Do I Have To Go? – Another Look at the Great Commission

If you were to compile a list of the most famous verses in the Bible, the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) would have to be near the top. It provides us with Jesus’ final charge to His disciples as he prepares to return to heaven. Further, it has served, and continues to serve, as one of the paradigmatic verses for all of the church’s mission endeavors. Yet, in spite of its extreme amount of influence, we still struggle with how to translate it, much less understand and apply it.

The actual commission begins in Matthew 28:19. But, there is little consensus among Bible translations as to how this verse should read. If you are from a church that reads the King James Bible you may be familiar with: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.” Or perhaps the English Standard Version is more familiar to you: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

But many of you, no doubt, have heard from the pulpit that neither of these translations accurately reflect the Greek. Instead you have been taught something more like the International Standard Version: “Therefore, as you go, disciple all the nations.”

So What’s the Problem?
You may recognize that the KJV used the phrase, “teach all nations,” as opposed to “make disciples.” Fortunately, this is a fairly easy problem to solve, and it seems that a consensus has been reached. Even the NKJV has recognized that “make disciples” is a better translation than “teach.” When you consider that Jesus uses a different term for teaching in Matthew 28:20, it is clear that teaching is only part of what it means to make disciples.

The more puzzling question is, “how many commands are there?” The KJV and the ESV seem to suggest that there are two commands; to go and to make disciples. The ISV, on the other hand, only lists only one, to disciple. Is Jesus telling me to go and to make disciples? If not, does this mean, as Daniel Wallace criticizes, that the Great Commission has turned into the “Great Suggestion?” Is Jesus simply suggesting that if I happen to be going somewhere, I should try to make disciples if I get the chance.

The Grammar Behind the Problem
The truth is, there is only one imperative verb in the Great Commission. That is, only “make disciples” uses the tense that marks it as a command. The term translated “go” is actually a participle. If your grammar is a bit rusty, a participle is a verbal noun. If that doesn’t help, let me quote Samuel Lamerson’s English Grammar to Ace New Testament Greek to explain.

A participle is a verbal adjective… [It] can have two functions both in Greek and in English. First, it can help explain the verb. This is called an “adverbial participle.” In this case the participle helps the reader understand something about the verb. It could be the time (I ate while watching T.V.). It could be the cause (Being hungry, I ate). Whatever the case, the adverbial participle will always give information relative to the main verb.

The second type of participle, called the adjectival participle, will do one of two things. It will either tell the reader something about the noun in the sentence (“the running man…”), or it will stand in place of the noun as a substitute (hate the running, love the standing).

In the Great Commission, it is clear that the participle translated as “go” is an adverbial participle. There is no noun for it to explain, and it isn’t substituting for a noun. This leaves explaining the verb as the only task left. Now we must ask, how does it explain the verb? To answer that question we turn to a subcategory of adverbial participles called “attendant circumstance participles.”

Daniel Wallace gives the definition of an attendant circumstance participle in his massive intermediate grammar, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics.

The attendant circumstance participle is used to communicate an action that, in some sense, is coordinate with the finite verb.

In essence, Wallace is simply stating that Greek writers can sometimes use a participle to explain a verb in a way that cannot be correctly translated as a participle in English. He suggests that the best way to translate the participle is to match it with the verb that it modifies. Thus, because “make disciples” is an imperative verb, he suggests translating the participle as “go,” which keeps the imperative force of the main verb, and further explains the circumstances necessary for making disciples.

Flashing Back to Your Childhood
At first I thought this to be a very complicated piece of grammar. But as I thought about it more I realized that I was making a common mistake among students – trying to make things sound more difficult than they really are. The truth is, my mother spent a good part of my life teaching me how to understand an attendant circumstance participle.

In our house we had a fair amount of chores. My parents always told me that I didn’t have it as bad as them, but I am still not quite sure that they actually did walk to school barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways. Anyway, Mom often saw me sitting in front of the T.V., watching Saved by the Bell, and gave me a commission of her own. She would say something like, “Get up and clean your room.”

