Chapter 4: Jesus’ Spontaneous Prayer of Thanksgiving

In This Chapter

A Quick Dip
Diving Deeper
A Winter Sunset
Two Settings
Table 2: Events Preceding Jesus’ Spontaneous Prayer of Thanksgiving
“I Thank You, Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth”
Personal Prayer
Shifting My Focus
God’s Pleasure
An Invitation


I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the educated and intelligent and have revealed them to the simple. Yes indeed, Father, for so it was well-pleasing to you.
–Matt 11:25b–26; Luke 10:21b

A Quick Dip1

Thank you: Yet another Greek word translated as giving thanks, exomologeo describes Jesus’ act of publicly professing his feelings of praise and thanksgiving toward God. But beyond the profession of praise, exomologeo also affirms that here Jesus stands in full agreement with God’s actions.

Lord: The Lord is the Creator, Master, Ruler, and Judge of every created thing. What is more, God the Lord also acts as the Director of the course of history. Only the Lord possesses absolute power, unquestionable authority, and complete sovereignty over his created order.

Hidden: This word means to conceal, cover up, or otherwise keep something secret. In Bible times, the Hebrew people believed that the full measure of God’s glory remained hidden from humankind. This concealment was necessary because, if God were to fully reveal himself, humanity would be consumed by his holiness and magnificence. For example, in Exodus 33:18-23, Moses asks to see God’s splendor. God places Moses in the cleft of a rock then passes by, allowing Moses to see God’s back but not God’s face. “I will not let you see my face,” God tells Moses, “because no one can see me and live.”

Revealed: The opposite of hidden, this word literally means to take the cover off. Here reveal points specifically to God’s uncovering of a divine or supernatural secret. Again going back to Hebrew thought, God has complete freedom in what he chooses to reveal to or to conceal from those whom he has created.

Well-pleasing: This word appears only three times in the Gospels: here in Jesus’ prayer as recorded by Matthew and Luke, and in the angels’ Christmas song in Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and upon earth, peace to those with whom he is well-pleased.” This word expresses pleasure, and it is important to note that in each of these passages, the pleasure referred to is always God’s pleasure, not the pleasure of a human being. And because God is pleased only by that which is done in accordance to his divine purpose, God’s good pleasure can also be defined as God’s gracious will. Although sometimes the things that are pleasing to God may not at first glance seem pleasing to us, we must affirm that everything which unfolds according to God’s plan — and everything that brings pleasure to God — is, ultimately, good.


  1. In the same breath, Jesus speaks of God as Father (Daddy) and Lord. What do you think Jesus was trying to teach us by using these names together?
  2. For what exactly is Jesus thanking God in this prayer? What can this prayer teach us about our own prayers of thanksgiving?
  3. Do you know any wise, intelligent, educated people to whom God remains hidden? Do you know any simple folk to whom God has revealed himself? How do these people’s lives differ?
  4. What do you think gives God good pleasure? What things in your life bring pleasure to God?

Diving Deeper

A Winter Sunset

It was a cold winter evening, and we were eating an early supper. My daughter looked out the back door and said, “Mommy! Look at the sunset!” We left our seats and went out onto the porch. Through the barren tree limbs, we saw rows of puffy, light clouds stretched out along the skyline. The setting sun had cast a golden glow all across the clouds, and their magnificence was breathtaking. Then, as the sun moved, the color deepened and the clouds turned burnt orange, streaked in places with a brilliant crimson. My three-year-old son’s eyes were wide and sparkling as he watched the colors change. He finally tore his gaze from the scene for a moment and glanced at the rest of us, a look of pure joy on his little face. Turning back to the sunset, he suddenly burst into a wild applause. “Yea for God!” he cheered at the skyline. Laughing, the rest of us joined him, “Yea for God!”

Haven’t you had moments like this? There you are, going about your daily tasks, then suddenly you see something, or you hear something, or a flash enters your head, and you are struck by the reality of God’s presence and God’s handiwork in your life. You are awed, and you want to cry out with joy and thanksgiving. It happened to Jesus. Jesus was there in Galilee going about his daily tasks, when he was suddenly overawed by the reality of what God was doing around him. Jesus responded to God’s activity with a spontaneous prayer of praise and thanksgiving.

