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Bigger than Jesus?

Craig Smith on June 24, 2014 - 11:10 am in Bible, Christian Living, Christian Ministry, Craig Smith, Gospels, Hermeneutics, Tough Questions

Most of us know that you can’t believe everything you read.  In fact, if there’s anything the Internet has taught us, it has to be that there’s an inverse relationship between the grandness of a claim and the likelihood that there’s any truth to that claim at all.

But what do we do when ridiculously grand claims come, not from the internet, but from the Bible?  As Christians, the answer seems easy:  we believe the Bible no matter how grand the claim might be…but in practice, it’s sometimes hard to believe some of the things the Bible claims.

For instance, in John 14:12, Jesus said this to his disciples:

I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

How can this possibly be true?  How can believers possibly expect to do “greater” things that Jesus himself did?

The answer to this difficult question depends, in large part, on understanding what “things” Jesus was talking about here.  Because of the preceding verse, it is often assumed that Jesus was speaking here about miracles:

Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. (John 14:11)  

Given the close proximity of “miracles” here to “things” in v.12, it is easy to see why many people understand Jesus to be saying that his followers will do greater miracles than he himself did.  However, there are two significant problems with this understanding:

1.  No follower of Jesus has done greater miracles than Jesus

Now, I’m not a cessationist[1] and I’m not for a moment suggesting that miracles no longer occur.  I’m simply saying that there is no evidence that any follower of Jesus did a miracle that could be considered “greater” than anything Jesus himself did.  Sure, Peter and Paul both raised people from the dead, but in both cases, those were people who had died just a short time before the apostles performed the miracle. Jesus, on the other hand, raised Lazarus after he had been dead for 4 days.  The same holds true for all the other miracles performed by the apostles:  while clearly signs of God’s power in them, the apostolic miracles did not in any way overshadow the miracles of Jesus himself.  There is also no evidence that any follower of Jesus has ever performed a greater number of miracles than Jesus.  In short, then, no follower of Jesus has performed miracles of a greater quality or quantity that Jesus.  So if that’s what Jesus meant when he said his followers would “do even greater things than these”, then it didn’t happen.

2.  It is very unlikely that “things” is a reference to miracles, either in John 14:11 or in John 14:12.

The Greek term in question here is ergon, which is translated in the NIV as “miracles” in 14:11 and “things” in 14:12.  Unfortunately, while I generally like the NIV very much, I have to say that I think their translation of ergon as “miracles” in 14:11 is mistaken.

John[2] uses ergon some 52 times in his writings, and only 2 of these uses obviously refer to miracles (6:28 and 7:21).  There are a small handful (3-5) of other instances where ergon might possibly refer to miracles, but that translation is by no means certain in those texts.  In the vast majority of instances, John uses ergon to speak of actions/deeds/works.  In fact, this is John’s preferred term for those actions which reveal the true character of the doer:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds [ergon] were evil. (John 3:19)  

I know your deeds [ergon], your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. (Revelation 2:2) 

Now, of course, miracles would certainly count as a kind of action and, in this sense, miracles should be included under the larger category of ergon, but to think of ergon as primarily referencing miraculous deeds would be to ignore John’s well-established pattern for the use of this term.  Most modern versions follow this pattern and translate 14:11 to say “otherwise believe because of the works themselves” rather than “of the miracles themselves” as in the NIV.

It should also be noted that the word John normally employed when referring to miracles was semeion, usually translated “signs” (cf. 2:11, 2:23, 3:2, 4:48, et al.).

The bottom line, then, is this:  when Jesus said that believers would do “greater things” than he had done, he was not referring to miracles.  So, what was he referring to?  It is probably best to simply let Jesus speak for himself:

Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works [ergon] God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work [ergon] of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:28-29)   

Here it is clear that ergon is not referring to miracles but rather to those actions/deeds which honor God and are in accordance with His will.  What the crowd was asking Jesus was simply this:  what does God want from us?  And the answer was very simple:  what God wants you to do is believe in me.  Why?  Because Jesus was the Messiah, God’s provision for His people.  Jesus’ entire ministry was about proclaiming the love of God as manifest in the gift of His son.  This is how the work of Jesus is portrayed throughout the Gospel of John:

"My food," said Jesus, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.  Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.  Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. (John 4:34-36)

"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.  4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.  5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." (John 9:3-5)

Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.  4 I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.  And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. (John 17:3-5)

Ultimately, the work that Jesus came to do was finished at the crucifixion, where he fulfilled his task of proclaiming the love of God by dying for the sins of the world:

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)  

To be clear then:  the work of Jesus was the task of proclaiming the love of God as expressed in the gift of His son, Jesus.  While miracles were a part of this “work”, they were only a small subset of it.  This work also included Jesus’ welcome of the outcast, his defense of the right of the Gentiles to worship the God of Israel, etc.  In essence, miracles were simple one way of accomplishing the work Jesus had been sent to do, but they were not equivalent to the work itself.

