Greater Works — Part Two
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Greater Works — Part Two

John 14:12–14  (ID: 3659)

When studying the Bible, context is crucial. In John 14, Jesus promised His disciples that they would do “greater works” than He and that if they would “ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Alistair Begg provides incisive perspective into the context of Jesus’ words, reminding us that the greatest work of God is the redemption of His people. When we pray according to God’s purposes and promises, we can be assured that God will answer our prayers for His glory.

Series Containing This Sermon

“Truly, Truly, I Say to You…”

Twenty-Five Divine Declarations from John’s Gospel John 1:1–21:25 Series ID: 29001

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, we return to the passage that we left behind this morning, in John chapter 14. And rather than read all the way from the beginning of the chapter, let me just reread the verses that are our focus now. John 14:12:

“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. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”


Well, let’s turn to God in prayer. Let us pray:

Our God and Father, we ask for insight, clarity, brevity, and an unashamed desire to know, love, and follow you and to receive from you every good and perfect gift. And we humbly pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, we broke off this morning by seeking at least to understand (or I sought to try and make clear) the fact that the greatest work that is ever done is the work of salvation—it’s the work of regeneration—and that when we understand that to be the case, then when we move from the twelfth verse into the thirteenth and into the fourteenth verse, we have another control that is provided by the context. And we said this morning, it’s very important that we understand these things in context. So, the verses that are there for us: “Greater works than these” will the person who believes in Jesus do, and the reason that this is going to be the case—and here’s the controlling phrase—is “because I am going to the Father.” That is, if you like, the trigger that is going to give the fullness of all that Jesus is referencing here.

And he then goes on to say, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do.” And then, in a categorical statement, he comes further and says, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Now, again, there’s a controlling phrase there, isn’t there? “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son”—so that the promise of answered prayer is prayer that is expressed to God in order that God might be glorified as a result of answering that prayer. And God is glorified, as Jesus has been explaining, in the cross of Christ—that the glory of God is established in that way.

And later on, in the fifteenth chapter, when Jesus is speaking again directly to the things that his followers are going to be doing, he says to them, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide”—here we go—“so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”[1]

Now, what I’m suggesting to you is that there is a direct correlation between this straightforward statement concerning the “greater works” and then the answer of prayer—not that it is entirely to be answered in relationship to salvation, but I’m suggesting that what Jesus has in mind when he speaks in this way is just that.

Now, I think I mentioned it in passing this morning: I mean, if we’re going to ask in accord with the will of God; if we’re going to ask in accord with the character of Jesus, if you like; if we’re going to ask in Jesus’ name, then we’re going to ask in relationship to all that his name stands for. And his name is Jesus, Yeshua. He is the Savior. He is the Deliverer. He is the Rescuer. And the purpose of the prayers being answered is not our benefit but is God’s glory—that you may ask whatever you would choose to ask in order that the Father might be glorified.

Now, before I sidestep and address, if you like, the elephant in the room or the questions that are in your minds, let’s say to one another: now, the people who were there to actually hear this firsthand then became the apostles that took the message forward. So it would be a legitimate thing, I think, to say, “Now, let’s see how those people who heard this directly from the lips of Jesus then translated that into life as life unfolded, after he had done what he said he was going to do, which is go to the Father.”

Now, we could go through the entire Acts of the Apostles, which would be a long evening and not particularly helpful. Let me just suggest to you we go to Acts chapter 4. And in that context there—when you look at it, you will see it’s there—the priests and the Sadducees were really annoyed at the way in which the apostles were declaring Jesus, and now Peter is answering them: “If we are being examined today concerning a good deed [that was] done to a crippled man…”[2] Remember the man at the gate Beautiful: “Silver and gold? I don’t have any gold, but what I have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”[3] And that’s exactly what he did. And then, as a result of that, the reaction on the part of the establishment was to punish them, eventually, down around verse 21: “And when they had further threatened them, they let them go,” after they had given them a good thrashing, “because of the people, for all [the people] were praising God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old.”[4]

Now, the thing that I want you to notice is this—verse 23: “When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it,” they prayed. They

lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? [And] the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’…”

And they go all the way through that. In other words, they’re praying in relationship to who God is. They’re praying in relationship to the purposes of God. And then, when they finally get to their petition, “Now, Lord”—verse 29—here’s what they’re asking for: “Now, Lord, look upon their threats, and please do not let your servants get involved in anything like this ever again, because we don’t like it, and they don’t like it, and frankly, we don’t think it’s best.” No: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word”—“your word”—“with all boldness.” What does his word do? It does the works of God. What happens when the works of God are manifested? God is revealed.

