12. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.
Here Christ reverts to the consolation which He had begun to dispense to the disciples. He had told them not to be frightened or mourn because He was about to depart from them visibly and physically, leaving them behind in the world; they should consider, and be comforted by, the benefits that would compensate them for the slight physical loss. He informed them that He would prepare much more glorious dwellings for them, that He would still be with them, and that He would also take them to His abode, which they could never reach without Him. Furthermore, He told them that they already knew the way and the Father, that therefore His mission in their midst was now fulfilled, that it was no longer necessary for Him to instruct them, and that the only thing left for Him to do was to conclude by helping them reach their goal. And for a further measure of comfort and assurance that His departure would entail no loss or harm to them but would enrich them more abundantly and gloriously than before, He adds that by His going they would be empowered to do works just like His, and even greater ones than He had done or would still do during His physical stay among them.
He has just said that He performs works intended to make them believe that the Father is in Him and that He is in the Father. Now He extends this and says that they, too, should perform such works—works which show that they also are in Christ and that Christ is in them. This He repeats later. Here He indicates, as we shall hear, what He proposes to do and accomplish through them in Christendom.
You ask: “Did not Christ just say that we should believe for the sake of the works He does? What, then, is the meaning of His statement that the disciples should perform the selfsame works? Why, then, need they believe for the sake of Christ’s works?” Answer: The former statement of Christ pertains to the time before we have become Christians, for He is speaking of works by which He makes us Christians. But the second statement refers to the works to be done by those who have become Christians. Therefore He says: “He who believes in Me.” First it is necessary that we believe in Him and cling to Him through faith, no matter how we may fare because of this. Christ says that He who believes in Him should perform the same and even greater works.
How is this to take place? To be sure, it was evident in the apostles and holy martyrs, who raised many from the dead and performed other helpful deeds. But what are we to say when Christ makes this statement not only of the apostles but of all who believe in Him? What kind of works could excel those of Christ the Lord? What works could be called greater than raising the dead, delivering souls from the might of the devil and death, and bestowing eternal life? Are these not exclusively Christ’s own works—works wrought in us by His divine power and might? Who, then, can say that we are to perform greater works?
Here I accept the general sense of this verse. It can have no other meaning than this, that the works of Christians are called greater because the apostles and the Christians had a wider field for their works than He did, that they brought more people to Christ than He Himself did during His earthly sojourn. Christ preached and worked miracles only in a small nook, and for just a short time. The apostles and their successors, however, have come to all the world, and their activity has extended over the whole history of Christianity. Thus Christ personally merely initiated His work. It has had to be extended farther and farther through the apostles and the preachers who came after them; it must go on until the Day of Judgment. Thus it is true that the Christians do greater works, that is, more works and more extensive works, than Christ Himself did. Yet the works are identical; they are the same as His. For when Christ declares that he who believes in Him will do greater works, He does not deny that such works must be done through His power and must issue from Him as the Fountainhead. No, He affirms both when He says: “He who believes in Me.” Also in the following words: “Because I go to the Father.” Likewise in verse fourteen: “Whatever you ask … I will do it.” Thereby Christ demonstrates that such works are performed exclusively by those who adhere to Him in faith. Through them He works and manifests His power.
We must not divorce the Head from its members, that is, Christ from His apostles and all Christendom. Every individual Christian is a man such as the Lord Christ Himself was on earth; he accomplishes great things. He is able to govern the whole world in divine matters. He can help and benefit everybody; he does the greatest works on earth. He is also regarded more highly by God than the entire world is. For his sake God gives to, and preserves for, the world all that it has. If there were no Christians on earth, no city or country would enjoy peace; yes, everything on earth would perish through the devil in a single day. That grain still grows in the field; that people recover from an illness; that they have their sustenance, peace, and protection—all this they owe to the Christians.
Although, as St. Paul says (2 Cor. 6:10), we are poor beggars, yet we make many rich; although we have nothing, yet we possess everything. It is also true that what kings, princes, lords, burghers, and peasants have is not theirs by reason of their golden hair47 but because of Christ and His Christians. Consequently, so long as Christians walk this earth, the host must benefit from his guest. On the other hand, the guest, that is, Christendom, must benefit from the host. Thus the history of the patriarch Jacob (Gen. 30:30) shows that when he was in the service of Laban, his father-in-law,48 prosperity was showered on the latter, who had not been rich before this time. God blessed Laban for the sake of His pious Jacob, who brought nothing with him and also received but little from Laban. Similarly, lords, burghers, and peasants today possess their land and their people, their power, honor, and goods because of the Christians who dwell in their midst, even though the former will not acknowledge this and thank the Christians poorly for it.
