The key which unlocks the meaning of John 14:12 — ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do, because I go to the Father’ — is to be found in the purpose of John’s Gospel.
John’s purpose is vitally important for understanding his method for putting his message across. That purpose is expressed this way: ‘And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name’ (20:30-31).
John has carefully selected a number of signs in order that his readers ‘may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God’.
His Gospel is meticulously planned around seven signs or miracles of Jesus. These are strung together by some of the most profound discourses of our Lord (relating to and interpreting the signs).
In 1:19-52, Jesus the Christ takes over the baton from the herald, John the Baptist. Jesus leads sceptical Nathanael to faith and confession by giving him a very personal sign (1:44-52). He then announces: ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that’.
There can be no doubt that Jesus here refers to the many miracles which would authenticate him as Messiah (v.52). In 20:19-29 the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples and commissions them. So the baton of action is once again handed on.
Then Jesus leads the sceptical Thomas to faith and confession (20:28) by giving him a very personal ‘sign’ (20:27), which is proof of Jesus’ ultimate sign — the resurrection (cf. 2:18-22). Jesus then announces what is to follow.
Thomas has come to faith by witnessing with his own eyes Jesus’ final sign to unbelieving man, but what about future generations after Christ’s departure? How would they come to faith?
Jesus’ announcement is consolatory beyond words: ‘Thomas, you believe, having seen. And this is no small thing, because it brings you eternal life. However, from now on, something even more remarkable, something greater will take place: people will believe, without having seen any signs!’
The correlation between Nathanael’s and Thomas’ respective encounters with the Lord is unmistakable. Both are told by others ‘we have found him’ (1:45), ‘we have seen him’ (20:25); both react sceptically (1:46; 20:25); both receive a personal sign (1:47-48; 20:27); both believe and call out a profound confession (1:49; 20:28).
Both receive an announcement concerning what was to follow, amounting to: it is good that you believe, but much more remarkable things are to follow — greater things (1:50-51; 20:29).
What is more, both encounters are part and parcel of two of the most important transitions of all revelation history. In the first, the Son of God is about to start his public ministry on earth and things never known before would become the order of the day. The sovereign God would work in a completely new way.
In the second, the disciples are about to start their ministry, having been sent as Jesus had been sent (20:21). And things never known before would become the order of the day. The sovereign God would work in a completely new way — sinners would believe without having seen!
This analysis helps us to see clearly the solution to the riddle of John 14:12. What are the greater works the disciples would do? After the departure of Jesus, having become partakers of the Holy Spirit, they would lead people to true saving faith in Jesus Christ!
They would, of course, not do this in their own strength. Only the Holy Spirit can bring somebody to salvation. But he does so through the disciples. They are therefore, as co-workers, completely involved. So much so, that it can indeed be said that they are doing it (cf. Acts 26:18).
This promise was wonderfully fulfilled in the ministries of the apostles, so that Peter could write some 30 years later, ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’ (1 Peter 1:8).
And, for almost 2000 years now, millions have experienced this distinctive miracle of the last days. Not only have their blind eyes received sight to see ‘him who is invisible’ (Hebrews 11:27), they have also, as co-workers of the Lord of the harvest and equipped by his Spirit, taken part in the unspeakable privilege of doing greater works than Jesus.
One question still remains. Can it honestly be said that leading someone to true faith in our day is a greater work than the miracles of Jesus?
The question can be looked at from two points of view. Firstly, consider what actually happens in the receiver of the miracle. By and large, the contemporary church has watered down the sinfulness of man (the doctrine of original sin) to such an extent that conversion is looked upon as hardly more than the pulling up of one’s religious socks.
But the Bible clearly teaches that natural man is fallen. And this means (to refer only to one portion of Scripture, Ephesians 2:1-10) that he is spiritually dead (v.1), that he is under God’s wrath (v.3), and that he is a slave of the world, Satan, and his own flesh or sinful nature (vv. 2-3).
When such a person receives the gift of saving faith in Christ (v.8), he is made spiritually alive (v.5); he is raised up into a justified life (v.6); and he is made to sit in heavenly realms in a position of authority over the world, Satan and his flesh (v.6).
Is this change a small thing? No one who has any understanding of the radical depravity of natural man, and the staggering privileges of someone united to Christ through faith, can ever think so. In fact, people who personally know the reality of this great work can never stop thinking about it in awe.
And exploring the riches of their salvation becomes a lifelong and passionate endeavour. The greatness of this greater work is therefore not primarily to be sought in numbers. The miracle is that even one believes, without having seen.
Secondly, consider the consequences for the receiver of the miracle. Jesus healed the lepers, blind, lame and dead. And we can just marvel at that. But all those people died again physically. And, without God’s saving grace, each one of them will spend eternity in hell.
On the other hand, if the Spirit’s effectual call works through my ministry but once, that person will spend all eternity in the glorious presence of God! Need more be said?
A sinner coming to saving faith in Christ is a greater thing than a Lazarus being raised from the grave. Underlining this is not to belittle the glorious ministry of our Lord on earth (God forbid!); it is accentuating the majestic sublimity of the triune God’s gracious work of re-creation in a sinner’s life.
It is putting the emphasis where God’s Word puts it. And it is celebrating the staggering biblical revelation that he uses feeble and impotent men and women as co-workers to bring about his mighty works.
O, what a privilege to say with the apostle Paul that our Lord has given us this mission, ‘I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me’ (Acts 26:17-18).
Let the reader test himself. Suppose you had to make a choice: either you could from now on have a healing ministry like Jesus and the ability to walk on water, to multiply food, and to raise the dead; or in the time left for you in this life you could enjoy the privilege of leading one person to saving faith in Christ. Which would you choose?
John 14:12 is a glorious promise. But it is more. It is also an implicit command. Let us therefore not grow slack in our obedience to this sublime, urgent and exciting calling.
Until the King of kings returns, we can confidently conclude that all the harvest has not yet been brought in. And until that happens, we must continue doing the greatest of all miracles.
Nico van der Walt