THE PROMISE TO ANSWER PRAYER
by Bob Wheeler
Jesus had been seeking to reassure His disciples, deeply troubled as they were by His announcement of His immanent departure. And to do that He encourages them to look beyond their immediate circumstances and to see the bigger picture. He points out to them what He will accomplish for them by His departure.
Jesus makes an extraordinary promise to His disciples: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father” (John 14:12; NKJV). The commentators have struggled to understand what exactly that means. To whom was the promise given? And how will they perform works that are greater than what Jesus Himself had done? Some have thought that the promise is given to all believers, and that we could perform miracles if we simply had enough faith to do so. Others have argued that all believers are included in the promise, but that it simply refers to the ordinary blessings of salvation and the Christian life. Others, (including Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh) say that it refers only to the apostles themselves, although the work of converting sinners through the preaching of the gospel constitutes “greater works than these.”
What Jesus evidently had in mind was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the ministry of the apostles in its aftermath. This would be the direct result of His ascension into heaven. Just prior to His ascension He would tell them that “you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” and “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:5,8).
But was this true of just the apostles, or does it apply to the entire church in every age? The apostle Paul did speak of miracles as one of the charismatic gifts given to the church as a whole (I Cor. 12:8-11, 28-30; cf. Gal. 3:5), and there is no clear indication anywhere in the New Testament that any of the gifts were temporary and meant to cease. On the other hand Paul makes it clear that not everyone would have the gift of miracles. “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit . . . one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (I Cor. 12:4-6, 11). It is also true that the apostles were especially endowed with the ability to perform “signs” as a testimony to the gospel they proclaimed: “Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (II Cor. 12:12).
Did miracles cease with the apostles? The evidence suggests that the gifts of prophecy and exorcism continued into the Second Century, and that the prophecies and healings appeared sporadically thereafter. But we do not see the more spectacular miracles that Christ and the apostles performed. One possible explanation is that those kinds of miracles were specifically suited to a Jewish audience. When the last of the apostles died, the more spectacular miracles ceased.
But another possible explanation is that the church went into a state of spiritual decline. The church became more institutionalized. The bishops assumed a more autocratic role. Infant baptism began to be practiced and the Lord’s Table became more dramatized. And by the end of the Second Century we begin to see bitter rivalries and divisions, which would have grieved the Holy Spirit. The result would have been a lack of the Spirit’s presence in the church.
Jesus went on to say “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13,14). Here we see the key to success or failure in the church’s mission – it is prayer. “If you ask.” Our problem is that we do not ask. We Americans in particular are very independent minded and like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient. We plan and we organize, prayer is an afterthought, if it happens at all. But Jesus makes everything depend on prayer. Why? First of all, we are not self-sufficient. Only the Holy Spirit can convict a sinner of his guilt, open his eyes so that he can behold the glory of Christ in the gospel, and renew the heart so that he responds in faith.
But why is prayer the means of accomplishing this? “That the Father may be glorified in the Son.” When something happens in response to prayer, it is evident that it was God who did it. And by asking the Father in the name of Christ, it is evident that prayer is efficacious because of the atoning and intercessory work of Christ. Why should God the Father answer our prayers? Because Christ died for our sins and pleads on our behalf. In this way the Father and the Son are glorified when we pray in the name of Christ.
The way Jesus stated all of this sounds like an unconditional promise. But as is evident from other passages of Scripture there are limitations. God is a wise and loving Father, and He will not give us something that is bad for us or for others. Miracles should not be used to glorify the preacher, but Christ. How God answers a prayer will depend on the circumstances.
But we do not want to limit God either by assuming that He cannot perform miracles today. He is sovereign and He is omnipotent. He can do whatever He pleases. The great weakness of the modern church is it’s prayerlessness. We have not because we ask not (Jas. 4:2). True revival begins on our knees, when we come face to face with the reality of God, humble ourselves before Him, and acknowledge our dependence upon Him. Only then can we expect to receive blessings from Him. How much more could God accomplish through us if we prayed more!