What are the “Greater Works” in John 14:12, and Who performs them, and When?
Whenever the subject of the miraculous or the spiritual gift of miracles is raised, people immediately turn to the words of Jesus in John 14:12. There he spoke to his disciples, saying:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
Most of the interpretations of John 14:12 are driven by the perceived disparity people feel between what Jesus said would come to pass, on the one hand, and their own experience, on the other. They read this verse and say: “Something’s wrong. I don’t believe that the followers of Jesus have done the same works Jesus did, far less have they done greater works than he. So how can I navigate around the problem this poses for those of us who believe in the inspiration of the Bible?”
The most popular interpretation in our day is that Jesus’ words refer to something other than miraculous deeds and physical healing. The “greater” works Jesus’ followers do is a reference to evangelistic success in the number of souls saved. After all, whereas Jesus accomplished much in his earthly ministry, the number of people who came to saving faith while in his physical presence was quite small.
Very similar to this is the idea that the works are “greater” because Jesus worked in only one land whereas his followers work everywhere around the globe. Or perhaps they are “greater” because from this point on they are no longer confined to or flow from only one person. Or again, they are “greater” because Jesus ministered in only a three-year span whereas his followers are ministering over several centuries. There is a sense in which all those things are true, but do they really account for what is being said? I don’t think so.
A view that I used to embrace, is that if the “works” Jesus did, and promised that believers would do, is a reference to miraculous deeds and physical healings, perhaps the complete fulfillment of this word is yet future. If what Jesus said was true, and everything he said was true, then surely this promise has yet to see its consummate fulfillment. Could it be that it will happen in our generation? This is possible, and I certainly hope it is true. But the answer may lie elsewhere.
A fourth interpretation appeals to Matthew 11:11 where Jesus says that “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [i.e., greater than John the Baptist].” Why are you and I “greater” than John the Baptist? The answer is that, as great as John was, he never experienced the fullness of the blessings of the kingdom of heaven which came through the death and especially the resurrection of Jesus. John's ministry came too early in redemptive history to permit him to participate in the glory of the new age, which Jesus inaugurated. Thus, the works performed after Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father and sends the Spirit are “greater” since they will occur in a different and more advanced phase of God's plan of salvation, being based on Jesus' finished work of redemption.
In support of this view is the last phrase in John 14:12. There Jesus appears to attribute the ability of his followers to do “greater” works to the fact that he is going “to the Father.” In the context of the Upper Room discourse (John 13-17) this clearly points us to the gift of the Holy Spirit that was dependent on his ascension to the Father's right hand (see John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7).
I think there is a measure of truth in this. Up until the time that Jesus spoke these words in the upper room, no one had been forgiven of their sins based on the finished work of Jesus on the cross and the empty grave. All salvation up to this point had been in anticipation of what would eventually occur. Salvation was based on faith in the promise of a coming atonement that would forever put away sin. But once Jesus dies and rises from the dead and goes to his Father and sends the Holy Spirit, salvation is based on faith in the finished historical fact of the atonement for sin.
So, what makes the works we do “greater” is that they are done in the aftermath of the final accomplishment of redemption and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. They are “greater” because they are done in an era or age that doesn’t look forward to the payment of a ransom for sin but looks backward at it. The message you preach will be the message not of a promised ransom but a paid ransom, not of a future payment for sin but a finished payment for sin. The works are “greater” because they are performed in the age of fulfillment, the age of the New Covenant, an age that transcends anything that has come before in God’s redemptive purposes.
Unlike anything that has happened up until now, says Jesus, you will do “works” that point people to a finished work of atonement and an empty grave and a risen and glorified Savior and you will do it in the fullness of the Spirit’s presence and power. On this view, these works are “greater” because of when they take place, not because of what they are. They occur in the age of the Spirit. They belong to an age of clarity and power with the ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit and the institution of the New Covenant.
I think this makes sense, especially when we realize that no one can do “greater” miracles than raising the dead and walking on water and turning a handful of fish and loaves into enough food to feed five thousand. So the word “greater” must be accounted for in terms of a movement from the age of anticipation to the age of fulfillment.
But that doesn’t solve everything. We still must account for the first half of v. 12. Let’s set aside for a moment the debate over the meaning of “greater” works and address what Jesus means when he says we will do the “same” or equivalent works.
Several things must be noted. First, those who perform these works are described as “whoever believes in me." This particular Greek phrase in John's gospel always refers to all believers, to any person who trusts in Christ, whether apostle or average follower (see John 3:15,16,18,36; 6:35,40,47; 7:38; 11:25,26; 12:44,46; 14:12). This is crucial for us to grasp. You don’t have to be an apostle or a missionary to do the works of Jesus. You don’t have to be a pastor or elder or an author. You don’t have to be well known or financially successful. It’s not one gender to the exclusion of another. You don’t have to be a certain age or of a certain ethnicity. You only have to be a believer.
Second, look closely at the immediate context. Jesus says this in v. 11 – “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves” (emphasis mine). So, the words “believe” and “works” occur together in verse 11 just like they do in verse 12. Jesus’ works are designed to help people believe. “Believe on account of the works.” In effect, Jesus says: “If my teaching or the message I’ve proclaimed or how I’ve interacted with people are leaving doubts in your mind about who I am, look at my works. Look at my deeds. Let the works join with my words and lead you to faith.” The “works” that lead to faith, therefore, are something more than “words”. They are visible deeds of some sort that have the potential to lead someone to faith in Christ. What might those “works” be? That leads to my third point.
