The river and the forest never cease to paint a beautiful picture. Just like God’s word, every day brings something new and special. But not everything in the Bible is beautiful. In these pages are many things that will bring me to tears. And out in the forest and river, tragedy can strike in an instant. About three weeks ago, Jimmy Fox and his granddaughter and girlfriend were swimming in the river, right where I recorded the message on “Building Bridges.” They were used to swimming in this spot—they’d been there a million times before. The water was up a bit, and as the three played in the water, the 6-year-old granddaughter got caught in the current and swept down a rapids. In an instant, Jimmy followed her down the rapids to rescue her. Thankfully, the little girl was rescued, but sadly, Jimmy was wasn’t able to get out of the river. He disappeared and drowned in 10 or 15 feet of water. He died saving his granddaughter.
When I saw the story in the paper, my first thought was, “what a tragedy.” How sad—and yet, what a story of courage and sacrifice, as well. This grandfather certainly knew the risks of swimming down the rapids in the swift current. No doubt he would have avoided the rapids, had it not been for his little granddaughter being swept down. But instinctively, he was willing to take the risk, and without question, he followed her down the river. He paid the ultimate price, but he saved his little girl.
Today, we’re going to look at this concept of sacrifice in the Bible. We’ll look at some of the earliest stories of sacrifices, and see if we can discover why this concept is so central to Bible religion.
After Adam and Eve sinned, many things changed. They had a knowledge of both good and evil. Sin was unleashed in this world, with all its woe and death. Yet at the same time, God had given to humankind a promise—the promise of One Who would come and break the power of that serpent.
The first chapters of Genesis cover a lot of history in a very few words, so sometimes you have to read between the lines to infer the story. But it says in Genesis 3:21 “Also for Adam and his wife the LORD God made tunics of skin, and clothed them.”
We don’t have an account of how everything took place, or what instructions God gave to Adam and Eve, but we do know one thing: in the very next chapter, we find the story of the sacrifices of Cain and Abel. So it seems natural to assume that there, in the garden of Eden, God instructed Adam and Eve in performing a sacrifice—providing the skin for the garments, and demonstrating graphically to Adam and Eve the results of their sin. Clearly the had instruction, because by Genesis 4, we find this story, which will be the focus of our message today:
1 And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. 4 Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, 5 but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
6 So the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”
So let’s summarize the story in a nutshell, and then we’ll explore this question that plagues so many of us even today: the question of “why.”
As I already said, God had given clear instruction to Adam and Eve, and their children Cain and Abel knew about this system of sacrifices. God does not judge someone for something they are ignorant of. We don’t learn God’s will by “trial and error.” Abel must have known God’s plan for sacrifice, because he brought the firstborn of his flock, and his sacrifice was accepted. Cain must have also known, for God reproved him for his disobedience.
So, Cain and Abel bring their offerings for Yahweh. Abel brings a lamb—the firstborn—of his flock, and offers it according to God’s directions. Abel was, in fact, a shepherd. He cared for the sheep as he might care for his own children, so you can imagine the sacrifice it would be to bring his little lamb—the very first little lamb—and offer it there as a sacrifice to God.
Cain also knows God’s directions. Cain is not a shepherd; Cain is a gardener. Cain could have easily exchanged some produce with his brother for a lamb, so he could offer a sacrifice. No doubt they had done this many times before. Cain could have chosen to raise some sheep, so he would have a sacrifice. But no, he doesn’t. He says, as it were, “I have something better.” I don’t want to depend on my little brother to help my worship God. I don’t like the mess of slaughtering a lamb. Why don’t I just offer something I’ve grown myself? Why don’t I just bring an offering of fruits from my own gardens and orchards? Then I can show God what I’ve done—shouldn’t He be pleased?
But God wasn’t pleased. The text says “the LORD respected Abel and his offering, 5 but He did not respect Cain and his offering.”
