Following Christ to Heaven
It was deeply disturbing for the disciples to realise that their Master was about to leave them. Peter, ever ready to speak out when others might have kept their thoughts to themselves, asked, ‘Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards’ (John 13:36).
Peter, however, was foolishly impatient. ‘Lord, why cannot I follow thee now?’ he asked. And with great overconfidence he added, ‘I will lay down my life for thy sake’. He was soon to learn, through his fall into sin, that he had neither the strength nor the grace to do so. He could not yet follow Christ out of this life; he was not ready for heaven.
It may often be a perplexing question: Why are the Lord’s people left so long in this world, with all its difficulties, dangers and sorrows, although they have been prepared for heaven, where there is no sin, no temptation and no tears? Those who ask this question for themselves may not be presuming on their strength, as Peter was, yet they have to learn that God has wise reasons for keeping them here for longer than they might expect. Although they do have the fundamental preparation for heaven that comes through the new birth, they must generally be brought on gradually towards perfect holiness. It is not that it is impossible for God to bring a sinner in a moment from Satan’s kingdom to heaven; he brought one of the thieves crucified with Jesus to paradise within a few hours after he was mocking the Saviour. But the thief was an exception.
It should be obvious that there is a wise purpose for God acting as he does. For one thing, there could otherwise be no organised church in this world, and it is within the church that God has ordained that the good news of salvation for lost sinners should be proclaimed. Further, preaching is also a means for advancing sinners in the faith, so that they may grow in grace and holiness. This means that preachers must be spared for a period of years if they are to fulfil their calling, and even to prepare for it. Novices in the faith are not to be ministers (1 Tim. 3:6). Paul might seem to be an exception, having begun to preach almost immediately after his conversion, when he was still in Damascus; yet even he had to spend what was presumably a time of preparation in Arabia before being set apart formally by the church to the work to which God had called him.
Peter himself had a great work to do before the time came for him to lay down his life for his Master’s sake. How far the disciples advanced in grace and in spiritual understanding between their Lord’s resurrection and ascension and again in their time of united prayer in the upper room before the Day of Pentecost! Peter, in particular, was graciously restored after his terrible sin of denying his Master; he had been fitted to be the leading speaker among the disciples in proclaiming, to the multitudes on the day of Pentecost, the truth about the crucified and risen Saviour. He was God’s chosen instrument for doing so, which confirmed the fact that the time had not yet come for him to go to glory. That time was not to come for many more years, during which he was the first of the disciples to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, when he was called to Caesarea to proclaim Christ to Cornelius and assure him and his household ‘that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins’ (Acts 10:43).
We can safely assume that Peter’s work extended far beyond the limited number of occasions described in the Book of Acts. But when his work was finished, Peter was taken home to glory, to be for ever with the Lord whom he loved and whom he faithfully served. At the moment when his soul was parted from his body, the work of sanctification was complete – and not a moment before. Peter was never perfect in this life, but as year followed year, he was growing ‘in grace and in knowledge’ (his own expression, in 2 Pet. 3:18) through his use of the means that God has provided – including prayer, reading the Word and meditating on it. Peter was also suffering trouble and trial; he was resisting temptation, rejoicing in the progress of the gospel and mourning over those who proved unfaithful. Such experiences, through God’s blessing, were contributing to his spiritual good and were making him more useful in the work of the ministry.
Most believers are not called to the ministry, but they all, in one way or another, have work to do while they are left in this world. They are, their Master tells them, ‘the light of the world’ (Matt. 5:14). By their good works – which is what Christ goes on to point to – they show that it is possible to live a godly life in this sinful world, ‘in virtue of His spirit dwelling in them, and the same mind being in them which was also in Christ Jesus’, as David Brown emphasises when commenting on this passage.
At the same place, David Dickson notes that ‘by the holy conversation [way of life] of Christians, God shall be glorified, known, believed in, loved and praised’. What responsibility then lies on believers to show a consistent, godly example to others – to seek, by God’s grace, to obey his commandments in all situations! Dickson also notes that
except God erect a ministry among men and endue His servants with gifts and graces, and make them faithful to do their duty, the world shall lie in the darkness of ignorance and error, of sin and misery, going on to perdition; and except ministers endeavour to have the world illuminate, by holding forth the true knowledge of Christ, they cannot be free of [responsibility for] the world’s perishing.
But what about those believers whose days of usefulness are now apparently over? They are no longer able to go about as they once did; perhaps they are even confined to their beds. They may have little contact with anyone except a few family members. Yet they can still pray. And if we could value aright the prayers of God’s children, we would never think that a disabled old lady, for instance, in some remote location, almost forgotten in her community, has no useful work to do. Far from it! If Sodom, for example, would have been spared through Abraham’s prayers, had there been even ten righteous people there, who can begin to measure the blessings that come to various parts of the world through the intercession of God’s people, some of them unable to do anything else for Christ’s cause? And what a loss to the world and to the church when godly, praying people are brought home to glory! But for everyone who has come to Christ, a specific time has been appointed when they will be brought home. And they should be content, as Paul was, to wait for that time. Well did he realise that ‘to be with Christ . . . is far better’; yet, exercising the grace of patience, he was content to wait. He recognised, as he told the Philippians, that ‘to abide in the flesh is more needful for you’ (Phil. 1:23, 24).
It is absolutely certain that every believer will, like Peter, follow Christ to heaven. The everlasting covenant provides for this, and it can never be broken. From eternity the Father gave them all to Christ, who will never lose any of them; they are all safe in his hands. Whatever opposition they may encounter, whatever weakness they may feel, however unholy their hearts may seem to them, their place in heaven is totally secure. Their Master is infinitely stronger than even the devil; Christ will support them against all opposition and at last make them more than conquerors. Their weakness and their unholiness, while real, are not the weakness and unholiness of someone who is still unconverted; and the Holy Spirit will, for Christ’s sake, strengthen them and sanctify them until finally they are made perfect, as they are brought to glory. Yet let us all examine ourselves to see if there is any evidence that we have indeed passed from death to life. And if we can find no such evidence, let us earnestly seek Christ until we find him, who says to us, ‘Come unto me . . . and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28).
Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the March 2013 issue of which the above editorial has been taken with permission.
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