Abel: Giving God the First Portion

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Hebrews 11:4

INTRODUCTION: Today is the third message in our series “Growing in Faith” taken from Hebrews 11. Let’s take moment to review what we have learned so far.

In verses one and two we learned that faith is a deep conviction or certainty about realities that we cannot see. Of course, that raises a question. If faith is being certain of unseen realities, how do we know what is real and what is not? How do we know the reality of things we cannot see?

Verse three answers that question for us. True biblical faith is always based on the word of God. In creation God produced that which is visible, that is, the physical world, from that which is not visible, that is, out of nothing. God spoke the universe into existence by the power of his word. True biblical faith is always a response based on the sure and certain word of God. We believe what God says even if we cannot see the reality behind it. This is what the Old Testament believers were commended for.

Now, here in verse four, we are ready to look at our first example of an Old Testament person who was commended for his faith. Remember, Hebrews 11 works its way forward chronologically through the Old Testament, highlighting various persons who demonstrate true biblical faith in action.

Notice that phrase, “faith in action.” Although faith has to do with things that are unseen, faith itself is not hidden or unseen. One of the things I want you to notice as we go through this series on faith is that true faith in God always expresses itself in action. This is the principle that we find in James 2. James 2:14-17 says: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? . . . faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

So, as we get started this morning, we can add another principle to what we are learning about faith. 1) Faith is a deep conviction or certainty about realities that we cannot see. 2) True biblical faith is always based on the word of God. And 3) true faith always expresses itself in action. We will see all three of these principles playing out in the various Old Testament persons presented throughout the rest of the chapter.

And so, the first person we come to is Abel. Look at verse four with me now: “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.”

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Hebrews 11:4 says: “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did.” (Hebrews 11:4) And so, Hebrews 11:4 talks about making an offering or giving to the Lord. And we want to answer a very important question about giving today. Does God care about how you give to him? Is there a right way to give to God and a wrong way?

And according to the account of Cain and Abel in our passage today, the answer to both of those questions is yes. Yes, God does care about how you give to him. And yes, there is a right way to give to God and a wrong way.

So, what is the right way to give to God? Hebrews 11:4 tells us that the right way is by faith. And so, today we are going to talk about what it means to give to God by faith. And to do that we need to answer a number of questions.

I. Why did Abel offer God a better sacrifice than Cain did?
   – Genesis 4:1-5

The first question we need to look at is this: Why did Abel offer God a better sacrifice than Cain did? Cain and Abel both presented offerings to God, but the Bible tells us that Abel’s offering was better or superior to Cain’s offering. Why is that?

Well, the short answer is because Abel presented his offering by faith, but what does that mean in this context? Why was Abel’s offering different? What was it about Abel’s offering that demonstrated faith that was lacking in Cain’s offering? In order to answer these questions, we need to go back to Genesis 4 and take a closer look at Cain and Abel and their two offerings.

“Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’ 2 Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” (Genesis 4:1-5)

Now, this passage presents a number of differences between Abel and his offering to the Lord and Cain and his offering to the Lord. But what we want to look for are any differences that would indicate faith on Abel’s part or lack of faith on Cain’s part.

   A. Was it the difference in the type of offering? (no)

So, for example, was it the difference in the type of offering? Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two offerings is that Abel brought an animal from his flock, probably a lamb or a goat, whereas Cain brought produce from the ground, probably some fruits or grains.

Now, many commentators feel that this is the difference that Hebrews alludes to when it speaks of Abel’s faith, that Abel offered a blood sacrifice whereas Cain’s offering was bloodless. They say that God accepted Abel’s offering because Abel’s offering looked forward by faith to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross whereas Cain’s offering did not.

It’s a possibility, but there are a number of problems with this view. For one thing God had not yet instituted the sacrificial system that he would later give to Israel to foreshadow Christ. Some commentators point to the animal skins that God used to cover Adam and Eve after the fall and suggest that God taught Adam and Eve the necessity of a blood sacrifice at that time. That’s certainly possible, but the text doesn’t say, so we don’t know for sure.

Another problem with this view is that Genesis 4 does not use the Hebrew word for “sacrifice,” but rather the Hebrew word for “gift or offering.” According to Genesis 4 Cain and Abel were not bringing a sacrifice before God but simply an offering. Even after God gave Moses the law and unveiled the entire sacrificial system, people still brought gifts and offerings to the Lord that were not blood sacrifices. They brought gold and silver, wool and cloth, breads and grains and all sorts of things as gifts and offerings to the Lord. Cain was a farmer, so he naturally brought produce from the soil. Abel was a shepherd, so he naturally brought animals from his flock.

