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Lessons from the First Battle Part 1 (Gen. 4:1-9)

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In the 1999 film The Matrix, the reality we experience is portrayed as something created by computers. All humans are actually comatose in an egg-like container, but impulses are sent to the brain, which create our world that we see. This system that creates this false world is called the matrix. People are unaware of the matrix and think that all they are experiencing is reality. Later, there is a group of people who have broken out of the matrix and try to bring people out of it and eventually destroy it. One the characters says:

The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes. It is the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth that you are a slave. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.[1]

There is actually lot of good theology with this movie! The world we live in is a world where sin is the matrix. It controls all that we do or think though we often choose to be unaware of its presence. It is pervasive in every way, and most people go about their lives not realizing that the world of sin is not the real world. But if you know Christ, you have been broken out of the matrix, but we are constantly facing the option to go back into the matrix.

This is the battle we face: to stay out of the matrix, which is not experiencing life at all. It is death! But we find ourselves wanting to cocoon ourselves in the amniotic fluid of sin when life hits us hard. How do we react when life contradicts us? How can we stay out of the matrix that invites us to live a life of deception? Today we will go back to the beginning of the matrix of sin and learn important lessons about how God, through the Gospel, has made a way for us out of the matrix, to live in true freedom.  

The title of the message is “Lessons from the First Battle.” I almost called it “The Gospel According to the Matrix.” This will be a two-part series. We see that it takes only one generation and we already have a murderer. But we are going to see something deeper as Pastor Chuck Swindoll says of “an undeniable theological truth…humans are murderers, not because we commit murder, but because we are murderers at heart.”[2]

Now God had promised a battle in Gen. 3:15 between the “seed of the serpent” and the “seed of the woman,” but also a promise of a Conqueror. This is a very familiar story, but I want us to look at it with fresh lenses. Moses is writing this on the plains of Moab. The children of Israel are waiting to enter the Promised Land. This is the land of Canaan, “flowing with milk and honey,” which also has its “fortified cities, its giants and powerful gods.”[3] Forty years earlier, their descendants stood at the Promised Land and refused to do battle, claiming they felt like grasshoppers compared to the Canaanites (Num. 13:27-33). Remember the people of Israel were divided into twelve tribes, who came from 12 brothers. These twelve tribes are going to have to live together in the land, work together in the land and be God’s light in the land. But will they love each other or kill each other (like Cain did)?

Now Moses writes this sermon in Genesis 4 to remind the people of God about the first battle and the depravity of all of our hearts, but the hope and faith we can have in God and for us, in the Gospel, which we will see. Moses wants his people to do battle knowing God is the on the side of the grasshoppers of the world.

So how can we live for the Lord living in a fallen world with a fallen heart? Take note of the first lesson here:

 I. Worship is more about the heart than the hands (vv.1-5a)

Genesis 4 opens with an encouragement. There is new life. Commentator David Atkinson says, “God allows life to continue even the fallen world outside the Garden.”[4] And what is that life like? We see community is starting, worship beginning (first worship service recorded here) and technology and human advancement is also going to be possible. But at the same time, we don’t hear God’s refrain of “it is good” anymore, as conflict, sibling rivalry, family breakdown, alienation, guilt, anxiety, jealousy and corruption of marriage into polygamy have all filled the pages describing life “east of Eden.” But more than that, God is there outside the garden! He’s not constricted just in the Garden. He is all over this chapter, directly involved with the good, bad and the ugly.

 But first, in Gen. 4:1, look at Adam and Eve. They have a son! God’s promise has come true. His name is Cain, which may mean to “acquire, get, possess.”[5] This is an interesting foreshadowing of how he will live up to his name. Cain, wanting to “get” like his mother Eve did, (Gen. 3: 6), will also get into trouble. Eve’s statement here in v.1 (we are not completely sure of this) that she “has gotten a man with the help of the Lord” might give the impression that she has some arrogance in claiming she has created like God has, though she does acknowledge Yahweh’s help. She also calls him “a man” instead of boy. Does she think Cain will be the new Adam and the fulfillment of Gen. 3:15 of a coming Conqueror?

