Worship, Accepted and Rejected
Does it matter how we worship God? Why was Abel’s offering accepted by God, and Cain’s rejected? Geoff Thomas comments on the beginning of Genesis Chapter 4…
Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’ Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour (Genesis 4:1-5).
Echoes of the Eden of Genesis 3 are found here east of Eden in Genesis 4; Adam and Eve hid themselves from God, and so does Cain; God cursed the serpent and here he curses Cain; the voice of God spoke out in the Garden and the voice of Abel’s blood speaks out from the earth shattering its peace; God interrogated our first parents and God interrogates Cain; God put man in the Garden to keep it, but Cain protests that he is certainly not his brother’s keeper. In other words Genesis 4 elaborates the great lessons God teaches us in Genesis 3. This is how it is going to be in the groaning world outside Eden.
When man fell, his relationship with God was ruined; his relationship with his wife was affected; his relationship with creation became tortuous as he tilled the ground, battling with the thorns by the sweat of his brow; and here in this chapter we see that his relationship with his own siblings was murderous. That is what sin has done to our world.
1. The Human Race Began to Multiply in Hope
The chapter begins, “Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.'” (v.1). She held a healthy child in her arms. God had said that the day they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they would die, but the months have gone by and they are still alive and now they’ve become parents. Things are not as bad as they seemed at first. Were God’s threats empty? “I have created a man with the Lord,” she says. God made man, and, with the Lord’s help, Eve has also created a man. Here was the first baby the world had ever seen, Adam and Eve having never gone through infancy themselves. Eve had never even seen a baby before and she’d have been overwhelmed with its beauty and perfection, its tiny features, its eyes and fingers and feet – but he was going to be a murderer. Surely there would be better times ahead? By man’s own natural creativity wouldn’t he conquer his problems? “I have created a man with the help of the Lord, so I will call him Cain son of Adam” – but he was going to kill his own brother. Now the Hebrew word ‘Cain’ sounds like another Hebrew word ‘create’ or ‘brought forth’ which Eve says here. There is actually no real link between the two words other than this fact that they made the same sort of sound; the figure of speech is called a paronomasia (it’s something one of my sons-in-law suffers with!). It’s a pun. Eve, by her choice of the name of her firstborn, wanted to underline what people – with God’s help of course – can form. It is as if she might have called the first boy, ‘Formby son of Adam’ because she had formed a man, but he was going to murder a man with whom he’d grown up.
Maybe we’ve all responded like Eve at certain times in our lives. There’s been a great event; we have graduated from university; we have got married or got married again; we have moved to start a new job in a new town; we’ve won the lottery or been left a legacy; we’ve had a child; we have recovered from a major illness – one event like that – and we have marked it. We’ve said that from now on things are going to be different, they’re going to get better. We have echoed in our own circumstances Eve’s words, “‘Cain son of Adam’ I shall call him, for what I have done is the Lord’s work. God has blessed me.” But then what has happened to you since that milestone? Are you different? Is there new life? Is there joy and peace? Has your new environment and new spouse and wealth and circumstances taken your troubles away? Has this human engineering obtained contentment and meaning? Is there deliverance in them from your sin and guilt? Has it given you hope in death? The remainder of this fourth chapter of Genesis very soberly shows us the limitations of man’s own natural powers. The newborn child one day became a killer.
Then, after some time there seems to be more realism about Eve. How do I know? Because she’s not so upbeat when she gives birth to a second son; she calls him ‘Abel’ . . . ‘Abel son of Adam.’ ‘Abel’ is not an effusive name at all; the Hebrew word hebel means a ‘triviality’, ‘something fleeting;’ it means ‘a breath,’ ‘a vapour.’ Here is a prefigurement of the book of Ecclesiastes and its insistence that human life is vanity of vanities, all is vanity. That is the same word here given to her second son; it’s a statement about how frustrating and fragile life is. Psalm 144 and verse 4, “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow;” James 4:14, “For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” This name for Abel is the actual word the prophet Jeremiah gives to men’s idols which they worship and serve – “Vanities!” What sacrifices men make to them! Think of the idol ‘Sport.’ Millions bow down to it and spend their time and substance and money and energy and affection upon such an idol. What is man in the last analysis? A fleeting vapour, steam that comes out of a boiling kettle for a moment and then disappears. I wonder what had actually happened to Adam and Eve between the births of Cain and Abel? Had they seen the cruelty of the animal world? Had they had some stillborn children? Was Cain even as a child demanding – cruel and angry and selfish? It hadn’t all been fun raising a son. Had he gone astray even from Eve’s womb telling lies? The confidence seen in the name ‘Cain’ was short-lived; now they call a child ‘a triviality,’ ‘Abel.’ Some vinegar has penetrated their souls.
