Review of Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament Bundle (Logos Bible Software)

As would be expected from anything produced by Steven Runge, this is a most useful tool. It is intended to help readers understand why an author chooses the forms he does to convey meaning. Discourse grammar has become an increasingly helpful approach in the last few years to supplement standard grammars. It does not replace traditional grammars, but supplements them. Occasionally, discourse grammars, including this one from Logos, will see meaning in the wrong places. For example, the illustration of the use of the participle like an indicative verb conveying some meaning that is somehow different from an indicative may be overplayed (repeatedly mentioned in the Introduction). The participle used as an indicative verb is quite rare in the NT, never seems to occur in classical Greek, and is most likely due to Semitic influence. Most of the NT examples occur in the Apocalypse, a book whose author R. H. Charles famously described as “thinking in Hebrew but writing in Greek.” Whether there is any meaning beyond revealing the author’s linguistic capacity is not a given. The same can be said for countless other grammatical phenomena in the NT (e.g., paratactic structure in Mark, anacolutha in Paul, redundant pronouns in John). Nevertheless, used with caution, discourse grammar can be extremely valuable.

On the BDF revision committee (now defunct due to the deaths of Robert W. Funk and Daryl D. Schmidt [chairman of the committee]), the team of scholars discussed for many years how best to approach the revision. One of the approaches was to include a section on semantics as a cross-reference tool so that the user could learn about the features of the Greek NT through two routes: (1) textual route, in which the student reads the text and then uses the grammar to determine meaning of the syntactical phenomena; (2) meaning route, in which the student inquires about things like how to express purpose, possession, commands, etc. This comes close to what discourse grammar does, though discourse grammar has made quite a few advances over the narrowly-defined categories of meaning that grammarians typically work with.

The main body of the six-volume work is discourse analysis of the Greek NT, seriatim from Matthew 1 through Revelation 22. There’s also a helpful introductory volume and a glossary.

Below are illustrated some of the features.

 definitions in introductionDefinitions in Introduction

 display feature--minimalDisplay feature—minimal

 Rom 3.21-26 with minimal display features

Rom 3.21-26 with minimal display features

A few limitations of this approach should be noticed. For example, although μαρτυρουμένη in Rom 3.21 is mentioned as an elaboration, the user is not told what kind of participle it is. Whether it’s adjectival ([the righteousness of God…] which is being witnessed), adverbial (being witnessed), or more particularly concessive (although it is witnessed), is not discussed. Yet how this participle is taken affects the exegesis of the text. Notice that what πάντες in 3.22 and 23 relates to is not mentioned; this requires careful exegesis and a good understanding of Greek syntax to figure out.


Highlighting feature in Rom 3.22

Highlighting feature in Rom 3.22

Highlighting feature in Rom 3.23

Highlighting feature in Rom 3.23

 Rom 3.24--elaboration explained

Rom 3.24—’elaboration’ explained

The problem with this explanation is that not everyone sees the participle as subordinate and thus fitting into ‘elaboration’ (most, in fact, take it as an indicative participle), although see J. Will Johnston, “Which ‘All’ Sinned? Rom 3:23–24 Reconsidered,” Novum Testamentum 52 (2010) 1–12.

Display feature--everything

Display feature with everything checked

Rom 3.21-22 with maximum features displayed

Rom 3.21–22 with maximum features displayed

A wealth of data is here—either visually or at a click of the mouse.

In short, the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament is a tool whose time has come. Used in conjunction with traditional grammars, it can only strengthen one’s understanding of Hellenistic Greek and how the NT authors communicate meaning—every exegete’s dream!

It can be purchased here.

 

What Does “We are God’s fellow-workers” in 1 Corinthians 3.9 Really Mean?

Translations and Commentaries

The King James Version in 1 Cor 3.9 reads, “we are labourers together with God…” This unambiguously suggests that Paul and Apollos were considered in some sense on the same level with God. Of course, ‘in some sense’ covers a multitude of possibilities, but there nevertheless seems to be an underlying tone of synergism and mutual credit. (A similar translation is in the French Nouvelle Version2: “nous sommes ouvriers avec Dieu,” and in La Sacra Bibbia: “Noi siamo infatti collaboratori di Dio.”)