But which works of the Christians accomplish this? We see nothing special that they do beyond what others do, especially since the day of miracles is past. Miracles, of course, are still the least significant works, since they are only physical and are performed for only a few people. But let us consider the true, great works of which Christ speaks here—works which are done with the power of God, which accomplish everything, which are still performed and must be performed daily as long as the world stands.
In the first place, Christians have the Gospel, Baptism, and the Sacrament, by means of which they convert people, snatch souls from the clutches of the devil, wrest them from hell and death, and bring them to heaven. With these they also comfort, strengthen, and preserve poor consciences that are saddened and troubled by the devil and others. They are able to teach and instruct people in all walks of life and to help them live in a Christian and blessed way. All these are works which all kings and emperors in the world, all the mighty and the rich, all scholars and sages, are unable to do and could not purchase with all their wealth. For none of them can console and gladden a single conscience that is oppressed and aggrieved by sin. Nor can they instruct a person aright how to come to Christ and how to live before God. On the contrary, they disseminate lies and introduce idolatry in opposition to God’s Word, mislead souls and tear them from the truth by persecution, torture, and murder. All this we see in the regimes of the pope and the Turk. Therefore where such works are wrought as convert someone to Christ, strengthen him in his faith, and preserve him in a godly life, one may well boast that this is a work to which no emperor and no kings are equal, but which is performed solely by the power of Christ the Lord and is as great as or greater than raising the physically dead. Christ Himself does not regard such a miracle as great, for He testifies here that He will perform much greater works through His Christians. To destroy the kingdom and the power of the devil, who, according to Holy Writ, is the lord and god of the world (2 Cor. 4:4), requires God’s own almighty power and might and certainly not human effort.
In the second place, the Christians also have prayer. Christ will speak of this later. Through prayer they obtain for themselves and for others all that they ask of God, even physical things. This is one of the greatest works they do to help and preserve the world, even if they did nothing else. Thus when a Christian subject prays, and the prince is victorious over his enemies, who, then, actually defeated the enemies and achieved the victory? No other than the Christian, even if no one gives him credit and he gains neither reputation nor honor because of it. God did not grant victory for the sake of the prince—if he was an unbeliever—but in answer to the prayer of this one Christian. So greatly can a whole country or kingdom be benefited by one pious man, for whose sake all are blessed. This we find illustrated in Gen. 14:14 by the story of Abraham; also in the story of Lot, which is recorded in Gen. 19:22, where we read that Sodom and Gomorrah were spared while Lot still lived there. And in 2 Kings 5:1 we read that because of Naaman alone God bestowed good fortune and victory on the entire kingdom of Syria, which, after all, was idolatrous. According to Gen. 41:46 ff., all Egypt was helped because of Joseph. The kingdom of Persia fared similarly for the sake of Daniel. And the prophet Isaiah defeated the hosts of the Assyrian emperor singlehandedly through his prayer. Thus in times gone by good fortune and victory in war were often granted to the Romans, the Persians, and others solely for the sake of the Christians.
To summarize, kings, lords, and princes cannot claim credit for their rule, for peace, or for obedient subjects; all this is due to no one else on earth than the Christians. Kings, lords, and princes may think: “I wear the crown and wield the sword because of my own power and might.” Even when viewed with the eyes of reason, it would seem impossible for an individual to govern a whole country where there are so many heads, or for a burgomaster to rule over and hold in subjection an entire city if he were not supported and protected by another power. What is one burgomaster over against a big mob? Or the prince of a territory among so many vile knaves and rascals who live under him and next to him, both at court and in cities and castles? They take money from him and would gladly help betray him if it were not for God, who upholds his rule, and for the Christians in his realm, who pray. Hence these men receive a hidden help, a help that is unseen by them and unknown to them, namely, God’s Word and order and the prayers of Christians. But just as they do not know that their reign is God’s order and work and does not rest in the hands of man, so they do not know that God tolerates and preserves their rule solely for the sake of the godly Christians and their prayers. And that is why they repay this by persecuting both God’s Word and His Christians.
Even reason understands and must admit that, naturally viewed, it is impossible for so many heads to submit willingly to one head. For daily and too frequently we see and experience that the common rabble among burghers, peasants, and noblemen submit reluctantly and unwillingly and would much rather shake off the yoke of obedience and restraint. Therefore there must be another power that upholds kings and lords in their rule and suppresses the mob with its malice and disobedience. Otherwise everything would go to rack and ruin. That is what happens when God becomes angry, when the measure of iniquity of tyrants and of people is filled to overflowing, when they ungratefully persecute God’s Word and the Christians, destroy them, and silence their prayers. Then it is time to put an end to it. Then God closes His eyes and lets matters take their course. Then prince, burgomaster, mob, and all tumble in a heap as an old house falls to pieces. Then it is clear how well the world can govern when left to itself, and how well things go when God withdraws His hand and the Christians do not pray. In the meantime the world goes its way in abysmal ignorance; for it is blind and possessed of the devil.
