Seven Themes in Thanksgiving in the New Testament

The smell of turkey roasting is wafting through the church building even as I write. Preparations are being made in the kitchen so students learning English as a second language can experience a traditional Thanksgiving meal in place of regular classes this evening. Many of us will gather with families next week to give thanks to God for the bounty of another harvest season.

How do we grow in gratitude? Last week, we considered Eight Themes in Thanksgiving in the Psalms. This week, we consider Seven Themes in Thanksgiving in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus gave thanks. He gave thanks for the Father’s work (Matthew 11:25), for bread to feed the five thousand (John 6:11) and the four thousand (Matthew 15:36), at Lazarus’ resurrection (John 11:41), and at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:27). If the Son of God gave thanks to the Father, how much more should we?
  2. Ingratitude is a mark of unbelief. Romans 1:21 reflects on the awful state of unbelievers saying “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Do you want to be futile and useless in your thinking and live in darkness? Stop giving thanks.
  3. God is the object of thanks in the New Testament, not people. The prophetess, Anna, gave thanks “to God” (Luke 2:36-38). Paul uses many phrases such as “I thank my God” (Romans 1:8), “thanks be to God” (Romans 6:17), “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Colossians 1:3), and “we also thank God constantly” (1Thessalonians 2:13). Jesus is the object of thanks, too. The cleansed leper fell on his face thanking Jesus (Luke 17:16), and “the living creatures of Revelation 4:9 “give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever.” Is it wrong to thank people? No. But God must be the primary object of our thanks.
  4. Three reasons for thanks stand out in the New Testament: The saving work of God (e.g. Matthew 11:25, 26:27; Luke 2:38, 17:16; Romans 6:17; 1 Corinthians 15:57; 2 Corinthians 9:15), the people of God (e.g. Acts 28:15, Romans 1:8 (and at the beginning of almost all of Paul’s epistles)), and daily bread (e.g. Matthew 15:36, John 6:10, Acts 27:35). We still have these same three reasons for thanks today. If we give thanks for the many aspects of God’s salvation, the many people he has put in our lives, and the many provisions he gives day by day, we will be overflowing with gratitude.
  5. Thanksgiving is always in season. Paul wrote: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:4). He also reminds us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We are to be a people “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).
  6. Giving thanks changes the giver of thanks. The leper Jesus healed grew in assurance of salvation when he gave thanks when Jesus said “Rise and go your way, your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). Thanksgiving sanctifies us as it replaces filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking (Ephesians 5:4). Thanksgiving fosters unity (Colossians 3:15-17). The act of giving thanks also inspires courage as it did in Paul, who, when on his way to Rome saw the brothers, thanked God, and took courage (Acts 28:15). Finally, it brings peace, as Paul reminded the Philippians: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
  7. Thanksgiving marks a mature Christian. In Colossians, Paul notes this in two ways. First, in Colossians 2:6-7 he writes “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,  rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” Then, in 3:15-17 he writes “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” You can tell that a person is mature in the Lord when his lips speak words of thanks from the overflow of the heart. It influences not only his words, but all of his deeds are flavored with thanksgiving, too.
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