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Nitzavim-Vayelech: The Great Commission Reinterpreted

In our Besorah reading today, we read the final verses written by the Talmid Matityahu, the disciple Matthew, of Yeshua’s final words to the Talmidim after his resurrection. Verse 19 and the beginning of 20 were translated this way in the Complete Jewish Bible.

Therefore, go and make people from all nations into talmidim, immersing them into the reality of the Father, the Son and the Ruach HaKodesh, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

A less Jewish translation like the New King James Version would say it like this:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you;

All of the English Bible versions I’ve looked at translate these lines in virtually the same exact way. And these verses are what have been traditionally used to justify evangelism, ministry and even forced conversions. So what are we, as modern-day, Messianic Jews, supposed to do with these verses. I would like to suggest that there may be a different, possibly more accurate, way of translating these verses into English and which will make more sense to our Yeshua-loving, Jewish ears.

We’ve spoken numerous times in the past about how understanding the source language, its nuances, idioms, phraseology, and connotations can help immensely in bringing clarity to a passage. And all of you, I’m sure, know that the Besorot were not written in English so some translation work had to have been done. But what was the original language for the Besorah as reported by Matthew. Many assume it to be Greek but as it turns out, there is considerable evidence showing that Matthew was written in “the language of the Hebrews.” (Could have been Hebrew or Aramaic.) This was clearly reported as so in the writings of many well-known 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Century Christian writers including Irenaeus, Papias, Origen, Clement, and others. Despite this, there is still controversy since we have no original Hebrew, Aramaic, nor even Greek versions of any of the Besorot to consider.

Now that said, language should not be the only clarifying topic we consider when reviewing a passage. The context including the prevalent culture, grammatical nuances, time period in which it was written, to whom it was written and what purpose was the focus of the author are just a few of the additional tidbits of information that can help us gain a clearer understanding of what the original text might have said and meant. So I want to reevaluate the commonly used translation of this controversial passage that, as I’ve mentioned, is believed by many to be a command to all faithful followers of Yeshua to baptize everyone, including Jews.

So again, Matthew 28:19 from the New King James Version starts with, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,…” Now as everyone knows, the New King James was translated from the Textus Receptus, a Greek version of the New Testament developed by Erasmus in the 1500’s from 7 partial, but still not original, Greek manuscripts and his own translations from Latin. So let’s start with the first word in the passage. “Go” is the Greek word, πορευθέντες (poruthentes), meaning to transfer or go. This particular usage though, has some grammatical nuances that may confuse the English speaking reader since we truly do not have a single, equivalent English form of the word. The Greek word is a participle. As a reminder to all of us who haven’t had a language class in decades, a participle in English often but not always ends in “ing.” It has the characteristics of both a verb and an adjective. Hence it is a verb describing what the noun is doing. However to translate the verse as, “Going therefore and make disciples…,” doesn’t make much sense. And to further complicate this, the Greek word is passive, not active. This means that it is an action in process that is referring to the subject of the sentence. In this case, the subject is not even mentioned but assumed. The noun subject in question is the person to whom the sentence is addressed. So maybe a better way to indicate its passive participle nature would be to say, “As you are going….” It is a state of being. You are “in the process of going as a part of your daily routine.” You are being assumed to be a “going person.”

Let’s hold that thought for a moment and combine it with a second phrase which will begin to reveal the intent of the passage, “make Disciples.” Disciple is just a fancy way of saying student or follower, right? So this phrase, “make Disciples,” is taken from one Greek word which I’m sure I’ll mispronounce, µαθητεύσατε (mathateyusate). It’s a verb, imperative, active 2nd person plural. This means among other things that it is in the command form. This nuance is problematic, because one cannot make students. We can become a student and sit under a teacher to learn, but one cannot force an individual to sit under our teaching. Making a disciple would require force. Forced adherence indicates what today is called “cultish behavior.” Forced conversion only causes compliance of action, not submission of the mind. Think of the Marranos. So, I think the translation causes us to misunderstand the intent of the text. The teachings of Messiah tend to remove force from the picture so the question remains, did Yeshua incite the passion of his most ardent followers, his Talmidim, to teach people who did not want to be taught? Does this one word, mathateyusate, translated as, “make disciples,” demand that His followers stop a person on the street or at their front door and force them to hear the saving message? I do not believe that Yeshua was that ignorant of human nature. Did he not also say, “seek and ye shall find?” I suspect his command to teach is only in the context of the first phrase. Allow me to paraphrase a bit to give a more clear intent this passage. “As you are going … live in such a manner that people come to you and ask about why you act the way you do.”