2. The Human Race Began to Worship God
Many years – Meredith Kline suggests as many as 130 – pass in the twinkling of an eye and in total silence; other children are born including girls for the boys to marry – there would have been no genetic problems with such unions at the beginning – but no reference is made to them. The narrative focuses on the two brothers, first on the one and then on the other. Increasingly Cain is brought into centre stage, but always in reference to Abel his brother. This epithet ‘brother’ appears seven times here, as does the name ‘Abel.’ The name ‘Cain’ appears fourteen times in seventeen verses.
“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil” (v.2). These are noble occupations in which anyone can work to the glory of God. As we farm and hedge and shepherd and plough and harvest we’re worshipping God; “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee;” but interestingly Cain chooses to line up with an occupation that resulted from the fall. Abel, on the other hand, took a job man had had from the beginning, having dominion over the animals. Is Moses telling us that Cain was more naturally identifying with the curse than Abel? Cain was going to murder Abel.
Then Cain and Abel come to worship God. In what a family they’d been raised! Were there two worn, moth-eaten garments kept by their parents in a box which they couldn’t bear to destroy? “These are the garments God made for us when we fell into sin.” How often Cain and Abel had heard the story of their parents’ sin and fall, from such glorious fellowship with God into a dying world. The heavens declared to Cain and Abel the glory of God day after day, and even though they knew they were under obligation to do everything to the glory of God and sought to live like that 24/7 yet there still came set times when they approached God directly. They pushed out of their minds their thoughts of lambing time, tilling the ground, worries about rain for the crops and the spread of bovine diseases. They concentrated their minds on the living God who by his own will had created the whole world, and they worshipped him. Jesus says, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matt. 6:6).
So it was, presumably at the end of a year’s work, or at the end of the agricultural year, both the brothers came to worship Jehovah. Hadn’t their parents often told them not to behave as they’d done? “Honour God with your lives! Bring the best to the Lord! Bring sacrifices and offerings to the Almighty!”
So there was this occasion, maybe after all these years a total break with their parents’ home occurred. They had married and they and their wives had left their father and mother, and Cain came first and brought to the Lord the fruits of the soil as an offering. Then Abel came bringing fat portions from some of his firstborn of his flock. The picture is plain; two brothers and their offerings reflecting their own different vocations, and all the professing church would say, “Amen! Can God ask any more than that?” And throughout the twentieth century the message has been preached in a million pulpits that we must all sincerely bring what we can to God and God will accept it all – every bit of it. Haven’t you heard that? Don’t you all know the story about the juggler? Isn’t that ancient tale wheeled out again and again to do homiletic duty? Year after year this juggler gets into the pulpit? He has appeared in many a sermon even in the 21st century. There was a juggler and he couldn’t preach and he couldn’t sing and he couldn’t pray in public but he stood in front of the altar in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris with his juggling sticks and he juggled before the Lord. So we are told to perform our work and all our leisure activities to the Lord.
What is wrong? While it is true that whether you eat or drink you do all to the glory of God – yes, work and play, labour and rest, in season and out of season, to the glory of God – yet when you come to worship God, and confess your sins, and seek his blessing, then he has prescribed the way we are to do this. We don’t come to him in the holy place bringing our talents and our merits. Sin is mixed with every attainment and skill of ours. In his presence we lay aside our juggling clubs and plead the life of Another.
So Cain brought some sheaves of wheat and laid them on an altar which he had made and he said something like this, “Lord, this is what I am giving to you. You show us your favour and have given us everything, and so we want to devote ourselves and all that we have to your service. We offer you these gifts as tokens of our intent. Thank you for everything.” While Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock and laid them on the altar which he had made and he likewise said, “Lord, this is what I am giving to you. You show us your favour and have given us everything, and so we want to devote ourselves and all that we have to your service. We offer you these gifts as tokens of our intent. Thank you for everything.” And did they all live happily ever after, Cain and Abel and the Lord? No. In fact Abel didn’t live for very much longer at all. We are told, “The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour” (vv. 4 & 5). The juggler found the door to heaven locked and barred.
