Nearly thirty years ago I heard a sermon from the opening verses of Hebrews 11.
The preacher began with v. 7 and worked backward. He spoke of Noah and showed how he worked by faith. He spoke of the importance of the Christian being involved in the work of the Lord.
Next, he spoke of Enoch and highlighted the need for the Christian to walk with the Lord.
Finally, he focused on v. 4 and spoke about how Abel worshipped the Lord.
I remember his conclusion as if I heard it yesterday: “As important as is your work for the Lord; as important as it is for you to walk with the Lord; the most important thing is your worship of the Lord. Apart from this your work and your walk is meaningless.” In other words, there is a deliberate order in the Christian life. And these antediluvian believers understood this. Clearly, the writer to the Hebrews did too. This is one reason that he begins his Hall of Faith with Abel. By faith, Abel worshipped. And so must you.
As Hughes says, “It is very significant that this great chapter of faith begins with a worshiper—because worship is fundamental to everything else we do in life.”1
In this study we will highlight five lessons from the faith of Abel. Each of these points is true of all who truly worship by faith.
“By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (v. 4). The background to this story, of course, is found in Genesis 4.
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the Lord.” Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”
Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.
Abel was the first Christian who came into this world by birth. He was also the first person to die in human history as well as the first person to be murdered. Thank God that he died a Christian. Think of this: Abel was the first Christian to go to heaven! Though his parents were far from perfect, nevertheless they did point their sons to the Lord. And Abel was their first son to believe on Him.
It would appear that Adam and Eve took the commandment of the Lord (1:26-28) as well as His gospel promise (3:15) very seriously. When Cain was born Eve thought for sure that this was the one that had been promised (Genesis 4:1). She would soon be disappointed.
The account in Genesis tells us that “in the process of time,” the two brothers brought offerings to the Lord. “Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground,” for he was a farmer, while “Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat,” for he was a shepherd. Abel’s sacrifice was accepted, while Cain’s was rejected.
A couple of matters must be addressed.
First, on what basis did they bring their offerings? That is, how did they know that they were to bring an offering to the Lord?
No doubt, their parents had taught them to do so (3:21). Oral tradition was the means of communicating God’s truth. It is clear that God communicated with people before there was the written Word (3:8; 4:6, 9; etc.).
This offering was required by God. The phrase, “in the process of time” (literally, “at end of days”) implies that this was a scheduled event—scheduled, no doubt, by God. He expected His due at the end of their labours.
Second, what was the qualitative difference between these two offerings?
Some suggest that it was blood. That is, Cain’s offering was bloodless and thus rejected, while Abel’s involved blood and was therefore accepted. But the text does not say this.
Some suggest that Cain’s offering, and therefore his worship, was rejected because he offered that which came from his own labours, his own works. On the other hand, Abel’s offering and worship was accepted because he offered that which was apart from himself; that is, he offered a substitute in his place. But the offering of Cain was also a substitute.
We do not know what kind of an offering this was. Perhaps it was a thanksgiving offering rather than a sin offering. Those categories did exist (see Noah, Abraham, etc.).
It may be true that God had required a blood sacrifice and so Cain was disobedient, but still this was not the fundamental reason for the rejection. Clearly, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Abel offered by faith while Cain did not. Faith was the issue. “The general tenor of Scripture indicates that the superior quality of Abel’s offering derived from the integrity of his heart rather than from the nature of the offering itself…. His act of worship entailed the thoughtful exposure of his self to the living and holy God.”2
Clearly, if God had prescribed blood, then Cain’s refusal to offer it was a lack of faith. Nevertheless, the major issue is that of faith: Abel offered by faith while Cain offered without faith.
Genesis 4:5-7 indicates as much. Cain did not “do well” because he was simply going through the motions. His heart was not in it. His offering was not sincere. His offering was not submissive. True faith submits to God. It offers to God what He prescribes. Remember: Faith is acting upon God’s Word because of confidence in His character. In the case of this epistle, faith “offers” Christ and Christ alone. Many of Jews were offering what was unacceptable since Christ had already come. We face the same problem today.
Faith offers to God what He prescribes. That is, it is God-centred. It is sincere. It is from the heart.
