We tend to look on the antediluvian world as alien and remote from ourselves but at least two things have come down to us from it. In Jude 11 we read of “the way of Cain”. Now no descendent of Cain ever entered into the ark, but his “way”, has survived into our times. But even more remarkable than this, there is a voice speaking to us from the world that “perished” (2 Peter 3: 6). God says distinctly of Abel “he yet speaks” (Heb. 11: 4). This fact is all the more interesting when we consider that no record exists of anything he said. His first recorded utterance is in death: “And Jehovah said to Cain ... What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4: 9, 10). These then are the two things that have come to us across the great divide between our world and the last––the speaking of Abel, and the way of Cain.
But what does Abel tell us, and how can we recognise Cain’s way? The story of the two brothers is of course inextricably bound up with the different sacrifices they offered to God––and it is only by seeing how and what they offered that we shall be able to answer these questions. The sacrifices of Cain and Abel were the first recorded in Scripture––what their parents offered, if anything, is not revealed to us. There is a reason for this omission: Adam and Eve were created in innocence, and were directly answerable for their fallen condition, but we enter the world as sinners from our birth (see Ps. 51: 5). Our case is thus somewhat different from their case, and any example they might leave on the subject of sacrifices would not be directly applicable to us. Cain and Abel, however, were just like us in that they were children of Adam and had inherited by birth an evil nature at enmity with God. Their situation thus meets our situation exactly, and the basis of their acceptance before God will be the basis of our acceptance as well.
So how can one born in sin approach God and be accepted before Him? Was it to be by Cain’s way or Abel’s way? The question was settled forever when “Jehovah looked upon Abel, and on his offering; and upon Cain, and on his offering, he did not look” (Gen. 4: 4, 5). A look from God settled the matter, not only for the two brothers but for everyone born in sin thereafter. The reason for Abel’s acceptance and for Cain’s rejection is therefore of vital interest to you and I.
We read distinctly of Abel that he offered “By faith” (Heb. 11: 4). Abel’s way was thus the way of faith. This is important because faith is “by a report, but the report by God’s word” (Rom. 10: 17). Thus it was not on the basis of his own thoughts that Abel acted, but out of obedience to a revelation from God. Faith always acts thus. The “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1: 5) is not some vague and inexplicable sense of guidance (as in the mysticism that passes for Christianity today) but a definite response to a definite revelation. Thus what Abel was to offer was not a question of choice: he learned what God required and he offered it. God spoke, and Abel acted. How God communicated his mind to Abel is not revealed, and nor does it concern us. The simple fact that he acted in faith is sufficient to tell us that he responded positively to the divine will.
Now we do not know how much God revealed to Abel, but we can be sure that he did not have God’s Word in the fullness that we do today (see Col. 1: 25). We are, without question, incredibly privileged. However, there is a world of difference between being blessed with privilege and availing oneself of it. That is why the professing Church is full of men and women ignorant even of their most basic spiritual ABC. The story of Cain and Abel’s offerings is one such lesson, but men who really “ought to be teachers” (Heb. 5: 12) are as unaware of their meaning as if the history had never been written. They may have heard a little of the story of the two brothers in the way one has a knowledge of a fairy tale or myth, but they seem utterly oblivious to the actual message of Abel’s sacrifice. That the story should actually speak to them is beyond their comprehension.
So what does it mean when it says of Abel that “having died, he yet speaks” (Heb. 11: 4)? Is it merely the voice of Abel’s blood? That Abel’s blood cried to God from the ground is not in question (see Gen 4: 10), and the writer to the Hebrews refers to this later when he contrasts Abel’s blood––which could only cry out against sin––with the blood of Christ (see Heb. 12: 24) which has power to take away the sin of the world. In Heb. 11: 4, however, while the writer no doubt had these things in the back of his mind as he wrote, the direction of his thoughts is subtly different. In chapter 11 Abel is not crying to God, but speaking to us. “He yet speaks” refers to his faith, a faith which caused him to offer “a more excellent sacrifice than Cain”, and “by it”––his faith––“having died, he yet speaks” (Heb. 11: 4).
