Works as Benefit and Proof
There are two different defintions of "works" that are given in the New Testament. One definition is embodied in the phrase "works of the law". This definition has "works" being those human efforts to keep the law and gain righteousness and good standing before God based on the power of one's will and effort. Paul's teaching is that all such works are vain and useless when it comes to attaining right standing before God. Those attempting to gain right standing before God in this way are said to be "in the flesh".
The second definition is exemplified in the below passage from John 5:16 - 20, after Jesus healed the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda:
16 And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.
Jesus had told the paralytic to take up his bed and take it home, and the paralytic had obeyed, incurring the wrath of the Pharisees. In his defense, the paralytic had reasoned that the one who healed him had the authority to command him to "break" the Sabbath.
17 But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. 18 Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God. 19 Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise. 20 For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth: and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may marvel.
In this case, the works that Jesus did were the works that his Father did.
To go over all the verses which refer to Jesus' works and show that they were miracles would make a long essay even longer. Instead, I invite you to visit this search results page where I searched for the word "works" in the Gospels and note how many obviously refer to Jesus' miracles.
Having established that the works Jesus did were miracles, I cite these verses from John 14:7-14:
7 If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. 8 Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. 9 Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father? 10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake. 12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. 13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
The blue mark-up is the basis for John the Apostle's "dwelling in" terminology in 1 John 3:24 and 1 John 4:13. Jesus' claim that the disciples would do the same works he did (and greater ones) in verse 12 is because of the indwelling of the Father within him. Since there is no record of Jesus doing any such works before his baptism and recepit of the Holy Spirit, we conclude that these works flow from the connectivity between himself and the Father that the coming of the Holy Spirit effected. The works, in a sense, flow from being part of the Trinity. Similarly, the reception of the Holy Spirit within us effects a connection between us and Jesus that causes us to become part of the Trinity, enabling us to do the same works that Jesus did. And if we are not to make Jesus a liar, we must do greater works than Jesus did.
I know that there are many in Christendom that are skeptical of what I have just said, and strive to turn these verses into commands to perform acts of charity that require personal sacrifice and effort, citing the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. However, this is merely doing works according to the flesh rather than of the Spirit, as well as being selective with what one believes from the Gospels. This is not to say that these are bad works: I have no doubt that up until his baptism by John, Jesus performed many good works of charity and kindness that were based on his physical, mental, and social capabilities that we, looking at them, would recognize as being within our abilities as human beings as well. In this case, a work of the flesh is better named a work by the flesh. That is, these are done by natural physical and mental capabilities that we all are born with.
This seeming conflict between what can be done and what I argue Jesus is promising in the John 14 passage can be easily resolved if we recognize that Jesus was talking to people pre-Pentecost. In his wisdom, and with the support of the Father, Jesus gave commands that he knew were within the span of the capabilities they possessed at that time. In contrast, he demanded more of his disciples, and dared them, in John 14, to believe that they would exceed him in greatness of works. To whom much is given is much required. That they failed is not due to any invalidity of Jesus' words, but is due to a lack of belief in his words. These men had worked miracles themselves, and yet their belief was not deep enough to allow them to accomplish what Jesus said they could do.
Having said this, it would be uncharitable for me to say that the disciples got utterly nothing from this post-Supper/pre-Gethsemane discourse of Jesus'. They got something. Unfortunately, it was not based on doing what I would call a thorough Post-Pentecost "audit" where they compared what Jesus had said with what subsequently happened. I think John did something like that afterwards, but probably in response to Paul's laying out of his understanding of the Gospel to the disciples that Paul later recounted in his letter to the Galatians. John didn't make much of an impact, for it seems that, being the junior disciple in age, he suffered from the cultural bias against youth in the face of aged experience that Paul later warned Timothy about. For all we know, Paul probably had John in mind when he gave his counsel to Timothy. It was not until John was much older, with all the other disciples martyred, that he came in on his own and, as we have seen, came down solidly on an understanding of the Christian life similar to Paul's, which was one based on the power of the Holy Spirit working within and through the individual believers acting in concert as the Body of Christ. Paul's pithy comment about "reputed pillars of the church" is probably his rueful assessment of the disciple's continued inability to "get it".
I will begin to address what that "something" was on the next page.
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