Thanksgiving Day is quickly approaching. It is too often skipped because of the Christmas holiday shopping season. The majority of consumers therefore, see Thanksgiving as the day before shopping really begins, black Friday. In order for us to consider our own time of thanksgiving, I wonder if we could just pause for a moment or two and see how Paul uses the term for ‘thanksgiving.’ To whom and/or what are you thankful? Does God make the list as one you direct your thanksgiving?
I have chosen to consider Paul’s writings because of the number of uses of the Greek word εὐχαριστέω. Paul uses this word in almost all of his letters; especially to “express appreciation for benefits or blessings, give thanks, express thanks, render/return thanks” (BDAG, 415).
The typical structure of Paul’s letters includes an element known as the thanksgiving (Roetzel, The Letters of Paul, 72). It is this formal element, found in all of Paul’s letters except for Galatians, which ends the opening salutation and signals the basic intent of the letter. One could say that the thanksgiving section serves as a ‘mini table of contents’ for the letter.
There is no doubt that each of Paul’s letters is different, touching various issues depending on its original recipients within a given historical context. His letters are occasional, and thus intended for specific situations. Although each letter possesses a unique and different purpose, and therefore is structured to fit the context to which he is writing, Paul still maintains consistency in most of his letters by including the thanksgiving element.
So why does Paul give thanks? And how does this affect me, the reader? Paul typically gives thanks for two reasons. First, Paul’s prayers are God-oriented. He often renders thanks to God; that is, God is the object (τῷ θεῷ μου) of the thanksgiving and/or praise, gratitude (cf. Phil 1:3; Col 1:3; Phlm 4). Paul states in the text that he offers thanks to my God, which is represented by the personal pronoun μου, to demonstrate his personal relationship with God. Hansen states, “The personal pronoun communicates the transforming impact of God’s gracious salvation in Christ Jesus on his own life. God’s grace so transformed him that even in prison his gratitude to God guided his prayers, attitudes, and thoughts” (The Letter to the Philippians, PNT, p. 45).
For Paul, God is uppermost in his mind, especially for God’s work in and through Paul’s recipients of his letters. God and His grace is the source of salvation (1 Thess 1:4; 1 Tim 1:12-16). God and His power removes spiritual hindrances and directs, guides the believer’s path (1 Thess 3:11). God and His gospel empowers fellowship with one another for unity and evangelism (Phil 1:3-5). And God and His love provides hope with the promise of growth through His Spirit to glorification in Christ (2 Thess 2:13-14). Due to God’s work in the believer’s life, Paul expresses gratitude to God.
Second, Paul’s prayers are others-oriented. He renders thanks for, or for the benefit of (περί) his recipients; or for the sake of someone, some entity’s interest (ὑπέρ, BDAG, 1030). Paul not only directs his prayers to God but also for others. Over and over throughout Paul’s letters, he is consistently and persistently bearing in mind those to whom he is writing. His prayers are not self-interested; rather the interest of others takes first place. The reasons for his diligent labor of prayer on behalf of others is the recipients’ faith in God (Rom 1:8-9; 1 Thess 1:3; 2 Thess 1:3); love for others (1 Thess 1:3; 2 Thess 1:3; Phlm 4); hope of Christ’s coming (1 Cor 1:7-8; 1 Thess 1:3, 9-10) and the continued growth in their walk with Jesus Christ (Eph 1:16-19; Col 1:9-11; 1 Thess 3:11-13). Due to Paul’s pastoral and mutual care for the congregations found within his letters, he labors constantly in prayer on their behalf. His joy is found in the growth of others (Phil 1:4-5; 1 Thess 3:6-9; 2 Thess 1:4; Phlm 7) and the love that his recipients share toward for others. This is evidenced through his boasting in God’s accomplishments (2 Thess 1:4).
Paul gives you and I as the reader of his letters reasons to express our gratitude to God for His gracious work in and through us. God continues to show Himself faithful to us, regardless of the circumstances we endure. Are you thanking God for your salvation? For your eternal hope? For your unity with other believers?
He also gives us reasons to offer prayers, selflessly for/on behalf of others. Are your prayers consumed with the list of issues ‘you’ are going through? Or are your prayers also concerned with the growth, mutual care, and love for others? What will God hear from you this Thanksgiving season?