The authority which Jesus manifests as God with us within the Gospels is, as we have said, unique.  He is the one with authority to speak with God’s own voice,[1] command sickness,[2] rule over spiritual beings[3] and the elements of nature,[4] to give life again to the dead,[5] and even declare forgiveness of sins.[6]  Such authority exercised through one individual is unprecedented within Scripture.  It is the authority of God Himself, made present amongst His people through the one and only Son.  The question that follows, and which is directly relevant to our discussion, is whether or not the exercise of this authority is descriptive of the unique ministry of the Son of God, or prescriptive for all who would become members of the kingdom by faith in the one and only Son.  Some would say absolutely yes – others no.

I must confess that I am unconvinced by the arguments which insist that the power and authority seen in the ministry of Jesus ought be programmatic for the ministry of the Christian generations that have come after Him.  Such an understanding will take a golden passage of promise and comfort, such as John 14:12, and comprehensively pervert its meaning and significance:

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.[7]

It is the easiest thing in the world to become over-excited when we read these words.  What is easier still, is to let our excitement cause us to read our own agendas and desires into them.  They are an astonishing promise and words of deep, deep comfort; but the genuine promise and penetrating comfort come only from understanding them correctly.  We must work hard to understand what Jesus meant when He spoke them, and then apply His intentions to ourselves rather than leaping to our own conclusions and then applying them with indiscriminate liberality.

We must remember that these famous words come within a context of great anxiety and trouble.  Jesus has spent three extraordinary years with His disciples, and now He prepares to leave them.  Chapter fourteen opens with the exhortation:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.[8]

In this time of trial and anxiety, the Lord Jesus invites His friends to trust Him, in exactly the same way and with exactly the same certainty as they trust God their Father.  He is seeking to bring them comfort at a dark and dangerous hour, but if we read His words carefully, we realise that these words of comfort are very different from any words that we might hope to speak to our own friends and relatives during a time of struggle.  When my friend Steven was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of his university studies, I found that all of my words of comfort and consolation seemed dry and empty. I felt powerless to encourage him. He began chemotherapy and I went with him to hospital and sat silently as the most horrific chemical concoctions were injected into his twenty-three-year-old blood stream.  There seemed to be nothing to say when his hair came out by the fistful and his skin erupted in blisters that dried and turned black from head to toe.  Often we would just sit together in silence.  I didn’t want to tell him everything would be all right, because we did not know if it would.  I didn’t want to tell him things would get better, because I wasn’t sure that was true either.  I did not want to be a purveyor of false hope.

There is no ring of falsehood or speculation in the words that Jesus speaks to His disciples.  In essence he tells them: Yes, I am going.  But I am going for a reason and I am going with a purpose.  I am going so that everything will change.  I am going to the Father so that I can make preparations, and when those preparations are completed, I will come back… for you. And when I come back, you will be introduced to a changed future, a different reality, a new destiny and a new kingdom.

In the conversation that follows from John 14:4-11, Jesus leaves none of His friends in any doubt about the nature of His relationship to the Father, and the Father’s relationship to Him.  Do you want to know the way to the Father God?  It is only through me.  Do you want to know the truth about the Father God?  Listen to me.  Do you want to live the life that the Father God has always meant you to live?  Come to me.[9]  Do you want to see the Father God?  Look at me.[10]  Jesus is able to declare such things because, in truth, He and the Father are one.

These are some of the most extraordinary (and controversial) passages of Scripture.  In essence Jesus declares that no one can come to the Father unless they come through faith in Him and no one can know the Father unless they first know His Son.  The bottom line here is: if you want to know what God the Father is like, He is exactly like Jesus, the one and only Son.  But why is it necessary for Jesus to go to the cross, and to His Father in heaven?  As I have said, it is so that He can change everything.  The entire context of this discourse, is the context of winning forgiveness, reconciliation and everlasting life for the people of God.  Jesus goes to His Father, so that we might live.

