Faith of Abel - The way of Abel vs the way of Cain

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Bible Studies on the Real Heroes of the Faith Hebrews 11

Faith of Abel - The way of Abel vs the way of Cain

by I Gordon


We looked last time at the first study on the Real Heroes of the Faith. This is a series based on Hebrews 11 and the characters that God says are noteworthy. The message last time focused on faith itself. True or false: We saw last time that 'faith is believing what you know ain't true'? Come on... don't say true. You're better than that! No, we saw that faith is ' The assurance of things hoped for' - that is, faith is not just hoping that things will be ok or trying hard to believe things that you know aren't true! I received an email this week with the subject line of 'True faith'. It was a quote from A.W Tozer that said '  True faith rests upon the character of God and asks no further proof than the moral perfections of the One who cannot lie.'  That's much better! We also mentioned last time that the first step of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11 is to do with creation.

 Hebrews 11:3 By faith [place your name here] understands that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. 

As a side note an email was sent out recently talking about an article in the Scientific American with the following title:
 "Pssst! Don't tell the creationists, but scientists don't have a clue how life began."  Well, as we saw, this creation has a creator. This incredible design, as I was telling kids church last week, has an even more incredible designer! How sad it is when we see people loving 'Mother Earth' and not even acknowledging the One who created it all!

So in this study we are going to look at the first character mentioned in Hebrews 11. We'll look at what we can learn from the faith of the second person born on this planet: Abel.

The faith of Abel

Hebrews 11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.

Before we start talking about the first entry into God's hall of faith, it is worth mentioning who didn't make the list. With the first name being that of Abel obviously there is no Adam and Eve. They were created in the image of God and lived in a perfect environment. The Apostle Paul says that they stood as a type of Christ and the church. Yet, through belief in a lie they fell and sin entered this world. Will we see them in heaven? The Bible doesn't say definitively but I believe we will. God made a covering for them after the fall and gave them the promise of a coming Saviour. But oh what a legacy to have... Imagine being Adam and Eve! Thankfully we read 'Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.' (Isaiah 65:17) That will be good for Adam and Eve but also the rest of us if we are honest. One who will definitely be there is Abel. For obvious reasons, it is hard to talk about Abel without also talking about his big brother, Cain. Argh big brothers... they are a lot of trouble. Then and now!

The Bible says that Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain and obtained the testimony that God saw him as righteous. We'll explore this today. But I was intrigued by the end of this verse which says that though dead, Abel still speaks. This is interesting because there is not one word recorded in the Bible that Abel spoke. And yet, even today, he still speaks. Clearly this is saying something to us. It is saying 'look at what Abel did. He is speaking to you. It is important!' It may have been thousands of years ago but through his act he still speaks today. So let's have a look. We'll look at four aspects:

1. The historical story of Abel and Cain

2. What Abel speaks about our salvation

3. What Abel speaks about Christ

4. What Abel speaks about the time of the end

Where it all began - Back to Genesis

The story of the first two little boys born on this planet is a very interesting one. They had the same mother, the same father and the same upbringing I'm sure. Yet they were two totally different characters. Their life, faith and their end stand in great contrast. Let's familiarise ourselves with this story again.

Genesis 4:1-10 Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man." (2) Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. (3) In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. (4) But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, (5) but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. (6) Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? (7) If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." (8) Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (9) Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?" (10) The LORD said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.

So here we have the first human being born on this planet - Cain. Can you imagine the excitement that his birth must have brought? He is named 'Cain' meaning 'acquired of the Lord' and no doubt Eve is remembering the promise that God gave her that 'the seed of the woman would bruise the serpent's head'. Commentators generally agree that she believed that this was the One... This was the promised seed of the women, the Saviour! How long do you think she held that hope for? Possibly having some doubts around the 'terrible two's' do you think? It doesn't take too long before the effects of the fall are seen in all of us.  [1] 

When Eve's second boy is born she calls him Abel meaning 'breath or vapour' or some say 'vanity'. I'm not exactly sure why he is called this but it may be that Eve's initial optimism had quickly eroded. Abel grew up to tend sheep but Cain worked the ground. The Bible says that in the course of time they both brought an offering to the Lord. You know the story - the Lord looked with favour on Abel because of his offering but not so with Cain. So was the Lord being picky? Was He being unkind? Was Abel just His favourite? Or should Cain have known what to bring as an offering?

