Grace Theological Journal 8.1 (1987) 35-54.
[Copyright © 1987 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at
A STATISTICAL STUDY*
JAMES L. BOYER
Much popular exegesis of the Greek imperative mood rests on
unwarranted assumptions. Analysis of the actual usage of the impera-
tive in the NT reveals that many common exegetical conclusions
regarding the imperative are unfounded. For example, a prohibition
with the present imperative does not necessarily mean "stop." And
when it does, it is context, not some universal rule of the imperative,
that determines the meaning. The imperative mood has a wide lati-
tude of meanings from which the exegete must choose in light of
contextual clues. The temptation to standardize the translation of the
various imperatival usages should be resisted.
* * *
ONE of the clearest and simplest statements of the basic signifi-
cance of the imperative mood is given by Dana and Mantey.
"The imperative is . . . the mood of volition. It is the genius of the
imperative to express the appeal of will to will." They go on to
compare it with the other moods. "It expresses neither probability
nor possibility, but only intention, and is, therefore, the furthest
removed from reality." 1 This study will offer a classification of the
*Informational materials and listings generated in the preparation of this study
may be found in my "Supplemental Manual of Information: Imperative Verbs." Those
interested may secure this manual through their local library by interlibrary loan from
the Morgan Library, Grace Theological Seminary,
IN 46590. Also available is "Supplemental Manual of Information: Infinitive Verbs,"
and "Supplemental Manual of Information: Subjunctive Verbs." These augment my
articles, "The Classification of Infinitives: Statistical Study," GTJ 6 (1985) 3-27 and
"The Classification of Subjunctives: A Statistical Study," GTJ 7 (1986) 3-19. I plan to
prepare other supplemental manuals as time permits, beginning with one on participles.
1H. E. Dana and J. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament
(New York: MacMillan, 1943) 174.
36 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
ways the imperative is used in NT Greek, together with statistical
information and comparisons, and a discussion of several of the
questions related to the understanding of this mood.
CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVE USES
The list of uses proposed here is more detailed than is usually
found in the grammars. Many speak of commands and entreaties, or
requests; some add permission and condition. This study would add a
few that are small in number but interesting enough to merit separate
treatment. They will be listed in order of frequency of occurrence.
Commands and Prohibitions
By far the largest number (1357 or 83%)2 belong to this category,
which includes both positive and negative commands. The latter,
often listed separately under the term 'prohibitions,' are introduced
by some form of the negative particle mh<. There are 188 of them; they
will be discussed below separately regarding what some suppose to be
peculiarities of usage. Here they are simply included under the term
Commands include a broad spectrum of concepts--injunctions,
orders, admonitions, exhortations--ranging from authoritarian dic-
tates (a centurion ordering his soldier to go or come, Matt 8:9), to the
act of teaching (Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5:2, cf. 12ff.).
Commands are distinguished from requests as "telling" is from "ask-
ing." The distinction, however, is not made by the mood used but by
the situation, the context. They are used in the language of superiors
to subordinates and of subordinates to superiors, and between equals.
Most commonly, imperatives are in the second person (85%), but
they are unlike their English counterparts in that they also occur in
the third person (15%). Later in the article, this third person impera-
tive will be discussed in detail.
Requests and Prayers
The second class of imperatives is made up of prayers, petitions,
and requests. Much fewer than the commands, they still are quite
numerous (188, 11 %),3 enough to silence the bothersome claim, "This
is not asking, it's telling; it is in the imperative mood." This ought not
seem strange to English speakers who use it like the Greeks in prayer
("Lord, help us") and in everyday speech ("Pass the potatoes").
2In addition to these are 28 which I have given alternative identification as
command; see below.
3There are 7 more given alternative identification as requests.
BOYER: A CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVES 37
Frequently in the NT this usage is introduced by a word indicating
that it is a request: e]rwta<w, e]perwta<w / 'ask', proseu<xomai / 'pray'.
Indeed, the Lord's prayer is a series of imperatives.
Requests are usually in the second person (93%) and singular
(80%). The tense is usually aorist (80%) which is in accord with the
usual Greek practice and reflects the tendency of requests and prayers
to be occasional and specific. It contrasts sharply, however, with the
use of tenses in the other categories of imperative in the NT, where
the present tense outnumbers the aorist in every instance. The over-
all comparison is 47% aorist to 53% present.
