Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #778 ------- July 26, 2019
Language is the house of
Being. In its home man dwells.

Martin Heidegger [1889-1976]

A Greek Imperative Inquiry
Examination into Mood Expression

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) was an American linguist who was perhaps best remembered for his theory that "differences between the structures of different languages shape how their speakers perceive and conceptualize the world." This view is known as the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis," although Whorf himself preferred to refer to it as "the principle of linguistic relativity." In his piece titled "Thinking in Primitive Communities" he wrote, "Language is not simply a reporting device for experience, but a defining framework for it." Long before the work of Whorf, the English writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who in the view of many British historians was "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history," declared: "Language is the dress of thought." Thus, it is not only the framework for the expression of our thoughts and feelings and experiences, it is even the fleshing out and the dressing of that framework, thus providing additional color and clarity to those thoughts and experiences. Needless to say, therefore, those who desire to share their thinking with those around them, and who hope to do so effectively, must be skilled in the use of this medium. Whether fair or not, the reality is that if one expects his or her message to be well-received, it must be well-presented. Almost nothing will "turn off and turn away" a crowd more quickly, leaving them untouched by the message, than an ill-prepared or unskilled messenger.

For those who seek to better understand the New Testament writings, and who additionally seek to help others do the same, a working knowledge of the language in which these were written (i.e., Greek), as well as the history and culture of that time and place, are valuable aids to achieving that goal. With regard to the Greek in common use at that time (Koine Greek), it is especially critical that one understand the many aspects and variables possible for each word employed, especially when those words are verbs. One of the most important aspects of that quest for correct interpretation of the text is an understanding of "mood." Thus, at this point we should probably pause for a brief lesson on the nature and purpose of mood in the Greek language. There are four moods in Greek: indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and optative. The most commonly used in the NT writings is the indicative mood (15,618 times). Next is the subjunctive mood (1858 times), then the imperative mood (1631 times), and finally the optative mood (68 times). These stats are courtesy of Dr. Daniel B. Wallace [Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, p. 447]. But, what exactly is "mood"? Simply put, it is the way of expressing the idea or action of a verb or verbal phrase with regard to its relation to reality (whether actual, possible or probable). "The essence of mood is the way in which the verbal assertion is related to reality" [Drs. Dana & Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 166]. "Just as with 'tense' and 'voice,' 'mood' is a morphological feature of the verb. 'Voice' indicates how the subject relates to the action or state of the verb, 'tense' is used primarily to portray the kind of action, and, in general, 'mood' is the feature of the verb that presents the verbal action or state with reference to its actuality or potentiality" [Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, p. 443]. Notice the following summaries and examples:

Where students of the text often find themselves in a hermeneutical quandary is when they seek to translate authorial intent from one language to another. Translation must of necessity allow for some flexibility in the rewording of the original text, and this can potentially lead to a rewording that may not fully reflect the intent of the original. It is very difficult to make a translation of a text from one language to another without some of the thinking and understanding of the translator seeping into the new translation, which may then potentially lead interpreters and commentators down a path never intended by the original author. These are dangers that biblical scholars must always be alert to, and to help them in that effort various hermeneutical principles have been developed to aid in the best possible handling of a particular text. Even then, however, one will find numerous variables of wording and expression in the many versions and translations of the NT writings on the market today, and these differences can be personally troubling for some readers as they seek to know the correct meaning and application of the Scriptures they are reading and studying.

An example of this is the use of the subjunctive mood in John 3:16, one of the most familiar and beloved of all the NT passages. How is one to understand the force of that particular "mood" in this text? And yes, their understanding will affect their translation of the verse from Greek to English (or any other language). Some versions state that the one who believes "will/shall not perish," while other versions state that the one who believes "should not perish." Such differing translations lead to all kinds of theological debates, such as whether or not man has free will. The sovereignty of God and the eternal security of the believer are also brought into the equation by how one deals with the subjunctive mood in this verse. I dealt in some depth with that exegetical challenge in my study titled "The 'Shall' or 'Should' Debate: Scrutinizing the Subjunctive in John 3:16" (Reflections #749). Along similar lines of thought, I recently received an email from a reader who wanted to know the difference between "shall not" and "let not" in the translating of a number of NT passages. There are verses where one translation may read "shall not," while another may read "let not." Why this distinction and variation? Are differing and conflicting meanings being conveyed? Like the study I did on John 3:16, the answer lies in how one understands and employs MOOD. In John 3:16 the Greek mood in question was the subjunctive. With respect to this new question, the Greek mood we need to examine is the imperative.