The story is very brief and only includes the important points but there are enough clues to tell us that Cain should have known better. Firstly we read that they brought their sacrifice 'in the course of time'. Ray Stedman says of this that  'It is clear that there was a prescribed time indicated for the bringing of an offering. The phrase which in our version is translated, "In the course of time" is, in the Hebrew, 'At the end of days'. This is a strong suggestion that there was a definitely prescribed period. Perhaps it was once a year, at the end of days, i.e., at the end of the winter season, just before spring. Second, it is clear from this account that a prescribed place existed for this offering. They were to bring it before the Lord, a definite place where they were to appear in the presence of the Lord.'  I think we get the impression that they were just fumbling around not really knowing the Lord very well or what He required. But that is not the case. We see in this very passage that the Lord spoke directly to Cain about what to do and Cain wasn't surprised or startled. It seems that it was normal. God wasn't trying to keep His truth and ways secret or hidden.

God's gracious approach to Cain

Now when Cain's offering was not accepted, it is also noting that Lord was still incredibly gracious with Cain. He doesn't speak in thunderous tones saying 'who are you to offer incorrectly?' He does not send lightning upon the earth where Cain is. No. The Lord encourages Cain not to be downcast and says that if he does right, he will be accepted. The Septuagint actually translates this differently to what we have and says 'if you offer correctly, will you not be accepted?' That is helpful because that is what it means to do right... It is to come to God in the way He has prescribed. So God is gracious and wants Cain to know this. There is still a way for Cain but he is warned about the serious nature of sin. The Lord pictures sin like a lion or a wild animal, crouching ready to strike. But there is a way, the Lord says, to overcome it.

What does Cain do? Having heard directly from God Himself, he goes completely against what the Lord spoke and allows His anger to become rage and his rage, murder - even the murder of his brother that he grew up with. Imagine the heart of Adam and Eve at this stage. This is the one they had initially hoped was the promised seed to bring deliverance. If that hope had been resting on thin ice previously, it was now completely, utterly, shattered as the full impact of the fall was seen. If they didn't know how badly their fall would affect the human heart before this, they sure knew now. Think about Cain for a moment. He didn't grow up playing violent video games. He hadn't watched a continuous stream of TV shows about murder and death like is the current fascination. There was no peer pressure to do something 'crazy'. He wasn't damaged by a toxic polluted environment and nor was he doing drugs - prescribed or illegal! He didn't have abusive parents and hadn't been treated improperly. He even knew and had heard God directly. And yet even in this near perfect environment, jealousy stirred over and over within his heart. That jealousy became anger which boiled within before the rage found its vent in striking and killing his brother. If that doesn't tell you something about what the true source of people's problems is, nothing will! It is the heart of man - desperately wicked and deceitful above all things. Who can know it? And nor can we just point the finger at Cain for in and of ourselves we have the same fallen nature.

What does Abel speak about our salvation? 

So why was Abel's sacrifice accepted and Cain's rejected? There is a theme that runs the entire length of the Bible that can be summed up by two declarations.  Hebrews 9:22 "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness'  and  Romans 3:20 'No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.'  Or we could add, by their good works. Cain and Abel were aware of what God required as mentioned earlier. Reading between the lines we could say that Abel had an understanding of his own heart and his need for there to be a substitute as an offering for his sin in order to be right with God. So, through faith in the revealed will of God, he offered up the firstborn of his flock. It was an offering that pleased God for it pointed to the sacrifice that Jesus, the firstborn of all creation, would make on our behalf. And that is someone in whom God is 'well pleased'. Remember - Hebrews tells us that Abel still speaks! He speaks to us about the right way to come to God, both in becoming a Christian and as being the Christian we have become. It is always in faith in a blood sacrifice, the substitute who died on your behalf. We trust not in our own goodness either as a sinner wanting to be saved or as a Christian wanting to draw closer to God. We listen to Abel's instruction.

Cain however rejected that approach. He was a worker of the ground. He had worked hard out in the hot sun, with sweat pouring off his face, and had grown crops that he would now present to the Lord. This was the best of his effort. This was the work of his hands which he surely thought the Lord would accept. 'Who cares about the offering of the firstborn lamb? I've worked hard and I'm pretty good. I'll show God my works and everything will be fine between God and me!' What a mistake to make! There are a lot of mistakes that you can make in this life and still be fine but this is not one of them. A large part of mankind believes this right to this day. The Bible however says  'Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain...' (Jude 1:11).  Now notice Cain's reaction. When his offering is not accepted he is ANGRY! He was probably shocked that God wouldn't accept his efforts. That shock became anger. 'Why won't you accept me? Look at what I have done!' But Cain didn't come the right way, nor choose the narrow road.

The scariest passage in the Bible?