Look at Gen. 4:2. Notice the word “brother.” Seven times that word is found in this chapter. The name “Abel” is also here seven times. This chapter will be about sin infiltrating and destroying the closest of human relationships. Notice also what is missing from Abel’s birth. Eve doesn’t say anything! Abel means “vapor” or “breath,” i.e. “…what is insubstantial and fleeting.”[6] We don’t know why she named this for her second son. Does it highlight the fact that she put a lot of hope in Cain to save her from her mistakes? Has favoritism set in? Cain is the oldest child, firstborn son, and first child born in the history of the world. Did the first parents have big hopes for him? Did they think he was the Messiah? We are not sure.

We do find out the two sons’ occupations in Gen 4:2. Cain, following in the footsteps of his father, is a farmer. Abel is a rancher or shepherd. Both jobs are equally noble and dignified. According to Gen. 4:3, Cain and Abel have the first worship service recorded in Scripture. They may have learned from their parents how to do this since the Law was not established yet. Commentator Gordon Wenham states, “It seems natural to suppose that at the end of the agricultural year sacrifices would have been brought. As soon as their labors had borne fruit they brought appropriate offerings.”[7] Perhaps there was a time and place assigned? Again, these details we don’t know and is not the focus of the author.

But notice that on the surface both brothers look good and the same. Both work hard. Both bring offerings respective to their vocation. One commentator adds, “One would expect a farmer to bring an offering from the vintage of the ground, and a shepherd to bring the sucklings of his flock.”[8] By the way, notice that both are worshipping Yahweh. We may have thought Abel was the good boy, always going to church, so to speak. And Cain is often thought of as the godless boy, riding around on a camel perhaps, shouting at Abel about how Yahweh doesn’t exist. But that’s not the case here. They both believe in God and are trying to obey Him. But why doesn’t God take regard for Cain’s offering according to Gen. 4:4-5?

First of all, it is not because Cain brought veggies and Abel brought sheep or because Cain’s offering was a bloodless sacrifice and Abel killed an animal. Some scholars think that’s the reason, but Moses uses the word “offering” here and not “sacrifice.” I don’t think that was the issue. Commentator Victor Hamilton says, “There seems to be no obvious distinction between the two offerings. A fruit or vegetable offering is neither superior nor inferior to an animal offering.”[9] So what is Moses trying to convey here?

We do have some clues here. Notice the words “fat” portions and “firstborn” mentioned. Perhaps Abel brings the very best of his flock to God, while Cain brings what was easy, common and closer at hand? But perhaps the reason why Moses doesn’t give us the details is the message itself? You may remember that worship is a very important theme in the Pentateuch. Exodus talks a lot about the Tabernacle and Leviticus is about the sacrificial system. Worship is a key theme for Moses.  And maybe Moses here is showing his people that worship, as my professor at Moody Dr. Jim Coakley says, is not so much about what you bring in your hand as it is what you bring in your heart.[10] It is the kind of worship and the worshipper/offerer that God looks at than the offering itself.  And while man looks on the outward appearance, God looks at the heart. The author of Hebrews adds that Abel offered his offering by faith (Heb. 11:4), which is why God accepted him. Notice the word “regard,” which means to “gaze intently.”[11] God gazes intently at what? Notice how Moses says, “Abel and his offering” as well as “Cain and his offering.” The Lord looks at the person first then the offering. Notice the offerer and the offering are inseparable. The heart of the matter with God is always a matter of the heart.

By the way, we might look down on Cain, but I think Cain understood something that us North American Christians don’t seem to get. Pastor Mark Driscoll says, “Cain, when he came to worship the Lord, knew that it was about sacrifice and giving; it wasn’t about just consumption and using.”[12] If we come to our worship gathering saying, “I showed up. I sang some songs. Read a verse in Sunday School. Ate some rice. Worship songs were good. Pastor Robin’s sermon was blah. Wished the bulletin was better, etc.,” it makes me wonder if we are worse than Cain? In essence we are saying, “I’m God, and I allowed the Church to come into my presence, and I was not pleased with the offering that they gave unto me.”[13] And when church becomes more about getting what I want instead of giving what we got, we become worse than Cain.