Most modern translations take a more neutral stance, translating 1 Cor 3.9a as “we are God’s fellow workers” (ASV [‘fellow-workers’], RSV, NASB and NASB 1995, NKJV, ESV, NIV), “we are God’s coworkers (HCSB, TNIV, and NAB2 [‘co-workers’; 2010]), “we do share in God’s work” (NJB), “wir sind Gottes Mitarbeiter” (Luther 1985), or “nosotros somos colaboradores de Dios” (Reina Valera2).

But some translations take a different interpretation. The NET Bible has, “we are coworkers belonging to God”; the REB says, “we are fellow-workers in God’s service”; the NIV 2011 reads, “we are coworkers in God’s service”; the TEV has, “we are partners together working for God”; the NRSV reads, “we are God’s servants, working together”; and “we are both God’s workers” is in the NLT2.

Thus, we see in the translations three different views: (1) Paul and Apollos are co-workers with God; (2) the statement is ambiguous, though tending toward the first view; and (3) Paul and Apollos are co-workers with each other in service to God.

Commentaries overwhelmingly fall into the third group, with some supporting the first interpretation. In the first group belong Theodore of Mopsuestia, Calvin, and Robertson and Plummer (ICC). In the third are Findlay (Expositors), Moffatt (Moffatt NTC), Barrett (BNT), Héring, Fee (NICNT), Kistemaker, Furnish (JBL 80 [1961]), Wolff (THKNT), Horsley (Abingdon), Collins (SP), Thiselton (NIGTC), and Keener (NCBC).

Significantly, if we were to chart out the translations and commentaries chronologically, we would see a tendency toward the neutral view (translations) and especially toward the third view (commentaries).

Table of Interpretations and Translations of 1 Cor 3.9

co-workers

with God

God’s co-workers

co-workers

for God

Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428)

Calvin (1546)

KJV (1611, 1769)

Findlay (1900)

ASV (1901)

Robertson and Plummer (19142)

Moffatt (1938)

RSV (1952, 1971; slight variation)

Reina Valera (19602)

NASB (1960–1977)

Furnish (1961)

Héring (1962)

TEV (1968–1992)

Barrett (19712)

Nouvelle Version2 (1978)

NKJV (1982)

NIV (1984)

Luther2 (1985)

Fee (1987)

NRSV (1989)

REB (1989)

NJB (1990)

Kistemaker (1993)

La Sacra Bibbia (1994)

NASB 1995

Wolff (1996)

Horsley (1998)

HCSB (1999)

Collins (1999)

Thiselton (2000)

ESV (2001)

TNIV (2001)

NLT2 (2004)

NET (2005)

Keener (2005)

NAB2 (2010)

Totals

6

13

19

Thus, of the 38 works perused, half see Paul and Apollos as co-servants only with each other, both working for God. The latest authority that sees them as co-workers with God was in 1978, a French translation of the Bible. The latest source for this view in English was the ICC commentary by Robertson and Plummer in 1914. From 1938 on, every commentary consulted regarded Paul and Apollos to be in the service of God. To be sure, this is hardly a representative sampling; it represents only the works I have at hand in my personal library. I understand that Weiss (1910), Davies (1972), and H. D. Betz (1986) all adopted the first view (according to John G. Lewis [DPhil, Oxford, 2003] who also takes this position), but I have not verified it yet. See also Victor Paul Furnish, “Fellow Workers in God’s Service,” JBL 80 (1961) 364 (whole article, 364–70), who adds Lightfoot and Wendland as supporters of the first interpretation, and Heinrici and Parry as supporters of the third.

Issues in Greek Grammar

Fee, Thiselton, and Furnish give some of the strongest arguments for taking the genitive θεοῦ as possessive or purpose (‘for God’) here, which center on the flow of argument in the context. But not one of the works examined gives any grammatical parallels to this understanding of the text. The normal Greek rule is that a genitive attached to a συν-prefixed noun/substantive will be a genitive of association, and thus translated ‘with.’ In order for the third view to gain some traction, at least some clear examples need to be produced of a genitive dependent on a συν-prefixed noun which is other than associative. Otherwise, it is just wishful thinking. So, are there any instances of such a genitive?

