Happy Thanksgiving, everyone — or, I guess, technically, happy Thanksgiving Eve. On this holiday built around gratitude we can learn a lot from the apostle Paul, a man who loved to celebrate God’s grace in others with heartfelt thanks. As we’ve seen several times on this podcast, Paul says learning to speak thanks is what cleans up the mouth — cleans it up from using crude and vulgar language. Thanksgiving has a powerful, cleansing effect on our lives. Paul’s life models gratitude. He mentions “thanks” about fifty times in his epistles, leading to one of my favorite quotes, a claim by New Testament scholar David Pao, who once wrote (quoting Paul Schubert), “The apostle Paul mentions the subject of thanksgiving more frequently per page than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian” (Thanksgiving, 15). Wow. A high claim, but a claim that explains a text like 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14, where Paul writes,
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, [why?] because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this text, we see four truths that motivate our thanksgiving. Here’s Pastor John, at the end of 2001, to explain.
The first one is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Paul says, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers.”
Now notice: that’s prayer — prayers in the form of thanks. He says we should do this, so it’s a duty: should implies duty. However, it’s the kind of duty that, if you experience it as burden, you haven’t experienced it yet. If you experience gratitude as a burden, you don’t know gratitude, because true gratitude is not an exertion of the will; it’s an overflow of a sense of being treated better than you deserve.
“Gratitude is the kind of duty that, if you experience it as burden, you haven’t experienced it yet.”
A kid who gets black socks for Christmas from his grandmother when he wanted a fire truck might be told by his mother, “Say thank you to your grandmother.” And he might say, “Thank you, Grandmother, for my socks.” He does not experience gratitude at that moment. The words “thank you” are a burden and a duty, and it feels like hypocrisy for one simple reason: the emotion is not there.
However, had he opened the fire truck first (maybe that’s coming next; Grandmother’s not done), he might exclaim, “Oh, yes, woo-hoo! Thank you, Grandma.” That’s not a burden. That’s not a burden. You don’t know gratitude yet if this should here lands on you like law. You need to know him. You need to come to the end of this year, and look back over this year, with all of its horror, and feel something really freeing about how good he’s been to you, way better than you deserve — and me.
Reason to Rejoice
So it’s a duty here, but look at where it comes from. Look where gratitude comes from in verse 13, when he says, “We ought always to give thanks to God.” Here is a prayer happening called thanks. But where does it come from? It comes from four reasons — which come from knowledge, which come from the word — about how God saved the Thessalonians.
- You are “beloved by the Lord” (verse 13).
- God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation, “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief” (verse 13).
- “He called you through our gospel” (verse 14).
- The aim of this call was “that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 14).
“True gratitude is not an exertion of the will; it’s an overflow of a sense of being treated better than you deserve.”
Do you see where his thanks are coming from? God loved them. God chose them. God called them. God will glorify them. That’s what he knows in his head, and it produces the emotion of, “O God, how good you’ve been to the Thessalonians.” It just bubbles up. “Look what you have done for the Thessalonian church. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” And that’s the way I feel about Bethlehem over and over again, for reason after reason. But there have got to be reasons. Why? So that God will get the glory, not the Thessalonians. God has chosen you. God has called you. God is going to glorify you. God loved you. Praise God! Thank God for you!
Spirit and Truth
And if you need to see where I got the essential structure of this sermon, look at verse 13 and notice the word Spirit and the word truth. God saves us, it says, “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” Now there you have Spirit and truth, Spirit and truth — Spirit and word brought together.
How do you get changed? How do you get changed? Everybody in this room needs to change — and ought to want to change to be more like Jesus, more like Jesus, more affections like him, more behavior like him, more attitudes like him, more change. “Oh, make 2002 change city.” How’s that going to happen? Answer: Spirit and truth. Spirit and truth. And prayer corresponds to our reliance upon the Spirit, and meditation corresponds to our faith in the truth, and so we will bring the two together.