In 2 Corinthians 4, the Apostle Paul called the Christians in the Corinthian church to have “thanksgiving”. Here’s the verse:
“For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.” (2 Cor. 4:15)
So thanksgiving is a good, right, biblical idea. But what should it truly mean? It’s in the Bible…so clearly we should be thankful. But what is the context of this call to thanksgiving?
In other words, what is going on in 2 Corinthians 4 that causes Paul to write that we should be thankful?
It starts with suffering. Here are verses 7-10 of that same chapters:
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, [so] that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed – always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, [so] that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.”
Look at those words: “hard-pressed, yet not crushed”.
“They’re trying to crush us…but we aren’t crushed yet. We’re struggling here, but we’re not in despair. We’re being persecuted wherever we go, but not by God…we’re not forsaken. We’re being beaten, stoned, struck down…but not destroyed.”
That’s suffering. And it has a purpose. According to verses 10-11, when Christian’s suffer it’s as if they are experiencing the death of Jesus – the crucifixion – in their own bodies. For, unless Christians bear the cross of Jesus, they will not show the life of Jesus to the world. And what’s the life of Jesus?
And that’s exactly where Paul goes next in the text…verse 14:
“…knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you.”
Paul is telling them, “We are suffering, we are hurting, we are in distress…but we are not crushed, despairing, destroyed! When we experience these sufferings in our body, we show the whole world our faith in the resurrection! When we carry about the death of Christ in our body – through suffering – we show everyone watching that we have our hope in the resurrection! “
And it’s the resurrection that Paul is telling us to be thankful for! Verse 15:
“For all things are for your sakes…” [All of this suffering is for you…the church!] “…[so] that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.”
Here’s the flow of thought:
When people see Christians suffering, they will wonder why they suffer with hope and joyfulness and peace. And these people, watching the Christian suffering, will be amazed that they are not crushed, destroyed, and in despair. And the Christian – who is enduring suffering with the hope of the resurrection we have in Jesus – will show the world the LIFE of Jesus, when they experience the DEATH of Jesus on this earth.
So people will see this, and they will hear the Christian’s faith, and some will be saved! So God’s grace in salvation will spread throughout the world, and it will cause THANKSGIVING to abound to the glory of God!
Christian Thanksgiving is this: An unshakable thankfulness for the salvation of eternal life that God has given us.
Christian Thanksgiving can endure any hardship! It cannot be crushed, destroyed, forsaken. It cannot be stripped from our bodies like the clothes on our back. It cannot be mauled by lions in a coliseum. It cannot be torched with fire at a stake.
Christian Thanksgiving is a light of hope in the darkness! Christian Thanksgiving is the banner of faith that – come what will on this earth – we are pilgrims here on a journey to eternal life with our Father who has forgiven us, and sent his Son to show His love for us. While we were yet sinner, Jesus died for us!
And in this passage…in Paul’s call for thanksgiving, wouldn’t you know that Paul quotes the Old Testament? He quotes Psalm 116 – just one line of it. “And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, ‘I believed and therefore I spoke…’” (2 Cor. 4:13).
At first glance, that’s a strange way to quote the Old Testament, isn’t it? Why even bring up an Old Testament passage if you’re only going to recite 6 words of it? Ah, but Paul wants us to turn to Psalm 116 and discover this message of suffering and thanksgiving there, too!
And what do you find in Psalm 116? You find suffering! Here’s verses 3-4:
“The pains of death surrounded me, and the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me; I found trouble and sorrow. Then I called upon the name of the lord, ‘O LORD; I implore You, deliver my soul!”
And what happens? Faith – a prayer of faith. Faith that the Psalmist will live!
Verse 9 – “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
Verse 13 – “I will take up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.”
The psalmist believes he will live! That’s faith…faith in the salvation of God. But what kind of salvation? Is the Psalmist merely confident that God will make his earthly problems go away? Is this a man dying of cancer who is confident that he will recover? Is this a woman in poverty who is confident that she will be rich? Is this a father of a child gone astray who is confident that he will return?
No! This is not faith in the recovery of earthly peace and satisfaction. This is faith in the life of the resurrection!