Some people wonder about the word “sacrifice” in Hebrews 11:4. Doesn’t that mean that Abel brought a sacrifice rather than an offering? Although the word translated “sacrifice” in Hebrews 11:4 usually does refer to blood sacrifices, it is also used in the New Testament symbolically for financial offerings, for example in Philippians 4:18. Also, the word “sacrifice” in Hebrews 11:4 refers both to Abel’s offering and to Cain’s offering, even though Cain’s offering was clearly not a blood sacrifice.

So, unless God specifically told Cain and Abel to bring a blood sacrifice, which once again the text does not say, I don’t think we can look at the two different types of offerings as the answer to our question why Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did.

   B. Was it a difference in the attitude of the givers? (no)

Well, if it wasn’t the difference in the type of offering, was it a difference in the attitude of the givers? Some commentators say that Abel brought his offering willingly while Cain brought his offering with a bad attitude. Thus, they say, Abel presented his offering by faith while Cain didn’t.

Now, attitude is certainly important when giving to God. God doesn’t want us to give to him reluctantly or begrudgingly, but rather we should give to him freely and cheerfully as an act of worship before him. So, is Hebrews 4 speaking about a difference in attitude?

Once again, it is possible. When you read through Genesis 4, you see that Cain definitely does have an attitude problem. But the text never says that Cain came to God with that bad attitude. Cain’s bad attitude in the text does not surface until after God looks with favor on Abel and his offering and rejects Cain and his offering. It is only then we are told that Cain became angry and his face was downcast.

   C. Was it because Abel offered God the first portion? (yes)

So, if it wasn’t the difference in the types of offerings, and if it wasn’t a difference in their attitudes, then what was the difference that distinguished Abel’s offering as an offering “by faith”?

I believe the answer is found in Genesis 4:4 where we learn that Abel gave God the first portion. We read in Genesis 4:4: “Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” (Genesis 4:4) In other words, Abel gave God the first portion from his flock.

What about Cain? Did he give the “firstfruits” from his harvest? Verse 3 simply says: “Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil.” (Genesis 4:3) The word “firstfruits” is conspicuous by its absence, especially when you compare it with Abel who brought to God the “firstborn” from his flocks.

So, I believe that’s the answer to our first question. Why did Abel offer a better sacrifice than Cain did? Because Abel gave God the first portion whereas Cain did not.

II. What does it mean to give God the first portion?
   – Deuteronomy 12:6, 18:4

Which leads us to our second question today: What does it mean to give God the first portion?

This whole concept of the firstborn or firstfruits is an important concept throughout the Bible. God commanded his people to present the firstborn of all their flocks and herds and the firstfruits of their soil as an offering to him. For example in Deuteronomy 12:6 we read: “Bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks.” (Deuteronomy 12:6) Deuteronomy 18:4 says: “You are to give … the firstfruits of your grain, new wine and oil, and the first wool from the shearing of your sheep.” (Deuteronomy 18:4)

So, this is a clear biblical principle. The first portion belongs to God. Actually, the whole portion belongs to God, but presenting the first portion was a way of acknowledging God’s ownership of all the rest.

This is one of the reasons why God took the lives of the firstborn sons in Egypt. God was demonstrating that he rather than the false Egyptian gods had true ownership of all in Egypt. In fact, even though God spared the firstborn sons of Israel, God still required the Israelites to redeem each of their firstborn sons with a portion of silver. Why? Because the firstborn belonged to God in recognition of God’s supreme ownership.

   A. It means giving God your first and your best, not the leftovers
      – Exodus 23:19

So, what does it mean to give God the first portion? First of all, it means giving God your first and your best, not the leftovers. We read in Exodus 23:19: “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God.” (Exodus 23:19) Why the best? Because what you bring to God reflects what you think of God, and God deserves the very best.

Remember, Genesis 4 tells us that “Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” (Genesis 4:4) The fat portions were the best part. Abel brought God the first portion. Giving God the first portion means, first of all, giving God your first and your best.

   B. It means giving God the first tenth of your income
      – 2 Chronicles 31:5-10

And then, secondly, giving God the first portion means giving God the first tenth of your income. This giving of the first portion to God eventually evolved into the giving of the tithe. The tithe was the first tenth of all that God gave you, and it was understood that the first tenth belongs to God.

