This entry is part 60 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
John 14:12 – “The person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father.”
What are these ‘deeds’, and in what sense would they be ‘greater’?
Miracles (accompanied by conversions)?
Some think that the ‘deeds’ are miracles, as in Jn 5:17; 10:32. They would be quantitatively ‘greater’ in that they would be multiplied through all Jesus’ followers. (Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary). It is naive to suppose, as some Christians do, that Jesus was speaking of a future generation performing more numerous or more astounding miracles that he did. But it is manifestly the case that even the apostolic miracles did not exceed our Lord’s in these respects, and even more the case in those that have occurred in more recent times.
According to Kostenberger, ‘from the patristic period onward, the “greater works” have been interpreted as the missionary successes of the disciples. The Fathers as well as medieval commentators understood the “greater works” as referring to the miracles performed by the apostles accompanying their missionary activities.’ The same writer adds that the linkage between this passage and Acts has persisted (with a few exceptions) throughout the 20th century.
Canagaraj: ‘The believers will not only perform miracles, but also will speak words of salvation to the world.’
Conversions (unaccompanied by miracles)?
Others place the emphasis on the greater numbers of people reached by the gospel.
Luther (cited by Bruner): ‘Greater works because the apostles and the Christians had a wider field for their works than He did, that they brought more people to Christ than He Himself did during His earthly sojourn. Christ preached and worked miracles only in a small nook, and for just a short time.… [Jesus’ promise is the more remarkable] especially since the day of miracles is past [!].Miracles, of course, are still the least significant works, since they are only physical and are performed for only a few people. But let us consider the true, great works of which Christ speaks here—works which are done with the power of God, which accomplish everything, which are still performed and must be performed daily as long as the world stands. In the first place, Christians have the Gospel, Baptism, and the Sacrament [of the Supper], by means of which they convert people, snatch souls from the clutches of the devil, wrest them from hell and death, and bring them to heaven.… In the second place, the Christians also have prayer.… So greatly can a whole country or kingdom be benefited by [the prayers of] one pious man.… Abraham [Gen 14:14] … Lot [Gen 19:22] … Naaman [2 Kings 5:1, the entire kingdom of Syria] … Joseph [Gen 41:46ff., all Egypt] … Daniel [Persia].… Isaiah defeated the hosts of the Assyrian empire singlehandedly through his prayer.’
Hoskyns (cited by Bruner): ‘The separation [of Jesus from them] which disturbs them is [in fact and paradoxically] the effective cause of their being endowed with powers greater even than those of the Lord Himself when He was with them on earth.… The contrast is … between the few disciples of Jesus and the vast number of those converted by the preaching of His apostles; between the mission of Jesus to the Jews and the mission of His disciples to the world.… Petitions so addressed to the Father will be answered by the Son, who will have resumed His position as the instrument in heaven of the actions of God (Jn 1:3).’
The NET Bible offers the following note: ‘When the early chapters of Acts are examined, it is clear that, from a numerical standpoint, the deeds of Peter and the other Apostles surpassed those of Jesus in a single day (the day of Pentecost). On that day more were added to the church than had become followers of Jesus during the entire three years of his earthly ministry. And the message went forth not just in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, but to the farthest parts of the known world. This understanding of what Jesus meant by “greater deeds” is more probable than a reference to “more spectacular miracles.” Certainly miraculous deeds were performed by the apostles as recounted in Acts, but these do not appear to have surpassed the works of Jesus himself in either degree or number.’
According to Lincoln, the meaning is that reach of the gospel through the apostles would not only be more extensive that before, but more complete (precisely because, coming after the resurrection and ascension, they would reveal the completed story of God’s work in Christ.