(Excursus: The Role of Syntax in Exegesis)

The role that Greek syntax plays in exegesis is often neglected in exegetical literature. I would say, in fact, that for most exegetes, any meaningful discussion of syntax seems to be wrenched out of them, if discussed at all. Too frequently, commentators will appeal to the “context,” almost as though just uttering that word magically settles all issues. It’s as if the first one to utter this incantation wins the argument! But context is not a given; it must be construed. And if no syntactical parallels can be found to support an interpretation which may seem probable from the context, then the interpretation cannot be certain. Exegetes have long seen this when it comes to lexical studies. They know they can’t simply invent a meaning for a word that it never has elsewhere just because the context seems to favor it. They know they are on much more solid footing if they can find some parallels lexically, especially if they are in Hellenistic Greek. It would seem that syntax should play the same role, but curiously it almost never does. In this brief paper, my purpose is to illustrate, with parallels as close as I can determine, of συν-prefixed substantives with non-associative genitive modifiers. Only if such parallels can be produced can one then bring in the contextual arguments for 1 Cor 3.9.

Genitive of Association in Hellenistic Greek

New Testament

(All parallel references are in bold for ease in locating them.) In Rom 11.17, Paul speaks of the Gentiles as συγκοινωνὸς τῆς ῥίζης (“fellow-partakers of the root”). The Gentiles are seen as fellow-partaker with their Jewish counterparts of the root. The genitive is objective (‘partake of the root’). In 1 Cor 1.20 we read ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου; (“where is the debater of this age?”). The word ‘debater’ means, loosely, dialogue partner. The genitive is temporal. In 1 Cor 9.23 we read ἵνα συγκοινωνὸς αὐτοῦ γένωμαι (“so that I may become a participant in [the gospel]”). Again, an objective genitive. In 2 Cor 1.24 again the associative genitive is implied (συνεργοί ἐσμεν τῆς χαρᾶς ὑμῶν: “we are fellow-workers [with you] for your joy”). In Eph 3.6 the head noun takes an objective genitive once again: εἶναι τὰ ἔθνη … συμμέτοχα τῆς ἐπαγγελίας (“in order that the Gentiles might become … fellow partakers [with the Jewish believers] of the gospel”). In Acts 21.30 we read that the whole town was in an uproar and ἐγένετο συνδρομὴ τοῦ λαοῦ (lit., “there became a rushing together of the people”). The idea here is most likely subjective (“the people rushed together”). In 1 Peter 3.7 the men are instructed to treat their wives with all due respect because they are “fellow-heirs [with their wives] of the grace of life” (συγκληρονόμοις χάριτος ζωῆς).

In 1 Thess 3.2 we have a very interesting illustration. There Paul declares that Timothy is τὸν ἀδελφὸν ἡμῶν καὶ συνεργὸν τοῦ θεοῦ. This passage, like 1 Cor 3.9, has been understood in two different ways. Some take τοῦ θεοῦ as a genitive of association (“fellow-worker with God”), while others see it as possessive/purpose (“fellow-worker [with us], belonging to God/for God”). Many important witnesses read διάκονον τοῦ θεοῦ (“servant of God”) instead of συνεργὸν τοῦ θεοῦ; others have διάκονον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ συνεργὸν ἡμῶν (“servant of God and our fellow-worker”); both of these would eliminate the possibility of θεοῦ being an associative genitive. Assuming that the Nestle-Aland28’s text is autographic (in spite of it being poorly attested), the variants may have come about because of a desire to clarify the meaning while simultaneously eliminating one possible interpretation. In spite of the argument of some exegetes, it seems to be saying too much to argue that the variants arose because scribes were offended at the idea that Paul put himself and his colleagues on the same plane with God. An equally plausible interpretation is that here the scribes wanted to clarify that this was not Paul’s meaning, since the context was more ambiguous than 1 Cor 3.9’s context, and the scribes there saw clearly that Paul did not see a synergism between God and men. Since there are no variants listed there in the NA28 apparatus, scribes may well have seen Paul’s meaning here, as well, to be clearly against a divine-associative view.

