Thanksgiving in Embittered Times

This coming Thursday is Thanksgiving, that uniquely American holiday on which we take off from work and school, eat turkey and dressing, and watch parades and bowl games on television. But we need to remember that Thanksgiving should be more than a day off and a special meal and seasonal TV programs. Thanksgiving was instituted as a day which our culture sets aside to count our blessings and to give God thanks. Yet we must acknowledge that Thanksgiving as originally instituted is becoming more and more foreign to much of our culture. A radical form of ingratitude has come to characterize the culture that today dominates in certain spheres of our society. The philosophy behind this radical ingratitude is neo-Marxism, a new embodiment of the failed economic theories of Karl Marx.

The original version of Marxism tried to promote revolution through conflict between factory workers and the capitalist owners of the means of production. In the twentieth century, economic versions of Marxism were tried in numerous places and without exception proved to be economically disastrous. At the same time, the economic status of workers continued to improve in societies with a free market. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, socialism and communism were abandoned in many nations as failed economic experiments.

Sadly the ghost of Marxism has risen from the grave in the twenty-first century. The newer version of Marxism tries to promote revolution through conflict not between economic classes but between social classes referred to as the victims of oppression and the oppressors. Instead of promoting gratitude for the real blessings that people experience, neo-Marxism encourages people to view themselves as oppressed victims even when they are not. Neo-Marxism tries to convince people to view truly good things about our culture as sinister means used by the powerful to maintain power and to oppress their victims. To give some examples, free speech is opposed as a form of hateful violence, police protection for high crime neighborhoods is opposed as racial profiling, private ownership of defensive weapons is opposed as the cause of criminal violence, constitutional limits on government are opposed as barriers to radical social change, the traditional family is opposed as a barrier to new sexual liberties, and so on. In today’s world, things for which we should be grateful are labeled as means of oppression.

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of neo-Marxism is the current trend for young people to be dissatisfied with the biological sexual identity that God has encoded into every gene in their physical bodies. It is a sign of our times that instead of saying with the psalmist David, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” many young people resent the physical bodies which God has given them.

In contrast to much of our culture today, the biblically defined Christian is characterized not by an embittered ingratitude but by thanksgiving. To use the language of the hundredth Psalm, we enter into God’s gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise. Giving thanks to God is the Christian’s duty. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul exhorts us, “In everything, give thanks.” And consider Ephesians 5:3-4:

3 But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints;

4 neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.

Worldly people may be known for their dirty jokes and filthy language and coarse jesting, but the Christian should be known for giving thanks to God.

I chose Colossians 3:15-17 as our passage for today because it mentions the concept of thanksgiving three times, once in each verse. This is very obvious is verses 15 and 17. Verse 15 says, “be thankful,” and verse 17 says, “giving thanks to God the Father.” The reference to thanksgiving is not as obvious in verse 16, at least not in the New King James Version, which reads, “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” The reference to thanksgiving in verse 16 is obvious in some other translations. For example, the New American Standard and the English Standard Version both translate verse 16 as referring to singing “with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

The Greek word here is usually translated “grace.” Yet like most words, this Greek word has more than one possible meaning. The meaning of this word which we are probably most familiar with is the goodwill which motivates a giver to give a gift as an undeserved and unearned favor. This is the meaning that this word has, for example, in Ephesians 2:8, which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” This is a reference to grace as the goodwill which motivated God to give us the unmerited and undeserved gift of salvation. Yet this Greek word also has other related meanings. It can refer to the gift itself. It can also refer to the gratitude of the person who received the gift, to the gratitude motivated by the reception of the gift.

In verse 16 of our text, the Apostle Paul is here using the Greek word often translated “grace” to refer to the gratitude of someone on the receiving end of God’s undeserved favor. This is the possible meaning that makes the best sense of verse 16 and is also the meaning that is most consistent with verses 15 and 17, both of which mention thanksgiving.