Throughout the centuries, humans have tried over and over again to improve on God’s instructions. Men took multiple wives, trying to improve on God’s ideal plan for marriage. People made carvings to represent God, or worshiped the sun, moon, stars, and every creature on earth rather than worship the True God of Heaven. The Israelites didn’t like God’s plan of leadership, and instead asked God to give them a king. But never has humankind been able to improve on God’s clear instructions. In fact, every act of disobedience only leads to shame, misery, and destruction.
Why was Abel’s offering accepted, while Cain’s was not? We’ve already talked about the simple answer: the question of obedience. You know, every person who’s ever lived faces some kind of test like this—a test of loyalty, or obedience. For Adam and Eve, it was the tree of knowledge. For Cain and Abel, it was the sacrifice. For Noah and his generation, it was an ark. It may be different, but in every age, God has given clear and present instructions which, if we don’t heed them, may prove to be our ruin!
But I want to go deeper into this contrast between the sacrifice of Abel, and the sacrifice of Cain—to see if we can’t find a deeper reason why God accepted one and not the other. Why did God require animal sacrifices, anyway? Does God take pleasure in killing animals? Do we serve a God, like so many heathen deities, who must be “appeased” by blood sacrifices? Or is there a deeper and richer purpose for these seemingly strange rituals?
It’s a question that troubles many people, even many Christians. It’s troubled me, as well—but I believe the answer is found right here in the Bible.
This text in Genesis 4:4 says simply “Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock.”
We don’t get a lot of details here, but if we turn over to Leviticus, the first nine chapters of Leviticus give detailed instructions for the many different types of offerings and sacrifices offered in the tabernacle service. In fact, the offering of an animal was central to just about everything that happened in the sanctuary.
But why? Why killing an animal? First of all, I believe that the offering of sacrifices was designed to be a graphic demonstration of the results of sin. You see, so often the devil makes sin look attractive. He wants us to think that we will be better by disobeying God. God had told Adam and Eve, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) Paul tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)
Imagine Adam and Eve, there in the garden after eating from the tree. Any moment, they expected they would be struck down dead—and rightly so! Hadn’t they disobeyed God’s clear directions? But no—God gave the promise. He promised that One would come, who would bear the penalty of their sin. Then he takes a lamb—an innocent little creature, one that perhaps Adam and Eve had played with. They had seen it start to grow up, and having no children of their own yet, it was as it were a part of their Eden family. Adam and Eve watch in horror as the life-blood flows from it’s little body, and it’s form grows still. Perhaps he even wished that he could die himself, rather than watching the innocent little one suffer and die.
In the death of that little lamb, Adam saw the terrible results of his sin. He saw the struggle and death, and he saw what his sin would do to the One Who would come from God, Who would suffer and die not only for his sin, but for the sin of the whole world. And in that instant, Adam realized the important truth that sin does not pay. Sin can’t be excused or ignored. God’s laws can’t be changed, because if they could, then God could change them and avert the terrible consequences. Sin causes only misery and death.
But the sacrifice tells us something else, besides the terrible results of sin. It tells us about the character of God—of His incredible love, like the love of this grandfather who would jump into a rushing river to save his granddaughter. The sacrifice speaks of His justice, coupled with this love. In His love, God wants to save the very ones who are causing misery and destruction among His creatures. How can God save the perpetrator of a crime from his just punishment, and yet be loving to the ones who have been victimized in the process? Only by paying the price Himself. By sacrificing Himself—by becoming the victim, as it were, and taking the penalty of the sinner, He satisfies the claims of justice and reclaims the sinner to Himself.
All this was symbolized in the death of that innocent little lamb. Did God love to see innocent little creatures suffer and die? Of course not! Jesus says that even a sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without God’s notice. He feels the pain even of the animals, and yet the offering was the most powerful object lesson—it was the only way for human beings to understand what Jesus would come to do.
The fortieth Psalm speaks of this. God didn’t have delight so much in sacrifices and offerings, except as they pointed forward to One Who would come to fulfill God’s plan:
6 Sacrifice and offering You did not desire;
My ears You have opened.
Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require.
7 Then I said, “Behold, I come;
In the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8 I delight to do Your will, O my God,
And Your law is within my heart.”
So, why the sacrifice, you ask? First it teaches us about the results of sin. Second, it teaches us about the love, mercy, and justice of God. But I believe even more, I believe the sacrifice teaches us about foundation principle of the universe—it teaches us what it means to give up oneself.
Philippians 2:5-11 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
If ever there was a sacrifice, it was epitomized in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ—the sinless God of Heaven, who came down to this earth as a human being, and suffered humiliation, torture, and death at the hands of those whom He came to save.
As His blood flowed from the cross at Calvary, not just humans but every creature in the universe saw the terrible results of sin. We saw the depths of evil—that creatures would heap this kind of torture on our creator. We saw the even greater depths of God’s love—that He would give Himself up for us. And through faith in Him, the path was opened for forgiveness of our own sin—so that God could be just and still justify the sinner.
And the sacrifice goes even further—I believe that witnessing the sacrifice of Christ, even in the symbol of the innocent lamb, begins the process of healing our own hearts from the selfishness of sin. It teaches us to live, not for ourselves, but to give ourselves up for others, as Christ gave Himself up for us.
Ephesians 5:1-2 Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.
Going back to our story of Cain and Abel—I believe that in these two sacrifices, we see two groups of people who still live in our world today. Many people, like Cain, come to God with all kinds of offerings of good things we have done. We see God’s law, and try our best to be good. In fact, human beings can do many good things—but outside of Christ, all our “good” is just like the offering of Cain. Fruit of the ground—things that we do.
But another group, like Abel, come to God with a different kind of offering. Not an offering of good things, but an acceptance of that which only God could give. Abel could not create that lamb—he could not breath life into it’s being. It was God’s lamb, and in faith and obedience Abel offered that lamb to God, recognizing that nothing he could do could amount to what God had promised through the coming Christ.
Like the fig leaves of Adam and Eve, the fruits of Cain offering could do nothing to hide the nakedness of his sin. But as that first sacrifice provided coats of covering for Adam and Eve, so the blood of Abel’s sacrifice—looking forward to the merits of Christ—covered his sin, and his sacrifice was accepted before God.
What about us, friends? One day soon, each and every one will have to stand before God, and answer in the day of judgment. Today, like Cain and Abel, we have before us two alters. On one, we can offer to God the good things we can do. The fruits of our ground. Our own works and merit. Many are choosing this path, because it’s an easy path. It doesn’t truly require us to sacrifice ourselves. But will this be acceptable to God?
On the other, we come with nothing to offer but ourselves—and to plead the merit’s of the spilled blood of Christ. It requires nothing—there is no price to pay, no fruit to give. And yet it costs everything, because as we realize what Christ has done for us, how can we do anything other than to give ourselves completely and wholly to Him?
The psalmist writes in Psalm 51:16-17 :
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart–
These, O God, You will not despise.
As we come to God in repentance and contrition of heart, claiming Christ’s merits, He transforms the selfishness of our natural hearts.
I see so many Christian today who seem to be living by the spirit of selfishness. We can’t be inconvenienced by the slightest thing, in order to benefit our brother, sister, or neighbor. We live by the principle of Cain. Like king Saul, we seek to benefit from the things of this life, and when God calls us to account, we use the excuse, “Oh—I just wanted to save all these things so that I could give them as offerings.”
But God says in 1 Samuel 15:22:
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
As in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.”
But when we are truly repentant, as David was—when we come to God in full surrender, claiming only the pardoning blood of Christ—we become, as it were, a living sacrifice—a new creature, made again into the image of God. This, friends, is the meaning of Abel’s sacrifice. Because in the end, the blood of the Lamb will empty us of all selfishness and sin, and bring us all the way back to the garden of God.
Romans 12:1-2 1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.