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Lesson 76: Doing Greater Works Than Jesus (John 14:12-14)

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December 14, 2014

These verses on prayer are some of the most difficult in all of Scripture for me to understand. They occur in the context of Jesus giving encouragement and comfort to the distraught disciples, who were troubled by the news that He was leaving them; that one of them would betray Him; and that Peter would deny Him. Jesus tells them that after He is gone they will do greater works than He did and that He will do anything that they ask in His name. So Jesus’ promises in these verses should encourage and comfort us as well.

But the problem is, these verses do not seem to be true in my experience. I’d be hesitant to say that I’m doing greater works than Jesus did. He has never used me to perform a miracle. And I can’t say that whatever I ask Him to do, He does it every time. So we need to think carefully about what these verses mean. (We will encounter similar verses in John 15:7, 15:16, and 16:23-24; also, see 1 John 5:14-15 and Matt. 21:22 [parallels, Mark 11:24; Luke 16:6]).

My problem is compounded by the fact that of the 20 or more commentaries and sermons that I read on these verses, not one even mentions that there are any difficulties! I have over two dozen books on prayer on my shelf, and only one acknowledges that these are difficult verses, but he doesn’t answer my questions.

Another problem is that the “health and wealth” preachers use these verses to teach people to “name it and claim it” in prayer: “Give me a mansion and a new car!” “Heal my cancer!” They tell people to “claim it by faith.” When it doesn’t happen as the people requested, these cruel false teachers then tell the disappointed person that the reason he didn’t receive what he asked for is that he didn’t ask in faith!

The main idea of our text is easy to state (even if not so easy to understand!):

When we believe in Jesus and pray in His name we will do greater works than He did.

First, let’s try to understand the “greater works”; then we’ll look at prayer in Jesus’ name.

1. When we believe in Jesus we will do greater works than He did (John 14:12).

John 14:12: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.”

Note that Jesus is the head of His body, the church. As His body, we are to carry on the works that He did when He was on earth. This is implied in Acts 1:1, where Luke refers to “all that Jesus began to do and teach…” He goes on to show how Jesus continued to work through the apostles and the early church as they were filled with the Holy Spirit.

In John, Jesus’ works include His miracles (John 5:20; 7:3, 21; 10:25, 32, 33, 37, 38; 14:11; 15:24), but extend to all that He taught and did in obedience to the Father (John 5:36). In John 17:4, Jesus sums up His ministry when He prays, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” So if we are doing the works that Jesus did, and even greater works, it would seem that we should be doing miracles, living in complete dependence on the Father, obeying Him in all things, demonstrating the Father’s love and mercy, and confronting the religious errors of our day. Jesus did all these things and more.

One clue to Jesus’ meaning in our text is His explanation of why His disciples should do greater works: “because I go to the Father.” As John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:13-15 make clear, Jesus promised that after He returned to the Father, He would send the Holy Spirit to indwell them. And so the greater works that the disciples would do were the direct result of the Spirit’s working in and through them.

But, does this mean that we should be doing the same and even greater miracles than Jesus did? A “yes” answer to that question was why the late John Wimber founded the Vineyard Christian Fellowship churches. He was convinced that we should be seeing God work miracles today as a common experience. But the fact that Wimber’s good friend, David Watson, died of cancer in his early 50’s in spite of Wimber’s praying in faith that he would be healed; and the fact that Wimber himself died of heart disease in his early 60’s; and the additional fact that none of the Vineyard Churches that I know of are seeing consistent miracles on a par with Christ’s miracles, should give us pause.

In the Bible, miracles occur mostly in clusters, mainly at times when God’s message needed to be authenticated. These include the times surrounding the exodus; the times of Elijah and Elisha; Daniel’s time; and the time of Christ and the apostles. In Acts, we see some pretty spectacular miracles, such as Peter’s shadow falling on the sick and healing them and his raising Dorcas from the dead (Acts 3:1-9; 5:12-16; 9:36-41). Acts 5:16 reports, “Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed.” Note, they were all being healed.

Paul also saw some spectacular healings. Acts 19:11-12 reports, “God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.” But later in his ministry, Paul advises Timothy to drink a little wine for his frequent stomach problems, but not to claim healing by faith (1 Tim. 5:23). In his final letter, Paul reports (2 Tim. 4:20), “Trophimus I left sick at Miletus.” Why didn’t Paul heal him if he was still doing the miraculous works of Jesus? And, although it would have freed him for wider ministry, Paul never claimed deliverance from prison or from execution by faith.

The author of Hebrews, writing to the second generation of Jewish believers, reminds them how God testified to the truth of the gospel by performing signs and wonders and miracles through the first generation of believers in Christ (Heb. 2:3-4). He was trying to convince them of the truth of the gospel so that they wouldn’t go back to Judaism. If those early miracles were still commonplace, the author would have had a stronger argument by pointing to the very miracles done every day in their midst.

So I conclude that while God at times does spectacular miracles to authenticate His word, we are not living at a time where miracles are as commonplace as they were in the days of the early church. We should never doubt that if it is God’s will, He can miraculously heal or do other miracles through His people. But I do not know of anyone in our day experiencing near the same or greater miracles than Christ did. So the “greater works” that Jesus promised cannot refer to greater miracles than He did.

