By Tyler Lee Price
Since the late 90’s there has been an outflux of people who attend church on a regular basis, especially among the youth in the United States. This has been partially due to how we “do” church and ministry on a weekly basis. A few of the issues are that we have limited church to a building and a service on a Sunday morning, evangelism to inviting someone (namely non-believers) to church on a Sunday morning, and teaching to evangelical sermons preached on Sunday mornings so that if a non-believer did happen to wander into the church, they can get saved.
We go to church on a Sunday morning, listen to a few songs at the beginning of the service, listen to a sermon, then we go home and have Sunday lunch with our families. Some understand that the church isn’t limited to the four walls of the church, but they still rely on the pastor to preach their friends into the kingdom of God due to a misunderstanding of what evangelism is supposed to be. This is caused by not having a clear understanding of the Bible and how it characterizes the concept of evangelism, as well as not getting the spiritual nourishment and discipleship that they need from the person in the pulpit, namely pastors.
The purpose of this paper is to shed some light upon these issues and expound upon them using biblical examples and a proper understanding of hermeneutics. Throughout this paper, I will expound upon the issues in understanding the Matthean and Markan Great Commissions and how instead of focusing our attention mostly toward mostly foreign countries, we should divert some of that attention to the mission field that lies within the areas in which we are local. This can include workplaces, schools, hospitals, jails, restaurants, and coffee shops we attend regularly.
The next section of this paper will be solely on how we currently interpret the Great Commission and will conclude with how we should interpret the Great Commission and expound upon how we can put this new interpretation of the Great Commission into practice.
Matthew’s Great Commission
One of the most commonly quoted and misunderstood passages of scripture is, ironically, the passage of scripture that gives us one of our directives as Christians. The misunderstanding is derived from the way that the scholars, who interpreted and translated the Bible into the multitude of transcriptions we have at our disposal today, miswrote this passage of scripture, which I will explain later on.
The Great Commission is currently written in English as:
“19 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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)
This transcription of this passage of scripture has led to a misinterpretation of how we are to fulfill this directive. We commonly interpret this passage of scripture as meaning that we are to go to all nations to make disciples, particularly referring to the ministry of global missions.
I’ve heard sermons with two different ways of interpreting this passage, first, with “GO” being the directive, “making disciples” being a participle plus a noun, and “teaching” and “baptizing” being two participles and commands. The second uses “go” as a directive, “make disciples” as a verbal imperative, and “teaching” and “baptizing” being participles being two imperatives.
After doing a Greek word-study, I found that the Greek word “πορευθεντες” (poreuthentes) does not translate to “go therefore” but instead, it translates to the progressive participle “going”. As you examine the words “βαπτιζοντες” (baptizontes) and “διδάσκοντες” (didaskontes), they translate to the participles “baptizing” and “teaching”, therefore it can be deduced that the “όντες/εντες” (ontes/entes) endings translate to the English “-ing” ending, denoting a progressive participle. So, if we go by the literal meaning of the words, then the Great Commission should read:
“19 Therefore going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
This translation of the Great Commission is a more literal, accurate translation and would lead to less of an emphasis on international missions in the church world and lead to a better understanding of the Christian imperative to be more involved in the ministries of evangelism and discipleship.
Once we come to understand the directive of the Great Commission, we can begin to operate both corporately and individually. On a corporate level, we, as a church, are all called to the ministries of evangelism and discipleship and therefore individually, we should all be convicted of our shortcomings in these areas and strive to become better equipped to participate in these forms of ministry that God has called us all to participate in.
The next part involved in this process of understanding the Great Commission is understanding who we are to disciple. The words I’m looking most heavily at when trying to understand who I am to proselytize and make a disciple of is the Greek words used for “all the nations”. The Greek text uses the words “πάντα τα έθνη” (panta ta ethnē). The way I’m going to exposit this part of scripture is going to be a bit unorthodox, but it will make sense in context.
I’m going to begin with the word “πάντα” (panta). “Πάντα” translates in English to the following words: always, all, every, each, whole. The four most logical words to associate with “πάντα” in this context would be all, every, each, and whole. Contextually, we could translate this piece of scripture as “every τα έθνη”, “each τα έθνη”, “all τα έθνη”, and/or “whole τα έθνη” (though this is the most unorthodox way to translate it).
