Monday, January 26, 2015

The Magnificent Promise (John 14:12-18)

During the 1920s, the great American missionary, E. Stanley Jones returned from the Indian subcontinent to share about the slow advance of the Gospel there. He told of a conversation that he had with Mahatma Gandhi, in which he asked Gandhi, “What would you suggest that we do” to “see Christianity naturalized in India, so that it shall be no longer a foreign thing identified with a foreign people and a foreign government…?” Gandhi replied, “I would suggest, first, that all of you Christians … must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. … Second … I would suggest that you must practice your religion without adulterating or toning it down.” As Jones reflected on this, he confessed, “We are inoculating the world with a mild form of Christianity, so that it is now practically immune against the real thing.” [1]

If you were to survey a multitude of unbelievers around the world today, you may likely find the same sort of attitudes about Christianity and Christians. It is not uncommon for one of our college students to come to me and ask for my response to something that one of their professors has said concerning Christianity. Christians have been accused of imposing Western culture and ideals on the indigenous peoples of Africa, South America, and Asia. Christians have been accused of subjugating women. Christians are often viewed as a sort of medieval version of Al-Qaeda who marched through the near east with the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other on a “convert or be killed” crusade. Some of the allegations are entirely fabricated, and ignore the valuable contributions that Christians have made around the world. No movement in history has done more to uphold the rights of women than Christianity, and none has done more good in the areas of medical care, education, poverty, hunger, and providing care for orphans, widows, and other underprivileged people. Still, there are those episodes in Church History, and even in the present day, in which the church has conducted itself very much unlike the Christ whom it claimed to follow.

When those around us are able to draw so sharp a line of distinction between the Christians and the Christ whom we claim to represent, we have to confess that we are failing to live out the promise of Jesus Christ for His people. Jesus made many promises – some of them for the days past, some awaiting future fulfillment; some conditional, some unconditional; some for specific individuals, some universal for all people, and some general for all who trust in Him as their Lord and Savior. Today we come to one of the most magnificent of these promises. This promise applies to anyone and everyone “who believes in” Him (v12). He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” Every word Jesus said is true, but when He begins with this phrase, He is calling attention to something of unusual importance.[2] And when the promise is spoken, we see how unusually magnificent it is. It would have been sufficiently unfathomable if Jesus had merely said, “he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will also do.” But He actually goes further to say, “and greater works than these he will do.”

Are you a believer in Christ? If so, then Jesus has given you the magnificent promise that you will do, not only what He has done, but even greater things than this! The very thought of it is staggering. The world around us asks why we are not more like Christ, why we do not do the things that Jesus did. They ask too little of us, for Jesus has called us and promised us that we would do even greater things than He did. In order to live out the promise, we must understand it. That is our aim today: to understand this magnificent promise, and to live it out by the power which is promised to us here in the words of the Lord Jesus.

I. The promise of greater works (v12a-b)

When we compare the magnificence of this promise with the realities we see in the Christian Church throughout history and today, we may deduce one of three conclusions. Most simply, we may conclude that Jesus was mistaken; He simply overpromised what we are able to deliver. But any conclusion that involves Jesus being mistaken has taken a wrong turn somewhere, so we can rule that one out immediately. Another conclusion is to assume that Jesus was talking about the raw demonstration of power that we often see at work in His miracles. I was speaking in a Bible conference last November, and during the Q&A, one of those in attendance brought this verse up and asked me, “Why can’t we do the stuff anymore?” Since we do not see demonstrations of divine power like Jesus did in His miracles of healing, alterations of natural processes, and even invalidating death, we may try to limit the application of the promise to the apostles only. There is good reason to do that because of the unique role that the apostles played in the process of revelation. Throughout the book of Acts, particularly in the first half of the book, we do see the apostles doing miracles. God was using these miracles to provide authentication to the revelation that He was bringing into the world through the preaching and writing of these men. So, we might conclude that Jesus was talking about miracles, and He was only promising this to the apostles. This is obviously not true, because He says, “he who believes in Me,” implying that this promise is valid for every Christian of every era. Besides that, one cannot conclude that the miracles done by the apostles in the book of Acts were equal to, much less greater than, those done by Jesus Himself. Therefore we may try, as many do, to limit the application in another way. There are some who say that this promise is for all who believe in Him, but the paucity of miracles in our day is due to our lack of genuine faith. They say that we do not enough faith in Him to do these greater works. While it is true that we could always benefit from greater faith in the Lord Jesus, the fact is that Jesus has always done His work through people of limited faith, even in the New Testament. He does not put any qualifiers on the belief of those for whom this promise is given. If you believe in Him in a saving way as Lord and Savior, then this promise is for you. It is not limited to those of more complete or more perfect faith.

