The Eight Steps I Use (Usually and Sometimes) to Prepare a Bible Lesson
Using John 14:12, I want to show how I prepare a Bible lesson from John’s Gospel.
- I hope to find out why we can’t walk on water or raise the dead.
- And in the process, hopefully provide some tips for preparing deeper and more meaningful Bible lessons.
- This is all pretty basic stuff.
Typically I use the following eight steps:
- What does the text say?
- Ask questions?
- Context, context, context
- Word Study
- Analogy of faith
- Affirming the negative
- Meaning and Answers
How I blend these, and the extent I use each depends on the text.
- Today’s text, for example, will require a word study.
- But that is not always the case.
- BTW – I almost always come up with more info than I put into a lesson.
Before we begin, a few cautions.
- Never go straight to your study Bible or commentaries – they come last and will serve to correct any mistakes you made in study process.
- Never read a single Bible verse (“judge not lest ye be judged” example).
- Never interpret Scripture with experience; interpret your experience with Scripture.
- Always let the text speak; your goal is to know the truth not be “right”.
- The text is to be master over you, not the other way around.
John 14:12–14 (ESV) — 12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.
1) WHAT DOES THE TEXT SAY?
This is not the time to hash out any meaning.
- It is simply a restating of the text to ensure you understand its basic premises.
Jesus makes a conditional statement and uses the future tense to do so.
- If you believe in Me, then you will “do the works that I do” and “greater works than these” you will do.
He then qualifies His statement with additional commentary.
- This will happen “because I am going to the Father”
After we get more info on our text, understanding that Jesus qualifies His conditional statement will help deepen our understanding.
2) ASK QUESTIONS?
At this time, we are asking questions about what the text means, not questions about what it means for us (something I usually leave up to the Holy Spirit).
- Questions about implications and applications for us can be rightly handled only after we know what the text means.
- So save those questions for later.
- 1) What does Jesus mean by “works”?
- 2) What does He mean by “greater works” than His “works”?
- 3) What does “going to the Father” mean?
- And why did Jesus qualify his statement with “going to the Father”?
- 4) What future is in view?
Once we come up with a few good questions, we need to gather the info to answer them.
- And as we do this, the context of the text must always be in view.
- Context is king.
3) CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT
Context has to be a consideration in every step of the studying process.
- It is always necessary to understand the general context of the text itself.
- Additionally, the more you know about the text’s cultural background the better.
- This means you need to be a reader!
John 14 is called His Farewell Discourse.
- Jesus’ words, then, follow a number of startling revelations.
- Judas will betray Jesus.
- Peter will deny Jesus.
- And where Jesus is going they cannot come.
- “lifted up” to the cross
- “exalted” to the right hand of the Father
He also sought to comfort them by telling them that a time will come when they will be with Him again.
- He is going to prepare a place for them and He will return to get them.
- So, just as today’s text speaks of the future, Jesus also was speaking in the future tense with His assurance that He will return.
Jesus also dropped the ultimate J-Bomb when He taught them He is the only way to the Father.
- This was a further assurance to them.
- He will come back for them and they will be with Yahweh.
From this understanding of the Context, we can already answer a couple of our questions.
- “Going to the Father” means Jesus journey through the cross and His exaltation to the Father’s right hand.
- Why this qualifies His “works” statement in our text today, however, we don’t yet know.
- And using the future tense, Jesus is referring to a time not before His exaltation at the very least.
So this is the context in which Jesus speaks John 14:12.
- This context should influence any direction we take going forward.
BTW – John 14:12 is yet another encouragement for the disciples.
- Not only will He come back for them, but it appears they will get to walk on water(?).
- This will make for great fishing!
Now let’s move on to a word study to help us answer the other questions.
- We need to know what “works” are, and what “greater” signifies.
4) WORD STUDY
It will help to look at how else the word, in Greek “ergon”, is used by John.
- Depending on context, it does have a variety of meanings.
- Evil deeds (John 3:19-20)
- Good deeds (John 3:21)
- Revelation of God’s Glory/Light (John 2:11; 11:4; 9:3-5)
- Belief that Jesus is of the Father (John 6:28-29)
- John 6:28–29 (ESV) — 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
It is also helpful to know that “signs” and “works” are often used as synonyms in John.
