It is Thanksgiving week, my all-time favorite week of the year, and our daily reading plan is speeding us through Paul’s shorter epistles. While we had three days with Galatians, we only got two each with Ephesians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians and just one with Colossians.
Despite this rapid pace, I still caught a few great teachings as I read. One of these great teachings was about thanksgiving itself. Both the word thanksgiving and the act of giving thanks appear repeatedly in these epistles. Since this is Thanksgiving week, I thought it good to look at a few of each.
Ephesians is unique among Paul’s epistles. Though it is called Ephesians, it was not written specifically for the Ephesian churches the way Romans, Corinthians, and the others were written specifically for those churches. Rather, it was written for “The Church” in general. That being the case, its message is general as well. Ephesians is simply and beautifully an “essay” about the glory of salvation in Jesus Christ, the theme of which is stated in 1:3
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
This essay contains several references to thanksgiving and giving thanks. In 1:16, Paul says, “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” In 5:4, he gives this command: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” And in 5:20, he says we should be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Philippians can almost be considered a book of thanksgiving as Paul wrote it to thank the Philippians for financially supporting his ministry (support that is mentioned again 2 Corinthians 11:9).
Paul starts by telling the Philippians “I thank my God every time I remember you” (1:3). This is not wholly unique; Paul often told his readers he was thankful for them. But we have to imagine this thankfulness was fueled and enhanced by the Philippians’ giving, particularly since his very next statement references their “partnership in the Gospel” with him (1:5). He also tells the Philippians and us to “not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (4:6). With that, he establishes thanksgiving not just to be a regular part of prayer but also a practice which combats and overcomes anxiety. Finally, he says he “rejoices greatly” at the financial gift the Philippians gave him (4:10). While that statement technically doesn’t use the word thank in any way, it certainly depicts the idea. Paul was thanking the Philippians there. I believe he was thanking them genuinely and happily. This is, in fact, one of the greatest examples of thanksgiving the Bible gives us.
Colossians is a refutation of a false teaching. This false teaching was so weird that we today still haven’t figured out exactly what it was or was intended to accomplish. Colossians is also the companion or flip side of Ephesians. The two books were written at the same time, were delivered by the same people (Tychicus and Onesimus), and contain passages and ideas that are similar if not exact duplicates. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised to find thanksgiving here, just as we did in Ephesians.
Paul again says he is thankful for these people; in 1:3 he tells them, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you”. Just a few verses later, he tells them one of the things he is praying for is that they will be “giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.” Here he not only tells them to be thankful but he tells them why, saying that they are now stakeholders in God’s bright country. He tells them in 2:7 that he wants them to be “overflowing with thankfulness”, and he says “be thankful” in 3:15. Just two verses after that, he says “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”, and in 4:2 he instructs them to “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”
Like Philippians, 1 Thessalonians is a book of thanksgiving. Paul was worried about the faithfulness of the Thessalonian Christians; he was afraid they were weakening under persecution. After hearing from Timothy that this was not the case, he writes this letter to express how thankful he is that they are standing firm.
Again, he starts with a personal thanksgiving for these people, saying, “We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers” (1:2). A little later (2:13), he makes the similar but more specific statement, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” In 3:9 he asks this rhetorical question: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” Again, there is no other way to interpret this remark than it being one of pure, sincere gratitude. Finally, he makes one of the most famous statements in the book in 5:18, saying “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Behind the Scenes But Oh So Real
Thanksgiving is not the primary theme or teaching of any of these books. It is more central to Philippians and 1 Thessalonians, but I still wouldn’t call it “primary”; those books are still “about” other things.
Yet thanksgiving in both word and act pop up in them repeatedly. The same is true of Romans, Corinthians, and all the other epistles. All these books command thanksgiving. All these books demonstrate thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a part of these books not because they are about thanksgiving but because thanksgiving (or gratitude or appreciation) is a part of the life of Christ.
My prayer is that they will be a part of your life as well. I’m praying we all don’t just “celebrate Thanksgiving” but actually practice thanksgiving. If we do, we will find that it is not only “right” (that is, something we should do) but it is “good” (that is, something that benefits us). We will find that thankfulness is as enjoyable year round as Thanksgiving is in November.