But we, as Christians, must know that the whole system of earthly government stands and remains for its allotted time solely through God’s order or command and the prayers of Christians. These are the two pillars that support the entire world. When they are gone, everything must crumble. This will become evident as Doomsday approaches; but it can already be seen that all kingdoms and governments are enfeebled and are almost beginning to topple, because the two columns are threatening to drop and to break. The world will not have it otherwise. It will not tolerate God’s Word, which, after all, honors and preserves the world; but it persecutes and kills innocent Christians and incessantly storms against the pillars which uphold it, like a raging householder who would like to tear everything to pieces. Well, we shall support things as long as we can, although we receive no thanks for it. But if it comes to pass that God’s Word and the prayers of Christians are silenced, then may the devil, the god of the world, have mercy on it!49
One can understand this text all the better when I say that in both the spiritual and the temporal realms50 the very greatest works in the world—even though they are not recognized and acknowledged as such—are continuously performed by Christians. Among these works are the destruction of the devil’s realm, the deliverance of souls, the conversion of hearts, victory, the preservation of peace for land and nation, help, protection, and salvation in all sorts of distress and emergencies. All this, Christ says, is to come to pass through the Christians, because they believe in Him and derive everything from Him as their Head. Yes, all this is to be done by each individual Christian, and Christ can say: “The works which I do are done by every baptized Christian today.”
Consequently, the Christians are genuine helpers and saviors, yes, lords and gods of the world. Thus God says to Moses in Ex. 7:1: “See, I make you as God to Pharaoh.” And in Ps. 8:6 we read: “Thou hast put all things under his feet,” namely, emperors, kings, princes, power, honor, and goods; yes, even the cattle in the field, oxen, sheep, wild beasts, the birds of the air, and the fish in the water. God does not want it forgotten that whatever possessions and power the world has it holds in fee from the beggars described by St. Paul (2 Cor. 6:19): “as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Everything that God grants the world He gives because of the Christians. Therefore it may all be called the Christians’ works and wonders, which they perform until the Last Day. And when these cease, God will also put an end to the world, and everything will be consumed by fire. In the meantime the Christians serve as the legs that bear the entire world. For this service the world rewards them by despising them, oppressing them, forcing them into mire and filth, disgracing them, reviling them, condemning them, yes, by chasing them out of the world. Thus we see how peasants, burghers, and junkers trample their pastors and preachers underfoot and begrudge them their morsel of bread; and some even tear off their heads. And we are now obliged to suffer such filth and stench from them as do the legs that carry the paunch and the reeking belly. But on that day they will have to regard us far differently and discover that not they but every Christian was an emperor and lord over all the masters of the world, not by reason of his person, in which he is a human being like the rest, but because of his faith in the Lord Christ. This is what Christ says here.
Well, the world is not going to believe this, nor is this proclaimed for the sake of the world, which is not worthy of attaining such knowledge, lest it be blessed too much. But this is told to us both for our instruction and for our consolation. Then we shall not underestimate Christians and regard them as other people, but we shall see how highly they are praised by Christ and esteemed by God. The world gapes only at what appears to be great and glorious, what is rich and mighty, and what struts along in a pompous manner; but the world is ignorant of the source of its possessions. But Christ says: “If you are baptized and believe in Me, then you are the man who has more and can perform greater things, yes, can do the same works that I am now doing, and even greater works than these. I will make you who believe in Me such lords that your works will count and accomplish more than those of all the kings and lords on earth. You shall carry out whatever you will; you shall help Me rule spiritually over souls for their salvation, and you shall also obtain and receive by means of your prayer whatever physical goods there are on earth. In consequence, the world will be beholden to you for everything. Unwittingly they will be your beneficiaries. You will feed and fatten them like sows in the pigsty until the Last Day, when they will be slaughtered as a roast for the devil, who will devour them as they now want to devour you.”
Look, this is something for Christians to boast of greatly; it is glorious. With this we can comfort ourselves over against the devil and the world, and in it we can rejoice. What I would give if I knew for sure that I could rescue a person from death! But this is nothing when compared with the privilege of being able to comfort and save hearts and consciences, to wrest them from the jaws of the devil, and, in addition, to help all men with my prayer. In contrast with such a privilege I should regard as filth and spit on all the gold and silver of the world, all the power and honor, if it were heaped up before me. And this is absolutely true, since Christ, the Son of God, says so. But it is not believed, since it is only a simple statement. If it were gold and silver and anything that glitters in the world and strikes the eye, everybody would flock to it and esteem it highly. But a Christian could exclaim defiantly: “Good and well, dear world, be rich, and count your guldens! I, a Christian, may have nothing on earth; yet you are indebted to me and my prayer for whatever you own. For my Christ is your Liege Lord; without Him you can possess nothing. And though I may appear to be a beggar in your sight, I still own a great treasure, compared with which all your wealth is not worth a penny. I can help everyone to know where to remain in the hour of death and in every trouble, and to have enough for all eternity. You are far from doing this with all your wealth, your crown, and your splendor.”
