The writer of Hebrews, a letter originally written to first century Jewish Christians, pictures the Christian life as a race and calls believers (including us) to get rid of anything that would weigh us down or hold us back from running that race with endurance. Our inspiration as we run, is to be the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. And who are those witnesses? They are the men and women of faith whom the writer has just held up as examples in Chapter 11.
The purpose of Hebrews 11 is to inspire believers in our faith. We are not alone in our struggle of living for Christ in a secular world where the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2:2) seems to reign. There are countless heroes of faith who have gone before us, blazing the trail of faith and righteousness, and showing us how God would have us live and run our race. Hebrews 11 names many, and the first example given is Abel. It was by faith that Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain’s. Because Abel’s sacrifice was offered by faith, it was pleasing to God, resulting in God declaring him righteous. And although Abel has died, the testimony of his faith shines forth as a lesson for us (Hebrews 11:4).
It is back in Genesis Chapter 4:3-5 that the story of Abel is first told; it was after Adam and Eve’s first two sons were born. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard.
The two brothers both presented sacrifices to God but only Abel’s was accepted. We are not told why in Genesis, but Hebrews 11:4 has revealed the reason. Abel’s sacrifice was offered by faith.
The Scriptures do not tell us if Cain and Abel had been instructed in what sacrifices were acceptable to God. God’s command of an animal sacrifice for atonement for sin is not given until Leviticus 4. However, Genesis 3:21 records that God had sacrificed an animal to make clothing for Adam and Eve. Their sons may have been aware of this and understood the shedding of blood to be needed as an atonement sin. But it is not until Leviticus 4 that God’s command of a blood sacrifice for the atonement for sin is revealed to us. And in Leviticus 17:11 God revealed through Moses, The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement (Leviticus 17:11).
But whether or not Cain and Abel had been instructed in what to sacrifice, it was not the sacrifice alone that God regarded - from Hebrews 11:4, we know it was the faith of the offerer. The offering merely reflected what was in the heart of each of the brothers. Clearly Hebrews 11 testifies to Abel’s faith. And Genesis 4:7 gives us a further look into Cain’s heart. When God confronted him and encouraged him to do the right thing, Cain showed no repentance. In addition, he became angry, killed his brother, Abel, and spoke defiantly to God, “Am I my brothers keeper” (Genesis 4:9)?
Do your actions reflect the faithful heart of Abel or the prideful, stubborn heart of Cain? Abel’s faith determined his actions, but Cain’s actions were void of faith. God spoke, and both of them knew what pleased God, but only one chose to humbly submit in faith. And God has given him to us as an example of faith.
In Roman’s 12:2, the apostle Paul calls us to, present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. How is your life a living, holy and acceptable sacrifice to God? Does a heart of faith shine through your actions? How are you an example of faith like Abel - to your family, your friends, and to the world around you?