I’ve been having a friendly discussion with a brother about Jesus and spiritual gifts, and specifically this:
What are the “greater works” Jesus said we would do in John 14:12?
The belief that charismatic gifts have ceased in the Church is known as cessationism. Cessationists typically teach that miracles, prophecies, tongues, and the like have ceased because they were not needed after the last apostle died and/or the Bible was completed. I believe this is false, since New Testament gifts such as prophecy were not meant to simply stand in for the Bible until the Bible was finished. The gifts have their own place and purpose in Jesus’ Church and will be important for the edification of the Body of Christ until He returns.
This brother asked what I thought of a 2001 article by Pastor Bob DeWaay, entitled “Greater Works Than These.” I told him that I would offer some thoughts and so I would like to do so here in a spirit of humility. I do have respect for Pastor DeWaay’s ministry and how he has tried to warn the church against teachings he believes are harmful. In all fairness I will say that Pastor DeWaay’s article seems to have been directed mainly at certain errors he perceives among those who claim to be modern-day apostles and prophets.
I am not going to present at this time any arguments for or against a present-day ministry of apostles. My desire is simply to uphold the position that Jesus’ words in John 14:12 mean that believers may as God leads perform the same, and even greater, supernatural works as Christ. I base this principally on the belief that such power comes from the empowering of the Holy Spirit, available to all the saints, without any condition other belief in Christ, for He said,
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.
What follows will be some excerpts from Pastor DeWaay’s article, in italics, with my comments.
1. A popular revival movement…
A popular “revival movement” claims that latter day apostles and prophets will fulfill this promise in John by doing greater miracles than Jesus did, both in quantity and quality. Their claim is that a new wave of apostolic power will transform everything from church to society and Christianize the world before the return of Christ….
1. Some people may believe that the promise of John 14:12 is only for latter day apostles and prophets, but this is not what Jesus said. Jesus said that these works would be performed by the one who believes in Him. There is no pre-condition; it is something available for all who believe in Him.
2. I am not able to speak for those who believe that this activity by apostles and prophets in our day will Christianize the world before the return of Christ, since I believe John 14:12 extends the possibility of supernatural ministry to all saints. I personally am a premillennialist and therefore believe that the full manifestation of the Millennial Kingdom of Christ depends on Christ first coming to the Earth to establish that Kingdom.
3. Certainly, even a cessationist who reads Revelation literally must acknowledge that there is supernatural ministry being performed by the unknown Two Witnesses. If cessationism depends on a closed Canon of Scripture, there is nor reason why this should be so. If the cessationist theory of miracles (that they are needed to validate the Gospel truth) is accurate, then this makes no sense; we cannot “lose” the Canon. For this reason, some cessationists hold that there are certain special periods of supernatural activity decreed by God for reasons He knows.
4. Pastor DeWaay’s article in large measure seems to be directed at the question of whether there is a movement of apostles and prophets today.
2. The significance of works in John’s Gospel…
The previous verse tells us the key purpose of works: “Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me; otherwise believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:11). The works that Jesus performed were to lead us to faith in Him as being God incarnate. We are to believe that He is one in essence with the Father. Jesus states this elsewhere in John: “But the witness which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish, the very works that I do, bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me” (John 5:36). The works bear witness to the person and mission of Christ. This must be kept in mind as we contemplate the “works and greater works” of John 14:12.
RESPONSE: This is correct, but it does not change the fact that the works are supernatural. He is only restating the purpose of the works, or some of their purposes – he is not able to assert that their character is not supernatural.
3. The purpose of works…
The ones who do the works are believers in general: “he who believes in Me.” This promise is not restricted to a special class of elite Christians or latter day apostles. This is an important consideration. The purpose of the works is to lead people to faith in Christ. Many mistakenly think that their purpose is to validate the person doing them. We are called to go to a special meeting to hear a great “miracle worker” and find relief from various afflictions. Testimonies of those who have been healed are used to promote the healer. This is not at all the purpose of signs and works of God in the Bible…. The purpose of the works was not to make great the fame and fortune of the prophet, but to bear witness to the person and work of Christ.
RESPONSE: I agree with this, but I would like to say that no one who ministers responsibly would seek to gather fame or followers in this way. This is a fallacious argument because the fact that some may misuse the things of God does not mean there is not a true ministry. The fact that there may be a false apostle or a false prophet does not prove that there cannot be true ones. 1 Corinthians 12 specifically speaks of those apart from the apostles and prophets who have ministries of healing and working miracles.
