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A More Excellent Sacrifice

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.
Hebrews 11:4

Why was the offering of Abel a more excellent sacrifice than Cain? Is it because God favoured Abel more? I believe the answer can be found in 1 John 3:11-12:

For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother's righteous.

Cain’s works were evil, and Abel’s works were righteous. It was all about the righteousness of God.

The offering up of sacrifices is a divine institution. It did not originate with man. God Himself instituted it in the Garden of Eden immediately after the fall of man. God Himself established it for the forgiveness of sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, the eyes of both of them were opened. They realized that they were naked. Therefore they sewed fig leaves together, and made coverings for themselves (Genesis 3:7).

But these fig leaves could not cover them fully and properly, and provide them adequate warmth. Their own human provisions were inadequate to cover their sinfulness. They became ashamed of themselves. They began to hide from the LORD among the trees of the Garden (Genesis 3:8).

After the LORD reprimanded them for their disobedience and sin, He showed them His love. God provided them a better covering for their sin. The LORD Himself clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of animals in the Garden of Eden. Animals were sacrificed, and blood was shed for the remission of sins (Genesis 3:21).

God's loving provisions were able to cover them adequately, while man's own coverings were insufficient. These divine coverings were declared acceptable by God, because they covered not just the body of man, but also his sin. They were produced by the shedding of blood.

And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission. (Hebrews 9:22)

This principle of offering sacrifices by the shedding of blood is clearly seen in the account of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). After Adam and Eve left the Garden, they had a son named Cain, which meant, "a possession" or "a spear." Later, Eve bore another son named Abel, which meant, "breath" or "vapor." Abel became a shepherd, and Cain became a tiller of the ground.

As the time went by, Cain and Abel grew up. Their father taught them many things, among which was the offerings unto God. Adam must have taught them the right way of offering sacrifices unto the LORD, and how to obtain forgiveness and righteousness from God.

Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain because he conformed to the provisions and patterns, which God had previously established with Adam and Eve. He understood his own sinfulness, its penalty, and the necessity of blood sacrifice as a divine provision that God had laid down. He brought the firstborn of his flock and of their fat, and sacrificed unto the LORD. He offered the choicest cuts of meat from his best lambs, without any blemish and defect. The LORD was pleased with his offering.

Cain, however, did his own things and offered up something which did not please the LORD. Vegetable or meal offerings were for the purpose of consecration. They could not be brought to God unless they were preceded by a sin offering for the covering of sin through an animal or blood sacrifice. There could not be any consecration or commitment to God until the penalty and guilt of sin were dealt with.

Man could not approach God, and be made right with Him without the shedding of blood. That’s why Jesus needed to come and die for us:

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. (Ephesians 1:7-8)

God Himself determined what was acceptable to Him. For man to determine what pleased God would put man in the place of God. God not only established what types of sacrifices to be offered but also how to offer them.

First and foremost, the offerings had to be clean and acceptable. This was symbolic that they were without sin. Not everything designated as clean animals could be offered up to God as a sacrifice. Of the clean animals, only oxen, sheep, goats and pigeons were acceptable offerings before God. Likewise, of the clean vegetables, only corn, wine and oil were proper and acceptable offerings unto the LORD. These regulations were instituted to teach us that we should give to God what He required - a holy and acceptable offering.

Cain did not offer what God had required of a sin sacrifice. He did something else which was evil in the sight of God. Some Bible commentators explained that Cain offered his worst, while Abel gave his best. Cain brought the most inferior type of offerings to God. Some said that Cain brought seeds of flax as offerings unto the LORD, while Abel brought the best of his sheep. Therefore, God rejected Cain's offering but accepted Abel's.

God was not unjust in demonstrating a special preference for Abel. In fact, God loved Cain as much as He loved Abel. After Cain killed his own brother, he was afraid that others would hunt him down for the death of Abel. But the LORD assured him, "Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." And the LORD set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him. Then Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden (Genesis 4:15-16).

Through this, God is telling Cain, "I love you, but the choice is yours." Cain was not a victim of God’s favoritism. He was a victim of his own emotions and choices. His response was under his control, but he chose to be disobedient, and took the wrong path. His heart was not right, full of anger and hatred. Those destructive emotions of his drove him to eventually murder Abel. Because of his choices, he had to face the consequences.