When the Psalmist writes, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living…I will take up the cup of salvation…” his eyes are on the resurrection, just like the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4!
Here’s verse 15…the verse that comes shortly after the 6 words Paul quotes in 2 Corinthians 4: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints. O LORD, truly I am Your servant;”
That verse only makes sense if his faith is in the resurrection of the dead for the servants of the LORD. And that’s why Paul, when he writes about his own faith in the resurrection of the dead, quotes Psalm 116:4…and then calls us to thanksgiving!
That’s what you find in Psalm 116:17, by the way – a call to Thanksgiving! “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”
But we’re not done. Because when Jonah finds himself drowning in the sea, do you know what Psalm comes to his mind? Yep…Psalm 116.
Here’s Jonah, sinking to the depth of the sea – drowning. And in Jonah 2:7, the wayward prophet says that when he was drowning, his soul began to lose all hope.
“When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple.”
I would imagine that it’s easy to lose all hope when you’re drowning. But at that moment of faithlessness and despair, Jonah found strength. He found faith. But faith in what? That he would be somehow rescued from the sea?
No! Jonah had no idea a fish was coming to swallow him. Who in the world could have imagined that? So what was Jonah’s faith in? Listen:
“For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the floods surrounded me; All your billows and Your waves passed over me. Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’” (Jonah 2:3-4)
There it is! There’s the faith of the drowning man: “I’m going to drown here. I’m dying. But this is not the end. I will see You, God.”
Verse 6 of Jonah 2: “I went down to the moorings of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God.”
He’s not talking about the fish! My word, Jonah could not have had any clue a fish was coming! When he says, “The earth with its bars closed behind me forever,” …he means it! This was it for Jonah!
But he found faith! In what? “You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God.” That’s faith in the resurrection of the dead.
And so Jonah 2, verse 9 says, “But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will repay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.”
And there it is again. Christian Thanksgiving: An unshakable thankfulness for the salvation of eternal life that God has given us.
But we have one more stop to make in this little blog about thanksgiving – from the waters of ancient Nineveh to the shoreline of the New World, where the pilgrims landed on December 18th, 1620.
In Plymouth, Massachusetts a group of self-identifying pilgrims (this world was not their home) stepped from the Mayflower to the soil of our country. And they began to work. Winter was here, and they were not prepared for it. These men, women, and children – most of them from the same church – built and hunted and dug and sewed.
But mostly they died.
Of the 102 people, 45 of them died. I want to stress the reality of this suffering to you. Again, these were almost all families from the same church congregation who had made this journey together. The pilgrims were a church. And nearly half of them died in a matter of months. Can you even imagine the mourning?
When the fall of 1621 came around, whatever meal of thanksgiving took place…it took place at the tables of widows and widowers, childless parents, and parentless children. And these people were thankful? This church was thankful? How? Thankful for what?
Here is a modern transcription from their governor’s (William Bradford) narration of that first thanksgiving time:
“And thus, they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings & incomings, for which let his holy name have the praise for ever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had…”
Those “outgoings & incomings” are deaths and lives.
And these pilgrims, from this little church in the Netherlands, coming to the New World in hopes of establishing their church without the persecution of England or the economic despair of the Netherlands…these pilgrims bore the suffering of this world in their bodies, just like Paul.
And they were not crushed. They were not destroyed. They were not in despair.
They had hope. Hope in the resurrection. Hope that the half of them who had died were not truly dead, but had finally found their home with the Lord. And for centuries now, the world has seen the hope of this pilgrim church, whether they realize they’re celebrating it or not!
And the gospel, through these men and women, has flourished these 400 years in their New World. And “grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God” today.
So if you think of the pilgrims during your Thanksgiving celebration – and, indeed, you should – don’t think of a quaint little story about peace with the Native Americans. That is not what Christian Thanksgiving is.
Think instead of the 45 deaths. Think of Paul (2 Cor. 4) and David (Psalm 116) and Jonah (Jonah 2). And think of their hope – and the pilgrim’s hope – in the resurrection from the dead: the LIFE of Jesus.
That’s the origin of what we celebrate – a hope that we will live, eternally, with God; a hope that pilgrims will one day be home.