Greater Works Than Jesus?

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Pastor, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina

A mentor recently told me that every 30 years or so evangelicals have a conversation about the Holy Spirit. The last really significant one, he said, was in the 1970s, and out of that came the revival known as the Jesus movement. It’s time, he said, for us to have another one.

In John 14:12, Jesus says, “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.” Greater works than Jesus’s? That’s a little hard to believe. Have any of us ever preached with greater clarity, healed the sick with greater power, or prayed with greater compassion . . . than Jesus? No one in their right mind would claim that. But, because of the Spirit, our works are greater in two ways.

The Greater Miracle

The first is that while Jesus’s earthly miracles illustrated his power to save from sin, the greatest miracle of all is conversion from death to life. Jesus fed five thousand to show us that he was the all-satisfying bread of life. He walked on water to show that he was sovereign over all dimensions of the believer’s life. 
 Missionary Nik Ripken tells of Russian believers who are currently seeing miraculous signs that would rival anything in the Book of Acts. But these believers only use the word “miracle” to refer to conversion — because amazing acts of deliverance pale in comparison to what God does when he draws someone to himself (The Insanity of Obedience, 19). When we preach the gospel and sinners believe, we are doing the greater work: Jesus’s miracles were only signs. We get to participate in what those signs point to.

The Greater Range

The second way that our works are “greater” than Jesus’s is that they are greater in their range. When Jesus was on earth, the Holy Spirit focused his ministry in and through Jesus. But now he is on every believer, and the collective impact, Jesus says, of ordinary Christians filled with the Spirit would be greater than if even he himself stayed to lead the church.

In Acts 1:1–2, Luke says that in his former book — the Gospel of Luke — he “wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach, until the day he was taken up.” The implication is that Acts records what Jesus continues to do, through his church. It’s not that in the Gospels Jesus worked, and now we, in his absence, work for him. It’s that during his incarnation Jesus worked through his earthly body and now he works through the entirety of his earthly body, the church.

Jesus’s vision for transforming society never consisted of platforming a few hyper-anointed megapastors to pack an auditorium with their electrifying sermons. His vision of the greatness of the church consisted in each believer being filled with, and used by, the Holy Spirit.

How we’ve built megachurches turns this on its head. We’ve acted like it’s about gathering a group of people to hear from one anointed guy. Did you know that of all the miracles in Acts, 39 of 40 were done outside of the church? Is that where most of our people expect to encounter the power of God? Most see the power of God as something that belongs to the pastor, in the typical routines of church life. But in a post-Christian age, fewer and fewer people casually “make their way” into our gatherings. That means people in our day will increasingly have to be reached outside the assembly, which makes it more important than ever that individual believers live filled with the Spirit.

If we want to see God’s power in our cities, we need to teach our people to listen for the Holy Spirit, to closely follow his guidance, the way the apostles did — not simply to think up a bunch of good ideas for ministry, but to tune their hearts to hear a few God-ideas.

Still Relevant Today?

Now, whenever I start to talk this way, someone inevitably says, “Well, you know, we can’t use Acts as a pattern for our time. Things are so much different now.” And I understand that Acts represents a unique period of apostolic history. But I am not convinced that the only book God gave us with examples of how the church operates is filled with experiences that have literally nothing in common with our own. The Holy Spirit appears 59 times in the book of Acts. In 36 of those appearances he is speaking. Has he ceased moving and guiding today? As John Newton said, “Is it really true that that which the early church so depended on — the leadership of the Spirit — is irrelevant to us today?” (“Letter IV: Communion with God,” 29)

Do we see ministry as something we are doing for God, or something God does through us?

Here’s a question I think every pastor would be wise to consider: Do our people see ministry as something they are doing for God, or something God does through them as they yield themselves to him? Do they know what it means to follow him, to move in his power? And do they know how to distinguish his leadership from superstition, whim, or heartburn?

The presence of the Holy Spirit was the key to the early church’s explosive growth. He is the key to revival in our generation, too. Christ in us, Paul says, is our hope of glory.

It is time we had another conversation about the Holy Spirit, time that we stopped bemoaning the fact that Jesus has left us alone, and instead started looking to, rejoicing in, and walking with the Spirit he’s given to live within us.