- We know this from John 6:30.
- John 6:30 (ESV) — 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?
We also need to notice a very important contextual observation.
- It appears that when “works” refers to miracles it does so in context of a warrant for belief.
- Jesus’ works = Reasons to believe
Examples of “Jesus’ works = Reasons to believe”:
- John 2:23 (ESV) — 23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.
- John 7:31 (ESV) — 31 Yet many of the people believed in him. They said, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?”
And so given the “signs/works” connection and the “works/believe” contextual consideration, we can see “works” as miracles in numerous examples similar to our text.
- John 5:36 (ESV) — 36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.
- John 10:25 (ESV) — 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me,
- John 10:37–38 (ESV) — 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; 38 but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
And importantly, in the immediate context of our text (vs. 12), verse 11 presents the same connections:
- John 14:11 (ESV) — 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
Once you have done some leg work yourself, it is also helpful to consult Lexicons and Dictionaries.
- The BDAG (The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament) tells us that in our context that “works” are “the deeds of God and Jesus, specifically miracles.”
- The TDNT (The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) tell us that, In John, works are “individual acts of God” that “bear witness to Jesus and the salvation that he brings…” (cf. Jn. 5:20, 36; 7:3, 21; 10:25; 14:10ff.; 15:24).
I think it is clear that when Jesus speaks of “works” in our text, He is referring to His miracles.
- Miracles whose purpose was to authenticate His ministry and point to His origins from the Father and God’s glory.
- This appears to be the answer to our 1st question.
The Greek word is “megas”.
- Jesus used the “greater works” once before in John.
- John 5:20–21 (ESV) — 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. 21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.
- The “greater” is apparently the “gives life to whom he will”.
- In our context the BDAG tells us the word is not making a quantitative claim but a qualitative claim.
- In other words, not “more” works but “better” works.
- If this is the case, this is hugely significant!
It appears that “greater works” are qualitatively better than the signs and wonders.
- And it seems they might possibly pertain to the giving of life.
- This appears to be the answer to our 2nd question.
So, right now it appears that believers should be walking on water and raising people from the dead.
- At this point, we need to hold out that this is a possibility.
- This doesn’t feel right, but feelings cannot be part of the equation.
- We have to go where the text leads.
- But, we are not done yet.
- We need to do a couple of very important things before we can get to the bottom of Jesus’ words.
BTW – We can be tempted at this point to start asking implication/application questions.
- If I am a “whoever believes” why can’t I “_________”?
- We have to resist this until we exhausted our study and have understood the text as best we can.
We need to now move on to one of the most important study tools, Analogy of Faith.
- You will see shortly why this is so crucial to effective Bible study.
5) ANALOGY OF FAITH
“If the Scriptures be what they claim to be, the word of God, they are the work of one mind, and that mind divine. From this it follows that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. God cannot teach in one place anything which is inconsistent with what He teaches in another. Hence Scripture must explain Scripture.” – Charles Hodge.
Analogy of Faith is absolutely fundamental to good Bible study.
- It serves to insulate biblical interpretation from our own biases and baggage.
- And as we will see, it is going to change the entire direction we are going.
So in looking for Scripture that is relevant to the subject matter of our text, I found some good stuff.
- These are found by cross referencing, word searches, reading books and just knowing your Bible.
- And each has things that fill out and compliment Jesus’ words in John 14.
1) 1 Corinthians 12:27–31 (ESV) — 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
- Here Paul tells us that “gifts of healing” and “miracles” are gifts of the Spirit.
- And we know that within the body of Christ, believers are endowed with different gifts of the Spirit – “Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing?”
Yet, Jesus’ words in our text tell us “whoever believes in me” will do His works (vs. 12).
- So right away, we see we might have to pull back from our initial “conclusions”.
- Paul has made clear that believers have different gifts – some heal and some perform other miracles.
- Or, even better, perhaps if Jesus is referring to His “works” as we argued, He is referring to them not in form (the actual works) but function (their purpose).
- Hebrews 2:3–4 (ESV) — 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
2) Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV) — 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
- Relevant to our text, we see here that works/miracles themselves are not always associated with Jesus or even believers.