While most requests and petitions are positive, there are a few
negative (4 with mh< and the present imperative, 5 with mh< and the
Next in order of frequency (27 or 2%)4 is that category of
imperatives that expresses permission or consent. Rather than an
appeal to the will, this category involves a response to the will of
another. "The command signified by the imperative may be in com-
pliance with an expressed desire or a manifest inclination on the part
of the one who is the object of the command, thus involving consent
as well as command."5
This permission may be either willing and therefore welcome to
the speaker (as in Luke when Jesus asked Peter if he might speak
with him, and he answered, "Say it, teacher") or reluctant (as in John
19:6, where Pilate gave permission to the Jewish leaders to crucify
Jesus although still insisting that he found no fault in him) or neutral
(involving permission given in a situation where either course of
action was acceptable, as in 1 Cor 7:15). has 4 of these
permissive imperatives; 2 are contrary to the will of the speaker, 2 are
The second person imperative is used in 17 of these, compared
with 10 uses of the third person. The present tense occurs 17 times to
10 of the aorist.
In 16 examples the imperative appears as an exclamatory word
introducing another statement, thus acting as an interjection. It
stands before a hortatory subjunctive clause or a negative prohibition
subjunctive and serves as an attention-getter, a call to give heed:
4Three more are given alternative identification as permission.
5Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 174.
38 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
o!rate (4), o!ra (3), i@dete (1), a]kou<ete (1), a]kou<sate (1), a@ge (2),
a@fej (3), a@fete (1). These might well be identified as interjections;
indeed, two other words that are clearly interjections (deu?ro and
deu?te) occur in the same constructions and actually have imperatival
endings though they are not verbs.
An idiomatic form of salutation uses the imperative of the verb
xai<rw (xai?re 5, xai<rete 1). The usual meaning of the word is "to
make glad, to rejoice," but apparently the sense in this construction is
broader: "to be well, to thrive.”6 Hence, it is an expression of good
will like our "Good morning," or "How are you?" (expecting an
answer such as "I am well"). Another in this category, e@rrwsqe, is the
perfect imperative of r[w<nnumi / 'to be strong, to thrive, to prosper'
(the usual formula in closing a letter). The total in this group is 7.
Challenge to Understanding
Similar in some respects to the category called "Exclamatory" is
this group that might be called a challenge to understanding (4
examples). These are clearly verb forms, not interjectional, but they
are a call to know, to perceive, to understand. Luke 12:39, "And be
sure of this, that. . . ." The verbs involved are ginw<skete, ble<pete, and
a]kou<ete. All of these could also be identified as simple indicatives.
Probably the strangest and most controversial category of imper-
atives is that which seems to express some conditional element. Here
it is necessary to distinguish two groups. The first is neither strange
nor controversial; it includes a large number of instances (about 20)
where an imperative is followed by kai< and a future indicative verb. It
says, "Do something and this will follow." This combination clearly is
capable of two explanations. It could well be a simple command
followed by a promise. Or it could be understood to imply that the
promise is conditioned upon the doing of the thing commanded, "If
you do something this will follow." Jas 4:7, 8, 10, "Resist the devil,
and he will flee. . . . Draw near to God and He will draw near to
you. . . . Humble yourselves. . . and He will exalt you." The familiar
prayer promise, "ask. . . seek. . . knock. . ." (Matt 7:7, Luke 11:9;
cf. also John ), belongs here; it could mean "if you ask you will
6J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (
American Book Co., 1889) 664.
BOYER: A CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVES 39
receive." Examples of this kind have been assigned to an alternate
classification; they are either command or condition.
The second group consists of a few passages where condition has
been proposed to explain a difficult passage. Each passage will be
Jesus said to the unbelieving temple-defilers, "Destroy this temple
and. . . I will raise it up." John explains that he was speaking of the
temple of his body. Obviously, this is not a command or request.
Conceivably, it could be a reluctant permission; "I will let you do it,
then I will undo it." But it seems to many expositors that the impera-
tive is conditional, "If you do, I will. . . ." It is almost, "Do it if you
dare!"--a challenge with a threat attached.
