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“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. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.”   Genesis 4:3-5

Why did God reject Cain’s worship? Cain was worshiping the one true God, not an idol. Did Cain just choose the wrong item on the menu – the fruit of the ground instead of the firstborn of the flock?

We can picture the scene. Cain builds his altar and prepares his offering, and Abel does the same. Each one places his gift on his altar. But God ignores Cain and directs all his favor toward Abel, and Cain feels overlooked and hurt. But God had a reason for passing Cain by. What was it?

Some argue that Cain’s offering failed because it wasn’t a blood sacrifice, and only bloodshed can atone for sin (Hebrews 9:22). So Cain approached God with nothing to cover his guilt. The problem with that view is that neither man’s offering here was meant to atone for sin. These men were bringing to God not atonement but an “offering,” that is, devotion, thanks, tribute. Leviticus chapter 2 clearly authorizes grain offerings. So Cain’s offering of the fruit of the ground wasn’t the problem.

The fact that we cannot see, in the biblical text, why God rejected Cain is the point. The difference between Cain and Abel was not visible. If we had been standing there that day, we might have been as perplexed as Cain was. But God did see something. There is a hint in verses 3-4:

“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.”

Cain offered some of his harvest, but Abel gave the firstborn of his flock, and their fat portions too – the tastiest parts. In fact, the translation by the Jewish Publication Society reads, “and Abel . . . brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.” In other words, Cain threw a tip on the table, but Abel gave his best. Cain gave out of his income, but Abel gave out of his capital. Cain made a gesture of thanks, but Abel risked his future growth potential by giving God some of his breeding stock. The difference between these two men was tokenism versus love, and God took it seriously.

From the beginning God’s people have been set apart by their wholehearted worship, setting no preconditions on God, but offering themselves as living sacrifices for his glory.

The apostle John in the New Testament takes the next step. Wholehearted worship of God also changes how we treat one another: “This is the message that we have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s were righteous” (1 John 3:11-12). What happened back in Genesis 4 was the beginning of every church split, every act of persecution, every word of gossip, every tactic for undermining a devoted Christian.

We should not be like Cain. He was of the evil one. He hated his brother Abel, because Abel was a living reproach to his own hypocrisy. But those who truly love God also love one another.

The vertical and the horizontal always connect.


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Ray Ortlund


Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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