The Biblical Basis for Thanksgiving

By Keith Thomas,  November 21, 2017

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Have you noticed that the Thanksgiving holiday is rapidly becoming the "fly-over" holiday?   Each year, retail establishments begin to put up Christmas decorations, themes, and displays shortly after Halloween.  In time past, most stores would wait until December 1, but then it crept to "Black-Friday" and the opening hour kept moving.  Now in the zeal to make profits, retail stores are opening on Thanksgiving day.  In fact, the hour when stores are opening is creeping earlier and earlier and makes it nearly impossible for families to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving day.  Amazingly, people cut off the idea of giving thanks because of their insatiable desire for material goods, this is also known as coveting.  On the other side of the coin, retail establishments are zealous to make a profit, this is known as greed.  We now worship at the altar of capitalism and personal excess.  Capitalism has many merits, however, it can become a sinful practice, if taken to extremes.

Historically, Thanksgiving was a day that was set aside for the sole purpose of thanking God for his provision.  It was a day when one was supposed to reflect and examine one's life to specifically identify the blessings that we have been provided.  Ironically, it is rapidly becoming a day that is focused on the sins of coveting and greed.  The exact opposite of counting your blessings and praising God for his provision.  The Old Testament records various instructions for the nation of Israel to habitually practice.  In the midst of the Feasts, the Sacrifices, and the Psalms, Thanksgiving is a constant theme.  These are the Biblical roots for the practice of Thanksgiving. 

Lessons on Thanksgiving from the Feasts of Israel

Early on in the history of the nation of Israel, the concept of giving thanks was instituted by God.  Israel had an entire calendar that needed to be followed and obeyed.   These were known as the "Feasts" of Israel and they were highly regulated with exacting detail as to when each feast was to be celebrated, why the feast was necessary, what was to be done, and how it was to be done.  They were also given specific instructions on where the feasts were to be celebrated, and finally, who was to perform certain rituals, tasks, and actions.  Great detail was given for each feast and exacting adherence was mandatory.  Each of the seven feasts had a specific focus and purpose.  Further, each feast was a pointer to Jesus Christ who was the ultimate fulfillment of each celebration.  Tragically, these feasts have eventually become mechanisms of legalism and entrapments of performance, as opposed to genuine worship.  Ironically, we even see in the New Testament where Jesus cleansed the temple because the events surrounding the sacrificial system had become a money-making scheme. 

Leviticus 23 documents the seven feasts of the Lord in order.  These were God's feasts and there was specific instruction on how they were to be celebrated.  They were instructed on not only when the feasts were to take place, but very specific in what each was to accomplish.  Each feast related to their agricultural harvests and God's provision.   These were regularly appointed times when Israel as a nation would celebrate God's provision during various harvests. They were also times when men would lead their families to focus on their sin, and their need for atonement to be in right standing with God. Thus they were celebrations of God's provision - not only physically but spiritually - thus the need for reflection and man's response - Thanksgiving.

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Spring Feasts (4 in total)

  • Passover - A picture of redemption from slavery & bondage
  • Unleavened Bread - A picture of the removal of sin & cleansing
  • First Fruits Offering - A picture of new life  
  • Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) - A picture of being alive to God

Fall Feasts (3 in total)

  • Feast of Trumpets -  A picture of being gathered - be ready and prepared
  • Day of Atonement - A picture of getting right with God as a nation
  • Feast of Tabernacles - A picture of God's eternal protection & rule

Three of the feasts were considered to be pilgrimage festivals and their celebrations are documented in Deuteronomy 16: 1-17.  These were known celebrations that focused on thanking God and giving Him praise. 

  • Passover celebrated the departure from Egypt and was then promptly followed by the Feast of Unleavened Bread which celebrated the barley harvest. 16:1-8
  • Feast of Weeks also known as Feast of the Harvest celebrated the wheat harvest in the spring. This was later called "Pentecost." 16: 9-12
  • Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) or Feast of Ingathering celebrated the general harvest festival in the fall. 16: 13-17

Men were required to travel to Jerusalem to represent the family at the celebration of this specific feast.  Sometimes an entire family would make the journey with the head of the household. Oftentimes, they would travel great distances to celebrate the festivals and it was a tremendous time of worship and spiritual renewal.  Traveling to Jerusalem would be a significant endeavor and the pilgrimage feasts journey would provide times of worship and praise as they made their way to Jerusalem in the caravan, people would sing psalms during the journey.  These are known as psalms of ascent or pilgrimage psalms.  They can be found in Psalms 120 - 134.