Chester (The Message of Prayer, 175) argues similarly: the nature of these ‘greater works’ has already been established in Jn 5:20-24. ‘The greater work occur when people receive eternal life or when, by rejecting Jesus, judgement is passed on them. This salvation or judgment event takes place as people respond to the words of Jesus. The miracles Jesus has done are to be surpassed by the greater miracle of conversion. This disciples will do greater works as the continue Christ’s mission by proclaiming his word, so that people receive eternal life as they respond in faith or receive judgment when they fail to honour Jesus. In Jn 6:29 Jesus says, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’
‘The disciples will go beyond what Jesus did in evangelising the world and bringing about its salvation.’ (Witherington)
Donald MacLeod takes a similar line: ‘Literally, that means that the followers of Christ would perform greater miracles than he himself ever performed. If we think of miracles only in terms of healings and exorcisms and controlling the elements, then of course we haven’t surpassed Christ. But if we think of the miracle of evangelism and of spiritual renewal by the power of the gospel, then Christ’s followers have seen far greater things than Jesus himself ever saw. Three thousand converts at Pentecost in one sermon! George Whitefield proclaiming the gospel to audiences of twenty thousand, and thousands converted! The gospel in modern times has, in an instant, almost total global exposure through mass communication. Let us rejoice that all things are ours. (1 Cor 3:21) Let us claim the miracles of the last days, the wonder of the eruptions of grace in the lives of countless individuals and the salvation of whole communities. That is what God has led us to expect.’ (A Faith to Live By)
‘The clue is in the surrounding context – the coming of the Holy Spirit in power, following Christ’s “Going to the Father”. With the globalising of the gift of the Spirit and the new birth, Christ’s followers on every continent would be accomplishing deeds greater that Christ’s – not in terms of physical quality, but rather deeds of a superior dimension altogether. As a preacher once put it, “The 3,000 converted at Pentecost was a greater deed than the feeding of the 5,000.’ (Bewes, The Top 100 Questions, p266)
A fuller spiritual reality?
Other scholars present a similar, but more focused argument. Michaels says that ‘it is generally agreed that they will not perform “greater” or more spectacular miracles than he did.’ Michaels allows that the ‘works’ performed by the apostles would be ‘greater’ in the sense that they would reach more people. But he adds that two ‘works’ that Jesus promised but which had not yet been accomplished were the forgiveness of sins (Jn 1:29) and the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Jn 1:33). ‘Clearly, something is missing—something that will not be explicitly supplied until Jesus’ resurrection, when he will breathe on his disciples and say to them, “Receive Holy Spirit. Whosoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven them; whosoever’s you retain, they are retained” (Jn 20:22–23). If there is a prime candidate for one of these “greater” works, it is the forgiveness of sins, possibly because it could only come by virtue of the actual shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross, just as the gift of the Spirit could only come by virtue of Jesus’ glorification (see Jn 7:39).’
Kruse notes (presumably with approval) the suggestion that these ‘greater works’ are the fruits of the missionary endeavours of the early church. But ‘greater’ does not simply mean ‘more numerous’. The works are ‘greater’ than those of Christ in a similar way that ‘the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven’ is ‘greater’ than John the Baptist (Mt 11:11). ‘John was the herald of the kingdom that Jesus brought in, but John himself lived, worked and died before people entered it. In terms of privileges, then, the least in the kingdom were greater than John. If we apply this to the differences between Jesus’ works and those of his disciples, we might say that the disciples’ works were greater than his because they had the privilege of testifying by word and deed to the finished work of Christ, and the fuller coming of the kingdom that it ushered in, whereas Jesus’ ministry prior to his death and resurrection only foreshadowed these things.’
Carson (in this article) also points to the comparison between John the Baptist and ‘the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 11:11). ‘Something similar may be in view in John 14. Jesus, by his redemptive work, his “going to the Father,” inaugurates this new phase in the history of redemption; and the disciples in their mission participate in the works peculiar to this already dawned eschatological age. Jesus in his earthly ministry never did. His work brought it about; but then he left and did not himself participate in it (in his bodily presence) after Pentecost.’
