Abel is the first witness of faith presented in Hebrews 11. In verse 4 we read, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.” Abel’s sacrifice is the first act of faith recorded in Scripture. With his sacrifice he revealed the confidence and conviction of faith. His witness stands in stark contrast to that of his brother Cain, who was an unbeliever, void of faith. In the wickedness of his unbelief Cain slew his brother with no sign of repentance. Jesus informs us in Matthew 23:35 that Abel was also the first martyr whose righteous blood was shed because of his faith. With these two brothers God’s sovereign decree of predestination begins to unfold in history. God told Adam and Eve after their fall into sin that two seeds—two types of people—would develop in this world: the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. The seed of the woman consisted of elect believers. The seed of the serpent consisted of the reprobate, who are void of faith. Abel was of the seed of the woman, while Cain was of the seed of the serpent. The enmity or hatred of the wicked over against the righteous becomes immediately evident at the dawn of history.
Yet, the focus of the writer to the Hebrews is the faith of Abel. By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain. But considering that faith of Abel we must also consider the act of Abel’s faith, that is, his sacrifice. He leaves us a witness not only of what faith is, but also of the fruits of true faith. In other words, Abel’s faith was revealed in what he did. True faith always results in good works. The two cannot be divorced from one another, as we will find throughout Hebrews 11. James explains in James 2:22, “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?”
Bear in mind that while considering this faith of Abel we also must ask ourselves the question: is our faith the same as his? Do we who live at the close of history cling to the promises as Abel did at the beginning of history? Do we receive this testimony from God, that we please Him? Abel’s example of faith is given for our instruction.
Abel’s More Excellent Sacrifice
I. His Sacrifice
Cain and Abel were the first to be born of Adam and Eve. By the time the events of our text transpired we can be sure that other sons and daughters were born to Adam and Eve too. Cain and Abel were adults by the time they offered their sacrifices. Cain was the older of the two brothers. The two of them had entered into their own occupations in life as well. Cain was a farmer. He eked out a living by the sweat of his brow, working with the sin-cursed earth to bring forth fruit. Abel, on the other hand, was a shepherd caring for his flocks and herds.
Something also needs be said about the spiritual identity of these first two children of Adam and Eve. Both of them were born into the line of the covenant. Their parents, Adam and Eve, were themselves in God’s covenant. God created them in fellowship with Him. Likewise, directly after the fall into sin, God had given to them the central promise of the covenant, that is, that one would be born of the seed of the woman who would conquer sin and Satan. With a view to that coming Messiah, Adam and Eve were taught how to sacrifice. Skins of animals were given them as a covering. The blood of these animals was shed in order to teach them that blood needed to be shed for a covering of their sin. Adam and Eve passed on this act of worship to their children. This is why we find Cain and Abel offering their sacrifices to Jehovah.
Likewise, as children of the covenant these two sons were taught of the perfect fellowship their parents had shared with the ever blessed God in Paradise. They were taught of the subsequent fall into sin and the promise of God of the Messiah. They were taught of the devastating results of their sin on their children and the need for their children too to look to that one promised them who would earn for them the forgiveness of sin. All of this was taught to these two sons—probably pounded into them by their parents. They knew. They knew intimately what had happened and that the only way of forgiveness was to look for that one seed of the woman who could alone overcome sin. This is why we can say Cain and Abel were born into the covenant.
But God’s sovereign decree of election and reprobation now began to unfold within the sphere of the covenant family of Adam and Eve. God did not will to save Cain. He was reprobate and therefore his heart was blinded by unbelief. God had not regenerated him by His Spirit. As a result, the corruption passed on to him from Adam and Eve had consumed his heart, mind, and will. The promise meant nothing to him therefore. Abel, on the other hand, was an elect. God had chosen to work in his heart by His grace. The Spirit worked in his heart giving him a spiritual understanding of sin and salvation in the Promised One, who is Christ. Not, mind you, the same understanding we have today. But he understood the promise of salvation in the coming Messiah. He understood the meaning behind the sacrifice. This day-and-night spiritual difference between Cain and Abel revealed itself in the sacrifices they offered.