Lessons on Thanksgiving from the Offerings

There are five main types of offerings that a Jewish person would be familiar with and practice. These are recorded in Leviticus chapters 1-7.  It was customary for the head of the household to go to the tabernacle or temple with the appropriate offering to make a sacrifice in accordance with each of the feasts (mentioned above).  He would also participate in the daily sacrifices (morning and evening). In addition, there were special occasions when a sacrifice was required. The details are provided in Numbers 28-29 and other places in the Pentateuch.  The NT tells us that those offerings were a temporary covering for that particular sin until Christ came.  The Offerings were never seen as a means of remission of sin, but a temporary covering until Christ came to pay the perfect price for the sins of humanity (Gal 3:24; Heb 10:4). We must also remember that the layout of the temple, as well as the instruments and furnishings all, point to Christ.  The five types of OT Judaic offerings are as follows;

  • Burnt Offering (Lev 1: 1-17)
  • Grain Offering AKA Cereal Offering  (Lev 2: 1-16)
  • Peace Offering  (Lev 3: 1-17) *only during the Feast of Weeks
  • Sin Offering   (Lev 4:1 - 5: 13)
  • Guilt Offering AKA Trespass Offering   (Lev 5:14 - 6:7)
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One offering stands differently than the others. It is the Grain Offering which was usually done in conjunction with the Burnt Offering.  The grain offering appears to be one that is focused on gratitude to God.  It is the only offering that did not result in a blood sacrifice.  The grain offering was a gift to the Lord that honored Him as the source of life and a sense of gratitude for the production during the harvest.  The worshiper would bring the best kernels of his crop as an offering to God to be a representation of the fruit of his labor.  It was a true praise offering for his provision.  He brought the best grain to make an offering of wheat or a loaf of unleavened bread made with wheat, salt, olive oil, and frankincense.  If the man brought a grain offering it could be in the form of grain, a loaf, or a fried flattened loaf.  One thing in common was it must not have any leven (Leven always represents sin).  Interestingly, the priest would take and use most of the offering and a small portion was actually burnt on the altar.  This demonstrates that the offering was given to God, but it became a means of sustenance & benefit to the Priest and his sons.  For all intensive purposes, it was an offering of thanksgiving and praise for God's blessing in their harvest.  It is also important to remember John 6:48 when Jesus said: "I am the bread of life."  The one who had no sin was the perfect "grain offering!"

Lessons on Thanksgiving from the Psalms

David also made a unique declaration that there was to be a special celebration when the ark of the covenant was placed inside a tent.   David gave specific instructions on how the celebration was to be conducted and wrote a Psalm of Thanksgiving found in 1 Chronicles 16: 7-36. Psalm 100 is also a well-known Psalm focused on Thanksgiving. Perhaps you can read this before you celebrate on Thursday!  This is a tremendous example of true thanksgiving!

Tragically, our modern day understanding of "harvest" is the daily or weekly trek to the local grocery store where we pay cash or swipe the debit card.  Distancing ourselves from the hard work and process of seeing a harvest and then depending upon God for sunshine and rain may have something to do with our failure to recognize our total and complete dependence upon God for our daily sustenance.  Few of us have the patience and work ethic to have a small garden, let alone vast fields of crops to feed livestock and our families for a year!  If there isn't a dependence upon God for a harvest for your daily sustenance there is no need for humbly offering up our thanksgiving.  This is an appalling result of modernity.  

