Jesus, the New and Better Abel • Pastor Kevin McGuire
Today, we are looking at a singular verse - Hebrews 11:4. This chapter [Hebrews 11], if you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you know to be about faith. Having introduced faith last week as the pastor-writer did when we looked at the first three verses, now we’re going to see it - found in the lives of individuals given throughout all of the Old Testament. We’ll begin with the first martyr for the cause of the gospel preached from the Old Testament.
Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel.
In the story of Cain and Abel, we see two approaches to God. (Augustine wrote this in one of his famous books called The City of God.) Cain was the firstborn, and he belonged to the City of Man. After him was born Abel, who belonged to the City of God. Augustine correctly saw Cain and Abel as two radically different approaches to religion and to God. One is man-centered and filled with self-righteousness, and the other is God-centered and filled with Christ being glorified. One is empty. No matter how strong the pursuit outside of the means of God - it is empty. It is filled with bitterness, jealousy, rage, anger, and leads to death.
“They” were religious leaders who apostatized for Christ. They had their own approach toward God.
Another approach leads us to Jesus. Abel is the first recorded convert outside of the garden. His story, though tragic - and this is tragic, Abel gets murdered. In the first family, a blood brother kills another blood brother, and that is awful. But though tragic, it ends glorious, because Abel is the first martyr of Christ. That becomes the storied history of God’s people.
Throughout the Old Testament, many of whom we will even see in this chapter (certainly in the early church and in the apostles, all but John in the original 12 were murdered), they were martyrs for the cause of Christ. It was said in history that the apostle John died of old age. Undoubtedly, the global church will meet this morning and will have some martyrs. It will have some people that will die for the cause of Jesus.
What you get here in Hebrews 11 is a contrast of two streams, which become the two streams in the Bible. There is not a third stream. There is only one or the other. It’s good vs. evil. It’s belief vs. unbelief. It’s one that leads to life, or one that leads to death. It’s one, as we will see in this chapter and in the chapter after it, that leads to the eternal city.
And there’s another that leads to hell.
As we begin to look at Abel and Cain’s story this morning, what each of us wants to ask ourselves is this: What approach are you taking toward God? What are you holding on to?
In verse 4, we look and we find Abel’s faith. That is what we want to look at and turn our attention to now. We want to look at Abel’s faith, and we want to contrast it over against Cain’s unbelief. Because the verse says “By faith, Abel,” we want to begin with Abel.
Sometime however long after the fall, the first convert’s death takes place. As any story that’s mentioned in Scripture, you want to remember what’s being said in the text as to how it happened. Also, from the Old Testament as it’s moving toward the New Testament, you want to remember in terms of the stories that’s unfolding toward the bigger story (the story of redemption), that God’s language is doing this: it’s not corrective language. It is additive language. When we meet up with Cain and Abel’s story from Genesis 4, it’s not correcting what happened previously, it is telling us more of the story in a greater picture here. The pastor-writer goes back to that story, to the story of Cain and Abel, to present the two lanes or approaches to God.
Abel is a martyr. Abel believes the promise that was given to him by his parents, who faithfully preached the gospel to him (Adam and Eve). [They preached] the promised redemption. God would provide a redeemer.
If you can, think about this. Undoubtedly, this was shared in the home with many, many tears. Much sorrow is on display here in this first home. I can only imagine, as a father, how Adam felt as he shared with his first family (and in this particular case, Cain and Abel), the devastation of his rebellion to God. Obviously, he has been redeemed. That’s beautiful.
But we all know this: sometimes, we look back to our past prior to Jesus. There’s some hurt, isn’t there? Aren’t you glad God doesn't count that hurt against us? The dark closets, perhaps, that we have? The gospel is shared there in the first home. As tragic as it is (and it is tragic), as soon as Adam sins, God immediately moves. It is not only, as we will see, God making a way to be saved, but it’s rather God providing a redeemer where those would be saved. Abel believes the promise.
As we’re moving forward in this story of Cain and Abel, we don’t want to forget what’s past, because they are hearing the gospel from their parents. In the midst of the devastation prior to Cain and Abel, of judgment that came upon the fall of man, the Bible gives us Genesis 3:15. It is such a wonderful text. It’s not just that the first family cling to it, you and I do. It’s the pronounced victory. God is going to remedy the mess that’s been made.