So what does his faith say to us? It says that there is only one way to God, and that is through the death of another. This is Abel’s voice as we hear it today. But what does man take delight in hearing instead? He likes to hear that there are many ways to God and to blessing, and that the important thing is to be sincere! So was Cain sincere? Surely he was. Was he accepted? No! So much for sincerity! Oh for man to realise the folly of his way––the way of Cain no less! Man’s religion––the presumption of approaching God on man’s own terms––may be marked by as much sincerity as you like, but sincerity is nothing without faith. Unless there is faith––obedience to the divine revelation––God will have nothing to do with it. But man cannot bear the divine revelation, because it makes nothing of man, and everything of the sacrificial lamb. Hence just as Cain could not tolerate Abel’s acceptance and killed him (see 1 John 3: 12), so men today will tolerate everything and anything apart from the supposed bigotry and narrowness of those who refuse to divorce salvation from the death of Christ.
On one point the brothers were actually agreed––both of them accepted that it was right for a creature to bring an offering to God, and Cain seemed as ready as Abel to give to the Lord a portion of what he possessed. There did not appear to be any reluctance on his part to bring an offering. The ground had yielded increase as a reward to his toil, and he was willing to present part of it to Him by whose power and goodness the earth was fruitful at all. (Indeed Cain, by his offering, though he acted wrongly, condemns many a one in this day who enjoys favours from God without once stopping to think of the Giver or His worship). So “Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to Jehovah. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat” (Gen. 4: 3, 4). The size of Cain’s offering is not given, nor the number of Abel’s sheep, but both, surely, were generous in what they gave. The point is not the quantity of the offering, but the character.
Notice in regard to Abel’s offering that though the fat is mentioned there is nothing said about the blood. That blood was shed is clearly implied, for the offering was dead (as witnessed by the offering of its fat), and Scripture testifies that “the blood is the life” (Deut. 12: 23). To have something implied, however, is not the same as having it spelt out in black and white. Now the blood is necessary for the remission of sins (see Heb. 9: 22), as is the death of the sacrifice (see 1 Cor. 15: 3)––the blood is the witness of death, and death is by the shedding of blood. However, the point in Genesis 4 seems not to be sins as such––the acts––but the sinful nature that produced them. Indeed, up to this juncture we do not read of any sinful acts on the part of Cain and Abel (though both, doubtless, were guilty of such). The question raised was about the acceptance of one born in sin, not about the remission of his sins. It was the nature and not the acts of that nature that Abel’s sacrifice brings into prominence. Now a nature can only cease to exist by death. Death must come in before a nature can be put away. Of course the blood is the witness of death, but there is no need for the writer to specifically mention it. In the context of the lesson the Spirit of God is bringing before the reader, the fact that the offering was dead is sufficient. Abel’s sacrifice teaches us that it is through the death of another that the man born in sin can be made fit for the presence of God.
Why then the distinct mention of the fat: “And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat” (Gen. 4: 4)? In the sacrifices of the Law, the fat was reserved for God (see Lev. 3: 16) and was to be burned “as an offering by fire for a sweet odour to Jehovah” (Num. 18: 17). This is very suggestive of the delight God found in Christ, as the Lord Himself said: “I do always the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8: 29). Thus if the death of the animals foreshadowed the death of the substitute, their fat speaks of the perfect obedience of the substitute to the will of God. It suggests its nature was wholly in accord with the mind of God. The mention of the fat thus has a voice and a meaning which we can interpret. Cain acted in self–will in the offering he brought. Abel approached as a sinner, put the death of the substitute between himself and God, and offered up its fat, thus prefiguring the perfect answer within the true victim to the will of God. For the offering to be truly efficacious, not only must my substitute die, but its nature must be of a wholly different character to my own.
And so Abel drew near acknowledging his need for the death of a substitute. Cain approached as a righteous man who had already a standing before God, and ignored his condition by the fall. Abel owned his condition, offered accordingly, and was accepted; Cain denied his, and was rejected. Even the fruits of the ground were witnesses against Cain, for the ground was specifically cursed on account of Adam’s fall (see Gen. 3: 17–19). He thought his own exertions (“the sweat of thy face”––Gen. 3: 19) would do for God, while Abel recognised that nothing would avail but death. There was nothing wrong in Cain being a “husbandman” (Gen. 4: 2) but working the ground could never bring acceptance before God. There must be a substitute and that substitute must die. Of course Abel’s dead victims must also testify to the fall (even though they were not cursed like the ground) for death had entered the world by sin. However, they also spoke (in a way which Cain’s offering could not speak) of the divinely appointed way for putting away sin: by the death of God’s own Son. Hence “Jehovah looked upon Abel, and on his offering; and upon Cain, and on his offering, he did not look” (vs 4, 5). Neither brother drew near without an offering which spoke in some way of the fall (anything they offered would have done that), but Cain thought to set himself right with God without the death of a substitute. Abel, by contrast, acknowledged the need of another’s death before he could stand in acceptance before God. Abel took the place of a sinner––a lost sinner––Cain of a soul able to maintain its ground before a holy God. Countless thousands today are practising the same kind of flawed religion––flawed because God will have nothing to do with it.
