500 Words with John’s Gospel: Greater or Lesser

I came across a startling idea when reading John's Gospel and it has to do with greatness or greater. Great. Greater. Greatest. We have fun ways of delineating hierarchy in the English language. I always enjoy seeing words like 'greater' in a text because it makes me wonder what's just 'great.'

It happens in John's Gospel on more than one occasion. I first saw it in chapter 1:51 when Jesus said that Nathanael would 'see greater things' than Jesus merely seeing him sitting under a fig tree. I saw it again in chapter 4 when Jesus was talking with a woman in Samaria (4:12) and in a discourse by Jesus in chapter 5 (20, 36), the latter of which Jesus says, "I have testimony greater than that of John." In chapter 8 someone asked Jesus if he is 'greater than Abraham' (8:53).

Jesus changes the perspective in chapter 10 when he notes for us that the Father..'is greater than all.' He tells his disciples in chapter 15:13 that there is no 'greater love' than to lay down your life for a friend and that 'servants are not greater than their masters' (15:20). Just before all this in chapter 14 Jesus said something interesting about those who follow him: "I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (14:12).

It's all very exciting. I should note that in each of those verses I cited Jesus used the same word for 'greater.' I don't know if that means anything in particular or not, but I note it simply to point out that Jesus was concerned about a hierarchy of people in the God-scheme of things: we rank somewhere far below Abraham, Jacob, John the Baptizer, Jesus, and the Father. Yet Jesus also says that because he is going to the Father we will do greater things than these. I'm not sure what the referent is for 'these', but it's at least interesting to know that Jesus is thinking about us: "All who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…" (14:12).

Well, that's exciting isn't it? We will do greater things. Greater things. Well, there's at least one other reference to 'greater' in John's Gospel that startles us back to reality–and we probably need that startling because it's very easy to start thinking like gods when we read that we will do greater things than these. It comes from, interestingly enough, from the mouth of John the Baptizer: "He must become greater; I must become less" (3:30).

I don't think we ought to pursue greatness. Maybe our greatness comes when we recognize that we ought to be lesser. Maybe we get too concerned about greatness. Maybe we need to focus on shrinking and when we do the greatness of the things we do will become more evident to the world around us. Until then, it's all so much selfish ambition.

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