What are the “Greater Works”?
The first option is the most straightforward, which is that Jesus was saying that all who followed him would do mighty works that were even greater, in the sense of even more impressive, dramatic and wonder-inducing, than he had done. This would be a fairly standard Pentecostal approach, and has the huge merit of being the most obvious way of taking Jesus’ words in their context, which concerns the glorification of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that all this should be a cause for rejoicing and not sadness. Yet it rarely gains traction within evangelicalism at large, for the simple reason that it is hard to imagine what these more impressive miracles might be. What could be more impressive than raising the dead, walking on water, and feeding 5,000 with a few loaves and fish? It doesn’t seem to fit with experience, either; even the most dyed-in-the-wool faith preacher would struggle to argue that everyday believers are characterised by more dramatic miracles than those of Jesus. Hmmm.
Perhaps not, the dyed-in-the-wool faith preacher might say, but that’s because we haven’t believed Jesus’ words on this one. After all, the phrase Jesus uses is “the one believing in me”, or “the one who has faith in me” – and let’s face it, lots of people from that day to this haven’t really excelled in the gift of faith. When Jesus said that people with a mustard seed’s worth of faith could move mountains, he was drawing attention to the mighty power of faith in God. Why couldn’t he be doing that here? The fact is, many would say, the ones with great faith in God really do see miracles like Jesus did, and even more so. Brother Yun teleported, and survived after fasting for significantly more than forty days. The specificity and detail of prophetic revelation given to some modern prophets goes beyond even that displayed by Jesus to the woman at the well. One friend of mine mentioned spontaneous, supernatural weight loss as an example of a “greater work” he had witnessed, among other things. And even if our track record doesn’t match up to Jesus’ at this stage, that’s not a reason to rationalise our failure to believe him, and lower our doctrine to meet our experience; rather, we need to raise our faith, and hence our experience, to the level Jesus taught in the scriptures. The problem here is that John uses the phrase “whoever believes [in me]” twelve times in his gospel, and in the other eleven he is clearly referring to saving faith. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life”, he says. “Whoever believes is not condemned. Whoever believes in me has passed from death to life.” And so on. Given that elsewhere in John “whoever believes” means “all who trust in me and follow me”, it doesn’t seem at all likely that in this one instance, the phrase is used to mean “whoever has enough faith”. But that’s the second option.
The third option, whether or not it is combined with taking umbrage at the apparent impudence of the second option (“greater than Jesus? Who do you think you are?”), is to argue that Jesus was talking about works that were greater in quantity, but not greater in quality. This, I suspect, is probably the majority view within Newfrontiers churches, along with much conservative evangelicalism: the Holy Spirit has come upon all flesh now, so the works of Jesus are being done throughout the world, in far greater reach and number than they were when it was just Jesus and his twelve (somewhat slow-on-the-uptake) disciples. This avoids us having to make qualitative comparisons between Jesus’ works and ours, and it also avoids the cognitive dissonance that may follow from expecting ours to be greater and then noticing that they’re usually not; in the words of one elder I just spoke to, “I used to believe it meant that our miracles would be more impressive than Jesus’ – but then I learned from experience that it didn’t work.” However, as convenient as this interpretation is, it is simply not what Jesus said. There is a perfectly good way of saying, in Greek, that we would do “more” works than Jesus did, but this is not the word that Jesus, or John, used. What the text says is that our works would be “greater” than his: perhaps “bigger” or “more substantial” or “more significant”, but certainly not “more numerous”. Interpreting the verse in this way would be a glaring example of forcing our exegesis to fit our experience (and in any case, it doesn’t get us off the hook of pursuing miracles, because Jesus also said we would do the same works he did). We’re running out of options.
