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?