What Does It Mean that Believers Will Do “Greater Works” Than Jesus Did (John 14:12)?

On the night before his crucifixion Jesus is huddled together with his inner circle of disciples, giving them final instructions before he goes to complete his self-sacrificial mission. In the middle of the conversation he makes an astounding promise:

“Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:12-13 ESV, emphasis added).

Just what exactly does Jesus mean when he says that those who believe in him will do even “greater works” than him?

After all, we’re talking about the Son of God here — the man who turned water into wine, walked across a lake, and made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the dead rise back to life. It’s difficult to imagine little old me topping all of that (regardless of how much I’d love to be able to convert a Dasani bottle into a Cabernet Sauvignon!).

Even more than that — beyond the miracles and the healings — Jesus gave his life as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He did the unique work of the Messiah in atoning for sins and making eternal life attainable. And then he came back to life from the dead.

So, again — how exactly is your average Christian capable of doing greater works than that? It’s a question I’ve often pondered, so when I was asked it again the other day I decided I’d finally write out my perspective on the matter, for what it’s worth.

In wrestling with this text, I’ve come to four major conclusions. And while I could be wrong, I hope at least that my reasons for these four claims will be understandable.

Claim #1: This text is not a warrant for charismania.

First off, here’s one thing I’m very convinced the passage does not mean. I’m convinced it is not saying that every Christian needs to carry this unbearable burden of thinking they are expected to miraculously heal paralytics or raise dead people back to life on command.

Why do I think this? Because the Bible elsewhere clearly teaches that not every Christian will perform physical miracles.

In 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, the apostle Paul throws out a slew of rhetorical questions that, in the original Greek, are all phrased in a way that implies an answer of “No“: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” Paul’s language clearly implies that not every believer is given the gift of performing miraculous works of power (although some are).

And yet, Jesus’s words in John 14:12 are inclusive. “Whoever believes in me.” That’s all believers. So then, what exactly are these “greater works”?

I think the answer revolves mainly around two things. One is the purpose of Jesus’s works in John’s Gospel. The other is his statement that these works are possible “because” he was “going to the Father.”

Claim #2: “Works” is broader than just “miracles.”

Consider the purpose of Jesus’s own works in John’s Gospel. Many times throughout the book Jesus’s miracles are referred to as “signs” (2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:54; 6:2, 14; 7:31; 9:16, etc.). This is a loaded term, biblically speaking, but to put it simply it means that Jesus’s miracles were pointers to his identity as the Messiah. They were symbolic acts declaring that he was the One predicted by Israel’s prophets, with the power and authority to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth.

As Jesus himself explains in John 5:36, “the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.”

I think it’s worth pointing out that when Jesus talks about “works” here (and thus also probably in chapter 14), he’s talking about a much broader range of activity than just miracles. He’s talking about everything that he’s been doing in conjunction with the Father’s mission. That includes: preaching and teaching, proclaiming the good news about the Kingdom, befriending sinners and outcasts, ministering to the poor, observing Sabbath worship, making disciples — and yes, sometimes miracles as well.

And when it came to those miracles, they were just one of the many tools in Jesus’s toolkit for helping people recognize their need to give him their allegiance. They were a means to an end. Jesus wasn’t turning water into wine or healing the blind simply for people to live more comfortable lives; he was revealing to them that he was the Christ so that they could believe in him. Physical results weren’t the primary goal — spiritual results were. It was about convincing people that Jesus was who he said he was.

And even then, the results were quite mixed, due to peoples’ false motives and refusal to believe even if they did see a miracle (see John 6:30-31; Mark 8:11-12). By the end of his ministry, Jesus had a mere handful of followers to show for himself, and those few were racked with doubt, plagued with failure, and hiding in fear. Turns out miracles aren’t always the “greatest” way to get spiritual results.

And that’s why that little phrase “because I am going to the Father” is so crucial.

Because it was only after the glory of Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, and the coming of the promised Holy Spirit into his followers, that the true “greater works” could begin. The “greater works” of preaching the fullness of Jesus’s identity as the crucified and resurrected Lord, and of making new converts in his name by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Claim #3: It’s about the greater era of the New Covenant.

Later in this section of John’s Gospel, Jesus says that his “going away” to the Father is necessary for the Holy Spirit to be sent (John 14:26; 16:7). We mustn’t miss the connection in his language of “going to the Father.” It is the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that will enable the “greater works.”

This is why I think the clearest example in Scripture of such “greater works” being done occurs in Acts 2. The apostle Peter — formerly a deserter and a coward, but now filled with the Spirit and armed with a fuller understanding of Jesus’s divine identity — preaches the gospel to the crowds in Jerusalem to the result of three thousand souls experiencing eternal life (Acts 2:41).

