The Faith of Abel
Hebrews 11 builds on the exhortations and encouragement which the preceding chapters give by substantiating the identity of the Son and the possibility to endure in His name by faith. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). By the facts that we now see Christ and God’s word is completely given, how much more should we be able to endure by faith than those who experienced the dim shadow of the reality? Everything which the people in Hebrews 11 did was by the power of Christ, who is the “author and perfecter of faith” (Heb. 12:2). In other words, He has saved us by giving us the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8), is the one who is currently sustaining everything by His word (Heb 1:3), and will bring everything to perfection someday as the reigning King (Heb 1:3; 12:2). Through the examples we should see the greatness and glory of Christ who, by His promises, has made those triumphs possible. It just takes cooperation on our part. That is faith.
I have always been intrigued by Hebrews’ mention of Abel in chapter 11. I think it is significant for a couple reasons. He is the first person mentioned by name (I know the author is going in chronological order, but still…). Also, this is the only example in Hebrews 11 of a juxtaposition between two people: Abel vs. Cain. Abel had faith, and Cain did not. Cain is just as instructive as Abel, then. To quote Hebrews 11:4, we can make some important observations: “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.”
“Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” Why was his sacrifice more excellent? For one thing, we can look at the attitude of the offerers. It is important we try to picture ourselves in the scene to understand the full meaning. The first few chapters of Genesis are an ocean, and there is much more under the surface than what the text explicitly says. Abel was a shepherd and Cain was a farmer. “Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and of their fat” (Genesis 4:4). “…Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD” (Gen. 4:3). Abel brought his best, clearly. It is not apparent that Cain brought his best, though it does not speak to this clearly. Cain’s response is telling: he got angry and felt rejected. He wanted God’s acceptance, but he also thought what he had to bring—the work of his own hands—was of value. We know God was not rejecting Cain, as He does show him mercy in Gen. 4:15. He did not regard Cain’s offering and attitude behind it. In contrast, Abel brought something living to sacrifice to God. Abel had the right attitude, as he was remembering something very important: God’s mercy on his parents. When Adam and Eve sinned, God showed them mercy by clothing them in animal skins and casting them out from His presence. They did experience spiritual death in separation from God's presence, yet the physical death they deserved was not given to them. Instead, God killed an animal in their place. Abel was pleading with God for the same mercy He showed to Adam and Eve.
“God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks” (Heb 11:4). That Abel is still speaking is important to keep in mind as Hebrews is constantly bringing us back to what God has spoken in His Son—the final definitive word—seen through examples of His word spoken through redemptive history. An interesting textual feature happens from Hebrews 11:13-16 into verse 17. Hebrews 11:13-16 is a summary statement of all the preceding examples of faith, then the author picks up the discourse in verse 17 with Abraham again. Abel was among those who were looking for “the promises” confessing they “were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (verse 13). Abel was among those who desired a better “homeland” (vs. 14), not remembering where they had set out from (vs. 15), looking forward to the heavenly country—a city which God has prepared for those who live by faith (vs. 16). His offering was a remembrance of God’s mercy and also a pleading for re-entering God’s presence which we know from Hebrews 9-10 in particular that Christ accomplished once for all.
Hebrews 12:24 speaks to how we have come back into God’s presence through Christ: “[we have come] to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.” The blood of sprinkling alludes to the High Priest sprinkling the blood of the goat to enter the Most Holy Place (Lev. 16) which we can read in Hebrews 9-10 that Christ did once for all. Some translations say “speaks better than the blood of Abel.” That is to say, the blood of the animal which Abel sacrificed—not Abel’s blood which Cain spilled. Abel was the first person in Scripture who sought reconciliation with God by faith—not by works like Cain—looking forward to Christ, the one who would crush the serpent’s (enemy’s) head (Gen. 3:15).
Another aspect of “Abel’s blood” could indeed be his own blood which the LORD said “cries out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). This could be poetic language, but Abel obtained testimony that he was righteous. Therefore, he is still alive in the spirit! Christ’s blood speaks better because the righteousness which Abel shared in was the very righteousness of Christ Himself.
That is the message for us today: sharing in the life of Christ by faith--not by anything we can do. Are we pleading for God's mercy and seeking His presence daily?
“Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). I am realizing that the “time of need” is every moment of every day.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, faith is a present experience of God’s presence which points to the future reality of perfection in Christ being fully realized. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).