We go to chapter 16. Big jump. This is the only other one I’ll suggest we turn to. You know the story in Acts chapter 16. They go to Philippi. The gospel goes into Europe for the first time, and as a result of what they’re doing, they end up in a quite dreadful spot. And they were doing things that were not lawful as far as people were concerned, and they were attacked, and “the magistrates tore [their] garments off … and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows [on] them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely.” This is Paul and Silas. And “having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. [And] about midnight Paul and Silas were praying”—praying—“and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”[5] And then, of course, as you know, there is this amazing earthquake. It’s all… It’s Shaker Heights on steroids: shakes the whole place to bits. And eventually we have this amazing encounter involving the jailer, who, apparently from nowhere, calls out, “What must I do to be saved?”[6]

“Now,” he says, “you can ask anything you want.” I imagine part of their prayer was “Lord, we are here by your appointment. We are here as your servants. Our entire lives have been given over to the extension of your kingdom, so that men and women might come to know exactly who you are and what you’ve done and why it matters. Lord, fulfill your purposes. Lord, be glorified in the jail. Give glory to your name.” And suddenly, as if no correlation between the two, they have the opportunity of leading this man and his family to faith in Jesus Christ.

The point I want to make is simply this: they weren’t praying “O God, get us out of here.” And even when the church was praying “Get them out of there,” they weren’t really on track themselves. No, they weren’t praying “Get me out.” They were praying “Glorify your name.” And they “rejoiced.” They “rejoiced.” “Then he brought them up”—that’s the jailer—“then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”[7] “That he had believed in God.”

So, I’m suggesting that you have a pattern of prayer in the unfolding story of the Acts of the Apostles, the early church, and that we have some indication of how these early believers, if you like, assimilated what Jesus is saying here: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do.” The prayer proceeds from faith in Christ, the prayer unfolds in union with Christ, and the prayer is expressed for the glory of Christ.

So, Jesus is not here promising to answer any prayer that happens to rattle around in your head. You say, “But he says that! ‘If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.’” Well, he doesn’t say, “I will do anything that is rattling around in your head.” He says, “No, if you ask anything in my name…” And as I said this morning, “in my name” is not an incantation. You see, we have absolutely no right—no right—to expect that whatever passes through our thinking processes we can ask God about, and we can be guaranteed that it will be done, no more than we have any warrant as believers for asking God to remove any difficulty, any disappointment, anything at all, and make sure that we never have to deal with anything like that again.

“Oh, but,” says somebody, “you can’t just deal with this and violate your own principles. What, for example, about Jesus, the things that he says in other places?” Let’s take, for example, what he says in Mark chapter 11, after he has cursed the fig tree. And you know that when you turn to it: [Mark] 11:20 or so, and they had a conversation with him about the fig tree that had been cursed. Jesus, in responding to the question by Peter, says, “Have faith in God.” “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does[n’t] doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.’”[8] Well, what are you going to make of that?

Well, if you know your Bible, you know that that is an ongoing picture. It’s a figurative picture that runs all the way through, especially, the Prophets. For example, Isaiah—so you know I’m not making it up. Isaiah 54. And God says through the prophet,

For [my] mountains may depart
 and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you.[9]

See what he’s saying? “There’s more likelihood of this mountain range disappearing from sight than there is the possibility of my covenant love being removed from you.” He doesn’t anticipate that the mountains are about to be removed. He’s using it as a picture by way of contrast.

And I suggest that the same thing is actually here—that this is figurative, that it is a metaphor. That is not to devalue it. That is not to diminish it in any way. Because in actual fact, what Jesus is saying is that by faith, we may be enabled to overcome difficulties and to deal with circumstances that are apparently insurmountable to us, that we have every right to come before God and address him in that way, provided we ask correctly—James chapter 4,[10] 1 John chapter 5.[11] And these buffers are there not as means of prevention, but these buffers are there in order to keep us on track so that we don’t ask incorrectly.

We have no right to circumscribe the province of God, nor do we actually possess any right to prescribe to God what needs to take place. We have every right to come to God and lay our lives before him and seek his blessing.

