God's Thanksgiving Primer

Bible Book: Ephesians  5 : 20
Subject: Thanksgiving; Gratitude

Some things in life are optional. You can leave them off and still live a reasonably happy, productive life. However, some other things are indispensable. If you leave them off, you can’t possibly be what you ought to be. One of those essentials is the attitude of thankfulness. Someone has aptly described gratitude as “the aristocrat of the emotions.”

The Bible makes it clear that the attitude of being thankful is extremely high on God’s list of expectations for man. That being the case, it behooves us to understand how to give thanks properly--and our source of guidance is the inspired, infallible Word of God.

Several generations ago in America, when little children started to school they read from what was called a primer--a first book on reading. However, the word primer can also refer to an elementary book of basics on any subject. In our Scripture text for this morning God has given us what amounts to a primer on thanksgiving, even though it is only a sentence as opposed to a book. He has distilled the subject of giving thanks down to its fundamentals, to show you and me how to do it right. Let’s look at it together. It is found in Ephesians 5:20: “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I. When We Are To Give Thanks?

First, God’s primer on thanksgiving tells us WHEN WE ARE TO GIVE THANKS.

“Giving thanks always....” That means that we are to give thanks at all times, regardless of where we are or what activities we are engaged in.

My friend, Dr. Larry Lewis, retired from the presidency of our Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (now called the North American Mission Board), once told me that he prays and thanks God each morning as he takes his shower. As I recall, he said that he goes about it somewhat like this: As he uses the soap, he thanks the Lord for his cleansing power and asks the Lord to help him resist temptation through the day so as to keep his mind and heart pure. As the water streams down from the shower-head he thanks God for the free flow of his grace, which sustains believers and is sufficient for whatever comes. As he dries himself and puts the towel around his shoulders he thanks God for mercifully robing him with the righteousness of Christ.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 the apostle Paul, rejoicing over the way God was working in the lives of some of his friends, said, “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing....” Obviously, there are times when it is not reasonable to get on our knees or close our eyes, such as when we’re driving our automobile--but we can still pray as we drive along. In fact, some people find that when they’re alone in their car is, for them, one of those good times to talk to the Lord and thank him for his goodness.

Just a few years ago Orel Hirschheiser, who was a fine Christian, pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was one of the most talented men ever to play the game. He had several good years with the Dodgers, and was so outstanding one season that he was named Most Valuable Player in the World Series that year. During that series, as the TV camera was panning the Dodgers dugout, Orel could be seen down at the end of the bench, by himself, with his eyes closed and his lips moving.

One night soon after that, Orel was on the Johnny Carson show, and Johnny referred to that shot of him down at the end of the dugout with his lips moving. Johnny asked him what he was doing. Orel said, “I was singing.” Johnny said, “How about singing right now whatever it was that you were singing in that dugout?” So, before a live studio audience and before a national viewing audience of millions, Orel Hirschheiser sang, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Johnny Carson was speechless. The studio audience was silent. Then one person started clapping. Others joined in, and the entire crowd gave him a rousing ovation. Apparently Orel Hirschheiser took seriously the admonition, “Giving thanks always!” He praised and thanked God right in the middle of a nationally televised athletic event!

In John 6 we read of Jesus miraculously changing five loaves and two small fish into enough to feed several thousand people--and here’s what verse 11 says: “And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples....” Taking a cue from our Lord, meal time is one of those occasions when we should thank God.

An elderly Christian farmer came into town one day, perhaps to get some equipment repaired, or for some such purpose. At any rate, he was still in town at noon, so he went into a little restaurant and ordered. When his meal was served, he bowed his head, folded his hands, and--just as he always did at home--thanked God for his food. At a nearby table some young “city slickers” were observing him, and from the way he was dressed they concluded that he was a farmer. When he bowed his head and prayed they snickered and began making fun of him. One of them spoke up and said, “Hey, old man, does everybody down on the farm do that?” He answered, “No, the pigs don’t.”

Not only all through the day, but sometimes at night, as well, we should express our gratitude to God. The author of Psalm 119:62 declared, “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee because of thy righteous judgments.” Do you ever wake up in the “wee hours” and simply can’t go back to sleep? Instead of lying there groaning and tossing and turning, why not get up and pray and thank God for his goodness? You might be surprised at the blessing you’ll receive--or you might even try praying right there in the bed. S. M. Lockridge said, “When I have trouble sleeping, I don’t count sheep--I talk to the Shepherd!”

We should maintain a thankful spirit wherever we are--and whatever we’re doing. Indeed, if we can’t be thankful while we’re doing it, we probably ought not be doing it.

