This week in the USA we celebrate Thanksgiving, a national holiday that is traced back to the fall of 1621 in Massachusetts, when the Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoag natives shared a meal to celebrate the harvest. Other nations around the world have similar holidays. It’s always appropriate to “praise God from whom all blessings flow.” But Jesus quoted Moses in reminding us that we don’t live by bread alone (Deut 8:3 -> Matt 4:4), but by the instruction that comes from God’s word. God’s word teaches us that our bounty comes from God, and that we should share it with those who have need (e.g. Ps 112:9 -> 2 Cor 9:6-15).
In this post we’re focusing on the apostle Paul as a model of thanksgiving, particularly in his prayers for his churches, and especially the church at Colossae.
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Go here for a detailed teaching video on Colossians 1:1-14.
Go here for our post Giving Thanks with the Gospel of Mark
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Paul’s Constant Attitude of Gratitude
Luke portrays Paul as a man of thanksgiving in Acts, so we should not be surprised that Paul speaks of thanksgiving over 40 times in his letters. Paul practiced and preached constant thanksgiving, thanksgiving based on God’s constant grace in Christ, not on the up and down circumstances of life. He began 11 of his 13 letters with thanksgiving for the recipients. He spoke repeatedly of thanksgiving in several more letters.
We can’t take more space here to go into all these passages. See our For Further Study: Thanksgiving Texts in Paul section below for a comprehensive list. Consider doing your own study of Paul’s teaching about thanksgiving as you prepare for the Advent season.
One of Paul’s best known texts about thanksgiving comes at the end of his teaching the Corinthians about giving. If we’re truly thankful for all that God has given us in Christ, we’ll give generously to others. “Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words” (2 Cor 9:15).
Thanksgiving in Colossians
Colossians 1:3-14. After a characteristic salutation in 1:1-2, Paul’s first words to the Colossians are words of thanksgiving. Whenever Paul prayed for the Colossians, his first thoughts about them were thankful thoughts (1:3). Paul explains why he is thankful for them in 1:4-8 before he resumes his prayer in 1:9-14.
Paul gives thanks that the gospel is bearing fruit in Colossae as it is all over the world (1:6). Fruit is Paul’s way of summarizing the impact of the gospel on their lives—faith, hope, and love. For Paul, these three virtues summarize all of Christian living. Faith in Jesus Christ gives hope for the future and leads to love for others (compare 1 Cor 13:13; Gal 5:5-6; 1 Thess 1:3). Saint Augustine’s Enchiridion, a brief handbook on the Christian life, is based on this key triad. Augustine expounded faith in terms of the Apostle’s creed, hope in terms of the Lord’s Prayer, and love in terms of the Ten Commandments.
Paul’s mentions fruitbearing again in his prayer for the Colossians (1:10). Far from being redundant, Paul’s second mention of fruitbearing shows us that his prayer is simply for the good work that has begun in Colossae to continue. As the Colossians grow in faith, hope, and love, they will be empowered to live wisely in the world and to endure whatever troubles are ahead. Continuous thanksgiving is a byproduct of this growth in wisdom (1:12).
Colossians 2:7. Paul returns to the theme of thanksgiving in Colossians 2:7 as he begins his warning against people who were teaching angel worship and human rules at Colossae. He reminds the Colossians that they are complete in Christ, and that they simply need to continue in the teaching they heard at the beginning of their Christian lives. As their roots in Christ deepen, they will be built up and strengthened in the faith, and their thanksgiving will overflow.
Colossians 3:15-17. Paul’s teaching against angel worship and human rules is based on his teaching about the Colossians’ participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (3:1-4). They have died with Christ to the old vices, so they need to put them to death (3:5-11). They have come alive with Christ to new virtues, so they need to put them on just like a new suit of clothes (3:12-17). One of these new virtues is continuous thanksgiving, expressed through song and in everyday life as a representative of Jesus.
Colossians 4:2. As Paul draws his letter to a close, he still has more to say about thanksgiving. He calls on the Colossians to devote themselves to the kind of prayer that comes from an alert mind and a thankful heart. Paul teaches us here that prayer flows from an awareness of current needs and from gratitude that God has met past needs.
