What does „greater works” in John 14:12 mean?

Tom Schreiner comments on John 14:12:

What does Jesus mean in John 14:12 when he says, „Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who believes in me the works I do shall he do also, and greater than these shall he do, because I go to the Father”? 

Tom Schreiner first prefaces his commentary by clarifying that „this verse could not have been limited to just the apostles, since Jesus says that „anyone who believes in Him” shall do greater works„, and he also points out that the „greater works”, referred to in verse 12 is „another assurance that Jesus’ absence will actually be beneficial for those who believe in him„.

For context he cites the rest of the verses (13-16):

In verses 13-14 Jesus promises in his absence to answer prayers uttered in his name, and verses 15-17 promise the Spirit to those who obey Jesus’ commandments. Thus, in Jesus’ absence the disciples will do greater works, their prayers in Jesus’ name will be answered, and they will have the power of the Holy Spirit. And one day Jesus will return to take believers home. I think the greater works Jesus has in mind are not greater miracles in terms of signs and wonders. Instead, the greater works done by those who believe in Jesus refer to the work of the Spirit in people’s hearts, a work of the Spirit that has greater dimensions now that Jesus has ascended to the Father. 

Schreiner has 4 arguments to support this:

  1. The „greater works” cannot refer to signs and wonders that are greater in quality than those done by Jesus because no believer ever has or ever will do greater miracles than Jesus. He raised the dead, opened the eyes of the blind, restored hearing to the deaf, cast out demons, healed the lame, calmed a stormy sea, etc. No miracle-worker has even come close since the days of the apostles, and even the apostles did not do any signs and wonders that were greater.
  2. But perhaps John means that believers will do greater works in the sense that we will do more signs and wonders than Jesus? But the Greek word for „greater” used here does not refer to a greater number of works. If John wanted to refer to a greater number of works, he probably would have used the Greek word polla meaning „more.” A careful study of the word „greater” (meizn) in John’s gospel shows that the word consistently refers to something that is greater in quality rather than something that is greater in number.To conclude this second point: the greater works do not mean believers will do more works than Jesus, but that they will do works qualitatively better than those Jesus did in his ministry.
    These better works are due to the outpouring of the Spirit after Jesus’ ascension. [Note: Incidentally, there is no evidence from church history that any believer did more miracles than Jesus anyway, and this verse is not limited to those who have the gift of healing; it refers to all believers.]
  3. The word „works” in John’s gospel in some contexts clearly includes Jesus’ miracles (John 7:3, 21; 9:4; 10:25,32,33,37,38). But even though the word often includes the idea of miracles, the word „works” cannot be limited to signs and wonders in John’s gospel. For example, John 6:28-29 identifies the „work of God” as „believing in the one whom the Father sent.” And in John 8:39 Jesus exhorts the Jews to „do the works of Abraham,” and there is no record of Abraham doing miracles, and so Jesus must mean, „do the good deeds of Abraham.” John 14:10 is especially interesting, for their Jesus says, „The words which I speak to you I do not speak From myself, but the Father abiding in me does his works.” Here the „words” of Jesus in the first part of the verse are defined as his „works” in the latter part of the verse. Thus, we have clear evidence in the near context (compare also verse 11) that the word „works” should not be restricted to signs and wonders. Indeed, when John wants to speak of miracles, he consistently uses the word „sign.” „Sign” is the unambiguous word John uses to describe. Miracles, and the word „works” is a more general term, which may include miracles, but does not necessarily focus on signs and wonders. All of this suggests that the first part of verse 12 where Jesus says, „the one who believes in me the works I do he shall do also” does not mean that believers will do miracles and signs and Wonders to the same extent as Jesus. The word „works” is a general term, and thus Jesus is simply saying that you will do works of the same quality as I did and more.
  4. The greater works, then, refer to the extended work of the Spirit, which will occur when Jesus ascends to the Father. This is not to deny that the Spirit was active previously in significant ways. But the work of the Spirit on earth was intensified with Jesus’ ascension. Note that Jesus specifically says that „the greater works” will occur „because I go to the Father.” Going to the Father, then, provides the reason or ground for the greater works. But why does Jesus’ going to the Father make possible greater works? The rest of John’s gospel answers that question. In John 16:7 Jesus says, „It is better for you that I go, for if I do not go, the paraclete will not come to you, but if I go I will send him to you.” This fits beautifully with John 14:12. Jesus says that it will be better if he goes because only when he goes will the Spirit be sent. And John 16:8-11 makes it clear that the Spirit when he comes will convict unbelievers of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Such conviction of sinners is clearly another way of describing the „greater works” which will occur after Jesus goes. Greater than any healing is the inclusion of one’s name in the book of life. Jesus reminds his disciples of this when they are so excited about casting out demons in Luke 10:20. „Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”

    The book of acts supports the interpretation that „the greater works” are possible after the outpouring of the Spirit as well. The Holy Spirit is not poured out until after Jesus has ascended.

    In conclusion:

    One final word: that greater works are done by believers after Jesus’ earthly ministry in no way diminishes the ministry of Jesus, nor does it suggest our ministry is somehow better than His! I have argued that the greater works refers to the work of the Spirit through believers in convicting unbelievers of their sin, and mediating forgiveness of sins in the name of the risen Lord. But such work is not our work! It is the work of the risen Lord in us and through us. The Lord Jesus Christ exalted and glorious works in concert with God the Father through the Holy Spirit. He is the one doing the work, and He is worthy of all the glory!

    Read the entire paper (pdf form)here at Southern Baptists Theological Seminary.

2 comentarii (+add yours?)

  1. jesusandthebible
    iun. 10, 2012 @ 18:02:35

    Your noting the preceding context of 14:12 is important: Jesus’ words are the Father’s works in 14:10. Because Jesus is going to the Father (after a limited time speaking to and teaching the disciples), they will do the same works (speaking and teaching) and even greater works (as their time will be longer on earth).

    Your focus on the Spirit is also part of the context: the Father will give them the Spirit of truth (14:16-17). This Spirit will teach them all things and help them remember what Jesus said (14:26). Thus the Spirit of truth will bear witness to Jesus (15:26), and they will be witnesses (15:27).

    Your emphasis on the Spirit convicting the world through believers (16:8-11) is likewise followed by the Spirit of truth guiding disciples into all the truth (16:13), and glorifying Jesus, declaring/speaking the truth of Jesus to the disciples (16:14).

    This emphasis on the Spirit of truth and witness to Jesus that convicts the world is similar to the Acts 1 emphasis on becoming witnesses when they receive the Spirit. They will become witnesses to the whole world. Before his death and resurrection, Jesus’ time and places for witness were limited to a small part of the world and a small group of disciples. Yet, as you say, the greater works (words) of the disciples are nevertheless works of the risen Jesus through his Spirit working (speaking) in them.

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