Is “Go” in Matthew 28:19 a Command?

In a recent conversation I had someone pointed out to me that the word “go” in Matthew 28:19 was not an imperative in the Greek but rather simply a participle hence it was not a command but rather expressed something like “while you’re going.”  I appreciated her comment but said that there was more to the story than what she had heard. I’ve heard this many times before but had read some commentators who, while appreciating the truth to what is being said, offer some caveats. I give you four examples:

D.A. Carson in his commentary on Matthew writes,

“When a participle functions as a circumstantial participle dependent on an imperative, it frequently gains some imperatival force (cf. 2:8, 13; 9:13; 11:4; 17:27 . . . Only the context can decide the question. While it remains true to say that the main imperatival force rests with ‘make disciples,’ not with ‘go,’ in a context that demands that this ministry extend to ‘all nations,’ it is difficult to believe that ‘go’ has no imperatival force.” (“Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 666)

Grant Osborne in his commentary on Matthew says,

“The circumstantial participle ‘go’ followed by the main verb is a common Matthean stylistic trait, and it becomes in effect another imperative, ‘Go and make disciples.’ In fact, the two participles that follow (‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching’) are also circumstantial and are imperatival in force. Still, the main verb ‘make disciples’ dominates, and all are aspects of that central part of the commission.” (Matthew in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 1080)

Daniel Wallace in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics,

“Second, there is no good ground for giving the participle a mere temporal idea. To turn πορευθέντες into an adverbial participle is to turn the Great Commission into the Great Suggestion!” (p. 645)

In his commentary on Matthew David Turner says,

“One sometimes hears preaching that stresses that the imperative πορευθέντες is the only command in the passage. But surely the activities described by the three participles, though not grammatically imperatives, are not optional.” (Matthew in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 689n.3)

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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4 Responses to Is “Go” in Matthew 28:19 a Command?

  1. The Essential Questions:

    1. Why is it that the first of the three participles in Matthew 28:19-20 is almost universally translated as an imperative,[1] i.e., “Go”, while the other two never are rendered this way in English translations?

    2. May the imperatival force of this participle, or all three of these participles, be denied merely on the basis of its form, or part of speech?

    3. Must the force of this initial participle be identified with the last two and translated accordingly, or are there grammatical or syntactical considerations that would lead a translator to render it differently, i.e., as a finite verb, rather than as a participle?

    Brief Comments:

    Participles can be used as imperatives, were used in this way in the extra-Biblical literature, and are used as imperatives in the New Testament. Therefore, merely pointing out that a word is a participle proves nothing one way or another regarding its imperatival force or lack thereof. Form is one issue. Function is another. A given part of speech, or form of a word, may have a large variety of usages which are ultimately determined by contextual indicators. Both the immediate context and comparison of Scripture with Scripture must be considered as ultimately determinative of usage. Merely pointing to a part of speech and dismissing out of hand any possibility of a particular usage or modal sense on that basis will not do, and is not convincing.

    The verbal forms, i.e., the participles, in this passage are governed by the main verb. Obedience to the command in the main verb, which is not at issue here, involves the process laid out in the series of participles. Therefore, whether or not someone acknowledges that these participles bear imperatival force or exemplify imperatival usage, the syntactical relationship that they bear to the imperative force of the main verb may not be denied.

    It may well be that the three adverbial participles in Mt. 28:19-20 are being used modally.[2] However, their connection to the main finite verb in the sentence which is an imperative may not be cavalierly dismissed as having no impact on the sense in which they must be understood regardless of how they are translated.

    The only observable differences between the first of the three participles and the other two are: 1) positioning prior to the main verb rather than following it, and 2) aorist passive tense and voice as opposed to present active in the other two.

    The Imperatival Usage of the Participle Recognized in the Greek Grammars:

    H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto: The Macmillan Co., 1927, 1955), pg. 229.

    F. Blass, and A. Debrunner, trans. and rev. Robert W. Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 9th ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 245-246, sect. 468 (2).

    C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959, 1953), pp. 31, 179-180.

    James Hope Moulton, Prolegomena, 3rd ed., Vol. I in James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, n.d.), pp. 180-183 [3] , 223.

    A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), pp. 944-946.[4]

    Nigel Turner, Syntax, Vol. III in James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963), pp. 150, 298 [5], 303, 308, 310, 343.