You see, God is God as God forever and ever. God is not in any way diminished in his miracle-conducting capacity at any point in all of human history. That is unassailable. God is able to do what he chooses to do. And we acknowledge that. But we also have to acknowledge that in light of what we said this morning about “Do you actually know anybody that’s going around raising the dead?”—apart from crazy people on the West Coast, which is a fabrication—“Do you know anybody that is feeding five thousand people?” You say, “Well, we’re doing it a lot down at the soup kitchens.” Yes, I get that! But not in this dramatic way.

What is God doing? Well, by and large, he chooses to work through means. He chooses to work through actual events. He chooses to work medically through the gifts that he’s given to physicians—not exclusively, not entirely, but nevertheless routinely. It is something out of the ordinary that takes us beyond that realm.

Now, the reason this is so important is because if we get this wrong, there’s no saying where you’ll end up. When I was a young minister on my own for the very first time, within the first twenty-four months—so, I was twenty-five—and we had a young missionary that went to Senegal, as it turns out. And she went out to Senegal, and within a relatively short time, perhaps within a year, she had to come home for medical tests. When she had the medical tests, they found that she had a mass in her abdomen that they tried to radiate, they tried to do whatever they could with, but there was no possibility for her restoration. She was in her twenties.

So, she was in bed at home with her mom and dad—believing parents. I didn’t know what to do when I was told that well-meaning people—well-meaning people of a persuasion not along the lines of what I’m suggesting here, but a certain persuasion—they had gone to this house, they had prayed over this girl, and then they had physically removed her from the bed and tried to walk her through the house so as to prove to her parents that they had asked whatever they would like to ask of God, and it was answered: “Look, she’s walking!” When she died not long after that, these same well-meaning people, along the lines of the mountain being removed, put an unbelievable burden on her mom and dad by explaining to them that the reason their daughter was dead rather than alive was because they did not possess sufficient faith to ask for this mountain to be removed.

“Have you got any rivers you think are uncrossable?” Yeah. “Have you got any mountains you can’t tunnel through?” Yeah. Well, “God specializes in things thought impossible. He can do just what no other can do.”[12]

These verses demand our attention, and they should bring us to the place where we recognize that we have no right to circumscribe the province of God, nor do we actually possess any right to prescribe to God what needs to take place. We have every right to come to God and lay our lives before him and seek his blessing.

My friend Bruce Milne has left us so much of a wonderful legacy in his writings. And addressing this matter, he says when we seek to understand things in this way, it will appear that what we’re saying is that we don’t actually believe God, that we don’t actually believe the Bible. This is what he says: “This interpretation does not imply that the church ought not to anticipate tangible demonstrations of the presence of the risen Lord in its midst.” I’m there: “Show yourself strong, Father. Save hundreds of people. Save thousands of people. Save the least likely people. Do something.” We’re not at liberty to stand back from that. But at the same time, it does not encourage unhealthy sensationalism or unworthy arrogance on the part of the disciples. In the final analysis, the one who works in the church is its Head and Lord—and hence the powers of the kingdom are available only through believing prayer in Jesus’ name.

It is also, I think, helpful—I find it helpful—to ask of certain things as they come along the way, “Does this work for Jesus?” Because if it doesn’t work for Jesus, then it’s not going to work for me. Or, “How did Jesus handle this?” After all, he’s the Son. He’s part of the Trinity. Well, we don’t have to guess at that, do we? Because it’s recorded for us: “And he said to [his followers], ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.’ And going a little [further], he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible”—“if it were possible”—“the hour might pass from him. … ‘Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”[13]

Yes, we’re going to pray for healing. Yes, we’re going to pray believing prayers for healing, because we believe that God can heal. He may heal with or without the medical facilities, because he’s God. But it’s a far cry from that humble conviction in Jesus’ name to marching dying people around their house in a sensational display of a really poor understanding of the Bible.

If we think about this from another perspective—and with this I will stop—but if we think about this in relationship, by and large, to our prayers: if we pray in this way, then we’re only actually asking for that which is in accord with God and his purposes. And we can’t always know what is in accord with his purposes. We know that he loves to save people. We do know that he’s far more willing to bless us than we are to ask him to bless us. But we don’t know the details. We don’t know whether our lives will be long or whether they’ll be short.