Concluding his thorough discussion of this passage, Kostenberger states that ‘the “greater works” of John 14:12 are the activities of believers, still future from the vantage point of the earthly Jesus, that will be based on Jesus’ accomplished Messianic mission. Viewed from an eschatological perspective, these works will be “greater” than Jesus’, since they will take place in a different, more advanced phase of God’s economy of salvation. At the same time, there is an essential continuity between Jesus’ earthly mission for his followers and the mission of the exalted Jesus through his followers. The “greater works” are thus works of the exalted Christ through believers.’
Kostenberger adds: ‘In the light of John’s avoidance of “signs” terminology with reference to the disciples, and in the light of the fact that the emphasis of “works” terminology likewise is not necessarily, nor even primarily, on the miraculous (as in “signs and wonders”), one should caution against using John 14:12 in support for a theology that advocates the expectation of a believer’s working of miracles today. The issue is not so much that is it possible to exclude this notion entirely from the Johannine reference as to demonstrate that such a theology was clearly not central in John’s intention.’
Whitacre argues similarly: ‘What are these greater things of which Jesus speaks? Some think he is referring to spectacular miracles, but what would top the raising of Lazarus? Others think it refers to the missionary activity of the disciples, their bringing more converts to faith. Such activity is an important focus for the disciples, but the meaning here is more specific. These greater things are possible because I am going to the Father (v. 12). That is, Jesus’ greatest work has yet to occur: his death, resurrection and ascension. After he is glorified, the Spirit will be given (Jn 7:39), and believers can then receive the full benefits of the salvation Jesus has accomplished through the union that comes through the Spirit. The disciples’ works are greater in that they are “the conveying to people of the spiritual realities of which the works of Jesus are ‘signs’ ” (Beasley-Murray 1987:254). So greater things refer to our having a deeper understanding of God and sharing in his own life through actual union with him, which is now possible as a result of Jesus’ completed work (cf. Jn 14:20). It is not just a matter of more disciples; it is a matter of a qualitatively new reality in which the disciples share.’
Milne: ‘The difference between Jesus and his disciples lies in the event which marks the boundary between the old and new aeons, the Easter triumph of Jesus. Because of that, the disciples will serve in the new time of the kingdom’s presence.’
Beasley-Murray puts it like this: ‘Reflection will show that the “greater works” here mentioned are not more miraculous miracles than the miracles of Jesus (the Evangelist has stressed the motif of abundance in the signs of the new age in the water into wine and the feeding of the multitude, the divine power in the walking on the water, and the extraordinary nature of giving sight to the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus four days in the tomb). Nor is it likely that the first thought is that of the greater success of the disciples in their subsequent mission to Israel and the nations. Is the point in view not rather the conveying to people of the spiritual realities of which the works of Jesus are “signs”? All the works of Jesus are significant of the saving sovereignty of God at work among humankind through the eschatological Redeemer. The main reality to which they point, and which makes their testimony a set of variations on a single theme, is the life eternal of the kingdom of God through Jesus its mediator. This is confirmed by the striking parallel to v 12 in Jn 5:20 and its following exposition: the Father shows the Son all (sc., the works) that he himself does, “and greater works than these he will show him, that you may be amazed.” The context reveals that the “greater works” that the Father is to “show” the Son, greater than those given him to do thus far, are manifestations of resurrection and judgment, but with emphasis on the former (as 5:24–26 in relation to v 17 shows). Thus the “greater works” that the disciples are to do after Easter are the actualization of the realities to which the works of Jesus point, the bestowal of the blessings and powers of the kingdom of God upon men and women which the death and resurrection of Jesus are to let loose in the world.’
Again: ‘The contrast accordingly is not between Jesus and his disciples in their respective ministries, but between Jesus with his disciples in the limited circumstances of his earthly ministry and the risen Christ with his disciples in the post-Easter situation. Then the limitations of the Incarnation will no longer apply, redemption will have been won for the world, the kingdom of God opened for humanity, and the disciples equipped for a ministry in power to the nations.’
Klink stresses that these ‘greater works’ of Jesus’ followers are not to be placed in contrast with the works of Jesus himself. They are, rather, the post-ascension works of Jesus (through his followers) as contrasted with his pre-ascension works.