January 20, 2019

Abel: An Acceptable Faith

Passage: Hebrews 11:4

Good morning! If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to Hebrews 11. And if you don’t have a Bible, there should be a Bible under the row of chairs in front of you. If you can grab a Bible, we are going to be in Hebrews 11, this morning.

Last week, we started a new sermon series on Heroes of the Faith, looking at the Old Testament characters in Hebrews 11, who were commended for their faith. And we started off by looking at what faith is, according to Hebrews 11:1.

If you remember, we saw how faith is not something that we can just muster up ourselves, but that it’s an act of God, something that God produces and works in us. And we saw how faith is the assurance of things hoped for, that we can have confidence in the future because of what we have seen God do in the past. And then, we saw how faith is the evidence of things not seen, that we don’t need to see it to believe, but that believing is seeing.

And once we have a handle on what faith is, the next question is: What does faith do? What does faith accomplish in the life of the follower of Jesus? And this is where we get into these Old Testament characters and see how they lived out their lives “by faith.”

And what I want us to see is that all of the men and women in this chapter were all ordinary, sinful people. We look at them as heroes, but they are really no different from us. Each one of them was broken and in need God’s rescuing grace. They’re not mentioned here, because of how amazing they were, or because of all the things that they did, but simply because they believed God.

That’s it. The point of this list of individuals is not that we would take note of them and try to emulate them, but that we would have and grab hold of the same faith they had, that made them the heroes they were.

So, if you have your Bible opened to Hebrews 11, let’s look at verse 4: “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.”

The first individual that we see is a guy by the name of Abel. And Abel shows us what an acceptable faith looks like. How are we acceptable before a holy and righteous God? What does the faith of Abel tell us about the kind of faith we need to have? And for our time together, this morning, what I want us to see from the faith of Abel, is simply that, God’s acceptance is based on faith in Jesus.

And in order to understand the faith of Abel, we should probably read the story of Abel. So, keeping your finger in Hebrews 11, turn over to Genesis 4.

God has just created all of Creation, giving mankind dominion over all things. But then, mankind decides that God is withholding something good from them, by commanding them to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So, they break the one command that God gave to them, and this plunges all of Creation into this tailspin of sin and death.

And the story of Abel picks up right after all of this, in Genesis 4, beginning in verse 1: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.’ 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.’ 8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.”

In Hebrews 11:4, it says that “by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.” And when we look at the story of Abel, in Genesis 4, we can understand why Abel’s sacrifice was a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s.

We read that Abel was a keeper of sheep, and that Cain was a worker of the ground. And that after some time, God required a sacrifice from them.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sin entered into the world and affected all of God’s good Creation, so that we naturally do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. It’s not like there were a couple of people who were spared from this corruption; sin affected all of us—all of Creation.

But God, being rich in mercy, made a way to deal with the sin and evil that was in the world, without completely destroying everything He had made. And it was called atonement. In order to come before a holy God, sinful man needed to bring an animal sacrifice to God, that would take his place, so that his sin would be covered over and that he would be spared from God’s judgment against sin.

Animal sacrifice, which is completely foreign to our Western thinking, was the way that made things right between mankind and God, where before, the relationship was fractured.

And what's really fascinating about this is that the first sacrifice recorded in the Bible is done by God Himself. Right after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and you can read this, in Genesis 3:21, it says that “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”

These skins were to cover up their nakedness, but more importantly, they were to cover up the shame and guilt of their sin. But an animal had to be sacrificed, a substitute had to take their place, in order for that covering to be made.

And you begin to see the necessity of the sacrificial system in the restoration of the fractured relationship between mankind and God. But you also begin to see how God made this provision possible, by providing it Himself.

So, when we get to Genesis 4, Cain and Abel bring their sacrifices to God. Cain brings an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brings the firstborn lamb of his flock.

And from an outside perspective, we look at these two offerings and we think that they are both bringing something good to the Lord, right? Cain and Abel are both bringing to God a portion of what they have. So, they should both be acceptable in the eyes of God, right? Wrong.

It says that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”

So, what's that all about? If they're both bringing their best, shouldn’t they both be accepted? But what we need to recognize is what God required from mankind for sin to be dealt with. It had to be an animal sacrifice, that could take their place, so that their sin could be covered over by the blood of the animal.

