When last did you do greater works than Jesus? Do you find it a shocking question? Well, it is based on a very explicit promise of our Lord.
Jesus said, ‘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’ (John 14:12).
This verse has been the source of much controversy. It has precipitated uncertainties and doubts in countless hearts. It has also been used to support heresies and deceptions without number. But it is written, nevertheless, black on white! There is no doubt whatsoever about its textual authenticity.
Let’s take a closer look at these puzzling words. After all, when a saying of Jesus starts with ‘truly, truly’ (amen, amen), we should jump to attention. These words invariably introduce some of the most solemn and profound statements of our Lord.
They tell us that all the authority and affirmation of the Son of God himself is behind a particular announcement. A closer look at this promise is, therefore, very revealing.
First, it is given to him ‘who believes in me’. John uses his peculiar way (in Greek) to describe saving faith, as to believe into Christ. This faith is, therefore, not something exclusive, of which only a very few spiritual giants partake. It is the faith given to all in Christ. It is saving faith.
Second, the promise is given to every individual Christian. The singular is used throughout. It is not a promise to the church corporately.
Third, the Greek word ‘greater’ (megas) denotes a difference of degree and not a difference of number (polus). It means greater, rather than more.
Fourth, a burning question is what Jesus means by the word ‘works’. Apart from this verse, ‘works’ occurs 26 times in John’s Gospel. In eight cases, man in general is the subject, with the works referring to his actions, whether good or evil. In 18 cases, however, Jesus himself is the subject, with the works referring twice to the whole of his earthly work (4:34; 17:4), and 16 times to his miracles.
When this information is applied to our verse, the following can be stated. The ‘works’ of Jesus’ disciples referred to here cannot be ordinary human deeds like the eight cases above, because they are compared to Jesus’ works and are clearly of the same nature.
But also these ‘works’ can clearly not be compared to the whole of his earthly work. So one alternative remains — these ‘works’ of the disciples are compared to the miracles of Jesus!
The immediate context confirms this. In the previous two verses Jesus refers to his works, clearly his miracles (John 14:10-12). Then, the condition for and key to the fulfilment of this staggering promise is Jesus’ departure to the Father.
This was, of course, the prerequisite for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33). The disciples would not do these ‘works’ in their own strength, but through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit based on the finished work of Christ.
No thorough, responsible and honest exegesis can escape the conclusion that Jesus promises true believers that they, like him, would perform, in the power of the Holy Spirit, astounding miraculous things; in fact, that these things would be even greater than the miracles that he performed during the time of his humiliation!
So what about the fulfilment of this promise? Following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the early church entered into experiences never known by believers before.
Much is said about amazing miracles in the book of Acts. It would, therefore, seem logical to see in all this the fulfilment of the promise in John 14:12. Many people hold this position. And without doubt they have a case worthy of respect, deserving closer attention.
Should they be right, hardly any verse in Scripture can have more profound practical implications for the church of our day. But a careful and thoughtful study of the Word of God and church history reveals serious flaws in this particular view.
It crumbles under at least two undeniable realities: first that the promise is made to each and every believer, but at no time over 20 centuries (including the first century AD) has the miraculous (in the sense of the above interpretation) been the typical experience of Christians in general.
And second, in no way can it be said of any ‘miracles’ happening since the day of Pentecost, that they have surpassed the miracles of our Lord in greatness.
Does this mean that we have here a promise of our Lord which has failed to materialise? Many are the disillusioned who have this suspicion lurking in their hearts. (It is indeed, for many other reasons as well, one of the pastoral tragedies of our day that numerous people have, due to false expectations in this matter, been disillusioned into spiritual paralysis.)
However, as will be shown next month, this promise has indeed been fulfilled millions of times since the day of Pentecost.
Nico van der Walt
Picture: Spread of Christianity in Europe (dark blue to AD325; light blue to AD 600)
To be concluded