but also their motivation. Is the outward offering of worship, money and service a genuine expression of our love and commitment? God sees not only the value of the sacrifice, but the heart of the giver. But Abel speaks to man still more clearly by reminding us of the most important offering of all, ‘the sprinkled blood’ of Christ (12:24) who, although he was murdered by the angry and jealous successors of Cain, was not like Abel, the helpless victim of sudden hate. His entirely voluntary sacrifice was both determined and approved by God.
11:4. Genesis 4:3–7 and the rest of the Old Testament do not explain why Abel’s offering was more acceptable than Cain’s. Hebrews offers the explanation: Abel showed faith. The fact that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice showed that he had an obedient attitude of mind. In some way Cain held back from God, perhaps in his heart. Abel’s offering was an unrestrained response to God, complete with lavish worship which pleased God. John tells us that Cain’s works were evil, while those of Abel were righteous (1 John 3:12).
Even though Cain murdered Abel, the faith of Abel still spoke over the centuries. Even a violent death could not muzzle the message of faith. Abel’s demonstration of faith allows him to speak a message of encouragement to us today.
4. By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
The author places the name of Abel, and by implication that of Adam, at the beginning of his list of Old Testament saints. Adam’s son Abel occupies a special place in sacred history, for even Jesus calls him righteous (Matt. 23:35; Luke 11:51).
With reference to Abel, note the following points:
- Abel presented a “better sacrifice” than did his brother Cain. As a tiller of the soil, Cain brought some of its fruits. Abel, the shepherd, sacrificed the fat of “some of the firstborn of his flock” (Gen. 4:4). Is the word better (literally, “greater”) an indication that animal sacrifices were more acceptable to God than were the fruits of the field? No. We should look not at the gifts but at the giver. The historical context is quite explicit. In Genesis 4:6–7 we read: “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’ ”
The Septuagint version of verse 7 reads, “Did you not sin when you offered [your sacrifice] correctly, but did not divide it correctly?” Throughout his epistle the author of Hebrews shows that he depends on this Greek translation of the Old Testament. But the author’s choice of version is not at issue. The fact remains that Cain’s attitude toward God was sinful. In effect, God pleaded with him to repent, to change his way of life, and to conquer sin. However, the writer introduces Cain’s name only for contrast; he is interested in Abel’s faith. Notice, for example, that the expression by faith occurs three times in this verse (NIV).
- Abel was a “righteous man.” He lived in harmony with God and man and therefore became known as a righteous man. How God communicated with Abel is not known. One assumes that as God spoke directly with Cain, so he addressed Abel. There is no reason to resort to interpretations that hold that God communicated through symbols, such as fire that came down from heaven to consume Abel’s sacrifice or smoke that ascended from this sacrifice. The Genesis account provides no further information on how God “looked with favor on Abel and his offering” (4:4). God looked on Abel’s heart and was pleased with the motives of the giver. As Paul puts it, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
- Even after his death, Abel is a constant witness. The text (“he still speaks, even though he is dead”) can be interpreted to refer to Abel’s blood. God says to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10; see also Matt. 23:35; Luke 11:51; Heb. 12:24). But the writer of Hebrews stresses the concept faith, not the avenging of Abel’s blood. The difficulty of relating faith to blood that has been shed ought not be bolstered by a quick reference to Revelation 6:10, where the souls under the altar cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Not the blood of Abel, but the faith of Abel is important; therefore, the reference to the souls under the altar is of little consequence. The author places Abel before the readers as a righteous man who lived by faith (Heb. 10:38). Abel is at the top of the list of the Old Testament heroes of faith. Even after his death, his example encourages people to seek the Lord, because he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Abel, then, is the father of believers of the time before Abraham. His faith in God still speaks as a constant witness.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (pp. 266–268). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.