John’s gospel records several of our Lord’s signs—miracles that confirm His identity and the truth of His words. These signs can serve as a basis for faith, but this gospel tells us it is better to believe Jesus on account of His words rather than because we have seen His signs. According to John 14:11, Jesus called His disciples to believe in Him based on His words regarding His relationship with the Father or to believe on account of His works. The idea is that faith based on Jesus’ teaching is stronger than faith based on seeing His miracles.
Our Savior next told His disciples that those who believe in Him would do the works that He did and, indeed, even greater works than His (v. 12). What did He mean? Christ was not talking about His followers’ doing a greater number of works, though more people doing His works means more works. Neither did He mean that our works would be more spectacular, for what could be more spectacular than raising the dead, which our Lord did (chap. 11)?
The key here is Jesus’ reasoning as to why the disciples’ works will be greater, namely, His return to the Father (14:12). The works the church performs after Christ’s ascension are greater because they are works done in the new era that was breaking in under Jesus’ ministry but which arrived more fully in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–41). Jesus first had to return to the Father before He could give the Spirit, so, as John Calvin comments, He meant that He would “more fully [demonstrate] his power from heaven” only after He “entered into the possession of his kingdom.” At that point, the church would receive power to proclaim the gospel outside the area where Jesus ministered (1:8). As Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary John, the works of the church are greater than the works of Jesus because “the church is empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform works that go far beyond the local community of Jerusalem or Judea.”
And yet, Jesus was not setting up a contrast between the works He did and the works His disciples would do in such a way to suggest that the disciples’ works are not also His works. The contrast is between works of Jesus done while He walked the earth and works He now does from heaven through the church. We know that because while speaking of our greater works, He also spoke of prayer, which reveals our dependence on Him. Whatever His people ask of Him in His name—that is, according to His will—He will do, even the works He attributes to His disciples (John 14:12–13).