It might be asked why God could not accept the fruits of the ground as an offering from Cain when afterwards He commanded the children of Israel to offer their first–fruits to Him (see Lev. 2: 14). The difficulty is more apparent than real. Israel as a nation were already redeemed (see Ex. 15: 13) and as such already had a standing before God. With Cain, however, it was a question of an unredeemed sinner’s acceptance. Cain should have known that the only ground of his standing before God was through the death of another. This difference is illustrated in the contrast between the language addressed to sinners and to saints in the NT. To sinners the message is “Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house” (Acts 16: 31). To saints the word comes “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the compassions of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God [which is] your intelligent service” (Rom. 12: 1). This is what God looks for from those He has redeemed. For the unsaved soul to attempt to offer such a sacrifice would be madness. It is only as resting on the one great sacrifice for sin that we can offer up anything to God. Yet despite this, Christendom is characterised by unregenerate men presuming to offer up their “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13: 15) in prayers, hymns and the reading of ‘lessons’––indeed they are encouraged to do so by the religious hierarchy of the day. Worse still, through their generosity and philanthropy they believe they will win divine favour, overlooking the fact that it is only as redeemed by the precious blood of Christ that God can be pleased with “such sacrifices” as “doing good and communicating [of your substance]” (v16).
Observe the identification between the offering and the offerer––“Jehovah looked upon Abel, and on his offering” (Gen. 4: 4)––not just on the offering, but on Abel as well. Could He have accepted the offering without the offerer? Impossible! Abel showed the clear obedience of faith, and so received the sure consequence––acceptance before His God: “he obtained testimony of being righteous, God bearing testimony to his gifts” (Heb. 11: 4). He had no need to ask his father and his mother whether he had been accepted, and they could not give him certainty of heart in any case. The Lord would have Abel learn it direct from Himself in order that he could leave the place of sacrifice with peace in his mind about it. God gives the same certainty to the believer trusting in the work of Christ (see Rom. 10: 9). How do I know I am saved? Because God has told me so in His Word. In the NT, the Lord Jesus describes Abel as “righteous Abel” (Matt. 23: 35). Was he righteous on account of his own works? Not at all. It was the “righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4: 13). As with Abraham long after, God reckoned Abel as righteous because he believed what God had said. He offered according to the divine revelation. He had faith, he had certainty, and he was justified.
Yet if Abel knew all about his acceptance, Cain did as well. It was perfectly obvious to both brothers that the one who was owned as righteous that day was the one who had taken the place of a lost sinner needing the death of a substitute. Yet despite Cain’s petulant reaction to his rejection the Lord dealt graciously with him: “Why art thou angry, and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, will not [thy countenance] look up [with confidence]” (Gen. 4: 6, 7). Of course, to do well could, in practice, only mean to confess as his brother had done––his lost condition and the only remedy for that condition––and Cain could not bring himself to do that. Yet despite his stubbornness, the Lord was still not ready to let Cain go: “If thou doest not well, a sin offering lieth at the door” (v7, Darby alternative reading). This is the first mention of a specific offering for sin. Thus though Cain had sinned in rejecting the divinely sanctioned way of approach, he could still be accepted if he presented the sin offering so graciously provided. If this was offered his sin would be forgiven, and his position as firstborn would be preserved: “unto thee [shall be] his desire, (that is, Abel’s) and thou shalt rule over him”. The Lord would not allow Cain to be ignorant of what he should do, any more than He left Abel unaware of the results of what he had done. Thus Cain was left without excuse when he turned away in foolish pride without having brought the offering for sin––and multitudes today are similarly left without excuse when they reject God’s way of salvation. What the Lord told Cain He tells them: a sacrifice must be offered up. In Cain’s case it was the offering up of one from the flock; in the sinner’s case now it is trusting wholly to the sacrifice of God’s own lamb at Calvary. Oh how clearly is the whole question of a sinner’s acceptance brought out in this brief history! If up to now it has been read simply as the record of a bygone age, may its voice now penetrate to the depths of the heart!