The person who emailed me the above question also provided a list of several verses to illustrate his concern (each of which are from the KJV): "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9) ... with reference to the future destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus said that when people saw the city surrounded by armies, "let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto" (Luke 21:21) ... "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27). The vast majority of translations use "let not" in these particular passages, although a few will use either "must not" or "shall not." In each of these examples, the phrase is in the 3rd person, the present tense, and the imperative mood. Further, in each of these passages the Greek "me," which is a negative particle, is used (or one of its cognates, such as "mede" in the second phrase {"neither let"} of John 14:27). Although one might miss this in translation, it is quite obvious to those reading it in the original Greek, and this grammatical construction was not without meaning! There was specific intent on the part of the author, and it is that authorial intent that must not be overlooked.

Okay, now what does all that mean?! Simply stated (although there are areas we could get into where it can become very complex very quickly), the imperative mood "is most commonly used for commands" [Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, p. 485]. "It is the mood of the assertion of one's will over another or the call of one to exert his own will" [Dr. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 946]. Here we get a clue as to why differing words, like "shall not," "must not" and "let not" are used. As Dr. Robertson notes, "A command easily shades off into petition in certain circumstances. The tone of the demand is softened to pleading" [ibid, p. 947]. Dr. Wallace refers to this as "polite command" [Wallace, p. 487]. Some commands, as Robertson noted, are an "assertion of one's will over another," which might be a father telling his son, "Stop doing that! Stop hitting your sister!" This is designed to address something already taking place (which is the significance of the present tense). He might also appeal to the son to "exert his own will" in the matter: "Son, let me not catch you doing that again!" Now, the child himself must take some responsibility not only for ceasing a certain action, but also for refraining from it in the future. In other words, there are a great many nuances of meaning and intent that are possible when dealing with Greek moods, and a translator's choice of words will reflect which of these nuances he believes the original author of the text intended. Was it harshly spoken, or was it softly spoken? Was it the imposing of one person's will over another, or a call to the other person to exercise his own will and do the right thing? How one interprets authorial intent, based on how one views the overall context in which the Greek mood is employed, will impact the words and phrases one uses in his/her translation.

"The present imperative has to do with action which is in progress; the aorist imperative has to do with action which has not yet started" [Dr. Ray Summers, Essentials of New Testament Greek, p. 112]. Although there are several examples of imperatives being used in the aorist tense, the vast majority of them occur with the present tense. "There is no first person in the imperative mood; there is a third person which has no English parallel, and which is thereby generally translated 'let him...'. This is the use of the third person imperative and needs the English auxiliary verb 'let' to make its meaning clear" [ibid, p. 111]. There are several "forms" used with the imperative mood: Cohortative (positive commands) and Prohibitive (negative commands) are the two most common. The Greek scholar "Dr. Moulton finds in the New Testament one hundred and thirty-four examples of the present imperative in prohibitions. ... This probably arises from the immediate ethical application involved in the viewpoint of the New Testament writers" [Drs. Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 303]. As the disciples of Christ sought to spread the Faith throughout the world, there were attitudes and actions being continuously evidenced around them that needed to cease, thus the large number of such strong prohibitions in the form of present imperatives. "The negative particle 'me' is to be used with the present imperative construction, ... which construction prohibits the continuance of an act which is in progress. It may very well be translated, 'Stop...'" [Summers, p. 111].

I realize that this issue of my Reflections may be more "technical" in nature than some of my readers might like, but I hope that it will be helpful to those few who might be seeking to tackle some of the intricacies of biblical translation and interpretation. This can be a difficult field of study, and it can also be rather complex, and thus, at times, rather confusing. Perhaps some of the insights shared above will prove beneficial to those who have chosen that path of study and reflection on God's Word. May God bless each of you in your daily journey of faith with Him!


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Please send me a signed copy of your CD titled "From Law to Liberty: Reflecting on our Journey away from Legalism and into Freedom in Christ." Enclosed is my check for this five week adult Bible class you taught and recorded. Thank you so much, Al.

