Greater Works Shall You Do
December 17, 2011 54 Comments
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.
-The Gospel of John 14:12, NKJV
What are these “greater works” which those who believe in Jesus Christ will do? What can be greater than calming the wind and the waves of a raging storm by rebuking [Mark 4:35-41; Matt 8:18, 23-27; Luke 8:22-25]? Halting a hurricane perhaps? Or, how does one do greater than raising Lazarus from the dead after four days [John 11:38-44]? Raising the dead after five days? Six days? Thirty days? A year?
Craig Blomberg notes Jesus’ emphatic “double-‘Amen’” [“Verily, Verily” in the KJV or “Truly, truly” in the NASB, rendered “Most assuredly” above, which literally translates as “Amen, amen”] yet, “it is not likely that the later church would invent a saying ascribed to Jesus susceptible to the interpretation that the disciples were greater than their master.”1 So, what does this verse mean? What are these “greater works” we will do?
Bill Johnson, Senior Pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, CA, teaches that Jesus is referring to greater signs and wonders. This is based, in part, on Johnson’s claim that Jesus Christ performed the miraculous merely as “a man in right relationship to God…not as God”2 who was “completely dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit working through Him”3 because He had “laid his divinity aside”4 in His “self-imposed restriction to live as a man”5 therefore possessing “NO supernatural capabilities whatsoever”.6 In Johnson’s theology, if Jesus Christ could do all He did as a Spirit-moved man, then Holy Spirit indwelt Christians should be able to exceed the greatness, the quality, of Jesus’ miracle workings:
Jesus’ prophecy of us doing greater works than He did has stirred the Church to look for some abstract meaning to this very simple statement. Many theologians seek to honor the works of Jesus as unattainable, which is religion, fathered by unbelief. It does not impress God to ignore what He promised under the guise of honoring the work of Jesus on the earth. Jesus’ statement is not that hard to understand. Greater means ‘greater.’ And, the works He referred to are signs and wonders. It will not be a disservice to Him to have a generation obey Him, and go beyond His own high-water mark. He showed us what one person could do who has the Spirit without measure. What could millions do? That was His point, and it became His prophecy.
This verse is often explained away by saying it refers to quantity of works, not quality. As you can see, millions of people should be able to surpass the sheer number of works that Jesus did simply because we are so many. But that waters down the intent of His statement. The word greater is mizon [sic] in the Greek. It is found 45 times in the New Testament. It is always used to describe ‘quality,’ not quantity.7
Johnson is correct in that the Greek word meizon (not mizon)8 refers to greater in quality rather than quantity. But are the ‘greater works’ referring to “signs and wonders” as in calming storms and raising the dead? Gary Burge asserts, “The promise can hardly mean that the efforts of disciples will exceed those of Jesus who, for instance, provided the stupendous miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead.”9 Andreas Kostenberger reflects:
Do greater things than Jesus did? This claim seems daring. The difficulty evaporates when one realizes that these ‘greater works’ are still works of Jesus, now carried out from his exalted position with the Father through his commissioned, faithful followers. Because Jesus is now with the Father, we can expect to do greater works than even Jesus did: on the basis of his once-for-all death on the cross, and in answer to believing prayer for all that is necessary to accomplish the mission Jesus never relinquished.10
And what was Jesus’ mission?
“Because I Go to My Father”
J. Louis Martyn refers to the “highly paradoxical”11 nature of this verse. However, the key to interpreting and understanding this verse, as in any Scripture, is to keep it in its proper context as “he clearly says in the promise that all this will take place because he is going to the Father.”12 What occurs after His Ascension? Two things: 1) Jesus is now at the right hand of the Father providing intercession for us as our Mediator through prayers in His name; and, 2) after Pentecost, all true Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. For more complete context, here are verses 12 through 17a in the NIV (1984):
12I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father. 13And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.
15If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — 17the Spirit of truth. [NIV 1984]
Kostenberger: “For once Jesus is exalted in his Father’s presence, believers will be able to pray to the Father in Jesus’ name, and Jesus himself will answer these prayers.”13 Burge states, “What is ‘greater’ is that these works will be done by regular people in whom the power of Christ has taken up residence following his glorification.”14 However, Kostenberger adds, “understanding the impact of Jesus’ words to his original audience requires historical imagination. For what was a novel vision for Jesus’ first followers has become an everyday reality for us today: to be indwelt by the Spirit and to pray – in Jesus’ name”.15 (Kostenberger also clarifies, “Praying in Jesus’ name does not involve magical incantation but rather expresses alignment of one’s desires and purposes with God [1 John 5:14-15]”,16 i.e. obedience to the written Word [v 15].) While both of these should remain awe-inspiring to the child of God, these privileges are, shamefully, very easy to take for granted.
