The book of Acts is the Gospel of Luke, Part 2.
The Gospel of Luke begins with Luke explaining himself, explaining what it was that he wrote, and why he wrote it – “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (1:1-4)
The Gospel of Luke presents itself to us as a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us,” based on what “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” were saying about them, written down in “an orderly account,” that its readers might be “informed” and “know the truth.” My expectation when I open the Gospel of Luke and read it is that I am going to be told about something that Jesus Christ said and/or did, and why it matters.
The book of Acts begins with a quick glance back before a steady moving forward – “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up… And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ He said to them… ‘you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (1:1-2; 4-5; 8-9)
The Ascension (Christ’s “lifting up”) and Pentecost (the “coming upon you” of the Holy Spirit) is what propels the church forward and outward in mission (“and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”). And what is that mission? It is to be witnesses to what Jesus Christ says and does. The Gospel of Luke is about what Jesus “began to do and teach,” and the book of Acts is about what Jesus continues to do and say through the Spirit-prompted ministry of the Church. This is the significance of John 20:21-23, one of the versions of the “Great Commission” – “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
Jesus “continues” working by the Spirit in the life and work of the church, and this is what frames what surely must be one of the most astonishing things that Jesus Christ ever said. Right after telling His disciples that He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” how people “come to the Father” (14:6), Jesus was directly challenged by Philip (14:8). “Show us the Father,” Philip blurted out, “and we shall be satisfied!” Jesus was disappointed that Philip had to ask this. How could Philip have been with Jesus for all that time, and Philip not seen God in Him? Jesus cited the “works” that He’d done as the clues about who He was (14:10-11). In the Gospel of John the works Jesus did are called “signs” to make this very point. And it was in this discussion of His works that Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).
“Greater works?” Really? Just think about the mighty “works”/”signs” in the Gospel of John that Jesus did –
- Changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11);
- Healing the royal official’s son (Jn 4:46-54);
- Healing the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1-15);
- Feeding the 5,000 (Jn 6:5-14);
- Walking on water (Jn 6:16-21);
- Healing the man born blind (Jn 9:1-7); and
- Raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-45).
What could be “greater” than this? So, the right question is – “What did Jesus mean when He spoke of the greater things that we would do as His disciples?” And as you would expect, there are a range of answers.
Signs and Wonders
Some say that the “greater” things we will do as Christ’s disciples are in fact “signs and wonders” just like those that the Gospels report Jesus Himself as having done. The public ministry of Jesus Christ was accompanied by signs and wonders attesting it (Acts 2:22), as was the ministry of the early church (Hebrews 2:3-4). There was a pattern to the church’s proclamation of the Gospel in the book of Acts. Something miraculous – a sign or wonder – would happen creating an audience and some expectation. The thing that happened would then be explained as an expression of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, seated at the right hand of God, present by indwelling presence of the Spirit, and coming again. And finally, people would be invited to receive Jesus Christ as their own Lord and Savior through repentance and faith.
It’s hard to read the New Testament and not see this pattern at work, but equally clear are the New Testament’s criticisms of those who were constantly seeking after signs and wonders (Matthew 12:38-41; 16:1-4; John 4:48; I Corinthians 1:22), and its praise for those who believed in Jesus Christ without needing to “touch” and “see” (John 20:29; I Peter 1:8-9). The complexity of this for me as someone who tries to take Scripture seriously has led me to adopt St. Augustine’s nuanced position on these kinds of “special experiences. He said, “I do not seek them, and when they are present, I do not reject them, but I am prepared to do entirely without them.” If John 14:12 is not the carte blanch for the miraculous that some Christians take it to be, a summary demand for bigger and better spectacles, then there must be a way of understanding the “greater” of which Jesus spoke as meaning more than just perpetually punching up the “wow factor” of the things that accompany and attest the Gospel’s advance.
The Multiplication of Ministry
And so, another way that Christians have understood Jesus’ “greater” in John 14:12 has come from reading it more quantitatively than qualitatively. Instead of taking “greater” to mean “better,” lots of Christians through the centuries have taken the “greater” of John 14:12 to mean “more.” Acts 10:38 is my favorite summary verse in the Bible about the public ministry of Jesus Christ. Preaching to the household of Cornelius the Centurion in Caesarea, the Gospel’s first Gentile congregation, Peter explained that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” so that He could “go about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.”
