The faith of Abel is mentioned in the chapter of Hebrews that is known as the "Hall of Faith." The Hall of faith chapter of Hebrews 11 begins with a definition of faith. Hebrews 11.1 tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” From that point, you will find a number of individuals who exemplify the kind of faith that is described in verse 1.
We can go to the dictionary and find the definition of faith. We can study the original language and understand the concept of faith the way it was understood in biblical times. But the best way to understand faith is to see it in action. In another study, we gave some thought to the faith of Abraham and saw how faith accepts what God says and does what God says. When you read through Hebrews 11, you will find that the first example presented is the faith of Abel.
This reference to the faith of Abel takes us all the way back to the Old Testament book of Genesis where we read about these two sacrifices, one offered by Abel and the other offered by Cain. Let’s read Genesis 4.3-5 and see the event that is being referenced in Hebrews 11.4.
Consider the kind of offering that was brought by Cain. It says in verse 4 that “Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground.” If we back up to Genesis 3, we read about Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. As a result, God would make tilling the ground very difficult.
When you keep reading, you come to Genesis 4.2, and it says that “Cain was a tiller of the ground.” To produce fruit through tilling or farming was a very difficult and laborious job. This was the skill set that Cain had been given. When he offered to God the fruit of the ground, he was offered what had come from his own hard work and sweat.
Also, did you notice how his offering is nondescript? It does not tell us the kind of fruit that was offered. It does not tell us the quality of the fruit that was offered. We are only told that Cain offered something that was of the fruit of the ground. Yet it says that God did not respect Cain’s offering.
Consider the kind of offering that Abel brought to God. It says in Genesis 4.4 that Abel “brought of the firstborn of his flock and of the fat.” If you back up to Genesis 4.2, it describes Cain as a tiller of the ground, and then describes Abel as a “keeper of sheep.” Cain was a farmer, and Abel was a shepherd.
Did you notice the description of the offering that Able brought to God? It says that Abel brought the “firstborn.” The idea is that God got the very first sheep that was born. He did not keep the first sheep for himself, and give the leftovers to God. He gave the first to God. This will give us some insight to why God accepted Abel’s offering but did not accept the offering from Cain.
Cain offered the fruit of the ground. Abel offered the firstborn of the flock. God did not accept Cain’s offering, but did accept Abel’s offering. Hebrews 11.4 refers back to this account and describes Abel making an offering out of faith. This reference is used as an example of the kind of faith that God expects us to have. The faith of Abel is the faith we are to demonstrate in our own lives.
Let’s go back to Hebrews 11.4, and look at it more closely to see if we can’t identify the faith of Abel that resulted in his sacrifice being accepted in contrast to Cain’s sacrifice which was rejected.
Faith is defined in the Bible as having two components:
The first component of faith is hearing and accepting what God says. In Romans 10.14, there are three question which are asked:
The answer to these questions are summarized in Romans 10.17:
We cannot respond in faith unless we know what we are to believe. Take that thought back to Hebrews 11.4. It says that Abel offered his sacrifice by faith. Since faith comes by hearing the word of God, we know that the sacrifice that Abel offered by faith was the sacrifice that God told him to offer. God had to have told Abel the kind of sacrifice He wanted. Abel had faith that came from hearing what God said. He accepted what God told him to do.
The second component of faith is acting on what God says. Faith is not just hearing what God says and accepting it. Faith is also doing what God tells you to do (James 2.14ff). God told Abel the kind of sacrifice He wanted. If Abel accepted what God said, but then did not offer the sacrifice that God desired, or offered a different sacrifice than what God said He wanted, then Abel would have had faith, but it would have been a dead faith (James 2.26).
Abel heard what God told him to do, and he responded in obedience by offering the sacrifice God wanted him to offer.
When you keep reading Hebrews 11.4, you will learn of the kind of sacrifice Abel offered that was accepted by God.
The word “excellent” carries the idea of something that is of higher quality. The sacrifice that Abel offered is of higher quality than that offered by Cain. This suggests that Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because he offered his best while Cain offered to God his leftovers.
There are some who suggest that God wanted an animal sacrifice. Abel gave him that animal sacrifice but Cain did not, and that is why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was rejected. The wording of Hebrews 11.4 suggests something different. It suggests that the sacrifice that God expected was the best of what each of them had. Abel gave his best. It was a sacrifice that was of higher quality than Cain’s offering.
This is confirmed by what we read back in Genesis 4. You may remember that Cain offered the fruit of the ground. There was nothing special about the fruit. In contrast, Abel offered the firstborn of his flock. Abel offered his best. He gave to God the first of what he had. Cain did not offer the best of his fruit. He did not give God the best of what he had.
What did the faith of Abel accomplish? Because of the faith of Abel, God considered him as righteous. The faith of Abel made him right with God.
The idea is that God accepted the sacrifice of Abel. His acceptance was a testimony to the fact that Abel did the right thing. He offered the sacrifice that God had required of him.
God commanded that Cain and Abel offer the best of their respective professions. Abel had faith because he heard and accepted what God said, then did what God said by offering the firstborn of his flock. Because of the faith of Abel which accepted and obeyed, God considered Abel as righteous.
That tells us that the kind of faith that justifies and makes us right with God is not a faith that merely accepts Jesus as the Christ. The faith that saves is the faith that accepts and obeys (Rom. 5.1).
Abel is dead, and has been dead for centuries. But through the faith of Abel exemplified by the sacrifice that he offered, Abel still teaches us about the kind of faith that God expects from us.