So, when are we to thank God? “Giving thanks always....” A thankful attitude will help you resist the devil. If your heart is filled with gratitude, there won’t be room for anger, lust, jealousy, or bitterness.

II. What Is The Scope Of Our Thanksgiving?

Secondly, God’s thanksgiving primer also instructs us regarding THE SCOPE OF OUR THANKSGIVING.

Not only does Ephesians 5:20 says that we should give thanks always--it goes so far as to say, “Giving thanks always for all things....” Some people find that part of the verse extremely troubling--and I’m convinced that the reason they do is that they misunderstand its meaning. They say, “I realize that sometimes things which are sad or painful or seem tragic at the time of occurrence prove, in the long run, to have been ‘blessings in disguise.’” “But,” they say, “this verse seems to go far beyond that. This verse seems to teach that even when something happens which is unquestionably wicked and God-dishonoring, and contrary to God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures, we should thank God that it happened anyway.” Well, now, if the inspired writer had meant that, it would certainly be troubling, deeply so--but I don’t believe for one split-second that that is what the inspired writer meant. Let me explain what I believe he did mean.

As we’ve noted, the KJV reads, “for all things.” Now, I love the KJV and believe that it has been signally blessed and used of God. I use it most of the time in the pulpit, and consider it one of the greatest English versions ever produced. However, this is one of those verses where an alternate translation--or better still, a look at the Greek behind the translations--can give greater clarity as to what the inspired writer was saying.

The little Greek preposition huper, which--in the KJV--is translated “for” [“for all things”] here in Ephesians 5:20, is used profusely throughout the New Testament, and can have various meanings. Someone might ask, “Well, if it can have different meanings, how can we determine how to translate it in various verses?” The answer is that--as in the case of many other Greek words--the context determines which meaning is intended. Sometimes the immediate context gives the answer, but at other times we are dependent upon the larger context--indeed, sometimes upon the context of Biblical teaching as a whole.

The word huper can mean “concerning.” An example of a verse where it is so translated is Romans 9:27, where Paul said, “Isaiah also crieth concerning Israel....” and then Paul went on to tell what Isaiah said. That is the same Greek word--not a variant, not some related word, but the exact same word, and it’s translated “concerning”--in both the KJV and the NIV. I believe that that is the intended meaning here in Ephesians 5:20. I believe that what God is saying to us is this: “Giving thanks always concerning all things....”

When evil, God-dishonoring, unbiblical things happen, he is not saying that we should be thankful that they happened; but he is saying that we are to give thanks concerning those things--in other words, in reference to those things.

Suppose someone breaks into your house and steals some precious family heirlooms, and they’re never found. God does not intend that you should say, “Thank you, Lord, that some person broke your commandment which says, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ and thank you, Lord, that that person violated the sanctity of our home.” Not at all. God is consistent. He never contradicts himself. He would not tell us not to do something--such as stealing--and then tell us to thank him that someone did that forbidden thing anyway. However, we can and should thank God concerning it, in reference to it. We can, for instance, say, “Thank you, Lord, that something worse didn’t happen. Thank you that the thief didn’t take more than he did. Thank you that he didn’t burn our house down, or harm my loved ones. Thank you, Lord, for your protection.”

Connie and I had a precious friend named Nena Harper, who is heaven now . She was my secretary when I was pastor of Oakhaven Baptist Church in the 1960s, and she was our close friend through the years. Her husband, Jim, was also my good friend, and I preached his funeral when he died of heart failure. They had two sons, one of whom was named Jimmy, and was a Memphis police officer. He was so proud to be a policeman. It was the fulfillment of his dream, and he was an outstanding officer. He was a splendid young Christian, and loved helping people. One night in the “wee hours” he was escorting a young couple up highway 51. The young wife was in the last stages of labor, so Jimmy turned on his siren and flashing lights and they were following him to the hospital. As they were heading that way, a drunk driver pulled out of a side street and rammed Jimmy’s car, killing him instantly.

Now God did not expect or intend that Jim and Nena say, “Thank you, Lord, that that man got drunk and killed our son, and left his wife without a husband and their two small children without a daddy.” How absurd such a prayer would have been. But they could, and, I believe, did pray, “Thank you, Lord that your grace is sufficient; that you’re somehow going to see us through this terrible time; that you’ve promised not to forsake us; that you’re going to give us, our daughter-in-law and our grandchildren, the strength to ‘keep on keeping on.’” They didn’t give thanks for that horrible thing that happened, but they were able to give thanks concerning it, in reference to it.

So, we are to give thanks “concerning all things.” In every situation there are at least things accompanying the situation for which we can and should give thanks, even if the situation itself contains no cause for gratitude.

