“What are you thankful for?” We hear that question a lot this time of year, from Christians and non-Christians alike. It seems that human beings know intuitively, at least to some extent, that the privileges and good things they enjoy in life are, to some measure, given to them and that they are to be grateful for what they have. Some thank God, or some sort of deity. Others thank their lucky stars, good fortune, karma, or some nebulous cosmic force at work in the universe. Among all sorts of people the question is asked, “What are you thankful for?” even if it is not entirely clear who it is that is being thanked. No matter; just celebrate the feeling of being thankful. And people generally seem to understand that being thankful is good for you. One doesn’t even have to be a Christian to say things like, “Count your blessings,” or “Look on the bright side” to know that gratitude in general brings some peace and consolation to the mind. Scientific research proves that gratitude is an essential part of our physical and mental health and well-being. Some studies even suggest that thankfulness and “counting your blessings” is linked to better sleep, increased desire to exercise, fewer physical complaints, and even the tendency to have healthier heart rhythms. So, the question, “What are you thankful for?” seems to be therapeutic.
And this shouldn’t surprise us, because if the Bible is true then thankfulness is really the proper posture of human beings. Humans are by their very nature creatures, and they have been given life and all good things by their Creator. We were made for Him and His good pleasure. We were not made for ourselves. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy HIM forever. Clearly, there is a very real connection between thankfulness and happiness, even if that thankfulness is totally misguided and misdirected by sin.
Here, near the end of his letter to the church at Philippi, the apostle Paul picks up on that connection. He links our thanksgiving to God with peace in our mind. Paul was certainly qualified to speak about such things. Not only was he an apostle writing with apostolic authority and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but he wrote these very words while he was suffering in a Roman prison and facing the possibility of execution. He didn’t write these things as one who knew them only in theory, but as one who knew them by experience as well.
But Paul did not write these words to the church at Philippi as mere good advice. It is important that we do not misunderstand Paul as giving us some platitudes in this text, good advice on how to stay positive and think happy thoughts in life. If Paul were alive today, he would NOT be making an appearance on Oprah promoting a book like, “Transformed by Thankfulness: How I stayed Positive in Prison.” No, he is not giving us platitudes for how to be a better you. Rather, he is proclaiming promises to those who are in Christ. He addresses this letter to the saints who are Philippi, and he is saying that for all those who are saints, that is, all those who are set apart in Christ, God has promised them that if they bring their requests to him “with thanksgiving” he will give them something far greater than a positive attitude; he will provide them with his peace which surpasses all understanding, the peace of Christ. And it will guard their hearts and minds as they travel through this life with its dangers, toils, and snares.
So, for the Christian, the question, “What are you thankful for?” is very serious business. And Paul gives us at least three things in this text and throughout this whole letter, really, for which we are to be supremely thankful and bring to God regularly in our prayers to him. Three things should stand out in our minds immediately when we hear that question: “What are you thankful for?”
I. We are Thankful to Him for Rescuing Us in Christ
In v.4, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” He says “again” because he already said this at the beginning of Chapter 3: “Rejoice in the Lord.” Now, what does is mean to “Rejoice in the Lord” but to thank God for rescuing us? Remember how the remnant of Judah had been rescued from exile in Babylon and brought home to the land of Canaan. Remember how they heard the law read in that great public worship service, and how they felt deep sorrow over their sin. They felt the sting of the Holy Spirit’s conviction and wept over their own wretchedness. But Nehemiah told them, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” The joy of the Lord is the knowledge that God had rescued them and restored them. The joy of the Lord would be their strength, their refuge.
And here, Paul gets at the same concept, but in the far greater reality of Christ and the new covenant: “Rejoice in the Lord.” In other words, be thankful that God has rescued you from sin, death, and hell. The word “rejoice” simply means “to be glad, to take delight.” From his Roman prison, Paul is telling his fellow believers in the church at Philippi, “take delight in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord.” He is not merely saying, “Be happy.” He is not saying, “Think happy thoughts,” but, “Rejoice in the Lord. Take delight in the Lord.” It is specifically in the Lord.