The term "thanks" is recorded in scripture no less than 110 times (50 times in Psalms) and the word "thanksgiving" is recorded 28 times (11 in the book of Psalms).  A corresponding term "praise" that is a result of thanksgiving or gratitude, is recorded 207 times in scripture of which 123 are found in the book of Psalms.  So this tells us that a primary place to look at the idea of thanksgiving or praise is the book of Psalms.  Here are just a few:

  • Psalm 34
  • Psalm 107
  • Psalm 95
  • Psalm 148
  • Psalm 100
  • Psalm 92
  • Psalm 50
  • Psalm 138
  • Psalm 136
  • Psalm 103

The concept of Thanksgiving is a trademark of a person who is in harmony with God and one who seeks to honor him.  It is not a single day, but it is a habit of gratitude.  True thanksgiving has its roots in scripture.  No matter if we celebrate "Thanksgiving" corporately or individually, we praise him for who he is and what he has done!  He is worthy of our praise and a grateful heart is a trademark of one who loves God. Make your Thanksgiving a special time - Give Him Praise and Thanks!

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Sources Used:

Ariel Ministries, http://www.ariel.org/home

The Feasts of the Lord, God Prophetic Calendar from Calvary to the Kingdom, Kevin Howard & Marvin Rosenthal, Thomas Nelson, 1997

The Feasts of the Bible.  Sam Nadler, PhD, DVD Series & Study material,  Rose Publishing, 2011

The Function of the Millennial Sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48, Jerry M. Hullinger, Biblothecra Sacra, 2010, Vol 167,  pg 55

Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Walter A. Elwell, Gen Ed, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI,  1988, Vol 2.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Gen Ed., Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 1988,  Vol 4

Good Friday Miracles

Hidden Gems in the Easter Accounts

During the Easter celebration most people focus their attention on the events surrounding the resurrection.  Clearly, this should be the focal point because in the resurrection, Jesus defeated death, he won the victory over the grave.  Without the resurrection Christianity would just be another religious system that has a dead prophet, a dead teacher, and/or a dead leader.  Christianity is completely different - the resurrection sets belief in Christ as a unique faith system that actually delivers hope beyond the grave - not some faint hope in a guy who is in a grave.  Jesus conquered the power and grip of death!  He is risen and we all should be glad the tomb is empty. 

We think of Friday as the day of darkness because most of the events are necessary to get to the resurrection on Sunday! After-all, it is the day Jesus died.  But what is most distressing is what he had to experience.  He endured the mental torture of betrayal on Thursday night, and the countless lies that were stated during the religious and political trials that Jesus listened to throughout the night and pre-dawn hours of Friday.  He was then emotionally tortured as he watched hundreds of people yell out "Away with Him, crucify Him!" as Pilate asked the crowd if Jesus was their King (John 18: 14-15).  Then Jesus was physically tortured by the brutal scourging and humiliation at the hands of the Roman soldiers at the Praetorium on Friday morning (Mark 15: 15-19).  All of this before the horrific events surrounding the barbaric execution of crucifixion on the Roman cross on a hill called Golgotha.  Yes, Friday is seen as a day of darkness for a good reason.  The perfect Lord Jesus was crucified at 9 AM on Friday to pay for the sin of humanity taking on our penalty.

Miracles 1 & 2 - Earthquake & Darkness

After three pain-filled agonizing hours on the cross, at 12PM, all three synoptic gospels record that "from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour.  It was not for three more hours (3PM) that Jesus would cry out  "Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani" in Aramaic meaning "My God, My God, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (Matt 27: 45-50, Mark 15:33-37)  This indicates that Jesus really did experience separation from the Father because of our sin.  Jesus The Perfect One became sin in our behalf. This is known as imputation (see footnote).  The sinless one, Jesus, voluntarily took on our sin.  At this precise time, Jesus died.   

