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