2 Corinthians 12:16
This passage begins with an imperative, e@stw de<, "But be that as
it may," (NASB). The KJV has "But be it so." Literally, it is "Let it
be." The sense seems to be, "Whatever may be the answer to the
question I just asked, it doesn't matter; it doesn't change the situa-
tion." Or, to use an English slang expression (without the negative
connotation), "So what?" In this passage, then, the significance of the
imperative mood seems either to involve permission ("Permit it to be
so") or condition ("If that is the way it is, so be it").
The problem here is in the first word o]rgi<zesqe 'be angry'. It is
an imperative. Two opposite explanations have traditionally been
(1) The anger here is said to be "righteous indignation," the kind
of anger God has toward sin, and which Jesus manifested on occa-
sion. Thus the passage is a command. But it seems impossible to
understand this in a good sense in a context (cf. v 31; 2:3; also Matt
5:22, Rom 12:19, Col 3:8, 1 Tim 2:8, Tit 1:7, Jas 1:19) that condemns
anger and orders it to be put away. The word used here, o]rgi<zw and
its cognates, is never used in a good sense except in references to the
anger of God and Christ. And "righteous indignation" seems never to
be approved for men. In fact, the scripture says, "For the anger of
man does not achieve the righteousness of God" (Jas ). The
righteous anger of God operates in the area of judgment, and that
area is out of bounds to believers, at least for the present. Besides, if
this is a command to show "righteous indignation," why is the warn-
ing added to end it before the sun goes down?
40 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
(2) Attempt is made to see here an example of some imperatival
use other than command; possibly conditional, "If you do get angry
don't sin by nursing it too long; don't let the sun go down on it." Or
possibly it is an unwilling permission, "Be angry if you must."
As already indicated, it is sometimes difficult to decide among
these possible classifications. In such cases alternate choices have
been given. The categories involved and the number of instances
where an alternate classification is possible are as follows:
Command or Condition (see above) . . . . . . . . . . . . . 207
Command or Request . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68
Permission or Condition (see above) . . . . . . . . . . . . 39
Command or Permission . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 210
Permission or Challenge . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
Request or Condition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112
Present Versus Aorist in Commands
Compared with other Greek literature, the NT is unusual in
having a large number of present imperatives as compared with the
aorist (53% present, 47% aorist, 0.2% perfect). The reason for this
undoubtedly lies in the character of the literature. Largely hortatory,
it teaches universal moral principles: "always be doing. . . ." And this
is one of the special provinces of the present imperative.
What is the Difference?
Probably the most discussed question encountered in the study
of the imperative mood deals with the distinction in meaning between
the present and aorist tenses. It is here, too, that the most confusion
and misrepresentation occurs. The solution to the confusion is to be
found in examining the basic aspectual significances of the tenses
generally, rather than in the study of the imperative mood specifi-
cally. In other words, finding the distinction between the present and
aorist imperatives lies not in looking at mood but at tense.
7Matt 7:7 (3 times), 27:42; Mark ; Luke , Luke 11:9 (3 times); John 7:52,
16:24; Acts 9:6 (twice), 16:31; Gal 6:2; Eph 5:14 (twice); Jas 4:7, 8, 10.
8Matt , , 13:9, 43, ; Rev 4:1.
9John , 2 Cor , Eph .
101 Cor 11:6 (twice).
111 Cor 6:4.
BOYER: A CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVES 41
It is obvious that the distinction is not in the time of the action,
for only in the indicative mood is time involved; all the other moods
are future in time reference. Rather, the difference is in the way the
speaker chooses to speak of the types of action.13 There are three
basic kinds: (a) durative, continuing, repeated, or customary, expressed
by the present tense; (b) simple action, "do it," expressed by the aorist
tense; and (c) completed and lasting, expressed by the perfect tense.
Major grammars are usually clear on these.14
Thus the present imperative expresses a command or request
that calls for action that is continuing or repeated, often general,
universal, habitual; action that characterizes the doer. "Love one
another" means, not "do something," but "always be doing things for
one another." On the other hand, the aorist imperative is used to
command or request an action that is specific and occasional, dealing
with everyday procedural decisions, or in general admonitions simply
to say, "Do it."15
13Grammarians have long referred to "kinds of action" (aktionsart) for the basic
distinction; durative, punctiliar, completed. But many have confused these terms to
refer to the actual way the action took place; the aorist came to be thought of as single
occurrence--instantaneous, once for all, never to be repeated, happening in a punc-
tiliar way--rather than the speaker's choice of a punctiliar way of speaking of it
without regard to the way it happened, simple (not single) occurrence. More recently
the term "aspect" has come to be used which seems to be less prone to confusion.