From that day on, the paths of the two brothers outwardly diverged. Abel’s body was shortly afterwards laid in the grave and Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and built a city. His posterity became famous as inventors of musical instruments and workers in brass and iron (see Gen. 4: 20–22), a way of things that continues still. However, just as all trace of Cain’s city was obliterated by the flood, and the strains of music Cain’s family had first evoked were hushed forever into silence by the waters overflowing the earth, so those in our day who have “gone in the way of Cain” shall find themselves in “the gloom of darkness for eternity” (Jude 11, 13). But there is a voice which Cain’s malice could not silence, nor the overflowing waters drown, and this voice still speaks to sinners telling them what they need. Abel offered by faith a more excellent sacrifice than Cain and by it “having died, he yet speaks” (Heb. 11: 4). Have you heard and understood his message––and acted accordingly?
The prison episode in Joseph’s history (Gen. 39–41) is typical in a peculiar way of the present dispensation. Thus the Son of the Father has been rejected by his own brethren (Israel), sold for a few pieces of silver, put to death (in a figure), has risen from the dead and passed over to the Gentiles to become the Saviour of the world and the Revealer of secrets. He is, however, for a long time despised and ill–treated by these Gentiles and is found amongst those similarly captive and afflicted, whom His presence and words necessarily separated into the two classes of saved and lost––the butler and the baker being separated like the two crucified thieves. When that work is done, Joseph shaves and changes his clothes (i.e. conforms to a new order of things and alters his outward characteristics), and ascends from the dungeon to the throne where He inaugurates a new millennial era. However, the millennial time is still future, and thus the nature of the present moment is that of the prison scene.
Here then were two men in the same place of bondage, equally condemned, and, so far as we know, equally guilty or innocent––quite alike in all outward appearance. Christ (Joseph) reveals the difference––He comes amongst them and pronounces one saved and the other lost. This may seem strange, and to crude minds a hard saying; but in truth all around us persons and things that superficially appear much the same are being continually separated as widely as the poles. Take an example: two jewels are shown to an expert––they appear exactly the same until he touches them with nitric acid, and then one of them is accepted and the other, with a black smear of condemnation on it now, is adjudged as nothing but an elaborate fraud. Again, I have watched the coins in the Royal Mint travelling down the grooves of those exquisitely delicate weighing machines. No human being can see any difference between one and another until they come to the slots, but the machine, with infallible accuracy, slides one of them down the main slot to go forth on its useful and honourable career, and slides another down the light–weight slot to be condemned and cast into the furnace. The two coins that look so entirely alike have been submitted to the test of the great universal law of gravitation which vindicates one and condemns the other.
Yet while there may be no apparent difference between the position or actions of the two men, there is a marked difference in their reception of Joseph’s overtures. The butler readily opens his heart to him; but of the other one we read, “when the chief of the bakers saw…” (Gen. 40: 16). He held back until encouraged by some external circumstance: he “saw”––he walked by sight. There is also an instructive difference in the elements with which they are connected. The butler is brought before a vine, triple branched, living and fruitful. Pharaoh’s cup (the symbol of God’s judgement) is in his hand; he takes the grapes and presses them into the cup, and then gives the cup into Pharaoh’s hands. The vine is Christ; the pressing of the grapes, the acceptance of God’s judgement. Then he comes before God with the blood of Christ, which is accepted, and he is forgiven and exalted (vs9–13). The baker, by contrast, covers himself with baskets filled with human works and, however sweet and elaborate they may be, they are not accepted by Pharaoh, and the birds devour both the baker and the baking (vs16–19). There were “three days” with both the butler and the baker but while death and resurrection delivers the one, it condemns the other. Victuals are not enough. Though men should pile them, ornate and fragrant, to high heaven, the evil spirits (pictured by the birds) shall waste them, and the baskets containing them are full of holes. The confectionery of human religion is like Cain’s sacrifice––of his own design and labour, lifeless and bloodless. The uppermost basket––the very appearance of spirituality––is full of it, and specially prepared for Pharaoh too, but to no avail. Victuals are not enough.
What is enough is that which God has provided––the vine and the blood of the grape. Christ and His work are enough for God and therefore enough for you. Do you believe it? Is it indeed precious blood (1 Pet. 1: 19) to you?