13 December 2011

Third thoughts about Matthew 28:19 in Greek — a command, or not?

by Dan Phillips

This post may not equally be for everyone, though I think any believer can get something from it.

For awhile I had another blog presenting occasional Greek-themed posts. It was called Hellenisti ginoskeis: do you know Greek? I simply haven't had the time to update it regularly for years, though I would like to return to it some day.

This is an edited version of an early post from February of 2007. It is aimed primarily at pastors, but I don't think it will harm anyone else... except maybe dangerous pikers. Which isn't bad, and wouldn' really be "harm," would it?

In what is popularly called the Great Commission, our Lord says:
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,

πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος.... (Matthew 28:19)
Probably the KJV is still the most familiar rendering: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

A number of facets of this translation cry out for comment, but I will focus only on one: "Go ye therefore, and teach." Clearly to the English reader's eye, there are two commands here: (1) go ye, and (2) teach. On the first of these rest countless missionary conferences and sermons.

But when you start learning Greek, you notice that the verbal form of πορευθέντες (poreuthentes) is not imperative at all, as "Go ye" would lead one to expect. Nor, in fact, is it a finite verb of any sort. It is an aorist participle, of which the primer-form translation is "having {verb}ed." So luō is "I loose," and lusas would be "having loosed," and so forth. The imperative aorist in this case would have been πορεύθητι (poreuthēti). So a woodenly literal, first-year-primer translation of the text as it stands would be, "Having gone, therefore, disciple the nations."

So you think, "Well, I'll be. So Jesus assumes the going, and solely commands the making of disciples. There is only one command, one commission. The commission isn't to go, but to disciple."

The bare grammatical observation, of course, is true. The inference, not so much. That is, the form of the verb is undeniably that of an aorist participle... but the rest does not follow. While I have taught it that way (i.e. only one command) in years past, I've come to have third thoughts about the verse.

Repeated readings of Matthew in Greek highlighted to me a facet of Matthew's style of writing. That brother loved his aorist participles! In making my own rough translation, I was constantly writing, "Having X," or "after doing X." In fact, Matthew used this exact construction many times,  but with the semantic force of "do X and Y," and not of "after doing X, do Y."

For instance, take Matthew 2:20, where the angel tells Joseph,  "Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead." The word translated by the command "Rise" is not grammatically an imperative, but is another aorist participle (ἐγερθεὶς, egertheis).

If one were to be as woodenly literal with this text as I once proposed regarding Matthew 28:19, he would have to render: "After you get up, take the Child and His mother and go into the land of Israel." How likely is that? Is the angel really saying, "I don't care when or even whether you get up; but whenever you do get around to rolling out of bed, what I really want you to do is..."? Or is he not instead saying "get up, and go!"

Or again, in Matthew 21:2 the Lord says of the donkey and colt, "Untie them and bring them to me." But the command "Untie" translates the aorist participle λύσαντες (lusantes). Too literally, once again, it is "After loosing, lead to Me." But is that really His intent — "Whenever you get around to untying the donkey, here's what I want you to do"? Or is it not "Untie him, and lead him to Me"?

Check out a couple more, with the word translating an aorist participle bolded:
Matthew 22:13 Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot and cast him [δήσαντες αὐτοῦ πόδας καὶ χεῖρας ἐκβάλετε αὐτὸν] into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

Matthew 28:7 Then go quickly and tell [καὶ ταχὺ πορευθεῖσαι εἴπατε] his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you."
That last one is very significant for this study, because (A) it comes just shortly before our target-verse, and (B) the form is very similar. If we are going to insist that v. 19 carries no imperative to "go," then we must say the same of v. 7. (Other examples are found in Matt. 9:18 and 11:14, as well as Lk. 13:32; 17:8, 14; 19:30; Acts 9:11; 16:9, 15.)

Now, having noticed this, I then checked The Experts. Indeed, Greek Jedi-master Dan Wallace comments on the same phenomenon, referring to this as an "attendant circumstance participle" (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 640). Wallace explains:
The attendant circumstance participle is used to communicate an action that, in some sense, is coordinate with the finite verb. In this respect it is not dependent, for it is translated like a verb. Yet it is still dependent semanti­cally, because it cannot exist without the main 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. This usage is relatively com­mon, but widely misunderstood.
So in sum, it is true that disciple is the principle command in Matthew 28:19, but the discipling necessitates going. Both are encompassed. After all, the direct object is the nations, and they are principally located elsewhere. The apostles are to disciple the nations and, to do that, they must go. Why must they? Because Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, and not merely in Israel (v. 18). He owns it all, He has rights to all of it; therefore, His church must bring the Gospel and His commands through all of it.

