Saturday, 13 October 2007

"Greater things than these"

I got slightly flummoxed (great word, huh?) following a question at the first Bitesize session at the University of Cumbria Christian Union (Lancaster campus). The question ran something like this, 'Jesus calmed the storm with a word, raised the dead and fed 5000 people with a packed lunch - and yet he said that we'd do greater things than these. How do we make sense of this?'

I've had a thought about this over the past couple of days and this is my thinking so far.

The verse that the questioner was alluding to is John 14:12, where Jesus says: "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."

Some points to make:

1. The context of this verse within John's Gospel. In John 13-17, Jesus is teaching within the light of his immiment death on the cross, resurrection and ascension into heaven (see especially 13:1 and 14:1-4). Although this will be sad for the disciples, Jesus will have achieved the very reason he was sent into the world by the Father. Indeed, Jesus' return to the Father will be good, as the new age of the Spirit surpasses the time of Jesus' own physical time on the earth.

2. The more immediate context of this verse follows Philip's statement in 14:8, where he asks Jesus to show the disciples the Father. Jesus' answer is staggering. He is the revelation of the Father (verses 9-10). Jesus' words and his miracles provide evidence that his claim to have been the revelation of the Father to be true.

From these observations we can make two points:

a. The 'greater things' will happen because Jesus is going to the Father i.e. presumably because, following Jesus' ascension, the Spirit will come to the disciples.

b. Jesus' teaching about the disciples' 'greater things' is in the context of his own teaching about people understanding his identity, as the revelation of God the Father.

Within the overall context of John's Gospel, then, it seems to me that the 'greater works' that Jesus is talking about is linked with teaching and doing things that reveal Jesus to be the revelation of the Father.

As to what these greater works are, I think both history and theology would show that these things can't be 'greater' than some of the miracles that Jesus performed. They were unsurpassable and part of his Messianic identity. It appears far more likely that Jesus words applied temporally to the context in which he said them. Remember that these words occurred before the passion narrative and before his resurrection. The best 'fit' of what these words mean in the light of the evidence is that the disciples (and believers today) can point to Jesus' death and resurrection as the ultimate sign of his disclosure of the Father (the hour of his 'glory' in John's language) in the power of the Holy Spirit, thus seeing dead people regenerated.

I don't think that this interpretation of John 14:12 excludes the possibility that disciples of Jesus - both apostles then and Christians today - can't perform other miracles in Jesus' name. His name is powerful. I'm personally aware of a few examples of healing within friends, and even know one person who apparently raised another person that was clinically dead. However, the greatest miracle is still when people who are dead to God receive new life. Now we can point to Jesus' greatest work - his resurrection - as the greatest revelation of the person of the Father. And as people recognise Jesus for who he really is, he receives glory and brings glory to the Father above all other things. It's not that performing miracles in Jesus' name is bad - not at all! - but that these should always be with the ultimate aim of demonstrating Jesus' identity anyway.

Or as Colin Kruse puts it, 'The disciples' works were greater ... because they had the privilege of testifying by word and deed to the finished work of Christ, and the fuller coming of the kingdom that it ushered in. Jesus' earthly ministry prior to his death and resurrection foreshadowed these things.'


gazleaney said...

How do the following couple of verses fit in, where Jesus says that Jesus will do whatever they ask for in his name? It sounds as if Jesus is saying he will be able to do more for them beside the Father than he can do on earth.

I guess that fits with what you were saying about the Holy Spirit. Verse 12 is a lead in to what he goes on to say about the Holy Spirit, but the focus is on teaching people the truth, rather than doing miracles.

Helpful thoughts on a tricky verse. Thanks.

peterdray said...

Cheers Gareth. I've been mulling this over further and I'm convinced that this teaching only makes sense in the light of the fact that the Spirit had yet to be given to the disciples (which Jesus goes on to teach further in chapters 14 and 16).