Tuesday, November 08, 2011


"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."
(John 14:12 ESV)

What does Jesus mean to say here? Maybe you’ve heard someone teach that this verse proves that every believer should be healing the sick, doing miracles on a daily basis and generally out-Jesusing-Jesus on a daily basis. If you haven’t heard this verse used to teach this, you should probably prepare yourself for the inevitability.

Before I get into the scholarship of this verse, let me first go straight to the common sense response to this argument. If Jesus intends to teach here that every believer will "do greater things" than He did (meaning bigger miracles), then either Jesus is a liar, or the Church failed from the very beginning to accomplish this. Of course a third option is that Jesus didn’t mean this at all, but we’ll examine that option in a moment.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Jesus did mean that He expected His disciples to do greater miracles than He did if they had faith in Him. If that is what He meant, then why don’t we see Peter feeding the One Million? Why don’t we see Paul running across the water? Why don’t we read about James or John flying through the air like Neo? These miracles would be "greater" than the miracles performed by Jesus, but we don’t see any of the early Christians doing greater, bigger, more fantastic miracles than Jesus did. Yes, we do see Paul and Peter healing people on occasion. We do see them casting out demons. We do even see a teleportation through space when Philip disappears after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch, but that's a singular event. Besides, Philip didn’t do that. It was God who transported Him away as the man was coming up out of the water. No one was more surprised by this than Philip, I would imagine.

So, if we don’t see a steady progression of "greater" miracles than Jesus did being performed by the early Christians as normative, we must conclude that either the Apostles didn’t believe in (or "have faith in") Jesus, or that Jesus was mistaken about this ability of disciples to do more powerful miracles than He did. Or – and I think this is what’s really going on – Jesus wasn’t talking about miracles at all.

The word Jesus uses here for "works" is ergon in the Greek and it is not the same word used for miracles or signs in the Gospel of John. In fact, throughout this Gospel, John does speak of the miracles Jesus does as being "signs" that point to His identity as Messiah. The "works" (ergon) of Jesus include his miracles, but also his teaching, his preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom, his compassion for the poor, and his general ministry among the people. Therefore, "signs" are specifically (and only) the working of miracles while "works" is a blending of practical service, teaching, preaching, and working of miracles.

So, Jesus begins by saying that those who "believe" in Him as Messiah (those who place their life into His hands and trust Him completely) will first of all "do the works" that He has been doing. Namely, they will preach the Gospel, they will care for the sick, they will feed the poor, they will serve one another, etc. The gist is that Jesus expects His disciples to follow His example of service and compassion to others. Next, Jesus says that "because I am going to the Father" these works will be "greater".

For example, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised falls on the Disciples, When Peter stands up to preach (something that Jesus did when He was here on Earth) the result was exponentially greater than any other sermon or teaching Jesus ever gave. Over 3,000 people respond, repent, are baptized and begin to follow Jesus that day. This was only the beginning.

In fact, it’s why we have the "Acts of the Apostles" in the scriptures at all – to demonstrate the "greater works" done by the Apostles and the early Christians. Note that these "acts" or "works" are both miraculous and practical. People who were strangers only days earlier are now so filled with love for one another through the Holy Spirit that they are selling property and sharing it with one another. People who are sick are being healed, but those who are destitute are embraced and welcomed into the family of God as well. These are all "greater works".

When it comes to these "signs and wonders" like healing the sick and raising the dead, I’d like to ask an important question: "Did every single believer and follower of Jesus work miracles like this, or was it only the Apostles?"

Why is this an important question? Because if everyone worked these miracles then maybe Jesus’ statement above really does suggest that all of us should be healing people with our shadows and raising the dead on our lunch breaks. If we’re not living up to our calling as followers of Jesus because we misunderstand this verse, then we need to repent and start living more by faith. However, if the scriptures suggest otherwise, then we also stop using this verse to make people feel like failures for not working greater miracles than Jesus every week.

What does the New Testament say about the working of miracles?

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul is defending his Apostleship to the saints in Corinth. A few self-appointed "Super Apostles" have been slandering Paul’s name in the region and Paul must stand up for his calling as an Apostle to the Church. In verse 12 he says,

"The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works."