Now, except for Acts 21.30 and 1 Thess 3.2 (both of which could possibly be construed otherwise), none of these is an illustration of a συν-prefixed noun with a personal dependent genitive. Yet this is precisely what we see in 1 Cor 3.9, which begs the question as to whether θεοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν συνεργοί really can mean “we are fellow-workers [with each other] for God.” But at least what the parallels have shown is that the genitive of association may, at times, be implied rather than stated, even when another genitive is related to the συν-prefixed noun. And this would be in line with seeing θεοῦ in 1 Cor 3.9 as non-associative. But are there any unambiguous illustrations of a συν-prefixed noun with a non-associative personal dependent genitive? Most of the illustrations used in the previous paragraph are all found in my book, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (130). But more are needed, especially those that are closer parallels.

Consider the following:

Josephus:

Antiquities of the Jews 8.133 (8.5.2): σύνοδον ἀνθρώπων (“a gathering of people”). σύνοδος is translated ‘fellow-traveler’ or ‘traveling companion’ in Ignatius, Ephesians 9.2, but such a meaning will not work here. The genitive ἀνθρώπων probably is a genitive of apposition/content (“a gathering made up of people”).

Antiquities of the Jews 16.351 (16.10.9): συνθῆκαι τῶν δανείων (“covenant [between the two men] concerning the debt”). Here the implied genitive is personal, while the genitive stated is a genitive of reference.

Antiquities of the Jews 17.51 (17.3.1): εἰς τὴν σύνοδον τῆς Ἀντιπάτρου μητρός (“for the meeting [arranged] by Antipater’s mother”). One might normally assume that after σύνοδος the genitive would indicate association. In this instance, however, Antipater’s mother arranged the meeting between others. Similarly, Josephus, Vita 311 (60), and Josephus, Vita 368 (66).

Antiquities of the Jews 19.107 (19.1.14): τοῖς συνωμόταις κινδύνων (“to [his] co-conspirators in the risk”). The implied genitive is personal while the stated genitive is a genitive of reference.

Jewish War 4.148 (4.3.6): συνεργοὺς τῶν ἀσεβημάτων (“fellow-workers for their ungodly acts”). The implied genitive is personal while the stated genitive is a genitive of purpose.

Jewish War 4.240 (4.4.3): τὴν σύνταξιν ὑμῶν (“your army” in the sense of “the army in service to you”).

Philo:

Philo, Somniis 1.193: πρὸς τὸ τῶν φίλων ἔλθῃ συνέδριον (“when he comes into the assembly of friends”).

Philo, Specialibus 1.29: συνεργοὺς τῆς ἀπάτης (“co-workers [with each other] in deception”). Same word as is found in 1 Cor 3.9. The implied genitive is personal and associative, while the stated genitive is reference.

Philo, Contemplativa 40: τὰς κοινὰς συνόδους αὐτῶν (“their common assemblies”). The common assemblies which consists of them; thus, a genitive of apposition or content.

Greek Pseudepigrapha:

Rechabites 11.7: συνηθείᾳ τοῦ γάμου (“companionship [between them] of marriage”). Not personal, but the personal is implied.

Psalms of Solomon 4.1: συνεδρίῳ ὁσίων (“council of holy men”—that is, council comprising holy men, not a council in association with holy men).

Justin Martyr:

1.63 (27): τοῖς Μωσέως συντάγμασι (“the collected writings of Moses”—i.e., Moses wrote these collected writings).

Conclusion

It seems to be sufficiently established that a genitive dependent on a συν-prefixed substantive can indeed be other than a genitive of association in Hellenistic Greek. And this is even found in some instances in which (a) either a genitive of association is not stated or in which (b) the genitive that is present is personal. In the first category are the following texts: Rom 11.17; 1 Cor 1.20 (possibly); 1 Cor 9.23; 2 Cor 1.24; Eph 3.6; 1 Peter 3.7; Josephus, Ant. 16.351; Josephus, Ant. 17.51; Josephus, Ant. 19.107; Josephus, Jewish War 4.148; Philo, Specialibus 1.29; and Rechabites 11.7. (Both 1 Cor 3.9 and 1 Thess 3.2 may belong here, too, but since the former is our target passage and the latter is equally disputed, they should not be counted.) In the second category are Acts 21.30; Josephus, Ant. 8.133; Josephus, Ant. 17.51; Josephus, Jewish War 4.240; Philo, Somniis 1.193; Philo, Contemplativa 40; Psalms of Solomon 4.1; and Justin Martyr 1.63. One text in particular is doubly parallel: Josephus, Ant. 17.51. All of this paves the way for both 1 Cor 3.9 and 1 Thess 3.2 to indicate association between men in the service of God.