Many still choose the way of Cain. I think quite possibly the scariest passage in the entire Bible is something that Jesus said will occur at the judgement of mankind:

 Matthew 7:21-23 Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (22) Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' (23) Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' 

Firstly it's scary because it says this rejection will happen to 'many'. Secondly it's scary because these people that are rejected will think they were fine with Jesus and will point to the things that they have done, even seeming spiritual or even miraculous things, but He will only be able to say to them 'depart, I never knew you!' It is a very sobering passage but note that those sent away were pointing to works they had done and not to their faith in what another had done on their behalf. Christ knows His sheep and He promised that they shall never perish (John 10:28). But to these that Jesus speaks of He can only say 'I NEVER knew you'. They had religion but not relationship. They were professors but not possessors. They had gone the way of Cain.  [2] 

Time for a nutty illustration of 'professing' but not 'possessing' 

Shortly after buying my home I planted a hazel nut tree. Normally with hazelnut's you require 2 or 3 different types so that they pollinate correctly. But this one was double grafted - two trees in one that would self pollinate. So it's nearly 5 years old now and I have had about 5 nuts so far. So that's pretty good going... nearly one nut a year. Apparently he doesn't want to overdo it or burn out too young so he's taking a more cautious approach to nut making. Obviously if I had a family to support I'd have words with him and be asking for possibly two nuts a year but at this stage I prefer not to pressure him. The thing is that, all 5 nuts produced so far have something very important in common. They are perfectly formed hazelnuts to look at outside but there is a small issue in that they have no actual nut! They are a shell of a hazelnut but are empty inside. Now I don't have a degree in nut growing but obviously it isn't pollinated correctly. The tree knows that it is meant to produce hazelnuts, and is trying with its meager little crop... and outwardly it certainly looks like the real thing. But there is no true seed and life within to produce the actual nut. Just a shell! In like manner there are many that claim the name of Christ and profess to be Christians but do not possess the life of God inside. In a poll last year 83% of Americans said they were Christians. No wonder Jesus said that 'many' on that day will be as surprised as Cain when they are not accepted.

What does Abel speak about Christ?

How else does Abel speak? Abel, as the first person to die in the Bible, is able to teach us something about the life and death of Jesus. In fact, not only was Abel the first to die but he was the first one to be martyred for his faith so he stands as a type of Christ. Here are some quick thoughts on this:

Abel was a shepherd who looked after the sheep

Jesus was and is the true Shepherd who looks after His sheep. (John 10:11)

There are no reports of Abel doing any wrong

Jesus was sinless in all that He said and did (2 Cor 5:21, 1 Pet 2:22)

Abel was hated by his own brother Cain, without proper cause.

Jesus was hated by His brothers and brethren in Israel without cause. (John 15:25)

Abel was martyred by his brother and died because of his brother's sin

Jesus was rejected by His own brothers and delivered up to die by His own people. (John 1:11, John 7:5)

The blood of Abel cries out to God

Jesus' blood is also said to cry out but it speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24). Abel's blood cried out to God for justice. Jesus' blood cries out for mercy.

In like manner, Cain is a type of the religious Jews of Israel. Cain hated Abel and killed him because he was jealous of Abel's righteous act and acceptance with God which highlighted the folly of his own self righteous works. In like manner the religious Jews of Christ's time hated Jesus because He exposed their self-righteous bankruptcy before God. And so they killed Jesus as Cain killed Abel.

What does Abel speak about the last days?

In what way does Abel still speak about the last days? Obviously he didn't prophesy or speak directly about conditions in the end times... but let me go on a slight tangent here for I'm amazed about what we can learn about the end from the book of Genesis. Do you know what the word 'Genesis' means? It means 'beginning'. When we hear that we think, 'Oh yeah the beginning of creation'. Fair enough! That's part of it. But the book of Genesis is also the beginning of God's revealed truth and it is really interesting how so much truth that was first established in Genesis is replayed or finds fulfilment in the last days. For example:

  • Jesus said that as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the days of the coming of the Son of Man. It will replay once again. The days of Lot speak about the last days as well.
  • Genesis tells us that man tried to unite against God in the days of Tower of Babel and that will occur again with mystery Babylon shown to play a large role in the book of Revelation.
  • In Genesis we see God dwelling with man, in perfection, with the tree of life in the midst. This is restored as shown in Revelation 22 and 23.
  • Even the stories of well known characters in Genesis teach us about the end. Just as Eve, Adam's bride was hidden in Adam before being revealed, so the church, the bride of Christ, is hidden in Christ (Col 3:3) and will be revealed in glory when Christ returns.
  • The story of both the conflict and eventual reconciliation between Jacob and Esau teaches us of the current struggle between Israel and their Arab neighbours as well as the reconciliation still to come.
  • The great story of Joseph in Genesis speaks about Christ in His rejection, exaltation and eventual reconciliation with His Israelite brothers in the last days.

