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Celebrating Thanksgiving as a Christian

Written by David Steltz on .



This morning we are going to take a break from our exposition of Matthew.

I was torn about this, because on one hand I’m looking forward to continuing in Matthew and was hesitant to delay our progress by a week.

But on the other hand, we just celebrated Thanksgiving a couple days ago, and holidays like that tend to present opportunities for a thematic message pertaining to the holiday, right? 

I was actually leaning towards just continuing in Matthew, until last week Conner and Valeria asked me to record a quick little video to say happy Thanksgiving to post on the Youth Instagram. So I thought about what I could say in just a few seconds, and I wanted it to have something of substance, so of course I looked up a couple Bible verses, and of course I always want to fact check myself before going on record saying something, so I ended up started doing a little research into Thanksgiving, and one thing led to another, and I started to learn some really interesting things, and contemplating thankfulness, I realized there was actually a lot I could say!

I think the video I recorded for Instagram ended up only being about a minute and a half, which is still longer than you want for Instagram so they had to split it into 2 parts! But through that process and afterwards, I started thinking “you know, I think it could actually be pretty valuable to set aside this week to think through these concepts a little more, and talk about Gratitude in the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday.”

American Thanksgiving

So, first of all, I do want to talk a little bit about this holiday, about Thanksgiving. American Thanksgiving, that is. 

It doesn’t really have as overtly Christian origins as, say, Christmas or Easter. It’s a “secular” holiday, and yet it does have roots not only in Christianity but in Judaism, and you’ll find that usually most people, whether Jews or Christians, or people from any other creed or religion are happy to celebrate Thanksgiving. I’m sure there are some who don’t for some reason or another, but I find it interesting because unlike Christmas or Hanukkah, Thanksgiving is not inherent to any one religion or another, and yet its core premise is easily accepted by those from a wide range of backgrounds.

In the United States, Thanksgiving is a federal holiday, celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November. But that hasn’t always been the case! I’m going to read for you a brief history of American Thanksgiving as a federal holiday:

Thanksgiving has been celebrated nationally on and off since 1789, with a proclamation by President George Washington after a request by Congress. President Thomas Jefferson chose not to observe the holiday, and its celebration was intermittent until President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens", calling on the American people to also, "with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience .. fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation...". Lincoln declared it for the last Thursday in November. On June 28, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Holidays Act that made Thanksgiving a yearly appointed federal holiday in Washington D.C. On January 6, 1885, an act by Congress made Thanksgiving, and other federal holidays, a paid holiday for all federal workers throughout the United States. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the date was moved to one week earlier, observed between 1939 and 1941 amid significant controversy. From 1942 onwards, Thanksgiving, by an act of Congress, signed into law by FDR, received a permanent observation date, the fourth Thursday in November, no longer at the discretion of the President.

So, it wasn’t until during WWII that Thanksgiving actually became the official, permanent date that we have now! I remember my grandmother saying she remembered when that happened!

Anyway, that’s the history of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but of course we Americans often call the “first Thanksgiving” predates the existence of the United States as a nation, because we generally refer back to the Pilgrims feasting with the Wampanoags  in 1621, right? That one is particularly famous, and brings out the whole element of peace between the colonizers and the natives, which obviously a rather isolated incident, and so that’s where most any controversy about Thanksgiving comes from. But even that wasn’t really the first Thanksgiving to be celebrated by Europeans in North America, there were many others before that celebrated among various settlers, particularly in Virginia.

Thanksgiving in the Bible

And of course the tradition of setting aside time to give thanks, and have a feast to celebrate a harvest is one that goes back MUCH MUCH farther than any European settlement of North America at all! You’ll find similar celebrations across many cultures dating back thousands of years.

In our case, you can trace American Thanksgiving to its Puritan roots, but you can then trace those roots to Christendom’s roots in Judaism, and find not only is the core premise of Thanksgiving it consistent with judeo-christian values, it even has striking similarities to Jewish feasts and festivals. In particular, it’s very similar to the holiday called Sukkot, also known by a couple other names, including simply “Harvest Festival” or, literally translated “Festival of Booths” or “Festival of Tents.” 

