In the stars His handiwork I see, On the wind He speaks with majesty,
Though He ruleth over land and sea, What is that to me?
I will celebrate Nativity, For it has a place in history,
Sure, He came to set His people free, What is that to me?
Till by faith I met Him face to face, and I felt the wonder of His grace,
Then I knew that He was more than just a God who didn’t care,
That lived a way out there and
Now He walks beside me day by day, Ever watching o’er me lest I stray,
Helping me to find that narrow way, He’s Everything to me.
He’s everything to me captures the essence of Christian ‘faith’. Faith in Jesus is personal and relational. It embraces feelings and provokes warm affection. Faith is not about appeasing a distant God. Real faith cannot be kept safely in a corner of our lives, but permeates every last inch of our existence.
A person of faith lives with an all pervasive sense of God’s presence and his promises.
Hebrews defines faith as the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). For a Christian, faith is like a plait of hair made up of three intertwining strands: the first strand is a DECISIVE ACT in which we abandon all self reliance, and place our trust in the finished work of Jesus to bring us from darkness into light. That is saving faith.
The second strand of faith is the ONGOING HABIT OF LIFE whereby we believe God’s revealed word and act accordingly, no matter what we see with our eyes. That is living faith.
The third strand of faith is the HOLY SPIRIT without whom saving and living faith are impossible. He is the breath that animates* our faith.
Today, as we continue to walk through Hebrews 11, we pause to look at Abel’s witness of faith. Next week we will look at the faith of Enoch and Noah.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the people of old were approved by God. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. (Hebrews 11:1-4)
Act in faith…or stay in the womb forever!
We act by faith from the day we are born. Every morning we eat an egg, we act on the belief that it is free of salmonella. When a toddler jumps from a Jungle Jim into her father’s arms, she trusts he will catch her. We put our hope in gravity with every step and close our eyes at night believing they will open in the morning. We believe in ‘love’ and trust a human being when we take our vows at the wedding altar. An atheist builds his life on the belief that God and the supernatural do not exist– on the conviction that there is oblivion after we die. In contrast, a Christian lives by faith that God existed before time; created the universe from nothing; spoke through Creation, his word and his Son; and will return on an appointed day in the future to judge every person and restore creation to what it should be (Psalm 19:1-6; John 1:1-6; Heb 1:1; Matt 24:44; Rev 21:5).
Most beliefs cannot be proven or seen with the naked eye, but we think and act on the basis that they are true… or we must stay in the womb forever! We consider this kind of faith reasonable. Hebrews 11:1 tells us that Christian faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But it is faith that is rooted in God himself and his coherent message of redemption. It is a reasonable message that must be heard, processed and believed personally before ‘faith’ can be born: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17;14).
‘Saving faith’ outgrows its cradle and matures into robust ‘living faith’ as we believe the promises of God day by day and act upon them. It is the same faith.
God’s approval versus living to please God
The “men of old” listed in the Hebrews 11 had a saving and living faith in Yahweh and His promises of a future redeemer. They also believed the message God had revealed to them in whatever dim way, and that was enough. God commended them, because they relied on his mercy and took him at his word (Hebrews 11:2; 5; 6; 39). Many generations passed before God’s once-for-all Redeemer appeared and those promises were fulfilled through a cross and an unlikely King. He was the only one who could meet God’s approval. When God raised Jesus from the dead, He pronounced him, “My Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” (Matt 17:5). Christian faith is not about us meeting God’s approval, but about being tethered to the one “in whom God is well pleased”. It is stunning that by faith we receive the same stamp of approval that Jesus did (Rom 5:1; Rom 8:1). And as we continue to live by faith, we discover that God’s commands are blessings, not burdens. Those who know they are approved by God seek out what pleases Him and learn to serve him out of love and not obligation (Eph 5:10).
Abel’s faith and Cain’s offence
Hebrews tells us that Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God, because it was offered “in faith” (Heb 11:4). Let’s piece the story together and see if the New Testament casts more light on Abel’s faith and Cain’s offence:
In Genesis 4:1-16, Cain murders his brother Abel after God warns him, “ Why are you so angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it (Gen 4:7).
The human heart is the front door into our lives. Sin is always crouching at the threshold waiting to be let in. The Apostle John notes that Cain’s deeds were evil whereas Abel’s were righteous, and places the story in the context of love and hatred. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:12; 13; 14; 15).
God saw through Cain’s altar into his resentful and angry heart. That’s why his offering was offensive to God.
In contrast to Cain, Abel’s “faith” showed itself in two ways: He had a pure heart and a desire to offer his best to God. He gave the firstborn from his flock and their fat portions. God, who looks at the heart, saw Abel’s sincere desire to seek the Lord’s face as he offered his sacrifice. Cain went to the altar to win God’s favour, whereas Abel went in faith. Cain’s sacrifice was ritual and routine, whereas Abel worshipped God in spirit and in truth. The Bible warns us that God is not interested in our external acts if our hearts are not transparent and sincere. The sacrifices that please God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will never turn away (Ps 51:16-17). Hypocrisy and pride is an offence to God.
A pure heart
But let’s get real here. Can any of us ever have a “pure heart” as God understands purity? Can we ever be completely free of hypocrisy in our motives? Can we offer God anything He needs?
Never! We are sheep that have gone astray. WE can never settle accounts with God through external sacrifices of time, talents or works. Neither could Cain or Abel. Nor can we rectify the hidden jealousies, resentments, greed or pride that crouch at our door. We cannot ascend to God’s holiness. David realises this in Psalm 24:
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?
4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god. 5 They will receive blessing from the Lord
and vindication from God their Savior. 6 Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, God of Jacob.
Only Jesus can trade his pure heart and clean hands for our filthy ones. Only He can vindicate us (Ps 24:5). Only “the perfecter of our faith” can help us live our lives by faith as Abel did. Only Jesus can rescue us from the tyranny of our false gods and idols (Ps 24:4). The only ‘offering’ God wants from our generation is our heart—a broken and contrite heart that is honest about our sin and depends on Jesus to redeem our past, present and future. Abel trusted in God’s future redeemer, and by this ‘faith’ he offered a sacrifice which was ‘pleasing’ to God. Likewise, you and I need to accept the gift of Christ’s pure heart, and then offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God which is our spiritual worship (Rom 12:1-2).
Father, stir my heart to approach you sincerely as Abel did– in spirit and in truth. Thank you Lord Jesus, that you give me your pure heart and clean hands so that I may boldly approach God’s throne of grace. You are my steady anchor through every season of life and I trust you. Lord, help me to remember that you have always been faithful to me even when my eyes could not see you were there. Father, help me to believe that you are well pleased with me because I am hidden in your Beloved Son. Do not allow me to slip into worship that is shaped by duty or routine as Cain did. Give me eyes to see the subtle sins I am allowing to creep through my heart’s open door. And today I confess my sin honestly to you Lord, from whom no secrets are hidden. Give me a soft heart that spills over with affection for you, so that I may offer you the best of myself, all of my days.
In Jesus’s name, Amen.
*to animate= to energize, stir, bring to life, to vitalize.