In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
If Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8) then there are not two different gods described in the Bible, one in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament. There is merely the same God, with the same character throughout all of time. He has different testaments or legal frameworks which have set out different boundaries and ways of working, but He is the same. For example, under the New Testament in His blood (Matt. 26:26-28) there is no longer a physical temple in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:20-22) with the sacrifices and rules of cleanness in order to enter it. But while the specifics may be different, the big picture is the same. God’s character is the same. God still has the same goal: your salvation.
Which brings us to today’s question: why was Abel’s sacrifice accepted and Cain’s not? Over the years I’ve heard many answers, but none of them ever made much sense. For instance, I’ve heard it said that Cain’s sacrifice was of the “fruit of the ground” (Gen. 4:3) which leads some people to speculate that it was rotten fruit from off the ground. That Cain was not giving his best to God. He was not giving of his first (or best) fruits.
But there is a problem with this line of thinking regarding Cain: a) the “fruit of the ground” is not rotten, low-hanging fruit, but vegetables and produce—Cain was a farmer after all; b) without a clear word of God saying that Abel’s offering was morally better than Cain’s it is blatant works righteous thinking to say that it is. i.e., God will love me if only I do... fill-in-the-blank. If that kind of thinking doesn’t fly with God today (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16), then it didn’t fly with Him yesterday. If your righteousness before Him is not based on your works today (Eph. 2:8-9), but on faith which looks to His Son who bought you from your sin with His own blood, then it was the same yesterday also.
Another reason I’ve heard said was that Cain brought veggies while Abel brought what is better: a lamb. As if God was a meatatarian. As if God only eats or likes meat. As if He hates veggies. This is just more righteousness of works that allows us to say Abel is morally better (and if we but FOLLOW his example so are we and we can look down our noses at all who are not as good as us!). But since God has never said that He likes meat not veggies, so don’t bring Him veggies, this sort of interpretation turns God into a vicious tyrant who never tells you clearly what He wants, whose whims change at the drop of a hat.
And did you notice today that when Eve conceived and bore a son she shouted out, “I’ve gotten a man.” (Gen. 4:1) But there is debate over whether her last words should be translated as “gotten man, the Lord,” OR “gotten a man from the Lord.” (In both the Ancient Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek LXX both translations seem possible.) Either way, it shows that she’s waiting for the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to her. She’s living in it. Looking for it. She seems to think this 1st son is the Lord’s Promised One. The Lord Himself! But if he was the Promised Son the Lord would have confirmed it. For God does not change, and by two witnesses will a thing be established (2 Cor. 13:1; Deut. 19:15) as He says and does later. (Amos 3:7; Isa. 7:14; Luke 1:26-34) But well meaning as she is in listening to the promise of God, look at the impact of this misplaced hope. As Cain grows what job does he choose? A gardener. Like his Father. (Gen. 2:15) It’s as though he were saying, “I will restore Eden by the force of my might. By the work of mine hands it shall be done.” This is the opposite of the faith which Our Lord credits as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:20-25)
Meanwhile, Abel, the second son, the afterthought, not the apple of mama’s eye, gathers some lowly sheep together. He doesn’t pine for lost Eden. He does not try to restore it for the Lord had cast them out of the Garden. He simply trusts in the Lord for every good he will receive east of Eden. Which is not to say, that you shouldn’t try to make things good, that you shouldn’t try to do what is right and the best you can. But do not be like Cain. Cain trusted in himself for every good. He comes to God with an offering, demanding it be accepted. Abel trusted God’s gracious promise of a saviour to come who would crush the head of the serpent. His offering was accepted. Not because its quality was better. Not because God is meatatarian. Because God credits faith in His promise as righteousness. He saves you by it. He accepts you. He is fully pleased with you through faith in His Promised Son.
Thus, Abel is a image of those who trust in Jesus and are accepted by God. While Cain is a image of those who trust in themselves. They lift up their works to God. They demand Him to accept them. He doesn’t. Their sin still clings to them; not because it hasn’t been paid for (1 John 2:2) by Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); but because they declare to God that they are good. They need no saviour. And without the sweet aroma of faith in Jesus Christ on them, the stink of death is in even their best works. (2 Cor. 2:14-16) For without faith it is impossible to please God. (Heb. 11:16) Faithless “good” works are like filthy, decaying bandages tossed on a garbage heap. (Phil. 3:8) They are a self-righteous, self-serving stench in God’s nostrils.
And for the proud, the self-righteous, there is no greater slight that can be given than to not recognize their works. They are always trying to point out their works. What they’ve done. If you won’t pat them on the back they will be angry. They will be so enraged at those good for nothing, lazy, non-workers that they will wish them gone. Dead. And you all know how intoxicating rage is. How empowering to those who feel powerless. You know that when you become enraged, or bitter enough, that you may actually accomplish what you wish.
So Cain was the first man born, and Abel was the first to die. This is way of things herebelow. Indeed, we are all Cains at heart. We want to look to ourself. We desperately want for there to be something good in us, for God to love for something we’ve done. But look at kids. Many these days say things like, “Some people’s kids...” or “I don’t like kids except my own,” “Oh, it’s a face only a mother could love.” Why do we say such things? Because it is true. Love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Pet. 4:8) A parent loves their child despite their sins. Why? Because they are theirs. Their own flesh and blood. Theirs to love, to care for. Even the young man terrified to have kids is shocked to find a wellspring of love bourne in him when his child born. Thus, just as with parents God loves you in spite of your works. Not because of them. We are all spiritually Cain’s rebellious, self-serving kids. We want what we want when we want it. Repent.
For your Father has appointed an Abel for you. He died at your hand because of your sin. But His blood does not shout out from the ground, “Murderer!” but, “My beloved!” For when His blood touched the ground it covered over all your sins so that God your Father does not need to place a counter curse on to keep you alive. (Gen. 4:15) Instead He has placed an eternal blessing on you, through the blood of His Son. Believe on that. For it is life. Repent of your anger and bitterness and Christ will give you life and joy.
In +Jesus' name, Amen.
—Pastor David Haberstock
Epiphany Lutheran Church
Thunder Bay, ON