The next words I’m going to zero-in on are “τα έθνη” (ta ethnē). To understand these particular two words, you have to look back to the Hebrew roots from which έθνη was translated. From Hebrew to Greek, it starts with the word הגויים (read right to left), which transliterates to “goyim”. The root word of “goyim” is the Hebrew word which transliterates as “goy” which is the Hebrew word used to refer to a non-Jew (commonly referred to as gentiles). So, it can be deduced that “goyim” is indeed the plural of “goy” referring to a multitude of gentiles. The Greek word έθνη was translated from the aforementioned Hebrew word goyim. So here, we can see that the word έθνη wasn’t speaking about going to “all the nations”, but instead going to the “whole of gentiles”, “every gentile”, “each gentile” or literally “all the gentiles”.
In the realm of Christianity, we are quick to label someone as Christian without hearing a verbal proclamation of faith or seeing the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) evidenced in their life. As a Christian, who is adopted into the family of God through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 1:5; Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:6-7), we are considered to be grafted in to the category of “sons of Abraham” since we as Christians are simply a continuation of Judaism that is made righteous through the blood of Christ. With that being understood, it can be deduced that non-Christians can be included in the gentile category.
With all that taken into consideration, it can be deduced that the object of the directive “disciple” is anyone who is apart from the family of God. A simple way of translating Matthew’s Great Commission could indeed be:
“19 Therefore going, make disciples of every non-Christian, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you, and I will be with you to the end of the age.”
The final word in Matthew’s great commission that must be examined to gain a proper Greek hermeneutical understanding of Matthew 28:19-20 is the Greek word μαθητεύσατε (matheteusate). This word, when translated into English from koine Greek, has always been translated as “make disciples”, and upon close investigation of the sentence in the Greek text, the word for “make” is nowhere to be found. The word matheteusate is actually an aorist active imperative. This means that it should be understood as the imperative to disciple in English after translation. This means that we ought not understand “poreuthentes” as the directive in this set of scripture, but we should instead understand “matheteusate” or “disciple” as the prime directive, with “poreuthentes” (going), “baptizontes” (baptizing), and “didaskontes” (teaching) as the ways in which we are to accomplish the directive “disciple”.
This understanding of the Great Commission, if taught, would cause a paradigm shift within the North American church atmosphere. This shift would come in the form of the missions focus being shifted from global (foreign) missions to community-based and relationship-based missions within a local context. I reiterate that this understanding does not discredit the concept and validity of international missions, but we have placed such a heavy focus on what we can do for ourselves and other countries that we have forgotten to steward and to disciple the communities that we claim to serve.
Mark’s Great Commission
Interestingly enough, the Great Commission of Mark and Matthew are remarkably similar. The difference between the two is the object of the directive and the detail with which they give said directive. The object of Matthew’s directive is έθνη (ethnē), which, as mentioned before, translates to “Gentiles” due to the word being derived from the Hebrew word “goyim” which refers to the gentiles in plurality. The object of Mark’s Great Commission is κόσμος (kosmos), which can be translated as “the world or universe”, but I want to propose a different understanding of the way we interpret the word κόσμος in this passage of scripture.
According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, there are eight ways that the word κόσμος has been used in the New Testament. The one I want to examine is the seventh way that it has been used. The seventh way it has been used means “the ungodly multitude; the whole mass of men who have been alienated from God, and therefore hostile to the cause of Christ”. Interestingly, we have once again broadened the scope of what the object of the directive of each Great Commission is. With this interpretation, we have once again broadened the scope of ministry from mostly global missions to global missions with an emphasis on local missions. This interpretation changes the way that we understand Mark’s Commission. It changes it from:
“15 Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to all of the creation.”
“15 Going (poreuthentes) to the ungodly multitude, proclaim the gospel to all of the creation.”
If we notice the parallels between the Greek versions of Matthew and Mark, we would see that we, as disciples of Christ, are meant to proactively preach the gospel in season and out of season to those that we come across as we are progressively going throughout our lives. Evangelism is more than a concept that we relegate to our pastors on a Sunday morning so that we may avoid complicated situations that may arise from attempting to share the gospel with someone in our work places, schools, and local gathering places. Evangelism is not something that is to be confined to the four walls of the building we call our church, but we must realize that evangelism is the mission of the ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekklesia | “gathering”) and that the body of Christ is the Church, not the building. If we are to win this lost and dying world to the cause of Christ, we are to take up this responsibility and equip ourselves and others with the skills and knowledge necessary for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the kosmos | “ungodly multitude”, and it will only be with the taking up of this responsibility that we will be able to bring our lost friends, family members, and even our enemies to the salvific knowledge of Jesus Christ.