At the time when Christ entered into human history, there existed a rich groundwork for atonement which had been established through thousands of years of Hebrew history. As the people acknowledged God through the sacrificial system and showed their obedience, He was pleased with their offerings, which would be presented until Christ’s death on the cross. However, during the years in which the sacrificial system was the means of atonement, several instances occurred which caused the Lord to be displeased with certain sacrifices or the way in which they were offered.
The earliest account of an unacceptable sacrifice occurs in Genesis, in the familiar story of Cain and Abel. “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Genesis 4:3-5).
Abel’s sacrifice of the firstborn of his flock, presented at the dawn of humanity, points forward to Christ, as the Lamb of God, the only perfect sacrifice. The significance of sacrifices is established very early on in Scripture, with second generation humans, and it only gets more serious, wrapped in ritual and symbolism, as you read through the Pentateuch.
The author of Hebrews provides special insight into the Genesis passage of Cain and Abel stating that it was by faith that Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice to God (Hebrews 11:4). He offered the best that he had, trusting the Lord to care for him, and in the process set an example of true obedience and devotion.
Like Cain, who went through the motions of doing what the Lord requires, many of us want a formula for living the Christian life, but so much of it is a work of God on the attitudes of our hearts. We need to continually ask Him to purify our motives and create in us the desire to please Him and to offer the gifts that are acceptable to Him.
When the pace of life outstrips us, and concerns press in on us, and it is tempting to simply “go through the motions,” it is encouraging to look back at the examples set by those who lived faithful lives and to look back at the faithfulness of God as displayed all over the pages of Scripture. When we see all He has done for us, corporately and individually, the right response is worship, and a full offering of ourselves in faith and trust in God (Romans 12:1). In this post-sacrificial era, this is the acceptable sacrifice that we can offer to the Lord.