We can always thank God for his wonderful promise in Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” That does not mean, of course, that all things are good. Many things are not good, in and of themselves. Nor does that verse mean that it’s just as well that everything that happened did happen. Some things should not have happened; they are plain acts of disobedience to God, and that’s never good. But God is in the salvage business, and if we--in love for Jesus Christ--give the broken pieces to him, God can and will somehow miraculously bring good even out of a bad situation--and we can always thank him for that, and should.

III. To Whom Are We To Give Thanks?

This primer on thanksgiving also tells us TO WHOM WE ARE TO GIVE THANKS.

“Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father....”

James 1:17 declares, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Every blessing, whatever its nature or whatever the means by which it reaches us, comes ultimately from God--and that includes such everyday blessings as our daily bread.

Back of the loaf is the snowy flour,

And back of the flour the mill;

And back of the mill is the wheat, and the shower,

And the sun, and the Father’s will.

Sometimes a person looks at certain successes in his life and is tempted to get puffed up with pride. But we do well to remember the question that Paul asked in 1 Corinthians 4:7 (NIV): “...What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” While you are to be commended for your wise planning, your right choices, and your hard work, don’t forget who gave you all of those capabilities. It was God who gave you the ability to plan, to decide, and to labor. It is he who gives you the very breath of life. It is he who causes your heart to beat within your chest this very moment. As the apostle Paul said, in Acts 17:28, “...in him we live, and move, and have our being....” To him, therefore, belongs the ultimate praise and all of the glory.

IV. In What Name Are We To Give Thanks?

Ephesians 5:20, God’s primer on thanksgiving, also tells us IN WHAT NAME WE ARE TO GIVE THANKS: “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The emphasis there is not on the mere repetition of that phrase. It is possible to voice those words and yet not really be praying in Jesus’ name--and it is possible to pray in Jesus’ name without necessarily repeating that specific phrase. It is a good thing to use the expression, “in Jesus’ name,” when we pray if we understand and mean what we are saying--but the inspired writer’s point goes much deeper than merely giving us a set of words to use.

In ancient times one’s name was expressive of one’s character, of one’s very person. So, to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray from a position of being in harmony, “in sync,” with Jesus. We can’t get through to God at all unless we know Jesus as Lord and Savior, but even if we are saved our prayers aren’t going to be effective if we’re not living in accord with God’s will for our lives. The author of Psalm 66:18 said, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”

So, giving thanks in Jesus’ name--that is, giving thanks from a position of living in harmony with his will--keeps the prayer channel from being clogged up.

Furthermore, as we give thanks in Jesus’ name and in the process think about him, something else happens: we are reminded afresh that Jesus is not only the one who enables us to approach God and express our thanks--he is also our main cause for giving thanks. It is he, after all, who is our greatest blessing. It is he who shed his precious blood on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, in order that we--through repentance and faith--might receive forgiveness, newness of life, and a home in heaven when we die.

Raymond McHenry, the publisher of In Other Words, tells of Dr. Claude Barlow, who was a medical missionary to Shaohsing, China, during the early part of the 20th century. During his ministry there, people began dying from a strange disease, and in spite of all his tireless efforts Dr. Barlow could find no cure for it. As he dealt with hundreds of people striken by the illness, he took careful notes of the disease’s effects at various stages. Then he prepared a vial of the disease germs, boarded a ship for America, and injected himself with the germs. By the time he reached America the disease was taking its toll. He was getting sicker and weaker by the day. He made contact with a group of top medical scientists, and placed himself in their care. As the disease continued to ravage his body, the experts performed test after test, looking for ways to stop the advance of the terrible illness, and finally they were successful. They treated Dr. Barlow and developed a vaccine. As soon as Dr. Barlow recovered, he sailed back to China, armed with an abundant supply of the vaccine, and began vaccinating those who had not yet gotten the illness, and administering life-giving treatment to those who were already in its grips. Due to his efforts multitudes of people were spared from a horrible death.

In a very limited way, that illustrates the profoundly greater sacrifice that Jesus made for you and me. Just as that caring doctor injected his own body with disease germs so that a cure could be found, the clean, compassionate, perfect Son of God took upon himself our filthy, putrid sins, in order that we might be cleansed and made whole and spared from eternal destruction. 1 Peter 2:24 says, “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.”

Of all the many blessings that we have to thank God for, Jesus himself is by far the greatest. No wonder Paul exclaimed in 2 Corinthians 9:15, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.”

If you haven’t yet repented of your sins and in faith yielded your life to Christ, I encourage you to do so without further delay. Hear his great invitation in Matthew 11:28: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”