Dear faithful saints at Heritage,
As our struggle with the pandemic has morphed into deeper struggles within our nation and the world, it often appears that things are not just going to “go back to normal” any time soon. It often feels like things have spun out of control. Many brothers and sisters that I have reached out to recently have expressed emotions ranging from anger, to sadness, to anxiety, discouragement, discontentment and more. Obviously, these are appropriate emotions to experience during times of crisis and for many of us that is what we are going through. Whether the crisis is personal or just lamenting the broken state of things all around us – it has been and continues to be a crisis for many. I share many of these same thoughts and struggles as these things are unsettling to say the least.
Throughout all this, the Word of God has been a constant companion and encouragement. And as I look back at previous pastoral devotions written for our encouragement and instruction, many great biblical themes have been brought to our attention. To name some (all of which are related and overlap because they depend upon the character and nature of an eternal, unchanging God): The sovereignty of God in all things; Christians having an eternal perspective; Heavenly realities in Christ; The nearness of God in trials; The gentleness of Christ; Comfort and rest in God; The greatness of God; Growth in grace through trials; Meditating on God’s character and nature; and The sufficiency of God’s Word. These are all intertwined and all depend upon the last one – God’s Word is sufficient and authoritative. What an encouraging thing for us to rest our heads upon! God’s Word should be where we turn in distressing times.
Flowing from this, I want to focus on an amazingly simple, yet very profound aspect of the Christian life that is often overlooked: thankfulness. All of Scripture is saturated with this theme. All one has to do is look at the Psalms to see this. A quick search in a concordance or on Bible software brings up literally hundreds of references to variations of thankfulness with the overwhelming majority of them expressions of thankfulness to God for who He is or what He has done. Psalm 95 is but one that stands out brightly for me. It is quoted twice in Hebrews. In both places, passages from the second half of the psalm are quoted as an object lesson for New Testament believers to not be like the Old Testament Israelites who failed to be thankful and went astray, thus forfeiting entrance into the promised land. Psalm 95 was used by the Hebrews author to encourage New Covenant believers in Christ to persevere in the faith in the face of trials and difficulties. And if we look at Psalm 95 itself, it is similarly an encouragement to trust God, to be thankful. It essentially equates thankfulness with worship and then contrasts that with hardening one’s heart.
Psalm 95:1-2, “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! (2) Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!”
Verses 3 through 5 explain some of the great and magnificent things God has done. He is the covenant God, King, Creator. Then we get to verse 6.
Psalm 95:6, “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!”
Do you see how the psalmist links worship with thanksgiving? To be able to worship God, one must have a disposition of thankfulness. The second half of the psalm describes the opposite of this – hardness of one’s heart. Hard-heartedness is the opposite of worship. One who has a hard heart is not worshipping God. Hebrews fleshes out the New Covenant application for us. Hebrews is a book, or more aptly, a sermon full of contrasts. It is a book extolling the supremacy, sufficiency, and glory of Christ and what He has done for the Christian. Jesus Christ is contrasted with angels, Moses, the Levitical priestly system, and more. The writer summarizes his main point in quoting Psalm 95 the first time in chapter 3 verse 12,
Hebrews 3:12, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.”
Now, I do not write this to suggest that any of us is on the verge of falling away or has a hard heart, or to discourage anyone. My goal is to examine some ways that Scripture embeds thanksgiving into worship and then for us to try to connect that to our current situation. There are a myriad of other examples in the Old and New Testaments that show the centrality of thanksgiving in a believer’s life and how that disposition of heart affects and informs how he or she views the world and events in the world.
As I recently finished preaching through Paul’s letter to the Colossians a couple weeks ago to the youth of Heritage, I have had the opportunity to step back and kind of review. Of course, I recognized this theme of thankfulness before and during the weeks of study and teaching, but looking back on it, I realized how much this theme really permeated the letter. Thank, thanks, thankful, thanksgiving, or thankfulness occur no less than seven times in this short letter – often as describing a disposition of heart.
The first instance is in chapter 1 verse 3. Paul writes, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you…” He then goes on to say that he is thanking God because of the Colossians’ faith and all the associated things that go with it. Keep in mind too, that Paul wrote Colossians while imprisoned for his faith in Christ and for preaching the Gospel. Paul was saying that he and his companions were praying for the Colossians. His chief prayer was not one of deliverance from his trials, but one of thankfulness to the Lord for the Word of God spreading and people coming to faith. Paul’s own situation and circumstances were secondary. In fact, he can even proclaim in verse 1:24 that he rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of the Colossians! This is worship from a thankful heart!
As he continues his extended prayer for the Colossians, he prays to God that the Colossians, who were being confronted by false teaching denying the sufficiency of Christ, would give “thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Paul in this passage gives an exalted view of the value and supremacy of Christ and the believer’s glorious position as one united to Christ by faith. Do you see what he does here? He prays that the Colossians would give thanks to God for transferring them out of this dark world into the Kingdom of God, where they are “saints in light!” They have been brought into the Kingdom of God and righteousness. What a glorious blessing to give thanks for to the almighty God!