- The text suggests that miracles can and will be performed by frauds – “workers of lawlessness”.
- This is has a profound implication for our investigation.
- It tells us that there must have been something else about Jesus’ works that set them apart.
- In other words, there is a reason they were significant other than the fact that they were just cool, supernatural acts.
- And it appears that it has to do with the works’ standing before the Father – “does the will of my Father”.
- This would imply (as mentioned above) that as profound as miracles are it is not their “physicalness” or “form” that is most significant but their “spiritualness” or “function”.
3) John 6:25–27 (ESV) — 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”
- This verse is an example of Jesus’ apparent preference for the importance of the “spiritualness” or function of reality over the “physicalness” or form of reality with respect to His works/miracles.
- So much so that he speaks of His act of feeding the 5000 (one act) using two different categories.
- “not because you saw signs” – spiritualness/function
- “you ate your fill of the loaves” – physicalness/form
- It seems that Jesus sees the primary purpose of His works is to be a sign to point to God the Father and by extension, Himself (the Son of Man).
- The secondary purpose was to feed the hungry.
- We know this because Jesus characterizes the crowds’ reaction to Him in negative terms as working, “for the food that perishes”.
- Implicitly, then, the proper “desired” reaction is to embrace the “spiritualness” or “function” of the act and thereby comprehend the meaning of the sign – that “the food that endures to eternal life” is the Son of Man.
Importantly, see also:
- John 11:4 (ESV) — 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death [physicalness/form]. It is for the glory of God [spiritualness/function], so that the Son of God may be glorified [spiritualness/function] through it [the physicalness/form].”
6) AFFIRMING THE NEGATIVE
Thus far, a significant amount of info has been collected about our text.
- This info gives us a number of options as to the meaning of our text.
- It is useful to eliminate some of these options when possible.
- Eliminating options, i.e., determining what the answers to your questions can’t be, is what I call “affirming the negative”.
- Even if we can’t arrive at a single consensus on the text’s meaning; it is important to at least know what it can’t mean.
From our Word Study and Analogy of Faith, we can confidently say that “works” can’t mean:
- (1) Belief – or Jesus would be saying in John 14:11-12, “believe on account of beliefs” and “those who believe in me will believe in me”.
- This doesn’t make sense, is redundant, and isn’t really saying anything.
- (2) Evil Deeds – or Jesus would be saying that “whoever believes in me will do the evil deeds that I do”.
- (3) Good Deeds – because even an unbeliever can perform the physical act of a good deed.
- Our text limited the scope of Jesus’ words to “whoever believes”.
So we are left with two possibilities.
- (1) Revelation of God’s glory/light
- (2) “The deeds of God and Jesus, specifically the miracles” – BDAG
- But our Analogy of Faith has called this 2nd meaning into doubt.
- This brings us to the Answers and Meanings of our text.
7) ANSWERS AND MEANING
At the beginning of our lesson, we asked the following questions:
- 1) What does Jesus mean by “works”?
- 2) What does He mean by “greater works” than His “works”?
- 3) What does “going to the Father” mean?
- And why did Jesus qualify his statement with “going to the Father”?
- 4) What future is in view?
We thought we answered 1 until we came to Analogy of Faith.
- We answered 2, and will soon elaborate on it.
- We answered 3a but not 3b.
- And we answered, or at least narrowed down, question 4.
- Now it is time to use what we have uncovered and answer these questions as best we can.
What does Jesus mean by works?
- Is it miracles/signs/wonders or not?
- Or is it God’s glory?
My suggestion is that it is both.
- In the context of Jesus’ ministry, referring to one without the other is problematic.
- The physical works/miracles were fundamental in establishing Jesus’ connection to the Father.
- God ordained that Jesus’ 3 year ministry would be characterized by His miracle working and teaching.
- In other words, Jesus’ calling card was not singing, farming, politicking, making money, etc., but works and teaching.
- As John said in John 20:31, Jesus did signs and wonders, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…”
However, it is what the works pointed to that was most significant.
- We saw this clearly in our Analogy of Faith study.
- In other words, the works were important because they pointed to and glorified God the Father.
- And they authenticated the ministry of Jesus as coming from the Father.
But we have to be careful here.
- Given our Analogy of Faith study, it is clear that Paul teaches not every believer will perform miracles.
