A Real Thanksgiving

Tom Pennington • Philippians 1:3-5

  • 2003-11-16 AM
  • Sermons


Well, I'm always amazed at God's providence in how He directs our time of worship together and how, as we go through a book of the Scripture, we come at just the right point in time to just the right text. This morning, there really couldn't be a better text for us to look at, both as we anticipate Thanksgiving next week and as, at the end of the service, we anticipate the celebration of the Lord's Table.

We've begun our study of the book of Philippians and we're in chapter 1 and verse 3. I'm looking forward to many months, in fact probably a year or more, studying through this great letter of Paul's together and I know that you'll enjoy it as well and your own heart has probably already been enriched as mine has from just what we've looked at so far together.

Well next week, we'll celebrate Thanksgiving. Although to many in our culture, Thanksgiving is simply a wonderful day of feasting and family and friends with a little football thrown in, the issue of truly giving thanks is crucial to the heart of God. And because it's crucial to God, it's crucial to the apostle Paul as well. That's how he begins the first major section of his letter to the Philippians.

In most ancient letters, the element that usually came right after the greeting was a wish for the readers' health. It was the equivalent of our, "I hope this letter finds you well," or "I hope you and your family are well." But Paul begins his letter with a prayer of thanksgiving to God for His friends in Christ. Notice verse 3 begins, "I thank my God," and verse 9 begins, "I pray." So Paul's prayer to God takes two forms. In verses 3-8, it takes the form of thanksgiving and in verses 9-11, it takes the form of his requests to God. You see, for Paul, thanksgiving is often, in fact usually, first. It's the priority before he gets to his requests. And we see that true here in the book of Philippians as well.

Let me read this section of his thanksgiving, verses 3-8. We won't get to all of them this morning. We're just going to look at the first three verses, but let's read it together. You follow along as I begin at verse 3,

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

We're going to begin this morning to examine that wonderful expression of Paul's thanksgiving to God. And in his expression of thanks, we find a pattern for our own. And in this brief passage that we'll examine this morning, verses 3-5, we will uncover four principles of biblical thanksgiving. As you look forward not simply to next week, but to a daily pattern of thanksgiving, these verses will frame for you what that should look like, how that should express itself.

The first principle that we uncover in Paul's thanksgiving is this. Acknowledge God as the source. Acknowledge God as the source. Notice verse 3, "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you." You see, acknowledging God as the source of every good thing is what lies behind all true thanksgiving. The tense of the Greek verb translated "thank" says that for Paul, thanksgiving was a constant practice. Literally translated, he's saying, I am thanking my God every time I remember you. You see for Paul, thanksgiving wasn't an annual celebration, but it was a daily preoccupation.

What lies behind the giving of thanks? What does it say about Paul that when he thought of something good, in this case, the Philippians, he immediately broke into thanks? It says that Paul acknowledged God to be the source of every good thing he enjoyed. And ultimately, only believers can express that kind of a thankful heart to God. In Romans chapter 1, Paul gives the other side of the story. He explains why unbelievers can't and don't. Paul sets out in Romans chapter 1 to explain why man has fallen so low and why he now sits under the gathering wrath of God. And he gives two reasons. One of them we could anticipate. He says when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God. The other is more interesting and probably not one you and I would have included. He says God's wrath is coming against all men because when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God and secondly, neither were thankful. Neither were thankful. You see, unbelievers refuse to acknowledge God as the source of what they enjoy. Oh, that doesn't mean they don't occasionally sort of toss God a bone as it were, as if that would keep Him happy, but they don't really express the fact that God is the source of everything they enjoy.

I remember many years ago first watching the film "Shenandoah" with Jimmy Stewart. And in the film, Stewart plays a Virginia farmer during the Civil War. He's a recent widower and on her death bed, his wife made him promise that he would raise their seven children as good Christians. And he tries his best to honor her request. As the film begins, the family's seated at the dinner table and Jimmy Stewart prays this prayer, "Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn't be here and we wouldn't be eatin' it if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank You just the same for this food we're about to eat. Amen." That is a brilliant portrayal of the unregenerate human heart. You see, unbelievers do often offer some grudging expression of thanks to God, but they assign much of the credit for what they thank Him for to their own personal efforts and to their own personal intelligence.