Partnering with God Rather Than Exceeding His Greatness
Martyn sees in John 14:12 a continuation of partnering with Jesus which Jesus Himself had told His disciples back in John 9:4 (and first mentioned in 3:11): “We must work the works of him who sent me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” [NASB].17 This will progress until the culmination of all things:
The work of Jesus appears not to be terminated in the time of his earthly life. On the contrary, his going to the Father inaugurates a time in which his followers do his works. Indeed, 9:4a leads us to see this continuation of Jesus’ works as an activity of the Risen Lord in the deeds of Christian witnesses.18
After Jesus’ glorification, the Father sent “another Counselor” [Helper, Advocate, Comforter], another parakletos (Paraclete) [v 15], the “Spirit of truth” [v 17; 15:26; 16:13]. This other Paraclete is invisible to the world as the world does not know Him [14:17]. Yet, He will teach believers all things [14:26]. He will bear witness of Jesus [15:26]; He will glorify Jesus [16:14] not speaking of His own authority, only what He hears [16:13]. He will judge the world and convict of sin [16:8-11].19
Observing some obvious parallels between Jesus and the Paraclete (parakletos), Martyn illustrates how the Gospel writer compares these to believers. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world [17:18 (NIV) compared to Jesus in 8:42 and the Holy Spirit in 15:26/14:26, also 12:49/14:24 and 16:13]. The reason that the world does not know us [believers] is that it did not know him [1 John 3:1 (NIV), also John 17:25, compared to 8:19/17:25 and 14:17]. And you [believers] will bear witness also… [15:27 (NASB) compared to 8:14 and 15:26]. Noting the current application of the narrative of John 9, Martyn states of 9:39, “Jesus [in the person of the Christian Witness] said, ‘For judgment I came into the world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind’” [compared to 3:18-19 and 16:13]. And, lastly, Martyn sees Jesus’ work extending into the present through believers specifically in the “greater works” verse: 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 [14:12 (NASB) compared to 14:25 and 14:26/16:13].20
So, while Jesus literally healed the blind man by giving him the eyesight he never had [9:1-11], there is also a figurative/spiritual application in this teaching narrative/discourse as spiritual sight in contrast to spiritual blindness [9:35-41]. Jesus tells the unbelieving Pharisees [‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath’ – 9:16 NIV], “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” [9:41 NIV]. These Pharisees were now guilty because they remained in their sins despite seeing the Son of God:
39And Jesus said, ‘For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see; and those who see may become blind.’ [John 9:39 NASB]
Yet the man formerly blind from birth passed from eternal death to eternal life as he gained his spiritual sight [9:38-39] – something much more important than merely receiving physical sight!
As J. Louis Martyn rephrases, “this [miraculous works to include healing] is not terminated in Jesus’ earthly lifetime…but rather…the Risen Lord continues his earthly ministry in the work of his servant, the Christian preacher…”21 This is the privilege of all children of God as we preach the true Gospel – that we are hopeless sinners in need of a Savior who has already paid the price for our sin debt – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth [14:17; 15:26; 16:13] works through us, His children, convicting of sin [16:8-11] leading to repentance. While there will be those in the world who wish to hold on to their sin and thus hate God and His disciples [15:18-25], it is still our distinct privilege to preach the Gospel to the lost.
To reiterate, the Holy Spirit does not speak on His own, only what He hears [16:13], which means He does not glorify Himself or even bring any attention to Himself whatsoever as He will bear witness to and glorify Jesus Christ [15:26; 16:14] instead. And by extension, we, as Holy Spirit indwelt Christians, do the same: we do not glorify or magnify ourselves but rather we bear witness [15:27] to and glorify Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior by the power of the Spirit working through us.
Eternal Life – The Greatest of Miracles
F. F. Bruce finds precedence of the “greater works” motif of John 14:12 in 5:20:
When, after the healing at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus affirmed that the works he did were those which the Father showed him, he added, ‘he will show him greater works than these, to give you cause for marvel’ (John 5:20). Now [in 14:12] he tells his disciples that they in turn would do the works that he did. That must have been surprising enough. But what were they to think when he went on to say that, because he was going to the Father, they would do even greater works than they had seen him do?22
Likewise, so does D. A. Carson see 5:20’s “greater works” in 14:12. As per Kostenberger’s BECNT commentary, “[Carson] correctly locates the clues to a proper understanding of 14:12 in the parallel in 5:20 and in the final clause ‘because I am going to the Father,’ and points to the disciples’ greater understanding after the resurrection in the ‘new eschatological age that will have dawned.’”23 For a better understanding of how 5:20 relates to 14:12 we need to take a closer look into the pool of Bethesda.
