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In Hebrews 11, the Faith Chapter of scripture, the writer cites Abel as his first example of genuine faith and how faith translates into actions of which God approves. Abel teaches us offerings of a sacrificial nature were a key component in God's relationship with fallen man from the outset of history. The companion passage in Genesis 4:3-8 provides background for the diverse approaches Cain and Abel took. These texts enable us to connect the dots to determine exactly what it meant for Abel to offer a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.
Our text is Hebrews 11:4:
The phrase by faith is a translation of the Greek pistis in the dative case. There is no preposition in the original text. The literal sense is: “With reference to faith, Abel offered.” We must remember revelation is ALWAYS the foundation for faith. Faith CANNOT operate apart from revelation! Faith is NEVER blind. The definition of faith given in 11:1 tells us Abel was confidently expecting something from God by way of his offering and confident he would receive it. His faith was evidence he would obtain from God what he expected. The contextual facts of Hebrews 11 lead us to ask: (1) What did Abel hope (expect) to receive from God?, and (2) What evidence did Abel have he would receive what he expected?
Let's answer the second question first. The interpreter of scripture is not entitled to invent truth if it's not set forth in the pages of Holy Writ. But he is allowed to reasonably infer what scripture abundantly suggests. The LORD God told Adam if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the SOLE restriction to an otherwise TOTAL freedom—he would surely die in the day he ate thereof (Genesis 2:16-17). After Adam and Eve sinned and before God drove them from the Garden, scripture says: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them” (3:21).
In so doing, God introduced the principle of substitution as a redemptive component that would run throughout biblical history and culminate in the Cross of Christ. Spiritual death occurred immediately. Physical death came with the animals, from which God made coats of skins. From the animals that died FOR them came clothing to hide their nakedness, a foreshadowing of the gospel of Christ, who died FOR our sins and clothes the believer with his own righteousness. What Abel learned from his parents was evidence based on this revelation: Certain death because of sin could be deferred through the death of a substitute, from which a divine attestation of righteousness by faith was obtainable.
Now we'll address the first question. For what was Abel looking? The answer is in 4:7: acceptance! God had “respect” unto Abel's offering (4:4) but not to Cain's (4:5). The Hebrew word respect conveys the idea of a favorable look or gaze. When God looked at Abel's offering, he did so with favorability. But he didn't look upon Cain's offering with the same favor. It is not within the scope of this document to examine HOW God “testified” to the gifts of Abel. But there is ample biblical evidence to suggest fire fell from heaven to consume his offering. God withheld that same fire from Cain's offering, which caused Cain to be wroth, his countenance to fall (4:5). In his attempt to reason with Cain, God used the word “accepted” to describe what happened to Abel and what COULD happen to him IF he would DO WELL (4:7).
It is important to note the Lord's problem with Cain was in WHAT he did, not in WHY he did it. It is argued by some the problem with Cain's offering might have been in his attitude in bringing it, not necessarily in the nature of the offering. In other words, Cain might have done the right thing for the wrong reason. The tandem of action and motivation can take four forms: (1) Right thing for right reason; (2) Right thing for wrong reason; (3) Wrong thing for right reason, and (4) Wrong thing for wrong reason. Abel's offering took form #1. Cain's offering took form #4. Forms #2 and #3 are distinct possibilities in life, even in Christian service. But they're not applicable to the offering of Cain. The suggestion God might have accepted Cain's offering IF he had brought it with a better attitude is both unbiblical and untenable. It's a subtle assault on the gospel foreshadowed in the offering of Abel and the coats of skins God provided for his parents. Moreover, it suggests Cain's attitude (WHY) was unrelated to his offering (WHAT) and therefore unrelated to sin. If Cain's attitude was unrelated to the disobedience of bringing a substandard sin offering before the Lord, what exactly was wrong with his attitude?
More excellent is the translation of πλείων (pleiōn), a comparative word meaning “greater in quality or quantity.” In our context, the idea of quality is clearly in view. In the gospels, Jesus used the word to describe himself as “greater than Jonah” (Matthew 12:41) and “greater than Solomon” (12:42). When Jesus saw worshipers giving their temple offerings, he said a poor widow had “cast in more” than all the others (Mark 12:43). In our Lord's reckoning, perhaps he had both quality AND quantity in mind. In Abel's case, his was a more excellent sacrifice in terms of quality; of SORT rather than SIZE.
Sacrifice is θυσία (thysia), “a sacrifice, a victim.” It is used 29 times in the NT and always translated “sacrifice.” Its root is the verb θύω (thyō), “to slay, kill, slaughter.” Each time scripture uses “sacrifice” (θυσία) it refers to a killing, a bloodletting. It is important to note that while all sacrifices are offerings, not all offerings are sacrifices. There were OT offerings related to worship and thanksgiving that did not require blood. But ANY offering related to sins or trespasses ALWAYS required blood. Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, which included the killing of the “firstlings of his flock” (4:4). Cain's offering from the “fruit of the ground” involved no killing whatsoever (4:3). In that regard, Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice.
What was the fundamental problem with Cain's offering? There was NO sacrifice in it! The offering of Abel was a sin offering that had to do with sin against God, a sense of deservedness to die because of sin and the need to seek acceptance through the bloodletting of a substitute. This is the revelatory evidence Abel acquired from his parents, the basis for the acceptance he was seeking and expecting. Cain, on the other hand, rejected that same evidence to his own peril.