God makes a promise - the consequence of sin. There’s judgment that God pronounces in Genesis 3:8-24, and yet, inside of that, God promises to save. He presents to us in Genesis 3:15 a warfare between God and satan.
Enmity is made between the woman and the serpent. It’s a war between good and evil. There is a godly seed that will flow from this, which, Church, you are a part of. There is a seed that is evil, that has rejected the gospel. The warfare that is described here is the seed of the woman, which will be Mary. She is impregnated by the power of the Holy Spirit, and over against the seed of the serpent, whom is Satan. Jesus is God’s victory over sin.
The serpent would cause Jesus to suffer, and he did at the cross for the sake of sin. But in Jesus conquering death, Jesus crushed the serpent, just as God promised from Genesis 3:15. Jesus defeats Satan. God triumphs over evil. God is the only one in the Bible who is of intrinsic value of good. He is completely good, pure, and holy. The provision comes to us here.
Adam and Eve have fallen in Genesis 3. They’ve covered themselves from the shame of sin.
They knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves loincloths - the shame of sin. All of us have been there, haven’t we? There’s a shame - a hurtful response to sin. Then what they did in their own way; they were insufficient to hide their sin. God moves in immediately as he comes running to them.
This was a regular thing they did.
There was a sacrifice that was made. Garments of skin God [used to clothe] them. He covers them in His righteousness.
In Genesis 3:21, here is the activity of God. The Lord God made for Adam and his wife, and he made them [clothes] through the killing of an animal (a blood sacrifice that would picture Jesus’ death for sin and the shedding of his blood). He clothes them in these garments, just as he clothes you and I in His righteousness.
This becomes Paul’s language throughout the epistles, specifically to the church at Rome. Adam falls - a willful intent in hatred to his God. God moves to save immediately. It’s a story that’s borne out of great tragedy. [In] the first home, devastation takes place. As you look at this, the Bible says “By faith, Abel.” He believes the gospel. He hears the story of his parents, how they fell, and God clothed them. He understands his own need. Abel presents an offering.
Abel brought an offering. It was an offering of tribute. It was a position of one who is inferior to one who is superior - the Lord God. Abel brought from his place the first and the best. It was a blood sacrificed animal.
You know that language in Isaiah 53; it pleased the Lord to bruise him.
What Jesus did at the cross was pleasing to His Father in the sense that sin had been remedied. God’s justice could be found. It was poured out on His Son - His one and only unique Son. Sometimes, we think in our own minds that the suffering of the cross is not that great (not perhaps as much as we allow it to contemplate). We think Jesus is God; He is going to raise from the dead. I want you to know that we can’t grasp the depth of sorrow that’s there between the loving relationship between His Father and His Son, but we’re going to when we’re glorified.
There will be a richness, because then it’s perfect. Without sin, we are going to be caught up in its splendor. Adam had a willful intent. He falls. It’s a tragic story. Yet inside of this, as they faithfully go about and preach the gospel to their own children, Abel believes the gospel shared by his parents. By faith, he offers an act of his faith (which was a picture of what was promised). [This] wasn’t prescribed until later, through Moses defining to us these varied offerings of sacrifices for sin. Abel’s works don’t save him. He offers them by faith. God saved him, and his obedience is proven out in his faith. By faith, Abel offers to God (because he had believed the promised gospel message) a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.
I want us to contrast this over against Cain’s unbelief.
The text tells us there is a more acceptable sacrifice made by Abel than Cain. We have to go back to when the account was given to us, so let’s go back to Genesis 4 together. We will see what took place here is not an accident, but willful rejection, just like Adam’s was.
God rejects Cain’s offering. As a result, Cain has this hatred and anger toward God that manifests itself in jealousy and rage towards his brother. Sometimes, this is missed in the account that’s given here as you read this. It says in Genesis 4:5 that Cain was very angry and his face fell.
Have you ever seethed with anger? You can kind of picture what goes on - you’re so angry you know you’re on the verge of being out of control. He’s there. What happens as a result, is (of course) God, witnessing to himself, comes rushing to him knowing that’s the condition of his mind and his heart. There’s this discussion that ensues. It is clear to us that Cain is the different approach that people make in their religion toward God. Cain’s offering was self righteous. Cain’s anger was directed to God. Why? God says. Why?