William Carey, the founder of modern missions, goes to India, and he leaves us with the great line “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” That’s what he did. Do you know how long he was there before he saw a single convert? It wasn’t weeks. It wasn’t months. It was years. He was there, expecting great things from God. God, in his sovereignty, was doing what he set out to do.

But think about our average prayer time. Think about our average… Forget our average prayer time. I’ll just think about my own average prayer time; that way I know far more about it. How many of my prayers are actually big prayers like this? Prayers for the extension of God’s kingdom, prayers for the most unlikely people to be converted, prayers that God would be glorified in everything, as opposed to “Could you please help me with this? Could you please fix that?”

Now, we can bring everything to God in prayer. Don’t let’s go wrong. We understand this. But I think if the apostles came back and heard us pray, they might say, “Why don’t you ask him for something that he really wants to give?” “For you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children. How much more will your heavenly Father give good things to them that ask him?”[14] What are these “good things”? Well, the other translation is that he will “give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.”[15] Do we need the Holy Spirit? Yes. Why? So that we might be closer to Jesus, so that we might then be the servants of Jesus, so that we might proclaim the word of Jesus, so that people will come to Jesus, so that God will be glorified.

And when we go all the way to the end of the Bible, I think this whole notion is borne out. There’s a reason why in the Lord’s Prayer, you know, we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done [on] earth, as it is in heaven,”[16] you know. “Your kingdom come. We don’t know what’s happening to this kingdom. I mean, it looks like it’s on very shaky foundations at the moment. We’re concerned about that. We know that we’re supposed to pray for those in authority, for princes and for governors, and we’re doing that as well. But, Lord, we want your kingdom to come.” That’s why we sang this morning about the nations as an inheritance.[17]

The greatest work is the work of redemption. It’s the work of regeneration. And if that is the focus and Jesus encourages prayer, then that that ought to be our priority.

And therefore, it’s no surprise when you get to Revelation chapter 5, and you have a picture there of the throne and the living creatures, and it’s the context where he says, “There’s no one able to open the scroll. We can’t open the scroll.”[18] And the one comes forward to open the scroll. And verse 8:

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls … of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransom people for God [for] every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”[19]

You see, the greatest work is the work of redemption. It’s the work of regeneration. And if that is the focus and Jesus encourages prayer, then it seems to me that that ought to be our priority. At least that.

Well, I think I should stop now. Yeah. I’ve just got a horrible feeling that God’ll see me and say, “Why did you never ask me for things I wanted to give you? Did you really think you needed a motorbike? I mean, did you really think that you needed this? Did you really think you needed to live forever? Why did you ask for that?” Jesus didn’t ask for that. We can ask for everything. We can ask for anything in Jesus’ name, within the framework of his purposes and in light of his promises.

Father, I do pray that the work of the Holy Spirit will help us to unscramble all of this—that we will actually pray big prayers, that we will ask you for great things. For surely… Some of us have been praying for people for ages. It’s like, “This is a mountain! How many times am I going round or up and down this mountain?” And you have said that “you know, you can come and ask,” and that you are the God who actually removes mountains, flattens plains.

We want to be those who understand this, because as a church, as we pray together, we want to do it well. We want to get it right. We want to be like William Carey: we want to say that we want to expect great things from you in order that we might attempt great things for you. So help us, we pray. And if we have any doubts in our mind, grant that they might be lost as we come now around your Table and as we take the emblems of your love and grace towards us in Jesus. And we pray in his name. Amen.

[1] John 15:16 (ESV).

[2] Acts 4:9 (ESV).

[3] Acts 3:6 (paraphrased).

[4] Acts 4:21–22 (ESV).

[5] Acts 4:22–25 (ESV).

[6] Acts 4:30 (ESV).

[7] Acts 16:34 (ESV).

[8] Mark 11:22–23 (ESV).

[9] Isaiah 54:10 (ESV).

[10] See James 4:2–3.

[11] See 1 John 5:14–15.

[12] Oscar Carl Eliason, “Got Any Rivers?” (1931). Lyrics lightly altered.

[13] Mark 14:34–36 (ESV).

[14] Matthew 7:11 (paraphrased).

[15] Luke 11:13 (KJV).

[16] Matthew 6:10 (KJV). See also Luke 11:2.

[17] See Psalm 2:8.

[18] Revelation 5:4 (paraphrased).

[19] Revelation 5:8–10 (ESV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.