By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. (Hebrews 11:4 NIV)
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it is so true and real. We don’t have to go far into it before sin enters the world,and we have our first example of family dysfunction and murder! If this book had been written by mere men, instead of being God-breathed (as Paul describes it in 2 Timothy 3:15-17), everything would be written ideally with happy-ending stories. Instead, it very clearly portrays all of the weaknesses of these people, because this book is all about redemption from Genesis to Revelation. There isn’t one example of a perfect family - not even Jesus’s earthly family! From what we can tell, his siblings did not believe in him prior to the resurrection. In fact they kind of thought he was a bit crazy! (John 7:5, Mark 3:21)
So, right off the bat, we see Adam and Eve’s two sons had issues. We understand that sometimes there can be sibling rivalry, but this ramps up due to the extreme jealousy of big brother Cain over the acceptance of Abel’s offering to God and the rejection of his own:
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. And Abel also brought an offering—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 rule over it.” (Genesis 4:2-5 NIV)
Most commentators focus on the what of the sacrifice made by the brothers: Abel offered a blood sacrifice of the best part of his flocks, foreshadowing the redemptive work of Christ and representing a reliance on the blood for forgiveness; Cain offers the fruit of his own efforts. However, just as important it seems is the heart attitude or the why of the offering. Abel’s heart was right, which is why, in the Hebrews verses he is commended by God for his FAITH demonstrated in the offering. It was his FAITH that made Abel righteous in God’s eyes. Cain, on the other hand, displays his heart when he doesn’t just pout about the situation, he gets “very angry.”
What I find remarkable in the Genesis passage is the grace of God in this incident. First, He speaks a warning to Cain when He sees the attitude of his heart. He warns him to beware of the sin in his heart. Even when Cain ignores the warning and actually murders Abel, God offers him a way to confess and repent, but Cain turns a deaf ear with a snarky retort:
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9)
Again, even though God could have immediately instituted capital punishment, He shows grace to Cain. God drives Cain from His presence, but He marks Cain with a protective marking so that no one will harm him. (see Gen 4:10-18)
So, Abel, our first hero of faith mentioned in Hebrews, is also out first example of God’s plan that from beginning to end, salvation is by faith. What do we learn from this story? It isn’t what I DO for God that matters as much as how I approach Him and serve Him. Am I serving from a heart of love, with an awe of the majesty of our holy Creator God? Or am I serving to be seen as “righteous,” doing things to be approved by men rather than God? When I serve, am I doing it for an audience of One? Or do I toot my own horn and post on Facebook the wonderful things I’m doing so that my FB friends will “like” my efforts?
Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have our moments of doing both. Sometimes we spontaneously respond to the overwhelming grace and love of God by complete surrender of our will to His and offering up a heart that just wants to serve Him by serving others. When we do that, the rewards are eternal. But sometimes we all fall into the trap of wanting to be acknowledged for our works, and relish receiving the accolades from men. When we do that, the reward is temporal - it’s here, then gone.
What was Abel’s reward? My very favorite part of this section of Hebrews 11 declares,“And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” Thousands of years after Abel’s death, Paul says his faith still speaks to us! I have written in the margin of my Bible next to this, “Let that be said of me!” No one remembers people after they die beyond their immediate family and maybe the next generation. The reality is that, beyond the grandchildren, we are pretty much forgotten. The dusty photo albums evoke little or no emotional connection to faces we have never known in person.
Even if there is a building with your name on it, no one cares beyond your own generation. I took classes every day in Royce Hall when I was at UCLA. Do I have the vaguest idea who Royce was or why he merited a building? Nope! And I don’t really care. However, I have the knowledge of the prayers of my paternal grandmother and my husband’s paternal grandparents who fervently prayed for our families. My older sister, Jodi, did a lot of genealogical research on our family and traced a consistent ribbon of faith throughout. I am confident that the prayers of my ancestors reached down to July 16, 1976, when I received Christ as my Savior. Even though they are dead, their faith still speaks. That’s a legacy I want to leave. How about you?