The Great Commission or the Great Suggestion?

I don’t know the source, but I suspect it is from a Christian magazine article written in the last 75 years. My guess is that this idea would have found fertile soil during the Great Depression (when funds were definitely low and excuses for lack of action could be high; for a parallel, see Jas 2.1-13). There’s a myth foisted on the Christian public about the meaning of the Great Commission (Matt 28.19-20). It goes something like this: “In the Greek, the word translated ‘Go’ is really a participle and it literally means, ‘as you are going.’ But the words ‘make disciples’ are an imperative in Greek. That’s the only imperative in these two verses. Therefore, the Great Commission is not a command to go; rather, it is a command to make disciples as you are going, or make disciples along the way.” The exposition based on this understanding of the Greek text then attempts to salve the consciences of the congregation, permitting them to do nothing about the lost if it at all means going out of their way.

There are two major problems with this treatment of Matt 28.19-20. First, it is a misunderstanding of the Greek. Second, it is a misunderstanding of the historical context. This blog will deal with the first issue.

As for the Greek, it is true that the word translated ‘go’ is a participle. But it is not a present participle, which is the one that would be required if the meaning were ‘as you are going.’ It is an aorist participle, πορευθέντες (poreuthentes). As such, it hardly means ‘as you are going’ or ‘while you are going.’ The basic idea would be ‘after you have gone,’ and as such would presuppose that one would have gone forth before making disciples. But in collocation with certain kinds of verbs this basic meaning is altered. When an aorist participle is followed by an aorist imperative in narrative literature, it almost invariably piggy-backs on the force of the imperative. That is, it is translated like an imperative because the author is trying to communicate a command.

A great illustration of this is found in Matt 2.13-14: “‘Get up and take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.’ Then he got up and took the child and his mother during the night, and fled to Egypt.” In v. 13, “Get up and take” is a translation of an aorist participle followed by an aorist imperative. That the reader is to understand that this was a dual command is seen in the fact that Joseph got up during the night and fled to Egypt. The urgency was not in taking Jesus and Mary only; it was in getting up quickly, then taking the child and his mother out of Bethlehem.

The construction in which the participle and verb combine so that the participle borrows from the mood of the main verb is known as attendant circumstance.

With the same participle as is found in Matt 28.19, we see this idea repeated elsewhere in Matthew. Here are all of the passages in Matthew of the aorist participle of poreuomai followed by an aorist imperative (each time the translation of the participle is italicized):

  • Matt 2.8: “Go and look carefully for the child.”
  • Matt 9.13: “Go and learn what this means.”
  • Matt 11.4: “Go and tell John what you hear and see.”
  • Matt 17.27: “Go to the lake and throw out a hook”
  • Matt 28.7: “Go quickly and tell his disciples”
  • Matt 28.19: “Go and make disciples”

Matthew 9.13 even has both the same participle and the same imperative as Matt 28.19. What you will notice is that in every instance the main idea is what the imperative says (look carefully, learn, tell John, throw out a hook, tell his disciples). But the participle is never to be taken in a casual sense of ‘as you are going.’

However, when the present participle of poreuomai is used, the idea of ‘as you are going’ is indeed found. Here are all the references in Matthew (with the translation of the participle in italics):

  • Matt 10.7: “As you go, preach this message”
  • Matt 11.7: “While they were going away, Jesus began…”
  • Matt 28.11: “While they were going, some of the guard went into the city…”

Check any English translation. They should all tell the same story. If Matthew had wanted to say ‘as you are going, make disciples’ he would have used the present participle of poreuomai instead of the aorist. In every other instance when the aorist participle is followed by an imperative in Matthew, the force of the participle is a command. However, you should also notice that the command to go is a necessary prerequisite for fulfilling the main injunction in the sentence. It cannot be dispensed with, but neither is it the main point. This is why Greek uses the participle instead of two imperatives: the second imperative is almost invariably the main point, while the aorist participle is the necessary prerequisite. For example, Peter could not throw a hook in the lake until he went to the lake (Matt 17.27); the women could not tell Jesus’ disciples that he had been raised from the dead until they went (Matt 28.7). How does this relate to the Great Commission? Essentially, it means that the apostles must go before they could make disciples.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that grammar is inconsequential! Matthew’s grammar paints a picture and urges an action, and we seriously err if we neglect what our Lord is really teaching at the end of this Gospel.

To learn more about the relevance of Greek grammar for the proper understanding of the New Testament, you might want to get a hold of my book, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996).

25 comments on “The Great Commission or the Great Suggestion?

  1. I guess this means you don’t take πορευεσθαι in Bezae as original… :-)

  2. Reblogged this on Pastoral musings and commented:
    A great post by Daniel Wallace. Another preacher’s favourite bites the dust! This also has major implications for the church’s thinking on mission.