    Nigel Turner, Style, Vol. IV in James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1976), pp. 89, 128-129.

    G. B. Winer A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek: Regarded as a Sure Basis for New Testament Exegesis, 3rd ed., trans. W. F. Moulton, 9th ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1882), pp. 440-442 (participle), 709-714 (anacoluthon), 722-744 (oratio variata), 732-733 (ellipsis).[6]

    Examples of the Imperatival Usage of the Participle in Scripture Texts Cited by the Grammarians: Mk. 5:32; Lk. 22:46; Lk. 24:47; Rom. 12:9-19 [7]; Rom. 13:11; 2 Cor. 6:3-10; 2 Cor. 8:24 [8]; 2 Cor. 9:6; 2 Cor. 9:11; 2 Cor. 9:13; Eph. 3:17-18; Eph. 4:1-3; Eph. 5:21; Phil. 1:29-30; Col. 2:2; Col. 3:16-17; Col. 4:11; Heb. 10:25; Heb. 13:4-5; 1 Pet. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Pet. 2:12; 1 Pet. 2:18; 1 Pet. 3:1; 1 Pet. 3:7-9; 1 Pet. 3:15-16; 1 Pet. 4:7-11; 2 Pet. 3:3.

    Endnotes:

    [1] In 11 of the 12 translations considered: KJV, ASV, NASB, ESV, NIV 1984, NIV 2011, HCSB, NLT, RSV, NRSV, Darby. The sole exception was Young’s Literal.

    [2] See A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), pp. 946, and note 3 below.

    [3] See esp. “…Lightfoot’s suggestive note on Col 316…” (pg. 182): “The absolute participle, being (so far as regards mood) neutral in itself, takes its colour from the general complexion of the sentence. Thus it is sometimes indicative…, sometimes imperative…., sometimes optative….”

    [4] One of Robertson’s assertions on this subject appears puzzling in the light of Lightfoot’s comment (see Moulton’s quote of Lightfoot in note 1 above) which he cites further down on the same page (946), “This use of the participle should not be appealed to if the principal verb is present in the immediate context.” Both Robertson and Lightfoot are, however, only considering this imperatival force as applicable to the absolute use of the participle, which would not be the case if the principal verb was present. Strict adherence to this principle would preclude the consideration of the “non-absolute” participles in Mt. 28:19-20 as imperatival.

    [5] This page number is listed in error in the Index of Subjects, pg. 395, as “293”.

    [6] As Robertson indicates, op. cit., pg. 944, Winer is skeptical of this usage in the New Testament.

    [7] “…where adjectives and participles, positive and negative, in imperative sense are interrupted by imperatives in vv.14. 16. 19 and infinitives in v.15.” James Hope Moulton, Prolegomena, 3rd ed., Vol. I in James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, n.d.), pg. 180.

    [8] On the textual issue involving the participle here see Moulton, op. cit., pg. 181; Nigel Turner, Syntax, Vol. III in James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963), pg. 303; A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), pg. 946; Novum Testamentum Graece, eds. Eberhard and Erwin Nestle, 27th ed., eds. Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1898, 1993), pg. 484; The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, 2nd ed., ed. Zane C. Hodges, Arthur L. Farstad, et al. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), pg. 560; and Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005 (Southborough, MA: Chilton Book Publishing, 2005), pg. 413.

    Soli Deo Gloria,

    John T. “Jack” Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

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  2. I added the following to my file on this passage:

    NET Bible Translator’s note 27 on “Go”:

    27 tn “Go…baptize…teach” are participles modifying the imperative verb “make disciples.” According to ExSyn 645 the first participle (πορευθέντες, poreuqentes, “Go”) fits the typical structural pattern for the attendant circumstance participle (aorist participle preceding aorist main verb, with the mood of the main verb usually imperative or indicative) and thus picks up the mood (imperative in this case) from the main verb (μαθητεύσατε, maqhteusate, “make disciples”). This means that semantically the action of “going” is commanded, just as “making disciples” is. As for the two participles that follow the main verb (βαπτίζοντες, baptizontes, “baptizing”; and διδάσκοντες, didaskontes, “teaching”), these do not fit the normal pattern for attendant circumstance participles, since they are present participles and follow the aorist main verb. However, some interpreters do see them as carrying additional imperative force in context. Others regard them as means, manner, or even result.

