Cain and Abel, or Worship That God Accepts
Hey, friends! I’ve been interested recently in the various biblical instances of praise and of worship—of which there are so many—and initially I had been visiting the Psalms, Israel’s old songbook so beautiful and sacred. (What a good place to begin any devotion or study, and a good place to end, and a good place to find oneself again and again throughout the day!) Before long, though, I was curious to look into the very first time we find worship in Scripture, and that’s with Cain and Abel all the way back in Genesis 4.
The author recounts, “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” (Genesis 4:2-3). That word “offering” means just that: a gift or a tribute given voluntarily. That same word is used of Abel’s gift later in the very next verse.
“But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock,” the author goes on in Genesis 4:4 and following. “The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.”
If I didn’t already know how the story went, God’s disapproval of Cain’s tribute would feel surprising, even out of the blue. Let’s read a bit further.
“Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted’ ” (verses 6-7, emphasis mine)?
This makes it unquestionably clear that Cain did not do what was right—otherwise his offering would have been accepted, like Abel’s. For more context, in Hebrews 11, Abel is the first person mentioned in the great “Hall of Faith” (which is a pretty awesome badge); it reads in 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. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.”
While Scripture makes it clear that Cain’s offering was an unacceptable act of worship, it doesn’t explicitly state why. We can draw a few inferences though. Certainly the contrast is not between an offering of plant life and an offering of animal life; the fact that Cain’s response was “very angry” reveals that he likely had a hardened heart. Although it seems Cain’s gift was a voluntary act, we can only guess at his motivation—but the author seems to contrast it with Abel’s thoughtful gift of offering the firstborn, a precedent that would prove to be extremely important all throughout the Old Testament and still ingrained in Middle Eastern cultures to this day. And of course Abel offered his gift “by faith” (Hebrews 11:4).
So what does all this mean for us?
- We can offer many things to God as a form of worship, but He is clear about what He accepts.
Friends, just because we offer something to God does not mean He is required to find it pleasing. If He is asking me to invite my neighbor over for dinner and share the Gospel with him, and I do everything but that… well, it may not matter what else I do “in His Name” and “for His glory.” The famous adage rings out, “Obedience is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). Additionally, we would do well to humbly reflect on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:23-24: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
- The status of our heart matters far more than doing all the right things.
This point may be more sobering than the previous one. It’s possible to fit the mold of a squeaky clean Christian while one’s heart is still out of alignment. It reminds me of that terrifying account in Matthew 7: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name and in Your Name drive out demons and in Your Name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers’ ” (verses 21-23)!
God, have mercy on us.
As the Father spoke to Cain in Genesis, Jesus similarly speaks in Revelation 2:4-5, “I hold this against you: you have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (NIV). I also like the way The Passion Translation renders this passage: “But I have this against you: you have abandoned the passionate love you had for Me at the beginning. Think about how far you have fallen! Repent and do the works of love you did at first. I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place of influence if you do not repent.” And for good measure, here is the Message: “But you have walked away from your first love—why? What’s going on with you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? A Lucifer fall! Turn back! Recover your dear early love. No time to waste, for I’m well on My way to removing your light from the golden circle.”
The reality is, if our hearts are right with God—cheerfully submissive to His will, accepting His discipline, adoring Him more than life—then our behavior will follow in kind. Our lives will naturally express what our hearts are full of. And a pure heart is what God has always been after, a virgin-hearted bride to offer His Son Jesus, uncorrupted by the ideals of the world and free from the deforming power of sin.
Pray with me.
Lord Jesus, may I bring to You a gift that is suitable for You—not a gift of leftovers, not a gift of pretense, not a gift of self-righteousness. May I bring to you a gift of love that flows from a pure heart, one that has been rinsed clean by the blood and by the Word, governed by the Holy Spirit. As I live my life for You, I also want You to live Your life through me. Help me, help me. Amen.