Great_CommissionWe’re all familiar with “The Great Commission” in Matthew 28:18-20. Yes, that’s right, verses 18-20 (most people leave verse 18 off, though I think that’s the most important part – but that’s something covered at length in this post). What about verses 19 and 20? What do those two verses really say? What are the implications? How do we respond to them? How do we do what it says to do? The answer to the question is simply bound up in the words that are used.  But this is where we have to be careful.  These are not the words I’m referring to…

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The words that I’m referring to are these…

πορευθέντες ⸀οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, ⸀βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος, διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν· καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ μεθʼ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ ⸀αἰῶνος.

WAIT! Keep reading.  Let me explain!!!  The Greek text is what is used to create your English translation of the New Testament. The words above are the exact ones used in the Greek text of Matthew 28:19-20.

There are four words (all of them are underlined above) that will help make sense of exactly what Jesus was telling his disciples to do.  Before I tell you what they mean, let me explain what kind of words they are, and what kind they are not.

First – there is one imperative verb.  An imperative verb in English would typically be a single action-word, followed by an exclamation mark like… “RUN!” or “FIGHT!” or  “EAT!”  Now that you see the English words near the top of the post, which one do you think is the imperative verb? Keep reading…

Second- there are three participles.  Do we have participles in English? Why, YES, we do!  Participles are “ing” words like “swimming” and “running” and “eating.”

So, in this text there are three participles and one imperative verb.  This is the key.  Whichever word is the imperative verb, that is the word that tells you what to do.  Whichever words are the participles tell you how to do it.  Here’s an example:

“Taking out the trash, sweeping the floor, and wiping down the counters, clean the kitchen!”

What’s the imperative verb? Yep… “CLEAN” (the kitchen)

What are the participles?  You’re right… “taking, sweeping, wiping.”

Here’s another one: “Tune up the car; changing the oil, checking the plugs, replacing the distributor cap.”

The imperative verb – the thing to do is to tune up the car.  The way to do it is by changing the oil, checking the plugs, and replacing the distributor cap.  See?  An imperative verb surrounded by participles.  That’s exactly how the great commission text reads.  Think you know where imperative verb is yet?

Here’s a hint.  Participles (“ing” words) in Greek will, depending on who or what they refer to, end with something like “ontes” or “entes” just as our participles typically end with “ing.”  As I said, there are three of these words in the great commission.  Here they are…

  1. Poreuthentes  – πορευθέντες
  2. Baptidzontes – βαπτίζοντες
  3. Didaskontes – διδάσκοντες

Now about that imperative verb; it’s the word mathayteusatay (μαθητεύσατε).  If you’d care to know it’s a second-person plural imperative verb, which means that you can put the word “y’all” in front of the verb if you wish (like “y’all eat” or “y’all run! ”).  Do you think you guessed which word is the verbal imperative command, and which words are the “ing” words?  What is Jesus telling us to do (imperative), and how are we supposed to get it done (participles?).

I’ve heard it this way in a bunch of sermons…

  1. GO! (verbal imperative)
  2. Making disciples (participle plus a noun)
  3. Baptizing (participle)
  4. Teaching (participle)

I’ve also heard it this way…

  1. GO! (verbal imperative)
  2. MAKE DISCIPLES! (verbal imperative plus a noun)
  3. Baptizing (participle)
  4. Teaching (participle)

Okay – so how does it actually shake out in Greek?  Here’s the answer:

  1. Going (participle)
  2. DISCIPLE! (verbal imperative without a noun)
  3. Baptizing (participle)
  4. Teaching (participle)

Notice that I said “without a noun”?  That’s right.  The Greek word is a verbal command, not a verb followed by a noun.  In other words, the text does not say “make disciples” (verb/noun) like “build a house” or “grill a steak.”  It does not say to verb a noun.  It says simply… “DISCIPLE!” which is like saying “RUN!” or “JUMP!”  In reality, you can’t “make” a disciple.  You can only disciple. So, in the great commission in Matthew, disciple is not an outcome (like a product that you end up with), but it is rather a process that you are doing.  The grammar is not telling us to make an object.  There is no noun in the text at all.  There is only a single imperative verb.  Only a command.  Only an action word.  Only something to do.  And what is it? It is “disciple!”