What, then, are the greater works that Jesus’ followers are to perform? D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 496) argues that the greater works are those done on the basis of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation. The greater works point to the power of the gospel to transform lives as it spread through the apostolic witness. Through Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 were born again, probably more than Jesus saw converted during His entire ministry! The Book of Acts tells how the message kept spreading, first around Jerusalem, and eventually to the Gentiles around the Roman Empire. J. C. Ryle succinctly observes (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], on John 14:12, p. 67), “There is no greater work possible than the conversion of a soul.”

Thus as the Lord uses us to spread the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are doing the works that He did and even greater works in the sense that the new covenant is better than the old (Heb. 8:6). And our works collectively are greater in number and greater in geographic extent than Jesus did in three years in one small part of the world. I might add that there have been and continue to be times and places where God’s Spirit works in unusual ways to bring thousands of people to Christ in a relatively short period of time. These are called revivals and it is thrilling to read about them. We should pray that God would do a work of revival here and now. But, there are other times and places where in spite of faithful witnesses and much prayer, few have come to Christ. With that, I turn to the subject of prayer:

2. Prayer in Jesus’ name is the way to do greater works than He did (John 14:13-14).

John 14:13-14: “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” In these verses, we see the extent, the basis, the objective, and the result of Jesus’ promise:

A. The extent of Jesus’ promise: “Whatever you ask.”

The context is important! Jesus isn’t promising that He will do any crazy thing you ask, as long as you tack on, “in Jesus’ name, Amen” to your prayer! The context of “whatever you ask” is tied into doing Jesus’ works. So to think that you can pray, “Jesus, give me a nice mansion and while You’re at it, throw in a new Mercedes,” is to completely misapply Jesus’ promise.

John Piper argues that instead of using prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie to call in supplies for the battle, we have turned it into an intercom to ask for more comforts in the den (Let the Nations be Glad ([Baker Academic], p. 49). But prayer isn’t a means of getting God to give us what we want so that our lives can be more comfy. Rather, prayer is the means by which we ask God to extend His kingdom and do His will on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). True, there is a place to ask God to meet our needs. But the center of all that we pray should be, “Lord, do Your work through Your people! Bring sinners to genuine conversion! Sanctify Your people so that we will be faithful representatives of Jesus on earth!”

So in prayer, we are to submit to God’s will and to ask Him to accomplish His will through us and through His people. But, the difficulty is, how do we determine what God’s will is so that we pray in line with it? His will is not always obvious! God denied Moses’ request to enter Canaan (Deut. 3:23–27), even though Moses could have argued that the people needed his leadership after they entered the land. Paul prayed for relief from his thorn in the flesh, which was demonically caused and hindered his ministry, but God had a higher purpose, namely, to be glorified as Paul depended on Him in his weakness (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Paul’s prayers for the salvation of his fellow Jews largely went unanswered, not only in his lifetime, but down to the present day (Rom. 10:1; cf. 1 Thess. 2:14–16; Col. 4:7)! Even Jesus in the Garden prayed, if it was the Father’s will, to be delivered from the cross (Matt. 26:39). But He submitted to the Father’s will.

So there is a tension here: We should ask God to extend the gospel and glorify His name around the world. We should ask Him “to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). And yet, we need to keep in mind that His ways are not always our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9). He sometimes puts His greatest servants in chains or allows them to be killed for His sake (Rom. 8:36). So although we often don’t understand why God doesn’t do exactly what we ask, we should pray big prayers for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. The extent of, “Whatever you ask,” is pretty unlimited!

B. The basis of Jesus’ promise: “In My name.”

As I said, this isn’t a formula to tack onto your prayers, although there’s nothing wrong with closing your prayers, “in Jesus’ name,” as long as you think about what that means. “Jesus’ name” refers to His person and work. It refers to all that He is and all He has done for us on the cross. While we must be obedient to Christ if we expect Him to answer our prayers (John 14:15), we don’t ask on the basis of our obedience: “I’ve been really good, so You need to answer this!”

Rather, to ask in Jesus’ name means that you come to the Father through the Son as your high priest. To ask in Jesus’ name is to recognize that His name is above every name that is named, both in this age and in the age to come (Eph. 1:21). He has the power to answer! You ask what you think Jesus would want in terms of carrying out His work. You ask God to be gracious because you are in His Son and you are seeking to do His will. And, you ask submissively, acknowledging that you may not understand His perfect will. But you trust that if your request is His will, He will do it, no matter how difficult.

C. The objective of Jesus’ promise: The Father’s glory in the Son.

This is a further condition that must govern the “whatever” we ask: Our desire is to see God glorified through the Lord Jesus. This may include the salvation of a loved one or of an enemy of the gospel (such as Paul before his conversion). This extends to praying for the gospel to penetrate unreached peoples around the world. It includes praying that troubled marriages may be healed. The main objective is not that they would be happy (although they will), but that God would be glorified through Christ being seen in that marriage. God’s glory is the main objective of our prayers.

