Thanksgiving Day:

A Christian Perspective

By Dr. Ron Woodworth

 

 

 “Give thanks with a grateful heart.

Give thanks to the Holy One.

Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ His Son.”

(Worship song by Don Moen)

 

Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of his benefits

who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.”

(Psalm 103:1-5)

 

A Little History

Thanksgiving Day is an American Holiday that originally commemorated the founding of Plymouth Colony by the early English Pilgrims in 1621. The occasion was marked by feasting with guests of the Native American Wampanoag tribe who brought gifts of food as a gesture of good will.1  This is why today, Thanksgiving meals generally include a turkey, which is an indigenous American bird—accompanied by food common in early New England settlements, such as pumpkins, squashes, and cranberries.

 

In subsequent years, both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln made proclamations endorsing a Day of Thanksgiving throughout the entire nation. Listen to the devotion these leaders expressed on behalf of a grateful and grieving nation respectively…

 

George Washington

“Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor;  and whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me ‘to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for his kind care and protection of the people of this country…in general, for all the great and various favors which he has been pleased to confer upon us.” (President George Washington, October 3, 1789)

 

Then exactly 74 years later (to the day!)…

 

Abraham Lincoln

“The year [during the civil war] that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity…I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwells in the Heavens…” (President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863)

 

In the late 19th century Thanksgiving Day, with its emphasis on praise to God, family gatherings, and sharing with the poor, actually served as an introduction to American values for millions of immigrants who were entering the United States at that time. [cite]

 

Sadly, the spiritual legacy of Thanksgiving Day, which included repentance and worshipful acknowledgment of God, has all but been lost on overindulgence, football games, and Macy’s parade in preparation for Christmas shopping! Contrary to this trend, some American’s have nevertheless marked the holiday with generosity to the poor and homeless—by serving them meals or providing financially for their needs.

 

Long before the Pilgrims, or Washington, or Lincoln—and even before Macy’s(!), thanksgiving had been a prominent theme and practice of the saints in both the Old and New Testaments. Let’s look at this topic and see what we can learn about God’s will regarding the Christian’s attitude and practice of thanksgiving.

 

Thanksgiving in the Old Testament

Thanksgiving in the Hebrew Scriptures often meant to acknowledge God’s provision by expressing praise (especially for answered prayer) and/or by bringing a sacrifice in gratitude for deliverance from sickness, trouble, death, or for a blessing received2(Leviticus 7:12). Think about that. We should be continually offering sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving for God’s deliverance from our sickness, trouble, and diseases—not to mention his other bountiful positive blessings in our lives. I am convinced that most of us are so self-centered that we fail to realize how blessed we are by God. My own failure in this regard is perhaps descriptive of many.

 

Testimony: I remember when at a summer family camp in Tennessee we were given an assignment to get alone with the Lord and ask him to speak to us about something important in our lives. We were also to take a pen and paper to write down the communication we felt from the Lord. Well, having secured a lonely, and might I say a quite comfortable place as well, I felt especially close to the Lord expecting an earth shaking revelation—that would surely set the Body of Christ free for generations to comeJ So there I was…pen in hand…with an entire notebook of empty pages waiting to be filled with the wisdom of God. Finally, the word of the Lord came and I wrote my first personal prophecy…BE THOU MORE GRATEFUL. Expecting more, I anxiously lingered with heart open, ears straining, notebook ready, and pen poised in hand. But that was it…Just those four words. And what’s even worse, they were in King James English—a translation I never used!!

 

Needless to say, those four words, Be Thou More Grateful, have stayed with me for nearly 30 years now, with ever increasing depth of conviction, understanding and application. For instance, I later discovered that in the list of the signs of the last days—which I certainly thought would include words like anti-Christ, tribulation, rapture, and Armageddon—the word “ungrateful” was mentioned. Not only that, but ungrateful is mentioned right next to the word “unholy”! Selah.3  Our general lack of gratitude is definitely something about which many of us need to repent and change.

 

Thanksgiving Offerings and the Harvest

There is another quite amazing Old Testament verse from which we can discern an important principle in our corporate times of worship together. This should be especially important to all worship leaders and preachers…

 

“He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God” (Psalm 50:23)

 

Beyond the obvious personal application, there is at least a suggestion here that the sacrifice of thank offerings, which are the key component of the music portion of our church services, can actually prepare the way for the conversion of the lost. By leading the people of God into a wholehearted expression of praise the Lord is honored to such a degree that he visits us with his presence thereby revealing himself among us.

 

“You are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel.” (Psalm 22:3) 

 

Note: The praises of Israel are connected with the enthronement of God—which is his manifested government in our midst. And when God’s kingdom is made manifest people can be convicted of their need without a word being spoken. This is exactly how I was converted (at 19 years of age), by seeing 30,000 teenagers worshipping God (at Explo’ 72) with abandonment. By such a display of worship I was convinced before the message even started that there was some divine presence that I could not see, but who was drawing me toward himself.

 

The moral of the story: The more genuinely powerful the corporate sacrifice of praise—the greater the revelation of God’s presence will be sensed by all. Even the lost will be caught off guard by an awareness that God is there. When this happens the spirit of prophecy is in operation thus causing, according to Paul, the sinner to fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:25) It should be underscored that the same effect can happen in as small a group as 2 or 3 as well as in groups of tens of thousands: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). The key to God’s presence is still the same—a wholehearted expression of corporate praise, or what I call the act of divine enthronement. And when God’s kingship is exalted his kingdom comes resulting in the salvation of the lost.