Note that both Cain and Abel showed up for worship, but only Abel really worshipped. Worship—acceptable worship—requires a hierarchy. We worship that which we deem to be above or better than us. The creature worships the Creator. Abel apparently understood this. He offered to God “a more excellent sacrifice” than Cain precisely because Abel understood who he was in comparison to who God is. It was for this reason that Abel offered the best. Cain’s offering also arose from His opinion of God, and his opinion of himself. Cain had too high an opinion of himself and too low an opinion of God. He rejected God’s self-revelation of His glory. Cain’s response proved so. Cain, in other words, did not bring his offering by faith.
But having said this, we have not fully answered the question, what precisely was the difference qualitatively between these approaches?
I want to be so bold as to say that the difference was in the object of their faith. That is, Abel offered because He was trusting in Christ while Cain went through the motions of worship because he was not looking to Christ.
But I want to suggest something else that we should consider: It seems that the entire purpose of this epistle was to exalt the object of saving faith, the Lord Jesus Christ. And, in accordance with this, it seems that Hebrews 11 is reaching back into history and showing that many under the old covenant looked forward to Christ. Without rehashing much of what we have already learned, it is clear that those who were saved under the old covenant era were saved in the same way that we are: by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, though this chapter is a wonderful tonic for our walk of faith, to be legitimately applied in a multitude of ways, nevertheless the main purpose is to spur these believers on to faith in Christ. They believed in Him and they must continue to persevere by faith in Him.
If this is so, then should we not see that, when Abel offered by faith, he did so with faith in Christ? Abel’s offering, his worship of God, was “more excellent” than Cain’s because of how he offered: by faith in Christ.
How we worship—perhaps better, why we worship—is far more important than with what we worship. No doubt, there is a relationship, but it must be made very clear that if we are not worshipping God through the Lord Jesus Christ then, regardless of what we offer to God, it will be rejected.
There is only one way to come to God, and that is by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. If we come to God trusting in ourselves, trusting in our works, trusting in our money, trusting in our reputation, trusting in our family heritage, trusting in our church membership, trusting in our baptism, trusting in our ministry, trusting in our church, trusting in our daily devotions, etc. then our worship will be identified for what it is: that of Cain—and therefore rejected.
Only when we come to God through the Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12) do we have hope of being heard, of being accepted.
I have no doubt that Adam and Even believed God’s gospel promise (3:15) and it was for this reason that, when Eve gave birth to Cain, she exclaimed, “This is the one!” She would be gravely disappointed, but clearly she believed God’s promise that the Saviour would come.
These sons, it would seem, were told of this gospel promise. Obviously, Abel believed, while Cain did not. In fact, John seems to make this very point in 1 John 3:10-15.
From the beginning, we understand the truth that those who belong to God (and John has made it abundantly clear that only those who believe on Christ belong to God) love everyone else who also believes and belongs. Cain did not believe and therefore he did not belong to the spiritual family (which, at that stage, was also his physical family). But Abel did.
The point is simply that the faith that Abel is commended because it was not some vague religious feeling or persuasion, but rather a specific faith in God’s promised Saviour. And so, because Abel trusted God’s character, he trusted His promise and offered a sacrifice looking to Christ. And you?
You sing the hymns at church. You bow your head and close your eyes. You perhaps place money in the offering plate. You listen attentively with an external reverence for God’s Word. You may even mutter an amen. But is Christ in any of that? Are you looking to Him, and to Him alone, as the means for your salvation? Have you come today because you are loving Him, because you are trusting Him alone for forgiveness by God? Have you given your money because you are grateful that He, and He alone, has saved you? I could go on, but I trust that you get the point. The expression of true worship is external. But so is the expression of false worship. At issue is the essence of your worship. Is it Christ-centred?
In summary, biblical faith submits to Christ. Apart from this you might show up for worship, but you are merely going through the motions. And sin lies at the door ready to destroy you, eternally, as it did (and continues to do) to Cain.
Don’t go in the way of Cain (Jude 11). Go in the way of the Saviour.
Abel offered “a more excellent sacrifice” than Cain (v. 4). The ESV translated this as a more “acceptable” sacrifice.
Though we have covered the explanation of this phrase in the point above, we have not exhausted it. The phrase that appears later—“God testifying of his gifts”—helps us to see something of the quality of Abel’s sacrifice.
