A NEW LOOK AT THE GREAT COMMISSION
T. PIERCE BROWN
For most of the past 60 years, as I have read the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, I thought it had four imperatives or commands, for this is what I thought the King James Version said, and had been told by preachers I considered great. As I read it sometime ago in the original language, I saw that it had one imperative, with three participle phrases. The first aorist participle, “poreuthentes,” could be translated “as you go” or “while you are going.” It is true that those participles have the force of an imperative, for when Jesus said, “As you go,” you cannot obey him without going.
Jesus did not need to give a command, “Go” for the simple reason that all who read or hear that commission are going. Most of my life I have heard some of those who were trying to raise money to go into a foreign field say something like this: “Jesus said for us to go into all the world. Not all of us can do that, but I am going. Since you cannot go, you can send, so I would appreciate any support you can give me.” Those “missionaries” meant well, but they taught something that is false and dangerous for it not only is not true, it teaches a principle that is destructive to sound doctrine. The missionary was not going into the entire world any more certainly than those to whom he was talking were. He was only going to a certain area, and the implication that he was doing what Christ commanded and those who went to a more localized area were not is an error. This in no way minimizes the need for going to foreign fields. It simply says that the person who makes disciples as he goes anywhere into the world is obedient to Christ just as surely as the one who goes into a foreign field.
The second error is even more significant. It implies that God gave commands we cannot follow, and if we feel as if we cannot follow them, we may substitute something else that will be satisfactory. That idea may be what led some to say, “I can’t sing, so I will play.” Others may say, “I can’t find any fruit of the vine, so I will substitute milk or tomato juice.” These arguments are wrong and the results are sinful, but many of those who consider themselves sound in the faith laid the foundation for them by teaching that if you think you can’t do what God said, do something else.
Since everyone can go into the world and is doing so most every day of his life, everyone can do what Jesus commanded. Neither Paul nor any other Apostle went into every place in the world, and Jesus did not command any single individual to do that. But He did say, “As you go, or wherever you go into all the world, make disciples.”
The imperative is “make disciples.” This word is “matheteusate” and, contrary to what I have heard most of my life, does not merely mean a learner. It means an adherent, or disciplined follower. Many Jews learned about Jesus, but were not disciples. You may know much about Communism, but not be a disciple of Marx or Lenin. Our business is to so teach that the one who learns becomes a disciplined follower. The idea of “making disciples” does not mean that you have the right or responsibility to compel anyone to follow Jesus, but that the purpose of your activity is to make disciples, not merely learners.
The next two expressions are not in the imperative mood, but are participle phrases. Here I may reveal both my knowledge and my ignorance. I know that both in English and in Greek, when a participle phrase follows an imperative as the main verb, it often indicates the manner in which the subject is to do the action indicated by the main verb. For example, when I was a boy, if my father said to me, “Cultivate the field, plowing it,” I knew that I was not to cultivate the field, harrowing it, even though I might do it much more quickly that way. It is equivalent in those kinds of sentences to saying, “Cultivate the field BY plowing it.”
I can think of no exception in Greek or English to the general “rule” stated above (which I confess I may have made up, for I have not found it expressed anywhere clearly by any reputable Greek or English scholar). I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knows of an exception. Even when the participle expresses only concurrent action, such as “Lead the horse out, currying it,” the imperative cannot be obeyed without doing it in the manner stated by the participle.
If there is no exception, then it seems to me that the Great Commission is saying this, “As you go anywhere in all the world, make disciples of all ethnic groups (for this is what the word “ethna” properly means, and not just a particular nation as we know it), BY baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This means that a person is not a disciple until he has been baptized and taught to observe all that Jesus commanded. Anyone who has a Greek testament can see that the first word, translated “teach” or “make disciples” is not the same word as “teach them to observe all things.”
This does not mean that he has to know all that Jesus commanded, but that he has to be willing to do all that Jesus commanded whenever he finds out what it is. That is, if a person comes to me and says, “I want to be baptized, for I understand that salvation is dependent upon it, but I will attend or give or worship as I see fit,” I have no authority to baptize him. He cannot thus be a disciple. I find no record of anyone who was a disciple who had not been baptized and taught to surrender to the authority of Christ in all things.
The Crossroads andBostonidea that one becomes a Christian and then has to be disciplined by his senior prayer partner, or someone else, has no basis in the Bible. Nor does the idea that a person must be taught all the specific things that Jesus wants him to do before he is a fit subject for baptism fit the teaching of the scriptures. But it is true that when Jesus gave the Great Commission, it was preceded by the statement, “All authority is given unto me. Therefore, as you go, make disciples–.” If one does not accept the authority of Christ, he cannot make a disciple, or be one. On Pentecost, before Peter told them what to do to be saved, he told them that this same Jesus whom they crucified was Lord and Christ. Until they accepted that, they could not be disciples.
It is my judgment that much of the anemic Christianity we have today is because we have not properly taught that to be a disciple, one must be willing to forsake all he has and follow Christ. We have made it sound as if a person is willing to be baptized and attend fairly regularly, giving some small portion of his income when/if/as he chooses, he is a disciple. Jesus did not command us to make that sort of followers. Baptism was an act that signified dying to self, Satan and sin. When it merely becomes an act which inducts one into fellowship with another bunch of half converted, recalcitrant goats, it is mockery.