Learning Thanksgiving from Paul’s Letters
In the era of social media and electronic communication, very few of us actually write letters any more. Instead, we write emails and send a lot of texts. Or, we may message people through Facebook or send out a “tweet.” And if you’re in the millennial generation or younger you probably use Instagram and Snapchat daily.
Studies abound on how this new era has impacted the way we communicate. Communication platforms are designed to be efficient and immediate. So, we tend to use very few words, and what we say is usually something we feel is urgent for the moment. But this does not mean that we are achieving greater mastery of language and leading more focused lives. Analysis shows that we are simply saying much less that has any lasting importance, and that we feel a greater sense of urgency to say something that draws attention to ourselves. Stories and serious reflection also suffer in this media, because most people no longer have the patience either to compose or to read something that goes beyond the fulfillment of immediate gratification.
This current phenomenon and letter-writing in the first-century can hardly represent more opposite extremes. In the first century Roman world, writing a letter was an expensive undertaking, as materials were in short supply. The ability to compose a letter was a skill acquired by the specially trained or those having received a formal education. So to write a letter meant you had important information to convey, or a special request or command to communicate, or the letter was your only means of maintaining personal contact with those who were important to you. Consequently, much more thought went into the composition of a letter than our brief, often shallow communication today.
But when it comes to the letters of Paul, even his letters were over the top in terms of length and significance. A first-century letter of typical length was about 87 words, while the famous letters of Cicero averaged close to 300 words, and those of Seneca close to 1000 words per letter. But the average length of Paul’s letters in the NT are close to 2500 words (statistics from R. E. Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, 2004, p. 163).
So, what can Paul’s letters teach us in terms of what is important to him? If he is going to take the time to compose so many words, what does he have to say?
I find it striking that, after Paul greets the church or the individual to whom he is writing, with few exceptions, his first impulse is one of thanksgiving.
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world (Rom 1:8).
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 1:4–9).
[Following an extended doxology:] For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers (Eph 1:15–16).
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now (Phil 1:3–5).
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven (Col 1:3–5).
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 1:2–3).
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing (2 Thess 1:3).
I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well (2 Tim 1:3–5).
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints (Phile 1:4–5).
Notice what Paul is thankful for every time in these nine letters. He is thankful for the people to whom he is writing. But what is it about these people in particular that causes him to offer thanks to God? Specifically, it is for some aspect of their salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and the evidence of that salvation:
I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed (Rom 1:8) … because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 1:4) … because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints (Eph 1:15) … because of your partnership in the gospel (Phil 1:5) … because of the hope laid up for you in heaven (Col 1:5) … because of your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 1:3) … because your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing (2 Thess 1:3) … because of your sincere faith (2 Tim 1:5) … because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints (Phile 1:5).
There are a few exceptions to this tendency in Paul to begin by thanking the Lord. Paul does not have a thanksgiving section at the beginning of Titus, nor in Galatians. But we would not expect Paul to rejoice in the Galatians’ evidence of their salvation, since the very reason he is writing is to question their belief in a different gospel. Neither does Paul have a thanksgiving section in 2 Corinthians, but a major theme of that letter is Paul’s rejoicing that the Corinthians have repented and returned to following the Lord (e.g., 2 Cor 7:5–13). Furthermore, in 1 Timothy, Paul breaks into a doxology of praise for his own salvation (1 Tim 1:12–17). So the fact remains that a highly significant theme of Paul in nearly every letter is his thankfulness to God for the evidence of salvation of those to whom he is writing.
What does this mean for those of us who claim to follow the Lord by faith? First, I think in general that we should be careful not to take our communication cues from the current culture. Why should we spend so much time tweeting out and re-sharing shallow, non-eternal, drivel that makes up the better part of the constant stream of social media?
Second, we should be concerned as believers that our communication is distinctively “Christian,” that it is “Christlike.” And Paul reminds us of the most significant reason we have to be thankful. He cannot wait to talk about it almost every time he writes a letter. That we have a sure and final hope in the salvation offered through the death and resurrection of Christ, and that the Lord is saving others and growing them in their faith.
There are so many things to rejoice in this Thanksgiving! We are thankful for family and friends. We are thankful for God’s sustaining grace through times of sickness and times of want and times of various challenges. We are thankful during a very difficult election cycle that our God is sovereign over all and continues to rule the world with a wise and gracious hand. But I think our primary reason for thanks ought to mirror the apostle Paul’s. This Thanksgiving, we should take time to thank the Lord for all he has done to save us. And we should also take time to reach out to other believers whom the Lord has saved, expressing our thanks to God for brothers and sisters in Christ whom we will rejoice alongside of for eternity. That is clearly something worth tweeting about.