Relationship of Participles to Imperatives in the Gospel of Matthew: Participles that Precede Imperatives in Matthew
The best way to discern the function of the participles in the Great Commission is to analyse how participles are used throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Because the three participles are adverbial participles related to the imperative “make disciples,” we will limit our investigation to adverbial participles that are related to imperatives in the Gospel of Matthew. We will first investigate participles that precede an imperative, then we will investigate participles that follow an imperative.
Participles that Precede Imperatives in Matthew
In Greek, it is common for an aorist tense participle, like “going” in Matthew 28:19, that immediately precedes an aorist tense imperative (or indicative), like “make disciples” in Matthew 28:19, to take on the force (or grammatical mood) of the following imperative (or indicative). Participles that follow this pattern are usually called participles of attendant circumstance. Thus, we are immediately alerted to the possibility that “going” in Matthew 28:19 may be adopting the force of the imperative and, thus, functioning as a command.
To confirm that “going” adopts the force of the imperative in Matthew 28:18, an analysis of all adverbial participles that immediately precede an imperative in the Gospel of Matthew is necessary. Within the Gospel of Matthew there are twenty cases of adverbial participles immediately preceding an imperative (Matt 2:8,13,20; 5:24; 6:6, 17; 9:6,13,18; 10:7,8,12,14; 11:4; 17:27; 19:21; 21:2; 22:13; 28:7,19). Thankfully, of the twenty cases, five use the same word “go” (πορεύω) as in Matthew 28:19 (Matt 2:8; 9:13; 10:7; 11:4; 17:27). Thus, we will limit our study to the five “go” participles in the Gospel of Matthew.
In Matthew 2:7–8, Herod summons the magi to discern when the star appeared. Herod then proceeds to command the magi to find the child and report back to him in order that he may worship the child. The participle “going” and the imperative “search” begin Herod’s speech. The question is, does the participle “going” take on the force of the imperative “search” for a translation “go, search!” or does it indicate a more temporal aspect for a translation “when you go, search!” A case could be made for either translation; however, the participle taking on the force of the imperative suits the scene much better. First, both the participle and the imperative are in the aorist tense suggesting the participle adopts the force of the imperative. Second, Herod wants the magi to find the child quickly so that he may destroy the child despite claiming that he wants to worship the child (2:7–12). Thus, it seems most likely that the participle “go” takes on the force of the imperative “search” for a translation “go [now], search diligently for the child” (2:8). This interpretation is confirmed in most English translations, which understand the participle as adopting imperatival force.
The second passage that uses the participle “going” followed by an imperative is Matthew 9:13. In the wider context, Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners and is questioned by a Pharisee as to why Jesus does so (Matt 9:10–11). Jesus responds by telling the Pharisee that those who are sick are the ones in need of a physician (9:12). Jesus then uses the participle “going” followed by the command to learn what the saying “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” means (9:13). Like Matthew 2:8, both the participle and the imperative are in the aorist tense suggesting the participle adopts the force of the imperative. Further, the context suggests that it is more likely that Jesus is telling the Pharisee to go now for the purpose of learning, for a translation of “go, learn!” instead of telling the Pharisee that as he leaves and goes about his business, he should learn what the saying means. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude, like most English translations, that the participle “going” adopts imperatival force.
The third passage that uses the participle “going” followed by an imperative is Matthew 10:7. In Matthew 10:1–15, Jesus chooses his twelve apostles and sends them out to proclaim “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons (10:7–8). The participle-imperative construction (“going, preach”) directly precedes the message the apostles are commanded to preach. Interestingly, both the participle and the imperative are in the present tense, not the aorist tense. Further, in the verse preceding the participle “going,” Jesus uses the verb “go” (πορεύω) in the imperative mood to command the apostles to “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6). Thus, the question arises whether or not the participle “going” in 10:7 takes on the imperatival force of the following imperative “preach.” It would seem redundant to use the imperative “go” and follow it with the participle “going” that takes on imperatival force. It seems more likely in this situation that the participle is a temporal participle that modifies the imperative “preach” for a translation “as you go, preach,” “when you go, preach,” or the more nuanced “as you go about the lost sheep of the house of Israel, preach.” The idea is that as/when the apostles go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, they are to preach about the kingdom of heaven. The temporal understanding of “going” in Matthew 10:7 is supported by most English translations.
The fourth passage that uses the participle “going” followed by an imperative is Matthew 11:4. In Matthew 11:2–3, the disciples of John the Baptizer, at John’s behest, ask Jesus if he is the one who is to come or is it another. Jesus responds with the participle “going” followed by the imperative “report to John what you hear and see” (11:4). Like Matthew 2:8 and 9:13, the participle and the imperative are both in the aorist tense and the command to John’s disciples gives the impression that they are to report to John immediately. Thus, the participle “going” most likely adopts the imperatival force of “report” for a translation “go, report to John” as reflected in most English translations.
The final passage that uses the participle “going” followed by an imperative is Matthew 17:27. When Jesus is challenged about paying the temple tax, so as to not give offense, Jesus commands Peter to cast a hook into the sea and the first fish he catches will have a coin in its mouth for which to pay the temple tax (17:24–27). The participle “going” followed by an imperative begins Jesus’ command to Peter to go fishing, “going to the sea, cast in a hook!” (17:27). Unlike the previous uses of the participle “going,” Matthew 17:27 modifies the participle with the prepositional phrase “to the sea.” Although it is possible that Jesus is telling Peter “as you go to the sea,” suggesting that Peter was already heading that way, it seems unlikely because both the participle and imperative are in the aorist tense and the situation of the tax collectors approaching Peter for the temple tax suggests that Jesus wants Peter to go fishing immediately and, thus, the participle “going” adopts the force of the imperative for a translation “go to the sea, cast in a hook!”
The above analysis of the participle “going” followed by an imperative in the Gospel of Matthew has revealed that when the participle “going” and the following imperative are both in the aorist tense, the participle adopts the force of the imperative and should be translated as an imperative. The contexts support this interpretation. In the one instance where the participle “going” retains its adverbial function (Matt 10:7), the participle is in the present tense and is preceded by the verb “go” in the imperative mood, making the participle redundant if it adopts the force of the imperative “preach.”
Thus, it can reasonably be concluded that the participle “going” that precedes the imperative “make disciples” in Matthew 28:19 should be understood as adopting the imperatival force of “make disciples” because it conforms to the pattern seen in Matthew 2:8; 9:13; 11:4; and 17:27. First, Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 reads as if he wants the apostles to obey immediately. Now that Jesus has all authority, the apostles should make disciples; the time for waiting is over, Jesus has all authority now, so the disciples should obey now. It would make less sense for Jesus to command the apostles to make disciples as they go about their daily business. Jesus chose the apostles to continue Jesus’ work as seen in Matthew 10. They are not to go back to their previous vocations; their lives and their efforts are to be focused on making disciples. Thus, it makes more sense for Jesus to command them to go now and make disciples. Second, there is no command to “go” that Jesus issues prior to Matthew 28:19 like there was in 10:6–7, lessening the likelihood that the participle “going” is a temporal adverbial participle modifying “make disciples.” Matthew 28:19a, then, should be translated “Therefore, go, make disciples of all nations.” In Part III of this series, we will analyse adverbial participles that immediately follow an imperative in the Gospel of Matthew.
Adam Robinson holds a PhD in New Testament with a minor in Old Testament. He is the Instructor of Biblical Studies at NewLife College located in Queensland, Australia. Adam’s goal in teaching is to help develop mature disciples of Jesus.