The pool of Bethesda is the place where individuals of various afflictions would congregate waiting for someone to stir the pool assuming this stirring would provide curative powers in its waters [5:7]. Jesus met the paralytic man waiting beside the pool, told him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” [5:8], and the man was cured, then he picked up his mat and walked away [5:9]. Since this miracle was performed on the Sabbath [5:9], the Jews informed the now healed man that it was unlawful to work (carry his mat) on the Sabbath [5:10] according to their extra-biblical oral tradition. Jesus later found the former paralytic and said, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” [5:14]. This prefigures the healing of the blind man [9:1-7] who subsequently received his spiritual sight [9:39] by believing Jesus to be the Son of Man [9:35; cf. Daniel 7:13], the Messiah (Anointed One) [Daniel 9:26], then believing in and worshiping Him.
The Jews were angry that Jesus not only healed on the Sabbath, but that He instructed the man to ‘sin’ by ‘working’ on the Sabbath [5:16]. Once Jesus equated Himself with God as God’s Son working on the Sabbath along with His Father [5:17], the Jews desired all the more to kill him [5:18]. Jesus responds by reiterating His relationship with the Father as both His Son [5:19] and His equal [5:20-21], and, further, by claiming that Jesus Himself will judge rather than the Father [5:22; cf. 14:6 – “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”]. Blomberg expounds, “Verses 21-22 refer to two major ‘works’ that Jews recognized God continued to perform on the Sabbath – giving life (as children were born) and exercising judgment (as people died).”24
20 For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and greater works than these will He show Him, that you may marvel.
21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.
22 For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son,
23 in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.
24 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.
25 Truly, Truly I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear shall live.
26 For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself;
27 and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. [John 5:20-27, NASB; emphasis added]
The “greater works” [5:20] referred to in this passage – greater than healing a paralytic on the Sabbath – is the fact that Jesus “gives life to whom He wishes” [5:21], which means providing “eternal life” [5:24] in the then present [5:25] continuing till the eschaton (end of all things). In addition, Jesus has been given authority to judge all [5:22] in the then present [5:24] and at the eschaton [5:27-29]. He provides eternal life to those who honor Him [5:23a] while judging those who refuse [5:23b]. The thief on the Cross is an example of how Jesus ‘gave life to whom He wished’ [Luke 23:43] during His earthly ministry. Conversely, after witnessing the blind man who could subsequently see, the Pharisees met Jesus’ judgment [9:39-41] for their unbelief in Jesus as the Christ/Messiah.
Like the Father, Jesus could give life (5:21; cf. 17:2); this made him act in a divine manner. The resurrection of the dead was a divine work, specifically attributed to God…God was widely viewed as the giver of life, hence the only one who life was not contingent on a giver of life…In the context, the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda prefigures in a small way the resurrection; Jesus will raise the dead, just as he told the lame man to ‘rise’…That he gives life to ‘whomever he wills’ (5:21) reinforces the image of divinity in this Gospel; God made alive (cf. 6:57, 63) and drew to life those whom he willed (6:37, 44, 65; cf. 3:8).
The discourse reports a number of divine activities the Father has ‘given’ the Son: judgment (5:22, 27), life in himself (5:26), and divine works (5:36; cf. 5:20)…27
For those who insist, like Bill Johnson, that Jesus performed all His miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, the above Scripture [5:20-27 and the others Keener cites] irrefutably proves otherwise. To assert the Holy Spirit was the vehicle used in Jesus’ ‘giving life to whom He wishes’ and ‘executing judgment’ is to defy logic. How could Jesus ‘give life to whom He wishes’ (and its converse – execute judgment) if He was dependent upon the Holy Spirit instead? Or, did Jesus command the Holy Spirit to give life to whom He willed? Of course not; if Jesus was functioning strictly as a man dependent on God, as Johnson asserts, then He certainly could not command God the Holy Spirit to obey Him.
Furthermore, if we were to assume (incorrectly, of course) that Jesus relied on the Holy Spirit both to “give life” [5:21, 24-25] and “execute judgment” [5:22, 24, 27], then Holy Spirit indwelt Christians should be able to ‘give life to whom we choose’ and judge those whom we wish to judge. Of course we can neither grant eternal life/judgment to anyone in and of ourselves nor can we command the Holy Spirit to do so [however, Christians do have a role in judgment after the eschaton, cf. Matthew 19:28; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3]. Instead, we play an integral role in effecting eternal life (or judgment) as the privileged vehicle through which the Holy Spirit works in and through as we preach the true Gospel and as we humbly pray for others in Jesus’ name.
The greatest miracle of all is the changed hearts of individuals as they transition from eternal death to eternal life by the acceptance of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ: by believing and confessing that Christ died on the Cross in propitiation for the collective sins of mankind, was raised from the dead, and by acknowledging individual inherent sinfulness and subsequently repenting, one is spared God’s eternal wrath, passing from death to everlasting life.
