Pleasing God by Faith

Sermon preached on Hebrews 11:4-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/21/2018 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Hebrews 11:4-7

Pleasing God

Pleasing God. That’s a central idea in today’s verses as we continue working through this amazing “hall of faith” chapter. Last week we started with verses 1-3 and saw faith described as what we have while we trust God and his word, even when his word has not yet come to pass. When we considered that last week, we even pointed to how that was illustrated in today’s passage, in verse 7, with Noah. Noah, whose name means “rest”, had God’s word of warning that there would be a flood. Outwardly, he couldn’t see evidence of a coming flood, but he believed God and by faith obeyed and built the ark that saved him and his family and gave his family “rest”. So then, today we continue to see this faith illustrated as we will be seeing throughout this chapter. Yet, today’s verses especially highlight how such faith is pleasing to God. That will be our theme for today as we reflect on the pleasing faith of especially Abel and Enoch and see how it is impossible otherwise to please God.

Let’s begin then with Abel in verse 4. Hebrews is marching us through the Bible, after having in verse 3 pointed us to Genesis 1. Now, the story of Cain and Abel appear in Genesis 3. There we find that Abel and his sacrifice are commended by God, whereas Cain and his sacrifice were not. Hebrews interprets and explains what was going on there in terms of faith. Abel had a true, commendable faith in God, a faith, that pleased God, Cain did not. In fact, verse 4 says that by such faith God witnessed that Abel was righteous. That’s a wonderful reminder that it was not Abel’s works that justified him before God, but it was his faith. Yes, faith that expressed itself through an offering that pleased God. But ultimately it was the faith behind the sacrifice that God was commending. It was such faith that God accounted to Abel as righteous per verse 4.

Now, it’s at this point, we might ask why is that that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted, and Cain’s wasn’t. And how would Abel and Cain know what kind of sacrifice to bring God? There are various passages in Scripture that we can read and wish we were told more. Sometimes certain details that seem important for us to know are not given to us. The opening chapters of Genesis have a number of such details. Cain and Abel’s story is such an example. So, we need to have humility when we come to certain conclusions when Scripture doesn’t explicitly give us an answer to a question that we have. Yet, what does seem common in those opening chapters of Genesis is that there are certain answers that come to us by implication. Certainly, some answers we want with Cain and Abel are implied.

So then, let’s think further about why was Abel and his sacrifice accepted compared to Cain. A lot of ideas have been suggested over the years, but two that often are put forward deal with: one, the person who was giving the offering and two, the kind or nature of the offering. These aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, in the text of Genesis, it seems that’s exactly what it does bring out. Genesis 4:4 speaks of how God had regard not only for Abel’s offering, but for Abel as a person. Likewise, Genesis 4:5 says God did not have regard for either Cain’s offering or for Cain himself. Both of these two aspects, the nature of the person giving the offering, and the nature of the offering itself, play into God’s differing responses to Cain and Abel.

As for the person, we certainly remember from elsewhere that the efficacy of an offering is in some way related to the person. Remember how we’ve talked recently in Hebrews how God only receives sacrifices from the penitent people. People who hardheartedly offer sacrifices while blatantly and unrepentantly living a life of sin should not expect God to receive their offering. Likewise, here in verse 4 we could add faith to that. Someone who presents an offering without faith and without a repentant heart, such a person should not expect God to receive his offering. In fact, is this not what God says to Cain afterwards? When Cain is angry that God didn’t accept his offering, God says to Cain in Genesis 4:7, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” God then points to how sin is looking to rule over Cain. And so, God goes to the heart for Cain and calls him to look inward over his struggle with sin in order to be accepted by God. Notice there in Genesis 4:7, God speaks not of accepting Cain’s offering, but accepting Cain himself. In contrast, Hebrews here affirms the faith of Abel behind his offering. And so, when thinking of why God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain, we can think first in terms of the person offering it; that they in faith offered it. That seems to have played a role in it.

Of course, this should explain to us something about the nature of the faith in view here. Cain obviously has some interaction with God in Genesis. Cain gives an offering to God and engages in dialogue with God. So, in Cain’s case his lack of faith compared to Abel can’t be that he didn’t acknowledge in someway the existence of God. It’s probably more along the lines of Judas Iscariot’s relationship to Jesus. Judas spent a lot of time with Jesus. Judas knew Jesus existed; he had conversations with Jesus all the time. They had a personal relationship. But Judas didn’t believe in Jesus; didn’t trust himself to Jesus; didn’t set Jesus in his heart in the place Jesus should have been set. Similarly, then here with Cain. We see sin ultimately having the mastery over Cain’s heart, not the Lord. Cain’s lack of faith became most clear by how Cain responded to God’s rebuke and warning. Instead of repenting, that’s when Cain goes and kills Abel.