He says, “Cain you knew. You knew what was prescribed. Had you not done what I required, would you not have been accepted like your brother, Abel?”
But that wasn’t his approach. He heard the gospel from his parents, and he rejected it. He makes this attempt of being accepted toward God by his own self-righteousness. God is literally looking at him here in Genesis 4, and he is saying, “Cain you know. You know the offering to bring, yet you willfully rejected me. Your offering is your own vain works.”
Here’s why this is true. There’s only one offering to God. There is no other way prescribed in the Bible. There is one offering. There is one way. There is one entrance. It’s the pathway of Jesus that was promised as soon as they fell in sin. God comes rushing in. They were running from God, just as we were. God rushes to their defense. He rushes to embrace them. The point of this story is that Abel believes and Cain rejects. As a result of Abel’s faith that is defined to us in the first three verses [of Hebrews 11], the Bible describes to us the rest in Hebrews 11:4. Abel offered in faith to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous.
I want you to think about this. It wasn’t as if God himself looked down at what Abel was doing and said, “Wow man, you just knew how to make it right. You knew how to do it right, and I’m accepting you because you’re more handsome and you’re this and that.”
No. He knew what was required because that pictured what Jesus would do however many years later. He heard the gospel in that loving home, that was undoubtedly passionately shared by Adam and Eve to their children. Abel believed the truth of the gospel and the promise of redemption. What we literally get through here is a belief that accounts to righteousness.
When we see this, we usually think of Abraham, and it’s true. In Genesis 15:6, Abraham believes and it’s accounted to righteousness. But I want you to get this perfectly clear - it’s only ever been true for the people of God, that through faith, God accounts to them righteousness. Not based upon the beauty of who they are, or what they could do in vain works, but the beauty of who Jesus is and the merits of His work.
So sure was the cross, Peter says from even eternity past, that Abel’s faith is secure. This is why for us the pastor-writer starts there. He has this Jewish church, and he knows that a bunch of them are apostatizing against Jesus. He’s compellingly going to preach to them a biblical theology of the Old Testament to show that everyone has ever only believed in the promise, and the promise was Jesus.
Abel in Hebrews 11:4, Abraham in Genesis 15-16 - This belief that accounts to righteousness is found in the church. In Romans 4, Paul will use this covenant that God made toward Abraham that in his seed, the families of the earth would be blessed.
Galatians 3:6 and Galatians 3:11 tell us that as they believed God, it was accounted to them as righteousness. You are justified before God through the merits of Jesus. As a result of that, we get righteousness.
I don’t want to move past this; I want to stop at this for just a minute. I want to talk about it. It’s very important that you understand that - that none of us have any confidence in our flesh to save ourselves. God has made me righteous, though I know I fail him. God has made you righteous with God, right? On account of your faith that you have trusted in him. You are relying upon nothing in your history, nothing in your past, nothing in your abilities to make you just with God. That only comes by faith.
Your soul is no longer struggling in instability. It is settled in Jesus and the gospel. It’s been accounted to you as righteousness. God wants you to flat out enjoy that. You can do so without guilt. We don’t use that like a monopoly game (like as a get out of jail free card), to just do what we want to do and sin, that’s Romans 6, right? But nonetheless, it is true. Nonetheless it should be rejoiced in. Nonetheless it should bring you peace, comfort, and solace that you’ve been made righteous in your faith by God, because of the merits of Christ.
We believe in Christ. It’s accounted to us as Christ’s righteousness, that's how we’re seen. That’s mind-boggling.
Abraham has nothing to boast about, right? Dude lies. Says “Sarah, say you’re my sister.” C’mon man! Can you see trying to pass that off? “Alright, someone’s coming tonight, and we’re going to kind of tell them we’re brother and sister; you’re not really my wife.” Can you imagine how she would look at me? Abraham’s not the hero of that story! This belief that we have, it accounts to us to righteousness. Literally there, Abraham throws Sarah under the bus. Abraham sins, and so do we.
Faith in Christ accounts to us as righteousness. When you approach God in the way of Abel, [our belief] is a complete and total dependence and trusting in Christ and what he has done, knowing good and well that not only are you sinful, there is nothing you can do that can justify you before a God that’s holy. Perfect God, perfect man. That’s what Jesus is. We are believing in; we are banking upon Jesus.
