"The Good of Giving Thanks"
Ephesians 5:4 and various passages
(Delivered Thanksgiving Sunday, November 23, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning would be a good time for us to seek God's perspective on our upcoming Thanksgiving Day celebration. And so, for that reason, I ask you to turn with me to Ephesians 5:1-7.
Thanksgiving is mentioned in this passage—not the holiday; but rather the act of giving thanks itself. It's appearance in this passage seems minor and incidental. In fact, considering all the other things mentioned in this passage, you might think that its “thanksgiving” comment is out of place. But I suggest to you that its place in this passage is actually very strategic, and that it is an important basis for putting into practice the other things this passage mentions.
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The apostle Paul was writing to his brothers and sisters about the sort of life they should live in the light of the great work of grace that God has brought about through His Son Jesus Christ. And Paul told them;
This isn't the sort of passage you would ordinarily turn to in the context of the Thanksgiving holiday. It contains strong words about such sins as fornication, and uncleanness, and lust; or filthiness and foolish talk or coarse jesting. And yet, right in the middle of this harsh passage—standing out almost like a beautiful flower that grows in the midst of a garbage-heap of sin—is this phrase “but rather giving of thanks”.
Notice that Paul doesn't just simply say, “Now, these horrible, sinful things are not fitting for saints. These things are not appropriate to someone who claims to belong to Christ. Whoever makes a practice of them will not inherit the kingdom Christ and God. Whoever is characterized by them will have the wrath of God coming down upon them. Therefore, don't do them!” He could have commanded his believing friends to stop these practices . . . and then just leave the matter at that. But he didn't. Instead, he tells his brothers and sisters in Christ to replace those sinful practices with something else. In the original language of this phrase, it contains an important adverb that is translated "rather"1—“but rather giving of thanks”.
And notice further that Paul doesn't simply say that we should replace these 'bad practices' with 'good practices' in a general way. He doesn't say, “Now; instead of these evil things, do good things instead. Instead of telling dirty jokes and engaging in nasty talk, use nice words in their place.” The apostle Paul, writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is very specific—“but rather giving of thanks”2.
And furthermore, we need to understand that the kind of thanks he is speaking of isn't simply the act of giving thanks to one another—although we certainly ought to do that as well. Rather, Paul lets us know what kind of thanksgiving he is speaking of in verse twenty—“giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .”
So; in the midst of urging his brothers and sisters to be imitators of God as dear children, and calling them to walk in love as Christ also loved them, he urges them to them to put away the sort of sins of the flesh and of the mouth that had once characterized their old lives. And in doing so, he tells them specifically to replace these sinful behaviors with—of all things—a habit of thanksgiving to God the Father, through Christ our Lord, for all things.
Now; the question is, why "thanks"? Why is 'the giving of thanks' made out to be such an important and strategic habit when it comes to living a faithful and holy walk with God? This morning, I'd like for us to consider what happens when we render 'thanksgiving' to God. And as a result, I believe we'll have a greater appreciation of why God's word makes it such a strategic and essential thing to living a holy life in Christ that we give thanks.
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I suggest that the first thing that happens to us when we give thanks to God—something so basic, in fact, that it almost seems unnecessary to say it—is that . . .
1. WE ACKNOWLEDGE HIS EXISTENCE.
Now; that seems very obvious, doesn't it? It should go without saying that, in order to thank Him, we would have to first acknowledge that He exists and that He is present.
But we really couldn't stress enough what an important thing that is. Do you remember what the writer of Hebrews says at the beginning of Hebrews 11? That's the chapter in Hebrews that teaches us about the Bible's great heroes of faith—all of those godly men and women who were willing to suffer great loss in this world in order to gain the good things that God promised to give them in eternity. The writer of Hebrews tells us that they did so “by faith”. And in verse six, he writes;
We couldn't even begin to enter into a relationship with God unless, by faith, we first acknowledge that He exists and that He rewards those who genuinely seek Him. And one of the most practical ways that we can acknowledge His existence, and can put in to action our belief that He hears us when we call out to Him, is by giving Him thanks. That makes the act of giving thanks to God an essential element in all true reverence toward Him. It's how we, in a very practical and experiential way, acknowledge that He is.
For the same reason, we could also say that a refusal to give thanks to God is at the heart of all true irreverence and irreligiousness! Do you remember what the apostle Paul said at the beginning of the book of Romans? He writes those dreadful words in the first chapter;
As this passage tells us, God has revealed Himself to mankind. Everywhere that a person can look, he or she can see God's handiwork. God has even put a testimony of His existence "in them". None of the unbelieving people Paul mentions in this passage will be able to stand before God on the day of judgment, and have any excuse for not believing in Him.
So; what's the real problem? Why does God's wrath fall upon them? Paul goes on to say;
How important the habit of thanksgiving is, then! To open our hearts up to give thanks to Him is the beginning-point of all true reverence toward Him. So; one of the good things that happens in us, when we consciously give God thanks in all things, is that we acknowledge that He exists and that He is there for us.
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Now; another good thing that giving thanks does is something that seems very much like that—but takes things just a step further. Every time we give God our thanks . . .
2. WE RECOGNIZE HIM AS THE PROVIDER OF ALL GOOD THINGS.
Whatever we have of the good things we need for life on this earth—whether it's our basic food, or our home, or our family and friends, or the possessions that enable us to live safely and comfortably, or even our very life and breath and heartbeat—it is all the gracious provision of a kind and merciful Creator. The Bible tells us, in James 1:17, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning." In Psalm 145:15-16, King David prayed and said, "The eyes of all look expectantly to You, and You give them their food in due season. You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing."