It reminds me of the Pharisee Christ told the story of in Luke 18, who stands and prays this to himself, "God, I thank You [okay so far, I thank You] that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get." and so forth. You see, unbelievers, when they do express their thanks to God, they keep much of the credit for what they enjoy to themselves.

But the truth is you and I are indebted to God for absolutely everything we enjoy. James couldn't make it much clearer than he does in James 1:17. Turn there with me, he writes, "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow." The stress in this verse is on "good" and "perfect". The word good literally means morally pure, useful, beneficial. And the word perfect speaks of completeness. It's lacking nothing to meet the needs of the person who receives it. So in other words, James is saying this, every beneficial act of giving and every complete gift is from above – that is, it's from God. Notice how he captures his expression – "coming down." That verb speaks of constant action. It's as if we're standing at a constant stream of God's never-ending benefits coming down from God out of heaven. Once we acknowledge that everything we need, everything that's good we enjoy, comes from God, then we can't help but be grateful. It demands gratefulness.

By the way, in James chapter 1, it's interesting that this verse about God's good gifts to us occurs in the middle of a section about temptation. Why is that? Well, it's because what lies behind every sin we commit, listen carefully, what lies behind every sin we commit is our lust, as James says it. Now the word lust is a word that we've come to associate only with sexual sin, but the Greek word is much broader than that. It literally could be translated and I think better translated "craving." What lies behind every sin you and I commit is a craving for something we don't have. Every time you choose to sin, it flows from a craving that resides in your unredeemed humanness and that expresses itself in a desire for something.

Now let me ask you a question. What's the opposite of craving? What is the virtue that you should put on in place of craving? It's gratitude. It's cultivating a grateful heart. I often counsel men who are struggling with sexual temptation and part of the counsel I give them is that every time the temptation to look at or to think about another woman comes, they should immediately begin to thank God for the wife He's given them. They should immediately begin to express their gratitude for the joys of married love because gratitude is the opposite of craving and thankfulness is the opposite of lust. A truly grateful heart takes the hook out of temptation. And that's true not merely of sexual temptation, but of every temptation.

So if you want to have a real thanksgiving, start by acknowledging from your heart that without a single exception, every good thing you enjoy comes to you from God, brought to you by the hand of God. Acknowledge God as the source.

Now before we come to our next point, I have to explain that verse 4 is a very difficult verse to interpret. Let me give you a literal translation and you'll understand why. Here's what it really says as the flow of the Greek text,

I thank my God at my every remembrance of you, [verse 4] always in every prayer of mine for you all with joy the prayer making.

Now I've wrestled with that. It's very difficult to understand which phrases modify what. But as I wrestled with it, I joined several excellent commentators and the New English Standard version, which is a very good translation of the Scripture, in following the basic word order in the Greek. And so it would read like this,

I thank my God [verse 4] always in my every prayer for you all, offering prayer with joy in view of your participation in the gospel.

So in your mind, just take that phrase "offering prayer with joy" in the New American Standard and attach it to the beginning of verse 5, so

offering prayer with joy in view of [verse 5] your participation in the gospel.

So with that in mind, that brings us to our second principle of thanksgiving. Not only should we acknowledge God as the source, but secondly, we should cultivate gratitude as a habit. Cultivate gratitude as a habit. The next phrase that we come to in verse 4 in the Greek text is, "always in my every prayer," - always in my every prayer. Not only does Paul use the present tense to describe his thanks, "I am thanking," he says but he reinforces that this is his practice by adding the word always. Now always doesn't mean every moment. That's impossible. So he adds the phrase "in my prayer", "always in my prayer." He means that in his regular times of prayer as a constant pattern, he thanked God for these people. You see, it's not enough to feel thankful. True gratitude expresses itself to God in prayer. What Paul means is that expressing thanks to God is a regular pattern of life. It's a habit. Thanksgiving is always a consistent part of his prayers.

And this is true, by the way, of all godly men and women throughout church history and throughout the pages of Scripture. If we had time, I could show you how person after person throughout the flow of the Word of God is expressing thanks to God. Let me just highlight a couple for you. The obvious one is Paul. We can see this throughout his letters. In fact, the Greek word for thank in its various forms occurs forty-six times in Paul's letters. Paul had a thankful heart to God.

