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).

Reading through the Greek New Testament

Students of the Greek New Testament are often at a loss on how to begin reading the text. After a year of Koine Greek, they may decide to tackle Hebrews, and promptly get discouraged at the prospect of ever being able to read the NT in the original tongue. This Reading List is designed to help students coming out of first-year Greek especially, but may be useful for more advanced students as well.

This list is organized along two lines: (1) easiest to most difficult, and (2) approximately ten chapter segments which bear some semblance of unity (e.g., either literary [pastorals] or historical [James-Galatians]). These two principles are sometimes in conflict.

The best way to read through the NT so as to increase your reading proficiency is to translate each chapter three times. As a rule of thumb, you should translate no less than one whole chapter and no more than about ten chapters at a time (the longer chapters in the Gospels may require breaking them up into more manageable sizes). Every time you translate, employ the “revolving door” principle. That is, rotate some chapters in and rotate some out. Thus, for example, if you try to translate through the NT in one year, you could translate one new chapter a day, but a total of three chapters a day. (See end of this list for how to get through the NT in one month!)

For example: Day 1: Matthew 1. Day 2: Matthew 1–2. Day 3: Matt 1–3. Day 4: Matt 2–4. Day 5: Matt 3–5, etc. Each chapter would get translated three times in the year and two would be near-immediate reinforcements.

One approach to mark your progress is to do this: underline a chapter the first time you go through it, circle it then second time, and cross it out (‘X’) when you’ve translated it three times.

1.            JOHN                    1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9   10  11 [Group 1]

12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21 [Group 2]

2.            1 JOHN                  1    2    3    4    5

3.            2 JOHN                  1

4.            3 JOHN                  1

5.            PHILEMON            1 [Group 3]

6.            REVELATION         1    2     3    4    5    6    7    8    9    10   11 [Group 4]

 12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19   20   21  22 [Group 5]

7.            1 THESS                 1    2    3    4    5

8.            2 THESS                 1    2    3 [Group 6]

9.            PHILIPPIANS           1    2    3    4

10.            MARK                    1    2    3    4    5    6 [Group 7]

  7    8    9   10  11  12   13   14   15   16 [Group 8]

11.            MATTHEW             1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10 [Group 9]

  11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19   20  [Group 10]

   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28 [Group 11]

12.            ROMANS                1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8 [Group 12]

   9   10  11  12  13  14   15  16 [Group 13]

13.            EPHESIANS            1    2    3    4    5    6

14.            COLOSSIANS         1    2    3    4 [Group 14]

15.            GALATIANS            1    2    3    4    5    6

16.            JAMES                    1    2    3    4    5 [Group 15]

17.            1 COR                     1    2     3     4     5     6    7   8    9    10 [Group 16]

   11  12  13   14   15   16

18.            2 COR                      1    2    3    4 [Group 17]

     5    6    7    8    9    10   11   12   13 [Group 18]

19.            1 TIMOTHY              1    2    3    4    5    6

20.            2 TIMOTHY              1    2    3    4

21.            TITUS                       1    2    3 [Group 19]

22.            1 PETER                   1    2    3    4    5

23.            2 PETER                   1    2    3

24.            JUDE                        1 [Group 20]

25.            LUKE                        1     2     3     4     5     6    7     8 [Group 21]

     9    10   11   12   13   14   15   16 [Group 22]

     17  18   19   20   21   22   23   24 [Group 23]

26.            ACTS                        1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9    10 [Group 24]

     11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   19 [Group 25]

     20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28 [Group 26]

27.            HEBREWS                1    2     3     4     5     6     7 [Group 27]

      8    9    10   11   12   13 [Group 28]

N.B. The reading assignments are broken up into twenty-eight segments of approximately ten chapters each (some as short as 6–8 chapters, one as long as 13). If one were to translate one group of chapters a day, he/she could get through the entire NT in one month. (This of course is not for the faint-hearted; doctoral students getting ready for comps may wish to do this though.) For the rest of us mortals, translating one new chapter a day, with two review chapters, will take 260 days to translate the whole NT. Taking weekends off, you can get through the whole NT in a year. A suggested way to attack the reading is DAILY to read one segment with the help of Burer and Miller’s New Reader’s Lexicon, marking with a blue highlighter any words whose glosses you are not familiar with, AND review the previous segment without Burer-Miller (as much as possible). Any words that are still forgettable should be highlighted with yellow (the result will be green). (Alternatively, you could simply check off those words that you know; any words without a check are the ones to concentrate on.) By the time you get through each chapter a third time, most of the vocabulary should be fairly familiar with only occasional glances as Burer-Miller. For those with some expertise in reading, the time it should take to get through each segment (i.e., approximately 10 chapters) should be between two and five hours daily.

