Is Every Imperative in the New Testament a Command?

Driving home the other night I heard a pastor on the radio make reference to 1 Thess. 5:16, “Rejoice always.” One of his first comments was to note that this was an imperative “which means it is a command.” Right away my ears perked up. It is true that this is an imperative but it does not necessarily mean that this is a command. Daniel Wallace in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics says that “[t]he imperative mood is most commonly used for commands” but he qualifies this, “Technically, then, it is not best to call this the mood of command because it may be used for other than a command.” (Emphasis his. 485) One way the imperative is used is in making a request. In Matthew 6:10-11 we read “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done . . . give us today our daily bread.”  Luke 11:1 says the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us [how] to pray.” Simply because these are imperatives would hardly mean we are commanding God. Wallace says, “The imperative is often used to express a request. This is normally seen when the speaker is addressing a superior.” (487)

There is yet another reason to be careful in simply equating the imperative with commands. Commands can be expressed using other moods. Wallace notes the “future indicative is sometimes used for a command” and offers Matthew 4:10 as an example, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” And 1 Peter 1:16, “You shall be holy, because I am holy.” There are no imperatives here but these are clearly commands.

This may not seem like a big deal but I see the ramifications of it all too often. A pastor makes a comment like “this is an imperative therefore it is a command” and then when some lay person is doing a study and happens to be using a parsing guide (either in print or an online resource) and notes that a verb is in the imperative mood they naturally assume it must be a command. For the most part they may be right but on important occasions they would be wrong. You then find some very creative exegesis happening as the person tries to force the notion of a command on a verse like Luke 11:1. They begin to think that perhaps Luke is telling us we have to “command” God to teach us to pray. They might reason, “This must show our rights as a child of God. If we simply ask God for this we’re not serious about it. We need to command him to do it.” This is crazy but I’ll bet you anything someone is thinking it and might teach it to an unsuspecting class.

Not too long ago I had a customer call and asked me to look up a passage and tell him what Greek word was used for “life” in the verse. (I don’t get calls like this often; but I do get them.) I looked it up and the Greek word was zoe. When I told him what the word was he responded, “Oh, so it is spiritual life. That’s what zoe means, right, spiritual life?” I explained that zoe is sometimes used with that meaning but it doesn’t always mean spiritual life (cf. Luke 16:25; James 4:14). I don’t remember the passage we were discussing but I was simply making the point that the mere presence of zoe did not necessarily mean it was spiritual rather than natural life. Context would be critical in making the determination.

Pastors who frequently make use of original languages make my job much harder. People can eventually distrust their translations because they’ve been told so often that the original word “really” (or “literally”) means this or that and not what is printed in their Bible. Pastors, please be more nuanced in your use of the original languages if you must use it at all.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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8 Responses to Is Every Imperative in the New Testament a Command?

  1. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    Excellent post. I would probably add that the Future Active Indicative is used by the LXX of the Ten Commandments. In fact, it would do one well to pay close attention to the use of the LXX in the NT since it was the text used by the majority of OT quotations. You know of your Baker Academic’s book by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson ***New Testament Commentary on the Old Testament, 2007***.

    Furthermore, regarding the use of the original languages in the pulpit, Wallace has an article regarding the use of “if” at http://www.bible.org. There are many ways the languages can be used, but the best way is to gradually use it from the pulpit and indicate that word studies, etc. can be misleading unless one pays attention to the context. Context, Context, Context is the key to all issues regarding the text especially with the use of language and hermeneutics.

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  2. A former pastor of mine called me one day because he was preaching through the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6) and had basically completed his sermon notes and realized that he was sounding like a “name it and claim it” preacher with his references to commanding God in prayer. It took me over an hour to convince him that there was a category of an “Imperative of Entreaty”!! A little Greek knowledge can do a lot of damage 😦

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  3. Joe Rutherford says:

    Jesus was teaching the diciples how to pray, so it was a command to them (and us). Zoe (Life) is Jesus Christ. All things that were created, were created in him. Everything He created had life in the manner which he created it.

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