Nineteenth century expositor J. C. Ryle puts it succinctly:
In short, ‘greater works’ mean more conversions. There is no greater work possible than the conversion of a soul.28
Keener, commenting on 14:12, asserts “The promise of ‘greater works’ calls John’s audience to look not only backward but also to the present, where Christ continues to remain active through his presence by the Paraclete and his proclaimed word.”29 The “greater works” then refers to Christians, mere mortals, whom the Holy Spirit works in and through to effect salvation to those who believe in the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and are saved, in contrast to exacting judgment on those who refuse Him and His sacrifice. This is “greater” than Jesus who did these things as God – not a Spirit-moved man – during His earthly ministry.
1 Blomberg, Craig. The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel. 2001, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL; p 199
2 Johnson, Bill. When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. 2003, Treasure House/Destiny Image, Shippensburg, PA; p 29. Ellipse in original.
3 Johnson; p 29
4 Johnson; p 79. In original text a footnote follows this phrase referring to Philippians 2:5-7, a proof-text used for those propounding the unorthodox/heterodox kenosis doctrine.
5 Johnson; p 29
6 Johnson; p 29
7 Johnson; p 185. Underscore from emphasis (italics) in original; bolding added for emphasis.
8 Strong, James; J. R. Kohlenberger, III and J. A. Swanson, eds. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. 2001, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI; pp 440, 1514. Meizon is Strong’s # 3187.
9 Burge, Gary M. “John’s Gospel” in Evans, Craig A., ed. The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John, Hebrews – Revelation. 2005, Victor/Cook Communications Ministries, Colorado Springs, CO; p 127
10 Kostenberger, Andreas J. “John” in Arnold, Clinton E., gen. ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Volume 2: John, Acts. 2002, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI; p 139. Emphasis added.
11 Martyn, J. Louis History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. 2003 (3rd ed. rev. (1968)), Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY; p 135
12 Martyn; p 136. Italics in original.
13 Kostenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John (Encountering Biblical Series). July 2009 (8th prtg (paperback), (1999)), Baker, Grand Rapids, MI; p 156. Italics in original.
14 Burge; p 127
15 Kostenberger, Encountering John; p 156
16 Kostenberger, Andreas J. John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. July 2009 (4th prtg (2004)), Baker, Grand Rapids, MI; p 433-434
17 Martyn; p 38 including important footnote 20. Pronoun emphasis in original: We (Jesus and His disciples and, by extension, all subsequent believers) are to partner with the Father (the one “who sent me”). This was begun in 3:11: “I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.” [NIV 1984]
18 Martyn; pp 38-39. Emphasis added.
19 This section somewhat roughly follows the outline of Martyn; pp 137-138
20 This is adapted from a chart in and quoted from Martyn; pp 141-142.
21 Martyn; pp 39-40
22 Bruce, F. F. The Gospel & Epistles of John. 1983, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI; p 300. Bruce notes in the Preface, “The biblical text which is printed at the head of each section of the exposition is my translation from the Greek of the Nestle-Aland edition of 1979.” This explains why the translation of 5:20 is not exactly like any other.
23 Kostenberger, John: Baker Exegetical Commentary; p 433 (footnote) citing Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John: Pillar New Testament Commentary. 1999, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI; pp 495-496
24 Blomberg; p 114
25 Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume Two. 2010 (1st softcover ed, (2003)), Hendrickson, Peabody, MA; p 947
26 Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume One. 2010 (1st softcover ed, (2003)), Hendrickson, Peabody, MA; p 651
27 Keener, Gospel of John: Vol. One; pp 650-651. Emphasis added.
28 Ryle, J. C. “Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: John 13:1-21:25” Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Volume Four (John 10:31-21:35). 2007 (1878), Baker, Grand Rapids, MI; p 67. Originally part of a seven volume series with one each of Matthew and Mark, two of Luke (1-10 & 11-24), and three of John (1-6:70; 7-12:50; 13:1-21:35) beginning in 1856 and completed in 1878.
29 Keener, Gospel of John: Vol. Two; p 947. In the larger context of Keener’s thoughts here, it seems he is promoting the idea of ‘greater works’ as signs and wonders. However, he also notes that the various contexts of ‘works’ in John’s Gospel “indicates that these may include miraculous signs (5:20, 36; 7:3; 9:3-4; 10:25, 32-33, 37-38; 15:24) but also his mission as a whole”; and “…’works’ in this Gospel includes doing God’s will” (p 946; emphasis mine). Yet, Keener also contends that ‘greater’ would “imply “greater magnitude” (p 947), with no further comment indicating what that could be. Jesus’ “mission as a whole” was salvific, and that seems to be the main point of the Upper Room discourse. Miracles, in the sense of signs and wonders, may or may not attend the proclamation of the Gospel, but it’s the conversion that it is the ‘greater work’.