Ah, the week after Christmas. Depending on your line of work, these can be the most intense few days of the year. Or the deadest.
Some pack in their final time off before it disappears at year’s end. Others have their nose to the grindstone to hit year-end goals. All of us live in this curious in-between time, with the high feast day of Christmas now behind us and the prospect of a new year, and its psychological resets, just ahead.
Strange as this one week may seem on the calendar, we find here an interesting parallel to the Christian life we live for decades — with yesterday’s cheer feeding the present, and propelling us into the resolves and possibilities of tomorrow.
Christmas Behind, New Years Ahead
For Christians, the cheer of Christmas Day is not the thing itself, but our collective annual reminder that the thing itself actually happened and is just as true every day of the year, and every moment of the day, as it was two millennia ago. Christ came. God himself, in the person of his Son, dwelled among us, as one of us, and then died, rose, and ascended. The cheer of Christmas is not a single calendar day in 365 that ends at midnight. The cheer of Christmas is a fixed, objective reality for the Christian, every bit as true today as yesterday.
“The decisive event has happened in the coming of Christ, and work remains to be done, in us and through us.”
And we are called to live on. History, and our lives in this age, are not yet over. The decisive event has happened in the coming of Christ, and work remains to be done, in us and through us. New days come. New years come. And God calls us to build our lives — years that have not yet unfolded — on the cheer of Christmas. To bring that great unchangeable Christmas past into the present and live a different future because of it.
For such a week as ours is a simple and obscure New Testament blessing that marries the cheer of Christmas behind us with a catalyst for action in the days ahead of us. It’s an easy blessing to overlook since it’s tucked into the middle of the epistle, instead of appearing at the end.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:16–17)
Observe here how decisive divine action in the past fuels the engine of the present to energize new life — our lives — and produce fresh strength for the times to come.
The Father Loved and Gave
While the blessing bleeds into the future — for life yet to be lived — Paul can’t help but rehearse what God has already accomplished in the past. The divine genius of Christianity, which sets it off from every other so-called religion, doesn’t begin with to-dos, with the onus on us to perform, but with the great, unchangeable dones of the past. For Christians, the past is not just the past. The past, as it reveals the God who is, is power for the present, as he is present.
Paul has something particular to pray that “our Lord Jesus Christ himself” will do for us in the present, but he wants us to know that Christ won’t be going rogue to do it. He and his Father are working in concert, and in mentioning “God our Father,” Paul rehearses what is done, finished, accomplished, and unalterable: he “loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace.”
Your right standing with God isn’t owing to your doing but his. Long before he called you to anything, he loved you and demonstrated it in history, almost two thousand years before you were born. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). There is a priceless doneness to the Christian faith. “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). From the cross, Jesus declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30). On his finished work, we come into relationship with God by faith alone, not by any action on our part.
Eternal Cheer, Solid Hope
Paul mentions here two dones in particular that are ours in Christ: eternal cheer (“comfort,” Greek paraklēsin) and good hope. The cheer that is ours, by grace, in Christ, is not fleeting. It is not temporal, thin, or cheap, but real, strong, never-ending, eternal. Its source is not in us, fickle as we are, but secure, outside of us, in Christ himself, who is not fickle but resiliently faithful.
“For Christians, the past is not just the past. The past, as it reveals the God who is, is power for the present.”
And the hope that is ours, by grace, in Christ, is not a hope that goes bad, or might prove untrue. It is solid hope, good hope — hope that God will make good on. In a world teeming with thin, empty, deceptive, bad hopes, this one is good. It will not disappoint.
So, first, Paul accents the action of the Father, action that is nonetheless together with and in and through his Son. He loved. He gave. And these past graces have clear present implications.
Jesus Cheers and Strengthens
Paul then prays for Christ’s present action, not yet ours. We’ll get there, but don’t put yourself forward too quickly. Stand back and let the Godhead lead.
Just as both Christ and the Father acted in the past, but the previous accent was on the Father, so now, in the present, they work in concert with the accent on the Son. Now may Christ himself, Paul prays, cheer your hearts and strengthen them.
Christ’s cheering of our hearts is not only done, accomplished in the past. It is present. He is doing this now for his people. He does it today. He will do it tomorrow. Jesus loves to cheer our hearts. And, get this, he doesn’t just make us happy — wonderful as that would be — and leave us weak. He cheers and strengthens (“establishes,” Greek stērizai). He makes our hearts strong, meaning ready to act.
This is a remarkable prayer: that Christ himself would instill us with cheer and strength. Christ himself supplies the power for us to feel and resolve and do what God has called us to do.
Christ himself as strengthener — strange at it may sound to some ears — is actually a well-worn refrain for the apostle Paul. “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Timothy 1:12). Jesus gave him strength, he says. And he testifies that when he stood alone, “the Lord stood by me and strengthened me” (2 Timothy 4:17). So Paul says to Timothy, “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1), and to us all, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10). And of course, Paul declares so memorably in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” The apostle even speaks of his own toiling “with all his energy that [Christ] powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29).
The risen, reigning God-man himself provides energy for his people to do what he’s called them to do. He sits enthroned at his Father’s right hand, and he is not inactive. He stands ready to cheer your soul and strengthen your body. And now to what end?
So, now we have two comforts — two cheers. The eternal cheer we have been given in Christ by the Father. And now a present cheer in Christ from Christ himself. And now, finally, our action, our part, our calling, our resolves: “in every good work and word.”
Work Like a Protestant
The past and present actions of Christ and his Father make for an amazing recipe for a Christian work ethic for the new year. Divine grace forms the foundation and provides the power by which we now act, in faith, through words with our mouths, and works with our hands and feet. Buoyed and fed by such grace, we “let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
We might call this the “Protestant work ethic.” That term has been misunderstood by some to mean that Protestants work hard because they view success as a sign that they are elect. That is a serious misunderstanding. Rather, the true “Protestant work ethic,” if we’re going to refer to such, would be a label to put on the precise dynamics we have seen here: the previous and primary action of God in Christ, including present cheer and strength, leads to eager and energetic activity in his people, for the good of others.
For Everyday Works and Words
In other words, because we are justified before God by faith alone in Christ, we are secure enough to expend our lives in the cause of Christ. Heaven is secure. Now what? Let’s change things on earth. The finished work of Christ, and the completed aspect of our justification, liberates us for the ongoing work of sanctification and acts of love to serve others. Knowing ourselves secure in Christ, and empowered by his Spirit, unleashes us to speak good and do good in the world, rather than turn inward to constantly try to fix ourselves before God.
“Heaven is secure. Now what? Let’s change things on earth.”
Christianity, emphatically, does not make people lazy. Rather, it makes lazy people, at long last, into serious workers. The gospel, in the power of the Spirit, makes us increasingly “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Those who are saved in Christ “not because of works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5) are finally freed, and divinely empowered, “to be ready for every good work” and to “devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:1, 8, 14).
May Christ himself make it so in this next year. May the Christmas behind us, true today as ever — in its certainty and cheer — send us hopefully, and energetically, into the unknowns of the year, and life, to come.