I believe our passage for today gives us some insight into how we as Christians can maintain the spirit of thanksgiving in spite of the ingratitude that dominates so much of our culture. Our passage today consists of three verses, and each verse contains a command. The three commands are 1) let the peace of God rule in your hearts, 2) let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, and 3) whatever you do, do all in the name of Jesus. I believe that obedience to these commands is the soil in which the spirit of thanksgiving flourishes. Obedience to these commands is the lifestyle which is most conducive to the thankful spirit.

I want to look at these commands and through them exhort us to give thanks to the Lord our God.

Paul’s first command is, Let the peace of God rule in your hearts. Now notice at the onset that Paul is not talking about just any old inner peace. There are plenty of people who are at peace with themselves who should not be. Many people have hearts like the false prophets of old who cried out, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. The Bible describes the unregenerate heart as calloused and stony, which is a metaphorical way of saying unfeeling. Their lives are burdened with sin and with guilt and yet they feel no inner grief. They have the peace of spiritual indifference, the peace of spiritual ignorance, the peace of spiritual death. Their hearts have the peace and quiet of the graveyard.

Paul is not referring to just any old inner peace. He is referring to the peace of God. This is the peace which Jesus promised as His legacy to His people in John 14:27, where He said,

27 “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

This is a God given peace which is grounded in reality. It is not some delusional fantasy based on nothing more than wishful thinking. The objective foundation of our peace is explained in Romans chapter five. Look first at verse 1:

1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Now go down a little further and look at verse 10:

10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

Verse one says, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and then verse ten explains how this was accomplished: “when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.”

As people covered by guilt and controlled by sin, we were once the enemies of God. This implies a state of war, which is the opposite of peace. It is a terrible thing to be at war with God. That is a war which we have no chance of winning. That is a war where we are by definition on the wrong side. But if we have a faith relationship with Jesus, then that war is over for us. Jesus has reconciled us to God through His work upon the cross. To reconcile enemies means to remove the enmity that separates them, to restore peace between them. Jesus’ death on the cross reconciles us to God through a double action. The power of the cross removed the wrath that hung over us and the war that raged within us.

The wrath of God against our sins once hung over us. On the cross, Jesus endured that wrath for His people. Once we trust Jesus for our salvation, that divine wrath is no longer hanging over us like Damocles’ sword. Jesus experienced that wrath in our place through His suffering upon the cross.

The power of the cross removes not only the wrath that was hanging over us, but also the war that was raging within us. We were in bondage to sin, and sin is rebellion against God. In that sense, we were at war with God. The power of the cross freed us from that bondage. The power of the cross transformed us into a people who delight in obeying God, into a people zealous for good works.

By removing the wrath that hung over us and the war that raged within us, Jesus made us at peace with God. That is our objective state which roots our inner peace not in fantasy but in a rock solid reality.

From this objective state of peace, there arises a life experience of peace. This is peace in the sense of the Hebrew word “shalom,” which means a total well-being, the salvation of the total person. This peace is the well ordered and blessed life which is the opposite of chaos and curse. This is the peace spoken of in Romans 8:6: “… to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” From this objective state of peace, there arises a life experience of peace. And from the life experience of peace, there arises a heart condition of peace. This is an inner peace patterned after that peace which dwells in the Savior’s own heart. It is an inner rest and repose which is a foretaste of heaven. It is an inner calm which is not shaken by adversity nor disturbed by fear. It is a tranquillity which looks at the past and sees all sins forgiven, washed away at the cross of Calvary. It is a tranquillity which looks at the present and sees God working all things for the good of those who love Him. It is a tranquillity which looks at the future and sees that nothing can separate God’s people from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is the heart condition which is most consistent with and which should result from the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus.

We have defined the peace of God as an objective state which gives rise to a certain life experience and heart condition. Paul then goes on to command, Let the peace of God rule in your hearts. What does that mean?