So what of the story of Cain and Abel? It's my belief that it too tells us something about the times of the last days. So what would it say prophetically? It tells us that if you believe that salvation and acceptance with God comes through the narrow road of Jesus alone and faith in the One who died as a sacrifice on your behalf, it is not going to be acceptable to the majority. Such narrow belief will be more and more marginalised and seen as hate speech leading to eventual persecution. It has already begun. It also tells us that the way of Cain, which is thinking that your own good works are good enough, is going to increase. We see these points all around us today.

Many ways to God? Nope!

Earlier this year (2016) the Pope released a video  [3]  trying to bring all the religions of the world together. It showed a Buddhist saying I have confidence in Buddha; a Jew saying I believe in God; a Muslim saying I believe in Allah; and a Catholic priest saying I believe in Jesus. Then it has the Pope saying many seek or meet God in different ways but we have this one thing in common - we are all children of God. It concludes with them all saying that they believe in love. Expect to see a lot more of this as faith in Christ alone is maligned and mocked. The movers and shakers want to bring all religions together. They not only want a one-world government, but they also want a one world religion. Acceptance of any way to 'God' is in. Narrow belief in Jesus as the only way is out.

Even within the church (using that term 'loosely') there are sections that are beginning to despise the truth that Jesus died for our sins. For example, here are two quotes from 'Emergent Church' writers:

Alan Jones (Reimagining Christianity, page 132)  "The Church's fixation on the death of Jesus as the universal saving act must end, and the place of the cross must be reimagined in Christian faith. Why? Because of the cult of suffering and the vindictive God behind it"  ...  'The other thread of just criticism addresses the suggestion implicit in the cross that Jesus' sacrifice was to appease an angry God. Penal substitution was the name of this vile doctrine."  (Page 168) - Brian McLaren endorses this book.

Steve Chalk (The lost message of Jesus)  'The fact is that the cross is not a form of cosmic child abuse, a vengeful father punishing his son for an offense he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that God is love. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God toward human kind but borne by His Son, then that makes a mockery of Jesus' own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil." 

I recently had a guestbook entry on my website where the author said  'King Ahaz sacrificed his son as other kings did back then. Scripture says this act is abomination. Why would the sacrifice of the son of the N.T. be any less an abomination?' 

Jesus said greater love has no man than that he lays down his life for his friends. These people see Jesus' death on our behalf as a 'vile doctrine', 'cosmic child abuse' or an 'abomination'.


Abel still speaks. We are several thousand years since he walked on this earth but he hasn't stopped speaking. There is a way of Abel and a way of Cain. Though born into the same family with the same environment and upbringing, the two could not be further apart. Yet they stand for more than just their individual lives. They point to two different ways of approaching God which would be repeated over and over throughout the upcoming history of man. Which way have you chosen? Abel was given a testimony that he was righteous through his faith and we ourselves should also know that all is well between God and our soul.

As we conclude, think again on the words of the following song:


My hope is built on nothing less,
Than Jesus blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus name

Christ alone; cornerstone
Weak made strong; in the Saviour's love
Through the storm, He is Lord, Lord of all

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found;
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless stand before the throne.

[1] My personal trick as I approached the two's was, when things weren't going as hoped, to hold my breath until I passed out. I'd go red, then slightly blue, and then poof... I was unconscious. It became a regular event. It freaked Mum out a lot at first but after a while no one took any notice. 'Oh Iain's just holding his breath again and has passed out. Oh well...' When I saw that that didn't get me anywhere, I apparently took up, during my two's, the ancient art of biting. I'd bite my siblings especially. I'm pretty sure they deserved it though. That carried on till Mum bit me back just to let me know how it felt. I didn't do it after that. I was in my early 30's at the time...

[2] I remember going door knocking in town as part of my Bible college training. We would say we were from the Bible College and ask them if they would be willing to do a 'religious' survey. We would ask them whether they were Christians and whether Jesus was the Son of God. The roads we did this on where close to a church and most said yes to these questions. Yet as we asked them how God accepted them, the majority spoke of being a good person and not harming anyone. In the end we were knocking on the doors, introducing ourselves and the survey and jumping straight to the telling question -'If you died tonight why should God let you into heaven?' While this quickly got to the heart of the matter, they probably wondered what they had agreed to in doing this survey!