THE NATIONS AND THE GREAT COMMISSION

PMW 2018-078 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

Introduction

An interested reader sent me a question regarding the Great Commission. The question was two pages long, but I will edit it down to a manageable size. He wrote:

I have a question about a certain verse that I believe you use in a certain way…. The Verse is Matthew 28:19…. My question is this: In what sense do you understand Jesus telling His disciples to “make disciples of all nations?” Can you break that down for me and clarify? I know in the KJV it says to “teach” and that has been discovered by many to be wrong and it seems the better translation is “to make disciples of all nations” I always thought that you believed it meant each particular nation would be through the “preaching of the gospel” would be Christianized. Each nation in a universal but limited sense. Not all but the majority of the people of each nation would be made disciples of Christ through the “things that Jesus taught the disciples”….

[The reader cites a scholarly article he has read on the matter. He notes:] The Aorist Imperative form of this verb lends itself to the expression of a simple activity, like the calling to the commitment to follow Jesus, which each one of the disciples who was listening to this commission had previously done. “Baptizing them” would also be understood by these same disciples as being similar to the individual commitment each of them had to make before they were baptized by John the Baptist (cp. Mark 1:5)….

There is another issue in Matt 28:19-20, and that is how to take the participles – “baptizing and teaching” in relation to the main verb “make disciples”. The commentary you quoted interpreted them as participles of means… “Make disciples of all nations BY baptism and BY instruction.” But the word “by” is added for interpretation and is not in the text.

I hope I have saved the relevant portions of his extended question. And I believe I have. So now, to work!

Thanks for reading and thinking through the issues. I recommend your reading my book The Greatness of the Great Commission for a fuller answer.

Ethnos meaning

Regarding the cultural implications of the Great Commission, I would note:

First, it is significant that Jesus chose the word ethnos in his command, rather than basileia (which suggests political kingdoms, national entities) or anthropos (which suggest individual men). My understanding of “nations” (Gk. ethnos) is that it means “men in their cultural [ethnic] relations.” A “culture” is the sum deposit of the normative exercises of men, i.e., it is what results from the normative activities of men in their surroundings. Blomberg (Matthew: The New American Commentary [1992], p. 431) notes of the word that it is “somewhat equivalent to ethnic groups.”

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Second, this understanding is allowed by Jesus’ use of the word ethnos and it is actually encouraged by his addition of the means of the discipling: by “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Jesus did not teach stray thoughts on personal spiritual matters, but instruction involving a holistic integration of every thought regarding related matters that create a distinctive worldview orientation (cp. 2 Cor. 10:4–5).

Third, this understanding of ethnos well supplements Jesus’ statement in John 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” The kosmos as “a system of men and things” is the goal of the saving work of God in Christ. God did not intend to pluck brands from the fire, but to apply his universal authority (Matt. 28:18) over the whole world. We should note with John Nolland (The Gospel of Matthew: New International Greek Testament Commentary [2005], p. 1270) that “Matthew shares the general Jewish impulse to view true religion as involving a way of life and not simply a pattern of beliefs. So what is to be taught is to keep … what has been commanded.” This is culture-creating.

Thus, I believe all cultures as cultures are to be “discipled,” i.e., brought under Christian instruction and influence. The cultures and the world will be discipled one person at a time, to be sure, but they will be discipled as cultures in all their defining implications.

In the Apostolic church we see the problem of the tendency of Jewish culture (with its ceremonial demands and distinctive social markers) attempting to restrict and govern the gospel (Acts 15; Galatians). This must be overcome — through discipling. The gospel must produce not simply individual converts, but converts governed in all their life relations by the universal authority of Christ.

Participle significance

Regarding the question of the significance of the participles and their functioning as “means,” I believe that these participles are in fact examples of the “participle of means.” As Daniel Wallace notes in his Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (p. 629) the “participle of means could be called an epexegetical [explanatory] participle in that it defines or explains the action of the controlling verb.” He adds that “the participle of means is almost always contemporaneous with the main verb.” Thus, the making of disciples is to be done by baptizing and teaching them. He lists Matt. 28:19–20 as examples of the participle of means (p. 630).


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Later on p. 645, Wallace observes regarding the Great Commission participles (baptizing; teaching) that “they obviously make good sense as participles of means; i.e., the means by which the disciples were to make disciples was to baptize and the to teach.” Charles Quarles (Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament [2017], p. 352) sees these participles as either participles of means or attendance circumstances (i.e., coordinate with the main verb). R. T. France agrees (The Gospel of Matthew: NICNT [2007], p. 1115), noting that these participles “spell out the process of making disciples.” Davies and Allison (Matthew: International Critical Commentary [1997], p. 686) agree, noting that the “general imperative … is filled out … by what follows: baptism and instruction in obedience.” David L. Turner (Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [2008], p. 689) concurs, noting that the participles explain “how disciples are made.”

As Craig Keener (The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [2009], p. 718) puts it: “one should make disciples for Jesus by going, baptizing, and ‘teaching.’” Craig Blomberg (Matthew: The New American Commentary [1992], p. 431) agrees: “The verb ‘make disciples’ also commands a kind of evangelism that does not stop after someone makes a profession of faith. The truly subordinate participles in v. 19 explain what making disciples involves: ‘baptizing’ them and ‘teaching” them obedience to all of Jesus’ commandments.”

According to Charles Quarles (Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: Matthew [2017]), the aorist imperative of matheteuo “expresses urgency” (p. 351). He also notes that the participles “baptizing” and “teaching” are expressed by the “ptc. of means,” thus implying the understanding of “by.” Though it is not crucial to add “by” to the translation because the statement could be read literally as: “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them, etc.”