If you were with us a few months ago when we went through Nehemiah, you might recognize that festival for its significance it had in the story of Nehemiah.

To this day, sukkot is celebrated by Jews and it involves many unique traditions, like setting up “tabernacles” or “tents,” and various periods of feasting, and performing waving ceremonies. 

But at its core, it’s a celebration of the harvest, marking the agricultural year’s end, AND acknowledges their dependence on God by commemorating the Exodus and remembering and thanking God for saving them and providing for them. And, in that sense, sukkot is very similar in premise to Thanksgiving.

Beyond just having a designated holiday for thanksgiving, though, we see the concept of giving thanks throughout both the old and new testaments. There are a ton of references in the Bible, to the act of offering thanks or being thankful, usually to God, often connected to provision, deliverance, or God’s character, and commonly associated with meals and worship.

So, let’s look into a few of the examples and applications, both theological and practical, of thanksgiving in the Bible.

Old Testament

Blessing God?

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew bible, the act of giving thanks is closely tied with the verb “to bless.” (barakh) For example, here’s a literal translation of Deut 8:10

Deuteronomy 8:10 LEB
10 And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless Yahweh your God because of the good land that he has given to you.

Interesting, right? We generally think about how God blesses humans, but here it’s saying that humans, in this case Israel, will bless Yahweh!

How can humans bless God? When God blesses humans, it’s associated with him bestowing us with provisions, protection, prosperity, progeny, etc.

Humans can’t provide for God, because God doesn’t need anything!

Humans can’t protect God, because God is not threatened by anything! He’s the most powerful being in the universe, there’s nobody and nothing to protect Him from, and even if there was, humans surely wouldn’t be the ones to do it!

Humans can’t make God more prosperous, because God himself created all that there is and has dominion over all things.

And yet, Israel is called to bless Yahweh.  

Here’s a little more dynamic translation of that verse that still retains the word “bless:”

Deuteronomy 8:10 CSB
10 When you eat and are full, you will bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.

Some other translations will go with the word “praise” or “thanks,” but literally it’s the word “bless.” And it’s a command to Israel, essentially to reciprocate God’s blessing to them. It’s a proclamation of the future, when they enter the promised land, that they will be blessed by God, that they will eat and be full, and that in turn the people will bless Yahweh their God for the land.

But if part of the whole idea of a divine blessing is that God is offering humans something which they cannot offer themselves, how on earth can humans reciprocate God’s blessings?

Well, in a few ways! I think this is one reason God instituted the whole system of offerings and sacrifices, which you can also find in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. 

In Leviticus, we can read about the institution of a thanks offering as one part of the sacrificial system:

Leviticus 7:11–15 CSB
11 “Now this is the law of the fellowship sacrifice that someone may present to the Lord: 12 If he presents it for thanksgiving, in addition to the thanksgiving sacrifice, he is to present unleavened cakes mixed with olive oil, unleavened wafers coated with oil, and well-kneaded cakes of fine flour mixed with oil. 13 He is to present as his offering cakes of leavened bread with his thanksgiving sacrifice of fellowship. 14 From the cakes he is to present one portion of each offering as a contribution to the Lord. It will belong to the priest who splatters the blood of the fellowship offering; it is his. 15 The meat of his thanksgiving sacrifice of fellowship must be eaten on the day he offers it; he may not leave any of it until morning.

So, why would thanksgiving be associated with sacrifice? And if we no longer use this particular system of sacrifice, how does it relate to us? 

Well, the underlying principle and purpose of these offerings, at least one way of understanding them is this: that offering back to God what they had, and sacrificing some of their own property, they were acknowledging that everything they owned was first offered to them by God, and they were demonstrating their  trust in him to continue to provide for their needs regardless of what he asked them to give up.

And that principle certainly still applies to us.

So, let me make that last statement again, and rephrase it for us:

Offerings and sacrifices are an acknowledgment that everything we have was first offered to us by God, and they demonstrate our trust in him to continue to provide for our needs regardless of what he asks us to give up.

Ok, so that’s one part of it, one way we can bless God. But there’s more to it still.

