Cain, Abel, and Acceptable Worship Before God

H. B. Charles, Jr.
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This first recorded act of worship was definitely not about what Cain and Abel got out of it. Their vocations, resources, or preferences were not considered. It was about whether God was pleased with their offerings. The text is clear that God accepted one offering and not the other. Interestingly, the text ties these brothers to their offerings. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering. But the Lord had no regard for Cain and his offering. This is how worship works. You cannot separate how God views you from how God views your worship. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7b).

God, Cain, and Abel

Why did God regard Abel and his offering and disregard Cain and his offering? The text does not specify, yet it is the subject of much debate. The most logical reason given is because Cain’s offering was not a blood offering. A blood offering would later be legislated by Moses for the atonement of sin. Moreover, blood sacrifices pointed forward to the substitutionary death of Christ. Hebrews 12:24 says we have come to “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” In the Old Testament, however, God accepted both blood and grain offerings.

Others contend that the problem was the quality of Cain’s offering. They claim Cain gave less than his best, while Abel gave from the finest of his flock of sheep. But the text does not suggest that Cain gave the Lord old, rotten, or damaged fruit. For all we know, Cain’s offering was from the firstfruits of his field, even as Abel’s offering was from the fattest of his flock.

“God alone deserves the glory in all things.”

Still others contend that God took issue with the manner of Cain’s offering—that his attitude was wrong. That may have been the case. But, again, the text does not tell us what either brother’s attitude was as they presented their offerings.

All we know for sure is that one boy presented an offering that pleased the Lord and the other did not. Hebrews 11:4 says: “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.” That does not answer all of our questions, but I believe it makes the point: the priority of true worship is to make sure God is pleased.

Worship Isn’t About Us

After worship on Sunday, a member bluntly said to the pastor, “I did not enjoy the service today.” Reciprocating the member’s bluntness, the pastor replied, “That’s okay. We weren’t worshiping you.” That response may seem overly harsh. But it is absolutely true. Worshipers constantly need this reminder. Worship is not about us. It is not about our needs, tastes, or preferences.

The worship wars of past decades argued about whether worship should focus on “seekers” or the saints. Ultimately, both sides were wrong. God is the target audience of worship. Paul exulted, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). All things find their source, being, and purpose in God alone. Thus, God alone deserves the glory in all things. The only way we have the right to receive glory is if anything is from us, through us, or to us. We got here too late and will leave too early to claim any share in divine glory. The ultimate priority of true worship is that the Lord is pleased.

For Further Reading:

On Worship

by H. B. Charles, Jr.

What does it mean to worship—especially in spirit and truth? Christians hear the word “worship” a lot. From singing hymns and...

book cover for On Worship