Now I don’t know in what way God showed he accepted Abel and his offering and rejected Cain and his offering. I know that on Mount Carmel fire fell from heaven on Elijah’s sacrifice but no fire fell from heaven on the offering of the prophets of Baal. I know that there will be many in the last day who will say, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we bring our offerings and sacrifices to you?” And the Lord will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” In some way, by fire and a rushing wind from heaven, or even by a divine voice saying, “Well done good and faithful servant,” Abel knew that his sacrifice was accepted, but Cain knew maybe from the awful stony silence that his had been turned down. God wouldn’t accept it.
3. Not Every Way that Man Worshipped Was Acceptable to God
Why should we think that this was the first occasion for these two men to being their offerings to God? Had they never been brought with their parents to an altar and witnessed their own parents worshipping the Lord? Hadn’t they seen this hundreds of times before they independently came to God? Then why was there this discrimination, Abel accepted and Cain rejected?
i] There was the vital difference of the offering itself; “Abel offered God a better sacrifice” (Heb. 11:4). It was a blood sacrifice. A life had been ended; a living creature that knew itself and its mother, and looked around and recognised its master’s voice had been put to death. When Abel’s parents had sinned God himself had shed the blood of animals and provided skins to cover Adam and Eve. Search the whole of redemptive history and what do you find? Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. Worshippers could not come to God with any offering they thought of. They came by the book, and the book was called ‘Leviticus.’ They had to bring the blood of a blameless creature – the very best of their flocks, not the three legged, one eyed goat that coughed night and day, half dead already – there must be an undefiled and holy thing made a sacrifice in their place for their sin. Only thus could they placate the magnificent rectitude of the Holy One for their own sin.
You would think that constant shedding of blood at an altar by Adam and Eve which presumably had been witnessed by Cain and Abel from their childhood and which they still performed year by year was enough teaching for these two boys. The fact that God had always accepted such sacrifice was enough for them to live by for the rest of their long lives. Please don’t think of innovation! You want no new theology here. Don’t dream of that juggler doing his own thing at the altar. Don’t think that anything anyone wants to do by way of natural talents is the way we may meet and worship the Holy One before whom the angels hide their eyes. What does the Bible say about worshipping him? These simple words, “We have confidence to enter the most holy place by the blood of Jesus” in Hebrews chapter 10 and verse 19. It is by the blood of Jesus alone. So in the Old Testament, these worshippers from the beginning were told to call on the name of God and seek his forgiveness through offering a blood sacrifice. That is what Cain did not do. “I’ll do it my way,” he thought and so he denied his sinfulness and need of atonement. Instead of bringing a blood sacrifice he offered some produce from the plants he raised. How beautiful and fragrant they looked, still very much alive – compared to the steaming carcass on Abel’s altar. Here was something that seemed far more attractive to bring to God than this primitive blood religion. That was the first mistake.
ii] There was also the nature of the sacrifices as carefully described here by Moses; “Abel brought fat portions from some of the first born of his flock” (v. 4). It is quite an elaborate phrase as though to underline how Abel went out of his way to please God. The translation literally is, “He brought the fattest of the firstlings of his flock.” The later law was to insist that the worshippers gave the best they had to God, the healthiest and plumpest of the firstborn. The old farmer looked at his flock and he spotted one or two and he thought, “Good enough to give to the Lord!” Abel was the second born son, and at some disadvantage, even his very name speaking of the transience of this life, and yet he refused to lag behind his brother in what he brought to God. Only the first-born animals were sacrificed by Abel, and their choicest portions; it was the better sacrifice. But Cain who was the first born, named ‘formed’ or ‘made by God,’ brought no firstlings nor even firstfruits. Yes, the law of God later did make provision for bringing the crops to God in thanksgiving, but then it spoke in these terms, of bringing, “the best of the first fruits of your ground” (Exod. 34:26) and that is not what Cain brought. Do you see that Abel brought the best to God? And you? Are you bringing him the best in the secret place, on Sundays when you gather with the people of God? Is your hope in the Lamb of God?
To Thee, Thou dying Lamb, I all things owe;
All that I have, and am, and all I know.
All that I have is now no longer mine
And I am not my own; Lord, I am Thine.
How can I, Lord, withhold Life’s brightest hour
From Thee; or gathered gold, or any power?
Why should I keep one precious thing from Thee
When Thou hast given Thine own dear self for me?
