Thanksgiving Day in America is not a religious holiday. It is a national holiday. The tradition dates back to the early settlers in the Plymouth colony when in 1623 they gave thanks to God for their survival in the wilderness of the new world.
Our first president, George Washington in 1789 and President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed national days of thanksgiving for God’s blessings on our nation. The U.S. Congress ratified a national day of thanksgiving in 1941.
The scriptures tell us that God has built thanksgiving into the structure of his world. From the beginning of Israel’s national life, thanksgiving was to be part of the essential nature of things. The third book of the Bible, Leviticus, prescribes the sacrifices and offerings that were essential to maintaining fellowship with God. These sacrifices provided covering for sin, making it possible for the people to draw near to God in worship and prayer.
Israel’s Thanksgiving Celebration
One of those offerings was the “thanksgiving” offering, otherwise called the “fellowship” or “peace” offering. It was a voluntary expression of thanks to God for specific blessings, such as forgiveness, answers to prayer, deliverance from danger, or provision of daily needs. It was called the “peace offering” because it celebrated the believer’s peace with God.
In Leviticus 7:11-15 we learn that this was a festive offering that was shared with the priest who administered the sacrifice on behalf of the worshiping family. It involved a sacrificial lamb, and the preparation and consumption of bread made with and without yeast.
Imagine the Hebrew father gathering his family around him and asking them, “What has the Lord done for us?” We may imagine the children responding with memories of God’s faithful provision.
“God sent rain and sunshine and rebuked the locust so our crops would grow.”
“He healed Grandpa when he was sick.”
“He gave our soldiers victory over God’s enemies.”
“Our neighbors came and helped pull the ox out of the ditch.”
“Mama’s baby was born healthy.”
Then father might say, “We must thank God for these blessings. Thaddeus, go pick out the best lamb in the flock for the sacrifice and I will inspect it to make sure it has no blemishes. Tabitha, you help Mama prepare the bread for the feast and for the offering to the priest. Obadiah, run off to Grandpa’s house and invite him to join us for the thanksgiving offering and feast.”
The celebration began with the sacrifice of the lamb. The father would lead his little procession to the door of the tabernacle, lay his hands on the head of the animal and confess their sins. The animal would be killed and its blood spattered on the altar. Its internal organs were burned on the altar. Their sins now covered, the family could joyfully celebrate their fellowship with the Lord.
The meat of the animal was divided and part of it was given to the officiating priest, along with the bread. This Hebrew Thanksgiving feast was celebrated by the family in fellowship with the priestly community, symbolizing their fellowship with God.
Examples from history
Israel’s national leaders set an example by observing the feast of thanksgiving. Moses “sent young Israelite men and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord (Exodus 24:5).
When he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, “David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the Lord” (2 Samuel 6:17).
When King Solomon dedicated the magnificent temple he built for the Lord in Jerusalem, the observance consisted of thousands of fellowship offerings (1 Kings 8:63).
During the great revival of Israel’s religion, King Hezekiah called on the entire nation to rededicate themselves to the Lord. “Come and bring sacrifices and thank offerings to the Temple of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 29:31).
When the people rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah led them in a celebration of thanksgiving to God. “And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy” (Nehemiah 12:43).
This serves as an example for us now. Christ the Lamb of God is our sacrifice through whom we have peace with God. “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12). Because of this, we are able to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for (us) in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
The vocabulary of heaven
I read about an American ambassador who was giving a lecture on the work of the foreign service. He said an American embassy is a little spot of America set down in an alien land.
Our embassies have pictures of our national heroes and American flags throughout. Inside, American laws and customs are in force. The holidays and celebrations of our country are observed, including Thanksgiving Day.
On the streets outside there may be different laws and customs, but the embassy compound is a little spot of America set down in an alien land.
Thanksgiving is the vocabulary of the kingdom of God. In the kingdom age, there will be “the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord saying, ‘Give thanks to the Lord Almighty, for the Lord is good; his love endures forever'” (Jeremiah 33:11).
This coming week, thanksgiving to God can be a little spot of heaven set down right here in our homes, churches and throughout our nation.