Having established the syntactical parallels, we now need to proceed to look at the context of 1 Cor 3.9. Fee succinctly states the argument: “In the Greek text, the emphasis is altogether on God: ‘God’s we are, being fellow workers; God’s field, God’s building, you are.’ Some have suggested that Paul here intends, as the KJV has it, ‘we are laborers together with God.’ But everything in the context speaks against it: the emphatic position of the genitive (‘God’s’) suggests possession, as do the following, equally emphatic, genitives, which are unambiguously possessive; the argument of the whole paragraph emphasizes their unity in fellow labor under God, an argument that would be undercut considerably if he were now emphasizing that they worked with God in Corinth; and finally, these new ‘slogans’ serve as the climax of the whole paragraph, in which the emphasis is decidedly on God’s ownership, not on Paul’s and Apollos’s working with him in Corinth” (G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987] 134).

To sum up, the translation of 1 Cor 3.9 as “we are co-workers belonging to God” (NET) or the like is strongly justified in light of the most probable construal of the context, and is legitimate in light of the syntactical parallels.

The Great Commission Part 3: Application

This is the third of three blogs on the Great Commission (Matt 28.19–20). In the first one I talked about the grammar of this passage and concluded that the standard English translation, “Go and make disciples… baptizing… teaching” is an accurate representation of the idioms of the Greek text. In the second blog I discussed the historical setting and noted that the command was given to the disciples to evangelize by going out of Jerusalem and to the Gentiles. The mission was eccentric rather than ethnocentric. That is to say, the apostles were to go out of their way to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to those outside of Jerusalem, including non-Jews. We also argued that in doing this, the apostles had to abandon 1400 years of food laws that had been ingrained in them, in their history, in their traditions. The gospel was for all people and the food laws, circumcision, the sacrifices, etc., were not to stand in the way of someone coming to faith in Christ. This was rooted in the nature of Christ’s cross-work rather than being merely an accommodation to Gentiles to make one’s congregation swell with numbers! But in this missionary attitude—an attitude that Paul captured so well when he said, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some” (1 Cor 9.22)—the apostles had to move way outside their comfort zone. Imagine how repulsive it must have been to eat bacon with eggs some morning when you had never had bacon before and thought that pork was the most vile thing that one could put in your body. Years of training along those lines don’t simply vanish over night.

This gives us a helpful segue into application. When we apply scripture, we first need to determine what it meant historically. Then we can ask if it also was meant to carry over to us by way of direct application. Then, we can explore principles that are taught in such a passage whether the application was intended to be direct or not. In this passage, the application is both direct and indirect. It is direct because the last thing that Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew was, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28.20a). These instructions would surely include the previous verse! Thus, to go and make disciples is a command that is directly applicable to believers today.

There are two participles that follow the lone imperative (“make disciples”) in this passage: baptizing, teaching. These participles function in a different way than the first participle (“having gone”—which is idiomatically and appropriately translated “go”). They describe the means of making disciples. That is, they give a key part of what disciple-making should involve. They don’t necessarily give the whole of it, but they do give some key ingredients. The word order is also important: baptizing comes before teaching. I take it that, in light of how the apostles practiced this commission, baptism was done at the front end, right after someone confessed Christ. And I take it that we should follow the same posture today: baptism needs to be soon after conversion. Now it seems that if baptism is at the front end, it implies that proclaiming the gospel is a part of making disciples. But we have reversed this today: we often put a recent convert into a new believer’s class where he or she can learn about what Christians believe. The class might go for several months. And only after someone has shown that he or she is truly a believer—that the conversion ‘took’—do we dare baptize them. But this approach seems to assume that the responsibility to know whether a new convert is truly a believer is the pastor’s or elders’, rather than God’s. When Peter went to Samaria to check out the conversions that occurred at Philip’s preaching, he met Simon Magus, a man who was definitely not converted even though he made a public confession and was baptized by Philip. There is no record of Peter rebuking Philip for not checking this guy out a bit more. Indeed, it seems that Philip did the right thing to baptize him because that’s what the Lord had commanded. The Lord is responsible to know whether a person is saved; our task is to baptize and accept them into fellowship if they confess their sins and confess Christ. Part of the reason why we don’t consider baptism as more important nowadays is that we see it as simply an act of obedience (which should be reason enough!) when it may be more than that. But that discussion is for another time.