So then, we can also think about what’s different between the offerings of Cain versus Abel. First, Abel’s offering was said to be of the firstborn of his animals, whereas Cain’s produce is not said to be of the firstfruits and presumably was not. Later in the Bible we see an emphasis on giving first to God, both of flocks and of produce. Second, Abel’s offering involved bringing living animals that were sacrificed. Cain’s offering involved bringing some of his agricultural produce. Though later under the Mosaic covenant there would certainly be offerings of both animals and produce, we can’t help but remember that it’s specifically with the shedding of blood that a sacrifice brings atonement for sin. Hebrews made that point earlier. Abel’s offering involved shedding of blood; Cain’s did not. So in all these various factors, the nature of Abel’s offering stands above Cain’s. Now how would Cain and Abel know what kind of offering would be appropriate? Again, this is a detail not told to us. There’s an argument that it’s implied by the fact that after Adam and Eve fell, God himself provided animal skins to cover, atone, for their nakedness. Presumably God killed the animals for that. God had in fact already told them that they would deserve to die when they sinned. So arguably, there was something implied in all that. Of course, it’s possible God had given them instructions about appropriate offerings too; just because that’s not recorded in Scripture, it’s also not recorded that he didn’t give them such instructions. But regardless what does seem clear in the Genesis account is that God thought they knew what was right and what was wrong in terms of offering. That’s his confrontation with Cain. God’s response to Cain shows that Cain should have known better.

The last thing to note about Abel here, is that when all is said and done for Abel, though he died, his faith still speaks. That’s what the end of verse 4 says. Of course, this isn’t talking about death in general, because humans in general die. This refers to Abel’s death at the hand of his brother. We can’t help but remember that God told Cain that his brother Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. Or how next chapter in Hebrews, it writes of Christs’ blood speaking better things than Abel’s. Abel’s death is mentioned here because of how he died. He essentially became the first martyr. Interestingly, faithful, righteous Abel might have wondered if he himself would be the fulfillment of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 to basically have a descendant of Eve destroy Satan. Eve seems to have had such a thought when after Abel dies and then Seth is born she names Seth “Appointed” as a replacement for Abel and her words give echo back to the Genesis 3:15 promise. In other words she seems to think of Seth as a replacement for Abel as another candidate to fulfill Genesis 3:15. That Genesis 3:15 promise said that one of Eve’s offspring would be struck by the serpent’s offspring, while at the same time striking the head of the serpent. Well, here, indeed Satan’s mastery over Cain causes Abel to be struck, but Abel was not to be the one to crush the serpent’s head. So, Abel died in faith, not having yet received the promise. Yet, Abel did begin to taste of divine reward. Think about it; he was presumably the first human ever go to heaven and be with God!

So then, let’s consider now the case of Enoch. On the one hand, it’s the same testimony as Abel. By faith, Enoch pleased God. This is told to us explicitly in verse 5. You notice that it uses that specific language, that God’s testimony concerning Enoch was that he pleased God. This comes from the Septuagint translation of Genesis. The Hebrew literally says in Genesis 5:22 and 5:24 that Enoch walked with God. But the Greek translation of the Old Testament which Hebrews uses and authoritatively confirms via inspiration is that Enoch pleased God. The Septuagint seems to be interpreting and explaining to us what the Hebrew idiom of walking with God meant. It presumably didn’t refer to Enoch physically going on a hike with God. It meant that Enoch was a man of God that believed in God and looked to follow God, and this faith and trust was pleasing to God.

So then, that’s where Enoch’s story is the same as Abel’s. But the other part of Enoch’s story is completely different. By faith, Enoch was taken! He was taken out of this world. He was translated from this world into the heavens. And I don’t mean outer-space. It’s not that you could get on a spaceship and go to warp speed and eventually get to him. No, Enoch was taken out of this life and brought to glory. Enoch is only one of two people in the whole Bible who did not physically die but were taken straight away to be with God. Everyone else had to die to then go to be with the Lord. Even then, when people die, their bodies still rest in their grave, even as the souls of the saved go to be with the Lord. But their bodies still rest in the grave. Yet, there was no grave on earth for Enoch. Enoch by faith did not see death.

