The Great Commission

Dr. Dan Wallace writes:

DanWallaceI 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, ??????????? (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).

Part 2: Historical Background

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.

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.

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 drinking alcohol or 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.