Two Settings

Both Matthew and Luke record this prayer, and it is actually surprising to note that the Greek wording in both passages is identical (not even the wording of the Lord’s Prayer is the same in both Gospels). However, there is one way that these two passages differ tremendously: the setting into which each writer places this prayer. Take a moment to study Table 2, which briefly outlines Jesus’ activities immediately preceding this prayer. What had Jesus and his followers been doing in each Gospel? What triggered Jesus’ spontaneous prayer?

Table 2:  Events Preceding Jesus’ Spontaneous Prayer of Thanksgiving

Matthew 11 Luke 10
Vs. 1-19: Jesus talks about John the Baptist. John was rejected
because he was too conservative (did not eat or drink); Jesus is being rejected as too liberal (a glutton, drunkard, friend of sinners).
Vs. 20-24: Jesus upbraids three Galilean towns for their lack of repentance after seeing his mighty works.
Vs. 25-26: Jesus prays, “I thank you…”
Vs. 1-12: Jesus sends out the Seventy on a mission of ministry.
Vs. 13-16: Jesus upbraids three Galilean towns (compare to Matthew 11:20-24).
Vs. 17-20: The Seventy return with joy: “Even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Jesus witnesses the fall of Satan.
Vs 21: Jesus prays, “I thank you…”

These settings are so different! In Matthew 11, John the Baptist has been rejected, Jesus is being rejected, and the three Galilean towns who have witnessed many of Jesus’ mighty works (Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum), have refused to repent. It seems as though the efforts of both John and Jesus to turn people’s hearts toward God have completely failed. Yet here at this moment, Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth…” What a strange time to burst forth into thanksgiving!

Now Luke’s setting is more fitting. Jesus has sent out the Seventy and, although he scolds the same three towns, the Seventy return having had great success. Even the demons have been subject to the Seventy in Jesus’ name! Jesus himself sees Satan fall, and the names of the Seventy are written in heaven. Now this is a time to give thanks and praise to God! Yet isn’t it ironic that the exact same prayer is recorded in these two completely different settings? Matthew sees failure, Luke sees success, yet both see Jesus giving thanks. What does this mean?

It’s all about vision. Jesus’ vision. Jesus does not see failure or success the way we see them because Jesus has a different focus. When Jesus looks at the world, he does not look through human eyes; he looks through God’s eyes.  His focus is God’s focus, his vision is God’s vision. And what exactly does Jesus see through God’s eyes? To find out, we must take a closer look at Jesus’ prayer.

“I Thank You, Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth”

Although Jesus relates to God as a child relates to his daddy, Jesus never forgets that his Daddy is also Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus’ Daddy created every single thing in the universe; Jesus’ Daddy is the supreme Authority and Ruler of the created order; Jesus’ Daddy is the only Master and Judge of his creatures; Jesus’ Daddy is the one who ultimately directs the course of history and determines the final outcome: victory over every evil power. Success is inevitable because the wisdom and power of Jesus’ Daddy cannot be overthrown. And Jesus knows this better than anyone.

So when Jesus prays this prayer of thanksgiving, he looks around and he does not see many things. He does not see the work of John the Baptist. He does not see what the Seventy have accomplished. He does not even see what he himself has done. Jesus does not see human failure or human success. Instead, he looks around and he sees what God is doing. God’s activity is all around him: God is hiding himself from those who are supposedly wise and intelligent, and God is revealing himself to the simple folk. God is turning human wisdom, human pride, and human understanding upside down and inside out. God is lifting up the humble and humbling the high and mighty. Jesus can see it — his Daddy, the Lord, at work — and he cries out in thanksgiving and praise. Jesus’ prayer is a God-centered prayer; it is a prayer that praises God for who God is (Abba, Lord) and for what God is doing (hiding or revealing himself as he so chooses).

Personal Prayer

When studying this prayer I asked, as always, “What can Jesus’ prayer teach me about my own prayers?” The answer seemed simple: I should make my prayers more God-centered, like Jesus did. That did not seem very hard, so I set off for my solitary place, determined to pray a God-centered prayer of thanksgiving.