Cain brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground,” while Abel “brought of the firstborn of his flock and their fat.” The difference between the two was not a quantitative difference. That is, the issue was not that Abel’s cost more than Cain’s. No, the issue seems to be that Abel’s was more thoughtful, in that he seemed keen to offer the best while Cain simply sought to make an offering. Westcott helpfully notes, “The narrative in Genesis suggests that the deeper gratitude of Abel found an outward expression in a more abundant offering…. The fact that he offered ‘a more abundant’ sacrifice shows a fuller sense of the claims of God.”3 Abel gave a treasure while Cain offered a tip. This relates again to the matter of sincerity in worship.
Abel’s heart was in it and his treasure followed. Cain’s heart was not in it and so his treasure was left outside of the place of worship.
So what made the difference? Faith. Biblical faith offers to God the best because it deems God to be the best. David was a man of faith, and he committed, “I [will not] offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God with that which costs me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). Or consider the widow of faith who offered to God all that she had, even though it was but a mite (Luke 24:1–4). Malachi challenged the Jew of his day to offer God their best, not just leftovers. Second Corinthians 8–9 issues a similar challenge to new covenant believers.
Faith—saving faith, the faith that worships—is a faith that gives. Worship and wallet are connected. When you were baptised, so was your wallet! He is worthy. Give Him your best: time, talents and treasures.
It was faith “through which [Abel] obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts (v. 4). As Lane notes, “God was pleased with Abel and his offering because Abel fulfilled the conditions set forth in v. 6.”4 Or as Brown notes, “Abel offered a pure heart as well as the best gift.”5
As we study this chapter we want to keep before us the context—both historical and textual. Things were beginning to heat up for the Hebrews. They had already faced opposition from the Jews and soon Nero’s persecution would break out. They needed “endurance” (10:35–38). They would persevere in their obedience by faith. That is why the author quoted Habakkuk 2:4 as he charged his readers to endure. His point was that the Christian is justified by faith alone and therefore lives by faith alone.
Abel was not accepted by God because of his works—because of the way that he worshipped. Rather, he worshipped the way he did, and manifested these works, because he had been saved by faith. In other words, this was a response in faith because of faith. Because Abel was declared righteous, he responded righteously. He was justified by faith alone and the proof was that his faith was not alone. God commended Abel because God had converted him. Abel received a “well done” on earth and therefore a “well done” in heaven.
The Hebrews needed to consider this. They had not yet started to suffer martyrdom, but that day would come. They would face the same persecution that Abel faced because, like Abel, they worshipped in faith, while those persecuting them did not.
We don’t know how God communicated this commendation to Abel. Perhaps, as in later times, a fire from God consumed the sacrifice while Cain stood in embarrassment looking at an obviously rejected sacrifice.
Cain would later go out and build the first city. From his line, great musical, architectural, agricultural and commercial successes would flow. Yet Abel was the true success, for Abel was accepted by God. He was justified by faith alone in Christ alone. And when he died, he was not alone.
How do you measure success? Jesus answered with a question: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). From God’s perspective, the rich man was a failure, while Lazarus was a success (Luke 16:19–31). Similarly, the rich young ruler, despite all his earthly success, was ultimately a failure (Matthew 19:16–22).
Abel left no physical, genealogical legacy. Yet he lived and died a success. And you?
If your worship of God is unacceptable then you are a failure. Donald Trump is a failure. Barak Obama is a failure. Richard Branson is a failure. I am not picking on these men. I am simply illustrating this important truth. Are you too a failure? Don’t be like Cain. Repent, call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. In the end, as we will soon see, martyrs matter. Materialists don’t. Not by a long shot.
So choose today whether you will follow the folly and the way of Cain or the faith and the worship of Abel.
But how do you know if your worship today is accepted? It is not by an audible voice but by God’s Spirit bearing witness with your spirit that God is your “Abba” (Romans 8:14–16); by the Spirit confirming Scripture to your heart.
Through faith, Abel, “being dead still speaks” (v. 4). This is a very important phrase, which we need to examine carefully. What precisely does the author mean, and in what ways does Abel’s faithful worship still speak to us?