14A. T. Robertson, in his A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of
Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934) 832-54, surveys both the history of
the Greek language and also the history of what the grammarians have said about it.
He uses the "kind of action" approach to the tenses, but attempts to safeguard it from
the confusion between the action itself and the way the speaker speaks of the action:
"The 'constative' aorist just treats the act as a single whole entirely irrespective of the
parts or time involved. If the act is a point in itself, well and good. But the aorist can
be used also for an act which is not a point. . . . All aorists are punctiliar in statement"
(italics mine). A similar approach is used in F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek
Grammar of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, trans. and rev. by
Robert Funk (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1961) 172. N. Turner, in his A Grammar of
New Testament Greek, Vol. 3: Syntax (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963) 59ff., 74-78,
agrees basically, although he uses terminology that sometimes introduces confusion
(for example, he equates punctiliar with instantaneous and comes up with a "once for
all" aorist concept). In his treatment of the imperatives in another of his books,
Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1965) 29-32,
41, he strongly embraces the misconception that a present imperative implies "Stop."
The classical Greek grammars, W. W. Goodwin, Greek Grammar, rev. by C. B. Gulick
Gin, 1930) 284-85, and H. W. Smyth, Greek
Univ., 1976) 409-11, clearly present this same understanding of the significance of tense
in imperative verbs and warn against the same abuses.
15The perfect is extremely rare in the imperative, with only four examples in the
NT. Two (Eph 5:5, Jas ) involve the verb oi#da, which is perfect in form but present
in meaning, one (Acts ) is a stereotyped epistolary form, the other, pefi<mwso
(Mark ) expresses a true perfect sense.
42 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
By far the most prevalent of the inadequate and misleading
claims of popular exegesis is that the present imperative with mh<
means "stop" doing something that is already being done, and the
corollary to it, although not so commonly insisted upon nor stated,
says that the aorist prohibition (mh< with aorist subjunctive) means
"don't start" doing something that is not yet being done. The "rule" is
used to prove such statements to the effect that the Christians at
The origin of this notion is usually traced to a "barking dog"
story told by Moulton. He quotes a Dr. Henry Jackson as saying,
"Davidson told me that, when he was learning modern Greek, he had
been puzzled about the distinction [between mh< with the present
imperative or aorist subjunctive] until he heard a Greek friend use the
present imperative to a dog which was barking. This gave him the
Is the claim valid? If its proponents had read further in Moulton's
grammar, they would have found him demonstrating that, while it is
a helpful insight into one possible meaning of the present imperative,
it is not the only one; he cites examples where it does not work and
continuing the quote, summarizes:
mh> poi<ei accordingly needs mental supplements, and not one only. It is
"Stop doing," or "Do not (from time to time)," or "Do not (as you are
in danger of doing)," or "Do not attempt to do." We are not justified in
excluding, for the purposes of the present imperative in prohibitions,
the various kinds of action which we find attached to the present stem
Many of the beginning and intermediate grammars present this
inadequate and misleading concept, often without any suggestion that
it is true only part of the time. Dana and Mantey state, "The purpose
of a prohibition, when expressed by the aorist subjunctive, is to
forbid a thing before it has begun; i.e., it commands to never do a
thing. But a prohibition in the present imperative means to forbid the
continuance of an act; it commands to quit doing a thing.”17 They
even quote Moulton's "barking dog" story with no hint of his warn-
ing against taking this as the whole story. The treatment is similar in
16J. H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek. Vol. I; Prolegomena
(Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1906) 122-23.
17Dana and Mantey, Grammar, 299, 301.
BOYER: A CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVES 43
many of the newer grammars, such as Kaufman,18 Kistemaker,19 and
Powers.20 Best21 makes it better by using the qualifying word "usually,"
although that word inadequately represents less than one fourth of
the examples. Turner has a good statement in his grammar ,22 but
strongly applies this inadequate rule in another of his books.23
The final demonstration of the fallacy of this explanation of the
distinction, of course, must be found in a study of the NT passages
where the construction occurs. There are 174 instances of the present
imperative with mh<. The results of a study of these are summarized
General exhortations (no indication about present) 100
Previous action explicit in context 26
Previous action explicit, but already stopped 4
Previous action probable from context 12
Pervious action denied in context 32
-Exhortations for a future time 14
-Nature of action such that it can be done only
once: "stop" meaningless 4
-Context explicitly says it is not already being done 8
-Context implies it is not already being done 6
As indicated earlier, general exhortations strongly predominate.
