The Gospel According to Abel

The Gospel According to Abel

The Gospel According to Abel.

“Faith moved Abel to choose a more excellent sacrifice to offer God than his brother Cain, and God declared him righteous because of his offering of faith. By his faith, Abel still speaks instruction to us today, even though he is long dead.” (Hebrews 11:4).

Jesus closed His Beatitudes with a cardinal rule of the Kingdom that has been true all through human history… God honors those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake. God lifts up and rewards all those who are treated badly for doing the right thing, all those who have been bullied for being innocent. (Matt. 5:10-12). Abel, the world’s first martyr for truth, is the first in a long line of people who suffered for their faith. Abel did what was right and was murdered for it at the hand of his brother Cain. Abel was called righteous in the New Testament, by the writer of Hebrews, by the apostle John (1 John 3:12), and by Jesus Himself in Mattthew 23:35. What caused this horrific and heartless murder to happen in such an early stage of human life?

After Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden for their sinful rebellion against God, they settled down outside of Eden and started a family. Eve conceived Cain (Gen. 4:2), and maybe even Abel at the same time. They could have been twins, since Scripture does not mention Eve’s conception of Abel as it does for Cain before him and Seth after him. After many years, the time had come to make an offering to their Creator as an act of worship and respect. Cain was a farmer, so he came to the altar and offered some produce of the land. Abel was a shepherd, so he offered the firstborn of his sheep with the choicest portions. They both sacrificed a part of their labor, and in that way both acknowledged the Lord. So far so good.

But when God saw the offerings, He accepted Abel’s and rejected Cain’s. Cain then grew despondent and angry at this rejection, at which time God confronted Cain. Why are you so upset, asks God. You can be accepted too if you sacrifice in the right way. But I can tell that you are giving yourself over to evil, and sin is lurking at your door like some wild animal. You need to master your passions, Cain, control yourself. Don’t let your passions get control of you. But Cain didn’t heed God’s warning, and in  a fit of jealous anger he soon killed his brother Abel, the world’s murder.

Why did God accept Abel’s offering? God never says so directly, but we can read into the story about why God considered Abel’s sacrifice “more excellent.” Revealing his pure heart toward God, Abel offered the best of what he had, the choicest portions of his firstborn sheep. Abel told God in this sacrifice that nothing but the best would do, Lord. You deserve the highest of sacrifices, for you are great! The sacrifice itself was telling too, for Abel had a discerning heart and offered God a blood sacrifice, the only worthy sacrifice to the God who gives life. Through a finely tuned spiritual intuition, Abel discovered through faith that nothing else would please God more. And in the process anticipated when a Lamb would be sacrificed for the salvation of the world. God wanted a sacrifice that would look forward to the gospel of Redemption, and only someone with the eyes of faith could have seen that. Abel’s heart was in union with God, and he anticipated a future Redeemer.

Why then did God reject Cain’s offering? We can surmise in the text that Cain had a heart problem, and he didn’t understand what would please God. His sinful heart disease included:

Selfish Pride. Sin had a grip on Cain’s character, and there was a heartfelt, habitual yielding to that sin. Cain could have offered a blood sacrifice once he discovered that that was the more excellent way to worship God. He could have simply asked Abel to give him choice sheep for the sacrifice. But he couldn’t be bothered with what it took to learn from his mistake, even after God basically suggested just such a thing. But he didn’t, because his pride kept him from admitting his grave spiritual error. Cain evidenced no sorrow over his actions, no repentance even after murdering his brother in cold blood. He could have asked for forgiveness and pled for pardon. But he didn’t. He had developed a stubborn pride that kept him from submitting to the Lord.

Rabbinic literature includes many thoughts regarding Cain’s pride, and this insight from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach is fascinating: “Let’s look at the first two brothers in the world. What was the problem with Cain and Abel? Imagine if Cain would have said to God, ‘It’s true I am not high enough to bring my sacrifice to You, but I am so glad You received my brother’s. How can I ever thank You for giving me a brother who is so holy.’ Do you know what would have happened? Cain’s sacrifice would have reached even higher than Abel’s.'” That’s a great point… Humility just like that may have been the type of sacrifice God was looking for from Cain.  The sacrifice of generous love and heart-felt thankfulness.

Untamed Passions. God gave Cain fair warning… master your passions, your impulses, or they will master you. But he didn’t accept that warning. He let his passionate emotions control him, and in a fit worthy of a two year old, he committed the gravest sin imaginable. Even when given a chance to accept moral responsibility for what he had done to Abel, Cain rejected the idea of being his brother’s keeper. Cain was habitually ruled by his impulses, and he failed the ultimate test when it presented itself. Cain had no inner check on his emotions, and he paid the price when God held him accountable for his terrible deed.

Bloodless Sacrifice. Maybe Cain’s pride kept him from asking Abel for help in his sacrifice. Maybe he was so far from a faithful life that murder was just the next step in the process. But Cain didn’t anticipate Redemption, because he didn’t have eyes of faith that could have led him to the future gospel story. After developing a life away from God’s influence, he didn’t have the discernment to hear God’s voice telling him that a blood sacrifice was the most excellent offering. Cain did not worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24), because he had wandered far from God in his heart. The realities of spirit and truth were evidently foreign to Cain, and he was ordered to wander for the rest of his sorry life.

It’s no wonder that Abel is the first person mentioned in Hebrew 11‘s Hall of Faith. Abel was the first superstar in our Judeo-Christian faith. Abel gave us a foretaste of the Redemption story by innocently dying a martyr’s death after offering righteous blood as a sacrifice. Abel anticipated the Lamb’s sacrifice and the importance of obedience even unto death. In Abel we see the gospel story, written thousands of years before Jesus. Abel died on the cross of truth and faithfulness, a pre-historical telling of an age-old truth… Blood is the stuff of life, and righteous blood must be spilled in order for human life to be redeemed. Abel offered a blood sacrifice with his sheep, and then with his own life. And we can be sure Abel is receiving the rewards of a short, well-lived life as an ancient prophet for the gospel.