Does the Grammar of Matt 18:15 Indicate Persistence? An Examination of the Imperatival Tenses

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” (Matt 18:15, ESV.)

Ἐὰν δὲ ἁμαρτήσῃ [εἰς σὲ] ὁ ἀδελφός σου, ὕπαγε ἔλεγξον αὐτὸν μεταξὺ σοῦ καὶ αὐτοῦ μόνου.

In doing some sermon preparation, I came across the statement that the grammar of Matt 18:15 enjoins one to go repeatedly to a brother who has sinned and tell him his fault. The application was made that though they may not want to hear it the first time, we need to be persistent. We ought to seek to bring loving correction to the situation in a humble way (i.e., a way motivated by the context of shepherding sheep in Matt 18:12-14 and seeking to “gain your brother” in the second half of Matt 18:15).

Now while this advice is certainly sound – our love for a brother should indeed motivate us to not give up easily when trying to be restored – does the grammar of Matt 18:15 teach this?

In light of S.M Baugh’s New Testament Tense Form Choice: Non-Indicative Verbs, I decided to put this statement to the test. Matt 18:15 has four non-indicative verbs, ἁμαρτήσῃ, ὕπαγε, ἔλεγξον and ἀκούσῃ. Two are subjunctive (ἁμαρτήσῃ & ἀκούσῃ) and two are imperative (ὕπαγε & ἔλεγξον). The two verbs operative in this discussion are the imperatives; there is a present imperative (ὕπαγε; “go”) and an aorist imperative (ἔλεγξον; “correct” – ESV translates, “tell him his fault.”).

Does the first imperative suggest a persistent action, something like, “Go repeatedly”? First of all, we should note that though the verb ὑπάγω is used imperatively 38 times in the NT, it never occurs as an aorist imperative in either the NT or the LXX. Thus we can’t say that the present form of the verb is “marked,” i.e., it is not clear that the Matthew was trying to convey something specific with the choice of a present imperative over an aorist imperative. (Baugh calls this the “author’s descriptive choice”; see pgs. 58-61). Instead, as Baugh notes, “Some verbs which refer to traveling or movement … as well as other verbs like ἐγείρω and θαρσω occur almost exclusively in their present imperative tense forms. This is simply an idiomatic usage for some reason” (pg. 51). As ὕπαγε is indeed a verb of motion and thus fits this class of words, there is nothing about the verbal form itself that would suggest we are to go repeatedly to the brother who has sinned.

What about the second imperative? Does the aorist imperative form of ἐλέγχω somehow convey a repeated or progressive nuance? It is interesting that of the 6 imperatival uses of ἐλέγχω in the NT, 4 have present forms and 2 have aorist forms. (Incidentally, the opposite is the case in the LXX, although 4 of the 5 occurrences of ἐλέγχω in the aorist forms are in Ben Sira 19.) Thus since present forms tend to outnumber aorist forms, this could theoretically be a sign that Matthew is trying to convey a repeated activity by marking the verb. (Buist Fanning notes that in general, Matthew prefers aorist imperatives to present imperatives, although a statistic like this may be marginalized depending on other issues that might be motivating the tense selection. See Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek, pg. 330.) If it is, however, the choice of an aorist is an odd one to convey a progressive nuance. Generally, a marked verb in the aorist will speak either generally about the action (a so-called “gnomic aorist”), or will describe the beginning (“inceptive aorist”) or conclusion (“consummative aorist”) of the action. Thus it would actually seem that any markedness of ἔλεγξον would not refer to a repeated action. My hunch is that the focus is simply inceptive: “Go [so that you can start to] tell him his fault.”

Well, as I stated above, this is not to discount the idea of persistence. After all, the metaphor of the shepherd in Matt 18:12-14 who leaves the 99 in pursuit of the 1 ought to convey this idea to us. May we indeed love one another enough to do the hard work of pursuing one another as we strive toward peace! But what it does mean is that it is the context, not the grammar of Matt 18:15 that draws us to viewing this as a lovingly persistent action. Understanding the use of tense choices in non-indicative Greek verbs can help us to keep an eye out for exegetical overstatements.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA


2 comments on “Does the Grammar of Matt 18:15 Indicate Persistence? An Examination of the Imperatival Tenses

  1. Nevada says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Interesting… Baugh’s concept of “marked” verbs seems helpful. Grammar can be a bit of a minefield, and it is easy to step on a landmine. The more language study I’ve done the less enthralled I am with “In-the-Greek-it-says sermons.” Inevitably, the minister gets it wrong or half-right. (Or he is working with outdated linguistic models—i.e., the aorist tense means a “snap shot” in time.) Generally, as one of my seminary profs used to say, “Context is king.”

    • In a lot of ways, Baugh is really utilizing Fanning over some other approaches. His proposal sounds good to me, although I’m no Greek expert, so I do need to be careful with being too dogmatic. Still, the suggestions he makes give a different way of looking at “tense” in the non-indicative moods.

      I’ve found anymore that when someone starts talking about the verbal form as meaning x, y or z, I always like to check it out. A simple concordance search (on Bibleworks) is my first step, just to see if the verb is predominately expressed in a given tense. If so, I then ask questions about the nature of the action depicted in the verb (whether it is a bounded action, =telic, or one that has no end point necessarily in view, =atelic). Baugh’s other diagnostics are helpful for wading through whether the form of a given verb is really “meaningful” or not (meaningful in terms of “marked,” highlighted for a type of emphasis).

      I remember being so disappointed that Hebrew didn’t allow for quite the same controls when it came to verbal analysis (though there are still some good debates going on over the Hebrew verb). Thinking about tense form choice has been a great tool for use in exegesis.

      Agreed too about the “in-the-Greek” type sermons. I struggle with this because sometimes the Greek (or Hebrew) really does highlight something smothered by the reading/translation tradition. I don’t like exegeting an English translation tradition, but on the other hand, I worry that if someone wanted to defend a point I made from the Hebrew (or Greek), they’d be unable to do so meaningfully unless they took some language classes. It’s a hard tightrope to walk, that’s for sure …

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