    ExSyn = Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).

    See Richard R. DeRidder, Discipling the Nations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), pp. 170-200, and esp. pp. 182-183.

    “There has been and still is current a popular misrepresentation of this command of Christ. The emphasis is placed on the going, whereas actually the emphasis is on the task of making disciples, for that is the primary verb. Even if one takes poreuthentes in the sense of an imperative, this does not change the main verb or the central commission.161 What is tragic about this wrong emphasis so frequently attributed to the command of Christ is that the entire demand is isolated from the whole witness of the Bible, and the “going into all the world” becomes the fulfillment of what Christ demands. Obviously, not everyone can go into all the world, but each can start from where he is. Do we live in Jerusalem where Christ was rejected, or in Judea where he was crucified outside Jerusalem’s walls, or in Samaria where he was not wanted, or in some uttermost part of the world where he is not known? There disciples must be made for him.”

    DeRidder, op. cit., pg. 182.

    161″This is the sense that J. Blauw, Missionary Nature, p. 86, gives to the word, calling poreuthentes a “participium aoristi.” He says, “The fact that this participium is put first places the emphasis on going and travelling. One will have to pass Israel’s boundaries consciously and intentionally in order to fulfill the order.” It would appear more logical to say that the going is first simply because it temporally and logically precedes baptizing and teaching. It cannot take to itself the emphasis that belongs on the main verb.”

    DeRidder, op. cit., pg. 182, note 161.

    “Therefore, “make disciples of all nations” remains the center and heart of covenant obedience.”

    DeRidder, op. cit., pg. 183.

    I added 13 more translations to my file on this passage with the following updated annotations:

    The first participle is translated as an imperative In 24 of the 25 translations considered. Young’s Literal translation is the sole exception to this.

    In 16 of the 25 translations the other two participles are not translated as imperatives. The New Living Translation stands alone in translating the 2nd participle as a participle, and the 3rd participle as an imperative finite verb. The remaining 8 translations render the 2nd and 3rd participles both as imperatives: New Engish Bible, Lamsa, Weymouth, Rotherham, Moffatt, Phillips, Beck, and Williams.

    Historical Examples of “Going” in the Early Church

    In all of the cases below, except for the journeys involved with number 4, the “going” was quite involuntary. In other words the movement was not intentionally motivated by a desire to obey the command to make disciples. Rather, the travel was either the product of external circumstances (1 and 5), or initiated by specific external direction (2 and 3). However, in each case the effect was the same. The Gospel was communicated, received, and spread. Disciples were made, baptized and taught.

    1. Persecution following Stephen’s Martyrdom Launches Movement from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria – Acts 8:1-25 – all but the Apostles

    2. Angelic and Spirit Directed Movement to the Desert Between Jerusalem and Gaza Followed by Spirit Transport to Azotus Leading to Ministry from there to Caesarea – Acts 8:26-40 – Philip

    3. Ordered by Direct Revelation from Joppa to Caesarea – Acts 10 – Peter and others

    4. Multiple Missionary Journeys Launched from the Church in Syrian Antioch to the Northeastern Mediterranean Roman Provinces throughout Asia Minor and Achaia – Acts 13-20 – Paul and others

    5. Further Jewish Opposition Leading to Arrest and Transport for Trial from Jerusalem to Rome – Acts 21-28 – Paul

    It became apparent early in the history of the Church that the ascended Lord’s providential movement of His people intentionally resulted in their being confronted with fresh opportunities for witness to Him, and new fields for Gospel harvests. He had prophesied that He would build His Church, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Mt. 16:18). He has been fulfilling that prophesy ever since He sent the Spirit on the Apostles in Jerusalem on Pentecost following His ascension to His heavenly throne on the right side of the Father.

    Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria,

    John T. “Jack” Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

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  3. bittertruth says:

    Jesus never verified what Paul wrote thus indicating any made up stories can be present in the New Testament.

    None of the Church Father ever quote Matthew 28:19 or 1John5:7 in their early days, however in the 4th century concept of ‘three gods in oneness’ were added to the original texts of Matthew 28:19 and 1John 5:7 thus showing how twisted were the minds of men inventing lies.

    Early Church Fathers believed that there is only One Father the creator, creating all including God Son and Holy Spirit.

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