By way of introduction, by the time you get to Genesis 4, it’s hard to ignore how the first three chapters have oozed the grace of God. From His creation of the world for man’s pleasure — to His formation of a Garden for man’s enjoyment — to His forming of the woman so that man might have a companion, there is no question God had not only immensely blessed man, but He’d done so out of the abundance of His grace and love. I mean what had Adam done to earn or deserve any of the things God had given to him? Absolutely nothing!
And if all that wasn’t enough, even when man deserved the consequence of death when he rejected God’s love by eating of the forbidden fruit, what does the Lord God do? In another act of grace, God specifically comes to the Garden — in order to seek out the sinner — because He had a plan to redeem him from his fallen condition by providing a Savior!
Well, after leaving the Garden of Eden as they’d been commanded to by the Lord, we read… Genesis 4:1-2, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, ‘I have acquired a man from the Lord.’ Then she bore again, this time his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.”
Cast into a new world vastly different from the Garden they had previously enjoyed, armed only with a promise that God would provide a Savior, we’re told it didn’t take long for Adam to “know his wife Eve” and for her to “conceive” and have a son they aptly name “Cain.”
In the greater flow of the larger story, the naming of their firstborn carries with it a ton of significance. In the Hebrew language, “Cain” means “acquired.” It would appear, judging by Eve’s immediate reaction to his birth when she declared that she had “acquired a man from the Lord,” both she and Adam believed Cain was indeed the Savior God had promised!
That said, it didn’t take long for Eve to conceive again and have a second son whose name is equally telling. After spending, at a minimum, nine months with the little tike, it appears this first couple had come to the realization Cain was not the promised Savior of the world!
And so, to reflect their disappointment, Adam and Eve name their second son “Abel” which means “emptiness.” Imagine such a name! Obviously, they’ve concluded God’s plan to provide a Savior wasn’t going to happen as quickly as they initially thought it would!
Before we discuss what happens next, I want to point out how incredibly similar these first two boys would have been to one another. Not only were they both born sinners inheriting their fallen nature from Adam their father — with neither ever experiencing paradise like their parents, but Cain and Abel would have shared identical genetic traits because, unique to the first kids of humanity, they possessed parents with identical DNA!
Aside from this, Cain and his brother Abel would have also been similar in that they would have also grown up in the exact same environment: same family, influences, culture, etc. making them a really interesting case study in the whole nature versus nurture debate…
The reason being that, while incredibly similar, the Bible notes how each of these boys had contrasting interests manifesting from diverging talents. “Abel was a keeper of sheep” (he was a shepherd) while “Cain was a tiller of the ground” (he was a farmer).
Both Cain and his brother Abel had unique gifts, which led to them each working vastly different jobs in order to provide important resources for their family! As you’d think, Cain’s fields yielded an abundance of food, while Abel’s herds provided wool as well as milk.
Again, before we continue, let me add one additional observation about these two boys… Though Cain and Abel grew up with parents who doubtlessly possessed a strong faith in God, it will become evident in our story how such spiritual qualities are not hereditary.
Parents, while there is no question you can and do have a profound influence in your children’s spiritual lives and development, never ever forget that faith is not something you can bequeath. You see everyone will have to decide for themselves whom they will serve!
Here we have two boys, in some ways different but in many ways the same, left to make their own decisions as it pertains to their relationship with God. As we’ll come to see, the reality they each end up approaching God so radically different only serves to illustrate the truth that despite the influences of one’s parents we are all free moral agents in the end!
Genesis 4:3-5, “And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.”
Please notice how this section begins with a really fascinating phrase… We’re told, “In the process of time it came to pass.” While we can reason it didn’t take very long for Adam and Eve to have Cain and Abel following their eviction from Eden, we really have no idea how much time has transpired between the births of these two boys and this particular event.
Honestly, questions abound… We aren’t sure how old the boys are by the time we get to this story? We don’t know how many years have transpired between verses 2 and 3? We have no idea how many additional siblings Cain and Abel have had by this juncture?