What does he mean? Everyone mentioned in this chapter was dead when the author wrote it. Everyone mentioned is in some way to be emulated because of their faith. So why is Abel specifically mentioned as one whose faith “still speaks”? In a sense, they all speak even though they are dead. Certainly Morris is correct when he says, “The main point is that Abel is not to be thought of as one long-since dead and of no present account. He is dead, but his faith is a living voice.”6
Yet there is a uniqueness about Abel’s “voice,” which is speaking even today.
The story of Abel and Cain gives the answer. When God confronted Cain for murdering his brother, God said, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Though Abel was dead, he was still speaking—to God.
In Hebrews 12:24 this is referenced again. There, it speaks of Jesus as “the Mediator of the new covenant” and the writer notes that His “blood of sprinkling … speaks better things than that of Abel.”
Without expounding that verse here, it is clear that it is the blood of Abel that is “speaking.” And again, like the blood of Jesus, it is speaking to God.
Here, in v. 4, it seems that we should maintain that consistent interpretation, but we also have the right to apply it further. The verse does not say that it is the blood of Abel that speaks to us, but that “through it” he still speaks.
The “it” is the whole episode, including (but not limited to) the blood. In other words, “By faith Abel worshipped God acceptably and by doing so he is speaking to us still about the faithful worship that pleases God (v. 6).”
Let me highlight four ways in which Abel’s example was speaking to the original recipients of this letter and to you and I as well.
The Priority and Propriety of Worship
First, his faith speaks of the priority and propriety of worship. As we have seen, worship is the beginning and end of the Christian life. Our walk with God and our work for God flows from this. We are to worship by faith. We worship according to God’s Word. As Jones puts it, “The important point to note is that faith manifests itself in worship of God according to his will.”7
Without elaborating too much, we should listen to Abel and make sure that we prioritise the worship of God. That is, we are to give Him the best. And since we cannot improve on His prescription for worship, we must worship as He has revealed. If we add to this worship then we are no longer worshipping by faith. If we reject His Word then our worship, though perhaps zealous, is in the end faithless, unacceptable and rejected by Him.
This raises the issue again of Lord’s Day worship. The corporate gathering on Sunday is an expression of faith. We gather to worship an invisible God, but we do so because God has given us Word that commands this.
We must be willing on the Lord’s Day to give Him the best or our time: the entire day. Until the church recaptures this priority, it is doubtful that we will experience the reformation and revival we so sorely need. We need to worship God properly: according to His Word. This means that we ought not to seek to bolster our worship by the “senses,” particularly by adding more “visible aids” to our worship.
Finally, what does your worship exemplify, “speak” or communicate to others concerning your faith in Christ? As we will see shortly, if your worship is faithful, then it will cheese off somebody.
The Performance of Works
Second, Abel’s faith speaks of the performance of works. We are saved by faith alone in Christ alone but, as we have come to see, such saving faith is never alone. Faith works.
The proof that Abel had faith was in his works. He obeyed God. He served God. Calvin says, “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.”8
His faithful works still speak. Do our works manifest that we truly have faith (James 2:14–26)?
Third, Abel’s faith speaks of persecuting warfare. Abel was the first martyr in history. He lost his life because he believed God. He was murdered because he looked to Christ alone for forgiveness, for the salvation of his soul. And this persecution took place within the context of family.
Phillips explains that Cain’s problem was that “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.”9 This was precisely what many of these Hebrews were facing: pressure from those to whom they were closest, pressure from “kin.” False worship is always and eventually embittered against God’s worshippers.
Once again we need to appreciate the historical context of this letter. And once again we have evidence, in the text before us, that the writer takes seriously the Lord’s Olivet Discourse.
The Olivet Discourse is found in Matthew 24–25. Shortly before He delivered that discourse to His disciples, Jesus issued some of His most stinging words to the religious leaders. He concluded that rebuke with these words:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.”
Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
Notice that the Lord here again mentions Abel as the first Christian martyr, and ties the opposition to their Jewish half-brothers. They needed to listen to the example of Abel; it needed to serve as an exhortation. They should not be surprised by the spiritual warfare in which they found themselves. Rather, their faith should be emboldened to persevere. “Run the race! Keep the faith! Believe God!”