Regarding the statement that the “Aorist imperative form of this verb lends itself to the expression of a simple activity, consider the following (very briefly!). Charles Quarles (Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: Matthew [2017]), notes instead that the presence of the aorist imperative of matheteuo “expresses urgency” (p. 351).

Though he was not postmillennial, A. T. Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament, 1:245) speaks of the Great Commission as “the campaign for world conquest.” I believe he has captured the sense of Jesus’ command.

I hope this has been helpful. Keep studying!


The Beast of Revelation (246pp); Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (409pp); Navigating the Book of Revelation: Special Studies on Important Issues (211pp).

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For more study materials, go to: KennethGentry.com


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5 thoughts on “THE NATIONS AND THE GREAT COMMISSION

  1. Joshua Stevens September 28, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    Dr. Gentry, thank you so much for your work. I recently finished preaching through the Gospel of Matthew at my church (I also preached through Daniel earlier this year). And preaching through both of these books in conjunction with one another, made me seriously reconsider my eschatological beliefs, especially when I realized that the 70 weeks prophecy terminated with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. When I preached Daniel 9:20-27, I concluded that the “sealing up of the vision and the prophecy” meant that prophetic Scriptural revelation would come to a conclusion before the destruction of Jerusalem (which would affect the dating of Revelation). That thrust me into doing further research into the matter, and that’s when I was referred to your books Before Jerusalem Fell and The Beast of Revelation. I haven’t finished them yet, but when I made it 100 pages into Before Jerusalem Fell, I was convinced that an AD 95 date has no strong support. Your works and your blog posts were also very helpful as I endeavored to preach through the Olivet Discourse.

    I greatly look forward to getting a copy of The Divorce of Israel when it’s released. I only wish that I had learned about these things sooner! My study through Daniel and Matthew have convinced me that Post-millennialism is the right way to go. Not only does a lot more make since now, but the optimistic view of the future that a Post-millennial worldview grants is good for the morale of gospel ministry in general. Every preacher and pastor should try it 🙂

  2. speakingthetruthinloveblog September 28, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you Dr. Gentry. With your permission I am going to save this (as is) as your work. Only to refer back to it and to prayerfully study its truth so that it is something I will be able to remember and communicate effectively. With the end result that this truth of God’s word will bring hope and great anticipation to others. As you have many times said, “Jesus will win the Victory in History!” I will read the “Greatness of the Great Commission.” “Let your Kingdom come and your Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven, O Lord our God.” In an ever increasing way through the means you have ordained. So let it be to the Glory of God through our Lord Jesus Christ!!!

  3. speakingthetruthinloveblog October 4, 2018 at 11:35 pm

    This was an earlier response that this Greek Bible Scholar gave from his own view in reaction to your article. He said and I quote: “Thanks Kevin for the article. My quick response is this. People are baptized… not cultures, so though Christianity and the gospel is to influence and change culture, Jesus is not talking about discipling “cultures” in His great commission but people in every culture. Ask yourself this question. Are people able to be identified as disciples of Christ before they are baptized and before they are taught all Christ’s teachings. I would say yes. The pronoun “them” therefore is still important. Baptizing “them” is not baptizing cultures but those already discipled from those cultures.
    I don’t mind standing against Wallace on this one! 😉 Brian” Not trying to pit you two against each other but some of us do not know the Greek. So it helps when Iron sharpens Iron.”

  4. Kenneth Gentry October 5, 2018 at 9:51 am

    Thanks for thinking through the issues! However, I stand behind my previous exegesis on the matter. Rather than going to the Baptist John Gill, I prefer the exegesis of the paedobaptist, Hebraist scholar John Lightfoot.

    I believe that the “them” in “baptizing them” refers back to “all the nations.” As Blass-DeBrunner’s A Greek Grammar of the New Testament (p. 76) notes: “The neuter is sometimes used with reference to persons if it is not the individuals but a general quality that is to be emphasized.” Nations do not exist in the abstract, but are composed of massive numbers of people. And massive numbers of people generate human culture. “Culture” may be defined as “the sum deposit of the normative labors of men.” By creating culture, men are reflecting the image of God and heeding the command of God to exercise dominion over all areas of life (Gen. 1:26–28).

    Yet, it is not always the case that genders uniformly match up in Greek. Grammatical rules are not like mathematical principles: they are not invariable. We often see exegetes having to explain the “conflict” of gender association in biblical texts. As Greek scholar A. T. Robertson notes on p. 410 of his massive, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament: “Fluctuations in Gender. The whole matter is difficult, for substantives have two sorts of gender, natural and grammatical. The two do not always agree. The apparent violations of the rules of gender can generally be explained by the conflict in these two points of view with the additional observation that the grammatical gender of some words changed or was never firmly settled.”

    Here in the Great Commission the word “nations” (neuter) is obviously made up of people (hence, the masculine gender). As John Calvin writes of Matt. 28:19: “The meaning amounts to this, that by proclaiming the gospel everywhere, they should bring all nations to the obedience of the faith.”

    I hope this is helpful.

  5. speakingthetruthinloveblog October 5, 2018 at 11:47 pm

    Yes, I did further study on my own today Dr. Gentry and have come to the same conclusion. I also have seen what Calvin wrote and what Wallace wrote about the particle and the imperative of “go” and “making disciples.” In a sense Wallace said “Go” being a participle (which kind I do not remember but it was important; being aorist I think) “piggy backs off of (making disciples) thus making it a “dual imperative.” It was very convincing as many others agree with him. Not to mention all of our best bible translations, translate it this very way. Not, “as you are going or having gone.” I do not know Biblical Greek but I thank God for those of you who do and break it down so that I can understand. Thanks for explaining more above. I am sure I have made mistakes above but I think I am on the right track with the first few words of the verse. Thanks again. My question has been answered.

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