The Hero’s of Faith: Abel.

This month we start a new series looking at the ‘Hero’s of Faith’ in Hebrews 11.

‘By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks’ (Hebrews 11:4).

It is often commented that there are valuable lessons to be learnt from history.  So, in Chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews the writer feels his readers could be helped from meeting some of the characters from their religious heritage.

This is the chapter that is often a favourite part of Hebrews for Christians.  It is by far the most accessible part of the book and is the stuff of epic sermon series!  As such it can work very well!  However, what is important to remember this is really just one example!  The author of the letter to the Hebrews highlights the value of living by faith. He focuses on Old Testament individuals who exemplify strong faith and put it into action.

Starting with the ‘Primeval Prologue’ of Genesis chapters 1-11, the writer of the letter illustrates that: ‘By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous’.  The rest of the verse summarises the story in that he was killed by his jealous brother, Cain, whose sacrifice the Lord had not looked upon favourably.  In the last part of the verse the writer suggests why Abel acts as an example of faith to Christians of later generations.

There are many theories as to why Abel’s sacrifice was seen as acceptable whereas Cain’s was not.  One suggestion is Abel’s was a blood sacrifice which anticipates the redemptive element of later sacrifices.  That is possible, but there is a danger of stretching the text of Genesis 4:2-5 too far, when it is not explicit where the sacrifice is concerned.[1]  What seems more likely is that the attitude of the givers was reflected in the gifts they gave.  Abel’s offering was: ‘the firstborn of his flock’ and he offers: ‘the fat portions’ (Genesis 4:4).  His faith was such that he took his religion seriously, so he gave the best sacrifice he possibly could.  Notably, there is no mention of this when it comes to Cain’s offering.  He did not offer ‘first-fruits’ which would imply that he was not offering the best of his harvest.  Bruce Waltke obverses: ‘Cain’s sin is tokenism.  He looks righteous, but in his heart he is not totally dependent on God, childlike, or grateful.’ [2]

Abel’s offering was costly and demonstrated real faith.  The writer of the letter notes that his faith was confirmed by God accepting his sacrifice.  In Matthew 23:34-36 Jesus refers to Abel in relation to the blood of righteous servants of God being shed, by those who are enemies of God’s people.  So Abel’s faith acts as a lesson to latter generations, like ours, to take their faith seriously!

Want to listen to the sermon on this passage?  Faith that Pleases God.

[1] The killing of livestock for food would not have occurred until after the flood (Genesis 9:1-5).  Indeed the first death occurs after the fall of man in Genesis 3:21 where God cloths Adam and Eve with skins, the need for this brought about by their sin!  So the idea of sacrifice connected with sin and redemption at this point is not totally far-fetched and is worth considering.
[2] Bruce K. Waltke, with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis, A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), 97.

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