A new year is often a time for new resolve. That is great. I have noticed a lot more people out running. parkruns, I am sure, have increased attendance worldwide. No doubt, gyms are receiving new members, while former members also making a return to the treadmills. For many, there is new resolve when it comes to diet and weight-control.
I was at a mall the other day and the person I was with said, “Do you want to go to Krispy Kreme? It will give me a good reason to begin a diet tomorrow.” I thought that was a novel approach!
Many people have a renewed resolve to be fiscally healthy, to be academically diligent, or to be relationally stronger. That is great! Well-being is usually at the top of our agenda when a new year begins. May we all make progress this year.
But for the Christian, our well-being is much more than improvement in these areas. Rather, for the Christian, our goal is—or, at least, should be—to do “well” in living for the Lord: to know him, to love him, to serve him, to worship with our life—24/7. We are driven by the desire to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant….. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21, 23). The Christian is motivated by the desire that in whatever she is doing, she is doing it heartily as to the Lord (Colossians 3:23–24). Like Paul, the conscientious Christian makes it his aim to be well-pleasing to the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:9).
In other words, the Christian desires to so live that his or her life is one of acceptable worship; a life that seeks—hour by hour, day by day, month by month, year by year—to be pleasing and acceptable before the Lord. Love for God, because of what he has done for us in Christ compels, constrains us to live this way (2 Corinthians 5:14).
But, as we know all too well, desire is not enough. We also need to be determined and to be disciplined to carry out our duties given to us by our master: the Lord God. This is where the rubber hits the road. And so, in this study, I want to help us to get some biblical traction on how we can do better in 2019; how we can live in such a way that our lives of worship (Romans 12:1–2) are more acceptable to God; how we can do that which is well-pleasing in the sight of God.
In a previous study, we were challenged to realise and to respond properly to our immense privilege of being the dwelling-place of our glorious God—that is, to be members of Christ’s church. That realisation should produce a greater resolve to live in such a way that our God is honoured and glorified. I trust that our study today will contribute constructively to our doing so.
Many of us are familiar with the story of Cain and Abel—or, as my granddaughter says, Abe and Cable. Two brothers—the first two brothers on earth—had a relationship that ended in fratricide. The first homicide in history occurred and it happened in the context of worshipand in the context of family.
There are many lessons to be gleaned from this account. However, the primary issue we are addressing is God’s acceptance of those who, in the words of Moses, “do well” (v. 7). The primary point is being accepted by God and then living acceptably forand beforehim.
We need to ask and answer the question, “Why was Abel accepted by God while Cain was rejected?” We need to know this because there is no more important question than, how can I be accepted by God?
We need the right answer to this, and we need to embrace it. For the right answer has implications for time and for eternity.
This is my pastoral desire in this study. I want to be clear about how to be accepted by God and to be committed to living acceptably for and before him. I want us to know how, in God’s words, we can do well. What a way to live!
If 2019 will be a year in which the temple of your local church will experience more of the weighty glory of God, then how you live has everything to do with it. I trust that each of us will leave this place having experienced a “faith lift.” If we do, as our text indicates, we will also experience a “face lift.”
The Need is Great
The opening verses set the scene:
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.
To be disregarded or rejected is painful; it can be devastating in so many ways. We all desire to be regarded, to be accepted. But life is not always like that. Most of us can relate to the sorrow of being rejected.
You may remember being chosen last for a team as a child. Perhaps you knew that you actually just made the team by default rather than selection: You were the last player left, and the captain invited you over with little enthusiasm.
More seriously, perhaps you have received a “Dear John” letter or the infamous, “I like you as a friend.” Perhaps your efforts have been disregarded in the workplace, or you have faced rejection because of your ethnicity. Perhaps your viewpoint in a particular area has been dismissed as silly—or worse.
All of these examples are made worse as another person alongside, perhaps a friend or a colleague, is accepted while you are rejected.
But as painful as some of these situations are, nothing can compare to the consequences of being rejected by God. I can’t think of anything worse than standing before God one day and hearing, “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23). This is the most significant of all rejections, for its effects will be unending.
On the other hand, there can be no better experience than to know that you are accepted by God. To know God and to be known by God is the pinnacle of existence. Our text speaks to this matter.
The first family was living east of Eden (3:24). They were living in exile. They were not cut off from God (thankfully, and graciously), yet they were now facing the consequences of their earlier failed worship of God. The disobedience of Adam and Eve had brought guilt upon their progeny. This story provides indisputable proof of the doctrine of original sin.