Let’s pause here for a few words of application.
Don’t be surprised by the opposition when you follow Christ. Worship can be dangerous—both true and false worship. Jesus (Matthew 10:34–39) and His apostles (1 John 3:10–15) both warned of persecution that Christians would face.
Recognising the reality of persecution, don’t compromise when you face the opposition. Keep worshipping. I have read terrible accounts of Christian children in the Middle East being beheaded by ISIS because they will not refute Christ. It grieves my heart to hear accounts like this, but I know that those who confess Christ before men will hear their names confessed before His Father in heaven.
As Christians in South African, we live a very sheltered existence. It is easy for us to forget that, in terms of Christian persecution, the twentieth century was the bloodiest in history, and the 21st century has not yet let up. As a pastor in South Africa, I have no fear of being beheaded for my faith, and yet I know the sting of verbal persecution. I know the reality of Jesus’ words in the Sermon in the Mount: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12).
Put on the whole armour of God. That is, put on Christ. “Even violent death cannot prevent the message of faith.”10 Don’t think you cannot endure. You can. As Brown writes, “The Bible does not seek to mock us when it outlines the achievements of its great characters. It records the truth about them so that, amongst other things, we recognize that they were ordinary people who, by God’s grace alone, were enabled to do extraordinary things.”11
Know Christ and grow in Him. The way of God difficult but it is rewarding. The way of Cain is easy but is ruinous.
Fourth, Abel’s faith speaks of promised wrath. In the Genesis account, God told Cain that his brother’s blood cried to God from the ground for vengeance. In Revelation, we find that all the martyrs cry for the same:
When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
I think that F. F. Bruce is right when he says with reference to this verse and Genesis 4 that “our author’s point appears to be that Abel is still appealing to God for vindication, until he obtains it in full in the judgment to come.”12 Or as Dods puts it, “His death was not the end of him as Cain expected it to be. Abel’s blood cried for justice.”13
Believer, your faith in Christ will be vindicated one day. God was keeping a record from the time of the first martyr. He still keeps that record.
Those who abuse His people will either be converted or eternally punished. This is not child’s play! The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD was merely a foretaste of the final judgement. There is no comparison that can do justice.
We need to warn the Cains of this judgement and we need to pray for this judgement upon those who persist to reject Christ. Don’t shy away from speaking of God’s wrath! We need to take this matter seriously. We need to understand and be willing to pray the imprecatory Psalms (e.g. Psalms 58:1–11; 109:1–13ff). A Christ-centred faith is never a self-centred vengeful faith. How dare anyone defy the true and living God! Faith gets this!
This last note is a biblical note, and we could legitimately end there. Yet to do so would be incomplete, because the fact is that the faith of Abel, the faith that persevered even to the shedding of blood, speaks one other thing. Hebrews 12:24 tells us that the blood of Jesus speaks better things than that of Abel’s blood.
Whereas Abel’s blood cries out for vindication (and rightly so), the blood of Jesus cries out for vindication as well as salvation. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34) was a cry for their salvation. The blood of Jesus cries out for mercy upon sinners like you and me.
Perhaps you have been going the way of Cain. Hear the blood of the new covenant. Turn to Christ and trusting Him alone be saved from your sins and the just condemnation that otherwise awaits you. Marcus Dods adds to this thought when he summarises, “In the case of Abel, then, the excellence of faith was illustrated in two particulars, it prompted him to offer a … more acceptable offering, and it found for him a place in God’s regard even after his death.”14 Or as Calvin so succinctly puts it, “Abel was no less the object of his care after his death, than during his life.”15 And you?
One day, Jesus Christ will be fully vindicated. When He is, all who have not approached God through Him will be eternally punished. But you can escape that wrath to come. Come to Jesus. Like Abel, hear the gospel and respond in faith. Then live like the faithful worshipper that God has called you to be. By faith, come; and by faith, worship.
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 2:70. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 2:334. ↩
- B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 354. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 2:335. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 199. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:115. ↩
- Hywel R. Jones, 127. ↩
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 22:267. ↩
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 405. ↩
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 230. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 199. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 286. ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:354. ↩
- Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 4:354. ↩
- Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22:268. ↩