Third, the “works” believers are said to perform may well be more than miraculous deeds and physical healings, but they are certainly not less than miraculous deeds and healings. I say this because the Greek word translated “work/s” is used 27 times in the Gospel of John. Five of those refer to the work of God the Father in and through Jesus. Some of these refer to the overall purpose of God in Christ, such as bringing salvation to mankind (such as John 17:4), while others are inclusive of the miracles he performed. Six of the twenty-seven refer to the works or deeds of obedience or disobedience by human beings. The remaining sixteen occurrences all refer to the miracles of Jesus. It might be possible to argue that a few refer to more than miracles, but every one of them certainly does not refer to anything less than miracles. In other words, miracles are always included.
So, if Jesus is referring to average Christians and not just apostles, and if the “works” in view are miracles, what are we to make of this promise? Before I answer that, let me point out one more important fact.
The promise of Jesus here is not unconditional. Simply because one believes in Jesus does not mean he/she will invariably do the same miraculous deeds that he did. Rather, his point is that the potential for such deeds of supernatural power exists for anyone who is a true believer. But if someone does not believe this text, if someone doubts the reality of the miraculous in our day, if someone denies the on-going operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, if someone lacks any faith or has exceedingly low expectations of what God might do through us today, if someone does not passionately and regularly pray for such works of great power, it is highly unlikely that the works Jesus did will be present in their life and ministry.
We must also remember that the Apostle Paul clearly teaches that the spiritual gift of miracles is not given to every single Christian.
“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Cor. 12:29-30).
And the answer Paul is looking for is, No, not all have each of these gifts. Only some do. So, on the one hand, anyone who believes in Jesus has the potential to do the works he did. But on the other hand, not every believer will necessarily do miracles. The possibility is for any of those who believe in Jesus to do these works. Whether or not they do is ultimately up to God.
But if Jesus said that those who believe in him will do the same works he did, why hasn’t this happened?” Listen closely to me: It has! Most people argue that Jesus can’t mean what he seems to mean because we know it hasn’t happened. Believers in Jesus have not, in point of fact, done the same works that he did. I disagree. It has happened. And is happening.
Dr. Craig Keener
Dr. Craig Keener, whose Ph.D. is from Duke University, is one of the most highly regarded evangelical NT scholars in the world. He is professor of NT at Asbury Theological Seminary. He has written what is widely regarded as the definitive treatment of miracles. It is two volumes, totaling 1,172 pages (Baker Books, 2011)! He spends the first 250 pages or so defending the reliability of the miracle accounts in the Bible and responds at length to the philosophical and theological arguments that some have used to deny the possibility of the miraculous.
But by far and away the largest portion of these two volumes is devoted to recording and describing miracles of every sort from all around the world during the present church age, with special attention given to the last 150 years or so. He cites documented miracles of healing and deliverance in the Philippines, in Thailand, Viet Nam, in Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Dozens and dozens of documented examples from reliable sources are listed.
He has several hundred examples from churches in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia, South Korea, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and China. The remarkable growth of the church in China is due in large part to the reality of the supernatural as people are confronted with what they simply can’t deny: that there is a supernatural God who answers the prayers of his people.
The cases he cites involve healings of every imaginable sort: cancerous tumors, congenital blindness, deafness, paralysis, heart disease, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and diabetes, just to mention a few. On top of this Keener reports several documented cases of people being raised from the dead.
He proceeds to devote several chapters and a couple of hundred pages to miracle after miracle after miracle in Africa, throughout Latin America, and in the Caribbean. He focuses specifically on the work of Reinhard Bonnke in Nigeria and Heidi Baker in Mozambique, as well as in the Republic of Congo.
The accounts he records from virtually every country in South America are stunning, especially in Ecuador and Chile. He also describes dozens of miracles in Cuba.
At this point in the book, he turns his attention to miracles throughout the entire course of Christian history, beginning in the era immediately following the age of the apostles. People who have argued that when the apostles died, miracles ceased, simply have not looked at the evidence. Keener has, and he describes them in great detail. He chronicles miracles throughout the Middle Ages and even into the time of the Reformation.
He describes countless miracles in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries among a wide variety of Protestant traditions. And his examples are from virtually every Protestant denomination: Baptist, Presbyterian, Nazarene, Methodist, Pentecostal, as well as from virtually every theological tradition.
He devotes several hundred pages to documenting a wide variety of healing miracles throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In one ten-page sequence he documents with great detail no fewer than 95 stunning miracles of a wide variety and brings it to a conclusion by saying: “Such accounts represent only a very small sample of the claims” (2:505).
He turns his attention to healings of blindness and documents more than 350 instances. He also focuses on a variety of types of paralysis that were healed and several dozen instance of resurrections from the dead. And that’s only in Volume 1!
Are all the hundreds and hundreds of miraculous claims cited by Keener authentic? Probably not. And he openly concedes that point. But the utmost care was taken in his research and only the most rigorous standards of medical documentation and eye-witness testimony were utilized. Even if there are many instances that ultimately prove to be false, one simply cannot ignore or deny the hundreds, dare I say thousands of cases that Keener cites. And may I remind you that this is only one man’s research. I would not be surprised if dozens of volumes of God’s miraculous work could be written if there were enough time and people available to record them all. I do not base my interpretation of John 14:12 on Keener’s work or that of anyone else. I simply cite Keener’s work as evidential confirmation of what I think John 14:12 clearly asserts.
And as if that were not enough, in 2021 Keener published a follow-up work with numerous additional stories of documented healing. See his remarkably helpful book, Miracles Today (Baker Book, 284 pp.).