Well, it wasn’t so simple. I mean, I prayed prayers of thanksgiving: I gave thanks for a family member’s health, for our material blessings, for my children’s progress at school. I am not saying that it isn’t important to thank God for these things — it is — but for some reason these prayers of thanksgiving did not sound like Jesus’ prayer. So I went back to my place and tried thanking God for the things in my life that were apparent failure-turned-success stories: I thanked God for an illness that had forged a closer relationship between family members, for a failure at work that had motivated me to a greater success, for a hardship that had led to spiritual growth. Again, all of these things were worthy of thanks, but even these prayers were not reflections of Jesus’ prayer. Something seemed amiss. There was something more here that my Master wanted me to grasp, but what was it? Once again I had to turn back to Jesus’ prayer.

Shifting My Focus

When I looked back, I found several big differences between my prayers and Jesus’ prayer. First of all, I had gone off to a solitary place with a predetermined notion to pray a prayer of thanksgiving. Jesus, on the other hand, was going about his daily work, surrounded by his followers and other bystanders. His prayer of thanks was not pre-planned; it was a spontaneous response to God’s activity around him. And it was not a private prayer; it was spoken aloud for all the crowd to hear.

So one thing Jesus’ prayer challenged me to do was to extend my prayer life beyond my solitary time and place. It challenged me to carry my relationship with my Master out of that field and into the midst of my daily comings and goings. Another thing Jesus’ prayer challenged me to do was to shift my focus. Instead of looking around me and seeing what the crowd was doing, I needed to look around me and focus on what God was doing. After all, how could I give thanks for something if I could not see it?

As it turned out, this was the biggest stumbling block in my study of this prayer. Why? Because most of the time, I could not see what God was doing. For example, I would look at a situation: a friend diagnosed with cancer. I could see my friend’s fear and pain, I could see family members rallying to support her, I could see doctors and nurses working diligently to treat her, but I could not see what God was doing. I could not cry out with praise and thanksgiving; I could only cringe in agony and fear. So I needed to shift my focus. I needed to be able to see God, the Lord of heaven and earth, at work. But how could I do that?

Well first of all, it is quite obvious that I cannot see what God is doing if I do not know God, if I do not have a personal relationship with my Master. Secondly and just as obvious, I found that I cannot see what God is doing if I will not take the time to look; I cannot hear what God is saying if I will not be still long enough to listen. I need to take the time to stop what I am doing and ask my Master, “Will you show me how you are working in this particular situation?” Then after I ask, I must open my eyes and my ears so God can reveal to me what he is doing in my life and in the lives of those around me. Maybe God is humbling the proud; maybe God is allowing the prodigal to suffer the consequences of her sins so she will come to her senses and return home; maybe God is patiently knocking at a door that is still bolted shut from the inside; maybe God is already supplying a strength, a hope, and a healing that I simply have not yet seen.

God’s activity is like that beautiful sunset. You know, there is always a sunset. Yet even though the sun sets everyday, if I don’t look out the window, I will never see it. It is the same way with God. My Master is always working — everyday in every situation. I just need to look out the window of my heart and observe his handiwork.

“Ah,” you may ask, “but what about the times when you look out the window and the sunset is covered over by the clouds?” For sometimes there are clouds. Well if I have watched enough sunsets, I know that, even when I cannot see it, the sun is still setting. Likewise, if I have spent enough time watching my Master work, then during those times when his activity is hidden from me, I still know, I still trust that he is at work in that situation. Even when I cannot see exactly what he is doing, I can still cry out in praise and thanksgiving simply because I know that he is there.

It may be hard to believe, but I have even learned to give thanks for the clouds — for my Master’s choice to hide certain things from me. For you see, when my Master hides some insight from me, it challenges me to look harder and to search deeper; when my Master hides his activity from me, it prompts me to step out in faith and trust; when my Master hides his wisdom, it reveals to me how very simple — how weak, lowly, and powerless — I really am. Indeed, sometimes I am more thankful for the clouds than I am for the sunset. For whether he is covering or uncovering, it is a blessing to be able to understand that my Master is at work.

God’s Pleasure

There was another tremendous difference between my supposedly God-centered prayers and Jesus’ prayer that we have yet to mention. In my prayers, my thanks were given for the things God had done that brought me pleasure (providing health, material blessings, success, spiritual growth). Jesus, on the other hand, gave thanks for the things God had done that brought God pleasure (hiding or revealing his activity), “Yes indeed, Father, for so it was well-pleasing to you.” When compared to Jesus’ prayer, it is clear that my prayers were not God-centered. They were me-centered. I was only focused on the things that were pleasing to me. And I am sad to say it, but quite often the things that please me are not the things that are most pleasing to God.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I felt a persistent calling to host a backyard Bible club during the summer for some children in my community. I planned it all out in my mind. Several friends could help me, and our children would have fun learning about the Bible. I called three friends and they all agreed to help. It would be great — four talented moms, a yard full of twenty children — what a tremendous success this would be!