So if our hearts are full of worship to the Lord, our hands will be automatically full to serve the Lord. Notice that Genesis 4 begins and ends in worship. What have you brought in your heart into worship this morning? Cain’s sin is tokenism. He is doing religious stuff, but his heart is far from God (Is. 29:13). And God would rather have you bring our sin, our weariness, our hard, cold hearts that may be full of jealousy, lust, anger and resentment in honest confession to Him than our religious tokens.

God loves humility because He loves truth. And God hates pride because He hates hypocrisy, lying and deception. I was at a conference this past weekend and what’s hard about Christian conferences is that you have this guy up on stage who is like the rock star, has millions of followers and though we are all praising Jesus, deep inside we want to be like the guy on stage. And so the Lord kept showing me how all throughout the conference I wanted to impress people when they would ask me about Living Hope. It was draining trying to live for the approval of man. My heart grew weary. I want to bring that heart to the Lord this morning. The wise men brought gifts at the Lord’s feet, but all I have is sin to lay at His feet. And as the hymnwriter says, “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.” What is in your heart that you are bringing to the Lord? As He gazes intently into our hearts first then our hands, let’s confess our Cain-like hearts to the Lord this morning. Secondly,

II. Sin is more powerful than we imagined (Gen. 4:5b-24)

If you noticed in this chapter, there are a lot of similarities between Genesis 2-3 and Genesis 4. There is a temptation, a warning against it, giving in and the consequences. Sin always repeats itself. It is cyclical (James 1:14-15) and very powerful.

Notice Cain’s reaction to the rejected offering. He’s angry. Literally it says, “It burned to Cain exceedingly.” There is smoke coming out of his nostrils. He is fuming; so much so that it shows up in his face! One translation says, “Why are you scowling?” (REB) to help us picture Cain’s heart showing up on his face. This incident did not create anger in his heart, but revealed something that has always been there.

I don’t want to read too much into this, but it makes me wonder if Cain could not believe that he was actually number 2 in something for the first time in his life? It makes wonder if all his life he thought he was the firstborn, the apple of his parent’s eye, took a job like his dad and was celebrated constantly and perhaps even spoiled to a certain degree, only to be shocked that God doesn’t operate on those standards? Helmut Thielicke says, “For I too have within me the Cainitic urge to make myself the center and appraise all others only by whether they are useful or harmful to me.”[14] Interestingly, all throughout Genesis, the underdog, the unexpected person gets God’s blessing: Ishamel is firstborn, but Isaac gets the blessing. Jacob gets the blessing over Esau. Joseph over his brothers. God’s ways are not man’s ways. And I wonder if Cain, having wrapped himself in that identity, cannot handle when someone challenges him on that?

But notice God dealing with Cain in Gen. 4:6. Notice God goes after Cain’s heart, asking questions (like a father talking to a child than a police officer scolding a criminal) just like in Gen. 3 to get Cain to confess his failure. In Genesis 3, God’s questions came after the Fall. Here God is pleading with Cain before he falls. But we shall see the power of sin. We see here that even if God himself pleads with us, we still choose to rebel against Him. And notice God does not blame him for bringing his offering. God is always interested in the root of our sin, not just the fruit of it. One commentator translates this part of this verse by saying, “If you set your face against God and his ways you are placing yourself in the service of sin.”[15] By the way, How do we respond when God says no? When God convicts us and deals with the sin in our lives, how do we respond? Do we seek to make things right? Do we come before the Lord in worship and confession with a humble and contrite heart? God essentially says to Cain, “You are miserable not because of what happened to you, but how you have chosen to respond to what happened to you.”

