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. By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. (Heb. 11:4-7, NIV)
A brief reading of this passage will reveal two facts immediately: these men lived before the Flood, and they all had quick, although varied, encounters with eternity. Abel seems to have met his murderous death shortly after Cain's sacrifice was rejected; Enoch walked with God a relatively short time (compared with his contemporaries) before God moved him to a different dwelling place; and Noah saw everyone on earth except his family die in a flood, and then lived to a ripe old age of 950 years before his own death from natural causes. Three men living three different lives and experiencing three different deaths were all commended by God for persisting in a life of faith and righteousness.
In a manner of speaking, we all live on the brink of eternity.
Who knows when their last day on earth will be? Did Abel know that his life would be cut short at the hand of his brother? Did Enoch know that his life on earth would end by the intervention of his God? Did Noah see the flood coming and naturally assume that he had another 350 years to live and tell the story to many generations of his grandchildren? None of these men knew the day or the hour of his death, but each lived in obedience to God as if today might be his very last.
There is another item that stands out in this passage, and that is the manner in which they exercised their faith. Abel revealed his faith in the way that he gave, Enoch in the way he related to God, and Noah in the way he believed in the unseen. All three are manifestations of faith, revealing to us the many facets of a life that places its hope in God. These men are not three personalities or types of faith, but are three distinct unveilings of the same faith. All three men incorporate all aspects of faith; they were just singled out by the Holy Spirit to better reveal the different views that faith affords us. We might envision faith as a finely cut diamond. Each cut of the diamond faces a different direction, and each cut reveals a different color of the spectrum as light passes through it. It is one diamond revealing many different properties. Faith is one precious jewel with many different facets, having a variety of effects upon not only the wearer, but also those who observe it.
The first aspect of faith that we see is Abel, whose faithfulness showed in his giving (Gen. 4:3-7).
How do we know that Abel offered his gift by faith? If he had not, God would not have been pleased with it, for "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6). He did bring his offering in faith, however, and because he did, God "commended him as a righteous man" (v. 4).
We see from the Genesis account that there is more to pleasing God than simply giving the "right" sacrifice. In fact, many times in the Old Testament we see God rejecting the offerings He had prescribed because the hearts of the people were not righteous before Him. Jer. 6:19-20 says, "Hear, O earth: I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not listened to my words and have rejected my law. What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me." Amos 5:21-24 says, "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Some feel that God rejected Cain's offering because it was a harvest from the ground, while God accepted Abel's because it was a blood sacrifice, recalling that there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. Gen. 4:2 tells us that Abel kept flocks and Cain worked the soil, so their gifts were actually given in accordance with their vocations. They gave a portion of the work produced by their own hands. Jewish sages believed that a subtle contrast in the simple description of their offerings gives us a hint as to why God accepted Abel's offering but rejected Cain's. Gen. 4:3-4 says, "In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock." The sages concluded that Cain's offering was from the low-grade and mediocre produce of his fields, while the offering brought to God by Abel was of the firstborn of the flock, and from their fat, or choicest, portions. Therefore, Abel's offering was accepted and Cain's was rejected.
The Book of Hebrews gives us another reason, however, for the acceptance of Abel's offering, and that was simply that he gave in faith, and "by faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings" (Heb. 11:4). Matt. 23:55 and 1 John 3:12 also point us to the fact that Abel was considered a man of righteousness. Abel was the first man recorded in Scripture to sacrifice to God, and therefore he had no established tradition to follow, no previous example to repeat, no outside encouragement to spur him on. Too often we concern ourselves with what we bring--often with one eye on our neighbor--when God looks to the obedient heart which gives what it should in faith. Remember, there was nothing lawfully superior in the two mites given by the widow (Mark 12:42). Only Jesus knew she gave all she had in faith, and He commented on it for our future understanding. Perhaps this is why Ananias and Sapphira, who held back out of their wealth, did not fare as well in the sight of God. Prov. 15:8 reminds us that the Lord "detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him."
The next facet of faith we see is Enoch, the first person recorded in Scripture to avoid death.
A careful reading of Genesis chapter 5 reveals that Enoch had a unique relationship with God when compared with his contemporaries. We are told that Enoch "walked with God," as did Noah (Gen. 6:9), whereas the rest of the men listed in that chapter simply "lived." Apparently, there is a great difference between those who simply live for God and those who walk with God. One attitude finds God as an employer while the other walks with Him as a friend. In Jewish and Christian tradition, Enoch is said to have had special revelations about the spirit world and the future (Jude 14), and tradition says he was the first man to learn writing and to gain knowledge and wisdom. But why God chose to take him to heaven without experiencing death is unclear. Some Jewish traditions hold that even though Enoch lived a righteous life, he was still susceptible to going astray, so God took him before he had that chance. Perhaps it is simply that God makes sovereign choices and doesn't explain them to us, either because He doesn't have to or because we wouldn't understand Him anyway, for we "cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end" (Eccles. 3:11).
It is Enoch's faith that we are concerned with here, and his testimony is that he walked with God not only in faith, but also in righteousness, just like Abel. The author of Hebrews is hammering into our minds the idea that righteousness and faith are inseparably linked. If we were to ask the author how he knows Enoch was a man of faith, he would answer that if he were not, God would not be pleased with him (Heb. 10:38; 11:5). Walking humbly with God and practicing justice, mercy, and loving kindness are all basic requirements for men (Mic. 6:8). If they are requirements, then they are attainable; and if they are attainable, then it is inexcusable for us to adopt a life of laziness and, thus, not meet those requirements. How can we claim a relationship with God and not know what it means to "walk with God" or, at the very least, be curious about it?