But where are those who are able to believe, and glory in, this? Yet it is said to us in order that we may at least begin to learn what we have from Christ and what we should expect from Him, and that we may regard our Christian estate higher and more glorious than the world regards its things. For Christ does not say: “If you believe in Me, you shall have a great treasure of gold and silver, and will occupy and possess cities, castles, land, and kingdoms.” That would not help the Christians. No, He says that we shall have power over sin, death, and the devil. Thus He tells the apostles in Luke 10:19: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. For I have placed into your mouth the Word which is My Word, and have given you the Baptism which is My Baptism; and through these I want to demonstrate My almighty power.”
Now since we have such a treasure, we have everything and are lords over all lords. On earth we are beggars, as Christ Himself was; but before God we are bountifully blessed with all good things. In comparison the world is poor and destitute, nor can it retain its goods without us. I, on the other hand, have abiding goods in the hour of death; for I have the Lord Christ Himself, who sits enthroned in heaven above. But in that hour you will be obliged to depart naked and bare, and you will not take as much as a thread with you. And up there you will be bereft of all property, even though you were a mighty king and owned all the goods of the world. A Christian will not leave one bit of his goods behind; for he already has his treasure in heaven, in and with Christ. Thus St. Paul states in Eph. 2:6 that God has already “made us sit with Him in the heavenly places.” To be sure, this is not apparent now; but on the Last Day all the world will see the riches and the eternal glory of poor Lazarus in heaven. At the rich man’s door he did not have the crumbs that fell from the table. Now the rich belly, together with all the unbelieving world, will lie in everlasting fire and burn.
Now why will the Christians do works just like, and greater than, those of Christ Himself? He says that there is no other reason than this: “Because I go to the Father.” What sense does this make? Is the Man drunk, or is He dreaming? Here is the explanation: As I have said, we do not perform such works of ourselves. But the fact that in all the world Christendom will do great works that Christ Himself performed only in a small nation is, He says, “because I am going to the Father and occupying My kingdom. This means: Through My suffering, death, and resurrection I overcome the devil, death, flesh and blood, and the world with all it contains; and I sit at the right hand of God, reign with power, and subject everything to Myself. I shall be able to say to death, sin, the devil, the world, and all that is evil: ‘Lie prostrate here at My feet; and cease being death, sin, devil, and the evil world, as you once were!’ ”
By “going to the Father” Christ means that He is to be made Lord and placed on the royal chair at the right hand of the Father, that all power and might in heaven and on earth are given to Him, as He says in Matt. 28:18. “You will get the power to perform such works because you are My members and believe in Me; because you will be in Me, and I will be in you. For through the power which, coequal in majesty and publicly glorified as true God and Lord over all creatures, I shall enjoy at the right hand of the Father I will work in you who believe in Me and who have My Word, Baptism, and Sacrament, and remain faithful to these. And just as I am Lord over sin, death, hell, the devil, the world, and everything, so you shall also be lords over these and be able to glory in the same power. This is yours, not by reason of your own worthiness or strength but solely because I am going to the Father.
“And I am going to the Father for the purpose of initiating and fulfilling this. For now, while I still sojourn here on earth in this flesh, I am weak and performing only small and slight works, such as raising a few people from the dead or helping a handful of Jews. And now I must let Myself be crucified and put to death. But afterwards—after My crucifixion, death, and burial—I shall first leap from death into life, from the cross and the grave into everlasting glory, divine majesty, and might. Then—as Christ states elsewhere (John 12:32)—I will draw all men to Myself, and all creatures will have to be subject to Me. Then I shall be able to say to you apostles and Christians: ‘You, Peter or Paul, you must go forth and overthrow the Roman Empire if it refuses to obey My Word.’ Thus it will become apparent that you are doing far greater works than I am now doing. For I have not yet fully entered upon My reign; I have not yet taken over a kingdom or a principality, not even among My Jews; but I am letting Myself be knocked down and executed by them. But after this I will rage among them and cast them before you to be handled like old cards, yet not with the sword or physical coercion but with the Word and prayer. Through these I will be powerful in you. I will support you to such an extent that they will either have to accept your Gospel or go to rack and ruin over it. That which stands will remain standing through you or will fall to pieces when you no longer uphold it. They will not live as they please, but against their will by your grace.”
Luther, M. (1999, c1961). Vol. 24: Luther's works, vol. 24 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (24:76). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.