The Great Commission

March 15, 2010
Terri Stewart

The United Methodist Church’s mission statement is:  “"The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.[1]”  This mission for the church is primarily based off of Matthew 28:19-20 which reads:  19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.[2]” 

The common theme that runs through both my church’s mission and the widely adopted mission of Christianity is to “go and make.”  This is a peculiarly damaging reading of this scripture and it has become imbued with the Western European imperialist or colonialist mindset.  Going and making are imperative commands!  To do anything less would be to deny the very command of Jesus.  Do to the combination of missionary zeal, the command to “go and make,” and the Western European colonialist expansion, damage has been done to people and their cultures.

Bishop Muzorewa of the United Methodist Church outlines four major missionary mistakes that can be laid at the feet of this combination of factors[3].  

  1. Missionaries regarded many native customs as evil and forbade their use.
  2. Missionaries believed natives did not know anything about God.
  3. Missionaries tended to make the newly converted into their own image.
  4. Missionaries tended towards the practice of paternalism.

These four missionary mistakes can be laid at the feet of “go and make.”  It behooves us as a Christian community to really understand what the Great Commission commands of its believers.  In order to understand it, a journey into the Greek is required.  I will undertake a word-for-word analysis of the Ancient Greek translation of the Great Commission and then propose a new and nuanced alternative to “go and make.”

Analysis

**The first column is in Greek using a Greek font.  I have no idea how this will show up on other screens.  Please forgive me if it comes across weird!**

19πορευθέντες definition:  go, depart, walk, journey

description:  participle, aorist, passive, nominative, plural, masculine

The first difficulty is determining how the participle functions.  It can function as an adjective or as an adverb.  Great Treasures[4] lets us know that it may be functioning as an adverb because there is no article.  An adverb can describe anything that is not the noun. 

Aorist participle describes action that occurred some time before main verb.

Passive is that the subject is the recipient of the action[5].

passive … whoever after journeying

Proposed meaning:  y’all have journeyed

μαθητεύσατε definition:  teach, instruct, disciple

description:  second, plural, aorist, active, imperative, verb

Aorist imperative is punctiliar action.  The action can teach or start teaching[6].

Translation thoughts[7]:

  1. When the aorist is used with a participle, the action of the aorist participle generally precedes the action of the main verb.  In this case, the journeying should then occur before the teaching.
  2. Active Voice:  The subject produces the action of the verb.
  3. Aorist imperative is to denote either instantaneous action or action that is to begin at once.
  4. With an accusative noun, the teaching or discipling is happening to the recipient.  (the nations/people/gentiles).
  5. This is the main subject and verb!

Proposed meaning:  y’all start teaching

πάντα definition:  all

description:  masculine, accusative, singular

τὰ definite article

description:  first person, plural, neuter, accusative or nominative

decision:  accusative based on context from πάντα

ἔθνη definition:  gentiles, nations, people

description:  accusative, plural, neuter

βαπτίζοντες definition:  baptize

description:  present, active, participle, nominative, plural, masculine

Translation thoughts:

  1. With a present participle, the action happens at the same time as the main verb
  2. Conveys a sense of “while” or “because”
  3. If an article is absent, a participle usually functions as an adverb

Conclusion:  The baptizing describes the teaching.

Proposed meaning:  start teaching and baptizing 

αὐτοὺς pronoun

description:  accusative, plural, masculine

Proposed meaning:  them

εἰς definition:  in

description:  preposition

τὸ definite article

description:  first person, singular, neuter, nominative or accusative

context tells me this is accusative

ὄνομα definition:  name

description:  accusative, singular, neuter, noun

τοῦ definite article

description:  genitive, singular, masculine(of)

πατρὸς definition:  father

description:  genitive, singular, masculine, noun

καὶ and
τοῦ definite article

description:  genitive, singular, masculine (of) , noun

υἱοῦ definition:  son

description:  genitive, singular, masculine

καὶ and
τοῦ definite article

description:  genitive, singular, neuter (of)

ἁγίου definition:  holy, saint, pure

description:  genitive, singular, neuter, adjective

πνεύματος, definition:  spirit (breath)

description:  genitive, singular, neuter, noun

20διδάσκοντες definition:  teach

description:  participle, present, active, nominative, plural, masculine

Proposed meaning:  teaching

αὐτοὺς pronoun

description:  accusative, plural, masculine

Proposed meaning:  them

τηρεῖν definition:  keep

description:  present, active, infinitive

Translation tip[8]:  An infinitive is an action without person or number (although sometimes person and number is supplied in context).

Proposed meaning:  keep

πάντα definition:  all

description:  masculine, accusative, singular

ὅσα pronoun

as, as many as, whatsoever, that, all, what, what?

accusative, plural, neuter

ἐνετειλάμην definition:  order, command

description:  first, singular, aorist, middle, indicative

Translation tips[9]:

  1. With the middle, the subject does the action and may be affected in some way as a result of that action.
  2. If Jesus is doing the ordering or commanding, how does this affect Jesus?

Proposed meaning:  I commanded and through commanding am with you always.  By teaching what Jesus has commanded, we cause Jesus to be with us forever.