Okay, now how about those participles?  What do they convey?  There are three ideas.

Idea #1 – Going.  The idea here is not “go on a mission trip” or “go somewhere.”  The participle conveys a continuous action that is already happening right now, but that also continues to happen into the future.  So, the idea is more like… “As you’re going along in your life.”  The great commission is not a verbal command to go (stop, go back, and read that sentence again).  It is a command to disciple as you are already going.  Going where?  Answer: everywhere.

That means that the great commission is not about going on trips to evangelize people who speak a different language, even though that is a legitimate thing to do.  The “going” in the great commission is best understood as a fact that is taken for granted.  It would be more like, “While you’re going through your daily routine, you, yes you – you who work there at the prison or the restaurant – as you are going along doing what you do, and going wherever you go… disciple!”  That means that every person can participate in the great commission without ever going on a trip, because we’re all involved in this Greek participle “going.”  We are all going through life in the every-day stuff.  We all have a well worn path that we walk every day, and that is the place where we do the great commission, which is to disciple.

Idea #2 – Baptizing. The idea here is that I am to help people make a firm commitment to become a follower of Jesus Christ.  How do I do that? Do I do it by sharing facts about Jesus that I ask them to agree with, and ending in sinner’s prayer? Nope! I do it baptizing them. I lead the people that I am with, as I am going along, to commit their lives to Jesus Christ, which is initially done by leading them into the public affirmation of their faith in Jesus.  This is done by baptizing them.  This is exactly what happens with Philip and an Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.  As Philip was going, he met a man with questions about the Bible.  He answered those questions with a Christ-centered answer, and then lead the man into the waters of baptism immediately. Philip was “going” and he “discipled” by “baptizing.” He helped the man to understand Jesus, and then baptized him as the affirming act of his new-found faith.

Idea #3 – Teaching.  The idea here is that I am to spend the time necessary with a baptized disciple teaching them obedience to everything Jesus taught.  That has two big ideas.  One – I will have to teach them everything Jesus taught.  Two – I will have to teach them to obey Jesus.  The word teaching conveys both imparting ideas (conveying theology), and living the things I am teaching (consistent modeling).

“AHA!” you say.  “But what about that part about going into all the world? Surely this is really about GOING!” No. The Greek word for world is Kosmos, and the word for Earth is Ghays.  But the word here in Matthew is neither of those two words.  The word here is “Ethnay” which is typically translated “gentiles.”  So what is the idea? The idea is that these Jewish Christians were to disciple all of the people groups outside of their own ethnicity, and share about Jesus with every kind of person in the world, and not just keep the good-news announcement to themselves like a new jewish sect with Jesus as the leader.

The good news about Jesus is for “all ethnicities” or “every kind of human being in the world.”  This has nothing to do with travelling to foreign countries (though that is fine, and was eventually done – and is still done today).  This is about sharing Jesus with everyone even if (and especially if) they are not like you.  That’s all.  And you can do that in your own home town. No jet fuel, bus tickets, or fundraising is required.  In fact, there are probably many “ethnay” (ethnic groups) in your town!

There is final important component in the Great Commission that shouldn’t be missed.  In English it’s, “I am always with you until the end of the age.”  What does this mean? It means that I am not on my own in the Great Commission.  It is the mission-enterprise of Jesus himself, who joins me in my going, my baptizing, and my teaching as I disciple others.

You are already going along.  You don’t need to go anywhere else on planet earth to fulfill the Great Commission. The street where you live, the town you live in, your work-place, and your sphere of influence are the places where you are already “going.”  So, in those places… DISCIPLE!  Do it by baptizing and teaching.

You are on a mission WITH Jesus, who is with you as you do what he has commanded.

Now… DISCIPLE! (you thought I was going to say GO didn’t you? Nope.  You’re already doing that!).

Okay – jump into the comments below. How does this insight into the Greek grammar of Mat. 28:19-20 impact your own understanding of the Great Commission?