From a Minister in Texas:

Dear Al, Greetings to you and your family. May this note find you, one and all, enjoying His richest blessings. I have a request: do you still have copies on hand of your first book "Down, But Not Out" for sale? If not, is there a distributor who stocks them? I have a copy, but I am holding on to those few books in my library that I treasure, and am reluctant to lend them out. Your book on MDR being one of them! We have a young friend in the military who has been introduced to, and confused by, the old 1950's MDR debates and dogma. I can't think of a better remedy to that teaching than your book! Al, your wisdom has been, and remains, a great blessing for me. Again, thank you for this book, but even more for all the labor that went into writing it. It's a true blessing and is going to do much good.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Brother Al, I am a frequent reader of your materials on your Web Site and enjoy your studies very much. I am sending you the funds (via PayPal) for the Special CD containing all four of your books. Thank you, and God bless!

From a New Reader in Monrovia, Liberia:

Dear Brother, Greetings to you! I bumped into your writings when I was searching for something else. I love them! Believe me or not, but what I have read so far in your Reflections has answered most of my own questions relating to practices of the conservative Churches of Christ. Thank you! Also, please consider adding me to your mailing list for these Reflections. I am very interested in them. Grace to you.

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Thank you for your latest Reflections (Issue #777: "A Cog-Slipping Leftist Preacher: Destructive Power of a Deluding Influence"). I must admit that you are a patient man as you communicate with Hugh Fulford. I personally believe he will never change, because to do so would require him to admit that he has been wrong all these years about the nature of the church. That admission is a very hard thing for anyone to do, myself included. Plus, if he did change, this would probably alienate him from many of those who follow his writings. But, were he to embrace that change from dogma to Truth he would be a much happier person: one who could now appreciate the grace of our God. He could then enlighten many of his followers and readers. On the other hand, it might also bring suffering upon himself: the same suffering and abuse that he continues to inflict upon you and others who agree with you. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for all your insights that you share in your Reflections. They really mean a lot to me, and also to many other dedicated searchers who want to only follow Jesus.

From a Reader in Barbados:

Brother Al, don't ever give up!! Keep on running along the riverbank (as per your illustration in Reflections #777) shouting warnings to the unsuspecting souls who are being swept along to the deadly falls. Keep on throwing to them a rescue line. That's what Jesus did/does, and until He returns that is what we have been commissioned to do. You are doing a great work, brother. Don't "come down," as some tried to get Nehemiah to do (Nehemiah 6). Don't bow to the detractors. A traditionalist may yet become a Nicodemus. Remember: with men some things are possible, but with God all things are possible. Blessings, my brother!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, your article "A Cog-Slipping Leftist Preacher: Destructive Power of a Deluding Influence" (Reflections #777) may well be the best explanation of how so many of us were taught and raised by well-meaning brethren, and of the deeper Truths of Jesus' Good News and how we all should view and understand those Truths. Thank you, brother, for reaching out a hand to snatch us from that error that had been previously taught to us, and thank you also for pulling us toward the light of Jesus' Truth! I am praying for each and every person everywhere to find the Truth of our Lord Jesus and to give Him their life.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, once again you nailed the truth of God's "true church." It took me many years to come to the conclusion of what the "true church" is made of, and finding you several years ago articulating what I believe was one of my greatest blessings as a Christian. I love my heritage in the "Church of Christ," but, unlike you, I left this denomination when the TRUTH became self-evident. I remain very active in my Christian walk: teaching classes and working on various committees in the group where we now attend. I stay sad at times about those who can't seem to free themselves from the legalistic approach that was condemned by Christ Himself. I have many friends and relatives who are still in chains there. I will pray for Hugh Fulford as you attempt to free him, and I hope you never give up on that desire to see him finally grasp Truth. Your ministry is so important, Al. So please keep on keeping on, dear friend.

From a Reader in Louisiana:

The visible "church" we see on earth, even within the group denominated "Churches of Christ," has some members who are not saved. I would be shocked if anyone who has been around churches very long would disagree. But, the one, true "Body of Christ" (HIS church) has NO unsaved people in it. That is a stark difference that cannot be ignored by honest people. As you have correctly said so many times, "Restoration" churches have split, and the splinters have also split, so how does a guy like Hugh Fulford know which of these splinters is the "true church," since many, many splinters claim that honor? Keep teaching Truth, brother!

