Thanksgiving in the New Testament
Giving thanks is a Biblical concept. But what does the Bible tell us about giving thanks? How should we give thanks? Why should we give thanks? To whom should we give thanks? For what reason should we give thanks? What benefit do we receive for giving thanks? What circumstances surround giving thanks?
I wondered precisely what the Bible teaches about giving thanks. It was a bit to look back at the Old Testament for a single blog article, but I looked at all the references in the New Testament. Most of them are here, and most of them are found in Paul’s writings. There are several references to people giving thanks to Jesus or Jesus giving thanks for meals. But one meal in particular was interesting: the Last Supper:
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:27-28 ESV)
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19 ESV)
The ordinances (sacraments, to non-Baptists) are the ordained practices that symbolically bridge soteriology and ecclesiology. Paul seems to agree with this as he links thanksgiving with salvation. It’s not that thanksgiving produces salvation but salvation produces thanksgiving.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57 ESV)
May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:11-12 ESV)
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. (Colossians 2:6-7 ESV)
For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 4:15 ESV)
Paul often gives thanks for people, usually because of What God is doing for them and in them, particularly with regard to the gospel:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18 ESV)
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:4-8 ESV)
But thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you. (2 Corinthians 8:16 ESV)
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 ESV)
For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thessalonians 3:9-10 ESV)
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. (2 Thessalonians 1:3 ESV)
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV)
Paul even once gives thanks publicly to a couple instead of to God, although I imagine that he also gave thanks to God for them.
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. (Romans 16:3-4 ESV)
Paul also commands Christians to give thanks typically combining the command with prayer and corporate worship:
You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (2 Corinthians 1:11 ESV)
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-21 ESV)
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. (Colossians 3:17 ESV)
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. (Colossians 4:2 ESV)
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2 ESV)
And Paul says this is the will of God:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV)
What happens when people don’t give thanks? Paul contrasts giving thanksgiving with several things:
If you know who God is and do not give thanks to Him, your thinking becomes futile:
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. (Romans 1:21 ESV)
The answer for an evil tongue is to give thanks to God. The two are not compatible:
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4 ESV)
Anxiety should be answered with prayer and thanksgiving, requesting help to assuage your anxieties from God.
do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6 ESV)
There are many instructive passages that don’t fit in these categories:
Thanksgiving to God for our salvation is part of our identification as His children. Although we sin, we can give thanks to God for His grace:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25 ESV)
The following passages seem to say that as long as we give thanks to God for something He will bless our use of it. While they certainly speak of Christian freedom, the passages in the previous section should be enough to indicate that simply giving thanks for sin does not justify sin.
The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:6 ESV)
If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? (1 Corinthians 10:30 ESV)
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4-5 ESV)
Some of the passages that make reference to thanksgiving don’t entirely fit into the categories I’ve mentioned so far. These require some special comment, for each has some special information to add to thanksgiving:
At least in some contexts, giving thanks is encouraged to be public. The reason is that giving thanks to God builds others up.
Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. (1 Corinthians 14:16-17 ESV)
This passage is interesting in that in our salvation, God has not removed us from this world but leaves us here to fulfill the Great Commission. While this is a world of pain, the task of proclaiming God is a matter for thanksgiving.
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. (2 Corinthians 2:14 ESV)
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians contains a promise that God will supply His people what they need in order to accomplish His purposes in them. First, the provision of the gift of proclaiming God will produce thanksgiving in us. Second, others will glorify God on account of us. Third, others will pray for us. Fourth, this gift results in many thanks because it is so great that it is inexpressible.
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:10-15 ESV)
While most of the thanksgiving passages are in Paul’s writings, John offers some thanksgiving in Revelation. This is one of two passages I found and contains an expression of praise that calls for thanksgiving to God.
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:12 ESV)