Jesus going about doing good was just one person working really hard every single day to make people whole. When Jesus called the 12 to join Him, the work of doing good and making people whole was instantly, exponentially increased. The work of the Kingdom expanded from one person touching the lives of the people in His radius with God’s power and compassion, to 12 people touching the lives of the people in their radii with God’s power and compassion. That’s “greater,” a twelve-fold increase. After the resurrection but before Pentecost, Luke tells us that Jesus had 120 followers in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15), that’s a ten-fold increase of the work of the 12. 120 people touching the lives of the people in their radii with God’s power and compassion; that’s “greater.” And then, before the day of Pentecost day was through, Luke tells us that 3,000 souls were “added’ to the church (Acts 2:41), and that meant 3,000 people joining the 120 in the work of touching the lives of the people in their radii with God’s power and compassion in Jesus Christ.
The statisticians tell us that there are 2.38 billion Christians in the world today. If we took “greater” to mean “more,” imagine the multiplication of ministry that would ensue. 2.38 billion Christians touching the lives of the people in their radii with the power and compassion of the God we know in Jesus Christ.
Science and Technology
Other Christians have taken a much more philosophical approach to the meaning of the “greater works” that Jesus said we who are His followers would do. Did you know that since 1582 there has been a working observatory at the Vatican? The Vatican observatory is not just for show. It is a modern working astronomical observatory engaged in major scientific research with Universities all around the world. The mission of the Vatican Observatory is to show the world that the science and religion are not enemies. But the argument is bigger than that. The Church likes to say that modern science is related to Christianity “as a child is to the womb out of which it came forth and with full vitality.” The idea here is that there is something about Christianity that stimulates and nurtures scientific discovery and human creativity.
One of the first things that Christians have historically confessed about God is that God is “the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth.” When human beings were created, the stories at the beginning of Genesis tells us that this God who is the “Maker of all things Visible and Invisible” instilled capacity and delegated responsibility to “keep and till the earth” and “to subdue and have dominion over creation” to His human partners. But among the adverse consequences that the Fall brought was a disordering of creation (3:17-19), and part of the redemption that Christ brings is the healing of creation. We sing about this at Christmas –
“No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”
A way of understanding God’s saving work in Christ is as the restoration of the shalom of creation. The pictures of everybody and everything fitting together in a web of mutual interdependence and productivity that makes for cosmic well-being that the stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis paint are the template for the wholeness that God in Christ by the Spirit is moving the universe toward, and this means that Christianity is not just about church and “religion.” The truth that Christianity claims and proclaims touches everything. As Abraham Kuyper (1837 – 1920) famously put it, ““There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine’!” And so, the Vatican has a working observatory. Every advance in human knowledge, every scientific discovery, every expression of creativity and beauty, every technological advance that makes life better for humanity and the cosmos is part of the “greater” that Jesus said we would do because we are His. As Abraham Kuyper put it – “…By research and reflection, humanity penetrated through the very essence of nature and learned to put the powers hidden within her into service… blessing thousands simultaneously in all their distress and diseases… [And so] Jesus – knowing what He would bring about and establish in and through us through later development – told his disciples that they would perform things that were greater than those visible in his miracles.”
The Salvation of Souls
Finally, there are those Christians who take the promise of the “greater” things that Jesus said we will do as His disciples than He Himself did in the days of His public ministry as a reference to the soul work of the Great Commission – preaching the Gospel and making disciples. The gift of salvation that comes by faith that we get to offer people is the “greater” work gave us to do. This is the perspective of the first temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Jesus could have spent every day turning stones into bread and feeding physically hungry people, but as He told the adversary, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4// Deuteronomy 6:16).
This same temptation played out in the Gospel of John after the feeding of 5,000 (6:1-14). The people liked this Jesus, the one who filled their hungry bellies with bread and fish, and so they conspired to take Jesus “by force to make him king” (6:15). Jesus “withdrew” from them, and when He showed up again on the other side of the Sea of Galilee it was with the message that it wasn’t enough to “labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (6:27). Just as their fathers could eat their fill of manna in the wilderness one day, only to be hungry again the next day, so Jesus said that He came not just to satisfy a temporal, transient need, but rather to provide “the bread which comes down from heaven, that a person can eat and not die” (6:50).