Frankly, we don’t know if this is the first time they’ve come to make offerings to the Lord or if this had been an exercise they’d been doing for years? All we can really say for sure from what the text tells us is that this story occurs at a defined and particular moment.
In fact, the phrase “in the process of time” can mean “at the end of time” or “at the end of days.” Whether this signified the end of the week or possibly even the end of childhood, we can say with certainty there was a specific time the event in question was to take place.
The second observation we can make from the text is the fact since both Cain and Abel “brought an offering,” we can reason, aside from there being this prescribe time they were to come, there also seems to be a determined location (likely the entrance to the Garden of Eden now protected by a mighty angel and a flaming sword) and some type of fixed methodology for the activity they were about to engage in. It’s all highly organized.
In light of these things… While the time, location, and methodology for this activity had been determined, it’s important we consider who exactly made these determinations?
I think it’s wrong to just assume, as many do, that it must have been Adam. In no way does the text allude to it being him. Beyond that, we also have zero evidence there was any type of codified religion or written law by this moment that would have dictated such activities.
Rather, it would appear (and this is vitally important to the story), because God ends up respecting and rejecting these two offerings, everything associated with this event had to of been something God communicated to Adam and Eve who then articulated it to their sons. The point is these protocols and procedures were not manmade but God prescribed.
While it’s true there is much about this story that is shrouded in mystery, we can say that what was to occur on this particular day intended to be an act of worship before the Lord commemorating an earlier event recorded in Genesis 3! The truth is that Genesis 4 really wouldn’t make much sense apart from this important context.
Without taking a hard right from the narrative, following their decision to disobey God and eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve made for themselves physical coverings using fig leaves hoping to conceal the fact that they were now naked (self-aware and insecure) and therefore overcome with shame on account of their sin.
And yet, as you read through the story, it became painfully evident to this first couple that these outward coverings they’d made for themselves were totally ineffective to cover over the internal guilt they were experiencing. This is why, when they heard God walking in the Garden, Adam and Even immediately attempted to hide from His presence.
Knowing what happened and this new dynamic this man and his wife were experiencing, following the articulation of the various curses and before their expulsion from Eden, God does something rather radicle. In Genesis 3:21, we read that, in place of these fig leaf coverings “for Adam and his wife the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them.”
Don’t misunderstand… Practically speaking, the tunics made of skin were just as ineffective in dealing with the internal shame caused by sin as the ones they’d woven together using fig leaves. Instead, what makes God’s actions so significant is what they intended to illustrate to Adam and Eve in that specific moment. You see God was doing more than just covering their naked behinds. He was establishing an important precedent!
In replacing these fig tunics for ones God made of skin, the Lord was illustrating three important realities: (1) Man’s best attempts to cover his sin will always prove futile. (2) An effective covering could only be given to man by God. (3) In order to provide such a covering, the death of an innocent sacrifice would be required of God Himself.
Bear with me for just a second, but imagine the reaction of Adam and Eve when God took an animal He’d created from the Garden, slaughtered it before them, drained its blood, skinned its hide, before sowing together the skins in order to make tunics to clothe them.
Imagine the moment when God then instructed them to take off their fig leaf mini-skirts and put on these new clothes! The smell of blood. The texture of foreign skin. As God had warned Adam concerning eating of the forbidden fruit, directly following sin death enters the created order. How provocative that it was God who first shed blood on this earth!
There is no doubt in my mind that for Adam and Eve, on that day, the lesson God was illustrating had been learned. Man’s ultimate remedy for sin could only be provided by a work of God and not one of man! Salvation could only be given and never earned!
In his commentary on the Book of Genesis, 19th-century Irish pastor C.H. MackIntosh, wrote, “The robe which God provided was an effectual covering, because He provided it; just as the apron was an ineffectual covering, because man had provided it.” Powerful!