I think it is helpful to look at the root idea behind the word translated “rule.” That word originally had reference to an umpire officiating at an athletic contest. An umpire scrutinizes the conduct of the athletes and decides if that conduct is consistent with the rules of the game. If we can personify the peace of God as an umpire, it rules in our hearts in the sense that it scrutinizes our conduct and determines if it is consistent with our being at peace with God. If we are weighed down with guilt, doubting our forgiveness in Christ, then the umpire blows the whistle and cries out, “Spiritual anxiety which contradicts the peace of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.” If we are entangled in sin, then the umpire blows the whistle and cries out, “Moral rebellion which contradicts the peace of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.” If we are not running with endurance the race that God has set before us and if we are not looking unto Jesus as our finish line and goal in life, then the umpire blows the whistle and cries out, “Apathetic aimlessness which contradicts the peace of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.”

The first command is, Let the peace of God rule in your hearts. This means that we must conduct our lives in a way that is consistent with our being at peace with God as opposed to our being at war with God through spiritual rebellion.

Let’s now go to the second command, which is, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. This verse goes very well with the previous verse. If verse 15 implies an umpire, verse 16 implies a rule book. Verse 15 is not teaching that we should be guided first and foremost by our subjective feelings with no objective guidelines. The umpire of verse 15 bases his rulings not on our feelings but on the rule book found in verse 16, and that rule book is the Word of God. Our sense of inner peace with God will be a reliable guide in life only to the degree that we are well grounded in the Word of God.

You will run into people who call themselves Christians and who are absolutely determined to do something clearly forbidden by the Word of God. They will say that they are confident that they are doing what is right because God has spoken to their hearts. And who are we to argue with what God has told them in their hearts? The answer is that their argument is not with us. Their argument is with what God has clearly said in the Bible. God never tells someone in his heart to do something which God has forbidden him to do in the Bible. God speaks to His people through His Word and His Spirit working together and never with His Word and His Spirit contradicting each other.

Paul says to let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly. This means that Christian truth is to have its enduring abode within our hearts. It is not to be a stranger to our hearts, or the occasional guest. Christian truth as found in the Word of God, the Bible, is to be a permanent resident in our lives. According to the first Psalm, the blessed man delights in the law of God, and in His law he mediates day and night.

Colossians 3:16 gives us some helpful descriptions of people in whom the word of Christ dwells richly. They are constantly giving wise counsel and instruction to one another based on their study of God’s word. And they enjoy singing thankful praise to the God of the Bible.

Let’s now go to the third command found in verse 17, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of Jesus.” We are not just to give admonition and instruction to one another in the name of Jesus. We are not just to sing songs of thankful praise in the name of Jesus. We are to do everything both in word and deed in the name of Jesus. The key to understanding this command is to understand what Paul meant by doing something in the name of Jesus. Jesus compared Himself to a master going away on a long journey and leaving his household in the care of his servants. The master has entrusted his servants with the authority they need to run the household in his absence. He has left them with instructions on how he wants the household to be run. He has left them with the resources they need to fulfill his instructions. While the master is away, these servants act in their master’s name. This means that they act with their master’s authority. This means that they act in harmony with their master’s instructions. This means that they act in dependence upon the resources which their master has entrusted to them. Jesus in His humanity has ascended to heaven, and He will stay there until the end of this age. He has left us the Great Commission as His instructions for us. He has made us His ambassadors to act with His authority. He has poured out His Holy Spirit upon us to empower us. We are acting in Jesus’ name when we act in submission to His authority, in harmony with His instructions and in dependence upon His power. I believe that is what Paul means when he says whatever we do, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus. Again, we should do all that we do both in word and deed in submission to Jesus’ authority, in harmony with Jesus’ commands and in dependence upon Jesus’ power.

In our passage for today, Paul gives us three rules: 1) let the peace of God rule in your hearts; 2) let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; 3) whatever you do, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus. Obey these three commands, and you will be a grateful people.

You will avoid the error of Israel in the wilderness. God gave them bread from heaven and water from the Rock. Instead of giving thanks, they were constantly grumbling and complaining. That generation was not allowed to enter into God’s rest.

You will instead be a people who are able to give thanks to God in every situation. I leave you with the words of the Apostle Paul:

“In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”