4. Works must point to the Gospel
The “works” mentioned in the first half of John 14:12 are supernatural works such as healings. The disciples had already been sent out to heal the sick (Matthew 10:1). So the promise is that following Christ’s ascension these works would continue, not only through the disciples, but through believers in general. The book of Acts shows that this happened. The purpose of such works is to lead people to saving faith in Christ. For example, on the occasion of the healing of the man at the gate Beautiful (Acts 3), Peter preached the death and resurrection of Christ (Acts 3:15). When persecution came because of this incident the Jewish authorities forbade preaching Christ, not doing healing! (Acts 4:18). They realized that the message of the cross was the real threat. The healing merely created an opportunity for preaching it. Any valid works that are done through believers must point to the truth of the gospel, or they are not the type of works which Christ promised in John 14:12.
RESPONSE: This is true as far as it goes, but it would be incorrect to say that the works of Jesus and His followers are done only to lead people to faith in Christ. I would see it more as a part of God’s general benevolence. God heals because He loves. We read in Acts 10:38 that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power [dunamis], who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed of the devil, for God was with Him.” I don’t have a large quarrel with this ultimately, since this was all done to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom in the Person of Jesus and invite people to enter it.
5. When will such works happen?
It should also be kept in mind that the purposes of God, not the will of man, determines when and if such works happen. For example earlier in John we read this: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’ They said therefore to Him, ‘What then do You do for a sign, that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform?’” (John 6:29,30). Jesus had already multiplied the bread and walked on water in John 6. He called for faith in Himself, but now the people ask for another work. Jesus went on to tell them of His flesh and blood for the life of the world. They rejected Him. God will not do signs on demand. In Matthew 12:38,39 some Jewish leaders demanded a sign and Jesus refused, saying only the sign of Jonah (signifying Christ’s death and resurrection) would be given them. Therefore God is always the one who determines when and in what context to do His mighty works. That He would continue to do them through believers, even after Christ’s ascension, is the meaning of John 14:12a.
RESPONSE: Again, if we are speaking of doing acts of power [dunamis] in a public ministry as an accompaniment to evangelism this is essentially correct. I would offer this caveat: The manifestation of the Spirit is given as the Spirit wills, but there are some who are graced by God with a more permanent or essential endowment of that supernatural grace. So, while in the beginning of 1 Corinthians 12 we see a listing of manifestations of the Spirit, at the end of the chapter we see him listing people who clearly have ongoing ministries in those graces. For example, he asks if all are “workers of miracles [dunameis]” in 1 Cor. 12:29. I don’t suggest that these people could operate however they would, but they would certainly operate with greater frequency and power. However, it will still be as the Spirit leads.
If we are speaking of other gifts of the Spirit such as verbal gifts (gifts of utterance or speech) then I do not think his words apply. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14 that when we gather together every one of us has something to contribute to the meeting of believers and this may include supernatural ministry such as prophecy and/or tongues.
6. A promise to all believers
If the “works” were supernatural signs such as had already been performed, what are the “greater works” of John 14:12? The modern claim is that they are greater miracles than Christ ever performed and that they will be done by apostles and prophets at the end of the church age. One problem with this interpretation is that it fails to consider the fact that the promise was given to all believers, not just supposed latter day apostles.
RESPONSE: This may be the claim of some, but the claim of Pentecostal and Charismatic believers in general would be that these greater works are not done by just apostles and prophets but, potentially at least, by all saints. Rev. DeWaay is clearly formulating much of his argument in order to defeat what he sees as the pretensions of those who claim that true apostolic and/or prophetic ministry still exists today.
7. Have greater works been done?
Another problem is that not even the Biblical apostles (the ones chosen by Christ) did greater miracles than He performed. Those who witnessed Christ’s miracles said that they were greater than ever had been. For example in John 9 the healing of the blind man was considered a unique miracle: “Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind” (John 9:32)…. The point of John 9 is that God did come in the person of Christ and opened the eyes of the blind, and more importantly brought Messianic salvation. If latter day apostles were to do even greater miracles (if it can even be imagined what they might be) then they could claim to be messiahs (anointed ones). So the idea of “greater works” being “greater miracles” has little Biblical merit. If Messiah is not the greatest, then He is not Messiah.