Even as a child, though I didn’t understand what attendant circumstances were, I understood what was going on. It would have been wrong to think of Mom’s commission as two separate commands. I couldn’t, for instance, get up and go outside and play and later claim that I obeyed half of her commission. Unless I cleaned my room, I wasn’t obeying at all. The command in Mom’s commission was to clean my room.

At the same time, it was a command. There was no way she was going to phrase it as a suggestion. I never expected to hear Mom say, “As you are getting up, clean your room.” I could interpret that as a suggestion, and never actually get up, and thus never actually clean my room. While getting up wasn’t Mom’s focus, she wasn’t going to phrase it in a way that left me wondering if she was serious. The simple phrase “get up” let me know that this was no suggestion, instead she was giving me a command, one that I should consider urgent.

The Great Commission is the exact same thing. Jesus commands us to make disciples, going is what we must do in order to obey. We couldn’t, for instance, move to some foreign country and claim that we obeyed half of the commandment. The commandment is simple, make disciples. Yet, if we don’t go we can’t make disciples of all the nations. For this reason we must understand the participle “go” as caring the same force as Mom’s “get up.” It reminds us that Jesus’ command to make disciples is indeed an urgent one.

Understanding the Great Commission
We should remember that the issue of translation is less important than the issue of understanding. We recognize that any English rendering of the original Greek will have shortcomings. This is one of the reasons it is so helpful to consult a variety of translations as we study the Bible; there is wisdom in a multitude of counsel (Proverbs 11:14, Proverbs 15:22, Proverbs 24:6). In no case is this more apparent than in the Great Commission. I am thankful for translations such as the ISV which highlight that there is one central command, to make disciples. I am also thankful for translations like the KJV and the ESV which remind us that this is not a suggestion but a command given with a sense of urgency.

However, the true test of understanding is not recognizing the grammar. Instead, it is obedience. Ultimately, we show that we understand the Great Commission when we make disciples. Therefore, the most pressing question of all should be, are we making disciples?


Same Sex Attraction – Some Helpful Advice

One of the benefits of the new jogging program that Kanon and I have started is that we have plenty of opportunities to listen to podcasts of sermons, talks, and debates. Today, I dug into the archives to find Dr. Sam Williams’ talk on Same Sex Attraction from October, 2011. I found it immensely beneficial and I hope to listen it to again soon. If you know of anyone who struggles with Same Sex Attraction or openly identifies themselves as homosexual, this talk will provide you with helpful terminology and categories for processing the issue.

At the close of the talk, Dr. Williams provides four ways to promote change in our churches and families for those who struggle with Same Sex Attraction:

  1. Promote Honesty –  In view of the mercy of God it makes no sense to avoid or deny sexual sin or any other kind of sin. Dr. Williams reminds us that there is a properly Christian form of “coming out of the closet.” 
  2. Cultivate a Renewed Respect for Differences – We should affirm different types of masculinity. We have allowed our culture, including the Christian culture, to define masculinity in far too narrow of manner. Dr. Williams reminds us that the greatest man of all time was meek and gentle and urged us to be the same. Additionally, Dr. Williams points out that we must change our vocabulary, being careful not to make fun of people for being different. 
  3. Begin to exhibit a kind of empathy for SSA that understands how level the playing field is under the cross – At the deepest level, we are much more like the person who struggles with SSA than we are different. Our flesh, like theirs, is fallen and craves that which destroys us. John Calvin called us “idol factories.” While we may be producing different idols, we are still more like the idol factory across the street than we care to admit.
  4. Provide Biblical Hope for Change -This was perhaps the most insightful challenge of them all. Dr. Williams explained that the change we are driving for is not, ultimately,  moving someone from Same Sex Attraction to Opposite Sex Attraction. Instead, the gospel changes us by making us disciples who care more for God’s glory than our immediate gratification. He quotes the author, Tim Wilkins to demonstrate this:

I decided that although I honestly didn’t know how to become heterosexual, I did know how to be obedient. Same sex attractions continued throughout college and seminary, but to a lesser degree, and I remained steadfast in refusing to give into them. I told God, it doesn’t matter if I am ever attracted to a woman as long as I get you Lord.

