If the world looks on the early chapters of Genesis as mere legends, many Christians are little better, seeing them only as a record of history. That they are historical is quite true, but the lessons they contain are not simply historical. They have a living voice for us now: “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained testimony of being righteous, God bearing testimony to his gifts, and by it, having died, he yet speaks” (Heb. 11: 4, my emphasis).
From what is said in Hebrews 11, a question immediately arises: How did Abel obtain testimony of being righteous? How did he know God had accepted his gifts? There is no explanation given in the history of Gen. 4. There, the whole act is condensed and summed up in the words “And Jehovah looked upon Abel, and on his offering” (Gen. 4: 4), or, as the AV puts it, “And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering”. We are not told how God did this. It must have been shown in such a way that there could be no mistake about it, and in a way that was just as evident to Cain who knew that the opposite was true in his case, for to his offering, God “did not look” (v5). We will return to the divine commentary in Heb. 11 in a moment, but first let us look elsewhere in the OT to see how God gave His testimony of acceptance.
In Gen. 15: 17, Abram, in his deep sleep, saw “a smoking furnace, and a flame of fire”, which, besides being typical of Israel’s affliction in the iron furnace of Egypt, was undoubtedly the means by which the sacrifices, which Abram had so carefully prepared and arranged, were consumed.
In Genesis 22, Abraham appears to have brought his own fire with which to light the sacrifice, but this is a misconception. In verses 6 and 7, a figure of speech is employed whereby “fire” is put for the flammable material used to set the fire going, and so cause the wood to ignite. Thus in Lev. 1 “the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar, and lay wood in order on the fire; and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall lay the pieces, the head, and the fat, in order on the wood that is on the fire which is on the altar” (vs 7, 8).
In Lev. 9: 24, on the occasion of the first formal sacrifice on the altar of burnt offering, we read “And there went out fire from before Jehovah, and consumed on the altar the burnt–offering, and the pieces of fat; and all the people saw it, and they shouted, and fell on their face”. The comparison with chapter 10 is very enlightening. There Nadab and Abihu did not kindle the incense in their censors with fire from the altar (which, being originally fire from heaven, was kept continually “burning on the altar: it shall never go out”—Lev. 6: 13). Instead they took other fire. That is, fire emanating from this earth, or kindled by man’s hand. In God’s eyes this was “strange fire” and as a consequence “there went out a fire from before Jehovah, and devoured them, and they died before Jehovah” (Lev. 10: 1, 2).
When Gideon prepared his offering in Ophrah “the Angel of Jehovah put forth the end of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the flesh and the unleavened cakes; and there rose up fire out of the rock, and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes (Jud. 6: 21). This fire was not kindled by Gideon, or made with the hands of man. It was supernatural fire produced by Jehovah to show that He had accepted Gideon’s offering.
Again, when Manoah made his offering “and offered it up to Jehovah upon the rock” the Angel of Jehovah “did wondrously, and Manoah and his wife looked on. And it came to pass, as the flame went up from off the altar towards the heavens, that the angel of Jehovah ascended in the flame of the altar; and Manoah and his wife looked on, and fell on their faces to the ground” (Jud. 13: 19, 20). Here again was miraculous fire from the Lord, consuming and accepting their offering. It was not fire kindled by human hands.
When David offered his offering on the altar which he built on the site purchased from Ornan the Jebusite, Jehovah “answered him from the heavens by fire upon the altar of burnt–offering” (1 Chron. 21: 26).
At the dedication of the temple, when Solomon had ended his prayer, we read that “the fire came down from heavens and consumed the burnt–offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of Jehovah filled the house … and all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of Jehovah upon the house, and bowed themselves with their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshipped and thanked Jehovah” (2 Chron. 7: 1–3).
When Elijah wanted to offer a sacrifice away from the temple where Jehovah had caused His name to be placed, and where the fire which had fallen from heaven was kept continually burning, fire had to fall from heaven specially for the occasion. After the prophets of Baal had in vain tried to produce the phenomenon by appeals to their god, and after Elijah had soaked the wood and the offering with water we read: “And the fire of Jehovah fell, and consumed the burnt–offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And all the people saw [it], and they fell on their faces and said, Jehovah, he is God! Jehovah, he is God” (1 Kings 18: 38, 39).
Add to all these practical examples the words of Ps. 20: 3 where the appeal to Jehovah is to “Remember all thine oblations, and accept thy burnt–offering”. Against the word the word “accept” the footnote gives the alternative rendering “turn to ashes”. Why is this an alternative reading? Because this was always the way that God accepted the offerings that were made to Him: it was by fire from heaven. He turned them to ashes, and thus showed that He had respect unto them, and accepted them as the substitute for the one who offered them.
Returning now to what Heb. 11: 4 says about Abel, we find that it speaks of “God bearing testimony to his gifts”. The preposition to in Greek is epi (epi) and can take the meaning of upon or over. Once we realise that epi (epi) can be rendered upon we have the answer to the question as to how Abel knew that God had accepted his sacrifice. It was by God–made fire descending from heaven upon his offering. How else did Abel obtain testimony of being righteous? How else did God bear testimony to his gifts? How else did Cain know that “on his offering” God “did not look” (Gen. 4: 5)? Furthermore, rendering epi as upon takes on extra force when we remember that the fire descended upon the sinner’s substitute instead of upon the sinner, upon Abel’s lamb instead of upon Abel. Thus the doctrine of substitution was one of the earliest doctrines taught to mankind, without which there could be no approach to God at all. It was the first lesson which man was required to believe that he had heard from God, a lesson Abel believed and Cain did not. As “faith then [is] by a report” (Rom. 10: 17), Abel and Cain must have both heard what offering they were to bring. As the hearing or report is “by God’s word”, Cain and Abel must both have heard from God, otherwise there would have been no room, either for obedience on the one hand, or for disobedience on the other. Cain did not believe God and took his own way. Abel believed God, and in faith approached God in God’s way.