(Charles E. Mudie, 1818-1890)
Is there some sacrifice about our daily serving God? Do we offer to God what costs us little? Is there that showmanship? A little bit of juggling in a different venue? King David said, “Nor will I offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God with that which costs me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24). God does not accept worship that ignores his commands and denies his way of providing forgiveness. What is the best? Jesus said that there is none good but God. So the Son of God is the best. You bring God to God; God the Son’s life, Christ’s blood. He’s the way, the door, the key to God. Christ’s obedience to the death of the cross. If you try to approach God without the blood of Jesus, you’re meeting the flaming sword and the cherubim and the bolted door.
iii] There was more; there was something quite essential for true worship, an inward pure attitude that Abel had. God didn’t just take a glance at the altars and check the sacrifices lying on them and then get on to other things. We are often told that God doesn’t look on the outward actions; he looks into the heart. Abel believed in God, that is, he trusted him and didn’t lean on his own understanding. In all his ways he acknowledged God. Abel came to God in faith but Cain didn’t. How do I know that? The Bible tells me so. Hebrews chapter 11 and verse 4, “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings.”
Do you understand? All that his father and mother had told him about how God had sacrificed two animals to clothe them, and that when we approached God it was to be by sacrifice, Abel had believed. The difference between the two men was a difference of their hearts. Cain went through the motions. Abel’s heart was in tune with God; Abel’s life was in tune with God. Abel behaved on the days of sacrifice as he did on every other day. He wasn’t perfect, not in anything that he did, but there was no bluster and cover up in Abel’s life. He didn’t blame his parents, Adam and Eve, for everything bad that he did; he didn’t blame the serpent and say, “He made me do it.” He was very sorry when he did things wrong; he confessed his sins to God and sought for divine help to change and he was deadly in earnest about this. Abel didn’t focus all his confidence in the sacrifice but in the God of grace to whom the sacrifice was made. The sacrifice was only the channel; Abel’s hope was in the living God. Whatever Abel had – thousands of sheep that filled the plains – meant nothing at all to Abel if he didn’t have fellowship with the living God.
I am warning you about living a life which has set the mighty God on its fringes and then thinking that a little bit of ritual at the end and a generous offering to the church is going to make things all right. Listen to what the Bible says in the book of Proverbs chapter 15 and verse 8, “The LORD detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him,” or again in verse 26 of chapter 15, “The LORD detests the thoughts of the wicked, but those of the pure are pleasing to him.” You cannot fool God; there is no way you can approach him except by inward faith and love in the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ who alone takes away the sin of the world.
4. Let Us Accept What God Says About Worship
We are told that God made it plain to Cain that his worship was unacceptable. Here are two beings, one is the infinite Creator and the other is the mortal creature. One is from everlasting to everlasting while the life of the other speeds to its end faster than a weaver’s shuttle. The one is omniscient, in other words, there is nothing he doesn’t know and everything he does know is with comprehensive accuracy. The man on the other hand knows a little about this and that and nothing exhaustively. The one is pure unbounded love; the other is corrupt and proud, living for himself. One is a colossus and the other is a worm, and the colossus tells the worm that he does not look with favour at the offering he has brought him. Then it is time for every mouth to be stopped before God.
Now the worm can protest and be very angry and sulk; that is a possibility, or the worm can learn from the rejection, can’t he? He can huff and puff and yell at God. The worm can say to the colossus, “If this is the kind of God you are then it’s not for me. I’ll find another god.” That is a possibility, or the worm can pause and say, “I’m sorry. I can see that you accept worship only from the heart; you accept worship where there is a sacrifice and an offering and the shedding of blood. You accept worship from the entire lives of those who are putting their trust in you.” So then Cain had to seek to do that very thing, without delay, not to argue. In other words he would go along to Abel and take some gold from the land of Havilah, or cheerfully barter with his brother and exchange with him so many bushels of his wheat and corn for Abel’s best lambs. “I must buy from you one of your best lambs.” Hard to say to your younger brother. Then he would go to God again in God’s way with faith in God and repentance in his heart and he would sacrifice the lamb and find acceptance from the LORD. Isn’t that important? To show a teachable spirit, and learn from your mistakes and put things right, and not be too proud? You are dealing with God!