From a Reader in California:

Al, you do a great work; you do great works! I cannot express how much you inspire and influence me through your writings and all the works you do. The more I read your writings the more of them I want to read! There is a LOT of rabid legalism out there, and this legalism must be challenged and exposed, for people's minds need to be changed from legalistic religion to a real, living relationship with Jesus. I have so much more to say, but I'll spare you! Thank you for all you do, Elder Maxey.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Unity, like division, starts and ends with only one person -- and that person is ME. Thank you, Al, for demonstrating that truth in your life. You have cast your light into a great many dark places. Yes, some have snuffed it out, but many others have seen it as a glimmer of hope and have passed it on. I pray each day for your courage, strength and faith. Al, I can't even begin to tell you what an encouragement you have been in my life and in the lives of those to whom I have sent your materials. God allows each of us to bless others, if we will just do it. You are truly a "can do" brother!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

I am endeavoring to have a discussion with an elder here who is promoting the view that all those who worship and labor for the Lord under any other name than "Churches of Christ" are eternally lost. I'm reminded of the story Jesus told of two men who were praying: one of whom thanked the Lord that he was not like "that sinner over there" (e.g., "that one over there who worships in another building under a different name on the sign out front"). That kind of arrogance is what Jesus repeatedly spoke against! Keep on reasoning with such people, Al. The church needs it!

From a Reader in Texas:

Greetings, Al, from Houston. I am writing concerning your latest Reflections ("A Cog-Slipping Leftist Preacher"), which studies are always better than great! I certainly understand the frustration and the hope and the despair and the desire for folks such as Hugh Fulford to be more accepting of others, just as Jesus was. I understand and even empathize, as so many of us do, that this narrow line of "We Only!" thinking is so terrible in so many ways. What I'm having trouble with (and please correct me if I'm wrong) is your thinking that this thinking is fatal. That these kind of folks are lost. That they are not heaven-bound as we are. Here are some of your quotes from that article: " what may well prove to be their doom..." -- "...chose to float on down that river ... and, ultimately, over the falls" -- "...and the almost certain destruction that awaits them ... hurtling to the ragged rocks below." Am I correct, Al, that you believe these folks to be lost? If so, I'm going to strongly disagree. True, they are horrible representatives of Christ. True, they show very little of the accepting, loving spirit of Jesus. But, lost? Of course Hugh Fulford is wrong! You and I agree on that! But, can we truthfully claim that WE are NOT?! Though it is very disappointing to know that he will never enjoy the freedom and boundless love that we share, yet he is not lost. The very same wonderful, undeserved grace saving us is saving him. Or so methinks! I look forward to hearing from you, Sir, and I wish the very best to you and yours.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

In the old days, when I was a kid and my dad was preaching, I loved to listen in on the adults' conversations because they always sounded so important (and therefore interesting). But now I just wish we (i.e., all Christians) had the chance to converse more about spiritual matters. We are all just so busy (myself included) that the things of God just don't come up much outside of Sunday morning Bible class. Your Reflections, Brother Maxey, are my way of listening in on the "conversation" again!! Thank you!!

From an Elder in New Mexico:

Al, I couldn't agree more with your article titled "A Cog-Slipping Leftist Preacher." I have come to the same conclusions. I have long recognized that people like Hugh Fulford confuse the universal church of Jesus Christ with the "Church of Christ" denomination. This is nowhere more obvious than when, after making a wonderful case for the fact that there is only ONE church, they then proceed to ask, "Which is the right church?" At this point they pull a fast one: they switch from talking about the church as the spiritual body saved by Jesus Christ to talking about the church as a human organization. Hugh has apparently never recognized this change in the meaning of the term "church," and the fact that he himself is making that switch when making his argument for his view. God bless you, Al, and please keep up the good work.

From a Minister/College Professor in Florida:

Al, I have some thoughts on your efforts to reach Hugh Fulford: You are probably the one person with the largest online presence and thus the greatest influence on those within the Stone-Campbell Movement regarding our history and heritage. I urge you to continue to apply your good efforts to studying, writing, and helping the spiritually blind to move successfully from darkness to Light! Hugh, however, is in his "golden years" (old enough to be both stubborn and even possibly cognitively challenged without fully realizing it), and your rebuttals of his teachings are simply feeding an unfortunate deep psychological need that he has to be validated. He gets his "fix" through your efforts to reach him, and your challenges make him feel defensive, leading him to believe he is still fighting "the good fight." In his latter years Hugh is probably needing just as much visibility, validation, and recognition as he has always needed, but which he may not now be receiving. As you know, not all aging preachers "go gently into that good night." Anyway, here is some advice: try to go 90 days without giving Hugh any journalistic nourishment. It cannot hurt either of you. Also, I would love to hear Hugh's definitions of "leftist preacher" and "our tribe." Blessings, brother!

