This is the second post in a series on Hebrews 11. You can find the first post here.
After the preliminary remarks of verse 1-3, the writer of Hebrews begins to go through his list of the faithful “people of old” to show us the significance of faith in their lives. He starts way back at the beginning with Abel, one of the sons of Adam and Eve.
By faith Abel offered God a greater sacrifice than Cain, and through his faith he was commended as righteous, because God commended him for his offerings. And through his faith he still speaks, though he is dead. (Hebrews 11:4 NET)
You remember the story, right? Eve had two sons. Cain, the first son, grew up to be a “tiller of the ground”, and Abel, the second-born, kept sheep. Each of the two sons brought an offering to the Lord—Cain from the harvest of his crops and Abel from the firstborn of his flocks.
The Genesis account tells us that
….the Lord was pleased with Abel and his offering, but with Cain and his offering he was not pleased. (Genesis 4: 4,5 NET)
You’ve probably heard the same reasons given for God’s pleasure with Abel’s sacrifice but not with Cains that I have. I remember being taught in Sunday School as a child that Abel brought his best to God and Cain brought leftovers. Later on I was taught that the acceptability of Abel’s offering had to do with the nature of his sacrifice: It was a blood sacrifice, while Cain’s was not.
Neither of these explanations comes directly from scripture. In this passage, the writer of Hebrews points to something other than the substance of the sacrifice as the reason for God’s acceptance of the one sacrifice and rejection of the other. It was, he says, Abel’s attitude that made the difference. Abel offered his sacrifice “by faith,” and it was because of his faith that God spoke of him as righteous.
God spoke of the acceptability of Abel and his offering, and because of that, Abel speaks to us. Abel has been dead longer than anyone else on the face of the earth, yet his story is much more than a piece of historical trivia, for his example of faith continues to teach us. Long-dead Abel is one of the ancients who obtained a good testimony through faith, and he speaks to us as one of the “great cloud of witnesses” whose faithful examples cheer us on to “run with endurance the race set out for us.”