In some cases the negative form is simply a form of litotes; "do not be
careless" is used for "always be careful" (1 Tim ). Sometimes
the present seems to point to attempted action (Matt 19:6, "don't
try to divorce... "; certainly not "husbands, stop divorcing your
wives"). Often it is difficult to make sense if the "stop" translation is
In several instances the context makes clear that the action had
been going on previously, but had already been stopped, as indicated
by such words mhke<ti, pa<lin, a]po> tou? nu?n.24 To use "stop" for
"don't start again" makes the rule rather meaningless.
18P. L. Kaufman, An Introductory Grammar of New Testament Greek (Palm
Springs, CA: Haynes, 1982) 123.
19S. Kistemaker, Introduction to Greek (
Seminary, 1975) 91.
20W. Powers, Learn to Read the Greek New Testament (
2lBest, "A Supplement to Williams
Grammar Notes" (
nary, n.d.) 40a.
22N. Turner, Syntax, 74-75.
23N. Turner, Insights, 29-32, 41.
24John , ; Gal 5:1; Eph 4:28. Cf. 1 Tim ; it hardly can mean "Stop
drinking water;" rather, "Don't always be a water-drinker (drink something else once
in a while)."
44 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
The exhortations addressed to a future (e.g., eschatological) time25
also prove the fallacy of the "stop" translation-unless one adopts the
concept that at that future time everyone who reads these statements
will be guilty of doing these things and is enjoined to "stop"!
In four instances26 the nature of the action forbidden is such that
it can be done only once, so that to "stop" is meaningless. Note that in
these examples precisely the same construction is used for two oppo-
site cases, one a previously existing condition, the other of the same
condition not previously existing.
The 8 passages listed27 where the context explicitly says that the
action forbidden was not previously going on are crucial; anyone of
them is proof of the fallacy of the notion under discussion. In Luke
22:42, Jesus prayed, "Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup
from me; yet not My will, but Thine be done." The last clause, plh>n
mh> to> qe<lhma< mou a]lla> to> so>n gene<sqw contains mh< with a present
imperative, yet it cannot be translated "Stop letting my will be done";
for in the larger context of the Bible, Jesus specifically denies that he
ever did his own will, but always did the will of his Father (John ,
, 8:29). In speaking to unbelievers who were accusing him of
blasphemy (Jn ), he said mh< pisteu<ete< moi. It cannot mean
"Stop believing in me." In 1 Cor Paul certainly did not tell the
tongues-loving Corinthians to "stop forbidding to speak in tongues,"
even though it is a present imperative with mh<.
Early Christian literature can also be cited in regard to this
discussion. In Ignatius's Letter to Polycarp28 an interesting example of
a present imperative with mh< occurs: mhde>n a@neu gnw<mhj sou gine<sqw
mhde> su< a@neu qeou? ti pra?sse, o!per ou]de> pra<ssei, eu]sta<qei / 'Let
nothing be done without your approval, and do nothing yourself
without God, as indeed you do nothing; stand fast'.
In public buses in modern
above the driver's seat: MH OMILEITE EIS TON ODHGON. It is
present imperative with mh<. Does it mean, "Stop talking to the
driver"? That would hardly be appropriate to one who was boarding
the bus and has not said a word. Does it mean, "Don't speak to the
driver"? That would be unfortunate for those who need directions.
it not rather mean, "Don't
driver"? That would be a dangerous practice, and the sign makes
25Matt 10:29, 34, 24:6; Mark 13:7, 11, 21; Luke 9:3, 10:4, 7, 12:7, 12:32, 14:12,
; Acts 1:20; 1 Cor 4:5; 2 John 10 (twice).
261 Cor 7:12, 13, 18 (twice).
27Matt ; Luke ; John ; ; Rom , 13 (cf. v 14); 1 Cor ;
1 John (cf. vs. 16). Three of those listed in the previous footnote also fit here.
28IV.l. Loeb Classical Library, K.
BOYER: A CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVES 45
sense. Modern Greek preserves the old distinction of mh< with present
imperative in that it reflects the idea of continuing action, in this case,
that of conversation.
