Monday, August 18, 2008

As You Go, Make Disciples?

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

One commonly hears that the opening line of the Great Commission is, literally, “… as you go, make disciples…” (a Google search for “as you go, make disciples” gets “about 787” hits). It is pointed out by many that the verb “go” is a participle and it is stated that the participle suggests “as [or while] you go…” From this a very fine pastoral and missiological point is made, namely, that we are all going here and there with our normal life activities and rather than making evangelism and discipleship a special separate part of our lives we should make evangelism and discipleship integral parts of our lives, using whatever opportunities normally and naturally arise as we go about our daily activities. While the point that we should take advantage our the opportunities our lives already present us is valid, as is the point that evangelism should be a natural and integral part of our lives, these miss the usage of the participle in the text, which actually emphasizes something different. First let me explain how we can tell what kind of participle we are dealing with in this case, then I will explain what difference it makes.

The rendering “ [or while] you go…” suggests the participle is taken as a temporal participle, indicating when the main action (discipling the nations) should take place. But when a participle is used to indicate when an action took place or is to take place (the temporal use of the participle) the present tense is used for actions that are to be simultaneous. So to communicate the idea that we are to make disciples “as/while we go” a Greek would use a present participle, not an aorist participle, as we find in this case. (Of course, there are other uses of the present adverbial participle as well). If the aorist participle were functioning as a temporal participle the idea would be “having gone, make disciples” pointing to the disciple-making process as one that is to take place immediately after going. But that is not the most natural understanding here. It is does not work as well as a very common usage that fits perfectly here. None of the participles in Matthew 28:19 are temporal participles. (The participles [baptizing and teaching] that follow the main verb [make disciples] function differently from the one which precedes it and will be discussed in a separate post in the future.)

Students taking basic Greek are commonly taught to translate all adverbial participles as temporal participles, with the understanding that they will later learn other ways that participles might function (for a full discussion of adverbial participles I recommend Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], pages 622-650). All too often they never learn, or at least do not gain great familiarity with, other ways the participles might function.

The first participle in Matthew 28:19 (the one that precedes the main verb, usually translated “Go”) is a participle of attendant circumstance. The most common use of the participle of attendant circumstance, the usage found here, is one where an 1) aorist adverbial participle 2) comes before the main verb and 3) refers to an intentional action that had/has to take place as a prerequisite to the realization of the action of the main verb (adverbial participles that do not fit all the criteria do not fit in this category). This is one of the two most common uses of the adverbial participle in narrative texts and should be the default interpretation whenever a moment’s reflection makes it clear that the action of the main verb could/would not be realized if the action indicated by the participle were not realized first and is something that someone would intentionally do in order to accomplish the action indicated in the main verb. It would have been the default interpretation of any ancient Greek. When translated into English the participle of attendant circumstance is translated as a finite verb, sharing the mood (indicative, imperative, etc.) of the main verb.

Once this pattern is identified [aorist adverbial participle preceding the main verb and referring to an action that is a prerequisite for the realization of the action of the main verb] it becomes easily recognized. Here is a series of examples from the Gospel of Matthew (in some cases I abbreviate the text for brevity’s sake):
• Matthew 2:7: Herod summoned (← participle) and ascertained from them when the star had appeared (he had to summon them to ascertain anything from them).
• Matthew 2:8: Go (← participle) and search diligently for the child (one cannot search for someone while remaining stationary [without going]).
• Matthew 4:3: The tempter came (← participle) and said to him (this is a common usage – people typically approach others for the purpose of speaking with them, and with human subjects, at least, one cannot speak with another unless one goes to them first)
• Matthew 5:2: And he opened (← participle) his mouth and taught them. (Have you ever tried teaching something [verbally] without opening your mouth? In cases like this we open our mouths in order to say or teach something).
• Matthew 8:2: a leper came (← participle) to him and knelt before him (one cannot kneel before another without going to them first).
• Matthew 8:3: Jesus stretched (← participle) out his hand and touched him (touching in cases like this requires reaching out first – it’s a prerequisite)
Hopefully this is enough to give you the idea. When we exegete participles like these we should not be asking what all the possible interpretations are and which ones we like best or which ones fit our theology best. Rather, we should be asking which interpretation is the one to which the original readers would be expected to come based on the standard usage of the language. In cases where an aorist adverbial participle precedes the main verb and refers to an action that would be a natural prerequisite to the action given in the main verb (an action which one would intentionally take as a step towards the goal indicated in the main verb) a modern interpreter should work with the same assumption that would guide an ancient Greek, namely, that the participle refers to an action done as a step towards (that is, as a prerequisite to) the action indicated in the main verb.

