One of our Greek professors said that Greek should be like your underwear: it is important, you should have it, it should support you, but no one needs to see it. When I write posts on here I try to follow that principle, but today I must address Greek head-on. I have heard a lot of people recently challenge the common translation of the Great Commission with an appeal to the Greek participle used. So here is the Great Commission as you know and love it:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
The challenge is brought to the first word in verse 19: “Go”. We are told that in Greek this is a participle, not a command and therefore it could be read as “As you go,” or even “having gone.” I am not 100% sure what motivates the mention of Greek grammar, but usually it is applied in such a way as to imply that the Great Commission is just something that is done while we are going about living. Certainly, I agree that the Great Commission is fulfilled in all areas of life as we seek to evangelize to those around us, no matter where we are. However, I believe that we should understand this participle in the text as an imperative, thus sticking with “Go!” instead of “as you go.”
Before I get into the details, I feel like I should address the “who cares?” question. I feel like this issue is particularly important in light of global missions and therefore worth the discussion. It is important because we ought to obey Christ’s commands and I believe that Christ meant this as a command. Removing the command to “go” restricts the Great Commission to our present sphere of influence. And truthfully, no one has ever said, “Hey hon, as I go to the store to pick up milk I am going to stop by Cameroon and translate the Bible.” If everyone just stayed where they were, sought to be faithful to evangelize those around them, people would be saved, but we would be ignoring the “all nations” part of this passage. In order for us to “make disciples of all nations” we must GO! Some of us must leave our normal routine and travel to places that do not have the Gospel and bring it to them. And, if people in the church are anything like me, we are going to need a command. I would not be going to Cameroon if I thought that Matthew 28 just said “as you go” I would just stay in America.
Now, for the geeky (Greeky?) stuff. Greek participles are common in the New Testament. Here is an example:
Mark 2:14 παραγων ειδεν λευιν τον του αλφαιου
while going on, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus
The participle ‘while going on’ is merely explaining some action that is happening at the same time as the main verb ‘he saw.’ This is called a “temporal” participle and this is how people are interpreting our passage in Matthew 28: the “going” is just an action that is happening at the same time as the main verb “making disciples.” However, there are many different ways that participles are used in the New Testament. One great resource for information about grammar stuff like this is Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics. In it he describes a use of the participle called “attendant circumstance”, which is
used communicate an action that, in some sense, is coordinate with the finite verb…It is translated as a finite verb connected to the main verb by and. The participle then, in effect, “piggy-backs” on the mood of the main verb (p 640).
In other words, this type of participle should be considered as having the same function as the main verb. So, if the main verb is an imperative (like in Matthew 28:19), the participle should be translated as an imperative. Wallace lists different ways that you can identify these attendant circumstance participles and then gives examples. One of the examples he gives is our Matthew 28 passages. He says,
there is no good grammatical ground for giving the participle a mere temporal idea…Virtually all instances in narrative literature of aorist participle + aorist imperative involve an attendant circumstance participle. In Matthew, in particular, every other instance of the aorist participle of πορευομαι followed by an aorist main verb (either indicative or imperative) is clearly an attendant circumstance (p 645).
So, all that to say, if the participle that begins Matthew 28:19 is an attendant circumstance participle, and I believe it is, most English translations actually have it right. So, this is a long and geeky way to say, it should be translated “Go!”
Just in case there are those who are more nerdy than this post, a fuller description of this issue can be seen in a blog by Dr. Roy Ciampa of Gordon Conwell that you can read here: http://everythoughtcaptivearchive.blogspot.com/2008/08/as-you-go-make-disciples.html.
“All the Nations”
One of my advisers pointed out to me that regardless of how we translate the participle in this passage making disciples is still the most important thing. And in no way do I disagree with that. And there is no doubt that we are to make disciples wherever we are. Further, we could not be going to Cameroon without people who stayed here making disciples supporting us to go there to make disciples. The “go” command cannot mean that everyone moves overseas. But without a doubt Matthew 28 teaches that we are to make disciples of all nations. And without people moving to places where Christ is not known, we cannot obey this command. We are so thankful for all of those who are supporting us as we go out to make disciples in Cameroon. So thank you for helping us GO!