From an Author in Arizona:

Al, you and I have had similar problems with Hugh Fulford. On numerous occasions through the years I have wrangled with him about his sectarian stance, but to no avail. He is so established in his factional and fractional notions, so addicted to "his way or no way," that I seriously doubt if your efforts will ever penetrate his sectarian armor. But, good luck to you if you should choose to continue trying. As for me, I removed him from my mailing list about two years ago.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I never hear this question discussed: At what point can we say it is a SIN on the part of legalistic congregations and leaders when their attitudes and actions cause their members to leave, some for other denominations and some for none at all? I see that happening with the "Churches of Christ" around here who hold to the belief: "We are the only true Lord's Church." These congregations are dying, and many of their members no longer attend anywhere since they have always been taught that to go anywhere else is a SIN. Though they believe as you and I do that these other disciples are also God's beloved children, yet they are made to feel like "traitors" if they associate with them. Are those who cause them to feel and act like that guilty of SIN? I say they are, and that we should address it as such!

From a Minister in California:

Al, you Leftist you!! (LOL) When I took the class "History of the Restoration Movement" while attending Pacific Christian College, I never could understand the value of the town hall debates that would occur between (the then) Disciples of Christ and the Baptists and Methodists. The whole world was/is going to hell, and yet we were/are out there wanting to evangelize the Baptists?! That's crazy! Al, please keep up the good work and the great thinking which you are doing!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, you have been gracious and understanding toward Hugh Fulford, even in the face of his attacks against you! I read Hugh's article (to which you responded in Reflections #777) and was very disappointed in him and his teaching. I admit that I have not been as gracious as you toward him, so I decided to block him so that I will not see any more of his posts. Thank you, Al, for being so patient in the Lord.

From a Minister in Texas:

Al, I pray you are well and wanted you to know (again) how blessed we are by your tireless work dealing with what I like to term "modern day Pharisees." I've been thinking lately about the differences between Christian churches in the first century among Jews and Gentiles. We see that dynamic played out in Jerusalem and Galatia, and even in Corinth. My thoughts are that an idyllic first century church, to whose "pattern" we can all return, just does not exist. The Jews met and did things like Jewish Christians, and the Gentiles met and did things like, well, like Gentiles. Paul references these differences in both the Roman (chp. 14) and 1st Corinthian (chp. 9) letters as he speaks of different people from different backgrounds doing things different ways. I guess I'm amazed that some here in the 21st century are determined to try to return to a time when there was arguably NO set "pattern" for the church. Are we going to follow Jewish traditions? Gentile preferences? Or, are we today actually following a pattern established 200 years ago by people living in a young America (Stone-Campbell)?

I believe we need a 21st century church that responds to the needs and issues of the modern world. Where do we stand on refugees and immigration? How does abortion and divorce affect people and society? What really constitutes wolves in the sheep pen today? Is homosexuality still a sin? I know you have dealt with many of these issues using Scripture as a guide, but I think the devil is busy in our world trying to convince people that traditions are faith, and that there is a first century "pattern" that we need to discover and use in our services, and that the real issues of the world should not intrude on our comfort level in a church building. Thanks for letting me rant, brother. What do you think about there being a viable pattern in the first century that we can and should copy? Your last article referenced Jesus as our firm foundation. Might He also be our pattern?

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, Thank You for Reflections #777 ("A Cog-Slipping Leftist Preacher: Destructive Power of a Deluding Influence"). As one who also grew up in the "Church of Christ" faith-tradition, I can see that so much of this denominationalist thinking is based on fear. Those who cling to legalism are scared. They believe in a harsh God who is basically a "dungeon master in the sky" who wants to torture people for all eternity for simply singing praises to Him with an instrument in the background. This is utterly ridiculous on its face, and is impractical and ludicrous on so many levels that it is impossible to even begin to address. Basically, what I personally have learned over time is: the issue is not about the nature of the church; rather, as you have so often pointed out, it's about the nature of God Himself. You and I believe that God is full of mercy, grace, and truth (just like Christ Jesus), and that He desires for all to be saved. In fact, He would send His own Son to die so that we might be saved! Others, however, believe that God is harsh and demanding, and that He refused to accept anything except complete and blind obedience to every single doctrinal dogma, even if that dogma is not clearly defined in the Scriptures. Any deviation will be met with swift and devastating retribution. I remember hearing the "strange fire" sermon many times as a child. I would be very interested in reading an article by Hugh Fulford about the love of God and the application of His mercy. I would love for him to do a series on God's grace. In fact, I hereby challenge him to do so.

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