Fellowship message, Sunday July 5, 2015

By John Aldworth

Heb. 11:4: By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that He was righteous, God testifying of his gifts, and by it he being dead yet speaketh.

Heb. 11:6: But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he that cometh unto God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.

Hebrews 11 is scripture’s ‘hall of fame for the heroes of faith’. And, looking at the first four of these heroes, Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham, we notice that each of them was on a journey – a journey of faith from one place, or state of being, to another. Today we will look closely at Abel.

Abel was journeying to get back into the presence of the Lord, his parents, Adam and Eve, having been driven out of it. Enoch walked with God and on his journey went to be with God. Noah built an ark to journey through the Flood to land in a very different world. Abraham was called out of idolatry in Ur to journey as a pilgrim to a promised land. They were all on journeys of faith into the unknown.

Secondly, notice that the four heroes mentioned above are all Gentiles, Israel not having yet come into existence. Consequently, they are examples of spiritual behaviour that we as Gentile believers can emulate.

Thirdly, this chapter teaches us what faith really is. It is not just hope, nor is it mental assent. To read what God says in his word and merely believe that it’s true is not faith, although, granted, ‘faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ (Rom. 10:17). To only hope as most people do today is not faith. “I hope it won’t rain tomorrow because we’re going to the beach’, is only a wish. And wishes are granted only in fairy stories.

Faith is much more than that. Heb. 11:1: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence (i.e. solid proof) of things not seen. Did Abel see his sacrifice ‘accepted’ when he began to offer it? No. Did translation come as Enoch started walking with God? No, it came as the conclusion of his journey. Did Noah see the Flood before he built the ark, or the world in which he would live after it? No. Did Abraham see the land before setting off on his journey towards it? No.

Each of these men were stepping into the unknown, taking a leap in the dark where no one has gone before, sticking their neck out and trusting God to see them through. And so are you and I. Like Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham, we face a unique challenge of faith. For each one of us have been born for this particular time. God’s dealings with us have shaped us for a unique role no one else can fulfil. Will we rise to the challenge?

You see, faith is the substance of things hoped for but what actually is the substance if it is not seen? Surprisingly, the answer is that it is God Himself. In his Person, He is ‘the evidence of things of not seen’. Proof of this is found in Heb. 1:3 where we are told that God’s Son is ‘the express image of his Person’. Now the Greek word for “Person” here is hupostasis, the same word translated as substance in Heb. 11:1. God then is Himself the substance of the thing hoped for; ‘He is the evidence of things unseen’.

Consequently real faith is in God as a Person – faith that He will do what He says He will do – even when all the natural evidence says that He won’t. Further proof that this is so is that in Heb. 3:14 hupostasis is translated as ’the confidence’ that we should hold stedfast unto the end.

Heb. 11:2 says that by this faith in God as a Person ‘the elders obtained a good report’. What was the report? Was it just to have their names recorded in scripture? No. There is more. We read that by his ‘more excellent sacrifice’ Abel ‘obtained witness that he was righteous’ (Heb. 11:4). This witness was so powerful it sent Abel’s brother, Cain, into a lather of fury with the end result that he slew Abel (Gen. 4:4-8). So what was this witness, this testimony of God?

Evidently God ‘had respect unto Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and his offering He had not respect’. In Gen. 4:7 the Lord makes clear that ‘respect’ means acceptance. So how did the Lord show that He had received, accepted and respected Abel and his offering? Answer: By fire.

Consider: The Lord drove Adam and Eve forcefully from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24). Eden had been the seat of God’s personal presence on earth (Gen. 3:8); now they were shut out from it. What’s more the Lord God placed east of the garden ‘Cherubims and a flaming sword which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life’.

Fire was now keeping man from the presence of the Lord God. Adam and Eve may have accepted that state of affairs passively but their son Abel did not. ‘In the process of time’ or ‘at the end of days’, i.e. a set time when there was the possibility of re-entering God’s presence, Abel and Cain offered sacrifice to the Lord. And the fire that surrounded God’s presence fell on Abel’s sacrifice and consumed it as a sign of his acceptance. That this is the true and original meaning of ‘burnt offering’ is made clear in Gen. 22:3-6 and Psalm 20: ‘Remember all thy offerings and accept thy burnt offering’.

Accept here, in Hebrew, means ‘to turn to ashes’. This is exactly what happened in Lev. 9:24.  ‘And there came a fire out from before the Lord and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw they shouted and fell on their faces’. No wonder the Lord wouldn’t accept ’strange fire’ in the next chapter. See also Judges 6:21 and 1Kings 18:36-38 and 1 Chron. 21:26m and 2 Chron. 7:1 for further examples of the Lord showing his acceptance of offering by fire.

Abel was gripped by a desire to be right with God, to be accepted by Him. It was for Him a journey back to the Garden of Eden, to God’s presence, from which his parents had been evicted. And we are also on a journey to fully realise in our heart experience the truth that the Father ‘… hath reconciled (us) in the body of his (Christ’s) flesh through death’ and that will witness by assurance to our heart that He ‘might present (us) holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight’ (Col. 1:22).

The word ‘might’ here challenges our faith. God ‘might’ so present us but will He? Abel knew God might accept him and his offering but would He? Abel only found out by making his offering, by slaying the best of his flock as a sacrifice when God had yet to command man to kill any animal. Man at this stage was still vegetarian (Gen. 1:29) and to date only God had killed animals to make ‘coats of skins’ for Adam and Eve to ‘clothe them’.

Thus Abel in killing his offering was taking a huge leap of faith – faith that God would accept the blood of a slain and innocent animal as a cover for his, Abel’s, sin. And God did. But what was the word of God that Abel had heard to give him such face. Surely it was learning that God Himself had made the coats of skin his parents wore.

Why was Abel’s sacrifice accepted, and Cain’s rejected? Answer because Cain brought an offering ‘of the fruit of the ground’ (Gen. 4:3). And it was the ground that God had cursed because of Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:17-18). But Abel offered the blood of an innocent animal – and was accepted.

And we can only come to God, into his presence, because we have ‘redemption through His (Christ’s) blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the rich of His (the Father’s) grace’. But like Abel we have to put God’s acceptance to the test – to see if it works in real life experience. This can only be done in a situation where, like that of Abel, either God comes through for us, vindicating our step of faith, or we fail. We need to be risk takers, willing to put our neck and life on the line.

More specifically, the journey we as grace-saved believers must make, the ‘leap of faith’ we should take, is to realise ourselves as already ‘stand(ing) perfect and complete in all the will of God’. Is it possible? Yes, by faith. After all, Abel ventured all in faith and God testified of his righteousness in doing so.

To be continued

©John Aldworth July 2015