What’s more, while Jesus’s earthly ministry touched only the region of Palestine and resulted in merely a small band of followers, believers since then have spread the gospel throughout the entire world. As biblical scholar Joseph Dongell writes,

“What Jesus could not do alone (before His glorification and the sending of the Spirit), He would do on a far greater scale through the mission of His followers. Their mission, offering the ‘greater miracle’ of new birth and offering it on ‘greater scale’ to the world, stands as the ‘greater ministry’ through which the risen Lord now works through the prayers of His people.” [1]

In this respect, we should compare Christ’s words about how even the lowliest believer under the new covenant is greater than the greatest of old covenant prophets: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).

In the same way, we might say, even the least act of love done or prayer said in the name of Christ under the New Covenant is greater than the greatest miracle under the Old — if it helps reveal Christ, to the glory of the Father.

Claim #4: This is how the passage has been understood for a looong time.

Here I think it’s worthwhile to note that this understanding of the passage is not novel. Rather, it has been held by numerous important interpreters throughout church history.

St. Augustine of Hippo, writing in the early 400s AD, points out how “more believed on the apostles than on the Lord Himself, when preaching with His own lips; so that we might suppose works like these to be understood as greater: not that the disciple was to be greater than his Master, …but that by them He Himself would condescend to do these greater works…. Did not that rich man go away sad from His presence, when seeking counsel about eternal life? He heard, and cast it away: and yet in after days the counsel that fell on his ears was followed, not by one, but by many, when the good Master was speaking by the disciples; He was an object of contempt to the rich man, when warned by Himself directly, and of love to those whom by means of poor men He transformed from rich into poor. Here, then, you see, He did greater works when preached by believers, than when speaking Himself to hearers.” [2]

Around the same time, St. Cyril of Alexandria explains in his commentary on John that Jesus’ works were done in his humility, when his glory as God was concealed; but now believers do his work with the fuller glory of the new age, the age of the Spirit. Our work of spreading the gospel is done with the full revelation of the cross and resurrection behind us (or, as Cyril puts it, “the mystery of the dispensation in the flesh” is over). [3]

John Wesley likewise joins this chorus, writing in his Explanatory Notes on Scripture: “So one apostle wrought miracles merely by his shadow (Acts 5:15); another by handkerchiefs carried from his body (Acts 19:12); and all spake with various tongues. But the converting one sinner is a greater work than all these.”

Conclusion

In sum, I believe that Jesus’s post-resurrection work in and through believers is greater than the works of his earthly ministry because it is the work of a greater age — the age when Jesus is reigning at the right hand of the Father — and it is greater in scope and reach.

We are working to bring the light of the gospel to the whole world, not just Israel. We operate with a greater awareness of who Jesus is and how salvation is attainable through faith in him. As Augustine points out, Jesus enjoys greater results through his church than he did during the three years he preached in Israel. And as Cyril says, he pursues his work through us in the greater era of the Spirit.

Again, none of this is to say that Christ doesn’t continue to work mighty miracles through his people. We need only continue reading Acts to see examples, such as Peter’s healing of the lame man (Acts 3:1-10), or Ananias restoring Paul’s sight (Acts 9:10-19). I also hesitate to discount the myriad reports of miracles continuing to occur, especially in “frontline” missional contexts, around the world even today.

But I think we do injustice to John 14:12 if we turn it into a blanket promise that every Christian should expect to cure paraplegics or resuscitate corpses. It can cause well-meaning readers of Scripture to feel a burden they were never meant to bear, and it also ignores the variety of the “work” our heavenly Father wants us to do — work that is often not flashy but instead very mundane.

If raising the (physical) dead is a great work, bringing people new birth through the gospel is an even greater work. And that doesn’t always take a miracle of healing or power. Sometimes it just takes us being willing to actually go show love to hurting people (especially our enemies, or that Democrat/Republican you’ve been arguing with). If it effectively points people to the truth of who Jesus is, then it is the greatest work.

Even so, and in light of that, we do need to hear Jesus’s words in the way they were originally meant: as an encouragement to get out and do the greater work of his Kingdom. To go minister with boldness, confident that Jesus wants to do his work in and through us. And to ask for great results in evangelism in his name. When was the last time you prayed for the conversion of a lost soul with the expectation that Christ will answer?

Believers need to be abiding in Jesus (John 15) and obeying the leading of his Spirit to go and do the works he is calling us to do each day. To be his hands and feet in this world. After all, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8).


[1] Joseph Dongell, John: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1997), 176.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, Tractate 72 (John 14:10-14), translated by John Gibb, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7, edited by Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701072.htm).

[3] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, LFC 43, 48 (1874/1885), Book 9, Vol. 2 (https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/cyril_on_john_09_book9.htm).



Categories: Bible study, New Testament

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