Going to Heaven with Jesus
As a student of the New Testament, I am one of those odd characters who enjoys the minutia of grammatical details in the original languages and especially their interpretative significance. Yet what motivates me in working through the details is primarily a genuine application of discipleship to Jesus. Today’s post comes primarily as a review/summary of an interesting chapter I recently read on discipleship by J. Ramsey Michaels entitled, “Going to Heaven with Jesus: From 1 Peter to Pilgrim’s Progress.” In this enticing article for all admirers of great stories, good theology and practical application, Michaels exposes the influence of 1 Peter upon John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress, emphasizing the journey metaphor to describe salvation while presenting his own exegetical insights to support some crucial components of discipleship.
Michaels begins by exposing a common misconception in popular religion, the hope of “going to heaven when we die.” Against the idea that salvation is reserved only as a future hope, a mere free ticket to heaven, Michaels emphasizes the point that “in the New Testament the journey to heaven begins not at death but at the moment a person is called to discipleship” (249). It is not something we passively await (251).
Just as Bunyan depicts the Christian life as a pilgrimage, Michaels explains that the foundation of the idea of salvation as a journey is strongly pervasive through 1 Peter. In 1 Peter 1:9, salvation is described as the goal or outcome (τέλος; telos) of one’s faith. Michaels further explains that Peter uses the term “faith,” which he distinguishes from “belief,” to connote an active sense of “faithfulness” through the ordeals of life. He explains that this is Peter’s intended meaning when he writes: “the tested genuineness of your faith” which will result in “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:5, 7).
Michaels describes 1 Peter 2:21-25 as the centerpiece of Peter’s teaching. This section is linked for the first time directly to the life of Jesus (2:21-23). Peter’s words of “calling” and “following” match closely the words of Christ in Mark’s Gospel: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Michaels highlights how Peter chooses “follow” as his controlling command rather than “believe” as it represents action and not “merely confession or the acceptance of a message” (253). Of course, this verb choice also evokes the memory of Peter’s own calling by the Lord (cf. Mark 1:16-20).
Peter’s appeal to follow the Lord is based on Jesus’ example of suffering in v.21a: “Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example.” Numerous New Testament passages describe suffering in the context of knowing Christ and following Him, but Michaels raises the important question: “What was it about Jesus’ suffering that made it worthy of imitation?” Michaels argues that we are not called to imitate the redemptive character of Christ’s sufferings, for we are not called to bear the sins of the world. Rather, Christ’s suffering is our model because it was undeserved and unjust suffering. “He suffered for doing good, not for doing evil. And in his suffering he kept on doing good” (253; cf. 1 Pet 2:22-23). Peter expands on this exhortation later: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing (1 Peter 3:9).” While disciples look forward to the “marvelous light” to which we are journeying, the path will be marked with suffering for doing good. On this point, Michaels insightfully notes that Peter is not exhorting believers to strive after suffering, which others have suggested, but that in striving after doing good, we ought to expect suffering: “Contrary to much that has been written on 1 Peter, the call to discipleship in this letter is not a call to suffering, as if suffering in itself were something good. Rather, it is a call to do good –and, furthermore, to do good even in the presence of undeserved suffering, like that faced by Jesus” (254). Michaels continues explaining this theme of suffering through 1 Peter 3. He highlights 3:18-22 with its specific reference to the purpose of Christ’s own sufferings which was “that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
In chapter 5, Peter issues a warning lest we think we have already arrived: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Bunyan’s classic offered many illustrations of the conflicts Christian encountered with the evil one. If you’ve read it, you remember well his battle with Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation after which Christian gives thanks “to him that did help me against Apollyon.” Peter encourages his readers that we must suffer “for a little while” against the devil’s wiles (1:6; 5:10) and thus, Peter urges disciples of Christ to resist him, standing firm in the faith. Michaels understands the exhortation in 5:9 to have its corollary in the verses preceding: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).
Michaels’ final point traces the importance of community in Christian discipleship. Peter’s emphasis on community is seen in a variety of ways throughout his letter: his exhortation to not only show reverence toward God but to honor everyone (1 Peter 2:17); love is to be shown to the family of believers (2:17); the household codes of 2:18-25 and 5:1-5. Michaels explains: “In community, submission to God implies submission as well to one’s believing companions, who are also pilgrims on the heavenly journey” (267).
There is much to be commended from Michaels’ insights into our discipleship as a journey. Indeed, drawing attention to the present tense aspects of our salvation is certainly important for authentic discipleship. Hopefully some of his insights in 1 Peter will encourage us in our journey of following Christ in discipleship today.
 J. Ramsey Michaels, “Going to Heaven with Jesus: From 1 Peter to Pilgrim’s Progress,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).