God then gives Cain in Gen. 4:7 some insights of how sin works that Cain himself cannot see. The first part is difficult to translate, but it could mean that God is telling Cain not to internalize his issues and get depressed or to externalize it and become violent. Rather, come to God with it and repent of it and God will accept him, enabling him to live a life glorifying God.

But God gives him the option of not going this route, but simultaneously warning him about the power of sin. The way of Cain (Jude 11) is partnering with the serpent (Gen. 3:15), allowing him to breed in one’s loins. It is betraying God! Interesting metaphor here on the nature of sin. God describes sin like a “demon or a vicious animal lying in wait to devour”[16] him. What is God saying? Sin always hides itself.[17] As a result, it is more powerful than we imagine it to be.

Sin “crouches down.” It always looks smaller than it really is. In other words, think of that lion or tiger in National Geographic, hiding in the shadows, in the corner, just out of the view of the deer or gazelle. The tiger wants the deer to think, “I’m not here” or “I’m dead, inert and unable to do anything to you.” Though Abel and Cain look the same on the surface, there is something different about their heart. And because sin always hides from you, Cain cannot even see it.  Sin presents itself as something good, as a virtue. Consider this list[18]:

"I'm not a workaholic. I'm just productive." 
"I'm not ruthless. I just have sharp business sense." 
"I'm not stingy. I'm just prudent." 
"I'm not bitter. I'm just expressing moral righteous outrage." 
"I'm not flirtatious. I'm just friendly." 
"I'm not greedy for money. I just like seeing things grow." 
"I don't overcharge my credit card. I just enjoy good things." 
"I'm not a glutton. I just enjoy food." 
"I'm not legalistic. I'm just faithful." 
"I'm not a Pharisee. I can just see and feel how sinful other people are." 
"I'm not critical. I'm just astute." 
"I'm not lazy. I'm just tired." 
"I don't have a temper. People are just annoying."

We call sin “a flaw,” and though I shouldn’t nurse that grudge, for example, “its not all that bad.” Sin stays hidden, off your radar, and yet it uncoils someday like a snake. Sin does not strike all at once. It kills slowly and persistently. God is warning Cain that now in the early stages of this anger, jealousy and hatred in his heart, he can come to God with it before this sin takes shapes and takes him over. C.S. Lewis said, “We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin.”[19] Not true! You can be bitter toward your parents but before long, it uncoils on you, hardens your heart and destroys you. Each time we give in to sin, the more powerful it becomes and the more it will shadow you and eventually kill you. Like the Puritan John Owen says, “Be killing sin or it will kill you.”[20] Sin is not just what you do, it is who you are and if you want to escape it, you have to come to me, since you cannot escape who you are otherwise.[21] Cain, if you fail in your worship to me right now right here, you will fail in the field out there. The grand delusion that every sin offers is that we can be disloyal to God and everything will work out in the end.

Do you know your crouching sins? Tim Keller says, “The things that can most destroy you are the things you think are not that bad.”[22] What are the things you make excuses for? Does Cain answer God? Nope. He walks away. Cain starts off in this chapter as a worshipper of Yahweh, a brother and a son. By the end of the chapter, he is none of these. Loved ones, sin is an active, suicidal power, opposed to the principle of creation. God has brought forth, created something out of nothing. Sin on the other hand, transforms God’s creation into nothing. Bruce Waltke also observes that, “this narrative illustrates original sin. Cain has a God-consciousness of right from wrong but rebels against it.”[23] Let’s be aware of the seductive power of sin in our lives!


