Jesus and Abel

Hebrews 11:4

May 6, 2018

One of the questions that I get periodically is “Why did God accept the offering of Abel but not the offering of Cain?” What is interesting to me is just how many different answers are given by various pastors and commentators.

Some have suggested that the difference between the sacrifices was that Abel offered the whole of an animal and that cain only offered “some” of his crops — so the matter has to do with volume. How much is given to God. Others suggest that it was because Abel’s offering was a blood offering and Cain’s was merely an offering of vegetables. Of course, in the scriptures, God requires all sorts of offerings, including non-bloody offerings to be made. 

Still others say that Abel offered the best of what he had and that Cain brought leftovers — essentially what he didn’t want or didn’t use. At least, this one is closer to the answer, but it still is only a part of the answer to the question.

You see, one of the things that becomes important as you answer this question has to do with the nature of sacrifice. Put it this way: Is it the sacrifice that makes a man acceptable before God or is it the man who makes the sacrifice acceptable to God?

And, I have to be honest, through the ages, the church has fallen on different sides of this question. 

Historically, Rome has said that it was the sacrifice that made man acceptable to God, so the importance is placed on the ritual and not on the one performing the ritual. That is why a priest, no matter how wicked he is (in their view) is still able to make acceptable offerings so long as he follows the forms of the prayers and liturgy.

Luther and Calvin both said that it was a combination of both — that it was the sacrifice that made the man acceptable but the man making the sacrifice needed first to be made acceptable to God. That may sound circular, but it makes sense from a certain perspective, and if you want to explore that further, let’s take that up at TOPIX tonight.

The English Puritans and the German Reformed Christians (particularly those migrating to the US) held to the view that it is the heart of man that makes a sacrifice acceptable, that even if the right things are done, if those things are being done as a matter of just going through the motions and behind them is an unrepentant heart, then God rejects the sacrifice being offered.

This is essentially what God speaks through the prophet Isaiah:

“‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the Lord, ‘I have had enough of the burnt offerings of rams and of fat, well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls or lambs or goats. When you appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New Moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations, I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you speak out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you. Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen, your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes. Cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.’”

(Isaiah 1:11-17)

Similarly, God says to the people through Jeremiah, “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable to me” (Jeremiah 6:20). Just as with Cain’s sacrifice, God is not accepting Israel’s sacrifice for they are under judgment.

God repeats this again and again. Note:

Amos 5:21-22; 1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 40:6-8; 51:16-17; Hosea 6:6; Proverbs 21:3; Ecclesiastes 5:1; Micah 6:6-8; Exodus 19:5, etc…

So, what makes a sacrifice acceptable to God? It is a broken and a contrite heart, a life that is obedient and seeks to do God’s word…or, in brief, a life that is lived by faith. And that is exactly what the author of Hebrews says about Abel’s sacrifice:

“In faith, Abel offered a better sacrifice to God than Cain, because of which it was declared that he was righteous — God declaring such by receiving his gifts — and through it, even being dead, he yet speaks.”

So, why did God accept Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s? It was because Abel offered his sacrifice in faith while Cain did not. It was not a matter of volume or of blood. And while Abel did offer the best and firstfruits, this was offered because of his faith, while Cain was just going through the motions of religion.

It’s about the heart of the worshipper. 

By the way, this is the value of reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. 

Yet, the author adds a clause after the language of Abel’s faithful sacrifice for he tells us that the witness of Abel still continues today. Perhaps this is what Jesus referred to Abel as the first prophet (Luke 11:50-51).

So, how does Abel speak to you and to me? To begin with, let me remind you that while the blood sacrifices are completed, fulfilled by Christ’s once and for all time sacrifice, we are still called to offer our lives as a living sacrifice to God…That’s the language of Romans 12:1. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable (logical) worship.”

So, what is that saying?

Paul is saying that if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, your logical and worshipful response is to do this — to offer your body, pure and undefiled, as a living sacrifice. But let us break this down even further to make sure we know what Paul is stating…

So, what does it mean to offer your body pure and undefiled as a living sacrifice?

Most commonly in the Bible, that which defiles the person falls into one of two categories: Adultery and Idolatry.

And the application of this ought to be obvious:

Christian: keep yourself physically pure, protect your virginity until you are married.

This has never been a popular position in society, but especially in today’s culture where sexuality seems to be an assumed part of the dating process, but as Christians we are to set the standards for the culture, not conform to it.

Sexual behavior of any sort that is outside of a marriage relationship between one man and one woman is sin. Permissiveness in this area defiles the body and the community in which you live.

But let us not stop there, because those of us who are married are not off of the hook. The Bible calls us to faithfulness in our marriages. Affairs in action or in spirit (fantasizing about someone not your spouse — and this includes pornography) is sin along with sexually immoral practices within the marriage bed.

The good news is that with repentance (turning around, changing your mind), there is forgiveness in Jesus and you can recommit yourselves to keeping your body pure.

But we are not done yet because almost as regularly as sexual immorality is spoken of as defiling the people and the community, Idolatry is spoken of as well.

Idolatry need not be bowing down to something made of wood or metal in your home. It is anything that you are serving as a master other than the Lord Jesus Christ or it is anything in your life that gets in the way of your relationship with God.

Look, Jesus states that it is impossible to serve two masters — you will end up hating the one and devoted to the other (Luke 16:13).

So, when two things come into conflict or tension in your life, to which do you give priority? 

That does not mean that the other thing is bad in and of itself, but it cannot be allowed to interfere with your spiritual growth and maturity.

For our younger members, your schoolwork, your school activities or sports can all become idols. For adults, your businesses, your job, your hobbies, your pride, your family, your volunteer association, even your opinion — each of these things becomes an idol if it conflicts with your prayer time, your devotional time, your worship here and at home, etc…

And folks, do not think that this simply applies to the “I’m not going to go to church today because I have too many other things to do” crowd — or to those too lazy to wake up in the morning…you can come to church faithfully every Sunday of your life, week in and week out, and still die damed and condemned to Hell because your heart is not in submission to Christ. You can’t earn it with good works, your presence, or with anything else. It is about being born again in faith…and that is testified to in your works — the fruit on your tree. 

So, what are the fruit on your tree? If they are not love, you, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control and a Biblical approach to faith and life, then again, you need to repent from your sin this morning and recommit yourselves to living a life that is pure and undefiled.

Do you get the idea? So what then of your body as a living sacrifice? The author of Hebrews is going to talk about a sacrifice of praise which acknowledges God’s name and shares what we have (building Christ’s kingdom and not our own)…just ask yourself this: which kingdom are you focused first and foremost on building— Christ’s or your own? Don’t hear me wrong, there are nice things in this world and it is not wrong to enjoy them, but what would this world look like were we all to live intentionally for Jesus?

For example:

Instead of buying that nice new car, buy a used one and give the difference to a missions group.

Instead of doing that renovation to your home that is nice but not essential, consider building a school in Kenya or Ukraine, for example.

Instead of taking that fancy vacation, take a more modest one and give the difference in cost to missions work … or better yet, make your vacation a missionary trip, it will change you in profound ways.

On a smaller level, instead of that meal at a restaurant, take that money and use it to buy a really nice study Bible, highlight and make some notes in it, and then give it to someone as a gift.

I trust you are getting the idea. The bottom line is that Abel’s voice is echoing through the ages — we do not know much about the man outside of his death, but that is the message…live your life, give your life even for the Kingdom of God — the things of this world are fleeting.

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