Adam and Eve subsequently obeyed God’s first commandment: They are fruitful and multiplied. As husband and wife, they went to the marriage bed, from which came the firstfruit: a son. They named him Cain. His name means “gotten” or “acquired.” There is some debate about Eve’s declaration. Some think that she was taking some credit for the creation of a person, while others say that she was giving credit solely to God. Regardless, with the recent promise that she would be the mother of all living (3:20) and, more importantly, that from her would arise the Saviour who would destroy the serpent (3:15), she seemed to think that her firstborn son was the realisation of the promise. She would be sorely disappointed.
Some time later, Adam and Eve became parents again and they named their second son Abel, which means vapour. Sadly, this name was prophetic, for his life would be like the mist, which appears for a little time and then vanishes (James 4:14).
Adam and Eve apparently taught their sons well. In accordance with the creation mandate, they worked and kept the ground they now inhabited (4:2; cf. 2:15). Though the ground was cursed, they nevertheless carried out their priestly duty—at least externally.
Further, they were apparently accustomed to worship, as prescribed by God. We read, “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.” The phrase, “in the course of time” literally translates “at the division of days.” It implies a scheduled time of worship. This prescribed day of worship was most likely the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. After labouring all week in a world under the curse of God because of sin, this weekly sabbath worship and offering was God’s provision to keep hope alive. One day the curse would be lifted, and humanity would toil no more. This weekly worship and offering served as a regular reminder that, though life was hard, there was hope. The promise of deliverance through the appointed deliverer would come to pass.
These offerings, as the word indicates, were a gift, a tribute, or a present to the Lord. They were a visible declaration of allegiance to God. The offering demonstrated a posture of dependence upon Creator God. So far, so good. Adam and Eve apparently had done a fine job of teaching their family the importance of weekly worship. So here they were, making their offerings to God. But all was not as it appeared, as God, who knows the heart, reveals.
We are told that “the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (v. 4).
The text makes clear that God was not simply a passive observer but was rather paying close attention. His inspection of Abel’s offering was a happy one, while his inspection of Cain’s offering was one of displeasure. God inspected and accepted Abel’s offering while, at the same time, at the same place of worship, inspected and rejected Cain’s offering. What do we make of this? What does it mean for God to “regard” and why did he have “no regard” for Cain’s offering?
The word translated “regard” means to observe, to consider, or to inspect. So, as these brothers presented their offerings, God was observed, closely watching them. He was inspecting this event. He was inspecting, no doubt, whatthey offered, but more importantly, as I will prove from Scripture, howthey offered.
An Angry Worshipper
Cain’s response to God’s disregard reveals that a very unworshipful heart lay beneath the surface of his external act of worship. Cain was angry—“very angry”—and his anger was directed toward God. This is not a good place to be. I wonder how many people arrive at a place of worship angry at God. Perhaps they arrive with a smile and with friendly greetings, but seething under the surface. God sees beneath the surface and observes a disposition of anger.
The word Moses uses for “angry” means to glow or to grow warm. It denotes a blaze or burning. Cain was not merely irritated or slightly annoyed. No, he was red-hot angry. He was furious because God had rejected him while accepting Abel. As we know, the rest of the story reveals that Cain took his anger at God out on his brother, God’s nearest representative.
While Cain’s heart was filling with anger, his face was falling (v. 5). That is what the text says. Cain’s countenance revealed what was happening in his heart. His face fell because his heart failed; his countenance was unhappy because his worship was unacceptable. God made this clear. Cain needed a face-lift. So often, so do we.
Our relationship with God is often revealed in our countenance. We need to be careful here, but this is generally the case. Think of Moses (Exodus 33); think of David (2 Samuel 6); think of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2).
When we know that we are accepted by God, it influences our demeanour and our disposition. Cain was “despondent” (CSB). He did not have the proper upward look.
On the other hand, rather than looking despondent, Abel no doubt had a countenance that was delighted. For Abel, things looked up because, by God’s grace, Abel looked up. This makes all the difference when it comes to acceptable worship.
But what made the difference? This is the all-important question.
The Fundamental Difference
Please note the order: “The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering” whereas “for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (vv. 4–5). God looked at the person before he looked at the gift. God was pleased with Abel’s gift because he was pleased with Abel. God was displeased with Cain’s gift because he was displeased with Cain. The order is important, as I hope to make helpfully clear.
