2 And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 3 So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. 4 And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. 6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 8 And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. 9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. 11 “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. ( Genesis 4:2-11, NASB ).
I remember reading this and being mystified as to why God had regard for Abel’s offering, but not for Cain’s offering. Why would God arbitrarily reject the thing Cain offered? We ask this because it is the act of sacrifice that we think justifies us, whereas it is the actual substance of the offering that is important. We think that it is the act of being sacrificial ourselves that gain’s God’s regard, whereas it is the propitiatory shedding of blood, the more ultimate sacrifice of another, which gains His regard. It is not sacrifice, but the acknowledgment and appeal to grace that justifies. It is thus not our works, but the acknowledgment of God’s grace, which justifies. Abel’s sacrifice to God included the deeper sacrifice of another through the shedding of blood, while Cain made an offering which suggested that his own sacrifice, his own act of offering something, was the substance.
In the aftermath of this event, we see that there was genuine wrath on the part of Cain towards Abel. We all have rage, justified or not, towards one another. Jesus Himself led a perfect life and still we crucified Him. Surely Abel was not so perfect. And so, instead of a propitiation, a substitute sacrifice, a substitute act of violence and vengeance and retribution, Cain directly killed Abel. Abel might have wanted to directly kill Cain, or even have borne the wrath he himself deserved, but instead he offered a propitiation. In killing Abel, Cain demonstrated that he did not believe the propitiation which Abel had offered for himself was enough. He wanted to visit justice directly on Abel. This is the root of our hatred and anger – we want to balance out justice on our own behalf.
When we hold unforgiveness towards someone, we are not conjuring up something that is untrue. Jesus’ death on the cross says it IS true – they are deserving of wrath. In fact, they are deserving of death. Each of us is Abel, rightly or wrongly the object of someone’s wrath. We either believe the propitiation of Jesus’ blood is true for them, and for ourselves, or we do not. Either way, justice must certainly be served – either on our own heads, or on Christ’s head. Injustice cannot just fester and fade, it demands to be dealt with, even over many decades and generations.
So when we come to God, our offering is either Cain’s offering or Abel’s offering. We can come as Cain saying, here I am making sacrifices and being wonderful, surely by my works you must accept me! Or, we can come as Abel saying, I deserve death, and my brother Cain is right. I have nothing to offer, but by Your word, I acknowledge that my blood should be shed, but here is a blood offering in proxy. We either come offering our own wisdom and our own works, or we come claiming propitiation offering none of our own works but the shed blood of Another in our place.
11 For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; 12 not as Cain, who was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not marvel, brethren, if the world hates you. (1 John 3:11-13, NASB).
Here is the remarkable thing. What were Abel’s deeds, in such stark contrast to Cain’s deeds? Abel offered a propitiation, Cain offered a sacrifice of works. This is the lone difference. Of course the world hates us, the whole world is Cain and we are Abel, because we offer the sacrifice which Abel offered. We believe in Christ our propitiation, and not our own works. The world believes in its own works, and is enraged that God arbitrarily accepts our works and not theirs which to them are so much better.
This is the same dynamic that underlies the mystifying story which Jesus tells in the sermon on the mount:
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’ 24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. 25 “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. 26 “And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. 27 “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall.” (Matthew 7:21-27, NASB).
These people who built their house on the wrong foundation were Cain, bringing the offering of their own efforts, instead of the offering of a propitiation. Notice that the question is not whether or not they “know” God, but whether or not God knows them. It hinges on the acknowledgement of grace, the justification which comes through the propitiation which is Christ.