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.  And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.  Matt 27: 50-51

Matthew documents that great phenomena took place. Remember, in the final moments before Jesus cried out, darkness fell over the land for 3 hours (Between 12PM and 3PM).  Most people believe that some type of eclipse took place which would explain the darkness. While an eclipse is a common and normal function in the solar system and Earth's normal routines, some might explain this as a natural phenomenon.  In addition, at the same exact moment when Jesus died (3PM), Matthew also records that the "earth shook and rocks split."  It is common knowledge that earthquakes are somewhat common in Judea and the middle east region. Perhaps similar to California, it is a place where seismic activity is customary.  Simultaneously, with the eclipse there is a sizable earthquake!  It is interesting to note that while it may have been common, it was uncommon for an event to take place at the precise time when Jesus died.  God was sending a message to the entire world likely through a lunar eclipse and geological earthquake that Jesus had died.  While earthquakes and eclipses are common, the timing of this phenomena it is completely uncommon or should we say phenomenal! We call this a miracle - it was a divine communique that there was victory over sin to all of humanity!

Miracle #3 - The Veil in the Temple

All three synoptic gospels record the fact that the veil was torn in two (Matt 27: 51, Mark 15: 38, Luke 23: 45b).  Only Matthew and Mark record that it was split from top to bottom.  This is significant because the veil was the divider between the place and the the holy of holies within the Temple.  This is a miracle because the veil was torn from top to bottom where God performed the act as opposed to men. It is significant because the only people that could go into the holy of holies was the priest who acted as an intermediator between God and man.  God tore the divider in two indicating that all men (and women) have direct access to himself because of Christ's death!  We no longer must go through an approved Priest to have access to God!  

The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.  Matthew 27: 52-53

For a more scholarly article about the temple veil and it's significance, click on the following link.  The veil in the Temple in history and legend. JETS March 2006.

Miracle #4 - Night of the Living - not Dead

Hollywood via AMC has made an entire phenomena of a series called "The Walking Dead" that just completed it's 7th season. Interestingly enough this dystopian series has dead people who "return to life" but they are zombies.  Matthew records the event where the tombs were opened (likely due to the earthquake) and many righteous people returned to life!  Most scholars believe that this was in the Jerusalem cemetery that was outside the city gates.  The text indicates that they did not appear or come out of the tombs until Sunday after Jesus' resurrection! Most scholars recognize that Jesus is the "first-fruits" from the dead (1 Cor 15: 23) meaning he was the first to rise from the dead.  Righteous dead return to life.  Can you imagine?  Not like the zombies of Hollywood plodding along seeking to eat live people - these righteous ones were fully alive human beings who were once dead and are now living and walking the streets of Jerusalem! Can you imagine the wonder, celebration and excitement?  This event is frequently overlooked and seldom discussed.  But can you fathom the significance and stir that this must have caused?  Uncle Joe or Aunt Elizabeth who may have passed years ago are now alive and well walking around greeting friends who attended their funeral! It is hard to know with precision the exact timing but this is a clear miracle God used to demonstrate the fact that there is victory over death because Jesus arose from the grave! Death was defeated for those who trust in God's provision of a savior!

Is it any wonder that the God of the universe who sent His son to earth to defeat sin and conquer death would do anything different than move the forces of heaven and earth to communicate His love for humanity by miraculous works?  God wanted to communicate to the entire world a monumental event had taken place with the death of His son.  His mercy and grace shine through on one of the darkest but glorious days in history.   Just as with the advent miracles accompanied the birth of Jesus so to, even in his death, miracles were God's grand communique to humanity..... "I Love You."  Remember the hidden gems of miracles God used on Good Friday! 

Isaiah 53: 3-6

3 He was despised and rejected- a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. 

We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.  He was despised, and we did not care. 

4 Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows* that weighed him down. 

And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! 

5 But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. 

6 All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.  We have left God's paths to follow our own. 

Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. 

 

Imputation

is used to designate any action or word or thing as reckoned to a person. Thus in doctrinal language (1) the sin of Adam is imputed to all his descendants, i.e., it is reckoned as theirs, and they are dealt with therefore as guilty; (2) the righteousness of Christ is imputed to them that believe in him, or so attributed to them as to be considered their own; and (3) our sins are imputed to Christ, i.e., he assumed our "law-place," undertook to answer the demands of justice for our sins. In all these cases the nature of imputation is the same (Rom. 5:12-19; comp. Philemon 1:18, 19).  Easton's Bible Dictionary

Thanksgiving Trivia Game

How much do you know about the 1st Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims?

