Most of us have probably heard it, and if you were to go back into my old sermon archives from my time as a pastor, you could probably find me saying it too, but it simply isn’t true. The Great Commission doesn’t say, “As you are going…”, and we preachers need to stop mistranslating this, because it undercuts the very mission that we are trying to motivate.
What preachers say
If you have no clue what I’m talking about, let me explain. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 is translated in every major English translation with two commands:
- Make Disciples
Just take a look for yourself. Here are the 6 best-selling English translations in 2021:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19 NIV).
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost (Matt 28:19 KJV).
Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19 NLT).
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19 ESV).
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19 NKJV).
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19 CSB).
Even though the translations speak with one voice on this verse, it isn’t uncommon to hear preachers go on to say that our translations are wrong.
They explain that in Greek the verse only contains a single imperative verb (aka command): “make disciples” (μαθητεύσατε). The other verbal components of the sentence in Matthew 28:19–20 are participles, not imperative verbs: “go” (πορευθέντες), baptizing (βαπτίζοντες), and “teaching” (in v. 20, διδάσκοντες). You can see this clearly in the different endings in the Greek words above. The imperative verb ends with -te (-τε) while the participles end in -ntes (-ντες). To this point, what the preacher has said is correct. In terms of form, Matthew 28:18–19 contains one imperative verb and three participles.
Preachers then go on to explain that since “go” is a participle the verse shouldn’t be translated, “Go, therefore, and make disciples,” but “Therefore, while you are going…” or “As you are going, make disciples.”
What’s the significance? The preacher will then explain that we aren’t commanded to “go” somewhere else to make disciples. We are meant to make disciples “as we are going” about our normal lives.
Their motive behind this explanation is laudatory and pure. They want their people to be engaged in evangelism and discipleship! There’s only one problem with this repeated pastoral explanation: It is completely and utterly wrong.
Why it’s wrong grammatically
For many of you, this will be a deep dive into Greek grammar. I know this may seem like a lot of information, but hang in there. It’s really important to get what the Bible says right.
When learning Greek participles in elementary Greek class, seminary professors often use a shortcut to introduce the very complicated and important Greek participle to students. Usually, professors start by teaching students to translate participles temporally (or having to do with the time that something is done). So participles are translated as “While this was happening…” or “As…” or “After…” This is a very simple way to start out when beginning with Greek, and it is accurate because participles often do work this way like in Matthew 9:2, “When Jesus saw (ἰδὼν) their faith, he said…” The participle ἰδὼν is temporal and is thus translated, “When Jesus saw…”
But participles only work this way a fraction of the time, and as students continue in their Greek studies, they learn that there are several other ways that participles operate. In fact, for my Greek comprehensive exam for my PhD, I had to memorize 22 grammatical categories for the Greek participle. These are 22 ways to translate participles based on their function in the sentence, which you can read about in advanced grammars1
But we are interested in the Great Commission, so let me get to the point. Two of the participles, “baptizing and teaching,” are participles communicating “means.” That is to say they explain how you execute the command. You “make disciples” by baptizing and teaching.
But what about “go” (πορευθέντες)? Let me show you two other times that Matthew uses the exact same form with the exact same function. First, in Matthew 2:8, Herod tells the Magi, “Go (πορευθέντες) and search carefully for the child.” Just like in the Great Commission, in this sentence there is only one imperative verb: “search.” “Go” is a participle. But, of course, Herod did not tell the Magi, “As you are going about your normal life, search for the child.” He was saying, “Go now! Find him!”
Second, in Matthew 9:13, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Go (πορευθέντες) and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” The imperative verb is “learn.” But Jesus does not intend the Pharisees to learn this “as they are going.” He intends them to go now and obey his command to learn what Hosea 6:6 means. There is urgency. They should’ve gotten going on this yesterday!
Here is the point: Even though “go” (πορευθέντες) in the Great Commission has the form of a participle, it functions as an imperative or a command. Grammarians label this as a participle of attendant circumstance.2 Participles of attendant circumstance communicate an action that is happening along with the main verb, and these participles take on the mood of the verb they modify. If they modify an imperative verb, they become imperative themselves.
