The First Prophet and His Prophecy
The testimony of God’s prophets is given a great place in the Scriptures such that roughly a third of all the Bible owes its existence to their labours. There were also prophetesses. Some are named, others are not. Nor is all that they prophesied recorded. The vast majority of Israel’s prophets ministered to that nation. One important exception to this was Jonah. His service was focused on a Gentile city—Nineveh. As a result, that great metropolis “wherein are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons” (Jonah 4: 11) “repented at the preaching of Jonas” (Luke 11: 32). However, the very first of all the prophets was not only not an Israelite, he was not even of the seed of Abraham. His history preceded “Enoch, [the] seventh from Adam” (Jude v14), who prophesied before the flood. Yet even though the man I am speaking of was a prophet, there is not a word of what he said recorded in the Bible. That is striking enough, but it is not all. Normally when a prophet dies, unless his prophecy is recorded, his prophecy dies with him. However, this man’s prophecy not only did not die with him but did not begin until he was dead and, furthermore, continues to this day. He is also the first man that Scripture positively identifies with faith and the divine record of him is that “having died, he yet speaks” (Heb. 11: 4). The person I am speaking of is Abel.
It is the Lord Himself that tells us that Abel was a prophet and that he was the very first of a long line of such. He told His hearers that God has declared “I will send to them prophets and apostles, and of these shall they kill and drive out by persecution, that the blood of all the prophets which has been poured out from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zacharias, who perished between the altar and the house; yea, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation.” (Luke 11: 49–51). Thus the prophetic testimony, as it commenced with Abel, was not limited to Israel, but began after “sin entered into the world, and by sin death” (Rom 5: 12).
There is more in these verses in Luke 11, however. The Greek expression απο καταβολης κοσμου translated as “the foundation of the world” in v50 does not take us back to the original creation of Gen. 1: 1 as many might think. The word world (κοσμος) is never used in that connection in the Scriptures. In the NT it always refers to an established order of things involving man or to the men within that order. Correspondingly, prophets are men sent by God to men. Angels, created before man, are never spoken of as prophets. Again, the expression “this generation” in vs. 50, 51 similarly does not involve angels for they have no offspring and hence no generation. In Scripture, this expression always refers to men and was employed many times by the Lord and with great significance in connection with His own people. However, “this generation” is not limited to Israel but like much else in the Scriptures can be traced back to earlier times (see Gen. 7: 1). Not only does it refer to what is historical, but it also has a great moral bearing in that it embraces all who reject the testimony of God irrespective of the day in which they live. Thus prophets are the men sent by God to speak on His behalf to all mankind following on from the entrance of sin “into the world” (Rom. 5: 12).
Now while the Lord speaks of Abel as a prophet, He does not say what He prophesied about. He speaks only of his blood being “poured out” (Luke 11: 50) by the generation that rejected God’s testimony. This takes us back to the actual history of Abel’s murder given in Gen. 4: 10 when God said to Cain “the voice of thy brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground”. God has not forgotten Abel’s death, nor that of all the others who followed in his footsteps, nor of those who are yet to be martyred for God’s testimony (see Rev. 6: 9; 20: 4). God will yet take up this matter in judgment in His own time.
So what was Abel’s prophecy? As a prophet he must have a prophecy. Now prophecy is not men speaking to God, but God speaking to men. Thus Abel’s blood crying to God is not his prophecy—although the historical record of it in the Bible should nevertheless have a warning voice to men. Actual prophecy is God speaking to men through another who acts as God’s mouthpiece. To understand Abel’s prophecy, we will need to turn to the epistle to the Hebrews, a book characterised by divine speaking. This book is the record of God’s final speaking to those Jews who had believed on Jesus as Messiah but were in danger of going back to the Judaism they professed to have left. Its opening words are very relevant to our subject: “God having spoken in many parts and in many ways formerly to the fathers in the prophets, at the end of these days has spoken to us in [the person of the] Son” (Heb. 1: 1). Time and again throughout the epistle the writer refers to God speaking (see Heb. 1: 5, 6, 7, 13 etc.). Others are also recorded as speaking (see Heb. 2: 2, 3; 7: 14; 13: 7 etc.). More particularly, twice we read of speaking in relation to Abel, firstly in Heb. 11: 4 and then in Heb. 12: 24. In the first the words are “having died, he yet speaks” (Heb. 11: 4) and in the second the words are “speaking better than Abel” (Heb. 12: 24).