Nothing but the Blood?
Some say that Abel offered the best while Cain offered second best. After all, Abel brought of the fat portions and, like the paleo-diet, God likes his fat (see Leviticus)! Though this may play into this, on a secondary level, nevertheless the text seems to argue somewhat against it. The words “Abel alsobrought of the firstborn of his flock” May suggest that Cain also had brought of the first of his increase.
Related to this is the argument that Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not a blood offering. But we have no record of God’s prescription for offerings at this point in history. We often get ourselves in exegetical and applicational trouble when we go beyond Scripture.
I think we can conclude that God killing an animal in order to clothe Adam and Eve (3:21) set a precedent. But even if God had prescribed blood-shedding sacrifices, there is nothing in this text that suggests that God did not accept bloodless offerings. On the contrary, many of the later Levitical offerings prescribed by God were grain offerings.
Further, the word translated “offering” does not demand a blood sacrifice.
The ancient principle and practice of primogeniture was very strong. It would seem that the firstborn would may have been given preferential treatment. Even the concept of firstborn and firstfruits indicates this priority. But in the story before us, it is the firstborn that is rejected, while the second-born is accepted. (A pattern is being set!) So the difference was not birth order.
We should be encouraged that our acceptance by God is dependent neither upon the ability to offer something to God nor on biology. There is no partiality with God.
So, if our acceptance before God is neither because of what we offer nor because of who we are, what made the difference?
How It Was Offered
Hebrews 11:1–4 answers our question. We read, “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.”
Again, note that Abel was accepted before his offering was. This indicates that Abel had been made right with God and therefore his offering was accepted. Grace precedes works. Grace, through faith, produces works, not the other way around. In other words, our acceptance before God has everything to do with his accepting what we lay our hands on as a sacrificial offering. Abel was looking to Jesus! Abel believed in the Lord Jesus Christ!
In a nutshell, Abel approached God with a heart of dependence upon God, with a heart of trust in God. Cain obviously did not. Abel’s offering was given from the heart, not merely ritualistically. He knew that “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22).
A Fallen Face
Cain merely went through the motions, and this was revealed in his countenance. He held a grudge against Abel because he held a grudge against God. Abel offered his gift dependently, devotedly, and relationally. Cain offered his gift self-sufficiently, grudgingly, and resentfully. And God noticed.
God saw the heart, and this made all the difference in the world—and for all eternity. The way of Abel was faithful, while the way of Cain (Jude 11) was faithless and, in the end, fruitless.
If our worship will be acceptable to God—if we will be pleasing to and therefore accepted by God—it is faith that makes the necessary difference for, as the writer tells us, without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Abel had faith and his worship was acceptable; Cain did not, and his worship was unacceptable. Abel’s worship was regarded, while Cain’s was rejected.
The Just Shall Live By His Faith
To help us to get a firmer grip on this principle, consider the context of Hebrews 11.
The writer was deeply concerned that his readers trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Things were heating up for Christians in general, but particularly for Jewish Christians.
The anonymous writer exhorted his readers, over and over, to draw near to God through Christ. He feared that some would neglect so great salvation. He was concerned that, like Cain, his readers would trust in works of righteousness. He was concerned that some of them were trusting in the place of worship (the temple) and the actions of worship (sacrifices, temple rituals) rather than looking to Christ alone. Like Cain, they ran the risk of assuming that going through the motions of worship was acceptable worship. He wanted them to understand that God looked on the heart. He wanted them to know that God knew who they were really trusting. If they would live, then could only do so by faith (10:38).
The writer, however, was confident that most of his readers were those who had faith and preserved their souls (10:39). In other words, they were accepted by God; they were pleasing to him. They indeed were his beloved children, because they were in his beloved Son.
So, to encourage them, he penned an entire chapter illustrating what this faith looks like; what the life that pleases God looks like; what characterises acceptable worship.
This passage makes it clear that we can be accepted by God only through faith. The whole point of Hebrews 11 is that the only way to please the Lord is to live by faith, and that faith produces obedience—joyful, heartfelt submission to God’s word.
Every example in this chapter highlights that faith is rooted in an attitude towards God, an attitude or outlook that takes God at his word. This outlook is evidenced by obedience to God because of confidence in his character.
