Before there was John 3:16, priests, prophets, statutes, or even the Ten Commandments there were just two brothers. They had no written word from God to inform or guide them. As far as the biblical record goes, there was no indication that either brother had done any harm or any wrong (don’t rush ahead to what would eventually happen). Neither is there any evidence or even the implication that their parents put in their minds or hearts that they ought to or even needed to do anything to appease God or assuage their own consciences. They had no tradition, history, or precedence of bringing an offering to God.
There’s not a word in the Bible that even remotely suggests their parents had ever submitted an offering to God (much less practiced it ritually). The context for the first offering by man in the Bible is nothing more than that Adam and Eve began having children and their sons' names were Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:1-2). That is all the context the reader gets before “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” (Gen. 4:3). Again, try not to rush ahead to the trouble. All we know thus far in the Genesis account is that their parents had sinned against God and had lost fellowship with Him. That’s it.
So the question naturally arises, “Without a law requiring it or guidance suggesting it…why did Cain and Abel feel compelled to bring an offering to God?”
I believe the Bible is intentionally quiet here. It’s almost as if the author is begging the question. It is far too easy for those of us who read the Bible regularly and are familiar with its content and message to impose an answer on the question such as: “Obviously, they brought an offering because either God or their parents told them it was the right (and expected) thing to do.” Maybe. Maybe not. Centuries pass before we learn of another offering/sacrifice. The next time it is mentioned is Gen. 8:20 following the great disembarkment from the ark. That is quite a bit of time and history to pass by without any reference to anyone bringing an offering to God. That reality makes it unlikely that there was any kind of directive to Cain and Abel to begin bringing offerings to God.
Back to square one.
Knowing that the Bible is the story of God’s desire to forgive our sins and restart the communion of fellowship that was lost due to original sin, is it not likely that Cain and Abel were troubled in their minds and hearts about their lack of engagement with God and that they sensed something about themselves was offensive to Him? I suggest the first offering in the Bible reveals the recognition of a severed relationship and the first attempt to repair it from the human perspective. Troubled hearts and minds who couldn’t understand why the stories that Mom and Dad told them about walking in the presence of God in the Garden of Eden would never be a part of their lives tried to do something that would at least signal a desire for restored fellowship.
The results of the attempt are profound and would be talked over and about for a long time to come (Luke 11:51; Hebrews 11:4 & 12:24; 1 John 3:12; Jude 1:11). But it was the hardly ever mentioned desire to bring an offering to God in the first place that is of interest here.
Everyone born into this world has the same sense of foreboding. Something is off. Something is not right. Something is out of kilter. Seventeenth-century scholar and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote of this in Pensées:
What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself (Pensées VII 425.).
It’s the God-shaped hole in the human psyche and heart that you’ve probably heard about at some point.
Cain and Abel had nothing to do with their parents’ sin. But they and everyone else in the world have been dealing with its consequence. And boy, did God ever respond!
In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ…according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:4;9).
The God-shaped hole can now be properly filled.
While everyone is eligible for the restoration of fellowship with God, the Bible makes it very clear that only the brokenhearted who humbly accept God’s provision will be saved. In Psalm 51:17 David writes, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” This helps explain why Cain’s offering was deemed unacceptable to God while his brother’s was accepted. Even though Cain brought an offering it seems his attitude must have been “Here is what you get from me” (see Genesis 4:7) while Abel’s was “Will this offering be accepted by one such as I?”
This, then, is the hope of the gospel. The Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) made Himself the perfect offering so that all brokenhearted people everywhere might fill that void in their hearts with an acceptable sacrifice. If they bring it to God…with a broken heart that it had to come to this. A Son and a Savior beaten, tortured, and murdered. And yet He literally beat back death just for us (Heb. 2:14-15).
Christianity is not for the proud, the arrogant, or the haughty. It’s not for anyone who thinks they deserve eternal life in heaven. Instead, it’s for a smart-mouthed fisherman who fell on his knees before Jesus saying “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). It’s for a woman whose shame and embarrassment for being caught in the act of sexual misconduct must have been profound who was then summarily thrown before Jesus. Her great confession of faith? “No one Lord” (John 8:11). It’s for a parasite of a tax collector who freely admitted to Jesus that he had stolen from his own people. The weight of guilt in that little heart had compelled him to climb a tree just to see Jesus pass by. It’s for a religious professional who had to face the risen and glorified Christ on the road to Damascus after condoning the death of Stephen and persecuting others who followed Christ. The brokenhearted.
Everyone is trying their best in life to attend to that God-shaped hole in their hearts. Many, like Cain, are telling God under what terms they will acknowledge and serve Him. They give God what they want Him to have rather than what He requires. It never has and never will end well for them (see the end of the Sermon on the Mount). Interestingly, none of the examples provided above (Peter, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus, or Paul) ever prayed any kind of “sinner’s prayer” as we have fashioned it. They all just cast their broken hearts and lives before Him in humility. Do you have any doubts about the salvation of any of them? I sure don’t.
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite (Isaiah 57:15).
Like Cain and Abel, you too may be searching for a way to fill that void. All God wants from you is to pour out your broken heart to Him and give Him back His Son as an offering. He is ready to revive.