What mattered most to Tim was becoming a disciple of Jesus. What should matter most to us is the same. Our priority is not making men become attracted to women or women attracted to men. Our priority must be leading all people to a full, life changing, love of God.

You can also access the podcast of this talk at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary via iTunes. It was recorded on 10/18/2011.

How to Repent – An Outline of Psalm 51

Last year I wrote a couple of posts about using outlines to help us understand the Bible’s message. “The Value of an Outline” stressed the importance of outlining an entire book of the Bible before studying any of its smaller parts. The next post, “Speaking of Outlines,” attempted to provide a model for outlining passages. Now that I am teaching an online hermeneutics course for the seminary, I am more convinced than ever that outlining a passage is the most important first step to interpretation.

Our class was recently assigned with outlining Psalm 51 and then providing a single statement that summarized the main idea of the text. It was fun to see how this short little Psalm began to make so much more sense when we understood how it was organized. Let me show you how I would outline the Psalm and how it shapes my understanding of the book.

Psalm 51
This Psalm actual has two introductions. The first introduction is found in the superscript above vs. 1. While the titles that your Bible assigns to the Psalms aren’t inspired, the superscripts are. They typically let you know who is writing the Psalm or how it was to be played. However, this superscript is quite unique. Here the superscript tells us not only who it was written to, and who it was from, but the historical setting in which it was written. Here we learn that this Psalm was written as a response to David’s infamous sin where he forced a woman to have sex with him, then killed her husband so that he could marry her. This Psalm is David’s response to one of the worst, and most famous, sins in Jewish history.

The second part of the introduction is found in the first two verses. David sets the entire tone of the Psalm by crying for mercy. This second part of the introduction tells us how David is going to respond to the sin we mentioned in the superscript. This introduction sets the stage for David to offer his repentance as a model for us to follow. Also, this introduction establishes the assumption that will never again be explicitly stated in the Psalm, namely that David’s appeal for God’s mercy is completely dependent on the character of God, namely his steadfast love and his abundant mercy.

It may be helpful to mention why I believe this is an introduction as opposed to David’s first point. The first reason is because it seems to so closely mirror the second point in vs. 7-12. This suggests it is a sort of forecast of what is to come. A second reason is that the next three points follow a logical sequential order. These two verses, on the other hand, mention or assume all three points without regard to their logical development. This suggests that they are foreshadowing what David will seek to establish in his Psalm.

  • Introduction
    • Superscript – The Psalm is framed as a response to one of the worst, and most famous sins in the history of Israel.
    • vs. 1-2 – We realize that David’s response will be one of repentance and that his appeal will be on the basis of God’s great character, namely his steadfast love and abundant mercy.

The first step in David’s repentance is confession. In verses 3-6 we get a glimpse of what confession should look like. Watch how, in these 4 verses, David repeatedly humbles himself and lifts up God as just and good. Watch how David never seeks to justify himself. He never seeks to find a solution. He never suggests that there is any speck of good in him that might persuade God to have mercy. He simply confesses his failure.

In verse 3 David acknowledges his sin, admitting that he is aware of it and it is constantly on his mind. In verse 4 he makes two startling confessions. First he claims that it is against God, and God only, that he sinned. This is startling because we would assume that he would recognize the sin against Bathsheba, Uriah, his son who dies for his sin, the army of Israel, and the entire nation. In fact, there are very few people who he did not sin against, or that his sin did not affect. Yet he still says, against you and you only have I sinned. As startling as this is, his second confession in verse 4 is even more shocking. David confesses the evil he did is “so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” While it is shocking to hear him say against you only have I sinned, it is more shocking, and admirable, to hear him confess that he deserves God’s judgment.

Verses 5-6 continue to make the case that he deserves judgment. In verse 5 David admits his lowliness in every respect, being sinful even from birth. In verse 6 he admits that he is without excuse. God has high standards of “truth in the inward being,” and God has taught him wisdom. Yet in spite of God’s desires, and despite the fact that God has taught him better, David still stands guilty before him.

