The Great Commission for Muslims? (Part 1)

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In order to try and ‘raise the bar’ of good practice in Christian witness to Muslims, I recently asked questions such as “What is the gospel?”; “What does it mean to evangelise or preach?”. My point of reference was Matthew’s Gospel which doesn’t even mention preaching. So do I believe in “preaching” to Muslims? – Yes I do! So why did I do that?

I choose Matthew’s Gospel as the best peg to hook witness to Muslims on because it’s a Semitic telling of the gospel, which makes it the most culturally appropriate for people born into Muslim families. In Matthew, preaching is the “how” of the Great Commission, while to disciple people of all nations is the “what” – i.e. the goal.

I am now paraphrasing from Kenny Burchard who has written some helpful Biblical Studies in Hermeneutics where he reaches an interesting conclusion about the ‘The Great Commission’ in Matthew’s Gospel which says:

“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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mat.28:18-20)

How do we do what it is telling us to do? The answer is bound up in the words used in the original Greek text. Four words make slightly different sense of what Jesus was telling his disciples to do.

In the Great Commission there is one imperative verb (i.e. a single action-word like “run!”). There are also three participles (i.e. “ing” words like “running”). This is key because the imperative verb tells us what to do while the participles tell us how to do it.

The Great Commission’s Greek participles (“ing” words) end with “ontes” or “entes” as follows:

  1. Poreuthentes  – πορευθέντες
  2. Baptidzontes – βαπτίζοντες
  3. Didaskontes – διδάσκοντες

The imperative verb in the Great Commission is a second-person plural form of the imperative. Like so much of the New Testament, it addresses the group (i.e. eastern culture) rather than the individual as in western culture. In Greek this is expressed mathayteusatay (μαθητεύσατε) which in Texan English would read “y’all”– i.e. “y’all run!” So Jesus is telling us as his followers what to do (x1 imperative) and also how to do it (x3 participles). But what is the imperative verb and what are the three participles?

In the English-speaking world, the Great Commission is often understood as being front-loaded with “Go” being the operative word as follows:

  1. GO! (verbal imperative)
  2. Making disciples (participle plus a noun)
  3. Baptizing (participle)
  4. Teaching (participle)

However this is not accurate because Jesus actually said “disciple!” in the imperative – not “Go” which was one of the x3 participles in the Great Commission. So what Jesus said was:

  1.  Going (participle)
  2. DISCIPLE! (verbal imperative without a noun)
  3. Baptizing (participle)
  4. Teaching (participle)

In the Greek it actually reads: ‘As you are going – disciple – baptising them and teaching them…’

Notice too that it doesn’t say: “make disciples” (verb/noun) as you would if it said “build a house!” He simply said: “disciple!” We can’t make a disciple we can only “disciple”, while God makes them. So according to Matthew the imperative ‘disciple!’ isn’t an outcome (i.e. a product you end up with) it’s a process you are continually engaged in doing.

The participles in Jesus’ Great Commission convey three ideas (Mat.28:18-20) which are  “going”, “baptising” and “teaching”. This is where ‘preaching’ comes in because it’s an accompanying activity to ‘going’; it’s the precursor to the ‘baptising’ and a delivery mechanism for ‘teaching’. Some scholars suggest a better expression for ‘preaching’ as used in the New Testament is to ‘gossip the gospel’ or to ‘reason with people about the gospel’.

Next time I’ll try to unpack some of the richness that’s locked into these participles and the implication for Christian witness to Muslims.


Source: Kenny Burchard, ‘Greek-Geeking the Great Commission in Matthew’, Nov 7, 2013, Biblical Studies in Hermeneutics 


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