Aorist Imperative More Urgent
Perhaps because English does not have a tense called "aorist,"
students have come to feel that this tense must be something special
and have become accustomed to think of it in superlatives. This is not
correct. Even the name the Greeks used for this tense indicates its
non-special character (a]-privative, + o[pi<zw, a verb indicating limits,
boundaries; hence unlimited, unbounded, the tense that can be used
for anything). When one does not want to call particular attention to
continued or repeated action, or to abiding results from a completed
action, he would use the aorist. English does have the equivalent to
the aorist. In the indicative where time is involved it is the simple past
tense, "He did it." In other moods it is the simple verb. For our
present consideration it is the simple imperative, "Do it." This is the
thrust of what the grammarians are indicating when they call it "point
action" or "punctiliar." It does not mean that the action occurred in a
single point of time, in a split second, nor that it will not be repeated.
It means that the speaker is not pointing to how it happened, he is
just saying, "It happened."
This tendency to glamorize the aorist has influenced the way
some have described the aorist imperative. It is frequently claimed to
be "more urgent.”29 Some have called it "preemptory and cate-
gorical, ...[the present is] less pressing, less rude, less ruthless.”30
In evaluating these claims, several things need to be considered.
First, it is contrary to the basic significance of the aorist to make it
special in any way. Second, these terms (i.e., "urgent," "categorical,"
etc.) do not convey clearly defined distinctions. In what sense is the
aorist "more urgent"? This might be
understood to mean it
more force, more authority. Obviously, some commands produce
more pressure than others, but the pressure is in the rank, the author-
ity, or the desperation of the speaker, not in the wording of the
command. And the aorist is used by kings and by slaves, by God
29H. L. Drumwright,
An Introduction to New Testament Greek (
man, 1980) 130, says, "Usually a note of urgency is suggested by aorist imperative."
D. Wallace, "Selected Notes on the Syntax of New Testament Greek" (unpublished
intermediate Greek syllabus, Grace Theological Seminary, 1981) 205-6, repeatedly uses
'urgent': "The stress is on the urgency of the action. . . on the solemnity and urgency of
the action. . .' Make this your top priority.'"
3ON. Turner, Syntax, 74-75. BDF, 137, and Robert Funk, Beginning-Intermediate
Grammar of Hellenistic Greek. Vol. 2 (Society of Biblical Literature, 1973) 640, also
use the term.
46 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
speaking both to men and by men, both saints and sinners, speaking
to God. Would an aorist command from a slave to a king have more
force than a present imperative from God to a believer?
Or, "urgent" might be related to the time issue, to priority; it
might be demanding first attention, "right now," or ''as soon as
possible." Some justification for such a use of the term may be found
in the unquestioned fact that the aorist is often occasional, used to
answer questions like "What shall I do?" These are usually asked
when a decision is pending. But the urgency is in the situation, not in
"Categorical" is another term that is not completely clear in this
context. What is the difference between a "categorical imperative"
and one that is not? A dictionary defines it as meaning unconditional,
unqualified, unequivocal: absolute, positive, direct, explicit. "Love
one another" is a present tense imperative in the NT, yet all these
terms could be used of it except possibly the last.
Third, the study of aorist commands does not warrant these
imprecise distinctions. There are 40 examples (45%) where the aorist
prohibition was qualified by explanations, reasons, or exceptions; the
terms "categorical," or "unequivocal" are therefore inappropriate. In
a few examples, time urgency was explicit (Matt , Acts ,
); it may be present to some degree in many others, but it does
not warrant being considered the characteristic distinctive of aorist
commands. Rather, 65% were specific, related to a particular occa-
sion, and 35% were general or universal, of such a character that they
could have been stated with a present imperative had the speaker
wished to emphasize their durative quality, but apparently chose to
say simply, "Do not do it."
Subjunctive versus Imperative in Aorist Prohibitions
Though it may seem strange that the aorist subjunctive is used in
negative commands or entreaties rather than the imperative mood, it
is by far the most common way. Grammarians explain it from his-
torical factors. The imperative was the last of the moods to develop,
and it never completely replaced the older ways of expressing com-
mand. In aorist prohibitions the Greek language held to the old way,
mh< with subjunctive. Perhaps a parallel may be seen in English. We
use the imperative without the subject in the second person: "go,"
"do," "be." But in the third person we express command by saying
"let him go," "let it be," which is a subjunctive. For example, the first
petition in the Lord's prayer is "Hallowed be Thy name." It could be
stated in more normal word order, "Thy name be hallowed." Or in
normal speech it might be, "Let thy name be hallowed." Is there a
difference in meaning? Probably not.