So what other option is there? The other option, the correct one in fact, is to understand these “greater works” as something altogether different than the miracles Jesus did. We have to remember that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours (Isa 55:8-9). We assume that God’s view of greatness is the same as ours. We may consider the things that Jesus did—walking on water, turning water into wine, healing the sick, raising the dead, etc.—to be the greatest things ever done; but this does not mean that God considers these things to be the greatest things ever done. “Our fixation on the visibly miraculous,” as one writer has said, may be due more to the “scantiness of our knowledge or the vulgarity of our taste” because “physical healings and miracles of nature take place on a level much easier to grasp.”[3] It is not that we have deemed the miracles of Jesus performed in the days of His earthly ministry to be greater than we should. That could hardly be possible. Rather, it is because we have missed the point of His miracles and not rightly understood the surpassing greatness of one miracle that He continues to perform in and through us on a regular basis.

Why did Jesus perform miracles? It was not the reason He came into the world. He was not some sideshow magician who blew into town to perform a few tricks and gather a cult following. No, Jesus came to reveal the Father. In the previous passage, Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father, and Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” and He pointed to His words and His works as the means by which the Father had been revealed in Him. His miracles were done to demonstrate to the world the truth of who God is, and who He Himself is, and that He has the power to save humanity from the curse of sin. Every healing, every miracle, was a teaching moment by which Jesus was pointing people to the truth of Himself and His saving mission. Every single demonstration of divine power had a singular aim: to reveal God and to draw people to trust in Him. While He was still in the world, Jesus could only present a partial revelation of that saving power, because He had not ultimately accomplished that salvation until His death and resurrection. Having done that, it would be the mission of the church to carry that message into the whole world – a world that Jesus Himself only visited a small portion of – to proclaim the miracle of salvation that comes by grace through faith in Him. The greater work that Jesus promised to His followers is that of seeing lives transformed by His saving power. You and I can do something Jesus never did: We can proclaim the full Gospel of His saving power as a completed act, accomplished once and for all in Him at the cross and the empty tomb, and we can see lives ransomed from the curse of sin and transformed by His grace!

Do we underestimate the greatness of the miracle of salvation? I suppose for many of us, the idea of Christian conversion is merely that of making bad people good, or good people better. That is why we do not place it above the opening of blinded eyes, the healing of lame legs, or the raising of the dead. But in fact, it is greater than all these, and it is what all of these miracles of Christ demonstrated. We may ask it this way: Which is greater, a picture of something, or the thing itself? Obviously the thing itself is greater than the picture. And Jesus’ miracles were pictures of the reality of His power to save us from our sins. Just as Jesus opened the eyes of some who were blind, so those without Christ are blinded by sin, and only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can open their eyes. We are born spiritually lame, unable to take even one step toward God in our own power; but the Gospel gives new legs to lame people and enables us to draw near to God in Christ. And as the Bible says, we are dead in our sins and trespasses, but in the Gospel we may be made alive with Christ. The physical miracles of Jesus were only partial; the miracle of conversion is complete! And it is greater.

