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Bible Q&A: Is Thanksgiving a biblical holiday?

Setting aside a Thursday in late November to give thanks is woven into the fabric of American life. Perhaps the most famous Thanksgiving observance occurred in the autumn of 1621, when local Native Americans were invited by Plymouth governor William Bradford to join the Pilgrims for a three-day festival in gratitude for God’s provision.

In 1789, George Washington designated Nov. 26 a day of national thanksgiving for the U.S. Constitution. The modern celebration originated when Abraham Lincoln declared “Thanksgiving” to fall on the last Thursday of November.

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law, officially marking the fourth Thursday in November the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day. But not every national observation carries with it a biblical mandate. Is Thanksgiving a biblical practice?

An annual celebration for God’s providence and provision became a part of Israel’s national life from the beginning. The defining event in Israel’s formation was the Exodus.

In Exodus 12, the Lord commands Moses and Aaron to establish a day to commemorate the day that God brought them out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 12:17).

Not surprisingly, the event would be marked by a meal, not centered around turkey, but a roasted lamb. That thanksgiving was part of Israelite worship is evident in the Psalms, Israel’s song book. Psalm 136, for example, offers 26 verses of thanks to God for His providential care. It begins, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His faithful love endures forever,” and ends “Give thanks to the God of heaven! His faithful love endures forever.

The Israelites were expressing gratitude not to a vague deity, but to Yahweh, the God who set His people free from Egyptian bondage, preserved them through 40 years of wilderness wanderings, and brought them into the land He promised Abraham.

The New Testament likewise calls on God’s people, those who have faith in Jesus, to express thanksgiving to God. Paul models thanksgiving in his letters. Most often, Paul gives thanks to God for His great grace. In 1 Cor. 1:4, Paul declares, “I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus.

In Col. 1:12-13, he gives thanks “to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of the Son He loves.”

In 1 Cor. 15:57 Paul proclaims, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul not only models thanksgiving, he also commands it. In Col. 3:17 he writes, “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” And again, in Col. 4:2, “Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.

In fact, thanksgiving is God’s will for us, regardless of how difficult our life situation might be. Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

Therefore, while Thanksgiving Day is a secular holiday because it is deemed a holiday by the government, the practice of setting aside a day for thanksgiving is much more sacred than secular. On the fourth Thursday in November, Christians should not set aside the day for vague thanksgiving to a vague deity.

Our thanksgiving should be addressed to God the Father, through God the Son, energized and motivated by God the Spirit. Happy Thanksgiving!

Author: Bobby Kelly

Bobby Kelly is the Ruth Dickinson Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist University

View more articles by Bobby Kelly.

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