1. It is debatable whether this is objectively true. Rev. DeWaay cannot prove that the Apostles in the Bible did not do greater miracles than Jesus. Although we don’t know all the miracles Christ did, there are miracles recorded in Acts which do not appear in the life of Christ and are certainly amazing signs and wonders, such as the teleportation (for lack of a better word) of Philip. We know that Stephen did what the Holy Spirit called in Acts 6:8 “great wonders and signs.” (If the Holy Spirit says you did a great wonder, it must be great indeed!) So we simply do not possess the knowledge to know if this verse has yet been fulfilled in the way that Pentecostals say is possible.
We could point out that in the Old Testament there were amazing miracles in Nature and in the heavens, wrought through men such as Moses and Joshua. Was the splitting of the Red Sea or the stopping of the Earth’s rotation a greater work than the raising of a dead man or the giving of sigh to one born blind? At some point it becomes quibbling to ask these questions.
2. This makes it a textual issue – if Jesus said it, it will surely come to pass. Rev. DeWaay may disagree with the Pentecostals on how it will happen, or if it happened in church history, but the only issue is whether the word “greater” can mean supernatural works. If the word “greater” can mean supernatural, then he must admit it is possible to do greater supernatural works than Jesus, simply because Jesus said so. He may not like the conclusions he will have to draw from that, but then his issue is with the words of the Lord Himself and the authority the Lord has given His Church.
3. There is no reason why we are forced to conclude that a person who does greater works than Jesus is greater than Jesus. Such arguments are not arguments concerning the substance of what Christ has said. Did not the Apostles raise the dead? No one is claiming that this makes them equal to Jesus. On the contrary, this gives greater glory to Jesus, as these men confess that they are able to do what they do through Christ’s Name and Power!
4. Again, the fact that some could theoretically make claims to be great and create a following based on works of power they have done does not mean that there is not a true and godly exercise of such power.
8. Because I go to the Father
In this regard the text of John 14:12 gives us an important clue to the meaning. It says “greater works than these shall he do: because I go to the Father.” The word “because” is causal in the Greek. [footnote omitted] This means that the cross and the ascension is the reason that believers would do greater works. The fact of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ would make the greater works possible. So what exactly happened because of the entire event of the cross that would precipitate greater works than those performed by Christ Himself? I believe that it is the conversion of peoples, Jews first and also Gentiles, through the preaching of the Gospel.
1. This is an accurate statement but not complete. I agree that this is a causal statement, but the sending of the Spirit is what makes the greater works possible for not only the apostles but also the believer. Remember that at the Last Supper Jesus tells them it is better for them if He leaves, because if He does not leave He will not send the Spirit, but if He does leave He will send the Spirit. The Spirit would be to them everything that Jesus had been to them in person, and more. He would also be revealing to them all the glories of the New Covenant.
2. Since DeWaay says he does believe that believers do the supernatural works of Jesus, how are they empowered to do so? Remember that believers who did not see Jesus in the flesh do not have a personal (in the flesh) commissioning from Jesus; they have the commissioning of the Spirit as He was poured out on Pentecost. This is why Jesus says that BELIEVERS would do the works He had been doing because He was going to the Father. The Cross and the Ascension create the relationship necessary to function in His Name, but the outpouring of the Spirit provides the power required to do so. This is why even though Jesus had already risen, the disciples were not to begin their work immediately upon His Ascension but were to wait for what Jesus called the Promise of the Father.
He said (Acts 1:8) that they would receive power [dunamis] after the Holy Spirit had come upon them. Previously it seems they had done miracles through His Name, but now (read Luke 24:49) they would be clothed with His Power.
9. Works and coming to faith
The connection between works and coming to faith is strong in John. Consider John 5:19-21: “Jesus therefore answered and was saying to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and greater works than these will He show Him, that you may marvel. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” This saying was a response to criticism about Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Jesus claimed the right to work on the Sabbath (the Jews recognized that God did His work of sustaining all things, even on Sabbath) because of Jesus’ unique relationship to God (John 5:17,18). Because of this they wanted to kill Him. Notice that the work of healing a lame man (see Isaiah 35:6, this too is a predicted Messianic sign), serves as a background for “greater works.” The greater works are spelled out for us: “the Son also gives life to whom He wishes” (verse 18).
RESPONSE: This is true, but again: notice that the works are supernatural. And we know that the disciples also raised the dead.
10. The giving of spiritual life
The “greater works” of John 5 concern the giving of life. The context shows that this does not mean raising the physical dead, like Lazarus, but rather giving spiritual life to the spiritually dead. Here is what Jesus went on to say: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live” (John 5:24,25). This is the meaning of the phrase “greater works” in John 5:18.