Next, we see Paul attempting to reset the Colossians hearts and minds. He wrote for them as they had “received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him…abounding in thanksgiving…” in chapter 2 verses 6 and 7. He is calling them to live their lives as those united to Christ in a way that glorifies God. The phrase, “abounding with thanksgiving”, which we may tend to read right past, is significant. Paul is saying that believers, those who have been (past tense) transferred to God’s Kingdom should be overflowing with thankfulness. This is the disposition of a Christian’s heart. This is a secret to living in a fallen world that desires to crush your spirit – thankfulness to God! Colossians was written to combat false teaching, and we may not be primarily confronted with false teaching in the church, but the application for us is clear. What are we being informed by? Sure, we should know what is going on in the world, but are we being drowned in a sea of hopelessness and despair or are we living lives of humble thanksgiving, being informed above all else by our heavenly position? It should be the second, as we have more to be thankful for than we can sometimes even realize! We are united to the eternal God, Creator, and Sustainer of the universe! Colossians 2:9-10 says this of Jesus: “For in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”
In chapter 3, Paul really expands upon the believer’s union with Christ and talks about having a heavenly focus – setting their minds on things above, not on things on the earth. He writes that this is the motivation for the new life of the believer. Christ is all and in all. We are called to put off the old self and put on the new self. This includes compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and love. We are called and equipped to be like Christ!
In chapter 3, verses 15 through 17, we see the call to thankfulness 3 times for the believers at Colossae. These references are kind of sneakily insinuated into the text, but don’t miss them. They flavor the entire passage.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (16) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (17) And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. These little references to being thankful are intertwined with the various exhortations for the believer to live a life worthy of the calling of God. Think about it: the peace of Christ and thankfulness are linked; teaching and admonishing, along with singing psalms and hymns, are linked to thankfulness; in fact, in everything we do, we are to do it with thankfulness. It seems that to Paul and the Holy Spirit, thankfulness to God is a key component in the Christian life. Thanksgiving is the fuel for a life of worship to God!
Paul closes out this encouraging letter with final instructions, including verse 4:2, where he writes that the Colossians should, “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” He then goes on to encourage them to pray for Paul and his companions and that they would proclaim the gospel clearly and boldly. Please note that Paul doesn’t pray for his circumstances nor that their circumstances would change. He prays that in both cases, they would do what they ought to do to glorify God and live lives pleasing to Him. They are called to pray that their gratitude would be the motivation for this purpose. After all, they had been born again by the Spirit of God, redeemed from a futile life, forgiven of their sins, reconciled to a holy and all powerful God, and had been brought into the family of God, among other magnificent blessings. Colossians is one short book in the canon of Scripture that points us to being thankful and its manifold blessings!
Brothers and sisters, what a marvelous time we are living in. There are problems all around us. We may even be personally afflicted by the things going on. But, let us reset our hearts and minds to focus on higher more glorious realities. Let us be thankful for the many eternal and spiritual blessings we have obtained by God’s grace. And if we have material and temporal blessings in this life, let us be thankful to God for those too. We have exceedingly much to be thankful for.
But above all, let us see ourselves during these unsettled times, as who we really are, blood-bought saints of the Lord Jesus Christ! Our true worship of God is wrapped up with thanksgiving to God! Let us be about the business of expressing our thanksgiving in all we do. And let us understand where we fit in the current social and political landscape. Certainly, we should be informed of earthly happenings. But let us be ready to speak into that reality with the ultimate solution: The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us be thankful to God, overflowing in gratitude, and rather than being fearful or discouraged, let us boldly and clearly be ready to express the more glorious and permanent solution to the problems plaguing fallen mankind – Jesus.
Are you thankful? If you are in Christ, you should be! Of anyone currently alive, Christians should be the most thankful people on the planet. This should drive us to worship, trust, and obey God even when the rest of the world may be crashing down. Jerry Bridges helpfully wrote for our encouragement, “Gratitude is a handmaiden of contentment. An ever-growing attitude of gratitude will certainly make us more content since we will be focusing more on what we do have, both spiritually and materially, than on what we do not have. But contentment is more than focusing on what we have. It is focusing on the fact that all we do have; we have by the grace of God. We do not deserve anything we have, materially or spiritually. It is all by His grace.” Amen! May God increasingly change our perspective to this. Certainly, the events of the day are troubling, but as Christians may we be more informed by God’s very words than we are by fear and sensationalism of the news or social media. I write this for my edification as well as yours, dear brothers and sisters – as I am in the midst of the struggle too. Listen to the words of William Law in discussing this (emphasis mine), “Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world? It is not he who prays the most or fasts the most, it is not he who lives the most, but it is he who is always thankful to God, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness and has a heart always ready to praise God for it.” Amen! I pray that we are growing in thankfulness, and praising God from whom all blessings flow.
In His Powerful Name,