And now... you know that!

Dan Phillips's signature


G N Barkman said...


Thanks for an excellent explanation of a puzzling passage.

Tom Chantry said...

Nice, tidy study, Dan, and a point well made.

I have a question, not disagreeing, but building off what you've pointed out here. Should we stop at saying, "here is a construction Matthew loves to use for double commands," or should we rather look for some further meaning in the construction? Does Christ mean to imply an assumption that His people will begin their obedience immediately?

The grammatical construction is different, but in Matthew 6:5 Jesus doesn't command His disciples to pray; he assumes that they are praying people and gives further imperatives for their prayer. Is there something in this?

When dealing with a recalcitrant child, you might give a terse set of imperatives: "Go upstairs. Brush your teeth. Go to bed." On the other hand, a softer way of addressing another child - one who by his compliant nature usually obeys - "It's time for bed; when you've gone upstairs, don't forget to brush your teeth." Some of the commands only need to be implied.

Your post set me to wondering whether Christ is implying something about those who follow Him in the manner in which He expresses commands. His people are those who are already walking the path of obedience.

Then again, maybe it's just Matthew's manner of expression. I'm only speculating.

Unknown said...

Long time listener, first time caller. Follow up question on construction based on what I remember from my NT Greek class (c.1995-1996?): We were taught that "make disciples" is the imperative, and that "baptizing" and "teaching to obey" are participles, perhaps similar to "go." Is that correct, and would then the application of "baptizing" and "making disciples" be similar to "go", or different based on the position (i.e. positioned after "make disciples" rather than before in the sentence?

DJP said...

Good question, Jeff. Thanks for de-cloaking. (c:

Those two are present-tense participles. They unfold what it means to make disciples: it involves immersing converts, and teaching them.

So you could wrap it up, I think, but saying that the aorist participle ("Go") is the mandatory premise, and the present participles ("immersing...and teaching") are how it's done.

Ken said...

Excellent Dan!

This is much better than the passive sort of way that many have taught this, "as you go".

Yes, the first participle has command force, "go and disciple all nations"

the second two are adverbial participles of manner or method "by" - nations are discipled

by baptizing (which includes preaching and evangelizing; and the nations -ethnos (ethnities, peoples, people groups, cultures, languages - Rev. 5:9) - means culture and language learning as applications.

by teaching

And the nations cannot be discipled without the going part either, they are also parallel and indicate methods by which we "disciple all nations":

by going
by baptizing
by teaching

disciple all nations

But since the "going" is Aorist, and first, it has that command force and nuance that your article so excellently explicates.

Thanks again, brother.

Anonymous said...

Nice post Dan. Thanks!

donsands said...

Thanks for the labor in the Word. Made me think of Peter walking on water:

"Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus."

Kala Hristouyienna Dan!

Allen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sir Brass said...

Formatting comment (but a good one). YAY for romanizing the greek words next to the greek itself! Thanks, Dan!

DJP said...

Trying to be mindful of the weaker brother.


Five Solas said...

Great article.

Yes, there's a participle, but syntactically it is an imperatival participle. which is why every major translation rightly translates the participle "going" as an imperative in English.

DJP said...

Yes, the bottom line is that the translation is correct, with the nuance that the dominant imperative is to make disciples (by immersing and teaching), which requires that we go, which is legit because Jesus is Lord of all.


Anonymous said...

This also looks like the specified and implied task distinction. Some tasks are specifically stated but to accomplish those others are assumed (implied).

Unknown said...

This was exceedingly helpful. Thanks for making the effort and taking the time.

mark pierson said...

After considering your "third thoughts", I ask you what percentage of Christians should leave for the foreign mission field? Do these "third thoughts" of yours make you rethink your responses to Piper when he shared his conviction that many more American Christians should be on the foreign field than there are? Many Christians have been challenged with these kinds of questions, the late Keith Greene having dealt with them back in the early '80's.

