Thanksgiving: How the Holiday Is Celebrated in the Bible

The invitation for every one of us to speak our thanks personally to our Creator, our Savior, is a unique and precious gift we Christians especially embrace. And we are grateful for the Biblical revelation that fuels vibrant human-to-divine thanks.

Thanksgiving – or giving thanks – is a huge theme in the Bible. For the first special meal recorded in the Bible, the marvelous priest-king Melchizedek brought plenty of food and wine to Abram (later called Abraham), along with Abram's small team of warriors and the people he rescued, to express thanksgiving for their extraordinary victory of liberation. Very few words of that ancient thanksgiving meal are recorded for us – 25 words in English, a mere 14 words in the original Hebrew. Nevertheless, those few words include strong blessings both for Abram and for God, who is identified as the Most High, the living and active liberator. In response, Abram gratefully gave to Melchizedek, a priest representing the Most High God, a thanksgiving offering of 10% of the plunder from the stunning victory this same living God had enabled.

Later, after liberating the Hebrew people from more than 400 years of slavery, the Lord instituted two yearly thanksgiving holidays that simultaneously celebrate two harvests and two great events in their history: Shavuot (Feast of Pentecost) and Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles) celebrating receiving the Lord's liberating Ten Commandments and the Lord's divine provisions for the wilderness journey, respectively. These two annual thanksgiving holidays are also directly related to the two annual harvests in that part of the world – in late spring and fall. These communal thanksgivings to God were instituted by the living God himself. People were instructed to commemorate God's grace-filled interventions into their lives, and that great idea has been infectious for us ever since.

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Perhaps the longest thanksgiving feast – and also the longest worship service – was the renowned dedication of the Lord's Temple built under Hebrew King Solomon's leadership. For fourteen delightful days, tens of thousands of people celebrated thanksgiving for God's presence and provision, eating together from a huge bounty of meats barbequed on the holy altars as gifts to God and then from him to the nation. Initially, this thanksgiving feast was scheduled to extend a full seven days, but the spirit of thanksgiving was so strong that Solomon wisely doubled the duration of this mammoth model feast. Some people are led to fast in celebration of the Lord's presence and provision – and there are times when fasting is spiritually appropriate –but as did wise Solomon and the tens of thousands who joined with him, I will choose a fabulous feast of thanksgiving any day.

Thanksgiving is such a big Biblical theme that it is repeated throughout the life of the Lord Jesus himself. Did you know that even the famed bread and fish were multiplied in Jesus Christ's hands only after he had expressed thanks to the Father for them? Jesus himself later thanked the Father for the bread and for the cup that he had chosen as a symbol of his gift of himself to each of us. In addition, the extraordinary, simple way Jesus always gave thanks for food became an identifying mark by which people confirmed that he truly was alive with them.

Thanksgiving is so Biblically central that the Apostle Paul uses it as one of two most basic signs of wholesome spirituality (which I explain further in CP column "The Great Thanksgiving Test.") No other religious scripture comes close to such strong teaching about giving thanks, because no other religious scripture teaches about such grace as the Lord gives for which we are thankful, or even about his delight in our speaking person-to-person with him.

Unquestionably, thanksgiving is a BIG Biblical theme. How big? It is so big that the initial American Thanksgivings were explicitly based upon these Biblical models. The Puritans of early American history – a group of Christian people not known for their open-mindedness or graciousness – invited the Native Americans in their neighborhood, with a different spirituality, to join them in celebration of sincere thanks to God. How did they celebrate? By sharing a splendid table piled with great food, the bounty of God's grace on earth.

Thanksgiving remains so big that billions of Christians all over the world openly celebrate Eucharist (literally "Thanksgiving" in the Greek language), or Communion, on a very frequent basis – whether once a week or once a month. Jesus instituted this meal of thanks to be engaged "in remembrance" of him, and he modeled that thanks in expressing gratitude for the bread and the wine. Today, the ordinance of Eucharist includes many expressions of thanks to God. Of course, to remember Jesus is certainly also to give thanks to him for the amazing grace he continues to pour into us – through his extraordinary birth, his enduring teaching, his empowering death, and his eternal resurrection. Thank you, Lord Jesus!

And that simple Eucharist, that thanksgiving meal, is so marvelous, so meaningful, that it has a great effect on all of our other meals. We recognize that the saving grace of God makes the full enjoyment of the splendid food he provides every day all the more significant – fueling much of the joy of life. That is why we give thanks personally to the Creator before we eat, every time. I even thank God for the hotdogs I buy from street venders in Manhattan! By the way, in my Dutch ethnic tradition, we give thanks at the end of the meal, too, when we are supplied with even more "full" knowledge of the greatness of God's grace-filled groceries.

Moreover, thanksgiving is such a big Biblical theme that the commercial world does not think it has to pump it up for us to become excited about it. It is a supreme spiritual event that stands by itself – without Santa or egg hunts or fireworks, as good as those things may be. Thank you, Lord Jesus!

Whoever you are – whether or not you are guided by the Bible or even believe in Jesus-welcome to our table. Come as you are. Eat well. Savor every mouth-watering taste. Stay as long as you like. And please thank the Lord!

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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