All of this speaks directly to our text in Genesis 4. It helps us to understand why God regarded Abel and his worship while disregarding Cain and his worship.
Note that faith is both a heart issue and an ethical issue. In other words, “the issue is the attitude, demeanour and faith of the two brothers as they come to worship…. It is Cain’s attitude and heart that are condemned by God.” It would seem that “up to this point, Cain may have appeared outwardly pious and obedient. Yet here his true character is being revealed” (Currid). Cain’s heart was the issue. It remains the issue. The greatest need—ourgreatest need—is a heart that believes God (Romans 6:17; 10:9–10).
The Choice is Ours
In an act of gracious condescension, Almighty God confronted Cain and exhorted him with the solution to his predicament: “The LORD said to Cain, ‘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).
Though God had rejected Cain and his offering, at the same time he wanted Cain to repent and be accepted, and therefore to be acceptable. “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?”
The word translated “accepted” is a play on words and could be translated “will there not be a lifting up [of your face]?” In other words, as Hebrews 11 makes clear, the solution to Cain’s predicament of rejection, his current condemnation, was faith. Quite literally, in Cain’s case, with a faith lift he would experience a corresponding face lift! And, so will you and I.
God was clearly confronting Cain with his responsibility. He confronts us with the same. We are responsible to “do well” before God. We are responsible to believe God, to worshipfully live for God, bowing the knee to him. In contrast to Cain, we must not live self-righteously and self-sufficiently. Rather, we are to live trusting God in Christ for his righteousness and then revealing that trust in the evidence of living righteously. Again, this is the message of Hebrews 11. But practically, what does this look like?
Taking God at His Word
We “do well” when we take God at his word. This begins with taking his word in the gospel. Cain needed to do this. And, if you are not a Christian, you need to do so.
Again, it is all too easy to attend a place of worship and to do acts of worship while all along finding God rejecting you and your offerings. That is, if you have not trusted Jesus Christ as your only hope, as your Saviour from your sins, then you are not doing well because, to be frank, you are not well. You need to be right with God before you can ever do anything that is right before God. You need to be made spiritually well before you can do anything truly well.
Keep Taking God at His Word
Once we have taken God at his word by believing the word of his gospel, we are empowered to continue to take him at his word. In other words, since God is faithful to keep his word of the gospel, we know that he is trustworthy to keep allhis words. If we have experienced his grace in the word of the gospel, we can be sure to experience his grace in all his other words (Romans 8:28–32ff). If we will please the Lord, then we will live by faith, meaning that we will act on God’s word, motivated by confidence in his character. When we do so, God will commend us as doing well. We need this “faith lift.” It will help us with a face lift (Psalm 121:1).
So, what are some examples of doing well and pleasing God? What does acceptable living, by those who have been accepted, look like? It looks like forgiving those who ask for our forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32) and responding to our enemies in love, praying for them, and even blessing them (Luke 6:38; 1 Peter 3:9). It looks like seeking first God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:33). It looks like not losing heart as you face adversity, adversaries, perplexities, and discouragements (2 Corinthians 4:7–16). It looks like casting your care upon him, trusting him to care (1 Peter 5:7). It looks like sanctifying the Lord’s Day and trusting God for what you are missing. It looks like loving your difficult spouse (Ephesians 5:22ff), honouring your difficult parents (Ephesians 6:1–2), and loving and disciplining and training your difficult child (Ephesians 6:3–4). It looks like giving to the Lord in difficult times (Philippians 4:19). It looks like keeping your mouth shut when tempted to backbite and gossip (Ephesians 4:29–31; Proverbs 13:3–4) and continuing to pray (Luke 18:1–8). It looks like confronting a brother or sister who needs rescuing (Matthew 18:15–20) and fulfilling your ministry in face of failure, fatigue, and foes (2 Timothy 4:5). It looks like rejoicing in hardship (Philippians 4:4) and being content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11). It looks like maintaining sexual purity (1 Thessalonians 4:1–8). It looks like fulfilling your covenantal commitment—that is, keeping your promise to be a meaningful, maturing member of the church: gathering, growing, gracing, groaning [prayer], going and giving (Acts 2:42–47).
In all of this, the choice is ours. Will you do well so that your worship might be acceptable (see Psalm 15:1–5).