We read in 2 Chronicles 31 how when the Israelites gave of their firstfruits they brought a tithe of everything, and there was so much left over that they piled the surplus in heaps. (2 Chronicles 31:5-10) This is a principle of giving which continues today. When God’s people give as God directs, there will always be plenty of money to do God’s work.

The Bible says that the first portion begins with the tithe. Some people have the idea that tithing is the end point of giving. That somehow you try to work your way up to a tithe, and then you are giving as God requires. But the tithe is really just the beginning of your giving. It’s where you start. The first tenth already belongs to God. It is your first and your best. But as you grow in Christ and in this whole area of giving, you will want to bring God an offering above and beyond the tithe. You will desire to see your resources used for the furtherance of God’s kingdom.

That’s why we speak of tithes and offerings. You bring God your tithe, and then you also bring an offering in keeping with your income and your faith. The principle of tithing was given by God in the Old Testament and never revoked in the New.

What does it mean to give God the first portion? It means giving God your first and your best. And it also means giving God the first tenth of your income. God is worthy of your very best. Don’t give God the scraps or the leftovers.

III. How does giving God the first portion demonstrate your faith?
   – Provers 3:9-10; Matthew 6:21,24

So, we’ve looked at two questions so far. 1) Why did Abel offer a better sacrifice than Cain did? Because Abel gave God the first portion. And 2) What does it mean to give God the first portion? And now the third question we need to consider is this. 3) How does giving God the first portion demonstrate your faith?

The Bible teaches us that giving to God is part of your worship. It is part of how you honor God in your life. Proverbs 3 says: “Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; 10 then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.” (Proverbs 3:9-10) Giving to God is a matter of honor and worship.
This is such an important issue that Jesus identified money as the major competitor to God in our lives. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) Jesus said that how you give to God reveals your heart. Do you store up treasure on earth or in heaven? Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, that is where your heart is also.” (Matthew 6:21)

So, where is your heart today? Do you desire more than anything to see the gospel go forth so that people are saved, so that churches grow, so that God’s name is honored and God’s kingdom advanced? If so, then you will give to see those things happen. But if those things are not important to you, if your heart is elsewhere, then you probably will not give as God directs you to give.

How and what you give to God says a lot about your faith and trust in him. It doesn’t take any faith to give God the leftovers. God asks you to give him your first and your best. And that takes faith. Remember, faith is being certain of unseen realities as you actively respond to God’s word. In giving God the first portion, you are actually doing three things which involve trusting God’s word concerning things you do not see.

   A. You recognize God as the source of all your blessings
      – James 1:17

First of all, you recognize God as the source of all your blessings. James 1:17 says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17) The Bible says that all that you have and all that you are comes from God. Do you believe that? When you give God the first portion you demonstrate faith because you recognize that God is the source of your blessings.

   B. You acknowledge God as the owner of all that you have
      – Exodus 19:5; Psalm 24:1

Secondly, when you give God the first portion, you acknowledge God as the owner of all that you have. God says in Exodus 19:5 “The whole earth is mine.” (Exodus 19:5) Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1)

Rosi and I used to enjoy watching the Cosby Show when it was on television. In one episode, Vanessa, a teenage daughter, complains to her parents how the other girls at school are teasing her because she is so rich. Her father responds, “Honey, let’s get one thing straight. Your mother and I, we’re rich. You have nothing!” So, people, let’s get this straight. God is rich. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. You and I, we have nothing!

God owns it all. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. And if you don’t believe that God can take away everything you have in an instant, just talk to someone who has had that happen to them. Talk to Job in the Bible!

You might say, “Well things are different today. We’ve got insurance. I’ve got a million dollars in insurance, and if it burned today, I could get it all back tomorrow.” Hey, God doesn’t have to take your stuff away from you. He can always take you away from your stuff!
You brought nothing into this world, and you will take nothing out of it. All that you have is simply on loan from God. You are only a manager or a steward of God’s possessions. God owns it all, and one of the ways you acknowledge that is by giving him the first portion in faith.

   C. You trust God’s promise to provide for all your needs
      – Philippians 4:19

And then, thirdly, when you give God the first portion, you show that you trust God’s promise to provide for all your needs. Philippians 4:19 says: “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)

Giving God the first portion takes faith, because remember, at the time you give God the first portion, you don’t always have the second portion yet. The second portion is unseen. When the Israelites gave God the firstborn lambs from their flocks or the first portion from their crops, they had no guarantee that there would be any more lambs or crops. The mother lamb could die, or the remaining crops could be destroyed. They gave the first portion in faith, trusting God who promised to provide for all their needs.