BOYER: A CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVES 47
The subjunctive of prohibition is not always used in NT Greek.
It occurs 88 times, but the aorist imperative is also used with mh<
8 times.31 And there seems to be no distinguishable difference in
meaning. In Matt 6:3 the aorist imperative is used in parallel with the
more common mh< with the subjunctive in Matt 6:2. The other
6 occurrences are all found in parallel accounts of one statement of
Christ. Interestingly, Luke records this statement twice in his gospel,
once using the aorist imperative with mh<, in the other the present
imperative with mh<, clearly indicating that tense is not dealing with
different kinds of action, but different ways of looking at action.
Significance of Third Person Imperative
English has no distinct third person imperative, but Greek has.
This makes it difficult to translate. We correctly use the periphrastic
expression "let him do," but it seems strange to English students to
address one person and give a command to a third person. What is
expected of the one spoken to? Why is he told instead of the third
party? The interrelationships of third person imperatives in the NT32
are classified as follows.
Indirect Command to "You"
Most of the third person imperatives are aimed indirectly at the
one addressed and are therefore basically not much different from
second person imperatives.
Some part of you. The simplest and most obvious of these has
the command addressed to some part or quality of the one spoken to.
Matt "let your light shine"; "Thy will be done"; John 14:1
"Let not your heart be troubled." These account for 7% of the third
General command including you. The largest group (49%) of
these shows an appeal addressed to the one spoken to as part of a
general class. It seems clear that those spoken to are considered the
ones for whom the command is intended. Matt , "He who has
ears to hear, let him hear;" Mark 8:34, "If anyone wishes to come
after me, let him deny himself;" Rom 14:3, "Let not him who eats
regard with contempt him who does not eat."
31Matt 6:3, 24:17-18 (twice); Mark 13:15-16 (three times); Luke 17:31 (twice). In
the light of these examples it is hard to understand a statement found in N. Turner,
Syntax, 78, "The prohibitive aor. imperative is later than the NT. Horn quotes the first
as iii/ A.D.," unless he refers only to the second person imperative. All the NT
examples are third person.
32There are 230; 196 are singular, 34 are plural.
48 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Your responsibility with regard to a third party. In this group
the sense may be paraphrased by some such expression as "You
require that he do something" or "You see to it that he does some-
thing." While the actual doing may be by the third party, the one
addressed is being asked to be responsible for its doing: Matt 27:22,
"They all said, 'Let Him be crucified!'" The crowd was not asking
permission of Pilate; they were telling him to see to it that it was
done. Seventeen percent are classified thus. Some of these are a
passive transform of a command that in the active voice would be
second person imperative, as in Luke 7:7, "Let my servant be healed"
(or "Heal my servant"). Some are quasi-passives, with the verb and a
predicate adjective which together seem to form a periphrastic passive
verb. Acts tou?to u[mi?n gnwsto>n e@stw / 'Let this be known to
you' (or 'know this'). The next phrase is connected by kai< and is a
regular second person imperative.
Your permission that someone else do something. The term
"permission" is also used to include consent or acquiescence. Found
mostly in prayers and requests, this group might be closest to the
usual sense of the English expression used to translate it, "Let him do
something" or "Let something be done." Matt 26:39, "Let this cup
pass from me"; Col 3:16, "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within
you." Ten percent can be placed in this group.
Indirect Command to a Third Party
Sometimes the imperative seems actually to be intended for the
third party but addressed to the hearer or reader for his instruction.
Many of these are threats or warnings, also challenges or invitations.
There seems to be no implication that the hearer is to convey the
message to the third party, or has any responsibility in the matter.
Luke 16:29, "They have Moses. . . . Let them hear them." Luke 23:35,
"Let him save himself." Jas , "Let him call for the elders of the
church." Twelve percent of the total belong to this group.
What is Required of a Third Party
Only 3 passages fit in this category: 1 Tim 3: 12 ("Let deacons be
husbands of only one wife"), Matt , and 1 Tim 5:4.