Only the Christian can rejoice in the Lord. Only the Christian has that privilege, right, and responsibility. Because rejoicing in the Lord means taking delight for what he has accomplished for us in his life, death, and resurrection. Rejoicing in the Lord means to be glad, to be happy for our position in Christ. It means to rejoice and give God thanks for sending His Son on our behalf, as Paul says in Chapter 2, that “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Do we thank God regularly for Christ’s Incarnation, obedient life, and death on the cross? Is that part of the thankfulness we express to him in our prayers? Do we thank him for imputing to us Christ’s righteousness? Do we thank him that we are in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law,” as Paul says in Chapter 3, “but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith”?
Is there anything greater, anything more majestic, any costlier gift for which we can thank God? Nothing compares! Nothing even comes close! The holy God whom we offended and betrayed and to whom we owed an impossible debt has reached down to us and paid our debt in full in the Person and Work of his Son! What grace! What love! What mercy!
We were his enemies and at war with him, yet he made peace with us through the cross of Christ, satisfying all the demands of his law which we could never satisfy in our own obedience. And bec we have peace WITH God through Christ, we are now given the gift of the peace OF God by the Holy Spirit. Christ not only obtained at Calvary that objective peace between us and God so that we are no longer his enemies but his beloved children, he also obtained for us that subjective peace for which we long, that peace that surpasses all understanding and guards our hearts and minds. “Peace I leave with you,” said Jesus to his disciples, “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
What greater peace is there in knowing that we are AT peace with the living God and that he accepts us despite all our sin? What greater reason is there to give God thanks this Thanksgiving and all the days of our lives than this: God’s great rescue of us in his Son? There is unspeakable joy in knowing that God has reconciled us to himself, that none of our sins can testify against us, and that God adopts us as his own children. There is unspeakable joy in knowing that God never stops pursuing us, and keeps us in the grip of his relentless grace. God says to us today: “Take delight in those things! Take delight in me!”
And this rejoicing will be your strength. In thanking him for these wonderful gifts of grace, he brings peace to our minds and hearts that is like a refuge in a storm. And this can never be taken from you, Christian. Your stuff, status, family, friends, and health – all of that can be taken from you at any given moment. But your union with Christ can never be taken from you. You have been rescued by God! You have been restored to God by God! You are not at war with him, you are at peace. Rejoice! Give him thanks!
II. We are Thankful to Him for His Promise that We Will Be With Christ Soon!
In vv.5-6 Paul says, “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything.” His point is that we will be with the Lord soon, either by his calling us home or by his return. The Lord is at hand, his return is near. You will be with him soon. When we consider this fact and give him thanks for it, what is there to be anxious about, really?
When we thank God that we belong to Christ and will soon be with him, when we remember that our citizenship is in heaven, as Paul says in Chapter 3, “and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body to be like his glorious body,” how can we not be comforted by the peace of Christ?
This is why it is so important not only to hear this good news proclaimed to us by a messenger but also to thank God for this good news regularly in our prayer. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Thank him for the promise of eternal life! Thank him for the promise of the resurrection! Thank him that your name is in the book of life! Thank him that you will be with him soon, in his presence, witnessing his indescribable glory that will fill the new heavens and new earth!
When we thank him for these things, what else can we really say but what Paul says in Chapter 1: “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain”? There is a peace that surpasses all understanding that accompanies our prayers to God when we pray with thanksgiving for all that he has given us in Christ. If we want to be delivered from anxiety, the prescription is prayer with thanksgiving. As Calvin pointed out in Book 3 of his Institutes: “Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is, and in how many ways the exercise of prayer is profitable. Surely, with good reason the Heavenly Father affirms that the only stronghold of safety is in calling upon his name…Hence comes an extraordinary peace and repose to our consciences. For having disclosed to the Lord the necessity that was pressing upon us, we even rest fully in the thought that none of our ills is hid from him who, we are convinced, has both the will and the power to take best care of us.”
If he has given us his Son and promised us eternal life, won’t he surely take care of us and give us all we need to persevere in the Christian life? Of course he will. He has promised. Loved ones, let us give God thanks today that he has rescued us in Christ and that we will be with Christ soon.
III. Thanking Him for Supplying Us with Innumerable Common Blessings
In v.8 he tells his beloved Philippians six things they should think about: whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. Paul says, “think about these things.”
