Another look at the Great Commission

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Jesus’ colossal declaration at the end of Matthew has become the staple verse of evangelicalism, culminating in its acquisition of the now famed title ‘The Great Commission.’ Its title was first coined by Dutch missionary Justinian Von Welz, but popularized 200 years later by Hudson Taylor.[1] One wonders why the Markan commission receives such little attention. It is likely because the text is questionable. It was also not phrased as positively as Matthew’s. In fact, the wording is nowhere near as epic. The recognition of the Matthean version is well deserved.

Near the end of chapter 28, Matthew winds down his tale with a brief description of the post resurrection events. The final movement takes the eleven disciples to an unnamed mountain back in the Northlands of Galilee. It was there they were told to wait for the risen Lord (28:10). Upon seeing Jesus (presumably from a distance), the disciples responded by worshiping Him. The oi de construction of verse 17 is problematic. Donald Hagner suggests that the construction can be partative, that is ‘Some of them doubted.’ More likely, he suggests, the construction should be taken as pronoun for ‘they.’[2] Therefore, they saw Jesus from a distance (since He later came near to them), then they began to worship Him. As they were worshiping, they also had their doubts.

While the group was sorting through their emotions, the text specifically says that Jesus “came near.”[3] Of the several words the koine Greek uses to describe an arrival, proselthone is the milder word and a favorite of Matthews. One imagines if Jesus had appeared on the mountain and began power-walking toward the disciples, it might have caused them to flee. Instead, He ‘approached’ or ‘came near.’ It is the word used when one approaches a deity—that is, with caution. It can also mean to occupy one’s self with someone.[4] We should more rightly imagine Jesus cautiously approaching them as one approaches a scared child or a wounded animal.

The first words out of His mouth are a declaration of power. Thus far in Matthew Jesus has wielded a significant amount of authority (7:29, 9:6, 11:27, 21:23), but now He has all power and all authority. This declaration of power is reminiscent of Daniel 7:13

“I saw One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom”[5]

For what purpose was this power given?—so that they might go. The coordinating conjunction of verse 19, oun is most often translated as ‘therefore,’ but can also mean ‘consequently.’ What is being said is that since all power and authority has been given to Him, He has the authority to command us; and in that command is the power and means to obey. Simply put, the core of evangelism and mission work is the power and authority of Jesus Christ.

The trifold meaning of poreuo, or ‘go’ has some significance. It can, of course, mean to ‘go.’ But it can also refer to one’s walk or one’s lifestyle. Curiously, the word was also used as a euphemism for going to one’s death.[6]  Such a word, then, could rightly mean ‘go,’ ‘go live this way,’ or even ‘go to your death.’ Perhaps the Lord intended that we ought to go intentionally and do these commands, that we ought live in such a way that we do these commands, and that we ought to do them under threat of death or until we die.

The Great Commission has but one imperative, ‘make disciples,’ but it contains four instrumental participles, or participles of means. [7] Simply put, the commission is to make disciples, while the method through which Christian out to fulfill that command is by going, baptizing, and teaching. Since the first word, poreuthentes,  or ‘go’ is a participle, it has been suggested that it should be translated as such: ‘Therefore, as you go, make disciples of all nations.’ Daniel Wallace takes issue with such a translation when he writes, “First, it is a misunderstanding of the Greek. Second, it is a misunderstanding of the historical context.”[8] He goes on to write that if Matthew wanted it to be common participle, he would have used the present active tense. Instead, he states that “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.”[9] In other words, poreuthentes is a technical participle, but acts as an imperative. Wallace even lists several examples of the same Matthean construction that are always translated as English imperatives. See figure 1.

Figure 1.                                 
Example of the aorist participle/aorist imperative construction:

“Go and look carefully for the child.” Matthew 2:8
“Go and learn what this means.” Matthew 9:13
“Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Matthew 11:4
“Go to the lake and throw out a hook” Matthew 17:27
“Go quickly and tell his disciples” Matthew 28:7
“Go and make disciples” Matthew 28:19

Please note that these constructions contain the aorist participle of poreuomai connected to an aorist imperative, which are quite obviously not translated as the English participle ‘going.’

Hagner summarizes it in this way: “The commission itself is given by means of one main imperative verb, mathenteusate, ‘make disciples,’ together with three syntactically subordinate participles that take on an imperatival force.”[10]

The final word is that the command is not a casual making of disciples as one goes about one’s business. The imperative force of the Great Commission is that we are—with purposeful intent—to make disciples. Of course there is a precedent in scripture for relational and casual evangelism. There is nothing wrong with ‘as we go’ making disciples. This verse, however, clearly commands purposeful intent.

We have already examined the power behind the command, and the means through which the command will be achieved, i.e., going, baptizing, and teaching; but who are the actors to carry out this commission? The aorist imperative ‘make disciples’ is a 2nd person plural, which means that the command was given to a group. The eleven disciples were the recipients of this command, and, given a glut of similar verses, this applies to all who call themselves disciples of Jesus. Every Christian is a missionary.

Thus far we have the power, the imperative, the means, and the actors, but about whom were these commands given? In verse 19 is it the ethne or ‘nations’ who are to be the target of this teaching. Our 21st century, Western, and racially conscious, minds do not automatically perceive any difficulty with this command, but it is likely that a 1st century Jew would have been taken aback over the notion that they were to make disciples even among the gentiles. This is similar to Acts 1:8 where Jesus lists concentric geographic targets for their witness, including Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Even Daniel 7:14 mirrors this:

“He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.”[11]

It is easily concluded that the message of the Gospel, through His power, is to be carried out purposefully by every Christian and to every nation on the earth. The end goal is disciples of Jesus Christ.

If this appears a daunting task, how much more was it for the eleven who stood upon that unnamed mountain? The Great Commission ends with a promise: That He is with us, even to the very end. Our task is to remember it.

 

[1] Robbie F. Castlemam, The Last Word, Themelios, Vol. 32, Issue 3, 2007, 68.
[2] Donald A. Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 33a, Matthew (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 884.
[3] Matthew 28:18 (CSB)
[4] BDAG,  878.
[5] Daniel 7:13 (CSB).
[6] BDAG, 853.
[7] Daniel Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2000), 274.
[8] http://danielbwallace.com/2014/02/17/the-great-commission-or-the-great-suggestion/
[9] http://danielbwallace.com/2014/02/17/the-great-commission-or-the-great-suggestion/
[10] Donald A. Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 33a, Matthew (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 886.
[11] Daniel 7:14 (CSB).

Comments

  1. Thanks for your posting — very interesting.
    I’ve been looking at the “de” at the beginning of the passage as a mild contrast with the previous paragraph, in other words, while the bad guys are spreading false rumors and lying about Jésus, the true disciples obey him, meet Him on the mountain and are given a purpose greater than themselves for shading the grass 🙂

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