- But in our text, Jesus’ said “whoever believes” will do His works.
- So how can Jesus be referring to miracles in our text while at the same time not be referring to them?
I think the best way to look at it is as follows:
- We need to look at “works” as one coin with two sides.
- The coin needs both sides to be a coin – it can’t have just one side.
The two sides of the “works” coin, as we alluded to earlier, are:
- The “physicalness” or “form” side of works
- Walking on water
- The “spiritualness” or “function” side of works
- Glorifying God the Father
- Authenticating Jesus’ ministry and relationship to Father
You can’t divorce the two; they are inseparable.
- They are dependent on each other.
- As we saw, if you have the “physicalness” part of the work but not the “spiritualness” then Jesus said you are a “worker of lawlessness” because you are not operating under the “will of my Father”.
- And conversely, if you have the “spiritualness” part of the work but not the “physicalness” you are a “clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1) or a “hearer of the word and not a doer” (James 1:23).
- And in the case of Jesus, in the context of His ministry they were just as inseparable.
- John 2:11 (ESV) — 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
- John 11:4 (ESV) — 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
So the final answer to the works question I would suggest is:
- Jesus, in our text, is making a specific reference to the second side of the coin – the “spiritualness” or “function” of His works.
- Our “works” are the same as His in that they will share the same “function” or “spiritualness” as Jesus.
- In other words, they will glorify God.
How will we do this?
- In other words, what will the “form” or “physicalness” of our work be?
- This is where we see the importance of Jesus’ qualification – “because I am going to the Father”.
- The answer to question 3b.
- This exaltation of Jesus is why our “works” will glorify the Father.
- His work of the Gospel is done; “it is finished”.
- He has been vindicated and inaugurated the Kingdom of God.
- And so He has commissioned us to speak the Gospel; to be His emissaries.
- Speaking the Gospel is the form our “works” are to take.
- And because He intercedes for us and has given us the Spirit (John 14:16), our works will be “greater works”.
- Further elaboration to question 2.
So we have now attempted to answer all the questions.
- It is time to evaluate our answers against the commentaries.
ESV Study Bible:
“While ‘signs’ in John are characteristically miracles that attest to Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God, and that lead unbelievers to faith (see note on 2:11), Jesus’ “works” include both his miracles (see 7:21) and his other activities and teachings, including the whole of his ministry” – ESV Study Bible.
Not bad, but I think this is an oversimplification.
- We are concerned with the meaning in our context, not a broad, all inclusive definition.
- Highlights a drawback of Study Bibles – they don’t show “their work”.
- Why are they “his other activities”?
MacArthur Study Bible:
“Jesus did not mean greater works in power, but in extent. They would become witnesses to all the world through the power of the indwelling and infilling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8) and would bring many to salvation because of the Comforter dwelling in them. The focus is on spiritual rather than physical miracles” – MacArthur Study Bible.
Our conclusions seem very similar – “spiritual” over “physical”.
“In the context of John’s Gospel, however, “greater things” has primarily a qualitative dimension, marking Jesus’ “signs” as preliminary and his disciples’ ministry as “greater” in the sense that their ministry is based on Jesus’ completed cross-work” – Kostenberger.
Kostenberger doesn’t attempt to define “works”.
- But our conclusions about “greater works” are very similar – qualitative and not quantitative.
“The things (erga, ‘works’, cf. v. 11) Jesus has been doing, and the greater things that follow, cannot legitimately be restricted to deeds of humility (13:15) or acts of love (13:34–35), still less to proclamation of Jesus’ ‘words’ (v. 10) Jesus’ ‘works’ may include more than his miracles; they never exclude them” – D.A. Carson.
This comment is somewhat different than the ESV Study Bible’s take.
- Our conclusions are very similar – can’t exclude works, but is more than works.
And with respect to greater works, D.A. Carson says, “It cannot simply mean more works”.
- “The very basis for their greater works is his going to the Father. Their works become greater precisely because of the new order that has come about consequent on his going to the Father” – D.A. Carson.
- In other works, it is not quantitative but qualitative – works rooted in Jesus’ exaltation.
