Celebrating Thanksgiving with the Apostle Paul


As I was thinking about Thanksgiving this year, I wondered what it would have been like to celebrate Thanksgiving with the Apostle Paul. Many families have a tradition of people sharing what they are thankful for at the Thanksgiving meal. What would Paul say he was thankful for? While in one sense that is a completely hypothetical question, there is another sense in which I think we have an answer — one that can help us think differently about how we approach the subject of Thanksgiving this year. 

Thankful for People, Not Things
A common element in Paul’s letters in the New Testament is a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipients of the letter. This reflects the format of a typical letter of that time, but I still think it can cause us to think differently about what we should give thanks for. We often give thanks for certain things – the provisions we’ve received in the past year. We also give thanks for various circumstances in our life that have worked out in our favor – some of which we immediately recognized as blessings and others that we may have only discovered to be gifts after looking at it with a new perspective.

When Paul gives thanks in his letters, it is less about things and more about people. What if we followed his lead and gave thanks for the people in our lives more often? When we think of people we are thankful for, we likely think of our family and close friends. Should we give thanks for the people in our church community? Yes, these people are imperfect and may even annoy you at times, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give thanks for them. In 1 Corinthians 1:4-9, Paul gave thanks for the Corinthians in spite of the fact that their church had a number of messy situations. Paul expresses thanksgiving for the church in Philippi (Philippians 1:3-11) even though Euodia and Syntche were having some conflict that likely was affecting the church (Philippians 4:2). Not only do we see Paul giving thanks for those in churches that he spent some time (Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Thessalonica), but we also see him give thanks for the Christians in Rome and Colossae – places he had never even visited (Romans 1:8; Colossians 1:3-8). Do we give thanks for fellow believers in other churches and in other places? Are we thankful that we are connected to people whom we will never meet on this side of eternity but with whom we actually have so much in common?  

Thankful by Praying For Them
Paul not only shows us who/what to give thanks for, he shows us how to give thanks. He doesn’t give thanks just by saying he is thankful or even writing a thank you note (in some ways, these letters are notes of thanksgiving for them!), but his thankful heart leads him to offer prayers of thanksgiving. These prayers are not only for the things that we commonly pray for people – that they would be healthy and things would work out in their favor and to their advantage; Paul gives thanks for the people and then prays they would know God more and more as shown in these passages:

  • That they “may be filled with the knowledge of his will….to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:9-10);
  • That they may “abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ (Philippians 1:9-10);
  • That God would give to them “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in knowledge of him, having the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened, that [they] may know what is the hope to which [God] has called” them (Ephesians 1:17-18). 

We also see Paul praying that he will have the opportunity to meet Christians he has never met so that they can encourage each other (Romans 1:9-11). A spirit of thankfulness does not stop when we say “thank you for ______,” but continues in desiring what is best for them. We often give tokens or gifts to show our gratitude, but the ultimate gift we can give people is to pray for them that they may know the greatest treasure there is — the God of the gospel!

Let’s Be Thankful Like Paul!
We see many admonitions from the Apostle Paul to be thankful (e.g., Philippians 4:6; Colossians 3:15-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:18). Being thankful is not an option for us as believers in Jesus Christ – we are commanded to do so. We need to not only give thanks for people, but should gift them with prayers for their growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. While the Apostle Paul won’t be at your Thanksgiving table, may his example be reflected by us as we gather around our tables to give thanks.

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