Robert said...

I like that you state "that the dominant imperative is to make disciples", as this helps to keep from being muddled in missiology. We can't just go and evangelize...we need to teach and edify. We aren't commanded to baptize them and then just head out for a new group to evangelize. We are supposed to make disciples by baptizing and teaching people to observe all that Jesus commanded. And that is hard to do in a short amount of time.

Also, trying to determine a percentage of people that need to go to foreign countries sounds a little legalistic to me. I'm not saying that maybe more people shouldn't go, but that we shouldn't be trying to set a number that is acceptable. Every person should act according to the conviction that they feel under the direction of the Holy Spirit from reading Scripture and prayerful meditation upon Scripture. Who is to say that there are enough people looking to make disciples here in the US? There is surely a large mission field here...especially among the large population of nominal Christians.

DJP said...

100% of Christians not living in Jerusalem are already in the mission field, Biblically defined (Acts 1:8). That leaves room for individuals' desire and efforts to continue pressing the borders, a desire Paul expressed (Rom. 15:20-21) but never made a universal moral imperative. I don't see a need to "improve" on what the Bible says in that regard.

DJP said...

Yes, Robert. Churches (for instance) who simply preach evangelistic sermons Sunday after Sunday in the name of the Great Commission are like pastors who conduct bunches of weddings in the name of having a "family ministry."

Tom Chantry said...

100% of Christians not living in Jerusalem are already in the mission field...

I've told my people that Milwaukee is the ends of the earth. They usually laugh, because I usually say it in winter, but I'm serious. Think about it; the apostles could not have even imagined Milwaukee - geographically, climatically, culturally, or linguistically. Yet here we are, preaching and practicing the words of the apostles.

It is actually a great encouragement. The church has done and is doing what Christ commanded to a degree far greater than the apostles could have imagined. That is only possible if the church serves "Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think."

DJP said...

Yep, Chantry. Don't get me started on people who (A) don't personally evangelize where they are, (B) never have personally evangelized where they are, but (C) want to lay massive guilt trips on other Christians who may or may not be evangelizing where they are that they must flee for other parts to do there what still needs doing here.

Oh, I didn't ignore your earlier question, btw. Just haven't thought of a great answer, yet. Love your example, though.

Tom Chantry said...

Thanks, DJP.

re. Guilt-Trips; I'm with you, and would only clarify that, as per Robert's earlier comment, "evangelize" where you are means "apply the gospel to hearts" - through initial witness, teaching, and edification. Not that I need to tell you that.

re. my earlier comment - I'm still trying to decide if it's on point or not. I find it grammatically intriguing that the commands of Jesus are at once more stringent in content than those of Moses and yet somewhat softer in expression. It's something I've been muddling around about for some time. I just don't know whether this example has much to do with it or not.

Stephen said...

I think Dan Wallace (I don't have his book but I have similar resources) would say the two present tense participles would be used in an "adverbial manner" sense, that is, they give the "how" of the main verb "to disciple."

I was told in my beginning Greek class (in Attic, Platonian Greek, not Koine or NT, though I think the pattern holds in NT) that Greek writers in general did not like to string together consecutive or simultaneous action in a narrative with finite verbs, but instead would use participles for all but the terminating verb. English would say "I got dressed, went to the store, and bought groceries." Greek would say, "Having gotten dressed and gone to the store, I bought groceries." Often in the Gospels (I think John is most prominent) the narrator will say literally "Having answered, he said" when we should translate simply "He answered." The same is true of this participle here.

Responding to your old commenter CSB on the greek blog, I would agree that Matt 6:7 does not apply, not because the participle is not aorist, but because it is not the same tense as the main verb. In addition, the main verb is an aorist subjunctive + , which while having essentially the same force as an imperative, I don't think it can take attendant circumstance (or other constructions) like the more primary ind/imper moods can.

mark pierson said...

"100% of Christians not living in Jerusalem are already in the mission field, Biblically defined (Acts 1:8)."

Never looked at it that way. Thanks. Oh, and btw, I do evangelize where I am, just so you know...

DJP said...

< chuckling > Good, God bless you as you do, Mark. I didn't assume otherwise!

Anonymous said...