But you can even go to the Old Testament and see it. You can see it of David. You can see it of Daniel. For example in Daniel 6, you remember the story of how he would go onto his rooftop and he would pray three times a day. And that was what his enemies seized on to capture him. And so they passed an ordinance that that couldn't be done. And Daniel 6:10 says this, "Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house - now his roof chamber had his windows opened towards Jerusalem; and he continued kneeling on his knees [listen to this] three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously [literally, as it was his custom to do]." Three times a day, Daniel went onto his rooftop, a man who was very influential in the entire Babylonian Empire. And he goes to his roof three times a day and he gives thanks to God. And that was his custom.

All the Old Testament godly did this. You remember Psalm 100, how that as the people were to come to the house of God, as they were to come to the temple, it says, "Enter His gates with [what?] thanksgiving."

Christ, as the perfect Man, expressed thanks to God. You see it in His expression of thanks for the cup and the bread in Matthew 26. You see Him thanking God in John 6 for the miracle that He was about to perform. In John 11:41, you see Him thanking God for raising Lazarus. Christ thanked God. It was an expression of His life and of His heart.

But did you know that we will be preoccupied with thanksgiving throughout all of eternity? I want you to see this. Turn to Revelation 11:16. We're in the middle of the time of trouble that the Lord is bringing on the earth and in the middle of that, we see a scene in heaven. Revelation 11:16,

And the twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God [that is a reference, a symbol for all of the redeemed, that's all of us] fell on their faces and worshiped God [watch this], saying, "We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because You have taken Your great power and You have begun to reign."

You see, throughout eternity, we will express our praise to God and a form that praise takes is thanksgiving.

It will be our preoccupation throughout eternity and it should be our habit now as well. Why? Well, because it's commanded. Turn to Philippians 4:6. Paul says, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God." He strikes this same theme in Colossians 2:7. Verse 6, he says,

As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and [you're to do all of that how?] overflowing with gratitude.

Chapter 3, verse 15, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful." Colossians 3:17, "Whatever you do in word or deed [that pretty much is everything], do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, [how?] giving thanks through Him to God the Father."

Probably the most familiar reference to this is at the end of the book of 1 Thessalonians 5. There's a triad of commands Paul gives to the Thessalonians. He says in verse 16-18,

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

You know, so many Christians spend their lives looking for God's will. Here it is. This is God's will. In everything, give thanks for this is God's will.

You see it in one of my favorite passages, Hebrews 13:15. As the writer of Hebrews has brought everything to bear, to focus, on Jesus Christ, he says this in 13:15, "Through Him then [that is, through Christ], let us continually offer up [what?] a sacrifice [not like the Old Testament sacrifices – those are done. He's explained that. But we're to offer up a sacrifice] of praise to God [what do you mean by that?], that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name." This is to be the preoccupation of our lives.

Did you notice in several of those verses that we're to give thanks in everything that comes to us in life; the good, the bad and the ugly? How can you do that? You see, to thank God for what doesn't seem good to us and to thank God for what we don't understand comes from one basic heart attitude and that is the heart attitude of trust. We have complete confidence in our God, confidence that God is in control and that whatever comes is from Him and secondly that He's good and that whatever He brings is for our good and for our benefit. If you have confidence in God's sovereignty and in God's goodness, then you can trust Him and therefore you can give thanks in whatever comes whether you understand it or not because you know He does and you know it's for your good.

Remember when Paul writes these words and he says he just overflows with thanksgiving, "I thank my God in remembrance of you all", remember where he is. He's not in the Hyatt. He's in prison chained to a Roman soldier. And yet, his heart is overflowing with thanksgiving. You see, you can measure your spiritual maturity in this: by how much time you devote in your prayers to thanksgiving.

Why is thanksgiving so important? Because when we express our thanks, God is glorified. There's a very interesting verse in 2 Corinthians 4:15, Paul writes, "For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God." So he says grace is going to cause thanksgiving to abound more and more. And then he says this. As a result of that thanksgiving, God will receive the glory. That's what thanksgiving does. It gives God the glory for everything, for everything that we enjoy. Make thanksgiving a consistent practice of life or cultivate gratitude as a habit.

