Word Study #92 — Giving Thanks

You may be surprised – I certainly was! – to discover that Biblically, eucharisteo, “giving thanks”, is strictly a New Testament word! It does not occur in the LXX at all, although the idea is frequently present, and occasionally translated “thanks”, in eulogeo, “bless” (W.S. #89), aineo, “praise” (W.S. #90), and exomologeo, “confess” (W.S. #68), which are also included in references to “prayer” (W.S.#91) and “worship” (W.S.#50);but this primary word for “giving thanks” is nowhere to be found.

In the New Testament, “thanks” is also sometimes used to translate charis (7x, as opposed to 129x “grace”), and homologeo(1x out of 21x), exomologeomai, (2x out of 11x), and anthomologeomai (only a single appearance), which are all related to “confession” in the sense of “acknowledgment” (W.S.#68). Since most of these deviations fit equally well into the discussions of their primary translations, we will confine this study to eucharisteo (verb), eucharistia (noun), and eucharistos (adj.).

Classically, all of these referred to any expression of gratitude – by anyone, to anyone, for anything – or to an agreeable, grateful nature or personality trait. Occasionally, it was also used of the bestowing of a favor, as well as the obligation thereby incurred. The word is not rare in classical literature, which makes one wonder about its absence from the LXX, in view of its frequency in the New Testament. Could that be an artifact of the greater intimacy of the relationship between God and his people, introduced by Jesus’ own example, made possible to his people by his life, death, and resurrection, and symbolized by the destruction of the temple veil? (See Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 8).

In all but two New Testament instances, the “thanks” are addressed to God: and these two, while not exemplary, offer significant insight. The first is in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk.18:11). Notice that although ostensibly (and ostentatiously!) “praying”, the Pharisee’s focus is pros heauton – “toward himself”! – as he “thanks God” for his self-perceived superiority. Jesus does not compliment that!
The other is when the eloquent lawyer, Tertullus, attempts to ingratiate himself to Governor Felix, when presenting the Jewish hierarchy’s case against Paul (Ac.24:3). In all the rest of both examples and admonitions, the giving of thanks is addressed to God – but not as persuasive flattery for a corrupt governor! “Thanks” with such an ulterior motive should be understood as insulting to God!

There are three scenes where Jesus himself is represented as giving thanks: before distributing food to the crowds (Mt.15:36, Mk.8:16, Jn.6:11,23); as he broke the bread at the Last Supper (Mt.26:27, Mk.14:23, Lk.22:7,19; and quoted by Paul in I Cor.11:24); and at Lazarus’ tomb (Jn.11:41). Only in this last instance does he specify the object of his thanksgiving, and his statement is instructive: “Father, I thank you that you listened to me. I knew that you are always listening to me, but I said that because of the crowd standing around …” The giving of thanks can be a powerful teaching tool, as it also was for Paul (Ac.27:35) during the shipwreck.

In his letters, Paul gives thanks to God for the faithfulness of individuals or groups (Phil.1:3, Col.1:3, Phm.4, I Thes.3:9), for the brethren who came to meet him on the way to Rome (Ac.28:15), for the generosity of the relief offering (II Cor.9:11), for the gift of praying in tongues (I Cor.14:16), and even that he had not baptized many in Corinth (I Cor.1:14), which he mentions to defuse the factionalism there.

The object of the giving of thanks is clarified by the use of the prepositions, and the sentence structure, with which it is accompanied. Both of the common prepositions, peri and huper, are used with genitive case objects. The case of its object affects the meaning of any preposition. Peri, “about, or for”, indicates motive, care, or “with regard to”. Paul often writes that he is giving thanks “peri humon” – “about you all”, (his readers), and/or their faithfulness (Rom.1:8. I Cor.1:4, Col.1:3, I Thes.1:2, 3:9; II Thes.1:3).
Huper, on the other hand, indicates “for the sake of, on behalf of, as a representative of.” Here it sometimes seems to include more of our concept of prayer, as it is connected with food (I Cor.10:30), and Paul’s anticipated release from prison (II Cor.1:11), as well as the more general huper humin – “on your behalf” (Eph.1:16), and specific gratitude for the help of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom.16:4). Paul urges Timothy that both “prayers (deesis, proseuchais, enteuxis)” and “thanksgiving (eucharistias)” be made huper “on behalf of all people” – including “rulers and others in authority” – who probably are not doing anything of the kind on their own! (I Tim.2:1).

Distinguishing between prepositions and their objects would avoid many major misunderstandings. Some of the common rhetoric about “giving thanks for everything” is a case in point.
In Eph.5:20, “giving thanks huper panton” is a part of Paul’s description of mutual teaching and celebration in the brotherhood, with everyone contributing! (5:15-20). Since panton, the genitive plural of pas (“all”), is identical in its masculine, feminine, and neuter forms, there is no reason to shift gears and read a neuter “everything” as the object of huper, when Paul has been talking about everyone, which would also be a much more logical object of “for the sake of,” or “on behalf of”.
The similarly translated – but not at all equivalent – admonition in I Thes.5:18, often rendered “Give thanks for everything”, contains neither of those prepositions, but simply en – “in”– which always has a dative (location or atmosphere) object. The grammatical structure is clear: the reference of “this” (“this is the will of God”) is the imperative verb, “give thanks”, and not, as some would have it, “everything that happens” – even events that are clearly evil.

Other objects of thanksgiving are identified by a clause introduced by hoti, “because” – (I Thes.2:13, Rev.11:17), or a participial explanation of something that God has done. This is more frequent in I Cor.15:57, II Cor.2:14, 8:16, 9:15, where charis is used rather than eucharistia.

Significantly, however, more frequent than any of these, are declarations of or admonitions to thankfulness with no expressed object – Col.3:15-17, 2:7; I Cor.14:17-18, Rev.4:9,7:12. The giving of thanks is an expected part of prayer (Phil.4:6, Col.4:2, I Tim.2:1), not as an effort to manipulate God, but rather a mind-set that pervades the entire consciousness of the faithful.
Thankfulness is an ingredient of the “recipe” for continued growth in Kingdom living (Col.2:7), the antidote for complaints against other brethren (Col.3:15), and an alternative to unwholesome conversation (Eph.5:4). It is among the praises offered around the throne of the Lamb (Rev.4:9, 7:12, 11:17)!

“And everything – whatever you all do – in word or deed – (do) everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, (continually) giving thanks to God the Father through him!” (Col.3:17)

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