Has anyone ever told you that the Great Commission is mistranslated in your Bible? It’s one of those passages that people love to point out: “You see, the translators got it wrong here.” The next time someone tells you that, politely ask them if they have read the rest of that book (whether Matthew, John, Galatians, etc.) in its original language. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this exact same line: “The first word of the Great Commission is a participle…so, the translation should actually be–‘As you are going, make disciples…'”
At the bottom of this article are some more technical treatments of the grammatical function of the participle πορευθεντες (‘Go!’ or ‘as you go’), but I want us to consider a very simple explanation based on Matthew’s stylistic preferences (I first heard this argument made by Dr. Jonathan Pennington of SBTS). Once I read the whole gospel for myself, I began to realize that nearly every other sentence of Matthew’s Gospel begins with a participle. Participles are like Matthew’s salt and pepper.
Matthew uses this same “Go, do this” (participle, then imperative) six other times with this exact same verb. Here is what we will do: let’s read those six examples in the same way that the “as you go” crowd wants to interpret Matthew 28:19.
Matthew 2:8–And [Herod] sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “[As you go], search diligently for the child…”(Herod speaking to the Magi)
Matthew 9:13–“[As you go], learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Jesus speaking to the Pharisees)
Matthew 10:7–“[As you go], proclaim, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'” (Jesus speaking to his disciples)
Matthew 11:4–And Jesus answered them, “[As you go], tell John what you hear and see…” (Jesus speaking to John’s disciples)
Matthew 17:27–“However, not to give offense to them, [as you go] to the sea, cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up…” (Jesus speaking to Peter)
Matthew 28:7–“Then quickly [as you go], tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead…” (the angel speaking to the two women)
Each of these verses sounds foolish when translated this way. Did Herod mean for the Magi to “go about their day”? Did Jesus mean for the Pharisees to learn what Hosea 6:6 had to say “as they went about their business”? What about the angel’s instructions to the two women at the empty tomb (just 12 verses before the Great Commission, mind you!)? Did the angel mean for the two women to casually go by and tell the disciples about Jesus’ resurrection “as they went about their normal lives”?
People have good intentions when they insist that the Great Commission is to be done “as you go.” They want people to feel like they can still make disciples even if they are not a missionary in a foreign land. The problem is, this interpretation is not possible in any of the other six similar cases. It is clear that Herod commanded the Magi to go. It is clear that the angel commanded the woman to go. The one instance where the “as you go” might fit is Matthew 10:7. However, Matthew 10:7 comes right after Matthew 10:6 which reads, “go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (And the “go” is an imperative). So, Matthew 10:7 assumes Jesus’ command to “go” from the previous verse.
I believe, the “as you go” misinterpretation could also promote a lackadaisical attitude about evangelism. When you soften the “Go!” to “as you go,” it communicates that making disciples doesn’t take intentionality, forethought, planning, or even inconvenience. It should just sort of fit into your every day life. When you feel the full weight of the command, “Go, make disciples,” you realize that making disciples will mess up your weekend plans; it will disrupt your life; it will demand of your time. This misinterpretation could also help people feel okay about ignoring their conviction to actually “go” make disciples in other nations (i.e., become a foreign missionary!).
The “as you go” translation also promotes the misconception that making disciples is all or nothing. The Christian is not either a foreign missionary or nothing. Peter tells us to always be ready to give a defense for our hope, and that does mean on the job, in Walmart, and as you go (1 Peter 3:15). However, there is more than the “as you go” style of making disciples for the Christian in his hometown. It is the “Go!” to your friends, family, and neighbors of Matthew 10:5-7. The disciples didn’t begin as missionaries to foreign nations. Jesus had them begin their ministry right at home in the towns and neighborhoods where they grew up. “Go!” means intentionality here–at home. We can’t just have an “as you go” mentality. We need a “make-plans-and-go-do-something-about-making-disciples-in-your-town” mentality.
That’s catchy. I should put that on the church sign.