Images of the Savior (4 -- The Life of Abel)
Very soon after God had made his first promise to mankind that he would send a Deliverer, he began to advance his redemptive design along several different lines, all of which would eventually culminate in the advent and work of the promised Seed, and his gathering together in himself a multitude of people, whom he had undertaken to bring back to God. This era of redemptive history is characterized by a series of highly notable firsts, which would set the stage for the promised coming of salvation by putting in motion those forces which should prepare the way for the coming of the Seed, and ultimately bring about the fullness of time in which God should finally send him; and also, they whisper ahead of time the way in which this Savior, when he had finally come, should go about his work of saving his people. Of these firsts, one of the most significant is the life of Abel, the first man born twice, which we will look into in due time; but for now, let us mention a few other notable circumstances that God had already brought about.
First of all, we must take notice of the first animal death, which occurred when God took skins with which to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve, after the fig leaves which they had sewn together failed to provide them with adequate decency (Genesis 3:21). This was a very notable type, speaking from the very beginning of the truth that no efforts or works of fallen man can ever truly cover up his guilt or shame so fully as to admit him before the Most High God; for even after covering themselves up in this way, our first parents were still driven to hide from God's face when he walked in the Garden. We see as well the sovereign grace of God, and the lengths to which he would go to cover their shame adequately, in that he took upon himself the initiative to cover their nakedness, to which end he resorted to killing an innocent animal. This, of course, signaled the way in which he would ultimately remove all guilt and shame from his people, apart from their own works, when of his own good pleasure he should put to death his own innocent Son, so that he might cover up the shame of his people with his own blood and righteousness, and thus fit them again for his presence.
Then, we see the first glimpse of the coming of God's promised seed in the birth of Cain, the first seed ever born into the world. In this event, we see the way in which this promised Deliverer would actually come into the world, and also the means by which would be accomplished the necessary multiplication both of his enemies that he must destroy and his people that he must redeem, in accordance with the prophecy in Genesis 3:15.
Shortly thereafter, we see the first division of mankind into two radically different classes, and notice that the chief distinguishing characteristic of the one class is faith in the promised Seed, and in God's faithfulness to fulfill his promise. To this end, we note that Eve named her firstborn son â€œCain,â€ which means â€œacquired,â€ and by which name she wished to affirm God's faithfulness to fulfill his promise of sending a man who should be born of her seed, and to express her hope that this first seed of hers might be the very Deliverer for whom she waited. We see also that this faith was persevering: for when Cain had proven to be a wicked man, and righteous Abel had been slain, she named her third son â€œSeth,â€ which means â€œadding,â€ and thereby praised God for adding to her another seed in the place of Abel, who should continue the line through which she still hoped that the Messiah would come. Of the second class, of which Cain was the first representative, we see this chief distinguishing characteristic, that they hope to satisfy God by their own works, which are wicked; and when they see another whose works are righteous, they are very jealous, and persecute him. Thus the apostle says of Cain that he was â€œof the Evil One, and murdered his brotherâ€; and that this was because â€œhis own works were evil, but his brother's were righteousâ€ (1 John 3:12).
We may observe several things further of this first and lasting division of the seed of Adam and Eve into these two opposed classes: first, we obtain a hint that God sovereignly chooses his own people contrary to man's expectations when, contrary to Eve's first belief and hope, God rejected her older son, and chose instead the younger. This working among the lesser and relatively more despised of men would remain an outstanding characteristic of God's redemptive design throughout the rest of history; we will see later that God would reject Ishmael and accept Isaac (Genesis 22:9-13); he would reject Esau, but accept Jacob (Malachi 1:2-3); he would reject all the many and mighty nations of the world, and accept instead Israel, who was small and despised, and few in number (Deuteronomy 7:6-7); and even today, we see our own calling, how that not many wise or noble or powerful are chosen, but rather that God has chosen the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the strong and the wise, so that all glorying must be done in the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). But nowhere do we see this truth more fully than in the case of the Seed himself, who should come into the little, insignificant town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and who should be without any outward appearance of glory, but despised and rejected of men (Isaiah 53:1-3).