The words that Jesus speaks at John 14:12:

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.[11]

He has spoken before, in John 5:19-21:

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.[12]

The disciples were meant to have remembered these former words, because the context of death and life in John 5:19-21 is exactly the same as in John 14:12.  What then are the greater things of John 5 and 14?  The greater things that God will show and the greater things that the disciples will do?

Many today take these words as a reference to the miracles, healings, exorcisms and resuscitations that Jesus performed.  That is, not only will the disciples do the miracles that Jesus did, they will do greater miracles than Jesus did.[13]  If this is the true meaning of Jesus’ words, then it is a lie, for no matter how extravagant are the claims of faith healers and miracle workers nowadays, none have ever been within a thousand light years of matching the ministry and works of Jesus – the man who is God Incarnate.  Even the works of the Apostles in Acts are but a sad shadow when compared with Christ’s ministry.

If this is the meaning of Jesus’ words, then all who have come after Him are faithless and false – because the promise is not given to pastors, or church leaders, or the anointed.  It is given to EVERYONE.  I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do.  So our inability condemns us, for clearly it is our faith that is lacking or insufficient.  Under this interpretation, a lack of the miraculous becomes the stick with which we beat ourselves and our congregations: we are not healed because we have no faith.  It is the echo of Philip’s comment at John 14:8:  Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.[14]  In my time of anxiety and stress, if only I could see God… but, dear friends, we have seen Him, and He remains clearly visible even to this day.  That is Jesus’ point.

The context of John 5:19-21 and John 14:12 is the context of transforming death into life, and that is the greater thing that we shall all see and that we shall all do in the name of Jesus Christ.[15]  Perhaps first among the greater things is the disciples’ own astonishing witness of Jesus resurrected and ascending to the right hand of the Father before their very eyes!

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.[16]

Perhaps the second greater thing is the miraculous truth of their own presentation in the Kingdom through faith in the Messiah.  Transformed from corruption into purity, taken from the grave to the triumph of life everlasting within the kingdom of God.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—  in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.[17]

But neither of these events can be divorced from the preaching of the good news. It is the preaching of the gospel of salvation that sees men and women and children moved from sin, condemnation and death to forgiveness, reconciliation and life everlasting, through faith and trust in the Son of God.  We are only able to do this because Jesus has gone to the Father in triumph and glory – He has defeated the power of sin and death.   This is the reality that anyone with faith will experience, and it is a greater thing than any worldly healing of sickness, or resuscitation from sleep.  It is the snatching of a life from the pit of hell and transplanting it to the Kingdom of heaven.  In truth, there is no greater miracle wrought by Christian faith than this.  To draw any other conclusion from these texts requires a series of exegetical sidesteps which not only end up misrepresenting the weight of Jesus’ words and intentions, but assert something which is in plain contradiction to the reality of the great majority of Christian experience since Christ – even apostolic experience.

I prayed for my friend Steven.  I prayed for his healing.  But more than this, I kept asking him if his trust in Jesus was still strong.  Was he still reading his Bible, was he still saying his prayers?  When his remission was confirmed we celebrated with hugs and not a few tears, it was a great day.  God had done a great thing.  But the truth was, Steven had experienced a far greater day and far greater things years before when not his body, but his soul had been restored by faith in the one who had gone to the Father for his sake.  When the anxiety and darkness came, Steven understood that his Lord had gone before him to make preparations.  His heart was not troubled.  He believed in God and he believed also in the Son.  He still does.

It seems to me that understanding Jesus’ words this way brings back to our minds two surprising truths.  The first is a reminder of how unspeakably great is the treasure which has been given to every imperfect believer through the gospel of Jesus.  Within the heart and on the lips of every Christian is the key to life, the true meaning of death and knowledge of the path to salvation in Christ.  That such an impossibly precious gift should be committed into the hands of ‘children’ like us is beyond the realms of dream and imagination, and yet this is the mechanism for salvation that God has chosen.[18]  Within the heart of every believer is the means to lead the world back to right relationship and forgiveness with God.  This salvation is the truth to which healings, exorcisms and resuscitations merely point.  Such is the wonder and burden of Kingdom ministry and Christian faith.[19]  In and of themselves such wonders say nothing and have no meaning at all, but when coupled with the gospel they stand as beacons that point towards the truth of the person and work of Jesus.