  • Confession
    • Psalm 51:3 – David acknowledges his guilt and confesses that he is deeply affected by it
    • Psalm 51:4 – David again confesses his sin, making it personal between him and God. He also confesses that it makes him guilty and deserving of any judgment that God may bring.
    • Psalm 51:5 – David again confesses his guilt, this time recognizing the utter sinfulness that has characterized his entire life, since birth.
    • Psalm 51:6 – David confesses awareness of God’s good standard, the same standard which he broke.

A Plea for Mercy
The second step in repentance is a plea for mercy. In verses 7-12 David repeatedly begs God to work on his behalf to restore him. He never offers any help. He never suggests that he can do anything to make this right. Instead David stoops to begging. He humbles himself completely recognizing that only God can fix this awful mess that he is in.

Notice that each line is a request to God. David begs; purge me, wash me, let me hear joy and gladness, let the bones that you have broken rejoice, hide you face from my iniquities, blot out my transgressions, create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit within me, cast me not away, restore unto me the joy of my salvation, uphold me with a willing spirit. At every line he is recognizing his need for God. In every stanza he begs for God’s intervention. It was for David to sin, it is for God to make it right.

There also seems to be a progression in Davids requests. Verses 7-9 appear to deal primarily with David’s sin. He wants them forgiven. He wants them wiped away. David does not want to stand guilty before God any longer. Then in verses 10-12 he begins asking for something even more bold. Not only does he want to be forgiven, he wants to be made right. He doesn’t simply want God to not be angry, he wants God to be happy. This is clear when he begins asking for joy and a restored relationship. David’s fear isn’t simply being found guilty, it is losing his good relationship with God.

  • A Plea for Mercy
    • Psalm 51:7-9 – David begs to have his sin covered and forgiven.
    • Psalm 51:10-12 – David begs for God to restore him to a place of joy and right relationship with God.

A Worshipful Response.
The third step in repentance is a worshipful response. In verses 13-19 David assumes that that forgiveness he begged for has been granted and he moves toward how he will respond. One may be tempted to believe that repentance is a two step process, confess and plea for mercy, but here David shows us that true repentance is demonstrated by a worshipful response to God’s mercy.

David’s first response is to tell other sinners of God’s ways. He becomes an evangelist. Because he has been forgiven, he will plead with others to come and be forgiven as well. He will beg others to avail themselves of God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy. His delight in God’s mercy toward him will become evident as he talks to everyone he meets, begging them to come and see that the Lord is good.

Verses 16-17 then introduce a surprising response, at least for that time. David says that God doesn’t delight in sacrifice. This seems to be a strange claim indeed, especially considering how many sacrifices God commanded the people of Israel to make. If God didn’t want sacrifices, then why require them? Fortunately David goes on to explain. What God really wants is a broken heart and a contrite spirit. The same kind of broken heart and contrite spirit that David offered in the first two steps of his repentance.

Verses 18-19 make the preceding verses even more clear. He explains that if God restores Zion, or builds up the walls of Jerusalem, then he will be pleased with the sacrifices. Its clear that this is metaphorical language. Why in the world would God not be pleased with sacrifices in vs. 16, but once some walls go up, then in vs. 19 he delights in them. The answer lies in understanding everything that came before in this Psalm.

David was the representative of Zion and Jerusalem. He was the one with broken walls. His sin was what destroyed his life, and his relationship with God. To use a hermeneutics phrase, David is using Zion and Jerusalem as a metonymy for himself. No sacrifices could have made his situation better. No bull or calf was good enough to make things right between him and God. In fact, every sacrifice he made would have been a repugnant odor in the nose of God. Yet, when God restored his walls, when God forgave his sin, when God restored their relationship, then and only then would David’s sacrifices please God. Only then would David be able to respond in worship.

  • A Worshipful Response
    • Psalm 51:13-15 – David invites others to experience the grace of God
    • Psalm 51:16-19 – Why God’s work must proceed David’s sacrifices for them to matter. Or why God’s grace always precedes true worship.