Paul’s thanksgiving and prayer for the Colossians lays the foundation of thanksgiving for us, this week and every week of the year. God’s amazing love has invaded our world with a message of free grace through the crucified, risen, reigning, and coming Lord Jesus Christ. The message of grace in Christ rescued the Colossians from the domain of darkness and placed them under the reign of Jesus, who freed them from darkness and forgave their sins. The doubt, despair, and hatred that ruled their lives, had been transformed into faith, hope, and love. May we experience the same kind of transformation!
Paul speaks of God’s rescue plan in more detail in Colossians 2-3, where he shows how believers have died with Christ to the old vices and have risen with Christ to put on new virtues. God willing, we will deal with this in future posts. For the present, we can visualize Paul’s thought like this:
Giving Thanks with Faith, Hope, and Love
We’re wrong if we think Thanksgiving is a primarily a matter of a plate filled with turkey and all the trimmings. We’re horribly mistaken if we think political victories, material prosperity, and favorable circumstances are the main reasons for gratitude to Almighty God. We’re cursed if we bless God only when God blesses us with goods and services.
After he lost everything, Job said “The Lord gave, the Lord took away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Jesus taught his disciples that they should rejoice because their names were written in heaven, not because they had power over evil forces (Luke 10:20). Although Paul was thankful for what he had received from the Philippians, he surprisingly told them that that he could do with or without their gifts—he had learned how to be content with whatever he had, whether his stomach was full or he was hungry, whether he had plenty or had nothing (Phil 4:10-17). He was confident that he could handle both prosperity and adversity through the strength Christ provided. He rejoiced that the Philippians would be rewarded for giving to him, not because he could live comfortably with their gifts.
This Thanksgiving let’s take the warning of Deuteronomy 8 to heart. Moses warned the Israelites not to become proud of their prosperity in the promised land, as if it came from their own strength and ingenuity instead of the gracious faithfulness of God. “When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you” (Deut 8:10 NLT).
Of course we should be thankful for turkey with all the trimmings, but we should ask ourselves why we’re thankful for it. We should ultimately be thanking God for the grace that has opened our eyes to realize the turkey is his gift to us, not the fruit of our hard work, self-sufficiency, or national superiority. Thanksgiving this Thursday and every day of the year is rooted in the gospel of Christ. God has opened our eyes to appreciate every day as his gift, and to use every opportunity for his glory. Thanksgiving is not just about consumption of a traditional meal, it’s an opportunity to reach out to others who are not blessed with the prosperity we are enjoying. God’s love for the world led God to give Jesus to the world. If we appreciate that gift, we’ll give thanks to God and help to others in Jesus’ name, whether our plates are full or not.
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Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
and the cattle barns are empty,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
able to tread upon the heights.
Habakkuk 3:17-19 NLT
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For Further Study: Thanksgiving Texts in Paul
An inductive study of thanksgiving in Paul is eye-opening, instructive , and convicting! Here’s the raw material for you to study and build your own understanding and wisdom:
- Acts- 27:35; 28:15
- Romans- 1:8, 21; 6:17; 7:25; 14:6; 16:4
- 1 Corinthians- 1:4, 14; 10:30; 11:24; 14:16-18; 15:57
- 2 Corinthians- 1:11; 2:14; 4:15; 8:16; 9:11, 15; 10:30
- Galatians- The absence of thanksgiving in this book combined with its intense content shows how deeply Paul was troubled for these congregations.
- Ephesians 1:16; 5:4, 20
- Philippians 1:3; 4:6
- Colossians 1:3, 12; 2:7; 3:15-17; 4:2
- 1 Thessalonians 1:2; 2:13; 3:9; 5:18
- 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 2:13
- 1 Timothy 1:12; 2:1; 4:3
- 2 Timothy 1:3; 3:2
- Titus- The absence of thanksgiving in Titus is an outlier, not a clue to any problems Paul had with his pastoral associate in Crete.
- Philemon 4