Greater Works

The Application of John 13 through 17 to Christians Today

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.”—John 14:12

Chapters 13 through 17 make up a very significant portion of the book of John. It is the section of the book that is devoted to a record of the talk Jesus gave to His apostles the night before He died. Five chapters out of twenty-one make it a sizable and significant section of the book! However the subject of the discourse is the primary factor that gives it its importance.

The Lord told His disciples that He would soon be going away. “Yet a little while I am with you,” He said (John 13:33). Peter responded by asking, “Lord, whither goest thou?” (John 13:36). He answered this question by saying that He would be going away to prepare a place in Heaven for them, and to usher in a phenomenally wonderful new era for God’s people (John 14:1–12). He was going to the right hand of the Father to intercede for us, and He would send the Holy Spirit to live in believers. This would change everything for God’s people in the New Testament age.

Many find encouraging and astonishing promises for believers of this age in the words of Jesus in John 13–17. However, some have cautioned us by insisting that the promises of the Lord in this passage were for the apostles only. Only the apostles would be able to do greater works than Christ, and only they would be guided into all truth. The high and hopeful view of the Christian life proposed by those who teach these chapters as promises for New Testament believers in general is destroyed by those who insist that they cannot be applied to us. However, the content of the discourse in John 13–17 contradicts the assertion that it was for the apostles alone.

Taken as a whole, the discourse of Christ in this section of John clearly applies to all believers:

  • Is the admonition to be washed and made clean given when Jesus washed their feet for the apostles only (John 13:1–11)?
  • Was the command that we love one another for the apostles only (John 13:34–35)?
  • Was the promise that He will come again and receive us to Himself and to His Father’s house for the apostles only (John 14:1–6)?
  • Was the promise to answer prayers offered in His name for the apostles only (John 14:13–14)?
  • Was the promise of the Spirit for the apostles only (John 14:15–17)?
  • Was the bequest of His peace for the apostles only (John 14:27)?
  • Was the command to abide in Him for the apostles only (John 15:1–8)?
  • Was the concept of friendship with Christ for the apostles only (John 15:13–16)?
  • Were the predictions of persecution for the apostles only (John 15:18–16:4)?
  • Was His prayer that they be one for the apostles only (John 17:20–23)?

Clearly, these and many other things Jesus said that night were for all believers and not for the apostles only.

Jesus actually said that He was speaking these things, not to those present only but also to many more not present who will hear them through the apostles. His prayer in chapter 17 was not, “For these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word” (verse 20).

His words were addressed to, “He that believeth on me” and “he that hath my commandments, and keepeth them” and “he that abideth in me” and “those whom thou hast given me”—not to the apostles only. To confine the application of these chapters to the few who actually heard Him say them is to rob the Christian of some of the Lord’s most compelling and precious teaching about the Christian life!

John 13–17 is a vitally important passage about the Christian life. The night before He died on the cross, the Lord Jesus explained to His followers the changes that were coming with the dawn of what we call the New Testament Age.

With His death and resurrection, and subsequent ascension to the right hand of the Father, the greatest era for the people of God would commence. It would be an age of “greater works” and it would begin when He would go to the Father (John 14:12).

His work as their Mediator at God’s right hand would make it so that they could “ask any thing” in His name, and expect to get it (John 14:13–14). The first thing He was going to ask the Father when He got to Heaven was to send “another Comforter” to His followers who would help them keep His commandments (John 14:15–18).

The word Comforter means (in the Greek) “Helper,” and the adjective another indicates (in the Greek) that this Helper would be of the same kind that Jesus had been to them. The Comforter was (and is) the Spirit of truth, the Holy Ghost (see verses 17 and 26), the third Person of the Trinity, and He would live “in you,”—actually in the bodies of Christians! Since He is a person of the Godhead, just as Jesus the Son is, it was going to be like having Jesus still with them and in them (see verses 18 through 23).

The Holy Spirit is in us to help us live the Christian life, to manifest God to us, to teach us His Word, to give us His peace and His love and His joy, and to make us productive (so Jesus teaches us in John 14:15 through 15:11). The whole talk that night was about the marvels of New Testament living, which Jesus called in John 10 living “more abundantly.” Every Christian needs John 13–17.

What Jesus said in John 14:12 bears special attention. He said that the one who, “Believeth on me” (relies on Him) would do “the works that I do,” and that “greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.”

We are amazed by these words, and some are tempted to apply them only to the apostles. It is true that the Lord bore witness to the testimony of the apostles, “With signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will” (Hebrews 2:4b). Each apostle was given what the apostle Paul called, “The signs of an apostle” (2 Corinthians 12:12) to verify his authority, which included “signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.”

The record shows that indeed they did some of the miracles Jesus did. For example, Acts tells us that the apostles miraculously healed the lame, cast out devils, and even raised the dead. But we have no record that any of them ever walked on water, cleansed a leper, or multiplied bread to feed thousands.

They did not do all the miracles that Jesus did. If Jesus was talking that night about physical miracles, what could He have meant by the promise that they would do the works He had done, and even greater works than He did? The evidence compels us to conclude that the greater works predicted in John 14:12 are something other than physical miracles.

What the apostles and many other men and women of faith have done over the centuries that, in some sense, did eclipse the works that Jesus accomplished while on earth was the harvesting of multitudes of souls for God. In the lifetime of the original disciples of Jesus and in the times of the great revivals, many more were brought to salvation than were brought to God through the earthly ministry of Christ. This must be the meaning of this powerful promise. It certainly is not a promise confined in its scope to the twelve apostles. It does not fit such an interpretation, and it is addressed, not narrowly to “ye” (those hearing Jesus say it) but broadly to “He that believeth on me.”

Of course some comments in the course of the evening were directed specifically to the men who were there. When Jesus said, “Ye are clean, but not all,” He was referring to Judas (John 13:10–11). When He said to Peter, “Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards,” He was answering his question directly (John 13:36). In two instances the Lord did refer to the unique responsibility the apostles would have to produce the New Testament scriptures. 

“These things have I spoken unto you, being present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”—John 14:25–26

Here He definitely referred to the writing of Scripture, and especially to the tasks Matthew and John would be given to reproduce whole speeches He had made (such as this talk in John 13–17 and the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7). Then in John 16, Jesus promised them that the Spirit of truth would, “Guide you into all truth” and that He would “shew you things to come” (verse 13). Again He is pre-authorizing the apostles to produce the New Testament Scriptures, and He is making a clear reference to the final contribution John will make to the written Word, the book of Revelation. These are promises to the apostles specifically, but they are not directed to the apostles only.

The promise that the Holy Ghost would “teach you all things” is applied to believers in general in the First Epistle of John.

“But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things. These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you. But the anointing [unction] which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing [unction] teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.”—1 John 2:20, 26–27

The Spirit’s teaching and guiding ministry was not only for the apostles, but is for all of us.

What a mistake it is to keep the riches of the Upper Room Discourse from the people of God by confining its application to the apostles! What our Lord said that night has profound implications and blessings for us in this day of spiritual defeat and soul-destroying unbelief. May His Words revive us again as we meditate on what He said in John 13 through 17 about the abundant Christian life!

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