Unfortunately, I contracted mononucleosis that spring. I pushed on with my plans, though, hoping to be well by summer. Then my friends called me, one by one, saying that they would not be able to help. The music leader had to teach summer school. The craft leader was going back to graduate school. The snack coordinator was going to spend the summer in the mountains. I was left alone — still suffering the aftereffects of mono — and over half of the children I had invited would not be attending. Normally, I would have seen this as a disaster, a complete failure. I would have wailed and wept and gnashed my teeth in disappointment. However, that summer I did not see things that way. For some blessed, wonderful reason, God lifted the cover and allowed me to witness these events through his eyes. Instead of bewailing my failed efforts, God enabled me to shift my focus and watch my Master at work.

The big day arrived and, amazingly, I had enough energy to stand up. Several neighborhood children came. One mom I knew only casually, Tammy, saw my wobbly condition and offered to stay and help. I knew that Tammy was not a regular churchgoer and had never been part of a group like this, so I was doubly grateful when she offered to jump into the fray. Tammy became a dear friend that summer, a real angel of mercy to me. She prepared all of the snacks, led the crafts, and provided support at every turn. I watched God move in her life, and over the years since then, I have rejoiced in her spiritual growth. She became my co-leader at every backyard Bible club, and her family has become active members in our church. God revealed to me that if my other friends had been able to help me that summer, Tammy would never have gotten involved. God was well-pleased that she did!

And the children! Nine children were present that first day, a far cry from the twenty which I had envisioned. But five of those nine were unchurched children. Today, those five attend church regularly, and one has even talked about becoming a preacher! How much pleasure does that give God!

Nothing turned out the way I had planned it that summer — thanks be to God! God’s plans were so much bigger than my own, and what was pleasing to God was so much more important than what would have pleased me. I was truly thankful, not only for God’s activity, but also for that wonderful revelation!

An Invitation

Through this special prayer, Jesus invites you and me to shift our focus and allow our prayers of thanksgiving to become more God-centered. In order to do this, we must be able — like Jesus — to look around us and see God at work, even when we are surrounded by dark or difficult circumstances. Once we are able to perceive God’s good works, such prayers of thanksgiving will come more easily to us.

However, in the example set before us in this prayer, Jesus invites us to do one other thing. If we will look back at the Scripture, we will recall that this is not a private prayer. It is a prayer spoken aloud as Jesus stands in the middle of his daily activities. Here Jesus invites us to do what he does: to pray aloud in the midst of those around us.

“Wait a minute!” you might be saying, “Pray out loud? Where people can hear me? Right there, when I’m at work, or at school, or at a ballgame, or out shopping? Why do I need to do that? Why can’t I just mumble a prayer of thanks in my heart?”

Let us revisit that sunset once more.

When my little son raised his hands and voice in praise that winter evening, he gave the rest of us a tremendous gift. You see, we were all standing on the porch admiring a work of art. We found ourselves absorbed in a masterpiece. But when he cried out in thanksgiving, my son helped us to shift our focus from the artwork to the Artist; he called our attention away from the masterpiece and directed our gaze to the Master. That is what public prayers of thanksgiving do. That is why Jesus prayed this particular prayer out loud. Prayers of thanks spoken aloud in the midst of our daily lives open eyes and hearts and direct the gazes of those around us toward our Daddy. So whether it is a rousing, “Yea for God!” or a humble, “Thank you, Father,” a prayer of thanks spoken aloud is certainly one way to direct the gaze of our companions toward the handiwork of our Master. More importantly, it is a gift that may lead someone we know a step closer to their own personal relationship with the Lord of heaven and earth. So the next time you are out in the hustle and bustle of your daily activities and you experience that flash — you see God at work — don’t hesitate. Do what Jesus did: take the opportunity and offer up a prayer of thanksgiving.

>> Chapter 5: Raising Lazarus

Chapter 4 Footnotes

1 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix, found in the free PDF download.


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