Throughout this short epistle, the apostle Paul says a lot about the mind and how we as Christians are to think. In Chap 2, he tells the Philippians that they are to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” He tells them to “have this mind among yourselves which was in Christ Jesus,” that is, the mind of a humble servant. He tells them in Chapter 3 to “let those of us who are mature think in this way,” that is, to think as those who press on toward the goal of becoming like Christ. And in Chapter 4, he tells them how to have “the peace of God which…will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And now, in vv.8-9, he tells them – and the Holy Spirit tells us right now, for these are ultimately His words – about certain things which we are to “think about.” He uses a verb here that, in this context, means to give careful thought, to ponder, to let one’s mind dwell upon something, to meditate. He deliberately connects the peace of God that surpasses all understanding to our thinking about these things.
Paul knew personally the importance of mediation and peace in the mind. When he wrote these words, he was incarcerated most likely in Rome and facing death. He knew personally the attacks of the enemy upon the mind, how he tries hard to get the Christian to doubt God’s Word. And Paul knew the weakness of his own flesh, how he battled sinful thoughts in his own mind, which are always a threat to enjoying the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
And so, he tells us to practice a certain kind of meditation. Not a meditation as is popular in the world. Not a meditation of emptying the mind and deliberately turning inward in order to receive some sort of mental or physical benefit. As Paul was sitting in a Roman prison facing death, he wasn’t interested in emptying his mind or transcending thought in order to find his innermost Self. And he wasn’t interested in the Philippians doing that either. Rather, he tells them, with the authority of Christ, to do just the opposite: NOT to empty our minds, but to fill our minds with certain things, NOT to obtain some artificial mental escape, but rather to meditate upon realities, upon the One who has made peace between us and God, and who gives us his peace that guards our hearts and minds in this life.
And just think about all the things in your life, things that God has showered upon you, which are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. Sometimes when we are feeling low or overwhelmed with grief, we begin to think that just about everything in our life is bad, when reality is that it is not. [like being in the splendor of the Yosemite valley and focusing only on the number of tourists…Half Dome, El Capitan Meadows, Merced River, giant Redwoods, wildlife]
Think about all that God has given you beyond your redemption: family, friends, food, clothing, etc. Even today, most of us are looking forward to a large meal that speaks of God’s kindness and goodness. We look forward to having our bodies well-fed, perhaps over-fed. And God is to be thanked today for his goodness and kindness to us in his Creation and Providence.
And so on this Thanksgiving Day, let us respond to the great things God has done and let us commit ourselves to be people who show our gratitude to God more frequently. Let us give him praise for his marvelous deeds which has rescued us from the pit of slavery and given us a future and a hope. And let us look specifically at what the Lord has done for us, and then let us talk specifically about how great the Lord has been to us. And may we express our thanks in joyful singing, joyful service to our neighbor and our brothers and sisters, and joyful saying of thanks, blessing his holy name with all that is within us. And let pray “with thanksgiving.”
John Chrysostom [Bishop of Constantinople in the 4th C; in a sermon he preached on this passage]: “It is comforting to know that the Lord is at hand…Here is a medicine to relieve grief and every bad circumstance and every pain. What is it? To pray and to give thanks in everything. He does not wish that a prayer be merely a petition but a thanksgiving for what we have received…How can one make petitions for the future without a thankful acknowledgement of past things” Thanksgiving is like a medicine not bec “prayer works,” but bec we recognize that God is good, and that he supplies us with all we need in this life for body and for soul.
And even when it seems that we lack in some area, even when there is some thorn in our side that we desperately want removed, even then he supplies every need of ours by sustaining us with his grace which is sufficient for us. And in this way, the God of peace continues to give us his peace which surpasses all understanding.
God himself is the God of peace; peace is the atmosphere of heaven. You are in a world full of trouble and anxiety, far from the heavenly city of which you are a citizen. But God sends a garrison of peace to guard you while you are away from your homeland. Yes, both joy and peace are possible, even in a world like this. He supplies them to us.
Loved ones, we live in a world where things are uncertain, and we live lives where things are uncertain. None of us knows what will happen to any one of us tomorrow or next week or next year. But whatever may happen in life or in death; whatever may take place in any conceivable situation or circumstance, whatever may be your lot, KNOW THIS: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ will be sufficient, it will hold you, it will sustain you, it will even enable you to rejoice in tribulation, it will strengthen you, establish you, keep you, and cause you to persevere to the end. It will see you through and present you faultless, blameless, perfect in glory in the presence of God with joy!
This sermon was preached by Rev. Michael Brown at Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA on Thanksgiving Day 2010.