By the end of this exercise, Adam and Eve rightly understood two truths. First, the fig leaves emphasized the silliness in their attempt to remedy this sin condition on their own. Their best efforts proved woefully inadequate. And secondly, the only way any sinner could ever approach the righteous God would be through his faith in the atoning death of an innocent Sacrifice God would have to make on their behalf.
This explains why, in John 3:16, we read, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” On a side note, this entire dynamic also clarifies why Jesus, on His way to atone for sin as the Lamb of God, curses a fig tree for its inability to bear lasting fruit!
As you can imagine watching such a scene unfold would have been humbling for Adam and Eve. No doubt seeing that animal being slaughtered before their eyes illustrated the serious consequences of their sin! Figleaves would never do! Their best would always fall short. Their only hope would be The Lamb God would have to offer for the sins of the world.
With all of this in mind, look again at what happens when these two boys come to make an offering before God at this appointed time… First, look at Abel. We read, “Abel brought of the firstborn of his flock… And the Lord respected (literally accepted) Abel and his offering.”
What’s significant is that the passage is clear that “Abel and his offering” were intertwined. Abel’s “offering” revealed his attitude and logically we can surmise it was his attitude that determined “his offering.” Consider how this process might have played out.
Understand, God accepted Abel’s sacrifice because he accepted Abel! You see Abel was wise in that he humbly approached God the way God had demanded in the Garden He be approached. Abel was willing to offer a blood sacrifice in order to demonstrate his faith in the sacrificial work of a future Offering God would make to atone for his sin.
To this point, in Hebrews 11:4, we’re told, “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts.” This phrase “testifying of his gifts” implies God likely accepted Abel’s offering in a physical way by sending down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice on the altar.
Amazingly, in Matthew 23:35, Jesus will refer to him as “Righteous Abel.” Abel did nothing to earn his right-standing with God. It was his faith that gave him this status. While Abel was indeed a sinner, according to the Levitical Law, it was always the sacrifice and never the worshipper that was to be examined. In the end, Abel was found righteous before God not because he was right but because his offering was right and therefore accepted!
In contrast to Abel, we’re also told, “Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground… but God did not respect Cain and his offering.” Again, Cain and his offering are also intertwined — “His offering” revealed an attitude and his attitude determined “his offering.” And yet, God wouldn’t acknowledge either! Consider how this process might have played out.
You see… The flaw in Cain’s approach is that he was seeking to come before God in a manner God had not prescribed. Instead of placing his faith in a blood sacrifice, Cain was literally presenting, as an offering to be accepted by God, the fruit of his own labor!
Cain honestly and with a measure of sincerity believed that offering his best would be good enough to merit God’s favor. Sadly, with the absence of fire, it didn’t take long to realize Cain wasn’t able to earn something God would only give! His best fell totally short!
Regarding Cain, in 1 John 3:12, we’re given a really chilling depiction as to how God viewed his approach. We read, “Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous.”
In light of the fact Cain really did come before God with an offering he hoped would be good enough to be accepted — he’d worked hard, put in the effort, gone the extra mile, and had been sincere in what he was offering, it’s radicle that God not only rejected him and his offering but viewed them as being “wicked” and Cain’s works as flat out “evil!”
Let me explain why the Scriptures end up describing Cain with such hard terms… Friend, anytime you seek to earn that which God only intends to give you are attempting to force God into a role He will always reject! It’s the great pitfall of religious moralism.
You see Cain failed to understand what so many deeply religious people also miss today… Your relationship with God is not based upon God receiving something from you (good works, offerings, sacrifices, etc) that in turn causes Him to give you something back in return (salvation, blessings, eternal life, peace, joy, etc). In fact, your relationship with God is founded upon His grace being freely given to you apart from your involvement!
The reason Cain’s approach was so wicked and in many ways insulting to God is that, in his pride, Cain wanted to be the giver and by default make God the receiver. Cain wanted to be the alpha. He wanted what God gave to him to be a reciprocation of what he’d given.