Taking the latter Scripture first, this is contained in a section of Heb. 12 (vs 18–24) in which the writer contrasts what the Hebrews had “not come to” under law (vs 18–21) with what they had “come to” under grace (vs 22–24). The complete verse reads “and to Jesus, mediator of a new covenant; and to [the] blood of sprinkling, speaking better than Abel” (Heb. 12: 24). Now many base their understanding of the words “speaking better than Abel” on the AV translation which reads “And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12: 24, my emphasis). Accordingly, they think that the comparison is between two sets of blood: that of the Lord Jesus shed at Calvary, and that of Abel “crying to” God “from the ground” (Gen. 4: 10). But the words that of are not in the original Greek text. The comparison is not between two sets of blood but between two speakings: on the one hand what the blood of sprinkling says and on the other what Abel says, that is, with his prophecy. This is made clearer when we remember that the author of the Hebrew epistle has already referred to Abel’s speaking in the previous chapter. Let us now turn to it.
Hebrews chapter 11 provides a selection of the outstanding men and women of faith headed by Abel. Of him we read that: “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” (v4). His prophecy is embraced in the clause “and by it, having died, he yet speaks”. Abel, although dead, is still speaking. But how is he speaking? The answer is “by it” (my emphasis). Thus a key word to the understanding of the meaning of “and by it, having died, he yet speaks” is the personal pronoun it. In Greek, pronouns have the same gender as the noun to which they refer. The pronoun it here is feminine. As the Greek words for faith and sacrifice in v4 are both feminine, it is to either of these nouns that the word it must refer. Now in the light of the fact that the subject of Heb. 11 is faith, the word it clearly has most relevance to Abel’s faith. (Incidentally, the grammar also provides good reason why the word it cannot refer to Abel’s blood crying to God from the ground: firstly, because there is no mention of blood in v4, and secondly, because the Greek word for blood is not feminine but neuter).
Abel’s prophecy is thus what Abel did as the exercise of his faith. It is the first great lesson of Scripture and stands at the very forefront of divine revelation. However, while the word it in Heb. 11: 4 embraces Abel’s faith, as always, that faith must be in God and what God has said. If Abel acted in faith then God must have spoken and revealed His mind. We know this because “faith then [is] by a report, but the report by God’s word” (Rom. 10: 17), or, as Young’s literal translation puts it, “so then the faith is by a report, and the report through a saying of God”. If Abel “offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Heb. 11: 4) it was because God had made it known that because sin had brought in separation between Himself and man, the only way back for His creature was by sacrifice. Man’s only way of approach to God is by faith in the sacrifice of another. Abel’s act of faith still speaks, and is thus his prophecy.
As God’s revelation determines man’s approach (a divine principle insisted on throughout the Bible), Abel’s prophecy can be effectively expressed in two words: right approach. Cain, by contrast, choose to ignore revelation and multitudes have followed in his footsteps. Man may devise, and has devised, a multitude of ways by which he thinks that he can secure divine favour and regain relationship with God. Scripture, however, puts them all under the same heading: “the way of Cain” (Jude 11, my emphasis). Like Cain’s offering they all have their source in that which is under divine curse (see Gen. 3: 17; 4: 3). They may differ in their detail but in divine eyes they all come under the description of “the way of Cain”. God has revealed that there is only one way by which He can be approached and that is by the sacrifice of another that is absolutely free from sin.
Abel sacrificed to God “of the firstlings of his flock” (Gen. 4: 4), the word firstling in Hebrew having the sense of first born. We are thus justified in saying that it was a lamb that he offered for his “sacrifice” (Heb. 11: 4) and that this lamb was killed. However, there is no mention of blood. Of course, as the lamb was slain, its blood was necessarily shed but the fact remains that Scripture carefully does not mention the blood in connection with Abel’s sacrifice. Furthermore, not only is there no mention of blood in regard to Abel’s sacrifice, but there is no mention of blood in connection with any sacrifice in the book of Genesis. The first mention of sacrificial blood is in Ex. 12: 7 in relation to the Passover. In the OT revelation, it is Exodus that is the book of redemption, and “redemption” is “through his blood” (Eph. 1: 7). Thus the books of the Bible are not only perfect in what they include but also in what they omit. What Scripture does mention in connection with Abel’s sacrifice is “their fat” (Gen. 4: 4), which typically denotes the excellence (or quality) of what is offered. Hence we read in Heb. 11: 4 that “Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (my emphasis). The biblical truth embraced in Abel’s prophecy of right approach is not redemption, but substitution—a truth having a peculiar place in Genesis, just as redemption does in Exodus. Hence later we have a ram offered in place of Isaac, and Judah’s offering of himself in place of Benjamin (see Gen. 22: 13; 44: 33).