When Jesus sent His disciples out on their first mission trip in Luke 10, they returned rejoicing, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” They were astounded that they had been able to do the great things that Jesus had done, even casting out demons. But Jesus responded sharply to them, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Lk 10:17-20). Which did Jesus consider to be the greater miracle: the exorcism of demon-possessed people, or the salvation that belonged to His followers? He considered salvation to be the greater work! And we must consider this as well! When we do, we will not lament that we lack the power to perform signs and wonders, but we will rejoice that we have partaken of the greater miracle of salvation, and that we can share in that work by extending the fair offer of the Gospel to all nations!

Do you want to see the world changed? What is the answer? Should the church boycott businesses that do not support and uphold our values? Should we strive to get the right men and women elected to positions of power? Should we grow louder and louder in our protests of the ills of society? Friends, while there may be a time and place for each of these things, there is more power to change the world in the simple task of evangelism than in all these things combined! The world will only be changed as people’s hearts are changed, and people’s hearts will only be changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The church on a Gospel mission for Jesus Christ is the most powerful force in the world. Our mission as a church is not merely to do whatever it takes to keep the doors open for another generation. Our mission is to open eyes that are blinded, to raise up the spiritually dead, and to restore the spiritually lame, as we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and watch Him move into the hearts and lives of people in a transforming way. The greater works that are ours to do are the works of making the world know of Christ and Him crucified for their salvation. There is no greater work than this, and no greater miracle than when it happens.

So, this is the promise: we will do greater works than Jesus did, by proclaiming the full gospel to the whole world—the Good News that Christ has come, Christ has died, and Christ has risen again to save sinners! But before we just rush out the door and embark on a fool-hearty mission that is destined to fail in our own self-efforts (as many have), we must examine the power behind this promise.

II. The power for greater works (vv12c-18).

A couple of weeks ago, I arrived at church on one of those frigid Sunday mornings, to be greeted by some disgruntled Sunday School teachers at the door. The second floor classrooms were freezing cold. Well, what could the problem be? The unit is brand new, and all its parts have seemed to function well. The technician who installed it is a smart guy, and he does good work. The thermostat had been set exactly as it should be, according to the written instructions. So what’s the problem? The problem was a little valve in the natural gas line that goes into the furnace. That valve had not been opened, and so the unit was not getting the fuel it needed to produce heat. Once the gas line was opened, the heat kicked in. Friends, the church of Jesus Christ has at times in our long history been just like that furnace. Our founder, the Lord Jesus, did not make any mistakes in establishing His church. We have had people in all the right positions, and we have been busy with a lot of activities. We have an instruction book, the Bible, and we believe it to be true and are trying to do what we do in accordance with what it says. But we see paltry results in the world. Where is the malfunction? I wonder, have we opened the valve for the fuel to enter in? Have we grasped the power that makes the doing of greater things possible? If we were honest with ourselves, we would have to confess that this is the reason that the church has failed to do the greater works that the Lord Jesus promised us. So what is this power behind the greater works? Look at what Jesus says about this. He says that the power for greater works comes from three distinct—but interrelated—sources. They are inseparable, but we must consider them separately in order to understand them.  

            A. The Power of the Exalted Savior (v12c)

Jesus says that all who believe in Him will do what He has done, and even greater things than these, “because I go to the Father.” There are two realties expressed here in this brief statement: one deals with how He is going, and the other deals with where He is going. When Jesus says that He is going to the Father, He is making reference to His impending death and resurrection. The power for greater works is made possible by His atoning sacrifice in dying for our sins and rising from the dead. The death of the Savior makes it possible for the likes of us – sinful people who are separated from God – to be cleansed and forgiven because Jesus has taken our sins upon Himself in His death and received the penalty of our sins on our behalf. Having conquered sin and death for us, He reconciles us to God so that we who were formerly enemies of God could become the children of God, and servants of the Most High. For God to use His only begotten Son to accomplish eternal and divine work in the world is something extraordinary. For Him to use the likes of us to accomplish eternal and divine work is even greater still. And it is only possible because of how Jesus went to the Father through His atoning death and resurrection.