Leon Morris (1914 – 2006), the noted Australian New Testament scholar, explained this perspective well when he wrote – “We may profitably ask ourselves, ‘What work on earth is greater than the salvation of souls?’ When a person is healed of a physical complaint that person’s life is enriched for a few more years. But when a soul is saved something has happened that lasts through eternity. [In John 14:12] Jesus is saying that on the basis of his finished work of salvation the church would go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring many, many more people into salvation than Jesus did during the years of his ministry on earth.” As St. Augustine noted, “When the disciples preached the Gospel, nations believed!” And what could be “greater” than that?
So, what are the “greater” things that Jesus said we would do as His disciples after He had gone away and sent the Holy Spirit to be our “Helper”? There is no single answer, I think because the answer is not just one thing. Even the promise was plural. Jesus didn’t say “a greater work” (singular) we would do, but “greater works.” We should not limit the promise or narrow the possibilities.
In the 1980’s when a class on “Signs and Wonders” became an “event” at Fuller Theological Seminary, the Trustees commissioned a panel of scholars to explore “ministry and the miraculous” to help them better understand and interpret the meaning of what they were experiencing. Their report, as you would expect, factored the importance of the promise of “greater” works that Jesus made in John 14:12 into their conversations and considerations, and their conclusion (edited by Lewis Smedes) stands as an example of the kind of intelligent and reverent balance that made Fuller the first seminary I attended. “We cannot say for sure what Jesus meant,” it begins, and then it weaves a way to understanding that honors the diverse ways that the church has faithfully lived with and into this promise –
“We note that compared by any ordinary standard of equivalence, the healings reported by contemporary healing ministries hardly qualify as ‘greater works’ than Jesus did. But we may well believer that the total scope of healing in all the medical and psychiatric hospitals, sanatoria, clinics, and all other institutions that Christian believers have been enabled by the Spirit to build and operate around the world probably have indeed brought about countless times as many healings as our Lord performed during his brief sojourn with us on earth. And it may also be true that spiritually motivated movements of social reform have improved the living conditions of people to a quantitative degree far greater than the occasional physical healings our Lord performed as testimonies to his messianic office. So, in terms of effects on earthly lives of people, the believing community has, without claim to the miraculous, done ‘greater works’ than Jesus did.
In promising ‘greater works than these,’ Jesus may also have been putting a higher value on the spiritual effects of what the church would do than he did on his miraculous healings of bodies that, in any case, got terminally sick again, and died. He promised his disciples that thjeir witness would bear fruit unto eternal life (see John 5:20; 6:28f; 16:7-11; 20:22, 23). He promised, through the (fruit of the womb of the) Virgin Mary, that the hungry would be given food to eat, the lowly would be lifted up, and the unrighteous powerful and rich would be scattered and sent away empty (Luke 1:47-53). It may have been in such senses as these, that his disciples were to do greater works than Jesus.
…Some Christian expectation of miraculous divine intervention in life existed almost continuously from the time of the apostles to the Reformation. …[But] this expectation, when separated from the context of [redemptive] suffering, led rather easily from a sober and responsible faith to superstition and exploitation, from liturgical prayer to quasi-magical tricks. The Reformers of the church believed that preoccupation with miracles seduced believers from the heart of the gospel’s spiritual message and moral mandate, and they returned the churches to the heart of the matter, justifying faith and sanctifying obedience.
…The priorities of the gospel call for the proclamation of forgiveness and for seeking justice, doing mercy, and walking humbly through life in stride with the victorious and compassionate Savior. Perhaps it was with such priorities in mind that both Jesus and Paul depreciated popular craving for signs. And it must have been at least partly out of the same true sense of priority that the great Reformers, Calvin and Luther, and the great evangelists, Whitefield, Finney, Moody, Fuller, and Graham, among others, were blessed with life-changing and epoch-transforming spiritual power but who yet never encouraged miraculous healing as a public feature of their historic undertakings for God.”