Some would say that the sacrifices of Cain and Abel really were not of the essence. Our text emphasizes the faith of Abel, they say. There can be no doubt that the emphasis of God’s Word today, as we will find, falls on the faith of Abel. But faith produces works, and Abel’s sacrifice was indeed the fruit of his faith. Besides, our text states it clearly enough—Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain. Abel’s sacrifice was more excellent. This does not mean that Cain offered an excellent sacrifice and Abel’s was more excellent. Cain’s sacrifice had no value at all. We read in the Genesis account that God did not have respect unto Cain’s sacrifice. God did not honor it. He was not pleased with it. But God did have respect to Abel and his sacrifice. So, let’s examine the sacrifices of these men.
Cain was a farmer. We are not told what his crops were, whether that of grain, or grapes, or vegetables. But he offered to God upon an altar of the fruit of the ground, that is, the yield or some of the produce from his fields. These he offered to God. He brought or presented his fruit to God for acceptance. Abel was a shepherd and actually offered to God a sacrifice. The word sacrifice literally refers to one that is slain. This technically could not be said of Cain’s offering. He did not slay his fruit. Abel, we learn in Genesis 4:4, “brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.” He sacrificed a young lamb upon the altar and burned the fat and meat of it there. These were the offerings brought to God.
Now, we might think that it was rather natural for Cain to bring fruit since he was a farmer and Abel to bring a lamb since he was a shepherd. But this was not the case. Both had been taught what a proper sacrifice was. Both understood the meaning of a sacrifice. We are told that Abel’s sacrifice was more excellent than Cain’s. You see, there was significance in slaying a lamb—the shedding of the Lamb’s blood. A lamb was a “gift,” so to speak. Our text refers to this when it says, “God testifying of Abel’s gifts.” Abel presented before God a gift—an expression of honor. He offered a lamb in order to honor and thank God for what God had done for him. The lamb, of course, pointed ahead to the blood of the Messiah that would be shed in order to make one righteous before God. No doubt Adam and Eve had explained this truth to their children. Cain and Abel knew of the significance of a proper sacrifice to God. This is why God showed respect to Abel’s sacrifice but had no respect for Cain’s offering. Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.
II. His Faith
But these were merely the outward form of the offerings the brothers brought. It is true that Cain’s offering was not acceptable. But it is equally true that a man or woman might offer from a formal or outward point of view a perfect sacrifice of a lamb in form, but not offer it from a sincere heart. Many in the nation of Israel later did this. And of these sacrifices David could write in Psalm 51:16, 17, “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” What must be emphasized both with respect to Cain’s offering and Abel’s sacrifice is the attitude of the heart in their offerings. What characterized these two men spiritually revealed itself in what they offered, but it was why they offered what they did that set them apart. You see, Cain offered his sacrifice out of the pride of his heart. Because Cain was reprobate he was void of faith. And, as we will learn in connection with Enoch in verse 6 of Hebrews 11, “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Cain saw no need for the forgiveness of his sins through the blood of the Promised One who was to come. He was not convicted in his heart of the need for a Savior from sin. He did not hope for the coming of Christ. For that reason he offered of the finest of the increase of his fields. “Look what I have offered as a gift to you, Lord. It is the best of the works of my hands. I am giving it to you to earn your favor and blessing. I put hard labor in an effort to bring forth these good fruits.” Cain thought that the works of his own hands had meritorious value. God should be pleased with him because of what he did for God.
We find in Cain’s attitude the self-same sin that is ingrained in the flesh of every person, that we are somehow able to earn our salvation, earn God’s favor. The age-old error of work righteousness already showed its ugly head at the very beginning of time. It is an error born out of the pride of man. Instead of humbling himself before God and acknowledging his own unworthiness before God (recognizing the debt of his sin and the need for payment of that sin), instead of a humble heart that understands the horrible plight into which man has fallen, wicked men in their pride imagine that they can earn, or at least assist in earning, God’s love and favor. Cain felt that on the basis of what he did God should now be obliged to accept him as he was. Cain saw no sin in himself and therefore no need for salvation.
To the opposite extreme stood Abel, in whose heart God had worked by His grace. If you recall in connection with the first couple of verses of Hebrews 11, we discovered that one cannot believe without being regenerated by the Spirit. At the time of regeneration, the Spirit of Jesus Christ begins a powerful work in the heart of the child of God. He grafts us into Jesus Christ so that we become one with Him. At that time the life of Jesus Christ flowed forth out of Him and into us, opening our eyes and our understanding to the things of God. We become convinced of our sin and the need of a Savior that we might be reconciled to God. We are convicted that such a Savior must take away our guilt by paying the price of sin and making us righteous before God.
