Advice or Imperative: How Can We Know?

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I know some of you haven't taken Greek, and that it's been a while for some of the rest of us, but as I was preparing for a sermon series in the New Year regarding reconciliation, I got to thinking about Greek imperatives. Maybe some of you experts out there can help me (and perhaps others too). Can you tell us anything about the relative strength of an imperative in Greek?

For example, in English, when there is an emergency, I can say, "Go! Get your phone and call 911!" — that would be a very strong imperative, partly indicated by context and partly indicated by the exclamation marks. However, if I'm having a conversation with a young man at work who is considering asking a girl out on a date and I say, "Go ask her on a date, dummy!" We know from context that it's not nearly as strong an imperative, though it is still an imperative, nonetheless.

Is there a way to know (beyond just context) whether a Greek biblical imperative is a strong one, or a more casual, kind of "common-sense-advice" sort of imperative?

Here's where this connects with my sermon preparation: the advice on confronting a brother who has sinned against you in Mt. 18:15-17. Is that advice a strong imperative in the same way as the great commission? Or is it just good, common sense advice? If the latter, then there is room for modification of the pattern laid out there based on circumstances and the underlying principles, if the former then there would seem to be an exact procedure that must be followed to the letter in each circumstance. What do you think? Are there resources you know if that can help me and others out with this dilemma?

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You ask an interesting question, David. In summary, you are right that context plays a huge role in determining the force of an imperative. Look at the Lord's Prayer, which has a series of third person imperatives and then some second person imperatives. We do not "command" God to give us our daily bread, yet the imperative is used; we ask, plead, petition, pray.

But I think we can detect, in at least some contexts, clear clues. When a relationship is clearly an authority relationship, the command element is usually strong (father to children, as in parable of the two sons in Matt 21:28-30; God to us, as in the Great Commission). Now in Matthew 18, the speaker is Jesus, and the context has a couple of "truly I tell you" statements (18:18, 19). That would tend to suggest that Jesus in this section is not just giving relationship advice in 18:15-17; this is what he, as our Lord, expects us to do. 

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Thanks Verlyn. I hear you about the authority relationship, and how that tends to make things a bit clearer. I'm afraid that then I start to wonder a bit about that though: Jesus had the clear intention of not just having an authority relationship with his disciples or his church. He made it very clear (and so did the other New Testament writers) that the spiritual reality was that God had made us, through Jesus, not only servants, sons and daughters and citizens of the kingdom (power relationships) but also that he was making us into friends, brothers and sisters, and co-heirs with Christ (equality). So, though there is a command  and authority relationship, I can't help but wonder whether that had more to do with the (relative) spiritual immaturity of his disiciples and how growing up into the fullness of Christ might clarify His commands for us.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that "mature" Christians can do away with Christ's commands, but rather that they can obey them more fully as they submit themselves to Him-- that they can apply the principles in light of the commands to LOVE in a way that fulfills the intent more fully thans simply blindly going through "steps".

What do you think?

Hi, Daniel: I don't think the Greek language has any grammatical differentiation between "types" of imperatives: a verb is an imperative or it is not--I have never heard of strong or weak, urgent vs. common sense, command vs. good advice.  In the case of Mt. 18, you have to believe that Jesus is sketching flat out what life in the kingdom looks like and so whenever Jesus says something like that, it's not take-it-or-leave-it good advice or common sense but rather what you simply MUST do as a citizen of God's kingdom community.   My main concern with the imperative mood of late has centered on how we read the imperatives of the Gospels and particularly the imperatives in Paul and the other epistles.   There is far too much "good advice" preaching these days as well as a kind of nascent legalism that turns the Gospel from the Good News that it's all God and all Grace to the bad news that it's still mostly up to us to live the right way or else!   For Jesus but also for Paul, I take the imperatives not as saying "Become what you are not by behaving better so that God will love you and maybe save you on your merits."    Rather, Paul's imperatives are always post-baptism and so are a call to "Be who you are!"   That keeps the focus on God's Grace above all land keeps our Christian living as what (in good old Reformed fashion) it properly is: Gratitude.  