I’ll never forget this. The greatest struggle I’ve ever had in my life, struggling on whether I was even saved or not, was age 15. I was down in Tennessee, and [my brother] was my go-to dude for everything. I’ll tell Keith, who’s 9 years older than me, more than I would tell my own parents, right? Because I didn’t want a whooping (I’m just kidding around). I told Keith, “Man, I don’t think I’m a Christian.”
He set up this scenario that hopefully will maybe help you. He would say, “Kevin, if you were to die right now and you were to stand before God, why should you be in heaven?” (This was before Dr. Kennedy ever wrote his stuff - good material - The Evangelism Explosion.) I could only say, “Because Jesus died and paid for my sin, and he rose again so that I could live. And he goes, “Bingo! That’s it.” That’s it! I’m telling you, that just rushed over me. That’s how all of us are getting in.
You see, we’re all sitting here in the same boat, just like they were in that first family. Inside of that first family though, [Cain] hears this story and he rejects it, just like many today in their own self-righteousness try to approach God. They begin to compare themselves to other people, which the Bible says is foolish. It is not wise. Our faith brings justification. It is accounted to us as righteousness. Our faith brings peace with God. There’s peace in my heart. Man, that was one of the best things to me, seriously. I got saved in July. I thought for three months I was dying in my sin at night and going to hell. I never slept so well as I did that night. Belief accounts to righteousness.
In Genesis 4, [we] looked at Abel’s faith and Cain’s unbelief. Throughout the Scripture in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, belief accounts to righteousness. I want us to turn our attention to this (the last thing we’re going to look at), which is that Jesus’ death brings forgiveness. Jesus’ death brings forgiveness. That’s so important.
If you’re sitting here today in rejection, your greatest need is our collective need. We need forgiveness.
I need forgiveness. We all do. Everyone in this room - seated or standing. Everyone around the globe. We have a message for the nations, don’t we? Everyone that has ever lived - this is first home stuff to the last home. We all need forgiveness. We need forgiveness. Don’t you love being forgiven?
We all know the rest of the story, right? Cain kills Abel in rage. He’s angry and jealous. Sometimes that stuff goes on in the church, even in redeemed people. Anger, jealousy, rage… Y’all ain’t killing each other, but maybe you want to. That’s what anger is. The root of it goes to murder. It should never be named among us if we want to be strong in the power of the gospel.
Abel’s death... his blood is spilt to the ground.
The Lord says as he pursues Cain, "What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground."
His blood went to the ground, and it’s literally crying out there for vengeance. Abel was murdered. He was wronged. He didn’t do anything wrong. He was wronged against. Cain killed Abel. As a result, his blood cried out for vengeance.
What’s this whole story about? We’re about to see.
Jesus’ death... he spilt his blood. He shed his blood and through it, death came.
Abel’s blood goes to the ground and it cries out for vengeance.
Jesus’ blood goes to the ground and it cries out for forgiveness.
God is holy, and we are sinners. Jesus’ death cries out, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” Whereas Abel’s death goes to the ground, [his blood] is spilt, and it cries out for vengeance because he was wronged, Christ’s death (and he was wronged) goes to the ground and it cries out, “Forgive Kevin. I spilt my blood. I gave my life. Father, forgive Kevin.”
Jesus is the new and better Abel, isn’t he?
Abel did what was right. He was killed, and his blood cried out for vengeance. Jesus always did what was right. He never sinned. Jesus gives his sinless life. Christ died, and by his blood that’s spilt to the ground, it cries out. “Forgive them. Forgive them.”
Jesus died for the sins of his people. His blood cries out to the Holy Father, “Forgive them. Forgive them.”
Jesus sacrificed his life, a couple thousand years ago. As his life was poured out, He gave everything He had. We all know the brutal nature of crucifixion. When he died, my salvation was procured. So was yours. It was procured for God’s people.
I know you’re sitting there and thinking, Man, I don’t deserve that.
I know I feel that way. Thank God for his grace. Jesus died the sinless one for sinful people. The Just One for unjust ones.
Jesus died, and shed his blood, so we could live.