Well, people of God, that conviction of sin and the need of a Savior is faith! It is a faith that God works in the heart of every elect, regenerated child of God. That faith characterized Abel: “by faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice. By faith Abel saw himself as a sinner. In sorrow he offered unto God the sacrifice of a lamb, not as mere outward, formal sacrifice, but because he saw in the blood of the lamb his hope. It was the substance of things hoped for. He recognized his place in God’s eternal inheritance on the grounds of the Promised One, who would deliver him from his sin. He came before God therefore with the humble petition on his lips: “Forgive me my debts!” Such was the faith Abel revealed in his sacrifice he now offered to God.
The writer to the Hebrews adds in our text, “by which [that is, by which faith] he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts.” By faith Abel was given the assurance that he was righteous before God. Abel was justified before God. He received the testimony from God that his sins were forgiven him. Abel obtained witness from God that though guilty and worthy of condemnation in himself he was perfectly innocent of all sin. The righteousness promised him in the coming Messiah was his.
As a result, Abel received this testimony from God that for the sake of Him who was promised he was worthy of God’s love and favor and an heir to the promise of eternal life. This was of course not true of Abel on the grounds of his faith—and certainly not on the grounds of his sacrifice itself. It is true that God testified concerning Abel’s gifts (that is, his sacrifice) that Abel was righteous. This simply means that God approved of the sacrifice of Abel. It was evidence of Abel’s faith, after all. But the testimony or witness Abel obtained from God was this: by means of faith, Abel, you have been freely given the righteousness of the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Cain received from God the opposite testimony: you are yet in your sin. Forgiveness is not yours. The righteousness you sought after by works you have not received. You stand under guilt and condemnation.
The question is, how did God show respect to Abel’s sacrifice and how did God show that He had no respect for Cain’s sacrifice? The simple answer is: God told them so. It is true that subjectively we receive this assurance today by faith. No doubt the same was true of Abel too. But our text speaks of God’s testimony and of God’s witness to Abel. Besides, we also know of God’s testimony to Cain: he was not pleased with Cain’s offering. This means God’s testimony came to Abel and Cain objectively. This testimony of God was, no doubt, spoken to them. I know we do not read of this in our text or in the account in Genesis 4. But later God speaks with Cain after Cain murdered Abel. It is by deduction that we can say that God testified to these two men that he was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice and not pleased with Cain’s. We today also receive God’s testimony. But today God tells us in His Word that we are righteous in the blood of Christ. It is written down objectively in the Scriptures. This does not discount the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts. When we by faith ask God in our prayers for forgiveness, when we in faith acknowledge our sin and flee to the cross of Christ, we receive the testimony of the Spirit with our spirts that we are righteous for Christ’s sake.
III. His Blessing
Our text concludes that Abel “being dead yet speaks.” This cannot be understood unless we consider the rest of the account. Cain was angry with God’s assessment of his offering. Instead of humbling himself before God and admitting that his offering was sinful, Cain walked away in pride and anger. But there is more too because the whole of Abel’s conduct revealed his faith—not just his sacrifice. This faith of Abel was a witness against Cain’s unbelief and sin. So, Cain was not simply angry with God but with his brother too. One day as they were in the field Cain and Abel spoke to each other. The result of that conversation is that Cain became angry and slew Abel—killed him in cold blood. Then left him in the field, Abel’s blood seeping into the ground. It is then that God asked Cain where his brother was and Cain answered God in pride, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” There is no fear of God before the eyes of reprobate unbelievers. Abel’s blood spoke to God from the ground. Not literally, of course, but that blood spoke to God of how precious that blood of His beloved child was.
But that blood of Abel is a testimony to us, people of God. It speaks to us. By his faith Abel, though dead, speaks to us. What is his testimony to us? His faith! Such faith is what must characterize us! We must know our sins and humbly confess them to God. These must be the sacrifices we offer to God: a broken spirit and a contrite heart. These God will not despise. We must with confidence and conviction of heart believe in the promises of God to us that are found in Jesus Christ. In faith we cling to Him and the righteousness He alone has earned for us. Then we come in humble worship of His name and offer ourselves as living sacrifices of praise to Him. Unto such God has respect.