Let me retrace my steps and speak about direct and indirect application once again. I have heard it argued from pulpits that since we are no longer in Jerusalem, we are already fulfilling this command. No other going is needed. But it seems to me that such a view is only dealing with the direct application of the text—or, rather, is confusing interpretation with application, and there are problems with that view, too. The indirect application functions at the level of principle. And there are essentially two principles that I see in this text that are applicable to us today.

First, believers in Jesus Christ need to consciously get outside their comfort zone and go to where non-believers are, to be a witness among them. A common attitude today among Christians is that they need to bring a non-Christian to church so that the pastor can preach to him or her. To many Christians, evangelism means that the non-Christian needs to be dragged out of their comfort zone! That is precisely the opposite of what Jesus told his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all the nations….” This meant going to Gentiles, rather than bringing Gentiles to Jerusalem. Today, the application is similar: we are the ones who are responsible to go to where the nonbelievers are. We are responsible to love them, truly love them, befriend them, enjoy their company, eat with them, hang out with them. We must do this without compromising the gospel, but we must do this.

It has been said that the average Christian has no non-Christian friends within five years after conversion. I don’t know if that statistic is still true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Read Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus but Not the Church to get a sense of how we ought to relate to our society today. Kimball’s book is Joe Bayly’s The Gospel Blimp for a postmodern world. One of the things that most impresses me about Kimball’s book is that he is more concerned about nurturing a relationship with nonbelievers than in winning scalps. He obviously is concerned about the individual’s spiritual destiny, but he recognizes that nonbelievers are often hostile to Christians today. And we only add fuel to that fire when we sit in judgment of nonbelievers rather than love them. When was the last time you went out for a beer with your neighbor? Or had some non-Christian friends from work over for a barbeque? What about seeing a ballgame with them? A friend of mine goes to a bar every Sunday after church during football season. He drinks beer, watches his team lose, and shares the gospel. For many of us, we would rather die than let alcohol touch our lips. There may be good reasons for such abstention, but there are many bad ones, too. (I am of course not saying that Christians must drink alcohol for the sake of the gospel in spite of some slanderers who claim I have argued this!) Or consider getting together with your lesbian co-worker. Invite her and her partner to your house for a meal, or just enjoy some java with them at the local Starbucks. What about your Muslim neighbor? Obviously, you don’t want to offend them by eating pork in front of them! Becoming all things to all people sometimes means restricting your freedom in Christ for the sake of the gospel. The questions we all need to ask are, Am I resisting making Christ known because I want to stay inside my comfort zone? Am I afraid to speak because of possible embarrassment? Am I more willing to judge my neighbor than love them?

The problem is compounded by so many of our seminaries today. Way too many seminary students—future pastors—are cookie-cutter Christians. They have conformed to a style of living that is not messy enough to be real. Kind of an aesthetic asceticism—you know, ‘professional casual’… monks. But God doesn’t typically use a person fully unless and until that person has gone through a severe crisis first. And what happens is that the believer then realizes that to live for Christ is more precious and more central than anything else. And when he or she realizes that, concerns for conformity to one’s cultural subgroup don’t seem quite as important any more. The apostles recognized this, I suspect, by the very fact that they were persecuted by Jews and Gentiles because of their faith. Persecution has a way of distilling what’s really important, of helping a person to see what matters most. Frankly, Christians are often geeky enough to get persecuted just for their geekiness! Let’s make sure that if we are persecuted it is for radically following Jesus Christ rather than for non-essentials. And let’s strategize on how to reach all people groups by some of us even identifying with them. This leads to the second principle.

Second, when it comes to global missions, a formula for disaster is to resist becoming like the people that one ministers to. Some missionaries in years past would not only refuse to learn the native language but would insist on importing western culture at every point. To be sure, some aspects of western culture are due to Christian values and it would be foolish to jettison all of it. But all too many aspects are simply differences, no better and no worse than the culture that a missionary finds himself or herself in. Missionaries need to examine how committed they are to the gospel, how willing they are to fit in for the sake of Christ, and whether certain habits that they bring are simply comfortable forms from home or are a part of what it really means to be a Christian.