But then there is something here about where Jesus is going that makes it possible for us to do the greater works. When Jesus goes to the Father, He goes to the place of honor – He is exalted at the right hand of the Father. In Psalm 110:1, David wrote, “The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.” Jesus understood this prophecy to refer to His own exaltation, and the writers of the New Testament took it up as their favorite messianic prophecy, quoted more often than any other, upwards of 20 times. At the right hand of the Father, Jesus is our Advocate (1 Jn 2:1), our Mediator (1 Tim 2:5), our Intecessor (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25), and our Great Provider (Php 4:19), and that brings us to the other two sources of power behind our greater works.

            B. The Power of Effectual Prayer (vv13-15)

Because Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, He is our intermediary in prayer. He promises all who trust in Him, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” This is as magnificent a promise as the promise of greater works, but the two are part and parcel of a singular promise. The reason we can do the greater works is because we have access through Jesus Christ to the throne of God, and we have been invited to come with boldness before Him to request whatsoever we desire. He has promised that this prayer will be heard and answered. Before we assume that God has given us a blank check or promised here to grant our every whim and wish, we need to understand that there are several caveats imbedded in this promise.

Jesus says that He will do whatever we ask in His name. To ask in His name does not mean merely to attach His name to the end of our prayers as if His name is some kind of magical incantation that opens the floodgates of heaven. To pray in His name means several distinct things. First, it is to recognize that Jesus and Jesus alone grants us access to the Father. When Jesus said in John 14:6 that no one comes to the Father but through Him, He was obviously referring to salvation and entrance to eternal life in heaven. But He was also speaking of our way of approach to the Father in other aspects as well, including worship and prayer. We have no right to come before the throne of God in our own name. Our access to Him is because of Jesus Christ, so when we come, we must come in His name. This means that the prayer of the Christian in Jesus’ name is the only prayer that God has promised to answer. That is always a controversial notion, because people like to imagine that God answers the prayers of anyone and everyone. It is true that non-Christians sometimes have their prayers answered. This is because God is loving and good, and is always showing His goodness to all people. But God did not promise to always answer the prayer of anyone and everyone. He promised to answer the prayer of the one who comes to Him in the name of Jesus Christ.

Secondly, to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in a way that is consistent with the character and nature of Jesus Christ. This is the same thing that is expressed elsewhere as praying “according to His will” (1 Jn 5:14). When we pray in Jesus’ name, we are doing what C. S. Lewis called “dressing up as Christ.” He says, “You are not a being like the Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit.”[4] But when you pray in His name, you are “dressing up as Christ,” and asking for the same sorts of things that Christ Himself would ask for. You are asking God to give to you, or to the one for whom you are praying, not what you or they deserve, but what Jesus Himself deserves. As F. F. Bruce wrote, “A request made in the Son’s name is treated as if the Son made it.” So when we pray in His name, we need to consider what sorts of things Jesus would ask for if He were in this situation, and pray that way.

Finally, to pray in Jesus’ name is to pray with the same purpose in view that Jesus seeks. He says what that purpose is here: “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” Throughout the Gospels, Jesus expressly states that His purpose is always to bring glory to His Father. His purpose has not changed. He welcomes us to pray for extraordinary things, for the power to accomplish “greater works”, and when those things align with His purpose of the Father being glorified in the Son, He has promised to answer.

In addition to the caveat of praying in Jesus’ name, we find another one in verse 15: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” This informs us that effective prayers are those that are raised from a life of intimate obedience. He promises to answer the prayers of those who love Him and who demonstrate their love for Him in their personal obedience to the way He has called and commanded us to live. We must take sin seriously in our lives because it has the potential to choke out the power that would be ours through prayer. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” But if we love Him, we will obey Him, and He promises to hear and answer when we pray. First John 3:22 says, “Whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.”

So, when a prayer is prayed in Jesus’ name, from a life of intimate obedience, whether it is directed to the Father or to the Lord Jesus, He says that He will do it. So, as we set out to do the greater works that Christ has called us to in the world, we must remember that the power to do these works comes from Him. He will do the works in and through us as we ask Him to, because He has gone to the Father. Ask Him for anything, yes, but friends there is no greater request to make of Him, and none that He would delight more in granting, than the prayer for the greater work of salvation to occur in the lives of our lost friends and neighbors and the unreached multitudes of the world.