We should note that the exact form of the participle used in Matthew 28:19 (poreuthentes) is used seven times in just that gospel and fifteen times in the New Testament as a whole (Matt. 2:8; 9:13; 11:4; 21:6; 22:15; 27:66; 28:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 7:22; 9:12, 13, 52; 13:32; 17:14; 22:8), and it is almost always used in this way. It never means “as/while you go.” It is most often used, as here, in conjunction with imperative verbs, indicating that the hearers are to go (and do something which could not be done if they just sit there). Remember, the mood of the main verb casts its shadow over the participle of attendant circumstance so that when the participle introduces an imperative it gains an imperatival force as well, even though the main point is found in the main verb and the participle points to a first step that must be undertaken to accomplish the action of the main verb. That is the usage we find in Matt. 2:8; 9:13; 11:4; 28:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 7:22; 13:32; 17:14; 22:8. In all these cases it is best translated, “Go and ….”

Sometimes it is used with indicative verbs to indicate that someone (or some people) went and did (that is, went in order to do) something that needed to be accomplished elsewhere. That is the usage found in Matt. 21:6; 22:15; 27:66; Luke 9:52. It is used in a similar way with subjunctive verbs in Luke 9:12, 13 to refer to something that might be done to accomplish something elsewhere (they may have to go [← participle] and buy food).

Whether it is used with indicative, imperative or other moods, this kind of participle of attendant circumstance highlights intentionality or deliberateness. The participle is not the main point (that is indicated by the main verb) but it is used for an action intentionally or deliberately carried out with a view to realizing the action mentioned in the main verb.

So what does all this tell us about Matthew 28:19 and the Great Commission? It means no ancient Greek would take it to mean “while/as you go, disciple the nations” but would understand, from intimate familiarity with this common usage, that the meaning was “Go and disciple the nations” and that the main point was not to go but to disciple the nations, but that the nations would never become disciples if the apostles and those converted by them did not take the gospel to them. Going is not the ultimate point, but it is a prerequisite, a necessary step towards the goal of making disciples of the nations and we must be intentional, deliberate, about going everywhere and leading all peoples to (willingly) obey the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus never suggested that the nations would be discipled as long as we simply shared the gospel as we went about the normal routines of our lives. He indicated that we needed to be intentional/deliberate about making sure all nations got the message and were taught how to follow Jesus.

This does not mean that every Christian must up and move to the far corners of the Earth to make disciples. If the CEO tells his leadership team (of, let’s say, eleven people) that they needed to take their product global (and, yes, I cringe at my use of a commercial analogy), it would not mean that those particular eleven people needed to go to all the nations. It would mean that they needed to take whatever steps would be necessary to make sure people all over the world had sufficient knowledge of and easy access to their product. In the case of the church it means we must accept the fact that there are people who will never hear and respond to the gospel message if we do not take it to them. The disciples could not all stay on that mountain or stay in Jerusalem, but needed to get the gospel to those who would never hear unless it was brought to them. That challenge is still ours. Some of us may contribute best to that mission by staying where we are and partnering with others who go, sent and supported by the rest of us. And even those of us who do not go to distant lands must not simply wait for people to come to us but must be intentional about finding bridges that can be used to take the good news to others in our communities and we need to be intentional about supporting the growth and health of the church around the world. After all, Jesus commanded us, as a church, to “go and make disciples of the nations….”


  1. Great article! I'm in total agreement! Especially since this is how God led my family and I to move to Chicago two years ago to plant a church with the sole purpose of making disciples. This article is encouraging to me in so many ways--and affirms our decision even in the midst of much trial and suffering...

  2. Thanks so much, Dr. Ciampa, this is much appreciated.

  3. Thank you, that makes a lot of sense.

  4. This made my day at Linguistics and Translation Department at TCNN, Bukuru, Jos, Nigeria! Great article!