  3. I had taken this passage in the incorrect manner that you state here which does seem, on the basis of textual evidence, to be wrong. But if so, would this mean that *everyone* is supposed to *go* and make disciples? In other words, this interpretation would seem to imply that everyone is to become a vocational missionary, at least in the way that this verse is typically used, where this verse is taken to applied individually (at least, that has been my impression). But that would seem to go against the practice of the early church where most of the people in the early church stayed where they were and only a few were sent out. Or is the imperative given to the church, as a whole, instead with missions, and a subset of believers being vocational missionaries, being a prime focus of the church? An easy answer would be to say “both”, but that might overstate what the verse is actually saying or cloud the issue.

    • Kevin, what you’re saying here is why so many have mistranslated this text: they swiftly move from interpretation to application. In fact, they don’t even interpret the text. And since it seems self-evident that we should not all become missionaries, this has a backlash effect on the translation. Here’s what’s happened: by way of realizing that the application of this passage cannot be that all believers should be on the mission field, exegetes, pastors, and theologians have felt that the text was mistranslated. So, they introduce the grammatically improbable “as you are going” into the translation. In my next blog (part 2 on the Great Commission) I will distinguish between what the text meant and how it applies to us today. Stay tuned.

  4. Another profound and penetrating insights of yours Dr. Dan… we will wait for the second part of this eye-opening contribution on the Great Commission…

  5. […] Wallace is busting myths over at his blog. The latest myth busted is one related to the “true” meaning of the Great Commission in Matthew […]

  6. If it were a present participle, it still wouldn’t excuse anyone from failure to evangelize. It would simply mean “While you are going…” i.e., in each and every context in which you find yourself. Looking forward to your next post on this subject…

  7. Even if it were a present participle, it wouldn’t mean that one gets excused from evangelism. πορευόμενοι, “As you go,” could easily be interpreted to mean “in each and every context you find yourself…”

  8. Thank you, this is very helpful. I can’t count the number of times I have heard the “as you are going” interpretation. It seems strange that people automatically assume that if the text is to interpreted as you are suggesting, that it would mean that all people are to become vocational missionaries. Hopefully part two will address the extent of going to the nations as required by every believer. I certainly think that it does but not necessarily vocationally.

  9. This is a great reminder to always be suspicious (meaning do your own homework and verify) when a pastor/teacher says, “it’s not translated this way, but here’s what it REALLY means…”

    • Brent, this is a great insight . We should be especially wary when we view major translations and they all agree against such insight!

      • This does require an “amen.” It never ceases to surprise me how people with Strong’s Concordance and a reference grammer (if that) can come up with insights better than folks who have studied and worked with the languages for the better part of a lifetime

  10. […] Daniel Wallace on The Great Commission or the Great Suggestion?: […]

  11. Great grammatical analysis. Thank you very much. I am looking forward to your modern day application. I believe this commission applies to all Christians with no exception, though it doesn’t mean that everybody must become a missioner. All of us can promote the Gospel locally.

  12. I think the “great commission” will find its true fulfillment in the Millennium, Several reasons for my view: people who are to be baptized and discipled must first be born-again or there’s no point in doing either. Jesus of course knew this. Baptism and instruction in all things that Jesus taught would fit most wonderfully with the idea of Jewish believers baptizing and instructing Gentile believers in the millennium. God’s original purpose for Israel was for them to be a light to the nations. Here is where that will happen.

    It’s well to remember also the 12 Apostles of the Lamb (a singular group: Revelation 21:14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.) were promised this in Matthew 19:28:
    Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” That time will be the millennium.

    “All” that Jesus taught while on earth included Kingdom teaching, or how to live in a perfect society. Its simply inappropriate to try and teach Kingdom living to the church today. The church is a new creation, inhabited by the Holy Spirit with its own instructions.

    So should the church evangelize? Of course, but forget “making disciples” (a term never used by Paul) and simply tell about Jesus and His salvation. Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

    Please note the absence of the key factors of the “great commission”. Paul could be accused of misunderstanding the great commission except we know he is appointed by Jesus Christ to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. Acts 1:17 “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

    You will not find Paul teaching obedience to the Beatitudes to the Church but rather encouraging them to grow in grace that they might produce the fruit of the Spirit.

    The churches blather a lot about making disciples (a term fit for Kingdom than Church) but we see precious little of true discipleship.

    I think the church should get back to the idea of actually feeding the starving saved souls of the church with the word of grace and forget so called “discipleship”. Paul had a sure fire spiritual formula for growth in Christ: Acts 20:32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
    Branches produce fruit by imbibing from the vine. Jesus told Peter, “Feed My lambs and my sheep.” He didn’t say, “Bleed them and He certainly didn’t say “beat them” with the great commission or any other spiritual club.

  13. […] Part 1: The Great Commission or the Great Suggestion? […]

  14. […] thought about this recently because of Daniel Wallace’s blog on this subject which I happened to read after I had read Matthew 28. (Wallace is the author of […]

  15. since this participle is in aorist, so it is anticidant to the main verb, so i feel it has to be translated plainly as after you had gone, make disciple. And yet, this participle conveys the sense of command, because without going how can one disciple to others.

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