The "go" does have the force of a command. No question. It's a common formula, a commission formula. The "as you go" business is nonsense, from people who have studied Greek, but who evidently don't read much Greek.

Ken said...

The "guilt trip" comments are noted - agreed – good comment on Acts 1:8
- people who are not witnessing in their own culture should not be going to another and think they are going to witness and evangelize there; and not everyone will go to a different nation; the key is to see the 3 plural participles and the plural command to all the apostles as a whole, not individually - you (Plural) make disciples; and the disciples make up the church as a whole, so the command today is to the whole church, and yet some will be goers and some will be senders.

Most will be senders; whether going or sending, the command is to the whole church.

Acts 13:1-4 - the church and the Holy Spirit sent them out.
Acts 14:21-23 - only other time this verb "to disciple" is used outside of Matthew. Includes evangelism, teaching, encouraging, strengthening, and appointing elders.

Romans 10:13-15 - how can they preach unless they are sent?

DJP said...

Knowing I write for people who are smarter than I am keeps me on my toes. Thanks!

Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks, Dan.

I love the English Bible, but I really love these kinds of insights that come from the literal words as they were breathed and intended by the Lord.

God's Words. His. Actual.

I still RSS-subscribe to your Greek site, Dan, and look forward to those future posts.

If one is hungry for the Lord as revealed in His Word, I don't get how one can not enjoy a nicely prepared snack from the Greek of His mind.

Dan, sidenote: When I think of Dan Wallace, I think of the NET Bible, which is heavily influenced by him. It's a really good resource with lots of Greek clarifications.

DJP said...

NET footnotes are 'WAYYYY better than the translation itself.

You know, I think there are people who would give my posts 1 star if all I did were post John 3:16.


Solameanie said...

I forgot the stars again. Dern it all!!!! ;((

APM said...

"So in sum, it is true that disciple is the principle command"

For us pathetically remedial Greek students: Would it be correct to assume that this is a general rule when noting the aorist use? i.e. Can one generally assume that the aorist use is subordinate to principal commands? Or specifically just in Matthew's writings?

I know you're not making a hard and fast rule. I’m just curious if this concept is worth filing away mentally- or if the textual work would have to be done on a case by case basis.

Dan- might wanna consider a regular "Open Letter to Struggling Greek/Hebrew Students" posting on pyro. Especially some textual issues that would be pertinent to some of the hot topics being dealt with.

Methinks this is good stuff.

Kerry James Allen said...

"Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for." Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Steve said...

Thanks, Dan! Now I can point people elsewhere when I explain that the "as you are going" interpretation in Matt 28:19 evidences just enough Greek to be dangerous.

Also, great observations on the relationship between Matt 28:19-20, Acts 1:8, and Rom 15 in the comments. I get wearied over manipulative expositions of Acts 1:8 with "Jerusalem is our community... etc., etc." Sacramento is the ends of the earth!

Press on, brother. Great post.

DJP said...

" Sacramento is the ends of the earth!"

Among many other things. You know it, bro.

Ken said...

Can one generally assume that the aorist use is subordinate to principal commands?

Not because it is aorist, but because it is a participle, an adverbial participle, "going" that helps with the main verb that is an Imperative Active verb, "disciple" - "to disciple" is in Active voice, whereas going, baptizing, and teaching are all participles (helping verbal forms) that all relate back to the main verb, Make disciples. (in "going", it relates forward to "disciple". Hope that helps.

DJP said...

BTW, just as an encouragement and a prod, to apply as fits:

Though I could have gotten this from reading a grammar, I didn't. Reading grammars is good, do not misunderstand me. But nothing substitutes from reading the Greek NT over and over and over... and that's how I noticed this. Just started standing out as I read through Matthew in Greek for the ___th time.

So, brother, you don't need to be Dr. X or Prof. Y. Just love the Word, and read it as given by God. Again and again. With your heart prayed up, eyes open, brainium engaged.

DJP said...

BTW, just as an encouragement and a prod, to apply as fits:

Though I could have gotten this from reading a grammar, I didn't. Reading grammars is good, do not misunderstand me. But there is no substitute for reading the Greek NT over and over and over... and that's how I noticed this. Just started standing out as I read through Matthew in Greek for the ___th time.

So, brother, you don't need to be Dr. X or Prof. Y. Just love the Word, and read it as given by God. Again and again. With your heart prayed up, eyes open, brainium engaged.