This does however include the raising of Lazarus, and maybe others that Jesus raised from the dead such as the son of the widow of Nain. Remember that in John 5 the Lord said that the Father would show more works through Him so that they would marvel.
The full context therefore includes the works of power Jesus was doing in their midst, not simply the work He will do of raising the dead at the last day.
Pastor DeWaay, to make this argument, must ignore that Jesus Himself used the idea of works from the Father in just the way I am asserting.
In John 5:36, Jesus says, “But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me.”
In John 10:32, He asks, “Many good works have I shewed you from my Father; for which of those works do ye stone me?”
11. Salvation a greater work in John’s Gospel
There is more evidence in John that believing upon Christ for salvation is a greater work. In John 6, as I previously mentioned, Jesus had done mighty miracles. In that context He was asked about the work of God: “They said therefore to Him, ‘What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’” (John 6:28,29). If the miracles (which did not cause these people to come to faith, they would soon leave Him – John 6:66) were works of God, the greater work would be to come to faith, which they subsequently refused to do.
Jesus’ answer to these men and His use of the word *work* in John 6 does not govern or control how He was using the word in the context of John 14! While salvation is the greatest and most necessary work, we should remember that *erga* is a common word for works and can be used for good deeds and the like.
The Greek word *meizon* [μείζων G3187] which our Lord used is what should govern the discussion in John 14:12. If *meizon* there can mean greater in the sense of more powerful or awe-inspiring, rather than simply in the sense of greater in quality or of more ultimate importance to a person’s life, then
Rev. DeWaay should allow that the Pentecostal interpretation of “greater works” in John 14:12 is plausible.
Study of this word will reveal over 40 occasions of its use in the NT and it can indeed be used in the sense of greater in power or effect, not simply greater in quality or worth.
Examples outside of John’s Gospel: the mustard tree being greater than all herbs; I will pull down my barns and build greater; you shall see greater things than these; angels who are greater in power and might; greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world; but He giveth more [*meizon*] grace.
12. Miracles and public response
Some might object and say that conversions are the work of God, and that therefore they cannot be the “greater works” that believers would do because Jesus went to the Father. In that regard, it is just as true that miracles are the work of God, so the objection weighs just as heavily against their own position. Also, there is further evidence that Jesus was thinking of people coming to faith after His ascension. It is found in Jesus’ high priestly prayer: “I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word” (John 17:20). They would testify about Christ and many would believe. Interestingly, in John 6 after Jesus did the miracles, all but the 12 left Him. Compare that to the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached and 3,000 were saved on that day alone. Jesus did greater miracles; but fewer people came to saving faith during His public ministry than did in the first days of the early church when Jesus went to the Father.
RESPONSE: Again, this has nothing to do with the context of John 14:12.
13. Greater works shown by context to be works of conversion
The context in the Book of John and the larger Biblical context show that “greater works” are works of conversion by God’s grace. I submit that since the purpose of Christ was to die a substitutionary death to bring about God’s gracious purposes of salvation, the fulfillment of that purpose through the ministry of the church after Christ’s ascension is the greatest work that could possibly be done. Since miracles and signs point to Christ as the true Messiah, they stand in a lesser relationship to the actual bringing of sinners to the Christ to whom they point.
RESPONSE: Quite the opposite. Jesus’ words in John 14:10-12 establish that at a minimum, as incredible as it may seem, the church – not merely apostle and prophets – but the church entire will be empowered to do at least the works which Jesus had already been doing. And there is no reason textually or contextually why greater works cannot mean works of a supernatural character which Jesus Himself did not do.
14. The meaning of His going to the Father
Jesus’ discourse in John 14 – 15 prepares His disciples for His departure. The teachings in these chapters give comfort and hope by assuring the disciples that Jesus is not leaving them helpless and hopeless. He has a place for them prepared in heaven, He will send the Holy Spirit, and they shall have continual access to the Father in His name. Jesus emphasizes that it is necessary for Him to go to the Father so that His purposes would be accomplished. Far from the horrible tragedy that they would imagine it to be, it will be the best thing that could happen for them and all believers. God’s Messianic purposes would be fulfilled because Jesus goes to the Father by way of the cross.
But the visible proof to Israel that God had accepted the Person and Sacrifice of Christ is that He received from the Father the Promise of the Spirit and poured out the Spirit.
This is a part of what Peter preaches in his sermon in Acts 2: This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. (Acts 2:32-33)