What is outlined in Abel’s prophecy is given more detail as we pass through the Bible. In Leviticus the truth of right approach is hammered home to the people of Israel in the various sacrifices described—for while Exodus is the OT book of redemption, Leviticus is the book of approach. Since space precludes us tracing this theme at length through the OT, let us now turn to its filling out in the NT. The time had come for all that Abel and the rest of the prophets had outlined to be given enduring substance—hence the moment the Lord Jesus entered public service we have the Baptist’s declaration “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1: 36). John thus identifies Christ as the One who would bring all to fruition. Later in the same Gospel we hear the Lord Himself declare “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father unless by me” (John 14: 6). Approach to God is therefore by Christ alone. He is the only way. If we come to God at all, we come through faith in what the Lord has done. Peter declares that “Christ indeed has once suffered for sins, [the] just for [the] unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3: 18)—the grand fulfilment of the work of substitution first suggested in Genesis.
Finally, we must turn to the last book in the Bible to obtain an important connection with Abel’s prophecy. Revelation is the great book of judgment and outpouring of divine wrath in a coming day. Among the many sevens of the book, the word wrath occurs seven times. In the imagery of the book that of a lamb is employed 28 times and in Rev. 6: 16 we read of “the wrath of the Lamb”. While the images in the book are not always easy to interpret, I do not think that anyone who has ever read the book could have any doubt that this figure of a lamb refers to the Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, immediately the image is introduced, it is presented as slain: “And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing, as slain” (Rev. 5: 6). Twice more we read of the slain lamb (Rev. 5: 12; 13: 8). Significantly, of the several Greek words that can be translated slain in English, the one used in each of these three Scriptures means slaying for a sacrifice.
Now it is in the Revelation that we find not just a distinctive link, but a positive identification between Abel’s sacrifice and that of the Lamb of God. How is this you might say, since Abel’s name does not appear at all in the book? The connection is made by the phrase “from the foundation of the world” (απο καταβολης κοσμου) that the Lord used in Luke 11: 50, 51: “that the blood of all the prophets which has been poured out from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel …”. Now this phrase “from the foundation of the world” (απο καταβολης κοσμου) also occurs in Rev. 13: 8 and in Rev. 17: 8. In the latter Scripture we read of those “whose names are not written from the founding of the world (απο καταβολης κοσμου) in the book of life”. The phrase απο καταβολης κοσμου is thus used to indicate when names were written in the book of life, that is, from the founding of the world. To the English reader this might also appear to be the meaning in Rev. 13: 8: “[every one] whose name had not been written from [the] founding of [the] world (απο καταβολης κοσμου) in the book of life of the slain Lamb” (Rev. 13: 8). Perhaps Rev. 17: 8 unduly influenced those who translate Rev. 13: 8 in this way because it does not reflect the ordering of the words in the Greek text. Other translators (such as the NKJV and Young) link the phrase απο καταβολης κοσμου, not with the book of life, but with the slaying of the Lamb. For example, Young translates the relevant part of the verse as “whose names have not been written in the scroll of the life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13: 8). I shall give the actual Greek text so that the reader can see for himself the order of the words: “ου (not) γεγραπται (written) τα (the) ονοματα (names) εν (in) τη (the) βιβλω (book) της (of the) ζωης (life) του (of the) αρνιου (lamb) Εσφαγμενου (slain) απο (from) Καταβολης (foundation) κοσμου (of world)” (Rev. 13: 8). Thus the Lamb of God was slain from the foundation of the world.
What, however, do the words Lamb slain from the foundation of the world mean? What is their import? They tell us that God traces the sacrificial death of Christ all the way back to the foundation of the world, that is, to the time of Abel’s first sacrifice. Thus when Abel sacrificed that first lamb, God saw in his offering all that would later be involved in the death of the Lord Jesus. Thus throughout the whole history of the OT, every time men approached God with an animal sacrifice in accordance with what God had revealed, God accepted such sacrifices, according to them all the merits embraced in the one glorious sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. All that was outlined in Abel’s prophecy is now given abiding substance in the sacrifice of Christ. Thus this connection in the last book of the Bible gives the substance and the greatness of Abel’s prophecy. Even though Abel has long since gone, his prophecy remains and “having died, he yet speaks” (Heb. 11: 4). What does he say? That faith in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God is the only way back to God. There is no other way.