That is exactly what you have to do. I am telling you one great fact – that there is one true and living God, and that that God had only one Son, his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ. He is the one Mediator between God and man the man Christ Jesus. There is only one who said that he was the way and the truth and the life and that no man comes to the Father but by the Son. There is one name under heaven given amongst men whereby they must be saved. Just one, and as worms bow before a colossus so we bow before the Almighty God. We go to God by Christ alone; this is what one woman wrote:
None other Lamb, None other Name
None other hope in heaven or earth or sea,
None other hiding place from guilt and shame,
None beside Thee!
(Christina G. Rossetti, 1830-1894)
Another woman wrote this:
There was none other good enough
to pay the price of sin.
He only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in.
(Cecil F. Alexander, 1823-1895)
For all who would try any other way the seraphim and the flaming sword deny access. That is what the Word of God says. Now you may not like it but you may not say that Scripture teaches anything else. There is one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; there is one Saviour; one Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That is the plain teaching of the Bible. That is what the Christian lives on. To reject it is the way of death.
Nothing can for sin atone
Nothing but the Blood of Jesus.
Nought of good that I have done,
Nothing but the Blood of Jesus.
(Robert Lowry, 1826-1899)
We live by such truths as those, but that is what Cain would not do but which Abel delighted in doing. Two choices before us, only two; the seed of the woman or the seed of the serpent; what God says or what God forbids; only two destinies, heaven and hell, saved and lost.
In the Indian state of Bihar is living at this moment a man named Shyam Narayan Sharma. If we went to his community today we would immediately pick him out by his filthy clothes made out of torn sacks, and old shoes hanging around his neck. Why does he dress like that? He has taken a vow to repent of his past. He acknowledges that he has murdered 16 people; he was a hired killer. He also ran a gun factory. Now he dresses in these filthy clothes each day as a sacrifice for his sins. That is not the way to appear before God. Nothing in my hand I bring. Naked come to God for a covering. There is a robe of righteousness made by Christ which God offers to all men who trust in him. There is the covering of the blood of Christ which hides all our guilt and shame. None other Lamb! None other Name! None other hope in heaven or earth or sky!
Someone contacted me recently to say that someone I can describe as the town drunk had had a stroke and he was in the local hospital. Could I visit him? I have had dealings with him over the years, seen him stretched out on a bench in front of the bank dead drunk, an empty wine bottle under the seat, been approached by him with the grin of alcohol on his lips as he came asking me for money, “Reverend . . .?” I have seen him sober for months if not years when he lived with a decent woman. He has been inside the church once or twice. I have been to a little flat he lived in at his dry times (he has slept in the cardboard boxes behind one of the supermarkets), and he has listened to me, and other Christians who have told him of Jesus the door to God, agreeing, but never committed. He has been living at taxpayers’ expense for a year in good sheltered accommodation and there I spoke to him four weeks ago about coming to pick him and his friend up and bring them both to church.
He had been drinking with his friend one Saturday night when he fell over. His friend thought he was drunk, couldn’t rouse him, put a blanket over him and a pillow under his head and went to bed. In the morning he was just the same and another call was made and then they got an ambulance. He had had a stroke and one side of his body seems paralyzed.
So I went into the four-bed ward where he is and tried to talk to him but he can’t speak and he looks vacanttly back at you. I don’t know how much he understands. I told him to look to the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, the Saviour who receives sinful men who put their trust in him, to ask for his forgiveness. It is what he has been told many times over the last thirty years. He closed his eyes. He does not speak.
Then I saw on the other side of the room a retired Calvinistic Methodist minister, Jim Walters, who had had a stroke about five years ago. I have known him throughout my ministry. His wife was with him. He also can hardly speak more than a word or two, and he has lost the use of one side of his body. He smiled at me and I began to speak to him. I said, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”
“The Word,” he said to me (in Welsh, y gair). “The Word,” again, imploringly, and I said to him, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
He wept. “The Word,” he said, “The Word,” entreating me. So I said again to him, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
“The Word,” he said, tears running down his cheeks. His wife dried them. I then prayed with him and told him I would return. His face was beaming. I was back there yesterday and again he cried for the word when he saw me. I said to him, “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son cleanses us from all sin.”> “The Word!’ he said. How is he ending his life? How is he entering eternity? Doing what the word of God tells us to do. The Word of God has been his life! Abel lived by the word, what he had heard from his parents and had seen worked out in their lives.
And you? There is no other way. Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Look to him! Venture on him! Venture wholly! Let no other trust intrude. None but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.
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