There was only one way to approach a holy God. Cain might have brought his best, but it was not acceptable. Abel, on the other hand, took this perfect, spotless lamb. It might not have been much, but it was what God required. And although both Cain and Abel likely received the same instructions, Abel offers to God the more acceptable sacrifice.

When I was in my first year of Bible College, I wrote a paper for my Ethics & Culture class, focusing on many of the issues that we face in society and even within the church. I spent a fair amount of time researching various things like, alcohol, gambling, pre-marital sex, and abortion.

And after I had spent all this time writing this paper, and was about to hand it in, I read the assignment instructions, again. And I’m still not entirely sure why I thought that was a good time to make sure that I had done everything correctly. My paper needed to be in the office in like half an hour, so it’s not like I could have changed much.

But when I looked at the instructions, I was horrified to realize that what I was supposed to be writing about were the things that I valued. So, instead of writing on positive things like, family and life and healthy relationships, I was writing about all the things that I didn’t agree with.

But there was really nothing I could do, at that point. So, I changed the title of my paper to say that I was writing about things that I had personal beliefs about. And I handed it in and received the mark that I received, which wasn’t great, because I didn’t follow the assignment instructions.

I was writing about these important issues that we deal with on a regular basis, but it wasn’t acceptable to the professor, because it was not what he required.

In order for Cain and Abel to come before a holy God, they needed to bring an animal sacrifice. And it’s like Cain thinks that his sacrifice will be good enough without it, if he has enough fruit and grain and other stuff on the altar.

Like, I can just imagine that altar stacked with all kinds of food. It likely would have been this big spectacle: “Look at how much I brought to God. I don’t need an animal sacrifice, because look at how colourful and delicious my sacrifice looks. God will pleased with what I’m offering to Him.”

And then, I can just imagine how boastful he is about it, right? Like, all this time, I can just picture him looking over at Abel’s pitiful, animal sacrifice, and thinking, “That’s all you're bringing. All you’ve got is your little lamb. I’ve got more than that. My sacrifice looks more impressive than that.”

And it’s as though God looks down and thinks to Himself, “One of them got it. One of them understood what it means to approach Me in an acceptable way.”

But was it simply the fact that Abel offered a lamb, while Cain offered the fruit of the ground, that made Abel’s sacrifice more acceptable? Was it simply the fact that Cain just didn’t follow the instructions? I believe it’s more insidious than that.

You see, Cain, apart from not bringing an animal sacrifice to God, is coming to God with the fruits of his own labour, which he raised by his own efforts.

It’s not simply that Cain wanted to give fruit to God more than he wanted to give a lamb to God; it’s that Cain wanted to earn and work for God’s acceptance. It’s like the lamb was too easy a sacrifice for him; he needed something more. So, to God, that’s all his sacrifice was. It was Cain’s best efforts to earn God’s favour.

Turn over to Luke 18. Jesus is telling a parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” And it’s here that we see the contrast between the one who seeks God’s acceptance from what he does and the one who receives God’s acceptance from what God does.

Look at Luke 18, beginning in verse 10: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Do you see all the things that the Pharisee is piling up on his altar? He’s piling up his sacrifice, higher and higher, with all of his efforts, so that God will take notice of it, and accept him. That’s what he’s after. He’s saying to God, “I do this and this and this. And I just know that you will accept me.”

But look at the tax collector. He can’t even look to heaven, because he knows how guilty he is. He knows that he has nothing to offer God, so he comes before God in humility, recognizing how great God is, and how sinful and needy he is. And he’s just trusting that God will be merciful to him. All he has is faith.

But the good news for him, and the good news for each one of us, is that God’s acceptance is based on faith in Jesus.

The tax collector goes away justified, because God’s acceptance isn’t based on anything he did; it’s gloriously about what God produced and worked in him.

And that’s what the faith of Abel shows us. It wasn’t just that Abel offered a perfect, spotless lamb to God that made God accept him; it was that Abel had faith that what he was offering to God would cover over his sin.