I want to stop here for now and deal with our heart before the Lord. But before we do, I want you to notice here, and we will dive into this more next week, Lord willing, how gracious God is with Cain. What kind of God do we see here? A cosmic policeman? Is this a God who is just waiting to pounce on us as soon as we sin with thunder and lightning? A God who looks at Cain saying, “How dare you become angry at me? Who do you think you are?” Not at all. We see a God here who refuses to choose between justice and mercy. He is both here to Cain. He not only hears the cry of the innocent in Abel, but reaches out to the sinner as well. As Commentator Derek Kidner says, “God’s concern for the innocent (Gen 4:10) is matched only by his care for the sinner.”[24]

God graciously and gently initiates. Notice when does God come to Cain? He comes when nobody calls. He comes not after the murder, but as soon as Cain begins to spiral down, when Cain became angry.  And how does God come? He comes as a wonderful counselor, not even so much as a teacher. God loves Cain. Love never looks down. Love stoops down. God stoops down here as a wonderful counselor. God affirms him: “Let’s work at this together Cain. I’m here for you. I accept you if you turn to me. Let’s look at what’s going on in your heart.” How can God do this knowing that Cain will still murder anyway?!

How can God do that? He can do it because thousands of years later, us Cains are going to do the same thing to another Abel. We, like the religious Cain and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, slayed the truly innocent. His innocent blood was spilled. But in dying for us, He mastered sin, which has been mastering us. And He wants to master us who mastered sin, so sin will no longer be our master! Again, more on this next time, but the writer of Hebrews says, now in the New Covenant, we come to Jesus…”and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). The blood of Abel cries “Vengeance!” but the blood of our Lord speaks a better word, a word that says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Our sins devoured Jesus, crouched and pounced on him to pieces, so He can render it powerless in our lives! Cain-like hearts can be transformed to not just Abel-like hearts, but Christ-like hearts! Now Jesus’ blood cries forgiveness and grace for us when sin demanded justice. And Jesus has become the ultimate offering God accepts!

The Bible says, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it…the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:16-17). What is in your heart right now that you want to bring to the Lord? Worship is not what you bring in your hands, but what is in your heart. What are you crouching sins? What excuses have you made for sin that you think are not so bad? Show the Lord your vulnerable heart, your crouching sins, your religious tokens and hypocrisy and He will run to you like a flood as He shows you His gracious and compassionate heart for you. There is room at the cross for us Cains. Come beloved, come and bring Him your sin. Come to the fountain filled with the blood from Emmanuel’s veins. Cling to God’s only acceptable sacrifice in Jesus Christ and find God’s forgiveness, love and enabling power again for you, despite our fallen Cain-like hearts to live for Him in a fallen world.


[1]Taken from accessed 24 September 2011. 

[2]Swindoll, C. R. (2005). Fascinating Stories of Forgotten Lives. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3]Greidanus, S (2007). Preaching Christ from Genesis (486).  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 

[4]Atkinson, D (1990). The Message of Genesis (100). The Bible Speaks Today series. IVP: Downers Grove, IL.

[5]Waltke, B. (2001). Genesis: A Commentary (96). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6]Waltke, B. (97).

[7]Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 1: Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary (103). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[8]Hamilton, V. P. (1990). The Book of Genesis. Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (223). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.


[10]Taken from a sermon by Dr. Jim Coakley, “How to live right in a world gone wrong,” preached at Harvest Bible Chapel Decatur on August 15, 2010 accessed 22 September 2011.

[11]Lewis, Jack P. Vol. 37: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 37. 1994 (3) (463). Lynchburg, VA: The Evangelical Theological Society.

[12]Driscoll, M. From the sermon, “Genesis: Meditations on Moses’ Mosaic, Part 5 Cain and Abel,” preached October 31, 2004 accessed 22 September 2011.


[14]Thielicke, H. (1970). How the World Began: Sermons on the Creation Story (192). London: James Clarke & Co. LTD.  

[15]Atkinson, D. (108). 

[16]Waltke, B. (98).

[17]Taken from the sermon by Tim Keller as found in accessed 23 September 2011. 

[18]As listed by Toh, Benjamin in bid. 

[19]Water, M. (2000). The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations (948). Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd.

[20]Owen, J. “Of the mortification of sin in believers,” as found in killing sin#highlight accessed 23 September 2011.

[21]Modified from Tripp, P. from a tweet on 22 September 2011!/PaulTripp .

[22]Taken from the sermon by Tim Keller as found in accessed 23 September 2011. 


[24]Kidner, D. (1967). Vol. 1: Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (82). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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