Abel

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Genesis 4:1-10

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.

Hebrews 11:4

Cain and Abel were the world’s first brothers. One was also the first murderer and the other the first murder victim. And the difference between them can be summed up in a single word: faith.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a hero. As I was walking through a public building recently, I noticed a new, larger than life statue of a man dressed in a World War II uniform. I stopped to read the brief paragraph on the base of the statue describing its subject’s life, a local war hero who had gone on to a distinguished career as a public servant. Looking up at the bronze features of this man who had emerged from an altogether ordinary background into a life of great achievements, I found myself wondering, what would it be like to do something so admirable that people would build a monument to you? What does it feel like to be a hero? Heroes seem to be quite rare in our experience, especially lately, but that may just be because we do not know what the criteria for authentic heroism are.

There is a sort of “hall of fame” for heroes in the Bible, in the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews. It lists the great men and women of the Old Testament, and the writer has no trouble at all finding enough candidates to fill out his space. In fact, just the opposite. “And what more should I say?” he exclaims part way through the chapter. “For time would fail for me to tell” of all those who qualified. He cannot even mention them all by name. Many of these heroes remain anonymous. The people remembered in Hebrews 11 differed in many respects from one another. Some were prominent and well known, others obscure; most were decent people, a few were less than that. But they were all alike in this: at the critical moment of their lives, they learned to put their trust in God. They were heroes of faith. However the world may choose to define heroism, it is living by faith that makes a person heroic in God’s eyes.

CAIN AND ABEL

The first hero of faith was Abel. He and his older brother Cain were the sons of Adam and Eve, which makes them the first children in the human family. Their story brings us all the way back to the dawn of human society, and it is told in Genesis, chapter 4.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

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.” (vv. 2b-7, niv)

The brothers Abel and Cain were both workers of the soil, one a herdsman, the other a farmer. Both offered sacrifices to God from their produce, but God accepted the one and not the other. Why? That is a puzzling question.

Some students of the Bible have thought that the reason might lie in a defect of some sort in Cain’s sacrifice. They suggest that Abel’s offering was of a better quality or a more appropriate nature perhaps, and that is why God accepted it while rejecting the offering of Cain. But there is no hint of that in Genesis.

The real reason is only explained later in the Bible, in the New Testament’s comment on this Old Testament incident. According to Hebrews, it was faith that set Abel’s sacrifice apart and made it acceptable to God. “By faith,” Hebrews says, “Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s” (Heb. 11:4, rsv).

The difference, you see, was in the worshipers, not their offerings. Abel’s motive for worshiping God and his attitude in approaching God were altogether different from Cain’s. Abel’s worship rose out of sincere faith in God. It was an expression of his love for God and his gratitude to God for all that God had given him.

Love and gratitude are the twin motives of worship for believers. People who do not have faith worship, if they do so at all, merely in an attempt to buy God’s favor or to manipulate him into giving him what they want. Abel’s faith, his personal trust in the goodness and grace of God, is what made both him and his sacrifice acceptable to God. As one great Christian thinker explained it, “Abel’s sacrifice pleased God because he himself was pleasing to God, and where did this pleasing come from other than that he had a heart purified by faith?” (John Calvin).

God did not accept Abel because of his offering or his worship; he accepted the worship because it was Abel’s, as a sign of his gracious acceptance of Abel himself. And that same acceptance could have been Cain’s too if only he had come to God in the same way his brother did.

HE DIED

We go on to read in Hebrews that Abel died. Have you ever switched off the evening newscast in disgust, wondering why they never seem to show anything but bad news? Why is it all violence and tragedy, crime and corruption? It is not the media’s fault, you know. This is how it has always been in the human family, ever since the beginning of time. The Bible’s first recorded news story is of a murder where the killer and his victim were brothers. Here is the story as Genesis tells it.