Keep in mind that Paul wants to demonstrate to these Corinthians that he is not simply a follower of Jesus, but something more. He is an Apostle of Jesus Christ to the Church. In order to prove to them that he is not an ordinary disciple, he points to three things, "signs and wonders and mighty works".

Now, if every single believer who followed Jesus was capable of healing the sick, raising the dead, and performing "mighty works" like this, then what good would it do for Paul to say, "I can do the same miracles that all of you are doing on a daily basis"? What would that prove to them except that he was a follower of Christ, just as they all were? Obviously, when Paul appeals to these "signs and wonders and mighty works" that he performed among them he is reminding them that these are the "signs of a true apostle" and not signs that he is a Christian.

Therefore, the Apostles were the ones in the New Testament who were filled with the Spirit of God and empowered to do these miraculous signs of healing and raising the dead, not every day ordinary believers. Otherwise, Paul’s appeal to these signs and wonders would mean absolutely nothing to the believers in Corinth as evidence of Paul’s Apostleship.

Now, we do see evidence that Elders in the Body of Christ were empowered by the Holy Spirit to lay hands on the sick and heal them on occasion:

"Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." (James 5:14)

However, not every believer who was prayed for was automatically healed. How do we know this? Because Paul exhorts Timothy to drink some wine for his stomach problems, and because Paul himself suffered a “thorn in the flesh” that God refused to take away from him. Sometimes people were healed in the early church, and sometimes they were not- even when an Apostle prayed for them to be healed. Stephen was stoned to death and no one raised him back to life again. Nor were other saints raised to life again. Clearly, miracles like Jesus performed were infrequent and only widely practiced by the Apostles as signs of their being sent by Jesus to serve the Church. Not every believer worked these kinds of miracles, and not every Apostle successfully worked miracles without fail.

The passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus says that those who have faith in, or "believe in", Him will do the works He has been doing, and will do even greater things than these because the Holy Spirit will come upon them in power, is not a verse about every Christian wielding the anointing of an Apostle. It is not a verse intended to condemn us for not walking on water or healing every sick person we pray for. It is simply a statement about how those who follow Jesus will do the works that He did – to teach, preach, serve, and love as He did – and that by the power of the Holy Spirit we will bear much more fruit than Jesus did in His ministry – although to be fair, all fruit and life in the Church is from Him anyway, so it’s all still the ongoing ministry of Christ in the world today through His Body, the Church.

The verse here in John's Gospel is about discipleship to Christ and obedience to Him. This has nothing to do with miracles. It has to do with an apprenticeship to Jesus, as evidenced in the verses just below this one where Jesus says, "If you love me, you will obey what I command." (John 14:15)

Here's a parallel concept to make it clear: A professional Indy 500 Race Car driver tells you, "If you do what I teach you, and learn what I have to show you, you'll be a better race car driver than I am one day."

Now, you wouldn't expect to just immediately jump in the Indy Car and qualify for the race would you? No, you'd spend the next few years learning from this guy about how to be the best race car driver you could possibly be. It wouldn't happen by magic or by osmosis but because you had faith in this driver and you actually did everything he told you to do.

That's my perspective on what Jesus means in this verse. We become disciples and followers of Jesus by daily serving others in obedience to His example. As we continue in obedience, we will become empowered to bear greater fruit for the Kingdom of God.

Should you expect to do even greater works than Jesus did if you never even attempted to do the basic things that he did while he was here on Earth? That's like someone who doesn't even have a learner's permit or a driver's license thinking they can grab the keys to that Indy Car and end up in the winner’s circle.

Start by doing the works that Jesus did: teach, preach the Gospel, care for the poor, serve others in love, etc. As you obey the Lord by following His example of love, He will fill you with His Holy Spirit and empower you to do even greater things than this.


1 comment:

norma j hill said...

Thanks so much for this post. I have often wondered about this - so many people focus on the "miracles" and I've always thought it had to do with all aspects of our walk with Jesus. Thanks for your insights.