God had spoken. What He had said may be summed up in the words afterwards recited to Israel, “it is the blood that maketh atonement for the soul” (Lev. 17: 11) and “without blood–shedding there is no remission” (Heb. 9: 22). God’s pronouncement upon the sinner was given in Gen. 3: 19, and is summed up in the pithy statement of the apostle Paul: “the wages of sin [is] death” (Rom. 6: 23). And yet the very next chapter of Genesis sets out in a figure the way in which God would provide a substitute, the death of which He would accept in the sinner’s place. That is why the acceptance must be God’s own act. All that the sinner could do was to bring his offering and lay his hand in faith upon it and confess it as his substitute (see Lev. 1: 4). It was for God to give His testimony that he had accepted it. It is the same today.
Ignorance of this lesson is the source of much of the well–meaning but erroneous evangelistic phraseology of the present day. The theology of this twenty–first century is about the sinner’s acceptance of Christ. God’s Word for sixty centuries has been about the sinner believing what God has said. I do not have to accept Christ’s sacrifice for the simple reason that it is never offered to me, and if something is not offered to me, then my acceptance or refusal is immaterial and irrelevant. Instead, we are simply obliged to believe the Gospel presented to us: “to you has the word of this salvation been sent” (Acts 13: 26). God has spoken. The question is, do I believe what He has said? God has told us that He cannot and will not accept men in their sins. In ourselves we are not only ruined sinners because of what we have done, or not done, but we are ruined creatures because of what we are. The question is, do we believe God as to this solemn fact?
What God accepted was Abel’s “gifts” (Heb. 11: 4) and he was only accepted in his gifts (see Gen. 4: 4). In the same way, God has told us that He can accept us, but only in the merits and Person of that perfect Substitute—His Christ—whom He has provided. For, “Christ indeed has once suffered for sins, [the] just for [the] unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3: 18). So do we believe Him as to this? If we do we shall lay our hand by faith on Him, confess our belief in God as to our own lost and ruined nature, and as to Christ as God’s provided salvation, knowing that, by this faith, God pronounces us righteous, accepts us in the person of our Substitute, and declares us as “accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1: 6, AV).
Why are we accepted? Because God accepted Christ’s one offering when He raised Him from the dead. Christ’s resurrection is the proof and evidence that God has accepted Christ. Jesus our Lord was not only “delivered for our offences” but “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4: 25). Christ risen is the sinner’s receipt that God has given to show that He has accepted Christ’s payment of the sinner’s debt. There is no other receipt. Christ’s blood is not the receipt—the blood is the payment. Nor is the sinner’s faith the receipt. It is no use a man going to his creditor saying he believes he has paid what he owes. No, he must produce the receipt. What is the receipt which we can produce to God which will prove that our debt is paid? Nothing but the blessed fact that God’s Word assures us that He has accepted payment on our behalf in the person of our Substitute, when He raised Christ from the dead. We are to believe what God says when He assures us of this, and as a consequence, He is pleased to accept us in Christ. It is always the creditor who accepts the payment which the debtor makes. Furthermore, when payment has been accepted, no further demands can be made upon the debtor. This is how Abel was accepted and this is how the sinner is saved to this day. By the same faith in what God has said, we lay our hand on that Lamb of God as our substitute, and we obtain God’s witness that we are reckoned as righteous. God bears His testimony to this fact in that He raised Christ from the dead, and has accepted the believing sinner in Him.
It is never a question of whether the sinner accepts Christ, but whether he believes God when God says that He has accepted Christ. It may be said that the same thing is meant in modern phraseology. If so, why not say so? Why not keep to Scriptural language? Why alter it? Why make it appear to stand on what man can do, instead of believing what God has said? Why make it all turn on man’s accepting, instead of man’s believing? Accepting Christ is not the same as believing God. In our ignorance we may think that they are the same, and the practical end–result in the mercy of God as regard ourselves may be indeed be the same, but that does not alter the fact that their underlying meanings are poles apart. The one leaves all to God—I believe His testimony. The other, albeit very subtly, leaves me room to do something myself—I can condescend to consider the claims of Christ! But what merit is there in my declaration that I the sinner have accepted Christ? None at all! My salvation lies in the fact that I have believed God when He says that He has accepted Christ. God declares the futility of the sinner bringing in anything of his own—there is nothing he can do, he cannot even ‘accept’. It must be faith, pure and simple—believing what God has said.
Faith is our first and over–riding duty towards God, for “whatever [is] not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14: 23) and “without faith [it is] impossible to please [him]” (Heb. 11: 6). The Scripture puts it very simply: “faith then [is] by a report, but the report by God’s word” (Rom. 10: 17). However, instead of believing the report of what God has said, the sinner is taught today that he can choose to accept the payment which Christ has made to God—as though he was the creditor, and God his debtor! In essence, though many do not realise it, this is salvation by works in its most subtle form. Salvation, thank God, may be known, but the sense of that salvation being all of God is weakened. The “God of our Salvation” (Ps. 65: 5) is the God who has spoken unto us in His Son, and left to us the simple duty of believing what He has said. If Abel “yet speaks” (Heb. 11: 4), then this is the lesson He teaches us. God has accepted Christ as the sinner’s substitute—may we believe it!
 Hence we say we “lit the fire” when in fact we put a match to some paper underneath the logs, using the word fire, not literally but figuratively, for the material by which we kindle the fire.