The fourth approach is to apply the promise to the twelve disciples who were listening, but not to extrapolate beyond them to the rest of the church age. This would be consistent with a cessationist hermeneutic: the apostles would do greater works (understood as miracles) than Jesus did, but that would cease at the end of the first generation, along with the apostolic and revelatory gifts. The strength here is that the apostles did some miracles that were so extraordinary that we could argue that they were greater than those of Jesus: Peter’s shadow healing people, handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul causing demons and sicknesses to be cast out, and so on. The weakness, however, is insurmountable; as we have already seen, “whoever believes in me”, in John, simply cannot be credibly rendered “the eleven of you who believe in me now”. If Jesus had simply said “you”, as he does in 14:13-14, then this attempt might work. But he didn’t, so it doesn’t.
There are one or two other views that people could take - perhaps it was a prophetic statement that wasn’t intended to predict the future but to motivate radical obedience? perhaps Jesus was simply wrong? - but neither of these are likely to persuade anyone who has read this far. So what do we do? All of the above views appear to have significant weaknesses, the first for practical reasons, and the last three for exegetical ones. Rescuing or modifying the latter would require substantial exegetical gymnastics, the need for which would destroy the very faith that Jesus was trying to build; but the first option faces a common sense objection (what sort of miracle could possibly be greater than those of Jesus?) which has put it beyond the consideration of many interpreters.
But I’m persuaded that the first option is right anyway: Jesus was saying that whoever believed in him, from that day to this and irrespective of their possession of a particular spiritual gift, would do even bigger, grander and more impressive miracles than he had, because he was ascending to the Father and sending the Holy Spirit. I suspect that, when I said at the beginning of this piece that it was the most straightforward interpretation, few readers disagreed. Intuitively, in other words, it’s what most of us read it to mean, until we are mugged by our own experience and forced to change it. Exegetically, it is undeniably strong, because it takes each word in the normal Johannine sense, and doesn’t engage in lexical or grammatical tomfoolery to make the interpretation fit. It also passes the “what would the original hearers have thought he meant?” test with flying colours, not to mention the (often worth considering) “would critical scholars accuse me of trying to rescue Christianity from the Bible?” test. Jesus, I believe, was saying simply that his followers would do even greater works than he had.
Like what? Walking on air, rather than walking on water? Calming hurricanes, not just storms? Well, here’s where the wider context of John’s gospel is so helpful. Jesus talks about “greater works” or “greater things” in two other places in John, and they help us significantly when it comes to establishing what he means in this case:
1:50-51: Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
5:20-21, 24-29: “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will ... Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
So in the two other places in John where Jesus (or anybody) speaks of greater miracles, the context is the vindication of the Son of Man, and his prerogative to judge the world and give eternal life to anybody who believes. To Nathanael, he says: seeing you under the fig tree when I wasn’t physically near you is nothing in comparison to my exaltation as Son of Man and judge of the world. To the Judeans, he says: I can only heal because it’s what my Father is doing, but what will really make you marvel is the greater works that are coming - the gift of resurrection life to anyone who believes in me. In other words, prophetic insight and physical healing are great works. But giving someone eternal life, so that they are resurrected to life on the last day, is even greater.
In saying this, Jesus isn’t disparaging miraculous healing or prophecy; far from it. It’s wonderful that Nathanael was known, the crippled man was healed and Lazarus was raised (and that we, as Jesus’ followers, get to do the same sorts of works between us). Throughout John’s gospel, great emphasis is placed on these things as “signs” of who Jesus really is. But it’s even more wonderful that those who believe in him, by our proclamation and embodiment of the gospel, are able to minister eternal life to people, such that they will certainly be raised up on the last day. That, I think, is the impact of his statement in John 14:12. “I’m telling you the truth, if anyone believes in me, they’ll do the sorts of things I’ve been doing - miraculous healings, prophetic revelation, feeding the hungry and laying their lives down for others out of love - and they’ll even do the “greater things” I’ve been talking about, like bringing resurrection life to people who are dead to the Father and dead to me, so that they pass from judgment to life. My works have repaired people temporarily, and that ministry must and will continue amongst my followers, as signposts to my glory and my love for them. But when the Spirit comes, those who follow me will repair people eternally, by transferring them from death to life through faith in me. That’s even greater.”
He was right, you know. He always is.
Andrew Wilson’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, will be released on 16 March, published by IVP, and is now available to preorder - with a generous discount for readers of this blog.