With this foundation in place, we can begin to understand what Jesus meant when he said that “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”  The “things” are not miracles per se but rather are the various ways in which we proclaim the love of God as expressed in the person of Jesus.

But how can we proclaim the love of God in greater ways than Jesus himself?  Well, first we must recognize that we don’t do this on our own.  Rather, our proclamation is actually Jesus continuing his work in and through us. This is indicated by the enigmatic phrase “because I am going to the Father”.   This phrase is closely tied to Jesus’ promise that he would send His Holy Spirit:

But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

The arrival of the Holy Spirit meant that believers were now empowered to continue the work of Jesus or, more accurately, that Jesus was continuing to do his work through believers.  This understanding by the early church that they were simply the instruments by which Jesus continued his work is clearly illustrated in the opening verse of the book of Acts where Luke wrote “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach.”  The clear implication is that Luke’s Gospel was the record of the beginning of what Jesus was doing and the book of Acts was the record of what Jesus continued to do.  But Jesus’ ascension at the very beginning of the book of Acts means that he was not physically present to continue his work.  In what sense then, could the book of Acts be about what Jesus continued to do and teach?  It is only possible to understand Acts in this way when we understand that the followers understood that Jesus was continuing his work through them.

When this is understood, it becomes relatively clear how believers can do “greater” things than Jesus did:

1.  Through believers, Jesus continues his work over a greater geographical area.

Apart from his short stint in Egypt as an infant, Jesus never travelled outside of Israel.  Yet through his followers, the Gospel has gone – and continues to go – out to the whole world.  Peter went all the way to Rome.  Thomas went all the way to India.  You and I can travel greater distances in a single plane ride (or even car drive) than Jesus travelled his entire adult life.  If we take advantage of this freedom to proclaim the love of God as expressed in the person of Jesus wherever we go, we are doing (or Jesus is continuing to do through us) “greater” work than Jesus did during his initial, earthly ministry.

2.  Through believers, Jesus continues his work to a greater number of people.

While it is impossible to know exactly how many people followed Jesus during his earthly ministry,[3] it is clear that the number of people who committed their lives to following him increased dramatically after Pentecost.  This is true both in terms of Jewish followers, but also in terms of Gentiles as the Gospel spread far beyond the bounds of Palestine.  Modern technology allows us to proclaim the love of God as expressed in the person of Jesus to numbers of people that the early church couldn’t even comprehend reaching.  If we take advantage of these resources, we are doing (or Jesus is continuing to do through us) “greater” work than Jesus did during his initial, earthly ministry.

3.  Through believers, Jesus offers the greater gift of eternal life.

During his earthly ministry, because he had not yet been crucified for our sins, Jesus’ ministry often involved physical healing, but eternal salvation was not yet available.  Well, to be precise, we might say that is was available, but only in an anticipatory sense; that is, by trusting in Jesus, people could be saved when the crucifixion/resurrection took place.  But now, after the resurrection is a settled fact of history, believers can offer people salvation through faith in Jesus that occurs instantly and transforms their lives for all eternity.  This is greater than the physical healing and anticipatory salvation that Jesus offered during his initial, earthy ministry.

In these ways, and a variety of others, believers can be used by God to do “greater” work than even Jesus did…though we recognize that it is really Jesus continuing his work through us.  This is what Jesus meant when he said that anyone who believes in Him could do greater things than he himself did.

So the question is:  what are you doing to proclaim the love of God as expressed in the person of Jesus?


 

[1] Cessationists believe that miracles stopped/ceased after the close of the N.T. canon.

[2] Some readers may wonder why I am referring to John’s use of this term rather than to Jesus’ use of the term since the quotation in question is attributed to Jesus.  This is a simple matter of recognizing that Jesus would almost certainly have been speaking in Aramaic.  Because it is John who has translated Jesus’ Aramaic into the much more widely spoken Koine Greek, it is appropriate to speak of John’s usage of the particular Greek terms he employed in this translation work.

[3] We know, of course, that there were at least 5,000 men present when Jesus fed the crowd with a handful of bread and fish (cf. Mat 6:44).  However, we also know that most of the crowds abandoned Jesus when the true nature of his ministry became clear to them.  Within the Gospels, the last time we see a crowd with Jesus, they were calling for his crucifixion.

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