Much, much more could be said about the application of the Great Commission today. But since this is supposed to be a blog, I’ve already said too much. Now it’s your turn.

Addendum: In my initial blog on the Great Commission, some readers took issue with my understanding of the inapplicability of the Mosaic food laws to Gentile Christians. Rather than take up that discussion here—which could distract from the main point of this blog—I ask you to continue the discussion only in the comments section of the first blog.

The Great Commission, Part 2: Historical Setting

In a previous blog (“The Great Commission or the Great Suggestion?”) we looked at the Greek construction of Matt 28.19-20 and concluded that the typical English translation, “Go and make disciples,” was pretty accurate. The participle translated “Go” is really dependent on the mood of the main verb (the imperative, “make disciples”) for its force. However, in such constructions (known as attendant circumstance), the main idea is not shared equally by both verbal forms; rather, it falls on the main verb. The participle is the prerequisite needed for the fulfillment of the imperative. Thus, going is commanded rather than assumed, but the going is not the main idea, for if someone were to go without making disciples he would miss the point. But making disciples “of all the nations” cannot be accomplished apart from going. So much for the grammar.

This blog will look at the historical context. Both with reference to grammar and history, many a pastor has put the applicational cart before the interpretive horse. It is crucial that we distinguish these two, and deal with interpretation at first apart from application. Obviously, there is a huge intersection between the two, but we confuse them only to our peril. Too many Christians are impatient with interpretation and simply want to get to the application. Sadly, too many pastors accommodate them and the result is often eisegetical anarchy. One of the questions that must be asked before one gets into application of a text is whether such a passage has direct validity, indirect validity, or merely illustrative, historical, or negative value for believers today. The Great Commission is a classic text that has been applied before it has been interpreted, or has been applied with the interpretation, making a hopeless mess of things, and the result is that both the interpretation and application often miss the point.

This blog will deal with the historical setting; a final blog on the Great Commission will deal with the application of this passage to our lives today.

Now for the history lesson. The scene of the Great Commission is an unspecified mountain in Galilee (Matt 28.16). Jesus gives his command here, then the Gospel concludes. No ascension to heaven is mentioned. However, by comparing the data in Luke 24 and Acts 1, we see that Jesus’ ascension took place on the Mount of Olives, in Bethany just across from Jerusalem. And the final instructions he gave the disciples were to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them. Then they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). Why does Matthew seem to ignore the ascension right outside of Jerusalem? He is in the habit of telescoping events in his narrative (compare Matt 9.18-26 with Mark 5.21-43). And since the resurrection account has the women being instructed to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, that’s what they do. And there they get their commission, and the Gospel ends. But it’s important for us to recognize that the place where the implementation of the commission is to start is in Jerusalem, not Galilee.

The disciples then are waiting in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes upon them, which will occur some ten days after the ascension of the Lord. We may be puzzled as to why Jesus wanted the apostles’ evangelistic ministry to begin in Jerusalem rather than in Galilee. It could be that this was where Jesus was executed and where the apostles abandoned the Lord in the moment of his sacrifice. The apostles needed to stand up here, and demonstrate that they were no longer afraid of the enemies of the gospel or of the consequences to their own lives. It may be that Jesus wanted to have the apostles witness to the Jews in the heart of Judaism, so that the announcement of God’s coming kingdom would be directly relevant to these folks since the kingdom would begin here. It may be that the Lord recognized that the Day of Pentecost was strategic for the quick spread of the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world. Whatever the reason, the main point for our purposes is that the apostles begin their testimony within Israel, within Judaism, and to the Jews.

The commission, then, is to begin with the nation of Israel. But it is not to end there. The command to “make disciples of all the nations” clearly indicates that more than Jewish evangelism is in view. The word ‘nations’ can also be translated ‘Gentiles.’ When that command is juxtaposed with Acts 1.8, a hint of how the commandment would be implemented seems to be coming into view: although the apostles were commanded to go to the nations, Acts 1.8 only says that they will do this. It is thus here predicted, not commanded.

