This is an adapted excerpt from The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus: An Evangelical Exposition of John 14–17 and published in partnership with Baker Books.
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. (John 14:12)
The person who has true faith in Jesus is promised that she will do greater things than Jesus’s works. But what does “greater” mean? Shall Christians perform more sensational acts? It’s difficult to imagine miracles more sensational than those of Jesus; “greater” surely doesn’t mean that.
Might “greater” mean “more numerous” or “more widely dispersed”? In that sense, Christians have indeed done “greater” things than Jesus did. We have preached all around the world, seen millions of men and women converted, dispensed aid, education, and food to still more millions. The “greater” works may therefore be the gathering of converts into the church through the witness of the disciples (cf. John 17:20; 20:29), and the overflow of kindness that stems from transformed lives.
Jesus says the greater works will take place “because I am going to the Father.” In other words, Jesus’s departure through death and resurrection to exaltation is the precondition of his disciples’ mission. Because he “goes to the Father,” the church embarks on her mission. Moreover, Jesus’s exaltation is the precondition of the descent of the promised Holy Spirit (John 7:39; 16:7), who will work with the disciples in their witness (John 15:26; cf. 16:7–11). For these reasons, the followers of Jesus will perform “greater” works.
But although this explanation is no doubt correct, why does Jesus speak of “greater” works when this explanation sounds rather as if he meant “more” works?
Greater Kingdom Privileges
We may be helped by comparing another statement of Jesus:
I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt. 11:11)
The point of the comparison is that despite the Baptist’s unequalled greatness, he never participated in the kingdom of heaven. His calling placed him too early in the history of redemption to permit such participation. In that sense, the least person privileged to participate in the kingdom is greater than John the Baptist. It’s a greatness of privilege that is at stake, a greatness conferred with the privilege of participating in the already inaugurated eschatological age.
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.
This doesn’t mean that Jesus’s disciples are greater than he is. It does mean that their works are greater than his in this respect—that they are privileged to participate in the effects of Jesus’s completed work. Until he returned to his Father and bestowed the Holy Spirit, everything Jesus did was of necessity still incomplete. By contrast, the works of the disciples participate in the new situation that exists once Jesus’s work is complete. Their works are greater in that they are privileged to take place after the moment of fulfillment.
Jesus Won Our Privileges for Us
This magnificent canvas must constantly be held before the eyes of every Christian witness. Our faith in Jesus doesn’t thrust us into a struggle where we’re alone, where the outcome is unsure, where the promised blessing is exclusively reserved for the sweet by and by.
Our most mundane activities must be seen against this sweeping backdrop.
Quite the contrary: our faith in Jesus thrusts us into a struggle in which the decisive battle has already been won, in which the promised eschatological blessing has already dawned even if it’s not yet consummated. Indeed, our own feeble efforts participate in the triumph of Christ and the work of his bequeathed Spirit to call forth an innumerable host of new followers of the Savior and Master we’re privileged to serve. These are the true dimensions of our calling; and our most mundane activities must be seen against this sweeping backdrop.
All this comes about because Jesus culminates his work as the revelation of the Father by “returning to the Father” via the cross. The work costs him dearly. Twice he reveals that he is deeply troubled in spirit (John 12:27; 13:21) as he contemplates the hours ahead; yet that same work constitutes the basis on which he can tell his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1).