Ken said...

I wrote a post on your excellent post this morning -

Not many people have kept up their Greek reading as you have, Dan, after seminary. Praise God for that for you!

Can you read through the whole NT ?

Hebrews and Luke and Acts ? - those three books are the hardest, as they are higher Greek style.

but recognizing Syntactical structure is one of the most important things for exegetical preaching, and the structure of a sermon unfolds nicely when we study hard on that structure of a paragraph or verses.

Your Greek blog shows a very good grasp of that - in emphasis.

Linda said...

DJP said-"The imperative aorist in this case would have been πορεύθητι (poreuthēti). So a woodenly literal, first-year-primer translation of the text as it stands would be, "Having gone, therefore, disciple the nations."

In John 10:4 Jesus said- "When he has brought out all his own, (he goes on ahead of them,) and his sheep follow him because they know his voice."

Jesus has (gone ahead) of us so it would imply (Having gone)in Matthew 28:19

Brilliant if I understand what you've said. If I've missed your point I apologise

Dave .... said...

Awesome work Dan. This is a great example of the whole governing the parts. Too many times we settle for bite-sized understanding when God has made a feast available.

DJP said...

Thanks, Dave; you're very kind. In fact, all y'all are very kind.

Anonymous said...

I checked my resident expert, R.T. France. In his NICNT commentary he writes:

The sentence structure is of a main verb in the imperative, "make disciples," followed by two uncoordinated participles, "baptizing" and "teaching," which spell out the process of making disciples.

Anonymous said...

So my question is why don't translators translate it like that?

"God's Word" translates it as "So wherever you go, make disciples..."

Other than that, it's the same old way.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Beautiful, Dan.

Thomas Louw said...

I waited until it looked like all the “on topic” comments past.
Here is a sort of “off topic” question.
There is some scholars who believe the last part of Matthew 28 is actually like Marks longer ending, a later add on.
What is your take?

daniel vance said...

Just wanted to pile on the kudos. I majored in Bib Lang and have still struggled with this. Excellent insights. Thanks for your effort(s).

DJP said...

Daniel, that is very kind of you. Thanks very much.

Charlie J. Ray said...

Thanks for that concise but accurate discussion of the piggy back aorist participle or the attendant circumstance participle. It might be worth pointing out that the aorist tense does not occur in English and is not necessarily past tense. It can also have a punctiliar sense as in something happening at a specific point in time. In this case it is in union with the finite verb, the imperative to make disciples. So the aorist participle here also would appear to be an indication that the going and the discipling are one event taking place at one particular point in time. Taken that way there is no way one could be lolly gaggin' around until such time as one felt like going. The command is in union with the going, as your explanation of piggy backing indicates.

Herman Grobler said...

Dan, I absolutely love this post!
Though my Greek is somewhat rusty, you stress the importance of getting to the real meaning of what God intended to say when He had his will written down in black and white. We often base our understanding and interpretation on the translation we favor and neglect to study the real meaning. Thank you.
Herman Grobler

Herman Grobler said...

Well said Dan, We so often make our own conclusions on our understanding of the translation we use without looking at the true meaning of what God intended originally. I discovered my mistake when I was asked advice concerning fasting and found that the verse of Scripture had been added to the Bible 500 years after the original had been written. I started looking at the reasons for the differences between older versions like the KJV and modern versions like the NIV, and started a blog www.bibledifferences.com on the subject. Reading this post confirms the importance of keeping Greek at least at a workable level or consulting with experts like yourselves. Thanks!
Herman Grobler.

DJP said...

That's kind of you, Herman, but I have to rush in and say I am not an expert. I suppose I have a twofold purpose in a post like this, aiming at the difficult target of combining a warning with an encouragement.

The warning is not to settle for truisms we learn in first-year Greek (or worse) and never to advance beyond them. Many errors are born there.

The encouragement is precisely because I'm not an expert like Dan Wallace or Matt Harmon or other brothers are experts. I'm just a guy who's read his Greek NT basically every day for 38 years. This is a thing I noticed in reading the GNT, not in reading a grammar. So, while I absolutely do encourage studying and using grammars, I'm just saying KEEP READING, and the text will teach.

After all, in the final analysis, that's what the experts do, too.