GUEST POST: Another Look at the Great Commission, part 1

Introduction to the Issue

The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20 is one of the most beloved and well-known passages of the Bible for Christians. Further, it is one of the most frequently preached passages of the Bible and is frequently used as the foundational passage for modern evangelism and missions. For Matthew, the author of the Gospel that bears his name, the Great Commission is one of the most important sayings of Jesus because Matthew chooses the Great Commission as the final words of Jesus for his Gospel. Matthew ends his Gospel on an evangelistic note, urging the eleven apostles to make disciples. Thus, the importance of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20 cannot be overstated.

Despite the significance of the Great Commission for Matthew, the eleven apostles, and the modern church, many (not all) modern Christians seem unaware of the ambiguities of the grammar and syntax in verses 19–20 that is found in the Greek text and reflected in most modern English translations. This blind spot has, at times, resulted in preaching and teaching on the Great Commission that is vague and confusing.

The goal of this six-part series on the Great Commission is threefold: (1) to raise awareness of the certainties and ambiguities in the text of Matthew 28:19–20, (2) to offer an interpretation of the Great Commission based on the grammar and syntax, and (3) to discuss some implications of the interpretation of Matthew 28:19–20 for the 21st-century church, Christians, and mission/evangelism organizations.

The Grammar and Syntax of Matthew 28:19–20: Certainties and Ambiguities

As mentioned above, the grammatical and syntactical focus of this article is the command(s) in Matthew 28:19–20. It should first be noted that Jesus’ command(s) in 28:19–20 is based on him now having all authority in heaven and on earth (28:18). The implications of Jesus’ authority for the command(s) in 28:19–20 is outside the purview of this article and will not be discussed here.

The specific concern of this article surrounds the relationship between the four verbs in Matthew 28:19–20: “go,” “make disciples” (this is one word in the Greek), “baptize,” and “teach.” As may not be clear in all English translations, there is only one imperative verb in 28:19–20: “make disciples” (μαθητεύσατε). The other three verbs, “go,” “baptize,” and “teach” are all participles in the Greek. The grammatical mood of each verb is easier to see if we both diagram the passage and reflect the mood of verbs in translation.

Going

make disciples of all nations

baptizing them in the name of …

teaching them to observe everything …

The single imperative alerts the reader that making disciples is the central focus of the Great Commission. Thus, the focus for anyone preaching or teaching the Great Commission should be on making disciples.
If making disciples is the central focus of the Great Commission, then questions about the function of the surrounding three participles arises. Specifically, we want to know what the relationship between the three participles and the imperative “make disciples” is.

Greek participles function in a number of ways. They may function as adverbs, modifying a verb. They may function as adjectives, either modifying a noun or functioning as a noun. They may also adopt the force (or grammatical mood) of a governing verb, such as an indicative or imperative verb. The participles in Matthew 28:19–20 are all adverbial, which means they will either modify the main verb “make disciples” or they will take on the force of “make disciples” and function as imperatives. As such, there are two possible functions of the participles with three possible structures to the Great Commission: (1) all participles function as imperatives, (2) all participles modify “make disciples,” or (3) some participles function as imperatives and some modify “make disciples.” These three possibilities are best seen in the following:

Option #1

Go
make disciples of all nations
baptize them …
teach them . . .

Option #2

Going

make disciples of all nations

baptizing them …

teaching them …

Option #3

Go
make disciples of all nations

baptizing them …

teaching them …

Not only does the grammatical function of the participles need to be discerned, but if it is determined that any of the participles function adverbially, modifying “make disciples,” then the we must determine the nuanced relationship between the participles and the imperative “make disciples.” It is not good enough to simply translate the participles “going,” “baptizing,” and “teaching” for this introduces unnecessary ambiguity into the biblical text.

In order to discern whether the participles are functioning adverbially or are taking on the imperatival force of “make disciples,” an analysis of participles in relation to imperatives in the Gospel of Matthew is necessary. This will be the subject of Part 2 and 3 of this series.

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