That brings us to our third principle of thanksgiving found in these short verses. The third principle is to establish people as the object. Establish people as the object. Notice the expression "for you all." I thank God for you all. You see, Paul rarely thanks God for things. It isn't that he isn't grateful for things. It's that he sees people as a much greater benediction to his life and therefore, that's what he thanks God for. Gordon Fee, in his excellent commentary on Philippians, says this, "Paul's thanksgivings are for people, for those special gifts whom God has brought into His life, who, despite whatever frustration or grief they may cause him, are invariably a source of great joy and thanksgiving. Here, I would offer [he says] is the beginning point for understanding the nature of Pauline spirituality." Do you want to understand the nature of Paul's spirituality? See that he focuses his gratitude to God on people and how those people have been a blessing to him and how God is at work in them. You see, Paul is telling the Philippians that whenever he prays, he remembers them. And when he remembers them, he thanks God for all of them without exception.

As you go through this letter, as we will go through it together, you'll discover that Paul uses the word 'all' a lot. That's because there was, remember, division beginning to grow in the church there in Philippi and he's subtly rebuking those who are causing the divisions. He's saying, listen, I don't thank God for just a group of you. I thank God for all of you. I thank God for both of you ladies in chapter 4 who are at odds with each other. I thank God for everyone who's a part of this congregation. He's reassuring those who thought that they or their opponents, one or the other, were outside of his favor. He says it isn't true. I love you all and I thank God for you all with no exceptions.

It's an interesting passage in 1 Timothy 2:1. Paul says, I demand or I urge that thanks be offered to God for all men. You're to thank God for all of those people that God brings into your life. But Paul is especially grateful for the believers that God brings into his life. In eight of his twelve New Testament letters, he thanks God for the fellow believers that God has brought to him. And now, it's not because all those people were perfect and wonderful. Paul even thanks God for the Corinthians and you know what a pain they were to him. It's because he understood that these people were a benediction to him. Even though they caused him grief, he chose to focus on the grace that God was doing in their lives, was working in their lives, and not on the problems and the sins that they still struggled with.

Do you choose to focus on the problems in the lives of the people God has brought around you? Or do you choose instead to focus on the grace God has shown them? Listen, folks, there's only one thing that's around you every day that's eternal and that's people. Do you want to invest in eternity? Invest yourself in the lives of people. Have you stopped recently to thank God for the people He's brought into your life – for your spouse, for your children, for your parents, for your extended family, for your friends, for the members of this church? Do you value people? Do you thank God for them?

Let me urge you to do something else also. Not only should you thank God for them, but let them know how much you appreciate them. As I mentioned to you before, when I was in seminary, I worked in a funeral home. It made a great impression on me at that time how many kind things were said about the person who had died that was probably never said to them. I decided at that time that I would give my eulogies and flowers while people were still alive to enjoy them and I encourage you to do the same. That's what Paul does. Paul was grateful for these people God had brought around him. He thanks God for them and he tells them that he's thankful for them.

So we've seen three great principles of thanksgiving. One – acknowledge God as the source, two – cultivate gratitude as a habit, and three – establish people as the object. That brings us to the final principle of thanksgiving uncovered in this passage. Keep the gospel as the priority. Keep the gospel as the priority. Notice verse 5. Remember we'll take that phrase from verse 4, "offering prayer with joy," and attach it to verse 5,

offering prayer with joy, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.

Paul says he offers his prayer of thanks for them with joy. They fill his heart with delight. Why? What was the cause of his gratitude for them? "In view of," he begins verse 5 - it translates a Greek preposition that points to the reason. He's going to give us the reason for his thanksgiving, the basis for his thanksgiving. This is what he's been building toward. He says I thank God in view of or because of your participation, or literally, fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now.

The word translated "fellowship" is a very familiar Greek word. Even if you don't know Greek, you're familiar with this word. You've heard it. It's the word "koinonia." It's usually translated "fellowship." You know, when a group of Christians gets together to eat usually, be it donuts or something else, they have an activity or even watch a ball game together, we say they're enjoying (what?) fellowship. And that's okay to use the word that way. We'll continue to use it that way, but that's not the way the word was originally used and that's not what it originally meant. In fact, originally, the English word and the Greek word meant something quite different. It referred to people when you spoke of someone being in a fellowship, it referred to people who shared something, who participated in something, who were partners in something – something that was greater than any one of them and that would outlast them, a cause. They were in the fellowship of that cause.

