The Participle as Imperative (Monday with Mounce 12) by Bob Mounce

Bill Mounce on October 27th, 2008.

Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

This week we’re pleased to have Bob Mounce guide us through biblical Greek and translation! The author of numerous well-known resources, including his Revelation commentary in the NICNT series, Bob was involved in the translation of the NIV, NLT, NIrV, and especially the ESV.—Jesse

On a recent Sunday morning I attended a church where the pastor said that the typical translation of Matthew 28:19 (“Therefore, go and make disciples”) is incorrect because the Greek word for “go” (poreuthentes) is a participle and therefore should be translated “going/ as you go.” Makes a reasonable homiletical point (day by day as you go through life, make disciples), but is that what Jesus said? I don’t think so.

The pastor’s misunderstanding stems from an inadequate knowledge of Koine Greek. While it is true that poreuthentes is a Greek participle it is not true that it should be translated like an English gerund (a form that is derived from a verb but functions like a noun: e.g, asking, thinking, etc.). In the Matthew passage poreuthentes “fits the typical structural pattern for the attendant circumstance participle” (NET Bible, p. 1744, note 2) with the participle picking up the mood of the main verb. Since matheusate is an aorist active imperative, poreuthentes should be translated “Go.” Jesus’ instructions are proactive; we are to move out into the world, not simple make disciples when we happen to be there. (The interested student should turn to Dan Wallace’s Greek Gammar Beyond the Basics for a forty-some page discussion of the participle in Greek.)

I decided to check this grammatical “rule” (rules being generalized statements of the way language works) so with the help of Accordance I found that in the New Testament there are twenty-seven occasions where poreuthentes is followed by a main verb in the imperative mood. The result? In every case the participle should be translated as an imperative.

There is a strong temptation to convince a congregation of the correctness of one’s interpretation by adding the always popular “the Greek says.” If in fact the Greek DOES say that, then okay. But all too often it is the interpretation that lacks internal verification; instead, it's supported by the slogan.

Interlinear_nasbniv_cover Dr. Robert H. Mounce is president emeritus of Whitworth College and the author of numerous resources. Most recently, he has worked on a number of new interlinears with Zondervan and co-author Bill Mounce: (NASB/NIV); (KJV/NIV); and a forthcoming (NLT/TNIV) volume. He's also recently authored a commentary on John in the Expositor's Bible Commentary–Revised Edition

  • Steve Runge 9 years ago

    What then is the exegetical significance of the imperatival participle versus a finite imperative? You spoke of the translational issue, but not the exegetical one. What exegetical difference does it make that Matthew used a participle? I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

  • Bob Mounce 9 years ago

    Steve: Since word order, etc., is your bailiwick, I think you could probably better answer your question than I! In any case, I do not think Matthew intended to convey any significant exegetical nuance when in 28:19 he used the imperatival participle rather than a finite imperative. The construction is certainly more common than a series of finite imperatives. The only exegetical consideration I can think of is that since a participle of intended circumstance tends to be preparatory and receives less emphasis than the main verb, the “going” is less central than the “making disciples.”

  • Irving Salzman 9 years ago

    That makes a lot of sense. I think a series of finite inperatives would tend to be viewed as being parallel. Matthew’s formula tends to make the participle of intended circumstances subservient to the main (and finite imperative) verb, and what is, for Jesus, the main issue here: making disciples.

  • Steve Runge 9 years ago

    Bob,
    Thanks for your response. Too often translation overshadows exegesis as the end goal of original language study. I wonder if the exegetical point that you made about ‘less emphasis on the participle than on the imperative’ is what the pastor was trying to assert by arguing for a different translation. As much as we may try to focus students on *understanding* Greek rather than just translating it, translation is too often the only means for expressing that understanding. The project that I have been working on seeks to provide an alternative means of representing this exegetical information like this. Send an email if you are interested in seeing a sample.

    Thanks again for the post and response.

    Steve