Blessings from God can also be that which promotes people, and that which gives us pleasure. NOT everything which promotes or brings pleasure is necessarily from God, mind you! But sometimes God does promote people, he raises people up, and he has given us earthly gifts which bring pleasure! And those can be seen as blessings.

And while we can’t provide for God or protect God, or make him more prosperous, we CAN please God! And we CAN promote God!

We can please him by doing what he commands, which is of coursed summed up by loving Him with everything we are, and loving those around us selflessly.

We can promote him by spreading the knowledge of who he is, and upholding the value of his reputation, throughout the rest of creation.

So there you go, three ways in which humans can actually bless God:

  1. Offerings & Sacrifices
  2. Loving God & Others
  3. Representing/Promoting God

We already have and will continue to talk about those last two ideas, so I’m going to assume I don’t have to prove those to you, I just wanted to point out how these are linked together, and related to humans actually “blessing” God.

Offering Thanks & Praise

Of course, the implications of these bring up a massively wide range of topics, but remember it’s all tied back to the idea of “thanks!” We’ve been talking about the idea of “blessing,” because in Hebrew the verbs “giving blessings” and “giving thanks” are related.

And the theological implications of giving thanks go even further.

When we talk about giving “offerings” to God, sometimes that means giving of our physical possessions or money or time or energy. But another thing we can “offer” to God is our thanks! In fact, giving thanks can be considered one form of worship, which is part of showing our love for God and an act of praise, which is a promotion of God, a proclamation of who He is!

Again, in Hebrew the verb to give thanks is tied to the verb to bless, but the most common Hebrew noun used for “thanks” derives from the verb “to praise!” (yadah), and you’ll find thankfulness to be a key theme in many Psalms of praise, and several which explicitly identify the theme as such. 

Here are a couple:

Psalm 100 CSB
A psalm of thanksgiving. 
1 Let the whole earth shout triumphantly to the Lord! 
2 Serve the Lord with gladness; 
come before him with joyful songs. 
3 Acknowledge that the Lord is God. 
He made us, and we are his—
his people, the sheep of his pasture. 
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving 
and his courts with praise. 
Give thanks to him and bless his name. 
5 For the Lord is good, and his faithful love endures forever; 
his faithfulness, through all generations.

Psalm 95:1–7a CSB
1 Come, let’s shout joyfully to the Lord, 
shout triumphantly to the rock of our salvation! 
2 Let’s enter his presence with thanksgiving; 
let’s shout triumphantly to him in song. 
3 For the Lord is a great God, 
a great King above all gods. 
4 The depths of the earth are in his hand, 
and the mountain peaks are his. 
5 The sea is his; he made it. 
His hands formed the dry land. 
6 Come, let’s worship and bow down; 
et’s kneel before the Lord our Maker. 
7 For he is our God, 
and we are the people of his pasture, 
the sheep under his care. 

Thankfulness is a natural and crucial element to praise, whether in prayer or song. And we should sing songs, and pray prayers of thanksgiving regularly!

When it comes to prayers of thanksgiving, one of the most habitual traditions we have as Christians is to give “thanks” or to give a “blessing” before a meal, right? Especially a communal or family meal. And again, this goes back to the Jewish traditions of giving thanks. According to the mishnah, part of the Jewish law, the standard prayer for food begins with “Blessed are you O Lord, our God, King of the Universe...” followed by acknowledging God’s sovereignty over the specific items being blessed, whether fruit, or wine, or vegetables, or bread. It’s very specific, and to the point, I think, compared to how Christians sometimes have a tendency to wax eloquent and pray for everything under the sun while the food gets cold! Just sayin’!

But again, the premise is the same, and while it’s great for it to be a habit, I think there can easily be a tendency in either tradition for it to become a wrote, mindless habit rather than an actual, mindful opportunity to practice gratitude towards God and genuinely tell him how thankful we are for his provision, so whether it’s over Thanksgiving turkey or or a bowl of Wheaties, I say if you take the time to say thanks, make sure it’s because you mean it and not just because it’s tradition. 

Thankfulness can be, and should be a key component in our worship of God, whether it’s before enjoying a meal, or through our offerings and generosity, or in our love for him and each other, or simply in our statements and songs of praise to God. All these concepts are theologically linked together, through the concept of thankfulness! I think that’s really cool! And so far we’ve only looked at the Old Testament!