“‘the works that I do,’ in v 12a are clearly his miraculous works, the “signs” of the ministry which have featured so largely in the so-called “Book of Signs,” chaps. 2–12. It is illegitimate to identify them with the “word” of Jesus on the ground of the close connection of word and works in v 10bc; v 11b, with its parallel in 10:37–38, shows quite plainly that works performed by Jesus that confirm the word spoken by him are in mind” – Beasley-Murray.
This comment is also somewhat different than the ESV Study Bible.
- Our conclusions are the exact same.
- He rightly considered the use of the word in the preceding verse.
He goes on to say:
“Is the point in view rather the conveying to people of the spiritual realities of which the works Of Jesus are “signs”? All the works of Jesus are significant of the saving sovereignty of God at work among humankind through the eschatological Redeemer. The main reality to which they point, and which makes their testimony a set of variations on a single theme, is the life eternal of the kingdom of God through Jesus its mediator” – Beasley-Murray.
Exactly what our conclusions suggest.
“But those physical miracles were not primarily what Jesus had in mind, since the apostles did not do more powerful miracles than He had. When the Lord spoke of His followers performing greater works, He was referring to the extent of the spiritual miracle of salvation” – MacArthur.
Again, our conclusions seem in line with this.
“There are only two approaches to this verse other than saying that Jesus was simply mistaken. The first takes it as referring to miracles but then either limits the reference [referring to only the disciples] or seeks to explain why such miracles are not done today [we don’t have enough faith]” – James Boice.
He goes on to argue that both of these are wrong, in his view.
“Why, for instance, should the physical miracles be considered “great” at all? Why should this be the thing Jesus refers to? One clue that it is not comes from Luke 10, in a passage that gives Christ’s response to the disciples after they had returned from their first successful preaching mission. They had returned, we are told, “with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name’ ” (v. 17). In other words, they were thrilled that they had been able to cast out devils. But Jesus replied, “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (vv. 19–20). Here Jesus explicitly weighed the value of physical miracles over against the value of having passed out of spiritual death into salvation and chose the spiritual miracle without hesitation. If that is so in Luke 10, why should it not be so also in our text from the last discourses?” – James Boice.
Our conclusions are the exact same.
- “spiritualness”/“function” over “physicalness”/“form”
“So whatever the specific works are that Jesus has in mind, what defines them here is that they are pointers to Jesus which help people believe in him. They are a witness along with Jesus words that lead people to faith. That’s what his works do, and he is saying, at least, that’s what all believers’ works do. “Whoever believes in me will do the works I do” — the works that point people to faith. If you are a believer in Jesus, that’s what your life is. Your works, your life is a display of the trustworthiness of Jesus. Here’s another support for this. If we search for the exact phrase in verse 12a, “the works that I do”, it occurs in one other place in John, namely John 10:25, “Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me.” So again the function of the “works” in John 10:25 is exactly the same as here in John 14:11–12. My works are the things I do that bear witness about me. So at least we can say with confidence that in John 14:12a Jesus means that all believers will be marked by this: they will be so united to Jesus that they will carry on his work by his power and do the kinds of things that will “bear witness” about Jesus. They will point people to Jesus, and through Jesus to the Father” – John Piper.
This echoes our conclusions – bearing witness is speaking the Gospel.
- We also made the connection – Jesus Works=Reasons to Believe in our word study using the same verses.
- And of course pointing to Jesus, the object of belief, is the “spiritualness” over the “physicalness”.
- He is the real food… “food that endures to eternal life” (see our Analogy of Faith discussion).
Lessons for Us:
So it appears we did all right preparing a Bible lesson without going to commentaries first.
- This is the beauty of good Bible Study.
- You can figure this stuff out yourself.
- There is great satisfaction in this – not just in matching commentaries’ insights but primarily in learning God’s Word on a deep level.
- And the more you do it, the better you will get.
It is for these reasons I strongly encourage you to engage in this kind of study on a routine basis.
- Going straight for the answers in commentaries is of very little long term value.
- After all, in Acts we are taught to search the Scriptures!
- I hope this “behind the scenes” study was helpful.
BTW – Now that we have figured out what the text means, we can now safely see what it means for us.
- We can’t walk on water.
- But we can speak the Gospel powered by the Holy Spirit to the glory of the Father.