Cain and Abel Hebrews 11:1-4

Notes from a Bible Study at the home of Eileen Jones in Kingston, Ontario, September 26, 2001

by Robert Brow     (

Faith is needed for hundreds of activities in our daily life. When we put money in the bank we have faith that we will be able to draw on it. When we eat at a restaurant we have faith that the food is not poisoned. But faith can also fail us. Two weeks ago on September the 11th. dozens of passengers sat down in four different planes with the assurance that they would arrive at their destination. They were all killed in a fiery disaster, but of course we do not have to think they were specially sinful or that their death took them to eternal damnation.

The eleventh chapter of Hebrews looks at faith from many different angles. "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). And biblical faith begins with the conviction that "the worlds were prepared by the word of God" (11:3, God is the artist of Genesis 1). So we look to the Creator of our universe. But that only gives us the direction of faith. So in this study we want to enrich the content of our faith.

With Cain and Abel we have the origin of faith in God, but the content of their faith in God was very different. "By faith Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice that Cain's" (11:4). Before trying to see what went wrong with Cain's faith we should note that Abel's faith began with animal sacrifice.

Of course to modern man animal sacrifice is a dark primitive ritual that fills us with horror. But it originated in the prayer that was offered before an animal was killed for the family to eat. "This animal is dying so that we can eat." That showed a deep respect for the death of the animal. We have animals butchered out of sight in the stockyards, and most people don't even give thanks for their food. Jews still insist that a Rabbi must be present and offer a prayer, but this has often become a formality.

As time went on animal sacrifice was conducted by priests who supervised the rituals. In India the Brahmin caste became the priests. In Israel it was the descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levi. But at heart it retained the essentials. Here are the instructions given in the book of Leviticus. "If your offering for a sacrifice of well-being is from the flock, you shall bring it before the Lord and lay your hand on the head of the offering" (Leviticus 3:6). That made the death of the animal very personal. "This animal is dying so we can eat." Then every bit of the fat had to be removed with the entrails and burnt on the altar (Leviticus 3:5). Getting rid of the fat from our food would do us all a lot of good! But the point was that as the smoke from the burning fat rose into the sky, they pictured their prayers ascending to God.

What was the content of these earliest prayers? Faith begins with thanksgiving. You cannot give thanks to chance or matter or energy. When we give thanks we are addressing a person. So we imagine Abel giving thanks to God for this sheep or lamb dying so his family could eat. And already you can see the continuity of giving thanks with our communion service. We call it the Eucharist, which is from the Greek for thanksgiving. We will explore that more deeply in a moment.

In addressing God as a person, we soon want to give him a name. When Moses was charged with leading his people out of slavery into the promised land, he wanted to know God'name. "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say 'I AM' has sent me to you.' The Hebrew word for I AM is eheyeh and the third person of that verb is yiheyeh which means "HE IS." The King James version transliterated yiheyeh as Jehovah, or Yahweh in modern translations. But Jewish people thought the divine name was too sacred to pronounce, so they used the word "LORD" as in most places in our Bibles. But the name "HE IS" still has no content and other names or metaphors have to added to fill out what the LORD is like. Look how this happens in the Psalms:

1:6 The LORD watches over the way of the righteous

2:2 The rulers take counsel together against the LORD and his anointed (mashiakh = Messiah)

5:2 My King and my God (here HE IS has become the King or ruler of our world)

6:2 O LORD, heal me (Jehovah or Yahwe Rapha means the Lord is my healer)

8:9 O LORD, our Sovereign (he is not just king over Israel, but over the nations)

9:7 He has established his throne for judgment (as King he assigns consequences)

23:1 THE LORD is my shepherd (he leads and protects us, as Jesus himself claimed)

27:1 THE LORD is my light and my salvation (Jesus said "I am the light of the world")

31:3 You are indeed my rock and my fortress (signifying strength and protection)

You can see how these names gradually emerged from Abel's original prayer of thanksgiving as it was expressed by the smoke ascending from the altar. We now begin to suspect that Cain's faith in God was more of a bribe than a thanksgiving. "I am giving you this share of my crops, and look to you to reward me appropriately." And in that kind of faith there is no room for the various names of God that we find in the Psalms. As the New Testament explains, we are saved by the grace of God which is nothing to do with our good works (Ephesians 2:8).

