Sunday, June 26, 2011

John 4:2 - Greater Works

Scripture John 4:2

He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.


The term “works” (erga) is used as a synonym for “signs,” that is, referring to Jesus’ miracles, in many places in the gospel.

What could it possibly mean that the disciples will do the same “works” and even greater “works” than Jesus?

It could mean that the apostles would perform miracles, even more spectacular ones than those Jesus performed. There are two problems with this interpretation.

First, a historical problem. While Acts does record the apostles, especially Peter and Paul, performing miracles similar to those of Jesus himself, one would be hard pressed to argue that they exceeded the “grandeur” of, say, the raising of Lazarus or the resurrection itself.

Second, a theological problem. The “signs” and “works” Jesus performed were never ends in themselves. In fact, his comment, hinting at a kind of exasperation, in John 4:48 (“Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe”), suggests that the performance of miracles was a concession to a lack of faith among his contemporaries (compare John 20:29), but not a practice Jesus thought should be normative.

Thus, the thesis that the “greater works” refers to miracles performed by the disciples that would “outdo” those of Jesus himself faces some formidable objections.

But what other interpretive options are available?

One clue to the nature of the “greater works” is the explanation given at the end of Jesus’ statement, “Because I go to the Father.”

Taken at face value, this is not much of an explanation: there seems to be no reason why Jesus’ departure to the Father would result in the disciples accomplishing greater works than those of Jesus himself. The statement must be taken in conjunction with John 6:7: “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

The reason the disciples will perform “greater works” is not because of the absence of Jesus, but because Jesus’ departure will result in the gift of the Spirit, through which the disciples will be empowered to perform these works.

Another clue is the pattern we have observed—that, in the aftermath of performing signs, Jesus attempts to move those who have witnessed the sign from the “earthly” to the “heavenly”—from the physical miracle to that to which it points.

In John 3, Jesus tries to move Nicodemus from thinking of the “signs” in terms of “earthly things” (a physical re-birth) to “heavenly things”—rebirth by the Spirit, inseparably tied to baptism.

In John 6, he urges the people not to seek earthly bread through another multiplication miracle, but heavenly bread—himself and his Eucharistic presence, through which the Spirit gives life.

And without doubt, in Jesus’ hierarchy of significance, the Eucharistic bread of his “flesh” is “greater” than the bread created by the multiplication of loaves.

Could the “greater works than these” that the disciples will perform include the divine works of baptism and Eucharist carried out by the power of the Spirit?

This was noted long ago by Oscar Cullmann: “The “sacraments have this in common, that in the time after the resurrection they take the place of the miracles performed by the incarnate Christ.”

At least the following conclusions may be warranted exegetically: whatever the “greater works” will be, they will not be performed apart from the power of the Paraclete sent by Jesus; and whatever they are, they will not be unrelated to the rebirth of baptism and the nourishment of the Eucharist, toward which Jesus’ own “works” pointed.

That the “greater works” to be performed by the disciples do indeed relate in some way to baptism and Eucharist is supported by some of the imagery in the last discourse itself. (section of text at this part of article was removed for sake of brevity of email)

The major block of teaching in John’s third Passover narrative is the last discourse, which implies that the disciples will be formed into a new Temple through the work of Christ (John 4:2–3), and strongly emphasizes the commissioning of the disciples to continue the ministry of Christ after his departure.

The disciples will, in fact, perform “greater works” than those Christ has displayed, once the Spirit is given to them.

There is reason to think these “greater works” are related to the celebration of baptism and Eucharist, because in John 3 and 6 Jesus himself indicates that the reality of these two sacraments are of more value than the sensible “signs” he has performed.

A possible sacramental sense of the “greater works” is supported by the fact that Jesus’ commission to “wash feet” and to “abide in me” have baptismal and Eucharistic connotations respectively.

It is possible, then, that in the last discourse, we are to see that one of the ways the “works” or “signs” of Jesus will be continued is through the Spirit-empowered administration of baptism and Eucharist.

Source: Temple, Sign, and Sacrament: Towards a New Perspective on the Gospel of John

Scott W. Hahn - St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology

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