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. (4:8-10)

By the time we reach Genesis 4, we have come a long, long way from Genesis 2. It is only one page in the Bible, but it is an infinite distance in the story of humanity. Genesis 2 is set in the Garden of Eden where people first lived in perfect righteousness, perfect peace and happiness, perfect fellowship with God their Creator – a life we can only dream of. Genesis 4 brings us rudely into another world, inhabited by people who, despite the fact that they lived an unimaginably long time ago, are really just like us. It’s our world, the same one in which we live every day, where there is still beauty and truth and goodness but where everything is marred and twisted, and where sin (a word by the way, that makes its first fateful appearance in the Bible in Genesis 4:7) crouches at everyone’s door to spoil every good thing. It is a world where brother kills brother.

In Genesis 4, we read how Abel died at the hand of his brother Cain. Driven by jealousy, consumed with inward rage, Cain lured an unsuspecting Abel into the field and there, out of pure spite and envy at his brother’s goodness, Cain murdered him. The earth for the first time that day tasted the warm blood of a man – but not, alas, for the last time. And from that day onward, all of the treachery, the violence, the unspeakable cruelty we witness in the behavior of the human race finds its origin and pattern in that first crime. It is still brother killing brother, and the blood of the innocent continues to cry out from the earth for vengeance, and those cries continue to be heard by a righteous God who someday will call all to bear responsibility for what they do.

BUT THROUGH HIS FAITH HE STILL SPEAKS

“But through his faith,” Hebrews goes on to say, “Abel is still speaking even though he died.” The life of Abel has a continuing message for everyone who will listen. What Abel’s life of faith speaks most clearly about is righteousness. It reminds us first of all of the holy God’s uncompromising demand for righteousness. We are our brother’s keepers. God himself is perfectly righteous. “He is the rock,” says the Bible. “His works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deut. 32:4). And God demands perfect righteousness from us, his creatures, as well. God still hears every cry from the earth of all the victims of sin, including your victims and mine, and if we fail to measure up to his perfect standard, we must somehow answer for it.

But, thank God, Abel’s life also speaks about the way to find righteousness even for those who are unrighteous; in other words, for all of us. “By faith [Abel] received approval as righteous” (Heb. 11:4). Abel shows us that the way to become acceptable in God’s eyes is not through the practice of religion. No one can find forgiveness with God by carrying out the proper rituals or by making atonement through sufficient sacrifices. That is the error of religious people everywhere, including devout people in many places and from many traditions today. We all know deep down that we are not righteous in ourselves and that somehow God’s wrath against our sin must be averted, but the mistake we make is in thinking we can atone for it ourselves. Our worship does not win him over. Whether you offer him cows or corn or cash makes little difference to God. No offering is enough to buy his favor.

Nor is righteousness to be found through personal goodness. It is a natural tendency to think that salvation is a reward God bestows on anyone who gives life a good effort. If you make at least a half-hearted attempt at being a decent person, if you can point to a stock of somewhat good deeds in your life, even if you just manage to avoid being as bad as others you could name, then that is good enough. But it is not good enough. Nothing short of perfect righteousness is good enough as far as God is concerned. In Abel’s example we see another way, the only way to be righteous before God. It is the way of righteousness by faith. From the very beginning, this has been the way God has chosen to save sinners. Since neither our religion nor our good works could ever be enough to earn righteousness, God graciously chooses to credit righteousness to anyone who simply and sincerely trusts in him.

Abel and the rest of the Old Testament believers did not really understand how this could be. They could only put their faith in the goodness and grace of God in a general way. But now we know more. We have seen the fulfillment of God’s plan to come into the world in Jesus Christ and to offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for sin. Christ shed his blood to pay the penalty of human unrighteousness and now, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it elsewhere, that blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance, but Jesus’ blood offers mercy and forgiveness and a new and righteous standing with God through faith. You won’t find what you need in yourself, in your semi-good works, your sort of decent life. No one was ever saved by sobering up or by going to church or by being a good wife or husband. One can be saved only through faith in Jesus, by what the New Testament calls the “righteousness from God [that] comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). Abel shows us the way.