As to why this is such a terrible approach, let me again quote a section of C.H. Mackintosh’s commentary… “Man would fain make God a receiver instead of a giver; but this cannot be; for “it is more blessed to give than to receive”; and assuredly God must have the more blessed place. The great Giver of “all things” cannot possibly “need anything.”
This is what’s so amazing about God’s grace and why it’s equally insulting when we attempt to approach God through our works… God is in the business of bestowing! He’s the divine Giver! It’s an idea central to the very Gospel message itself. You see God wants to lavish upon you blessings you can’t earn and don’t deserve. Your job is to receive!
God rejected Cain and his offering because he was attempting to exchange a grace-based, top-down, unmerited relationship with God for a work-reward, transactional arrangement.
Why would Cain do this? Sadly, it’s the same reason the majority do the same today… As illustrated by Abel, please understand grace gives no room for pride for it demands humility.
Grace lends no room for self for it’s reliant upon Him alone. Grace is based upon the sacrifice God makes for you and not any you make for Him! In the end, grace demands the admission you’re not worthy and your best will always fall short of the glory of God!
Before we wrap things up there may be another way of viewing Cain’s actions that deserves our consideration. An argument can be made that the core flaw in Cain’s approach was rooted in the fact he’d come to see his physical blessings as evidence of God’s favor.
Let me explain… In verse 2, we noted how Cain was a “tiller of the ground.” What’s then interesting is that, in verse 12, upon dolling out His judgment God tells him “the ground shall no longer yield its strength to you.” This word “strength” can be translated as “power.”
The implications seem to be that as a “tiller of the ground” God allowed the earth to yield an increase unique to Cain. He had a green thumb, which is fascinating when you couple this detail with the fact, in Genesis 3:17, God specifically “cursed the ground” for Adam’s sake. Tragically, following the murder of his brother, this blessing was taken away from Cain.
If, in the end, Cain viewed his green thumb as the evidence he and God were on good terms it would add an even deep explanation for his approach that day. It could be that Cain wasn’t coming to make an offering designed to earn the acceptance of God. Instead, it may be that his entire offering was Cain’s way of seeking to maintain God’s acceptance.
Sadly, if this were the case, it’s equally insulting to the grace and goodness of God. You see there is no question God had blessed Cain’s life and caused it to be fruitful. Where his father had been cursed Cain had proved to be incredibly successful. And yet, regrettably, Cain (like so many) had fallen into the legalistic trap of believing God wanted something in return!
In either case, this morning I pray you come to the realization that the grace of God is such an amazing concept because it declares His favor, love, and goodness is not only given independent of your involvement but that His continued favor is maintained under the exact same parameters. Friend, the Gospel declares there is nothing you can do to cause God to love you any more or any less than He already does!
Ultimately, this story recorded for us in Genesis 4 of Cain and Abel, illustrates the greater conclusions of all religious thought. In a way, these two men present the only two options when it comes to the way we (sinners) attempt to approach the righteous God.
You have two identical men, raised in the same home, given the same amount of revelation, who end up employing two very different strategies. On one hand, you have Abel… A man willing to humble himself and accept the reality there was nothing he could do — no offering or sacrifice he could make — no work that would cause God to accept him.
Instead, Abel simply placed his faith in an atoning Sacrifice God would give to pay for his sins! What resulted? Abel and his offering were accepted and he was declared right!
On the flip side, you have what Jude calls “the way of Cain” reflected in every religious conviction that presents works for you to do, offerings for you to make, things you need to sacrifice in order for God to grant to you His favor. And yet, the truth is Cain wasn’t Abel.
Tragically, his pride got in the way. He wanted to be found worthy. Whether Cain was seeking to earn God’s favor or make an offering to maintain God’s favor, he ended up being rejected, grew angry in the process, and would find himself cursed for all eternity!
Friend, there is no easy way to say it, but if you’re working hard, making what you believe to be the necessary sacrifices, offering the best fruit of your labor — all the while hoping God will in return grant to you a righteous standing, you will experience the same fate of Cain “for by grace a man is saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God!”
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