In John 14:12, Jesus makes the startling statement: “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). Jesus makes clear that the believer would continue what he had been doing since “he was going to the Father.” Also, that the believer would have the “Helper,” “the Spirit of truth” to be their advocate (John 14:16-17). What were these “greater works” than even the miraculous works Jesus had been doing, greater than the blind seeing and the dead being raised (John 9, 11)?
He says that they will do greater works than He doeth Himself; but it is all by His doing such in or by them, and not as if they did them of themselves … when the disciples preached the gospel, it was not small numbers like themselves, but nations also that believed; and such, doubtless, are greater works. And yet He said not, ‘Greater works than these shall ye do,’ to lead us to suppose that it was only the apostles who would do so; for He added, ‘He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do.’ ” (Augustine, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of theChristian Church (First Series), vol. 7, ed. Philip Schaff, 1885: 329.)
Similarly, Martin Luther argues,
Greater works because the apostles and the Christians had a wider field for their works than He did, that they brought more people to Christ than He Himself did during His earthly sojourn…. Miracles, of course, are still the least significant works, since they are only physical and are performed for only a few people. But let us consider the true, great works of which Christ speaks here—works which are done with the power of God, which accomplish everything, which are still performed and must be performed daily as long as the world stands… The apostles and their successors, however, have come to all the world, and their activity has extended over the whole history of Christianity. Thus Christ personally merely initiated His work. It has had to be extended farther and farther through the apostles and the preachers who came after them; it must go on until the Day of Judgment (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 24, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, eds., Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House: 78).
Jesus clarifies that the “greater works” would take place because He was going to the Father. In other words, His departure through death, resurrection, and ascension was the animating catalyst for his disciples’ ordained mission of Spirit-anointed gospel preaching. For this reason, the disciples of Jesus perform “greater works” through the simple faithful preaching of the accomplished gospel of Jesus. As Thomas J. Nettles explains, “he prepared them to understand this event [of the cross] as necessary and constitutive of His redemptive Lordship. His preeminent functional task was to accomplish the work of redemption… The culmination of redemptive history came in the events of the cross” (Nettles, The Privilege, Promise, Power, and Peril of Doctrinal Preaching, Free Grace Press, 2018: 13, 14.).
The meaning of Jesus redeeming work was not fully set forth before His work was done. It was set forth indeed by way of prophecy as it was by the OT prophets and by Jesus Himself in the days of his flesh. Nevertheless, full and clear gospel proclamation could only be given only after Christ’s work was done. Jesus’s cry on the cross, “It is finished” was a key transitional moment in redemptive history. Paul’s statement of his fundamental preaching commitment “to know nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) was only possible after Jesus’s culmination of redemptive history.
Jesus himself regarded apostolic preaching and its extension through shepherds in the church as the “greater work” empowered by the Spirit that He promised. May we spend and be spent knowing the primacy and absolute necessity of preaching. What a daily motivation for the preacher to meditate on the fact we are involved in what Jesus describes as the “greater work.”