ὑμῖν definition:  you

description:  pronoun, second, plural, dative

καὶ and
ἰδοὺ definition:  perceive

description:  second, singular, aorist, middle, imperative

Translation tips:

  1. Aorist imperative means is punctiliar action.  It can be either perceive or begin to perceive.
  2. Middle means the subject does it

Proposed meaning:  you start to understand

ἐγὼ definition:  me, I

description:  pronoun, first, singular, nominative

μεθ' definition:  with
ὑμῶν definition:  us

description:  pronoun, second, plural, genitive

εἰμι definition:  is, to be

description:  first, singular, present, active, indicative, verb

Proposed meaning:  I am

πάσας definition:  all

description:  adjective, accusative, plural, feminine

τὰς definite article

accusative, feminine, plural

ἡμέρας definition:  day, hour, age

accusative, feminine, plural

ἕως definition:  denote that the commencement of an event is dependent on circumstances

description:  adverb

Proposed meaning:  until

τῆς definite article

description:  genitive, feminine, singular

συντελείας definition:  completion, close, end

description:  noun, genitive, singular, feminine

τοῦ indefinite article

description:  genitive, masculine, singular

αἰῶνος. definition:  eternal, forever, without beginning, without ending

description:  noun, genitive, singular, masculine

Putting it Together

After you have journeyed, start teaching all people while baptizing them in the name of the Father and son and holy spirit, teaching them to keep all I commanded you, and by doing so, you start understanding that I am with you until the end of time.

Implications

After you have journeyed, start teaching all people while baptizing them:  The disciples of Jesus are to start teaching and baptizing after they have journeyed to the new people.  If the journeying or going is complete, then the disciples are living among the people they have gone to.  This is not going into a country or area and leaving once a Christian base has been established.  The action required is living and working while teaching and baptizing.  It is also interesting the baptizing and teaching happen concurrently.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there is no reference of Jesus baptizing people.  John, however, has Jesus delegating the baptizing to his disciples (John 4:1-3).  This leads me to believe that the baptizing is an addendum to Jesus’ practice.  Perhaps the disciples and the people needed an outward sign of an inward practice as is so common in the human condition.  For us, we can take it to be nuanced to mean that after we have gone to live with other people, we should start teaching and providing an outward sign of grace.

In the name of the Father and son and Holy Spirit:  This phrase is a standard orthodox expression.  I am persuaded that when I see what I consider to be pure orthodoxy that it was likely not said exactly like that by Jesus.  However, it does point to the mystery of the triune metaphor.

Teaching them to keep all I commanded you, and by doing so, you start understanding that I am with you until the end of time:  This is the most complicated phrase because of the middle tense of the verb command.  This tells us that Jesus is commanding and somehow this has an effect on Jesus.  By teaching the people all that Jesus has commanded the disciples, it causes the disciples to begin understanding and it causes Jesus to be with the disciples until the end of time.  There are two popular maxims that apply:  (1) we learn best by teaching others and (2) as long as we remember someone, they will never be gone.  In this case, by teaching others, we will begin to understand what Jesus commanded and by teaching, we remember and will begin to understand that Jesus is with us always.  Remembering points to the Last Supper:  “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:18-20).

Conclusion

The Great Commission is a much more complicated and nuanced task than “go and do.”  The conditions of the going and doing are complex and require intense reflection and a new way of teaching this to those that we would disciple in our churches.  St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”  In fact, that may be the most succinct restatement of the Great Commission.  Now, go and live among other people while showing them how much you love God and your new neighbors!  Perhaps that should be the new mission statement of the United Methodist Church.

Bibliography

Coad, Peter. Great Treasures Blog. January 11, 2010. http://blog.greekbiblestudy.org (accessed March 2010).

Countryman, L. William. Read It In Greek: an Introduction to New Testament Greek. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993.

House, Christie R. United Methodist Mission Statement Revised. May 1, 2008. http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=3082929&ct=5321679 (accessed March 13, 2010).

Keating, Corey. New Testament Greek: Greek Verbs. http://www.ntgreek.org/learn_nt_greek/verbs1.htm (accessed March 2010).

Muzorewa, Abel. "Bishop Muzorewa Cites Missionary Mistakes Made in Africa." In The Methodist Experience in America: Volume II, by Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt, 641-642. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000.

NRSV Bible. www.bible.oremus.org.

Stevenson, John. Greek Verbs. http://www.angelfire.com/nt/theology/greekverbs.html (accessed March 2010).


[1] (House 2008)

[2] (NRSV Bible n.d.)

[3] (Muzorewa 2000)

[4] (Coad 2010)

[5] (Keating n.d.)

[6] (Countryman 1993, 77)

[7] (Stevenson n.d.)

[8] (Coad 2010)

[9] (Coad 2010)

3 comments

  1. pastorjeffcma said on February 8, 2011
    I found your post quite fascinating. Your textual work is pretty thorough and accurate. There are a couple of issues in your interpretation that I would encourage you to at least consider. I think you addressed the "go and make disciples" quite well. For far too long has it been preached (it may help to know that I am a pastor in an evangelical denomination for whom missions is in their DNA) that the command in Matthew is to "go." Of course that is not correct--as you so ably pointed out. A good translation would be "as you are going." However, I am wondering if, in your desire to battle a perceived imperialism, you might have swung a little far in the opposite direction. I only say that because it seems that in your interpretation you overlooked both Jesus words in Acts 1: 8 (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Uttermost) and Paul's missionary activity of bringing the gospel into an area, training church leaders, moving on while continuing to teach through his letters and on occasion being able to visit again. These are just some of my initial thoughts. I appreciated your post and the clear work that went into your writing of it.
    1. Terri said on February 8, 2011
      Thank you for your response! You could say that I come from a hermeneutic of suspicion school of thought. I think there is a difference between missions, evangelism, and proselytizing. Ideally, good evangelism comes in good missions. And by missions, I must make it include the living among the people. Not swooping in and converting and leaving. I appreciate your points and love that people of many viewpoints can come together respectfully. Thank you.
  2. danroberson said on February 8, 2011
    Thanks for the explanation. Much work and thought was put into this translation and interpretation.

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