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Thanks, Scott, but how specific is the MUST? Must we do each step precisely as outlined? Wouldn't that be just blind obedience in a pharaseeitical way? Shouldn't we obey the principles which lie behind these commands, and modify the specifics for varying circumstances? For example, this system Jesus lays out for us works very well when the two "brothers" are not in some kind of power-relationship. What if one person is "in-charge" of the other in some way? An adult and a child? Elder, congregation member? Pastor, congregant? The person who has been sinned against may simply not be able to go directly to the person who sinned. What if the scenario involves abuse? We wouldn't recommend that a victim of abuse go directly to their "brother" to talk about things first, would we?

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Thank you both for your comments. I really respect what you have to say, but I have a couple more questions for you, then. I think maybe that I was not clear enough in my first post: but your thoughts have helped me clarify in my own mind what I'm really asking, so maybe I'll be able to be clearer the second time around.

I think truly that I shouldn't have made it about advice vs. commands, but rather about literal commands vs. commands in principle. I'm not sure that's even the right phraseology--there's probably some latin term that would cover it nicely. But what I mean is this: when a command is given it can be given in such a way that the specific, literal interpretation is what is truly meant with the command, it can also be given in such a way that the principles that underly the command are the true command, and the details may be altered in different circumstances.

For example, when I tell my son, "Stop poking your sister with a stick", there's a lot of context there and a great deal of background stuff that I've tried to teach him about being merciful and kind, and gentle, and loving to his sisters. What I'm really saying is, "Be nice to your sister (and doing it by not poking your sister with a stick)." The details about poking your sister with a stick are not the main point really. It's a bit of a stretch, but I can imagine a scenario where it would be important and/or good for him to poke her with a stick (I have a good imagination).

However, there are some commands for which there is no underlying principle. For example, when Jesus says that the two greatest laws are to 'Love the Lord your God,... and to love your neighbour as yourself', He gets at the heart of the law, and all the other laws are subject to those two.

Therefore, if I read Mt. 18 correctly, there is a specific sequence of events that should be followed in the case of a Christ-follower sinning against another Christ-follower, HOWEVER, circumstances may dictate that the law of LOVE would teach us to modify the specifics to meet the higher principle involved.

I don't think I knew that's what I was proposing in the beginning, so I'm very greatful for your feedback. I'd be even more greatful if you had still more feedback for me.... what do you think?

I am not 100% sure I am following what you are trying to get at here but suffice it to say that as with all things, a big part of discipleship and of living for Jesus involves wisdom.   It goes without saying that in the case of Mt. 18 only a fool would think this is a simple, black-and-white formula that is one-size fits all and/or that if this "procedure" were followed letter for letter the outcome would always be the same one way or the other.   The Holy Spirit grants us also wisdom.  I don't know that there is a valid differentiation between "literal command" and "command in principle," however, and I can see a lot of potential mayhem issuing from attempting to categorize the commands--if someone is rude to you and you remind him that Jesus commands us to love one another, you would not want this person to reply, "Well that's just a general principle not a literal imperative and so in this case I believe I don't need to love you because . . ."

I think all the commands are "literal" in the sense that they point to Christian practices we are all called to do.   Does wisdom show us the nuances that differentiate the circumstances under which we carry these out?  Yes.  Also, wisdom might also be what leads to the insight that a certain situation--an abusive relationship or some such thing--is actually a sufficiently different and fraught situation that the circumstances Jesus envisioned in Mt. 18 really don't even apply here.  This is a different scenario altogether.   That wise approach can prevent people from manipulating Mt. 18 into a weapon with which to bludgeon someone EVERY time there is a dispute or argument or a perceive "sin" of one member against another.   Maybe things happen that fall outside the boundaries of the kind of situation Jesus had in mind in Mt. 18 and so some other text applies.

Just thinking out loud here . . .

Scott

 

The distinction between a specific command and a general command is a valid one, Daniel. When Jesus tells the blind man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7), this is a specific command to a specific situation; Jesus is not directly commanding us to do the same (though I believe he is, indirectly, informing us that through him we can gain sight--not just physical but also spiritual). But when he says, "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12), he is definitely giving an instruction to us as his followers.

All of this tells me that there is room for a thorough, yet accessible, analysis of the imperatives in the NT. Perhaps in my role at Zondervan I can suggest that to a potential author. (Right now a book is being written on all the questions in the NT, and it will indeed be an intriguing and engaging book.) One thing seems certain: the situation in which an imperative is spoken (including the historical situation, the social situation, and the rhetorical situation) all play a role in determining the nuance we must understand in each imperative (whether second or third person) that we encounter.