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A More Accurate Look at

Matthew 28:19

By John A. Finton



            It is not uncommon to teach a “literal” rendering of the participle πορευθέντες in Matthew 28:19 as either “as you go,” “while you are going,” or “having gone.” This understanding appears to be the majority view. However, there is another view that takes πορευθέντες as an imperative based on Greek grammar. This view sees an emphasis on the imperative character which gives the sense of a strong “go” in the missionary command. This view appears to be the more likely one due to the following reasons.


I. Priority of the Original Language.


             The aorist participle πορευθέντες in Matthew 28:19 is considered to be what is known as attendant circumstance. Grammarian Daniel Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basic, 640) defines this as follows:


The attendant circumstance participle is used to communicate an action that, in some sense, is coordinate with the finite verb. In this respect it is not dependent, for it is translated like a verb. Yet it is still dependent semantically, because it cannot exist without the main verb. It is translated as a finite verb connected to the main verb by and. The participle then, in effect, “piggy-backs” on the mood of the main verb. This usage is relatively common, but widely misunderstood.


         Wallace (641) illustrates the importance of a proper understanding of the attendant circumstance:


Consider, for example, Matt 2:13. The angel is speaking to Joseph and says: εγερθεις παράλαβε το παιδιον και την μητερα αυτου και φευγε (“Rise and take the child and his mother and flee!”). There is really only one good possibility for εγερθεις as an adverbial participle--temporal. (The others, as you can think through them for yourself, make little sense.) If temporal, then it is more likely antecedent to the action of the main verb (though in close proximity). But such an idea would not convey the urgency of the command (“After you have arisen, take . . . and go . . .”). Such a translation would suggest that the time when Joseph was to rise was an option; it was only that once he did rise, he was to obey the angelic command. The attendant circumstance participle fits far better here—the mood of the two main verbs is picked up by the participle (“Rise and take . . . and go . . .”). It is apparent that Joseph was commanded not only to take his family and flee, but also to rise immediately.


             After further discussion concerning the attendant circumstance, Wallace (642) notes, “In the least, since virtually all aorist participle + aorist imperative constructions involve attendant circumstance participles, this casts the most serious doubt on translations of πορευθέντες in Matt 28:19 as ‘having gone,’ or worse, ‘as you are going.’”


             Wallace (645) further comments on Matthew 28:19 stating,

. . . there is no good grammatical ground for giving the participle a mere temperal idea. To turn πορευθέντες into an adverbial participle is to turn the Great Commission into the Great Suggestion! Virtually all instances in narrative literature of aorist participle + aorist imperative involve an attendant circumstance participle. In Matthew, in particular, every other instance of the aorist participle of πορευθέντες followed by an aorist main verb (either indicative or imperative) is clearly attendant circumstance.


         Cleon Rogers (“The Great Commission,” Bibliothecasacra, 130:258-67, 1973) is in agreement with this analysis stating, “. . . a closer examination of the grammar shows that the imperative idea is to be preferred.” Rogers presents several examples from the Septuagint that validates the imperative aspect of the aorist participle in Matthew 28:19. Roger uses examples where the Hebrew text has imperatives which are rendered as a participle in the Septuagint (259). His examples are where the Hebrew text is the base and the imperative force is clear from the Hebrew.

         Rogers presents several examples from Matthew as validation as well (259-60): “The first example is Matthew 2:8 (πορευθένες εξέτασατε). It could possibly be translated ‘when you go, search out’ but the urgency of Herod certainly demands an imperative ‘go and search out. . . .’” Other examples from Matthew include 2:13, 20; 5:24; 9:13; 11:4; 21:2; 17:21; 28:7. Rogers (261-62) continues:

         From all of the examples cited several things could be said regarding this construction. First, the participle is vitally related to the command contained in the imperative. Without the action of the participle having taken place it would   not be possible to carry out the command. The participle proposes the way for fulfilling of the main verb and in this way also has the form of an imperative. Second, the construction is generally aorist and points to a specific act to be performed, often with a note of urgency. In applying these principles to the Matthew 28:19 passage it is seen that there is a command to go. Without the going, the making disciples is not possible, and especially when “all nations” is the object. The participle is not to be weakened to a secondary option which is not as important. The aorist aspect makes the command definite and urgent. It is not “if you happen to be going” or “whenever you might be” but rather “go and perform an act.” This must not be taken exclusively in the sense of going to a foreign country. The emphasis is on the universal nature of the task—a world-wide undertaking which involves the home country as well as the foreign countries.

II. Cross Reference/Parallel Passage

         When one compares the parallel passages and cross references, it is clear that there is a definite command to go. D. A. Carson (“Mathew”, EBC, 8:595) brings this point out: “From the perspective of mission strategy, it is important to remember that the Great Commission is preserved in several complementary forms that, taken together, can only be circumvented by considerable exegetical ingenuity (e.g., Luke 24:45-49; John 20:21; Acts 1:8; cf. Matt 4:19; 10:16-20; 13:38; 24:14).”

III. Context

         D. A. Carson (Ibid) also makes the following point, “While it remains true to say that the main imperative force rests with ‘make disciples,’ not with ‘go,’ in a context that demands that this ministry extend to ‘all nation,’ it is difficult to believe that ‘go’ has lost all imperatival force.” Wallace (Ibid, 645) brings out the historical context as follows:


. . . we must first read this commission in its historical context, not from the perspective of a late twentieth-century reader. These apostles of the soon-to-be inaugurated church did not move from Jerusalem until after the martyrdom of Stephen. The reason for this reticence was due, in part at least, to their Jewish background. As Jews, they were ethnocentric in their evangelism (bringing prospective proselytes to Jerusalem); now as Christians, they were to be ektocentric, bringing the gospel to those who were non-Jews. In many ways, the book of Acts is a detailed account of how these apostles accomplished the command of Matt 28:19-20.


IV. Checking Principle

             William Hendriksen (“Matthew,” NTC, 999) states, “In such cases the participle as well as the verb that follows it can be—in the present case must be—interpreted as having imperative force.” The imperative force seems obvious from the many translations of the Bible (including the literal, the liberal, the paraphrase, etc.).

         If the correct sense of the aorist participle in Matthew 28:19 is “as you go,” one wonders why no translation brings this out? Every translation consulted translates the participle as a definite command “go.” These translations include KJV, NKJV, ASV, RSV, NSAB, NIV, TNIV, ESV, TEV, CEV, Philip’s Translation, The Living Bible, The Amplified New Testament, The Jerusalem Bible, NAB (i.e., The Catholic Bible). It is possible that some of these translations translated the participle as a command by accident, or ignorance. However, it is unlikely that the major translations listed above were ignorant of the Greek grammar when translating into the English.

         Based on the above analysis it seems that the evidence is in favor of not only taking the aorist participle as a strong command, but a sense of urgency is present as well.

©2009 by John Finton