There is No Neutrality
God further exhorted Cain to do what is right by revealing how perilous his position was. “And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”Neither Cain, nor you and me, live in a spiritually neutral environment. We either fight and do well or we fall and don’t do well. There is a reason the Christian is exhorted to fight the good fight of faith (2 Timothy 4:7–8).
The word picture is that of an animal, like a lion, crouching and planning to attack an unsuspecting victim. This is how the sin of unbelief lurks to destroy us. Unbelief, revealed in disobedience, creates a vacuum that all kinds of sin and horrific consequences will fill. If your life is not filled with faith in and love for God, then you are toast when it comes to the world, the flesh, and the devil.
So, if we choose to draw back (Hebrews 10:38) then we have no one to blame when our face falls as our faith fails. Christian, draw near. Non-Christian, draw near as well!
We need to realise and embrace the reality that we live in Genesis 4. That is, we are living in exile, awaiting the day when the consummated new heaven and new earth come in the fullness of their glory. That is, we are living East of Eden, awaiting the day when the gates are reopened and we once again experience perfect harmony between man and man, and between man and nature, because of perfect and unbroken harmony between man and God. In the meantime, we are to make choices with this worldview motivating us. That is, we are to make choices by faith rather than by sight.
Like Cain, we will be continually faced with a choice: Will we follow the ways of Yahweh, or the ways of sin? God’s grace is available to rule over it. Will you choose to avail yourself of this?
May God grace us all that we will do well and that corporately, we will go well this year.
The Battle is the Lord’s
The rest of the story—beginning with Cain’s murder of Abel (v. 8), and then through the rest of the Bible—is tragically well-known. Cain did not rule his desires; he chose rather to be self-righteous and self-sufficient: “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.”
Cain’s anger glowed and grew. His anger erupted in such hatred that he killed his brother. Abel became the first of millions upon millions of victims at the hands of those who chose not to do well.
Some two-thousand years later, the apostle John would write,
By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 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. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.
(1 John 3:10–13)
The principle is clear: Those accepted by God, and therefore those who seek to live acceptably for God, will face conflict. This conflict will arise not only from sinful desires (v. 7) but also conflict from those who are ruled by those desires. The Christian will face adversity from those not accepted by God. The Christian will face conflict from those who choose to not live acceptably for God. Remember that faith has everything to do with fellowship. That is, those without faith will live at odds with those who do have faith.
But we need to know that, ultimately, the enmity of such is not primarily toward us but towards the Lord. “Cain could not strike at God, so he struck at Abel” (Rushdoony). We are the messengers, and so we get shot at!
This is helps us to love our enemies. They are dead or, if they are Christians, they may be blind in and therefore to their sin. This helps us to remember that the battle is the Lord’s. And he will win it. So look to him and be empowered to “do well.” This brings us back to the most important part of this story. It brings us to Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 11 is all about these Old Testament saints who were looking towards God’s Messiah as promised to the parents of Cain and Abel (3:15). They were looking for Jesus Christ. That is why they persevered. That is why they did well. The gospel, even back then, was powerful to save and to sustain them. That is why they, like Abel, fought the good fight of faith. That is why, like Abel, though dead, they still speak (Hebrews 11:4).
God is Easy to Live With
Don’t miss the main point: Abel believed and therefore obeyed God. He did this by the grace of God. By faith he was accepted, and therefore by faith he lived acceptably. This is what the gospel does in those that it saves.
In other words, God’s holy character can only be satisfied by the righteousness of Christ. But he can be easily pleased by faith (Hebrews 11:6).
Therefore, Christian brother and sister, keep your eyes on Jesus Christ throughout 2019. If you do, then you will have all the motivation you need to do well. By looking to him you will be reminded that you are accepted by God, and this encourages you to live acceptably for him.
Non-Christian friend, like Cain, you too are faced with the choice: faith in God or faith in yourself. If you choose to live a life where you make the rules, where you determine on what basis God should accept you, then your countenance will fall. But worse, you will become irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things.
So, will you trust God’s provision of a Saviour who died in the place of sinners, taking their just wrath? Will you trust God’s Son, who then rose from the dead proving that he carried away all condemnation of those who repent and believe on him with all of their heart, confessing him with their mouths (Romans 10:9–10)? If you do, you will be accepted. You will then be empowered to do well, enabled to live acceptably before the Lord. You need this. Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ today.
A new year, new enthusiasm, new hope. May 2019 be a year of renewed faith as we grow in amazement at our being accepted by God. Then we will be moved to do well to the glory of God.