The words of Jesus are clear, yet we may wonder how this can be. Jesus performed miraculous deeds seen by many, healed the lame and the blind, raised Lazarus from the dead – how can we do greater works than these?
A key in understanding this verse in John is to realize the difference between the “signs,” “wonders,” “miracles” and “works” performed by Jesus. There is certainly some overlap in the use of these terms, but generally speaking there is a difference. The words “signs” (Greek semeion), “wonders” (Greek teras), and “miracles” (Greek dunamis) are all frequently used of the miraculous deeds Jesus performed as signs of his Messiahship. Jesus spoke of his followers doing such things, though usually in the context of faith – that if we have faith we, too, would be able to accomplish great deeds with God’s help.
But beyond these miraculous deeds, Jesus also performed many other works of teaching, guiding and helping his disciples and the crowds that followed him. The word “works” (Greek erga) used in John 14:12 can include miraculous deeds, but it signifies other non-wondrous works as well. In fact, erga can include ongoing duties, works, business, rather than just individual acts; and the word certainly covers Christ’s ongoing teaching and guidance.
When we look at the broader and often more ongoing sense implied by erga, we can see that Christ’s statement that his followers would do greater “works” than he had done likely refers to his work of teaching, guiding, etc. Such deeds were not entirely dependent on faith to accomplish them, and faith is usually not mentioned in the same context – as it is not in John 14:12. These works would be “greater” than those he had done, and this can mean greater in extent rather than greater in type.
Although Jesus taught large crowds, sometimes of thousands of people, we have only to look at the eventual effects of the printing press and, in our own age the internet, when used to spread the word of God and to explain its teachings to millions of people, to see the extent of these works has indeed been greater than any individual could have accomplished in the time of Christ. But we should also remember that “no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16) – the greater works that might be done in later ages by Jesus’ followers are still done by Him through us!