I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do … even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.[20]

The second reminder is perhaps a little less positive, but no less liberating.  It is the reminder that the presence or absence of the miraculous in the life of the individual believer or congregation is an indicator of absolutely nothing.  We are forever told that the reason we do not experience manifestations of spiritual gifts and power is because we do not believe the words and promises that Jesus made in passages like Luke 10, John 14 and Acts 1.  Or, even if we do believe them, we do not believe strongly enough.  This kind of spiritual brow-beating and blackmail has been around since medieval times; in fact it, was invented by the medieval church (with the happy side effect of making the church endless piles of money!).  Today it dresses itself in a different kind of promised blessing, but it is no less a bondage and certainly no less a godless lie that undermines the sovereignty of Christ and the power of His gospel (while simultaneously representing itself as strengthening both).  The evidence that such rigidity in teaching on spiritual manifestation is nonsense lies within Jesus’ own ministry and the enormous variation that accompanied the miracles of healing.  For sometimes it was faith that produced healing,[21] at other times it was healing that inspired faith,[22] and at other times healing occurred where no expression of faith seemed to be required at all.[23]  That faith and healing are always two halves of the one spiritual coin, seems a dubious assertion at best.

The truth is that the awesome power of God in Christ is seen most clearly in the proclamation of His life-saving, life-changing gospel.  This is a task within the capability of every believer and a task which, according to Christ, is far greater than anything the disciples had seen Him do before.  It is the task of God opening the eyes of the blind and liberating the hearts of the captive.  It is the task of God teaching the crippled to walk with confidence, the outcast to be made clean and the dead to be reborn.  All of this is accomplished through speaking the truth about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  In short, the greatest thing that any Christian believer will ever do – the greatest thing any Christian can do – is speak the gospel of Jesus.  There is no deed and no gift that compares to this, and it is a gift given to anyone.

I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do … even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”[24]

 

[1]     Mark 1:22; Matthew 7:29; Luke 4:32; John 7:28; 14:10

[2]     Mark 1:41; Matthew 4:23; 8:13; 9:22; 12:15; 15:28

[3]     Mark 1:27; 9:25-27; Matthew 17:18; Luke 4:36

[4]     Mark 11:11-13, 21; Matthew 17:27; Luke 8:24-25; John 6:19

[5]     Mark 5:35-43; Luke 7:11-15; John 11:38-43

[6]     Matthew 9:2-6; John 8:9-11

[7]     John 14:12

[8]     John 14:1-3

[9]     John 14:6

[10]    John 14:9-11

[11]    John 14:12

[12]    John 5:19-21

[13]    So, D. Williams, ‘Following Christ’s Example: A Biblical View of Discipleship’, in G. S. Greig and K. N. Springer (eds), The Kingdom and the Power (Ventura, California: Regal, 1993), p. 183.

[14]    John 14:8

[15]    Woodhouse, J. W., “Signs & Wonders and Evangelical Ministry” in Signs & Wonders And Evangelicals (R. Doyle (ed.), Lancer: Homebush, 1987), pp. 50-53.

[16]    Acts 1:9

[17]    1Corinthians 15:51-52

[18]    2Corinthians 4:7

[19]    2Corinthians 2:15-17

[20]    John 14:12

[21]    Matthew 9:2, 22; 8:13; 15:28, Mark 10:52; Luke 8:50;  Acts 3:16; 14:9-10

[22]    Matthew 15:31, John 2:23; 4:39, 53; 20:8; Acts 13:12

[23]    Mark 5:1-13 and the story of the demon possessed man who names himself Legion is a curious one.  Does the man express faith, or is it merely the spirits within him confessing their knowledge regarding who Jesus is… and is knowledge the same thing as faith?  Mark 6:5; Luke 7:11-15; 17:11-19.

[24]    John 14:12