Mayflower II at Sea

In 1620 a group of people called the Pilgrims came to what they knew as the new world.  It was a mixed group of people who came with different motives.  The largest group of people were seeking to find a new place to live where they could worship in freedom and a place where they would be able to establish a community that was set apart like a city on a hill.  It was their aspiration to fulfill the commands that were taught by Jesus in Matthew 5: 14-16.  They wanted to be a city on the hill that demonstrated Christian virtue and they would be salt and light to the world reflecting the love and grace of Christ.  They wanted to be a truly Christian community that was set-apart from the world for the glory of God.

What do we really know about this group of people who sought to come to what we know as America?  This is a Trivia game that will help you learn about them and the hardships and circumstances they faced that produced the first Thanksgiving.

This trivia game is intended to be a fun way to learn about the Pilgrims.  Find a few minutes to sit around with friends and/or family members to make this an enjoyable learning experience!  Then take a few minutes to focus on your own Thanksgiving - praising God for his wonderful provisions and greatness!

There are ten questions in this trivia quiz.  

1.     The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower are best defined as a group from what English religious sect?

 a)  Puritans                                               b)  Non-Conformists

c)  Separatists                                           d)  Anabaptists

 

2.     To avoid religious persecution from officials in England, a number of Pilgrims moved to _________ in 1607.

 a)  Belgium                                                b)  Switzerland

           c)  Germany                                                d)  Holland

 

3.     On September 6, 1620 the Pilgrims departed on the ship Mayflower for the new world from what city? 

a)  London                                                    b)  Plymouth

c)  Dartmouth                                              d)  Southampton

 

4.     The number of passengers who finally departed England was ____________.

a)  95                                                               b)  125

          c)  102                                                              d)  107

 

5.     The Pilgrims obtained settlement permits in England for the New World.  The permits were for what intended location?

 a)  James River Area of Virginia (near Jamestown)         

b)  Hudson River Valley (near modern day NYC)

c)  Cape Code Area (modern day Mass) 

d)  Delaware River Bay Area (near NJ & DE)

 

6.     Where did the Passengers of the Mayflower actually first touch land on Saturday, November 11, 1620?

a)  Near present day Chatham, Mass(elbow) 

b)  Near present day Plymouth, Mass

c)  Nantucket Island just south of Cape Cod

d)  Provincetown Bay, inside tip of Cap Cod

e)  Halibut Point, Mass near Ipswich Bay

 

7.     The primary work that Separatist used for religious study and instruction was _______________?

 

a)  Geneva Bible

b)  King James Bible (1611)

c)  Book of Common Prayer

d)  Heidelberg Catechism

  

8.      On Friday, March 16, 1621 an American Indian came out of the woods from atop Watson’s Hill.  He was an extraordinarily tall man with long black hair.    He walked right up into the hamlet and row of houses into what was called Plymouth Plantation. When he stopped he saluted the Pilgrims and said “Welcome Englishmen.”   That native American was known as  ____________?

 

a)  Massasoit                                                     b)  Squanto

c)  Samoset                                                      d)  Quadequina

 

9.  For nearly a month the Mayflower explored Cap Cod bay.  On December 12, the Pilgrims decided that that they would make their settlement on the north side of Town Brook on the west side of Cap Cod bay.  They would call the settlement “Plymouth Plantation.”   They endured a hard long winter in make-shift shelter and a growing shortage of food during the winter of 1620/21.  By the end of March 1621, the percentage of passengers lost (died) is _________.   

 a)  48%                                                b)  57%

c)  52%                                                 d)  46%

e)  64%

 

10.  The “First Thanksgiving” was most likely celebrated in the month of October 1621.  Bradford & Winslow write in their accounts that the celebration lasted nearly a week where they had a variety of festivities where the Native Americans actually outnumbered the number of Pilgrims.  The American Indians and Pilgrims brought food for the celebration.  Which food was not apart of the original feast? 

a)  Venison                                                       b)  Squash/Pumpkin

c)  Fish (Cod & Bass)                                       d)  Cranberries

e)  Corn                                                             f)  Turkey