“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 4:11, ESV)
I love the faith chapter. And I have read it many times. But I read it a few months ago and this verse really caught my attention, and I’ve thought about it frequently since then. I want to ask you a question, and once I’ve asked it, please stop reading to answer it for yourself before you read further. You also may want to take a minute or two to read the story in Genesis 4:2-7 before you answer. So, here goes: What made Abel’s sacrifice more acceptable than Cain’s?
Personally, I’ve always just thought that Abel was following what God had asked and Cain wasn’t, and this is true. Abel sacrificed unblemished sheep, just like God asked for, while Cain eventually began to bring God offerings from his farming produce, which was not what God had asked for. But honestly, I think that’s only a part of what made Abel’s sacrifice “more acceptable.”
To get to the bottom of how Abel’s sacrifice was more acceptable to God, I actually think we have to take a look at why Cain’s offering was less acceptable. So, I’m going to point out a few things that I noticed when I studied this. Consider this a miniature Bible study if you will. All of my references to the Bible are from the ESV.
In Genesis 4:3, it says that “In the course of time, Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground.” This suggests to me that at first, Cain was bringing to God a different offering, perhaps offerings of sheep like God had asked. So what made Cain change what type of offering he was bringing to God? Well, Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain was a farmer. Maybe in the course of time in his heart he began to feel like the fruits of his labor should be just as worthy to give to God as the fruits of his brother’s labors. I think this is possible explanation, because in verse 7, God tells Cain that “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” This makes it sound like Cain had not yet sinned, even though he was not bringing the offerings that God asked for, but that God was warning him that if he didn’t make some changes, that sin would take control of him. I think that Cain was beginning to have pride and self-sufficiency building in his heart by thinking that what he could offer to God should be a worthy offering. If this were the case, then Cain would be bringing offerings to God not because in his heart he wanted to please God, but rather because of a pridefulness of heart.
Another reason I think that Cain’s offering was less acceptable is because I believe that God asked for a lamb as a sacrifice in order to point them to the plan of God’s salvation– to Jesus as Messiah. God wanted them to understand that He would provide the way of reconciliation through the Lamb of God. Every time they offered a lamb up to God, it was to be a reminder to them of how God would one day save them. By Cain offering something other than a lamb, he was in essence ignoring the message that God wanted to speak to his heart. And when we begin to turn away from the voice of God (whether it be audible, through symbols, or the writing in His Word), sin is crouching at the door, just waiting for an opportunity to seize our hearts.
When we stop looking to Jesus as our Savior and turn our hearts away from the voice of God, we are placing ourselves further away from God’s reach.
The final reason I think that Abel’s sacrifice was more acceptable to God is because I believe that it was an offering given from a pure heart, a heart wanting to worship God. Abel wanted to do well, to please God and follow his instructions. Cain, on the other hand, was not bringing offerings in an attempt to please God; rather, his offering became a pharisaical offering from a prideful heart. I believe that it wasn’t necessarily Cain’s offering itself that God was not regarding (although I think that was important too), but rather the half-hearted, going-through-the-motions way that Cain was bringing his “sacrifices” to God that made God reject his offerings. Cain was not loving and worshipping God with all of his heart.
So now, the heart of the matter, the reason that any of what I’ve said matters, is this: What kind of sacrifice are you giving to God? Are you bringing to God your whole heart and the best that you have to give in your worship time, your actions, your spending habits, your prayer life? Are you worshipping God in the ways that He has asked and following him? Or are you, like Cain, in need of heeding God’s warning that sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you. I ask you these questions, not as a pious person, but as someone who is in need of asking the same question of myself each and every day. I, too, need to be searching my heart to know whether I am giving to God the very best I have, not out of pride, but out of a desire to please and worship Him.
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
“Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:8-15)