The first thing we must do is get a proper understanding of what Jesus meant when he said that we would do, “Greater works” than he did. Then we must look carefully at Jesus’ statements about moving mountains and withering trees (and so on) and see if there is another legitimate meaning. Then we must examine faith. What did Jesus mean when he referred to the “mustard seed” of faith (Luke 17:6). Does faith come in greater or lesser volumes, sizes, or weights, or is something else going on? As I examine these issues with you I’d like you to consider an important truth about scripture.
Jesus didn’t always mean what he said.
I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t believe what he said, or that he lied about what he said. Rather, Jesus sometimes employed verbal (or literary) devices to help him make his points. When he did this he did not intend for his hearers to take him literally on certain subjects, rather, he was employing a verbal tool to illustrate a greater truth. Many people read the Bible and take it quite mystically. Some Christians think that everything in the Bible must always be taken literally. But if that were true, then a camel might really go through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25). Clearly, that is impossible. Jesus didn’t mean it literally, he was using a literary device to make a point. Understanding these literary devices in scripture is necessary if we want to understand the Gospel author’s intent and original meaning. While the Bible has some difficult passages, it should be approached like any other book that uses a variety of literary styles, genres, and devices. I’ll touch on this as we move ahead. First, let me address what Jesus meant by “Greater works.”
Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do” (John 14:12). What was Jesus referring to when he said, “Greater works?” There were, essentially, two things that Jesus did in his three years of ministry. He taught the people and his disciples and he did miracles and healing. It is clear from scripture’s testimony that Jesus’ disciples exceeded Jesus’ work in both areas. Consider that when the Apostle Peter preached his first sermon 3,000 people came to faith in Christ (Acts 2:41). Jesus never did that. That was a “Greater work.” The disciples spread around the known world, lead thousands to Christ and planted numerous churches. Jesus never did that. That was a “Greater work.”
We find another example in the Apostle Paul. Paul wrote 13 books of the New Testament. Jesus authored nothing. This is a “Greater work.” Paul gave the church most of its theology. This is a “Greater work.” All of the Apostles and their disciples spread the Gospel from Europe to India within the first 60 years of the church. Jesus never ministered outside of Palestine. This is a “Greater work.” All of the Apostles, except James the brother of John, lived far longer than Jesus and ministered for decades longer than Jesus ever did. This is a “Greater work.”
What about miracles? The disciples did some of the same miracles that Jesus did. They healed the lame (Acts 3:7). They restored sight to the blind (Acts 9:18). They healed illness (Acts 28:8). In one instance, handkerchiefs that touched Paul healed people (Acts 19:12). Jesus never did that. I believe that these things are “greater” in that they were miracles performed by the Holy Spirit through sinful, forgiven men, rather than from the sinless, righteous Jesus. It is amazing that sinful men had been given such power. This is a “Greater work.” But noticed what none of the Apostle’s did—they never moved mountains, withered trees, or walked on water. And they certainly didn’t teleport. Now, if the Apostles had the faith to do these things, why then didn’t they move mountains? In fact, Jesus said, “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). Jesus said that. Jesus only spoke truth. So why don’t we move mountains today? In fact, why hasn’t anyone in the last 2,000 years moved a mountain, ever? Is it a problem with our faith?
A Literary Device
I don’t believe that Jesus literally meant that we would move mountains anymore than Jesus meant that camels would go through the eyes of sewing needles (Mark 10:25). Rather, Jesus was using a literary device we commonly call, hyperbole. Now, this is a difficult thing for some Christians to accept because many Christians see hyperbole as a form of lying. An exaggerated statement is not necessarily a true statement. In one sense that is correct. However, an exaggerated statement can also be a statement of truth when used in a way to illustrate that truth. This is what hyperbole does. It doesn’t employ falsehood. It is a literary device that employs the absurd to illustrate a common sense truth. This is what Jesus was doing when he said a person with faith can move a mountain.
Jesus often used hyperbole to make a point. Look at these examples: Luke14:26, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Did Jesus literally mean for us to “hate” our families? How about Matthew 6:3? “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Hands don’t “know” anything. In Mark 10:27 Jesus says, “All things are possible with God.” Really, all things? Can God sin? No! God is incapable of sinning. This is using hyperbole for effect.
Many Christians read the Bible without considering that the text they are reading falls under different genre or type as the text progresses. In order to understand the text’s meaning you must understand what genre is being used, otherwise it will be easy to misinterpret what is being read and discover a meaning that was never intended by the author.
Some Christians object to the idea that Jesus employed hyperbole in these passages because Jesus said that anyone who has enough faith will be able to do the things he said, like move mountains. But is that really the case?
How much faith does it take to move a mountain? A quarter cup? Two-and-a-half gallons? Three pounds? Jesus said that if we have faith as “A mustard seed,” we would move mountains (Matthew 17:20). So the question becomes, do you have the faith of a tiny mustard seed? If that is all that is required to move a mountain, then certainly we need much less faith to command a single grain of sand to move one inch from left to right. Yet, do you have the faith to move a single grain of sand? Have you tried?
While I am employing a little hyperbole myself, like Jesus, I am doing so to make a point. Consider that in order for us to be saved and have eternal life we must believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead bodily never to die again. If you are a genuine Christian then you must believe this. Moreover, you must also believe that someday you will also rise from the dead never to die again, as Paul explained in I Corinthians 15. Do you believe this?
Here is my point. Believing in the resurrection of the dead is a hard thing to believe. Remember the Greek’s response to the Apostle Paul when he mentioned Jesus’ resurrection? They laughed at him (Acts 17:32). In Acts 23:6-10 Paul cries out that he believes in the resurrection of the dead and the dissension in the room becomes so great that the people became violent. When Paul stood before Festus at his trial in Acts 26:23-24, upon simply stating his belief in the resurrection of the dead, Festus yelled at Paul, “You are out of your mind!”
Believing in the resurrection of Jesus is not an easy thing. There is nothing more miraculous than this. Nothing turns the laws of physics and biology on their heads more than the miraculous resurrection from the dead. Yet, if you believe in the resurrection then you must have the faith to move a single grain of sand one inch from left to right. Which takes more faith, believing in moving mountains or the resurrection? Indeed, the resurrection! Thus, if you believe in Jesus you have that mustard seed of faith and more!
So, why haven’t you moved a mountain? It’s not because you don’t have faith, or enough faith. It’s because Jesus was using hyperbole. Besides, moving a mountain is incredibly destructive. Do you imagine Jesus would willy nilly give us all that kind of power? I think not.
If you believe in the resurrection then you can believe anything. You have all the faith you need. So, faith is not the issue. Literary genre is the issue.