God repeatedly emphasized throughout both the Old and New Testaments that He did not need or desire food and sacrifices themselves. Instead He desires man's love, obedience and service towards Him:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, and with all your strength.
(Deut 6:4-5)

Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed than the fat of rams.
(1 Samuel 15:22)

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
(Romans 12:1-2)

Both the Old and the New Testaments also affirm that sacrifices are presented as a symbolic act of getting right with God. Because of man’s sin, he needs to present offerings by which another life takes the place of his own life. These animal sacrifices and substitutes actually points to the ultimate Sacrifice and Substitute, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:1-2):

For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins.

According to God's command, the animal sacrificed had to be physically perfect in age and condition. Through this requirement of perfection in the animals to be sacrificed, God sent His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, as the true and perfect Lamb of God Who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29). He was without blemish, and without spot (1 Peter 1:18-19):

"...knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot."

The animal was carefully selected. It was then presented at the altar. After which, the next act was the laying on of hands by the person presenting the offering. By this act, the worshipper symbolically transferred his sin and guilt to the sacrificial animal which stood in his place. In the New Testament, we have to acknowledge Jesus as the Lamb of God Who took away all our sins. We could not pay for our sins, but Jesus could. Christ took upon Himself our sin and guilt, and purchased redemption for us (Matthew 1:21).

After the laying of hands on the animal, the offerer killed the animal on the north side of the altar (Lev 1:10-11):

If his offering is of the flocks--of the sheep or of the goats--as a burnt sacrifice, he shall bring a male without blemish. He shall kill it on the north side of the altar before the LORD; and the priests, Aaron's sons, shall sprinkle its blood all around on the altar.

Details such as the specification of the north side taught us that this act of sacrifice must be done exactly as God prescribed in order to be acceptable to Him. This was true and total obedience unto Him. This act of slaying the animal was an important element in the whole process of offering the sacrifice. By it, the offerer acted out his guilt and involvement in the death of the animal. In the New Testament, we are guilty of the death of our Redeemer. He died on our behalf, and for our sins. We should be the ones to be sacrificed, but we are sinful. Therefore, we are unacceptable before the LORD. Jesus came and took our place.

Who killed Jesus? The Jews? The Romans? No, we are the ones who drove the nails into His arms of love. We are the ones who killed Jesus. By Him, we are made righteous before God.

Through these offerings of Cain and Abel, we can understand the heart of God. What we offer God is a true reflection of what is in our hearts. The psalmist David told us what would really please God in Psalm 51:16-17:

"For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
a broken and a contrite heart--
these, O God, You will not despise."

Why should we bring God a sacrifice unless we intend to offer our best? Unless we are prepared to bring something of value and acceptable to God, we should not be presumptuous in offering God sacrifices that cost us nothing.

"I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing." (2 Samuel 24:24)

Why should we insult God by offering Him something inferior?

A son honors his father,
And a servant his master.
If then I am the Father,
Where is My honor?
And if I am a Master,
Where is My reverence?
Says the LORD of hosts
To you priests who despise My name.
Yet you say, 'In what way have we despised Your name?'

You offer defiled food on My altar.
But say,
'In what way have we defiled You?'
By saying,
'The table of the LORD is contemptible.'
And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice,
Is it not evil?

And when you offer the lame and sick,
Is it not evil?
Offer it then to your governor!
Would he be pleased with you?
Would he accept you favorably?"
Says the LORD of hosts.
Malachi 1:6-8

The gift is significant. But more significantly, it is the act of obedience of doing it His way and the acknowledgement of Who He is! God requires us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to Him, which is our reasonable service (Romans 12:1). What we offer and give Him is a reflection of our heart condition.

It is not the gifts but the giver that God is looking for. Because we are obedient, we will not be presumptuous in doing it our way. Because He is God, He deserves our best, and He will only accept what is holy and acceptable to Him. Our offerings show us that everything we have, including our own lives, belong to God. We belong entirely to Him.

God gave us His best, His purest and His ultimate. What can we offer Him? Even our offerings belong to Him before they are offered.

Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary

Written on:
1 November 2004