And more than that; God our Father also provides us with eternal blessings in His Son Jesus Christ. We even see this in this morning's passage. In Ephesians 5:1, Paul points out that we are to be imitators of God "as dear children". Have you ever considered the thanks we owe to Him for the fact that He has adopted us poor sinners into His own family? And have you considered the thanks we owe Him for the way He has made that adoption possible? Paul calls us, in verse 2, to walk in love, "as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma." Our adoption as God's own children is a gift of God's grace—freely given to us. But it didn't come cheaply to Him, because it cost Him the life of His own precious Son on the cross. But that was a price that He was willing to pay for us!
What a great the debt of thanks it is that we constantly owe to Him! He even causes all things work together for good to those who love Him, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). And when we thank Him, we actively recognize the things that He has done for us, and express that we are utterly dependent upon Him for them.
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So; one of the good things that happens in us when we give thanks to God is that it causes us to acknowledge that He exists. And another, very similar thing it does for us is that it helps us to recognize that this God who exists is also the sovereign Provider of all good things in our lives.
And now, a third reason for Paul's command to habitually give God our thanks is that, when we do so . . .
3. WE RECEIVE WHAT HE GIVES US AS THAT WHICH IS FOR OUR GOOD.
Now; think carefully about your own experience in life. Think of when someone does something special for you—something that they worked very hard and sacrificially to provide for you; something that they did because they loved you and knew that it truly met your need. It's not enough to simply take what is given you and then use it. You have only truly received it from them when you have thanked them for it. When you say "thank you" to that person, you essentially say—in what amounts to an act of the will—"I accept what you have done for me as for my good. I welcome your expression of love. I receive it as that which meets my need."
By contrast, have you ever worked hard to do something for someone, or to give them something that they truly needed; only to have them reject it and dismiss it by saying, "No thanks"? That really hurts; doesn't it? Think of what that says! It says far more than just, "I don't want it"; or "I don't need it". It says, "I don't acknowledge that what you did was for my good; and I don't accept the love that motivated you to do it." You may even be very merciful to that person; and still leave that act of kindness available to them in the hopes that they may yet take it up and gain the benefit of it. But until they thank you for it, they really haven't genuinely "received" it at all.
That's why it's so important that we give thanks to God. In doing so, we do much more than just acknowledge His existence or recognize His providential care for us. When we thank Him, we actually say a heartfelt "yes" to what He does for us; and actually "welcome" and "receive" it as that which is done for our ultimate good.
I see this expressed in a wonderful way in Psalm 116. In it, the psalmist celebrates the blessings of salvation and deliverance that God has given him; and in verses 12-14, he writes;
In other words, he responds to the benefits that God pours out on him by taking them up and receiving them! And how does he make that act 'official'? A little later, he goes on to say;
He truly "receives" those blessings from God in worship by offering up the sacrifice of thanksgiving for them. And the same is true for you and me. We genuinely take up the blessings God gives us, and truly "receive" them, when we give thanks to Him for them.
I believe that this is even true with respect to some of the hardest circumstances that God permits to come into our lives—those times of deep struggle, or temptation, or pain, or loss. Those times are in His sovereign hand too; and He permits them to come upon us for our good. And though we may not welcome the pain or loss we feel in them; we nevertheless "receive" what He is trying to do in us through them when we say, "Father, I trust You enough to say 'Thank You' for this trial; and I receive what You permit to come upon me as for my ultimate good and for Your ultimate glory."
As one of the greatest sufferers in history—Job—once said, "Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?" (Job 2:10). And Bible goes on to tell us that Job did not sin in saying this. And we "accept" and "receive" even adversity from the hand of God in a submissive and reverent way, when we thank Him for what He is doing in us through it.
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Let me briefly mention just one more good thing that giving thanks to God does in us. It is by thanking Him that . . .
4. WE RETURN BACK TO HIM THE LOVE HE SHOWS TO US.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; it's not enough to Him that we acknowledge that He exists. It's not enough to Him that we recognize Him as the sovereign Provider of all good things. It's not even enough to Him that we willingly receive the things He gives us—whether pleasant or trying. He truly loves us; and He truly desires our love in return. And when we thank Him; we actively return that love back to Him.
And did you know that that's the reason He has loved us and has done all these things for in Christ? It's so that we will enter into the full joy of that relationship of love by forever returning our praises and worship to Him. In 1 Peter 2:9-10, Peter writes;
When you consider all that He has done on our behalf—and that He did it all out of His eternal love for us—how would it be possible for us to return anything back to Him but our thanks? And that's what we will do in Christ forever—because it will take eternity for us to return our thanks to Him for the eternal love He has shown us.
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And so; can you see now why Paul—under the leading of the Holy Spirit—made the giving of thanks such a strategic part of our Christian life? Can you see why, instead of committing fornication, and uncleanness, and lust; or engaging in filthiness and foolish talk or coarse jesting; we're to make it our habit to give perpetual thanks to God instead? As one older saint told me the other day; "I can't be giving thanks to God, and talk with a dirty mouth at the same time." When I heard that, I thought further of how we also can't 'live' a life of genuine thanks to God, and 'live' a dirty life at the same time.
The habit of thanks to God has an 'expulsive' power against habits of sin. May God help us, then, not to let ourselves be characterized by these sinful things; "but rather giving of thanks".
1Māllon; a comparative adverb that means "more", or "to a greater extent". Here, it has the same meaning as in Ephesians 5:11; "rather"; or as in the English Standard Version, "instead".
2Eucharistia; that is, gratitude or thankfulness.
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