How do the disciples obey the Great Commission? What is the catalyst that gets them to move beyond the walls of the Holy City, and into Samaria and beyond? Persecution. Specifically, the persecution carried out by one Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Pharisee, a man who hated Christians and hated Jesus because Jesus was an accursed criminal whom God judged by hanging him on a tree. The next several chapters in Acts show, in rapid literary succession, how the gospel spread outside of Judaism. Immediately after the stoning of Stephen, Saul (also known as Paul—this was not a name given to him later, unlike Simon Peter) goes on a witch-hunt for Christians, and he ends up looking for them in Syria (Acts 9). In chapter 8, Peter goes to Samaria to check on the responses of the half-Jews to the gospel that Philip had brought to them. And in chapter 10, Peter is sent to Caesarea Maritima, a largely Gentile city on the coast of Palestine in northern Samaria. He is sent to preach the gospel to Gentiles. And when they have the same experience of the Spirit that the apostles had had on the Day of Pentecost, Peter is convinced that the gospel was also meant for Gentiles and, further, that they did not need to observe the dietary laws of the Jews to be saved. But it was persecution that got the apostles and other disciples out of Jerusalem.

In short, it almost seems as if Paul led more people to Christ as a Pharisee than as an apostle! The Lord was able to use persecution to get the eyewitnesses of the resurrection out the door. “You will be my witnesses… in Samaria” was indeed a prophetic word.

Seen in the light of history, the Great Commission altered the manner and contents of evangelism by God’s people. For the most part, Old Testament evangelism focused on pagans coming to Israel to get saved (the story of Jonah is an exception that proves the rule). But they could not remain uncircumcised Gentiles and get saved. They had to follow dietary laws, get circumcised, and offer the sacrifices that marked the Jews out as a special people.

Now, with the Great Commission, we see in seed-plot form an evangelism that is no longer ethnocentric (i.e., focusing on and staying within Jerusalem as the ethnic, political, and religious center of Judaism) but rather was eccentric (i.e., moving away from this center). Further, with the removal of the food laws as a barrier to getting within the community of believers, the evangelists themselves were forced into an unfamiliar world. The vision that Peter had about killing and eating unclean animals underscored this to him. Just imagine what it would be like to be an apostle who, for the first time in his life, ate a ham sandwich or had bacon and eggs for breakfast! If these men had been taught all their lives of the repulsion of such cuisine, how would that first bite go down? Frankly, my guess is that it would come up just as fast! Obedience to the gospel certainly made them squirm. It got them way outside their comfort zone.

The apostles were surely acquainted with the story of Eleazar’s refusal to eat defiled meat before Antiochus Epiphanes and his subsequent torture and death by fire (4 Maccabees 5–6), or the more famous story of the murder of seven brothers before their mother’s eyes (4 Macc 8–12). In this text, “the guards had placed before them wheels and joint-dislocators, rack and hooks and catapults and caldrons, braziers and thumbscrews and iron claws and wedges and bellows” (4 Macc 8.13 [NRSV]) to help persuade these seven brothers to eat pork. The next several chapters of 4 Maccabees (8–18) describe in an NC-17 manner the tortures that these young men suffered out of reverence for the Law—each with their mother looking on. Each died without so much as taking a bite. Whether or not this story is true is not the point; rather, that it would have been used in Jewish circles to teach young Jewish children to be brave and obedient to the Law no matter what is.

But through the paradoxical route of redemptive history, once the gospel was unleashed from its Mosaic fetters, eating defiled food was regarded as a courageous act and refusal to eat was considered cowardly (Gal 2.11–14)! I cannot stress enough how difficult this change in perspective must have been for these apostles. But for the sake of the gospel, they became evangelists on an eccentric mission with a Christocentric focus. In short, they moved outside of their comfort zone: they went and then made disciples “of all the nations” rather than making disciples along the way. If it had been along the way, they would have avoided Gentiles like the plague. To translate Matt 28.19 as “as you are going” or “along the way, make disciples” misreads not only the syntax but the historical setting as well.

 

Addendum: In my previous blog on the Great Commission, some readers took issue with my understanding of the inapplicability of the Mosaic food laws to Gentile Christians. Rather than take up that discussion here—which could distract from the main point of this blog—I ask you to continue the discussion only in the comments section of the first blog.

 

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).