And with this we come to the third source of power behind the greater works that Christ has promised that we will do …

            C. The Power of the Indwelling Spirit (vv16-18)

Because Jesus has gone to the Father, He is in position to grant us what we most desperately need: power from on high to do the greater works that He has called us to. The power to do these works, the power to pray effectively, and the power to live in loving obedience to His commands, does not reside within our human abilities. These are supernatural tasks, and they require supernatural power. So, Jesus has promised us that He will ask the Father, and the Father will give to us another Helper. Though Christ is going to the Father, He promises that the Helper will be us forever. Jesus will not leave His people as orphans in the world. He says that He will come to us. He comes to us in the person of the Helper. And this Helper is the Holy Spirit of God. Jesus promises His followers here that the Holy Spirit who has ever been abiding with His followers will be in you.

The follower of Christ, and only the followers of Christ, become the dwelling place of God the Holy Spirit at the moment we are converted and become disciples of Jesus. He does not indwell all people. Jesus said that the world cannot receive Him, does not see Him, or know Him. The Holy Spirit only comes to live within those who follow Jesus. If praying in Jesus’ name involves us dressing up as Christ, then the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can be likened to Jesus dressing up as us! As the Holy Spirit works in and through us, God-in-Christ is doing His greater works in the world to bring glory to His name!

Remember in Acts 1:8, just before His ascension into heaven, Jesus promised His followers, “you will be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” That is the greater work, and it is an enormous task! If the missional enterprise of the Christian church depended on our own power and resources, it would be a disaster! And when Christians have attempted to carry it out in our own resources and power, it has been just that! But Jesus did not call us to this task in our own power. Before saying that we would be His witnesses, He said these all important words, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”

Divine, supernatural work requires divine, supernatural power. And Jesus has promised us the supernatural power that enables us to do this greater work. It is the power of the exalted Savior who has rescued us from sin through His atoning death and resurrection, and who is seated now at the right hand of the Father as our Mediator, assuring us that our prayers are effective as they are prayed in His name from a life of intimate obedience. He has promised even to live within us in the person of the Holy Spirit, granting us the unlimited and unstoppable power of God as we engage in the greater work.

The world is crying out for Christians to be more like Christ and to do the things that Christ Himself has done. Jesus promises us even more than this. He has promised that through us He will do greater things than He did before. He will bring nations before His throne in redeeming grace. Will you pray, in His name, for the salvation of the lost? Your lost friend or family member, coworker or neighbor, even your enemy? Will you pray for the salvation of world leaders? Will you pray for the salvation of entire nations where the name of Jesus has never been mentioned? And will you go, allowing Jesus to work through you, as you share the good news of His saving power to those in your family and circle of friends, to those who live across the street, to those who live across oceans? And will you give generously and sacrificially to enable others to do this? Will you trust the power of the Gospel to do the greatest work in the world?

In a world that is asking Christians to be more like Christ, Jesus is asking the same and then some. The word Christian essentially means “like Christ.” Isn’t it interesting that the Bible says that the church in Antioch were the first people in the world to be called Christians. They were the first ones to be recognized by outsiders as being “like Christ.” What was so special about them? It was here that the a remarkable movement of global missions began, as Jews and Gentiles alike were confronted with the good news of Jesus in that city, and then from that city, as the church sent the first team of missionaries out to start new gospel churches across the Roman Empire. Where that was being done, people said, “Hey, those people are like Christ. Let’s call them Christians.” And ever since, the world has been looking for people that they would recognize as being like Christ. As we do the greater works Jesus has promised us, the world will see His power at work in us as lives are transformed, and they will know that we are Christians, like Christ, because of the greater works that are done in His name.

[1] E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1925), 146-147.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 563. Mounce cites Temple within this quotation.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 188. 

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