Sometimes people will ask me to pray for someone who is in the hospital and I ask, “What should I pray?” The person asking will often look at me dumbfounded, thinking, “Pray that he will be healed, of course!” But healing may not be God’s way of being glorified. What does God want to do in this person’s heart? Maybe the sickness is to teach the person the brevity of life so that he will live in light of eternity. God may be glorified by teaching the sick person to trust Him through bodily weakness. He may be glorified through the person’s joy in Christ as he dies. Our aim in prayer should be that the Father would be glorified in His Son.

D. The result of Jesus’ promise: “I will do it.”

Jesus repeats this in verses 13 & 14 so that we can’t dodge it. The result of our praying should be that Jesus does it. This implies Christ’s deity: He has the power to answer whatever we ask. But this is where it gets really difficult, because many of our prayers would seemingly further God’s kingdom and glory, but He has not done it. I have prayed for the salvation of loved ones, but they have died unbelieving. I have prayed for the healing of Christian marriages, but they have ended in divorce. Many godly parents have prayed for their prodigal children to return to Christ and to be reconciled with the parents for God’s glory, but it hasn’t happened. Many faithful missionaries have prayed and labored for the gospel to take root among peoples that are still mostly pagan after decades of labor. The list could go on and on.

So, how do we reconcile Jesus’ seeming blanket promise to answer prayers in His name for God’s glory with the fact that many such prayers go unanswered? I can’t totally resolve this problem, but I offer some concluding thoughts that may help.

Conclusion

First, the tension we experience stems from the fact that we can know God’s will of desire, but we can’t know His will of decree. God desires that all people would repent of their sins and be saved (Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4), but He has not decreed the salvation of all (Acts 13:48; Rom. 9:15-18, 21; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2:10). God desires that we all glorify Him by holy lives, but He also permits sin and will be glorified by His righteous judgment on sinners who do not repent. So we should pray as best we know in line with His revealed will of desire, while at the same time submitting to the fact that we don’t know His will of decree.

Second, Jesus’ promise to do whatever we ask does not undermine the many Scriptures that exhort us to wait on the Lord. Jesus doesn’t say when He will do it. God may be glorified as we faithfully wait on Him for years for answers to our prayers. He may be glorified by answering at a distant time even beyond our lifetimes for reasons that we cannot fathom at the moment. So we must join David who exhorts (Ps. 27:14), “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.” God’s purposes will surely be fulfilled, but not necessarily in our timing or in ways that we envision.

Third, God often accomplishes His purposes in ways that seem backwards to us. We pray for the gospel to spread, so God sends persecution. The late Chinese Pastor Samuel Lamb spent 33 years in prison for his faith. After he was released for the final time, he called the authorities and asked them to re-arrest him. When they asked why, he said, “Every time you arrest me, my church doubles in size. I want to see my church grow.” We pray for strength, and God makes us weak so that we will rely on His strength (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Jesus told Peter that Satan had demanded permission to sift him like wheat, but that Jesus had prayed for Peter (Luke 22:31-32). I would have prayed that Peter be spared from denying Jesus, but Jesus didn’t pray that. Rather, He prayed that after Peter was restored, he would strengthen his brothers. Countless Christians who have failed have been strengthened through Peter’s failure and restoration.

Finally, we do not understand all that God is doing, so we may go to our graves not knowing why He seemingly didn’t answer our prayers. I wonder whether John ever understood why God delivered Peter from prison, but allowed John’s brother James to be executed (Acts 12:1-17). Couldn’t James have been used greatly to extend the kingdom if he had been delivered? Yes, but that wasn’t God’s will. John the Baptist’s disciples probably never understood why God allowed a drunken king to execute a godly prophet like John.

I read once about a businessman who picked up a hitchhiker and drove with him for several hours. The hitchhiker was a Christian and he shared the gospel with the businessman. Before he dropped him off, he put his trust in Christ as His Savior and Lord. He left his business card with the hitchhiker and said, “If you ever come to Chicago, drop by and see me.”

Several years went by before the hitchhiker was in Chicago. He stopped by the man’s office and handed the card to a woman and asked if the man was in. The woman’s face froze and she asked, “Where did you get this card?” The man used the question to tell the woman the story of how the man had become a Christian that day. She broke down in tears and said, “He was my husband. I had prayed for years that he would come to Christ. But he never made it home from that trip. He was killed in an accident after he dropped you off. I’ve been bitter at God all these years because I thought that He didn’t answer my prayer.”

Not all stories end that way, but the point is, we don’t have all knowledge about how God may be working in response to our prayers. So be active in doing Jesus’ works. Pray that He would do far more through you than you can ask or think. But if things don’t go exactly as you had prayed, trust Him that if not in this life, at least in eternity you will understand how He answered and used you to do even greater works than He did.

Application Questions

  1. Should we be praying for and expecting God to do miracles? Why/why not?
  2. Is praying, “Your will be done” opposed to praying in faith? Why/why not?
  3. How can we pray in faith if we can’t know God’s will of decree? Can we pray in faith that God will save a specific person?
  4. Is it wrong or is it okay to pray for things that would make life more comfortable (bigger house, newer car, etc.)? Give biblical support for your answer.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Prayer