So, how does giving God the first portion demonstrate your faith? 1) You recognize God as the source of all your blessings. 2) You acknowledge God as the owner of all that you have. 3) You trust God’s promise to provide for all your needs.

Note: It is your faith that pleases God, not the offering itself (Hebrews 11:4b)

Notice it is your faith that pleases God, not the offering itself. It is not just what you give to God. Your heart must be right also. When we look at the rest of Hebrews 11:4, we see that Abel was commended as a righteous man, not for his offering, but for his faith which produced the offering. Look at the next part of verse 4: “By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings.” (Hebrews 11:4b)

Never think that giving to God is a way to earn God’s favor. You cannot buy your way into heaven. God looks to your faith, not the offering itself. You must truly give in faith out of love and worship to God for your offering to be accepted. Abel was commended as a righteous man because of his faith, not just because of his offering.

At the same time, realize that you cannot demonstrate true faith in giving without giving God the first portion. Remember the principle we learned at the very beginning of today’s message. True faith always expresses itself in action. One of the ways you demonstrate your faith in God is by giving him the first portion, by giving God your first and your best.

Back to Hebrews 11:4, let’s finish the verse now. Hebrews 11:4 has one more thing to say about Abel: “And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” (Hebrews 11:4c) This means that Abel’s example of faith continues to speak and have influence today even as it teaches us about faith and giving to God. When you give faithfully to God, your giving continues to speak and have influence for years and years to come and indeed into eternity.

C. T. Studd lived in England near the end of the 1800’s. Studd inherited a family fortune which he gave away in faith to God. Some of that money helped to found Hudson Taylor’s “Inland China Mission,” and D. L. Moody’s “Bible Institute,” and William Booth’s “The Salvation Army.” In a sense, C. T. Studd’s giving in faith, just like Abel, continues to speak today as countless lives have been touched and continue to be touched through these three great ministries.

Application: How do you practice giving God the first portion today?

So, we have talked about what it means to give God the first portion, and we have talked about how giving God the first portion demonstrates your faith. Finally, let’s put this all together and see how we put this into practice today. After all, most of us do not raise lambs or grow crops today. There is no longer any temple for sacrifices to the Lord. So, how do you practice giving God the first portion today? Let me give you three quick, simple, practical applications of this principle for today.

   1) Give God the first and best of all your life, not just your finances

First of all, give God the first and best of all your life, not just your finances. God deserves the first and best part of everything, not just your money. You should give God the first and best part of your day, the first and best part of your thoughts, the first and best part of all your time, talents and resources. Give God the first and best of all your life, not just your finances. That is part of what it means to live by faith.

   2) Budget your life around your giving, not your giving around your life

Secondly, budget your life around your giving, not your giving around your life. Whenever I put together a budget, I always list giving to God first. Why? Because it is a reminder that what we give to God always comes first. Once you have determined what God would have you to give, that becomes a non-negotiable. Your giving comes first, and then you work to make everything else in your budget fit around it.

How do you know how much to give? Pray about it. Begin with the tithe, and then ask God what else he would have you give to him. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

Give in proportion to your income and your faith. God does not expect you to give the same amount as someone who has much more. It is not the amount that matters to God anyways. It is the priority that you place on giving in faith. In order to give God the first portion, you need to budget your life around your giving, not your giving around your life.

   3) Set aside God’s portion first before you spend anything else

And then, thirdly, set aside God’s portion first before you spend anything else. As soon as you receive your paycheck, separate out that which you will give to God. Even if you’re not actually going to turn in the check until Sunday, take care of it right away and clear it off your books. That way you make sure that the first portion goes to God.

How do you practice giving God the first portion today? 1) Give God the first and best of all your life, not just your finances. 2) Budget your life around your giving, not your giving around your life. 3) Set aside God’s portion first before you spend anything else.

CONCLUSION: It might seem like this has been a message about giving. And, in some ways, it has been. But it is really a message about God’s sovereignty and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And it is a message about faith. Abel shows us that giving God the first portion, your first and your best, is part of living by faith.

God gave his first and his best for us. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Now God asks you to give your first and best to him.

Hebrews 11:4 says: “By faith Abel offered up a better sacrifice than Cain did.” (Hebrews 11:4) Genesis 4 says: “Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.” (Genesis 4:3-5)

Will you commit to giving to God in faith? Will you give him your first and your best? Will you give God the first portion in your life?

© Ray Fowler

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