The Main Idea of the Message
So what is the main idea of this Psalm? How would you summarize it in one sentence? It is difficult to reduce such a beautiful Psalm in only one sentence. At the same time our outline should help us give a pretty fair representation. My sentence is:

True repentance is marked by confession, a plea for God’s mercy, and a worshipful response to God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy in our lives.

Update: I was recently given the opportunity to preach a sermon on Psalm 51 at Raiford Road Church. If you are interested to see how I moved from the text to a sermon, you can listen to it by clicking the file below. The sermon is a about 45 minutes long.

Big Problems Need Good Representation

In church this morning our pastor began his message with a video where people discussed how they view God. Some people thought of God as a father, some a mother, some a nourishing river, and others a provider. Then our pastor pointed out that no one thinks of God as a mighty judge or a consuming fire. No one says, along with the people of Israel,

For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out the the midst of fire as we have and has still lived? (Deuteronomy 6:25-26)

One thing is clear, these people feared God. These people knew that God was righteous and holy… and dangerous. The people were so afraid that they begged Moses to be a mediator between them and God. They begged Moses to talk to God on their behalf and to protect them from God’s wrath and God’s glory. There was no room for a cavalier approach to God. They could not imagine a casual stroll before the throne of a God. They feared God.

When we turn to the New Testament it appears that this fear of God is all but vanished. Instead of fear, the Jewish leaders (Pharisees) seemed to be brimming with confidence. They had no sense of fear of the wrath of God. They were the good people, what did they have to fear?

Jesus points out the folly of their self-confidence and self trust in a parable. In Luke 18:9-14 we read,

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

My friend, Jonathan Micke, recently preached a sermon on this text. He pointed out that the Pharisee’s problem is not that he has failed to be good, but that he has failed to realize he is bad. The Pharisee’s understanding of his own sin is far too small. If he had even an inkling of how grossly he has offended the almighty God he would be joining the tax collector in crying out for mercy.

Jonathan went on to provide his own story that points out how we are continuing to make the same mistake. He told of a young couple who show up to the pastor’s office for their premarital counseling. When the pastor begins to question them about their purity they confess to having “slipped up” recently after a party. However, they happily assure him that no one saw them and that everything was okay. The preacher responded, “I have some really bad news, someone did see you and was really offended.” Immediately the young couple’s faces fall. They look to the floor in humiliation. Then the young man looks up and asks in a soft, embarrassed tone, “Pastor, who saw us.” When the pastor replies, “Jesus, Jesus saw you,” they both looked up and said, “Oh, only Jesus, what a relief.”

WHAT? A RELIEF? What does it say about our view of God when we are relieved that only He knows of our sin? Have we so completely lost our fear of God that we can be relieved, not grieved, or even petrified when we sin against Him? Have we completely forgotten that God is a consuming fire? We would be wise to remember the warning of Psalm 50:21-22.

These things you have done, and I have been silent;
But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.
Mark this, then, you who forget God,
lest I tear you apart and there be none to deliver.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And in their fear the people of Israel made a very wise request. They begged Moses to intercede on their behalf, lest they perish before the wrath and glory of God. There was no self-justification. They did not seek to represent themselves before the court of God. Instead they put their hope in another, in a mediator, to plead for mercy on their behalf.

If we are wise, if we have any fear of God left, we will make the same choice. Our sin is far too great to stand before God. Yet God has provided a mediator who far outshines even Moses. Paul teaches us in 1 Timothy 2:5-6,

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

It is on account of this mediator, and on no account of our own, that we can have any access to God, much less boldness before Him. For instance, Ephesians 3:11

This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.

If we are wise we will shed ourselves of any sense of confidence we have before God. We must realize that our sin is a big deal. Our sin grieves God and earns our destruction. If we are wise we won’t seek to justify ourselves. Instead we will beg for a mediator who can stand in our stead. We will look to one who can approach God on our behalf. If we are wise we won’t seek any access to God without making sure we have Jesus as our representation.

I have attached Jonathan’s entire sermon on Luke 18:9-14 above. I recommend listening to the entire thing, though it is fairly long. At least skip forward to the 42:35 mark to listen to his story. It was a blessing to me and I am sure you will be blessed as well.