The Faith of Abel

Hebrews 11:44 By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.

  • 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.” The Hebrew writer declares that Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. He has left something for us.  The verb rendered “speaks” is in the active present tense, suggesting that, in some sense, Abel’s faith continues to speak to us today.  What is he saying to us?  What can we learn from the faith of Abel?

I.  Who was Abel? His name appears very early in the Bible. He is the second son of Adam and Eve. He is the younger brother of Cain, who later becomes his murderer. The story of Cain and Abel is a familiar one. Read  Genesis 4:1-8 – 4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the Lord.” 2 Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 3 And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. 4 Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, 5 but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 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.” 8 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.

A.   Abel was a shepherd; Cain was a farmer.  Both Cain and Abel were worshippers who approached God with offerings from their respective occupations. God honored or approved of Abel and his offering, but did not approve of Cain or his offering.

II.  Why did God approve of Abel and reject Cain? This question is often discussed and debated.  I believe that we can draw some valid conclusions from the text and come to a reasonable answer.

A.  The facts recorded by Moses in the Genesis account are:

  • Both Cain and Abel came to worship before the Lord and both brought a sacrifice.
  • But they brought different sacrifices.
  • Abel brought an animal from his flock (a bloody sacrifice, and the fat thereof) Cain brought a sacrifice of the fruit of the ground (a bloodless sacrifice).  Abel brought the firstborn of his flock. There is no description of Cain’s sacrifice.
  • Thus, the distinction between the offerings in this account is in the actual type of sacrifice that was offered. .

B.   Other N.T. references shed some light on this question as well. The Hebrews 11:4 text clearly says that

  • Abel’s sacrifice was “more excellent” than Cain’s sacrifice. (notice that it does not say that Abel’s disposition or attitude was more excellent, but his sacrifice)
  • It also states that Abel offered his sacrifice “by faith”. The text would seem to imply that Cain’s sacrifice was not offered “by faith”, and that this was the reason why it was inferior.

1.   An important passage to consider in this discussion is Romans 10:17 –  17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

2. If faith comes through hearing God’s words, then Abel, and by implication, Cain, had been told beforehand what type of sacrifice God wanted.  God had given commandment concerning worship. That fact that they brought their offerings at the same time may suggest that God had specified a time or occasion (Young’s literal Translation – “at the end of the days”). We are not given the specifics of God’s requirements in the text, but we can know that Abel had faith in what God said and obeyed God. Cain did not, and he disobeyed God’s commandment.

3.  I am convinced that when you put these passages together, the best understanding is that Cain’s sacrifice was not the type of sacrifice that God wanted. It was more than an improper attitude. There is no evidence that Cain was insincere in his approach. But there is a distinction drawn in what they offered.

  • John MacArthur makes these comments:  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. (from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Copyright © Moody Press and John MacArthur, Jr., 1983-2007.)

III.  What was the fruit of Abel’s faith? Throughout this 11th chapter of Hebrews the writer will point us to both the action of faith (obedience) and the reward of faith (God’s approval). This verse mentions two results of the obedient faith of Abel:

A.Through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts” (Heb 11:4) There is some discussion as to the subject of this phrase – Was it through Abel’s faith, or through his sacrifice that he obtained a witness that he was righteous?  In reality it matters not which way we view it. He offered his sacrifice by faith and therefore any fruit of this sacrifice was obtained by his faith. (this is just another place where faith cannot be effectively separated from the action of obedience). But since the theme of this chapter is faith, it seems best to view faith as the subject here.

1.  Abel was shown to be righteous: God provided a witness (or the clear import of testimony in some form) that Abel was accepted. How did God show that Abel was accepted? Did he send fire down to burn up the sacrifice? God did that on several occasions – (such as for Elijah on Mt. Carmel, and Gideon in Judges 6, etc.) Whatever the means, God’s approval was manifest, as well as His disapproval of Cain.

a.  It can also be understood that God continued to show his approval of Abel through the Spirit’s recording of this event for all time. (“he being dead yet speaks”)

2.  The only avenue to righteousness is obedient faith. This does not mean that anyone earns the designation of being righteous through doing everything right. Abel sinned, just as all men have sinned. But God honors our faith as it obeys His word, so that the only true righteousness is in obeying the commandments of God. (The righteous live by faith)

  • “All thy commandments, O God, are righteousness” (Ps 119:151).
  • Consider Zacharias and Elizabeth  – 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. (Luke 1:6)
  • Jesus obeyed the commandment to be baptized (which did not apply to Him and from which he might justly have claimed exemption). But he was baptized in order to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:16).
  • Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
  • 1 John 3:11-1211 For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, 12 not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous. John’s words seem to indicate that Cain displayed his character over a period of time (not just one unacceptable sacrifice).  So it was his “works” that were evil and Abel’s “works” were righteous. Their righteous and unrighteousness was defined by what they did or did not do.

B.through it he being dead still speaks”  – again the subject is Abel’s faith. Through his obedient faith he continues to speak today.  How does Abel speak, even though he is dead?

1.   After Abel’s murder the Lord spoke to Cain and 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. His blood was crying out for justice and his murder to be avenged.

  • Revelation 6:9-10 – 9 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. 10 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?” Since the time of Abel, those who have died unjustly await their justice. Abel’s voice tells everyone that God will judge the evil and avenge the righteous.
  • Burton Coffman writes…His [Abel] blood crieth from the ground, and not merely his, but the blood of all the innocents ever slain from that primeval violence until the end of the ages. God has appointed a day in which he will settle accounts, and nothing can show the necessity of such a thing any more than the blood of Abel. No punishment of Cain could bring Abel back. He sank into the grave while the swift centuries fled, while Cain went out to build a city and continue his posterity in the earth. What about Abel? How is justice ever to be had for him without a judgment day? And that is exactly what the blood of Abel says, that there will indeed be a day of reckoning, that God is keeping the score, that vengeance shall be meted out to the evil-doer, and that the faithful shall be rewarded. …The blood of Abel warns the murderer, and every wrong-doer, that the Creator will yet require that the account be settled. (from Coffman’s Bible Commentary, Copyright © 1971-1993 by ACU Press, Abilene Christian University. All rights reserved.)

2.  After his death, Abel’s voice also spoke to his brother, Cain.– God told Cain…“So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.” (Genesis 4:11-12) Every piece of earth under Cain’s feet would remind him of his wicked deed. The earth, in effect, rejected Cain as he had rejected God and his brother.

3.  But the primary meaning of Heb 11:4 is that Abel’s faithful sacrifice continues to speak later generations of God’s people. What does he say to us?

a.  God cares about how we worship Him. He has always revealed the correct way to approach Him – by faith.

b.  Man cannot please God without faith.

c.   The faith that pleases God is a faith that accepts and obey God’s revelation above his own reason and self-will; It is an obedient faith. It is the only path to righteousness.

d.   The righteous God will be opposed and suffer at the hands of the unrighteous.

d.   But God will hear the cry of those who suffer for Him and He will punish all evil.

e.  The faith of Abel, along with the faith of all those who will follow in this great chapter  is crying out “The righteous shall live by faith”

Conclusion: Abel wanted to please God. His faith gave him the opportunity to do just that. If you truly want to please God you will not hesitate to act upon your faith and obey Him. God will honor your faith by testifying that you are righteous, even as righteous Abel.