New Testament

So, what about the New Testament? First of all, we talked a lot about the Hebrew words for thanksgiving and thankfulness, so what about the Greek?

In the New Testament, “giving thanks” is actually tied to the concept of “grace” or charis. The noun “thanksgiving” eucharistia, and the verb “to give thanks” is eucharisteo. Does that word sound familiar to anyone, from another context?

The Eucharist is one common term for celebrating the “Lord’s Supper” or the “Last Supper” or “Communion.” Lord willing, we’ll actually be doing that together next week! But that term simply comes from the Greek reading of the last supper. Jesus, in good Jewish fashion, and as the head of the family, offered a prayer of thanksgiving for both the bread and the wine. In Greek, depending on the gospel, it says that Jesus “gave thanks,” eucharisteo, or “gave the blessing,” eulogeo, again going back to those concepts being closely related, even the way we use the terms relating to prayer today! To “give the blessing” before a meal. Jesus gave thanks, he “eucharisted” at the last supper, so that’s where that term comes from, really when you say celebrating “eucharist” you’re saying “celebrating thanksgiving!”

It’s clear that Jesus carried forth the Jewish tradition of giving thanks, and not just at the last supper, he gave thanks before multiplying the loaves and fishes, before resurrecting Lazarus from the dead, and several other occasions as well. It’s clear that Jesus modeled habitual prayers of thankfulness to the Father. This isn’t surprising, it’s expected! Jesus, as a Jew, would have had prayers of thanksgiving embedded throughout his life. But of course, with Jesus, he modeled a level of thankfulness that goes deeper than just a surface-level tradition!

Actually, much like we’ve seen how Jesus intensifies the expectation of the law in Matthew, we see throughout the New Testament how Christians have almost an intensified expectation for thankfulness and gratitude, because we see that thankfulness is something we should practice always, not only in reaction to worldly provisions and pleasures. For example:

1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 CSB
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray constantly, 18 give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Paul, writing to the church in Thessalonica, says not to rejoice and give thanks when you have a good harvest, or when everyone is healthy and prosperous. He says rejoice always and give thanks in everything. Now, of course we have to be careful not to take this statement too literally, because scripture also says that for everything there is a season, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, and so on, right? So, he’s not saying we have to be stoic, robotic, “happy” plastic people. No, he’s exhorting believers to find their ultimate source of joy and of thanks to be rooted in Christ, rather than in their circumstances. So that even through pain and tears you can have a deeper gratitude for how God’s sovereignty and for the eternal hope we have in Jesus.

James is getting at a similar point, and of course he puts it a little more bluntly:

James 1:2–4 CSB
2 Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

Again, he’s not saying we’ll be all smiles all the time, but that there is a joy that transcends happiness, that is not dependent on our situation, and it’s that joy we need to focus on in the midst of the most difficult times.

Here’s one more example from Paul’s writings:

Philippians 4:4–9 CSB
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things. 9 Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

The God of peace - of peace which surpasses all understanding - of peace we can turn to even in the midst of the most tumultuous storms, and give thanks to God, even as we cry out to him with our requests. Notice that in verse 7, he says “through prayer and petition WITH thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” He’s even saying we should ask God for what we need, but to do so out of a thankful heart, out of an attitude of gratitude.

Paul practiced what he preached, modeling an attitude of rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving, from what we can see in his various letters, even when he was in very uncomfortable circumstances, imprisoned, and even facing death. This doesn’t mean he was never sad, never frustrated, never grieved, or that we need to totally hide and suppress those emotions and experiences in life.

It does mean we should constantly be practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude.


True Christian thankfulness ascribes glory and honor to God, and is therefore an act of worship. Fundamentally, gratitude is the acknowledgment of God’s provision and sovereignty in any given situation. 

1 Chronicles 16:34 LEB
34 Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; 
his loyal love is everlasting.

Ultimately, no matter what we face, if we can find no other reason to give thanks for God, we can give thanks for who he is, because he is good. Our circumstances, and the world around us will change a thousand times a day, but God never changes, and his loyal love is everlasting, it never fails.