Enoch’s circumstances here are especially encouraging for us by way of contrast as we think about faith that pleases God. Let me paraphrase to try to make our point. Essentially, we see here that Abel had faith that pleased God, and God let him die. Enoch had faith that pleased God, and God didn’t let him die. Abel’s exercising of faith here is closely connected to why he died. Enoch’s exercising of faith here is closely connected to why he didn’t die. Here I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Rom. 14:8 that are true for God’s people today, and were clearly true for Abel and Enoch. Romans 14:8, “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” The comparison here between Enoch and Abel shows that the immediate outcome in this world, life or death, doesn’t necessarily reflect whether or not you have found favor with the Lord. In fact, some Christians will experience the martyr’s death in our battle against the enemy. Others will be alive yet when the Lord returns. Some of us will experience many hardships in this life. Others will have it relatively easy. But may we by faith continue to live for the Lord, knowing that we can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. Believe that, and therefore exercise your faith in the midst of whatever comes your way in life.

Turning then to our third point for today, we see that verse 6 says explicitly what we’ve already been seeing. Without faith it is impossible to please God. That’s how we will please God, and that’s the only way we can please God. As we acknowledge this, we remember with humility that even our faith is a gift of God. And lest we think this idea is that somehow we are talking about earning favor with God, I point you to the point that is made again at the end of verse 7, that the righteousness Noah had, like all God’s people after the fall, is a “righteousness which is according to faith.” There are so many references in writing to Noah being righteous – both in the Bible and in extra-biblical writings. And here we see in what sense he was righteous. It’s not that he was righteous in the sense of perfectly keeping all God’s laws. No, he was righteous according to faith. His faith was accounted to him as righteousness. And so, faith is not a work, even though our faith is the reason why God’s saved people do the works they do. In other words, we are reminded here that faith pleases God, and that should be motivation for our faith, but not to pat ourselves on the back in having that faith.

We see a little more about this faith in verse 6. It is faith that comes to God, looking to God, because we believe that he exists. And it is faith that comes to God because we believe he rewards those who are truly seeking him. Now on the one hand, such a statement about faith should seem obvious; it’s really inherent to the definition. But it does warrant stating to remind ourselves that indeed this is what faith is all about. Faith involves looking to a God we can’t see, but trusting that he is there, and that there is great value in looking to him. If we didn’t believe there was value in seeking him, we wouldn’t seek him. That’s our faith worked out. Because faith believes in God and that there is great value in God, we seek him out. Again, in all this, we keep seeing that faith regularly expresses itself in action, but the actions are not ultimately what God commends. He’s looking to the faith. This is what verse 6 says pleases him. God is pleased as he sees the faith of his people.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, this passage and chapter again commends such faith to us, even faith that pleases God. May we want to please our great God with such faith, even faith in Jesus Christ. As we draw to a conclusion today’s sermon, be encouraged in your faith in Christ by the wonderful typology these three saints in this passage bring to us. What’s wonderful about the types of Christ that we see in the Bible is we can see in various heroes of the faith that there are parts of them that look like what Christ will look like. Not exhaustively, by any means, otherwise they wouldn’t be a type of Christ, they would be the Christ. Yet, when we take different types of Christ and put them together, you start to see a more full picture of what the Christ would look like. How true that is here with Abel, Enoch, and Noah.

Start with Abel. Abel’s sacrifice showed his faith. That’s true for the sacrifice of animals that he gave God. But it’s even more so in the sacrifice of his very life. He died the martyr’s death for his faith and in his striving with the enemy. In his struggle against sin and evil, he resisted even to the point of shedding his blood (c.f. Heb 12:4). And yet even in his death, he still does battle against the enemy, still speaking against the evil one. Yet, this all looked forward to Jesus Christ who would come with a better sacrifice for sin, with better blood. Jesus’ sacrifice perfected what Abel’s sacrifice only typified. In Jesus’ shed blood on the cross, he was not only being struck by the enemy, he was simultaneously delivering the crushing blow to Satan’s head. Abel’s death and blood look to Jesus’ death and blood.

As for Enoch. Jesus was also translated too! Jesus also ascended up into heaven like Enoch and Elijah. Jesus too was taken by God into glory and paradise. Though for Enoch he didn’t taste death, Jesus amazingly combines the story of Abel and Enoch. Jesus, the one who suffers and dies for us, is also ascended and translated. Jesus takes the two seemingly incompatible things that Abel and Enoch are commended for, and he is both!

Why? So, Jesus could give us Noah – “rest”. Remember, Noah means “rest”. By faith, Noah was able to save a remnant for God. Jesus was like both Abel and Enoch in order to save us a people for the Lord. Jesus saves us and brings us to an eternal rest and comfort.

This is our Lord. This is the one that we are called to put your faith in. If our faith pleases God, I hope you see how our faith should also please us. For such faith assures us of this victory. In this life, as we live by faith, nothing can stop us! Neither death nor life nor anything else can separate us from the love and victory and reward that we have in Jesus Christ. Be renewed again today in your faith. Live by that faith. Please God in this faith. Be pleased yourself in such faith. Hallelujah! Praise the LORD! Amen.

Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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