If we were accepted on the basis of what we do, then Cain’s sacrifice would have been acceptable to God. But that’s not it. That’s legalism. That’s trying to earn what can never be earned. That’s trying to buy what can never be bought. That’s saying to God that the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf was good and all, but I think I can do a little bit more and a little bit better.

That’s sick. And we all do this. Legalism is so tempting to me. I love lists. Something like the Ten Commandments. I thrive on that kind of stuff, because it gives me a sense of accomplishment. Like, look at all the good things I’m doing.

And while something like the Ten Commandments is good for us to keep, it was never intended to save us, because we could never keep it. The Ten Commandments were intended to point out all of the places where we fall short. So, if we’re trying to keep them, thinking that we will be accepted by keeping them, then all we’re doing is piling on to the sacrifice of Jesus.

And so, our sacrifices to God basically become our best efforts of earning God’s acceptance. It’s like we can’t handle it being as easy as putting our faith in Jesus. It’s like we need something more.

But then, it’s like we’re looking over at other people’s sacrifices, thinking, “I’m not as bad as that person. Did you hear about what they did? And they think that they can just come in here, and ask for forgiveness, and everything will be good.”

We need to be reminded of what God requires: A perfect, spotless sacrifice, that would take our place, and be our substitute, so that we would be spared from God’s judgment against sin. That’s what we need.

It’s not about what we do that makes us acceptable to God; it’s about our faith in what is acceptable to God, that makes us acceptable. It’s our faith in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ that makes us acceptable before a holy and righteous God. And it’s our faith in Christ’s work on the cross, and Christ’s work alone, that doesn’t just cover our sin, but completely washes away our sin, forever.

Look at the last part of Hebrews 11:4: “And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.” The LORD said to Cain, in Genesis 4:10, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground.”

In Genesis 4, the blood of dead Abel was crying out to God for justice against Cain. And I believe the blood of dead Abel is still crying out for justice, today.

And this is more than just justice for the sanctity of human life. This is more than just justice for the unborn and the aged, for the helpless and the disabled. I believe that the blood of dead Abel does cry out for that kind of justice. But I believe this is a much greater and more extensive cry for justice against sin.

Abel’s shed blood points to the shed blood of another, more better, Martyr. One who would experience injustice and cruelty and death at the hands of broken humanity, but whose shed blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” One who would be raised to life in victory over sin and death, and who grants newness of life to every person who calls on His Name.

Where Abel’s blood exposed the sinfulness of Cain and all mankind, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. This was more than just a routine, animal sacrifice to God for the covering of sin and shame and guilt; this once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus takes away all sin and shame and guilt, in those who put their faith in Jesus.

We like to picture ourselves as Abel in this story, but we are actually more like Cain than we would like to admit. At one time, we were hostile towards God, alienated from Him and from His people. Like the song, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us, says, “It was my sin that held Him there, until it was accomplished.”

That is the predicament of every one of us. But God, in the goodness and kindness of Christ our Saviour, provided the eternal rescue for us, so that if we turn from our sin and turn to Jesus, today, we will be saved from our sin and will be in restored relationship with God, again.

There is a popular hymn, called Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me. And it’s lyrics are what I wanted to leave us with, this morning.

Verse 1 says, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee; let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed, be of sin the double cure; save from wrath and make me pure.”

Verse 2: “Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law's demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.”

Verse 3: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.”

Verse 4: “While I draw this fleeting breath, when mine eyes shall close in death, when I soar to worlds unknown, see thee on thy judgment throne, Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

God’s acceptance is based on faith in Jesus. Where the blood of Abel cries out for justice against sin, the blood of Jesus cries out for mercy against sinners.

Are we aware of our need for a Saviour? Is today the day we stop trying to earn God’s acceptance, but rather, that we would accept God’s acceptance of us on the basis of His Son? Is today the day that we will put our faith in Jesus?

This won't make us popular with the world. As Cain hated Abel, and as the Jews hated Jesus, so also, those who put their faith in Jesus should be ready to experience hatred from the world.

But it’s our acceptable faith in Jesus, the faith that trusts in the sovereignty of God and His faithfulness in our lives, that will keep us clinging to the cross, and waiting for Christ to either return or call us home. May we continue to grow in that childlike faith, as God leads down the path of life. Let’s pray…


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