When we turn to the prophets we find names of THE LORD that express other aspects of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will see in our next section that before his incarnation he was THE LORD of the Old Testament. Here are three key verses in Isaiah.

42:1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, in whom my soul delights (see Philippians 2:5-9)

44:6 The LORD, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer (redeeming means to free, John 8:36)

53:7 Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.

The lambness of the Lord takes us back to Abel's experience. "This lamb is dying so we can eat." And from the beginning it looks forward to the worship of the last book in the Bible. "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered" (Revelation 5:12-13, 7:14, 17). So we can grasp what John the Baptist said when he saw Jesus approaching him. "Here is the Lamb of God that keeps taking away the sin of the world" (John 1:29 -this is a Greek present continuous). Jesus did not become Lamb when he died on the cross. He was already known as Lamb in the days of Isaiah. And the lamb that Abel offered was already pointing direct to this Lamb of God.

Each of the names of the Son of God helps us fill out one aspect of his character. What does the lambness of the Son of God mean? This is at the heart of our communion service. At least it means that the love of God is willing to be hurt. As we all know, anybody who loves is going to get hurt. Children hurt their parents, parents hurt their children, lovers hurt each other, we get hurt by our friends, and we are inevitably going to get hurt in a church congregation. We can withdraw from loving to avoid getting hurt, but when the Son of God came among us and loved us to the limit, he ended up being crucified.

So we can see that rudimentary faith is a sense of being thankful to God. But , but it is by entering into the meaning of the paradoxical names of the Son of God that our faith becomes rooted in the love of God. The Son of God both King and Servant. He is Shepherd and also the Lamb. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5, as pictured by Aslan in the Narnia Stories) and a little child (which is why we need to be childlike to enter the Kingdom of Heaven). He is our Rock and a tender shoot. In the New Testament he also becomes The Vine in which we abide and the Body of the church of which we are living members. As we live by these names of the Son of God our faith becomes strong and our worship is enriched.

Now having looked at Faith to Worship, I want to look briefly with you at Faith to Walk and Faith to Work. And I would like you to fill this out from your own experiences. "By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death" (Hebrews 11:5). After Abel, Enoch is chosen to illustrate for us the second aspect of faith in this great chapter on faith. "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him" (Genesis 5:24). The Son of God loves to walk with us, but our first parents refused to go out for a walk with him. "They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden" (Genesis 3:8).

There is something very wonderful and intimate about going for a walk with someone. It is exclusive. There is no television and there are no interruptions. Lovers like to walk together. As we walk can can enjoy the flowers and the birds and the scenery. When I drive to Toronto I love to talk to the Lord, and listen to him on the way. But of course you can also walk with God lying on your back in bed as you talk about family and friends far and near, and listen to what the Lord has to say about them.

It seems that when Adam refused to do this, the Son of God kept looking for someone who would walk with him. Finally he found Enoch who enjoyed walking with the Lord for three hundred years. It seems the Lord was so delighted he did not let Enoch go down into sheol, the abode of the dead, but took him to be with him in a resurrection before all others who remained in sheol until the resurrection of Jesus. I will leave you to fill out your experiences of walking with him.

But in passing I should mention that in our experience of the Trinity we never see God the Father. It is the Son who comes into contact with humans, as he did with Enoch and Abraham and Moses, and many others before he took birth among us. As John wrote, "No one has seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1:18).

Now you can see that the faith of Cain merely viewed God as a kind of heavenly slot machine. "If I put the right money in, I get the goodies." As the New Testament explains, we are saved not by good works but by faith in the Son of God who loves us.

And yet faith is involved in what we do. We might call it Working Faith. "By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household" (Hebrews 11:7). There are many ways of building an ark to save one's household, or to save others. Our ancestors came to North America to build a homestead where they would be free to worship God. Two hundred years ago George Muller saw hundreds of orphan children wandering around the streets of England, and decided to build homes to save them. In South India Amy Carmichael heard of children being sold into the temples for prostitution, and she built a home in Dohnavur to save them. Jean Vanier decided to build a home for retarded children to be welcome and loved, and he called it L'Arche which is the French for the Ark. And of course a church congregation is an ark to save people. I will leave you to add other examples of ark building for the salvation of others.

So here again we contrast Cain's kind of faith which works to earn God's favor, and Abel's faith which receives God's grace as a gift, and is thankful. The work of ark building which is the result of faith is very different from the attempt to save oneself by one's own good works. "By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks."

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