This document is also attached as a PDF, allowing you to have a hard copy that you could check off as you go through each chapter.

For the hard copy click the link below:

NT Greek Reading List

Letters to A. T. Robertson

The great grammarian and professor at Southern Baptist Seminary for 34 years, A. T. Robertson, helped students as much as he could. A recent publication discusses some of the correspondence, including a postcard to Robertson by a 19-year-old college student named Bruce Metzger. Yesterday, Nov 6, was Robertson’s 150th birthday. Well worth the read! Go here to see the publication.



Romans 9.1 and Asyndeton

As I was reading Romans 9 recently I noticed that the chapter begins asyndetically—that is, without a conjunction or other marker to connect it with the preceding. This is fairly rare in Greek and, apart from its use in staccato-like commands and aphorisms, almost always means one of two things: either a total disconnect from the preceding or a connection so strong that it would be superfluous to add the conjunction.

Paul uses asyndeton at the beginning of a major paragraph nine times in Romans. In 2.17, 10.1, 11.33, and 13.8 it is obvious that the same topic is in view. (On a smaller scale, see 2 Tim 3.16—which obviously connects to the previous verse; cf. also Phil 4.4b.) In Rom 12.9, 13.8, 16.3, and 16.21 the connection is not as clear, though it is probably there in most of these instances. Romans 13.1 offers the most obvious break without connection with the preceding. We thus see Paul beginning new paragraphs in Romans both for rhetorical effect (at least four instances, and perhaps eight) and to indicate a complete switch in topic (at least one instance but as many as five).

Significantly, Paul’s use of asyndeton for rhetorical purposes often requires the readers to think through his argument and make the connection for themselves. For example, in Eph 5.22—the only major paragraph since 1.3 in Ephesians to begin without a conjunction—we read “Wives, to your own husbands as to the Lord” (the reading of P46 B as well as Clement; Jerome also mentions that some MSS lack the verb here). Later MSS add the verb ‘be subject’ (D F G Byz Syriac), by picking up the participle in the preceding verse. This means that while v. 22 begins a new paragraph, it is still connected with the preceding conceptually (discussing submission), and almost lexically by the verb that must be supplied. The connection is thus quite subtle, but the connection is still there—so much so that the Nestle-Aland text begins a new paragraph with v. 21 instead of v. 22.

A similar thing is going on in Rom 9.1. Paul has just finished his hymn of assurance (8.35–39), letting genuine believers know that their salvation is secure because God always keeps his word. But a nagging question would have stuck in the craw of these readers: “How can we be certain that God will keep his word to us that nothing will ever separate us from the love of Christ if he didn’t keep his word to Israel?” The asyndeton that starts off the next section thus has a powerful rhetorical, though subtle, effect. Keeping this assurance to each individual believer is crucial if one is to grasp the full import of Rom 9.

Paul’s argument in Rom 9–11 is governed by his statement in 9.6: “it is not as though the word of God has failed.” The next three chapters demonstrate this thesis.

Although it is true that Paul is speaking of corporate election in chapter 9, this would give no comfort to the believers in Rome about their own salvation unless he was also speaking of individual election. (One piece of evidence that Paul is speaking both of corporate and individual election is that he uses individuals for his illustrations (Jacob vs. Esau, Moses vs. Pharaoh)—individuals who also represent nations.) A Christian in Rome would not be assured of his or her salvation if they thought that Paul was only speaking of corporate election because this tells them nothing about their own fate. The fact that Paul links the corporate promises to Israel to the individual belief of each Jew shows that for both covenants faith is the essential means of becoming the full beneficiaries of the promise.

And this means that eternal security is linked to unconditional election in Paul’s view since individual election is in view in Rom 9. Another way to state this is that Rom 9–11 is both about God’s promise to Israel and his promise to believers in Christ. This is why Paul interlaces throughout these three chapters statements about Gentile faith (Rom 9.23–26, 30, 33; 10.4, 5–13, 14–17; 11.17–23, 29). Indeed, so strong is the emphasis on individual faith that to ignore this theme is to miss the impetus for these chapters and its most relevant application to Gentile believers. In short, God’s promise of eternal security to the genuine believer in Christ is based on God’s elective purposes, his mercy and grace, and his sovereign choice. “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11.29) because “God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling” (Rom 9.11).