That was a lot of paraphrasing so let me give you some additional textual support. In 1 Peter 3:15 it says,

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear,”

Our life is supposed to be an example to others, a cause for people to ask about the hope we exude. Yeshua wants us to teach others through the actions of our own lives. And our response to those who ask is to be one of meekness and fear, of humility, not of arrogance and causing others to fear God’s damnation.

I would like to propose that the model of conversion which is inspired by the traditional translation of the Great Commission is one of failure. For example, if it worked, every person in America should by now either be a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. Perhaps we aren’t because Yeshua knew people. He knew force wouldn’t work. He knew that in our parashah today he reiterated the fact that we have CHOICE.

Let’s consider Deuteronomy and how God planned on His Word going out to the nations. Deuteronomy 4:6-7 says,

“Observe them faithfully, [the commandments/mitzvot] for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the LORD our God whenever we call upon Him?”

The way that Yeshua’s message of Hope gets out is for us to carefully keep the Mitzvot. Back in Parashah Vaetchanan, in Deuteronomy 4 it clearly told us to “live and do” not “go and demand” and not “force compliance.” In Deuteronomy 4 there is no manipulation, no verbal coercion, nor condemnation. Just plain mitzvah observance and letting those around us recognize it and come to us. There is no need to beat people over the head with one’s truths. Pride contains the message, “see how holy I am.” Only humility, meekness, without the “see how holy I am” message, can reveal the truth of God.

Another nuance in the Great Commission that we should consider is that it makes a distinction of who or where these disciples should be found. The phrase, τὰ ἔθνη (ta ethno), “the nations” is translated variously depending on the paradigm to which the translators hold and to the context of the verse in question. In the New King James it is translated as, all nations, the nations, or the gentiles depending on the verse. It is a good equivalent to ha-goyim in Hebrew. If a Jew read this verse and saw ha-goyim, he would immediately understand that Jews were not the target of the Commission. Ha-goyim would be recognized by a Jew as the gentiles, the pagans, the non-Jews, because that is the way it was used in the first century and throughout Tanakh. A Jew would never consider himself a pagan or part of “the nations.” We must also remember here that Matthew, the author, was Jewish, as were Yeshua and the Talmidim whom he was writing about, and that he was writing to a Jewish audience and likely in his original Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic). The idiomatic usage of ha-goyim being exclusive of Jews was the cultural norm in Yeshua’s surrounding society.

In contrast, historical Christianity has considered their missionary field to be to anyone who moves. That interpretation reflects Christianity’s historical triumphalism and supersessionism, rather than a historical, linguistic analysis of the text. Considering all this, it is probable that the Great commission is not even suggesting that one should evangelize a Jewish believer in Hashem. It may not be a command to convince anyone of who Messiah is but rather a command to introduce them to the threefold reality of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the manner of life suggested in Torah. Notice what is to be taught in Matthew’s next verse from the NKJV, “Teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you...” This connects right back to Deuteronomy 4, where the wisdom that “the nations” were to understand was the commandments, the Mitzvot.

We’ve often heard that Israel is to be a priestly people and light to the nations. I think Yeshua was simply paraphrasing that thought to the Talmidim. Imagine with me, the resurrected Yeshua gathering the 11 Talmidim around himself on a hill in Galilee, and telling them, “As you are going about your lives, go out amongst the nations and teach others about God by justly keeping the mitzvot and living in such a manner that people come to you and ask about why you act the way you do.”

Yeshua was teaching us to behave properly, according to the Mitzvot, and was saying that our behaviors, our actions, are the proper method of spreading the news about His work in our lives. This message is especially relevant to us today because of the Teshuvah season within which we find ourselves. Are we behaving according to the principles of Torah or do we need to do Teshuvah and return to Hashem? Do we want our sins to serve as examples to others or would contrite hearts and forgiveness for others have a more positive effect in the world?

I would like to propose that we each spend the remainder of Elul meditating on our behavior over the past year. And that we do the business with God and with others that we each need to do, of asking for and extending forgiveness, before and during Yom Kippur. If we do so, and then truly commit to Yeshua’s charge, to live our lives as examples to others of His work in our hearts, then we will draw others to faith in Hashem and in His Messiah and our ranks will swell and the Glory of God will be made known.

May it be so.

Shabbat Shalom.

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