 

Thanksgiving in the New Testament

In the New Testament the word “thanksgiving” literally comes from the Greek wordeucharista from which we derive the Latin and subsequent English word “Eucharist.” The Latin word “Eucharist,” most often used by the Orthodox Christian traditions (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) is synonymous with the Protestant replacement word “Communion,” which is itself a reference to the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:17-30; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). In other words, beyond the Catholic-Protestant debate, the greatest act of thanksgiving [agreed on by all traditions] that can be expressed by the believer today is in the acknowledgment of the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf.

 

This display of redeeming love is what is re-enacted in the Eucharist, Communion, or Lord’s Supper. Furthermore, the very act of receiving becomes the motivation for giving. For who can truly receive salvation from God without immediately acknowledging it in overflowing thanksgiving? In light of this truth, wouldn’t it be a very appropriate and wonderful Christian family tradition to celebrate the Lord’s Supper at the end of our Thanksgiving meal together?

 

Giving Thanks in all Circumstances

In fact, it is this realization of the gift of salvation that becomes the motivation for a life of continual thanksgiving. Indeed, the New Testament exhorts all believers to be continually thankful—regardless of the circumstances…

 

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

 

Humor: I am reminded of the believer who, when asked how he was doing, replied, “Pretty well under the circumstances.” To which the response was, “What are you doing under there?”J

 

In interpreting the verse above, someone may distinguish between giving thanks IN all circumstances as opposed to giving thanks FOR all circumstances. In other words, we don’t celebrate the bad things that happen to us and others, but rather we celebrate the fact that God is with us in all things (even those things that have been self-imposed) working out his will for our good by perfecting our character, teaching us wisdom, and delivering us from trouble as we turn to him in time of need (Psalm 27:5; Romans 8:29).

 

His divine power and continuing grace are reason enough to offer continual thanksgiving regardless of any circumstance we may face in life! Now of course it will take time and effort on our part to replace our old critical attitudes and negative speech, but as our faith grows so does the awareness of the ubiquitous4goodness of God in our lives.  

 

Thankfulness in Prayer

This attitude of gratitude should characterize the life of every believer including our time spent in prayer.

 

“Do not be anxious [don’t worry] about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

 

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2)

           

Personal story: I recently made the transition (and am still transitioning) from 28 years of fulltime local pastoring to fulltime trans-local ministry to the broader Body of Christ. In so doing, I had to spend considerable time before the Lord determining and articulating my new vision, mission, values, roles, goals, priorities, and work schedule. In the process, I have felt led by the Lord to a fresh devotion to extended daily prayer as my first priority. After all, I don’t want to be so busy that I miss the “better part” of sitting at the Lord’s feet and just spending time with Jesus (Luke 10:41-42). Such an expense of time would, to some, be a waste of productive energy (Matthew 26:8), but to me it is the privilege of ministry and the position of a servant who is intent on not serving himself, but the Lord.

 

It is instructive that the apostles cited prayer as their first, or foundational, priority even over the ministry of God’s Word (Acts 6:4). As a result, I am re-learning that I am so use to doing things for God and others that I have nearly forgotten how to spend time simply being with the Lord. And being with the Lord doesn’t require any other agenda than spending time in his presence—learning how to pray and give thanks.

 

One interesting final note in this regard is that the meaning of thanksgiving also implies an expression of appreciation for benefits received. What better list is there of the benefits of knowing the Lord than contained in Psalm 103,

 

“Praise (or bless) the Lord, O my soul; all my inner most being, praise (bless) his holy name. Praise (bless) the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all of your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103:1-5)

 

Allow me to encourage you to consider using this section of Scripture to quote in prayerful mediations, as well as in your Thanksgiving Day family celebrations also.

 

Thanksgiving Day Summary and Conclusion

In the course of this article on Thanksgiving Day we have discussed the historical origins of this uniquely American holiday. We made specific reference to the first Thanksgiving celebration between the Pilgrims and Native Americans at Plymouth colony in 1621.We also surveyed the presidential godly and humble proclamations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to the people of the United States of America. From this perspective we discerned the secular erosion of the spiritual legacy of Thanksgiving Day. We then surveyed the theme of thanksgiving in both the Old and New Testaments. In the process we have affirmed and/or recommended a number of things: [Note: The spiritual leader of the household (be it husband and/or wife) would need to take responsibility for the following. The church can also greatly assist in almost every recommendation or affirmation below—especially by establishing a special Thanksgiving Day celebration service.]

1. The appropriateness of the traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey and all–to be joyfully shared by all! (1 Timothy 4:3)

2. Our need to continually acknowledge the sovereign provision, protection, and favor of God in relation to the United States of America. We do have a spiritual legacy that Christians should embrace.

3. Thanksgiving Day is a great time to give to the poor and needy in some tangible way, either financially and/or in serving of food, donating clothing, etc.

4. Invite our family and friends to a special Thanksgiving gathering with the church to declare and celebrate our gratefulness for God’s mercy toward us in Christ. [Note: It would be great if the church would receive a special offering for the poor and needy and perhaps help arrange safe opportunities for practical service as well]

5. Share the Lord’s Supper with our family at the end of the Thanksgiving meal. [Note: The church service would also be a great place to share in the Lord’s Supper]

6. Gratefully and boldly reciting Psalm 103:1-5 as part of the Thanksgiving Day celebrations.

 

Concluding verses of Thanks

 

“I will praise God’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving

this will please the Lord…”

(Psalm 29:30-31a)

 

Give thanks to the Lord, for his is good; his love endures forever!”

(Psalm 118:1)

 

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.”

(Psalm 100:4-5)

“All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!’”

(Revelation 7:11-12)


1) “Thanksgiving Day,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2005
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

2) New International Version Footnote, p. 155, Leviticus 7:12-15, Zondervan, 2002.

3) Selah is a biblical expression in the Psalms meaning to “pause and think calmly about that”!

4) Ubiquitous means something that is constantly encountered everywhere—and at the same!