Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12, NIV)
The Bible translator J B Phillips famously described his experience while translating as rather like rewiring an old house with the mains still on. I’m finding surprises as I’m chewing over John 13-16 for this term’s Sunday mornings.
The words of Jesus quoted above are one such surprise. Preparing his disciples for his departure, he makes what seems an impossible promise - that they will do greater works than he has. What he calls his works here are principally the great miracles he did - recorded in John’s Gospel as part of the evidence that he really is God’s Son.
So what does he mean? Can his followers really outperform him on water into wine, feeding the five thousand, giving sight to the blind, or raising the dead?
In the book of Acts we find the Apostles and some other early Christians performing some miracles of healing. But they never outperform Jesus. Nor has anyone since. So there is a puzzle here.
One suggestion is that Jesus means more works, in the sense that millions of followers will be able to get more done between them than he ever did. But in fact the word is greater, not more.
The key lies in the last part of the verse, where Jesus says because I am going to the Father. When Jesus speaks about this, he’s not just referring to his resurrection and ascension to heaven, but particularly his atoning death. His death, which is the climax of John’s Gospel, has dealt decisively with sin, so that now there is a new reality. Men and women can be reconciled to God, and Jesus sends from heaven his Holy Spirit to make them new people as they are born again.
The work his followers will do is to tell people about this; and as people understand they are given new life. The miracle of conversion is happening. (Of course, this is ultimately God’s work, as the verses which follow this saying, John 14:13-14, imply.)
This is greater than the works Jesus did in the days of his flesh in this sense: the purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world was not to jolly up the wedding at Cana, or to feed lots of hungry people in the Judaean wilderness. It was to bring life in his name to all who would believe (John 1:18, 20:31). This is the part of his work that you and I are involved in! The miracles he did then were pointers to this; they were the lesser works that point towards the greater work.
And by the way, you can’t help noticing that if we tell someone the good news of Jesus and by God’s grace they become Christians, then the water of their life is turned to wine, they are raised from spiritual paralysis, they are nourished by the bread of life, blindness about God is cured and they will one day be raised for ever to be with Christ. What a privilege to be sharing such great work!
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