Then, we may also observe of the class of wicked men, that they will ever have all the outward prominence in the world, just as Cain founded the first city (Genesis 4:16-17), and of his line there came all sorts of inventors and clever men, and men with great power and influence in the world, such as Jabal and Jubal and Tubal-Cain, who very skillfully devised many things pertaining to agriculture and music and metallurgy (Genesis 4:20-22); and also Lamech, who was a fierce and vengeful man, who had his way in the world (Genesis 4:23-24). We see in this city of men that God's common grace is still held forth in some measure, inasmuch as God set his own mark upon Cain, approving an appropriate action of justice to be taken against any who should harm him, even though he was wicked and deserving of no good thing (Genesis 4:13-15). Even so today, we see that God has given his own authority and approval to wicked men to govern the world, and to exact vengeance on all who should transgress their laws; and he has enjoined his own people to be subject to those men as his own ministers, only excepting those cases wherein they would demand something against God's own commandments (See Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-15; Acts 5:29). But we must also observe this very notable circumstance, that even though the world of wicked men has had all prominence from the very beginning, and even though they fill the whole world up with corruption, and rage against all who are righteous, and do their best to exterminate them from the earth, yet God will never allow their wicked designs to have their effect; and even though the blood of his saints may be spilled, he never allows his Church to be finally extinguished.
Now, let us take notice of some ways in which the life of Abel foreshadowed the life of Christ. First of all, and most prominently, we may glimpse the bloody sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, in Abel's bloody sacrifice on the altar, which was pleasing to God by virtue of the faith in which it was offered up. Now, we must observe that the very nature of the sacrifice, being a substitutionary slaughter of the best of his lambs, spoke of the faith which Abel had, in contrast with Cain, who supposed to please God with his own fruits that he had raised from the ground. The difference is not, therefore, that Abel offered his best lamb, while Cain hoped to satisfy God with his smallest and most worthless vegetables, but rather that Abel expressed his hope in the coming Seed, who should fulfill God's promise of deliverance, whereas Cain hoped by his own works and efforts to please God, and was very angry when his best works were rejected. Thus it is that the author of Hebrews speaks of Abel's sacrifice as being brought out of faith, and still speaking of that faith yet today (Hebrews 11:4); and later he expresses that faith as a looking ahead to the fulfillment of God's promises, and to his sending the long-awaited Messiah (Hebrews 11:13-14).
Second, we foresee Christ's being rejected for speaking the truth (John 8:37-45), as Abel was despised and rejected of his brother for displaying the truth. Third, we foresee Christâ€™s being slain by wicked men because he is just, as Abel was killed for his righteous deeds. Fourth, we see Christâ€™s blood crying out in condemnation of all who reject his sacrifice (see Hebrews 10:26-31), as Abelâ€™s blood cried out to God from the ground. Fifth, we see God rising up to judge the enemies of his holy Son, and to put them all under his feet (see Acts 2:34-36), as he rose up to judge Cain for his wickedness against his brother. Sixth, we see Christâ€™s role as the great Shepherd of the sheep (1 Peter 2:25; 5:4; Hebrews 13:20), as Abel, the first man born twice, was a shepherd of sheep. Seventh, we see how those of future ages would falsely speak well of Christ, while despising him in their hearts (both in his day and our own), as Cain pretended to speak peaceably to his brother, but when they were alone, rose up and slew him. Eighth, We see that all attempts of the ungodly to support and sustain life after they have rejected the life Christ offers must finally fail; as Cain found no nourishment from the fruit of the ground after he had been counted displeasing to God.
How notable a type was this first righteous man, Abel! In his life we see the enmity between the Serpent and his seed and the righteous seed of the woman, and how the Serpent would ever stir up wicked men to kill the woman's righteous seed: but in that very act, he would bring down judgment upon himself, and all the fruits of his own labor would fail to sustain his life thereafter. Let us take heart from this most instructive type: for if we would be righteous, and full of faith in the Messiah that was born of the woman so many years ago, we may assure ourselves that the world will hate and persecute us; but we may also persuade ourselves from this account, that even if we should forfeit our lives for the righteousness which our faith in the Savior is working in us, we have not thereby lost the battle, but have become overcomers indeed. If we are ever tempted to doubt that, let us but look to the greater Abel, whose blood was spilled on Calvary; but through that blood he wrought an eternal life and victory for all who have placed their hope in him.