So in the case of the Great Commission, as in Matthew 2:8 and 9:13, our translations are correct. The participle πορευθέντες when put together with the imperative verb “make disciples” functions as a command. Matthew 28:19 means what it says, “Go therefore and make disciples!” And if the other two examples cited from Matthew are any indication, Jesus is even expressing an intense urgency with the command: “Go! Get moving!”3
Why it’s wrong as a motivational tool
While preachers who claim that the Great Commission is mistranslated are 100% wrong, they are nevertheless well intentioned. They want desperately to mobilize their churches as disciple-makers in their own community. But unfortunately, while attempting to motivate, they actually find themselves demobilizing.
Let’s imagine two different people listening to a preacher supposedly giving this alternative translation of Matthew 28:19. One is convicted, realizing that she should be making disciples as she goes about her normal life. This is exactly what the preacher is shooting for.
But let’s imagine a second person. This person has wrestled with a missionary call for some time. This person isn’t convicted. They are relieved. They’ve been told that they don’t have to go. They can stay home. They can live their normal life. God doesn’t expect them to actually leave home to make disciples.
There will also be many others who never even wrestle with whether or not God is calling them to go to the nations as a missionary because they’ve been told that God doesn’t expect them to “go.” While attempting to motivate evangelism and discipleship at home, the preacher has actually begun to undercut the Great Commission. Certainly, they never intended to do this! But this is what people are hearing nonetheless. The demobilization has begun.
But even without the grammatical rigamarole that I went through above, it should be clear to everyone that the Great Commission requires us to actually leave home and go. The command is to “make disciples of all nations.” The command isn’t “make disciples of the people around you.” It requires us to go to every corner of the world to every people group, and even in a globalizing world with millions migrating to North America and Europe, to obey the command will still require leaving home and going “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
What we should say instead
If you’ve been guilty of mistranslating the Great Commission in the past, please, stop immediately. Let Jesus say what he actually said with the force that he actually said it. But at the same time, don’t stop attempting to motivate your people to evangelism and discipleship.
Use one of the many other passages that motivate us to share the gospel with family, coworkers, and neighbors:
Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Matt 9:37–38).
Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person (Col 4:5–6).
But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Pet 3:15).
These verses actually tell us to evangelize and disciple those we encounter during our normal lives. Let them speak, but let the Great Commission speak to God’s people in its full and unadulterated force.
The Great Commission is given to us as God’s people, not merely as individuals. We as a body obey the joint commands to “go” and to “make disciples” together. Not all of us will go as individuals to the nations to make disciples of all nations, but all of us should go as a body through the God-ordained partnership of senders and goers. Every believer will contribute according to his or her gifts to their church’s unified labor of going into all the world and making disciples of all nations.
Let’s not blunt the force of the command that God has used for centuries to single out, burden, and mobilize those men and women he is calling to leave home and family and set out to the ends of the earth for the sake of his name. William Carey, correcting misinterpretations of the Great Commission in the 18th Century, rightly saw the urgent and extensive nature of the command:
The commission was as extensive as possible, and laid them under obligation to disperse themselves into every country of the habitable globe, and preach to all the inhabitants without exception, or limitation.4
Let’s stop saying there is only one command when there are actually two. King Jesus, to whom God has given all authority in heaven and on earth, is speaking clearly and forcefully to his people, giving us two commands: “Go and make disciples of all nations!”
- We used the categories in Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016). Daniel Wallace identifies 20 categories in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).
- Wallace, Greek Grammar, 640–45; Köstenberger, Merkle, and Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, 336–37.
- Christopher J. H. Wright rightly understands “go” as a participle of attendant circumstance, but he is wrong to believe that a participle of attendant circumstance is little more than “an assumption — something taken for granted” (The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative [Nottingham: IVP, 2006], 35.). While the label “attendant circumstance” makes the participle sound insignificant, an actual examination of other examples such as Matthew 2:8 and 9:13 demonstrates that the participle is just as important as the command it modifies and amplifies the urgency of the commands.
- William Carey, “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.”