There's still one use of the English word that comes close to the original meaning of the word koinonia. James Montgomery Boyce points this out in his excellent commentary. He reminds us that in England, universities are different than their American counterparts. In England, a university is composed of a number of separate colleges and each of those colleges has the responsibility for setting its own admissions policy, its own structure for running itself. Each college bears the weight of responsibility for itself. The professors in each college are responsible to conduct the affairs of that particular college and they are called "fellows" because they share in the fellowship of the college. You can wander around the campuses there and you can often see professors huddled in twos and threes discussing Shakespeare or perhaps that day's sporting events. Those huddles are what we usually call fellowship, but that's not why they're called fellows. It's not the huddles. They're called fellows because there are times when they come together to conduct the business of the college. Their fellowship consists of their common interests in the college and the share they have in it. They are partners. In fact, the English Standard Version translates this word koinonia partnership. It's the way J.R. Tolkien used the word when he wrote his book The Fellowship of the Ring.

That's how the biblical word is used. The Philippians, when you look at them, they didn't have a lot in common. I mean, look at the founding members of the church. You had a Greek businesswoman, a former demon-possessed slave girl who made her business by fortune telling and a jailer - probably made for some pretty awkward moments at the church Christmas social. By the world's standards, these people had nothing in common, but they had one great thing in common. They were fellows in the gospel. They had a fellowship, a partnership, in the gospel. They were united, but not at a social level. They were united by their commitment to the gospel.

This is true here in Countryside. Some of us share common interests and backgrounds, but frankly, many of us don't. What binds us together is not the common interests we have. It's the fellowship of the gospel. It's the partnership we have in the gospel.

Notice Paul reminds in verse 5, he reminds the Philippians that they had participated or they'd been partners in the gospel from the first day, that is, the day they came to Christ, until the day he penned this letter. That's a period of about ten years they had been his partners in the gospel, they'd been in the fellowship of the gospel.

How did these people participate? How were they partners with Paul in the gospel? And how are we to be partners with each other? What is our fellowship in the gospel to look like? Well, when you look at the Philippians, this partnership expressed itself in four ways. First of all, they were partners in the gospel, they were in the fellowship of the gospel because they believed the gospel. You see, you can't be part of the fellowship of the gospel until you repent of your sins and you embrace the good news of forgiveness found in Jesus Christ.

A second way they expressed their partnership or their fellowship in the gospel was they shared the gospel with others. You see this in chapter 1, verse 27. Paul says they are, at the end of the verse, they are "striving together for the faith of the gospel." They're preaching the gospel. And notice what happened as a result of it; verse 28 - they have opponents. There are people who heard the gospel and who are offended by it. What do you mean, I'm a sinner? What do you mean, I need to repent? So their fellowship in the gospel meant that they believed the gospel, that they shared the gospel with others.

Thirdly, they participated in the gospel by financially supporting Paul as a missionary. You see that in chapter 4, verse 10 and following. We'll get there eventually, where Paul is thanking them for their participation in the gospel that way – by their giving.

And the fourth way the Philippians were in the fellowship of the gospel – not only did they believe it, not only did they share it with others, not only did they support Paul as a missionary, but they prayed for Paul as a missionary. Notice chapter 1, verse 19, "For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance [watch this] through your prayers." You pray for me in the ministry of the gospel, Paul says. You pray for me as a missionary.

If you're a Christian – listen to this. If you're a Christian, you are part of the fellowship of the gospel. Start pulling your weight. How do you do that? Obviously, you believe the gospel. You share the gospel. You proclaim the gospel to others. You support this church and its ministries and its missionaries as the gospel is spread. And you pray for those who minister the gospel. You're part of the fellowship. Start acting like it. Start filling your role in the fellowship.

Do you want a real Thanksgiving? Then acknowledge God as the source of every good thing. Cultivate gratitude as a habit. Establish people as the object of your thanksgiving and keep the gospel as your priority for everything, as the priority of your life. Then you'll enjoy a genuine, a real Thanksgiving.