Promise or Warning of What Will Be
Occurring usually with the verb gi<nomai or ei]mi<, this group (4%)
serves as the announcement or prediction that something will happen,
as in Matt , "Be it done for you as you wish," and Rom 11:9,
"Let their table become a snare. ...Let their eyes be darkened. . . ."
BOYER: A CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVES 49
Significance of a Passive Imperative
On the surface there seems to be something strange about a
passive imperative, a command addressed to someone who is not the
doer of the action but its recipient. The inquirer is told to be bap-
tized, to be saved, whereas he can do neither. A tree is told to "be
plucked up and cast into the sea." What is the meaning conveyed by
such a statement?
Of all passive imperatives (154 examples in the NT), two cate-
gories can be discerned: (1)
Some seem to
permit: "allow it to happen," "receive it," "accept it," apparently
asking no personal action from the one addressed. In Mark 1:41,
Jesus says to a helpless leper, "Be cleansed." (2) Other passive impera-
what needs to be done to bring it to pass," as in Rom 12:2, "Be
transformed by the renewing of your mind." The Holy Spirit, of
course, does the transforming (cf. 2 Cor ), but there is the respon-
sibility of renewing the mind.
Out of this study has come another interesting and helpful obser-
vation. There are three types of verbs involved in these passive
imperatives. (1) Passive deponent verbs occur in the imperative.33
Passive in form by definition, they are active in sense, so there is
nothing strange in the significance of the imperative. (2) Some passive
imperatives are simply the passive transform of the active impera-
tive,34 so that they represent only another way of saying what might
have been said in the active voice. In Mark 15:13-14 the cry of those
who wished to kill Jesus is "Crucify him" in the active voice; in Matt
27:22, 23 it is passive, "Let him be crucified," with no difference in
meaning. The demand is addressed to the same person, and the one
responsible for doing it is the same in both; only the way of saying it
is different. (3) A large number of passive imperatives are of verbs
that in the active voice are causative in sense, but in the passive they
express the condition or state resulting from that action.35 To explain
by illustration, the verb fobe<w in the active voice in the older Greek
meant "to frighten, to scare." In the passive it means "to be frightened,
33There are 21 deponent passive imperatives. The verbs involved are genhqh<tw (8),
genh<qhte (1), poreu<qhti (4), deh<qhte (3), deh<qhti (1), a]pokri<qhte (2), and one each
e]pimelh<qhti, metewri<zesqe, e@rrwsqe.
34There are 38 which I have so classified: ai@rw and kaqari<zw have three each,
ba<llw, qroe<omai, and stauro<w two each, and 24 others with one each. The list is
available, see the asterisked note above.
35I have identified 95 in this group. The list is available, see above. Those occurring
more than once are fobe<omai (28), e]gei<rw (6), mimnh<skw (6), u[[pota<ssw (6), plana<w (4),
xai<rw (3), e]ndunamo<w (2), and
50 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
to be scared," or simply "to fear." Strictly speaking, it is not depo-
nent, since the active does occur in Greek; but in effect it is a
deponent verb referring to the condition caused by the action involved
in the active form of the verb. This is a common phenomenon in
Greek verbs, and many of the passive imperatives are of this type. Cf.
also, e]ndunamo<w: active, "to make strong, to strengthen," passive, "to
be strengthened, to receive strength;"
passive, "to be convinced, to be confident." Other verbs of this type
shift from a transitive sense in the active to an intransitive sense in the
passive. For example, mimnh<skw in the active means "to remind"
someone of something, in the passive it means "to remember" (i.e.,
"be reminded "); plana<w in the active is "to lead astray," in the
passive it is "to go astray, to be deceived." Since these verbs, like
deponents, have active meanings, their passive imperatives pose no
problems in translating.
Future Indicative Used as an Imperative
That the future indicative is sometimes used for commands is
beyond question, for the usual form of the Ten Commandments in
the NT is future indicative. There is nothing strange about this; many
languages, including English, have this usage. It simply tells someone
what to do by saying, "You will do this." Two questions are under
consideration here: (1) How can we identify or distinguish this from
other uses of the future? and (2) Is there a difference in meaning
between this construction and the imperatival command?
How to Identify Future Indicatives
Of all the future indicatives in the Greek NT (there are 1606), 53
examples can be considered imperatival, with 4 questionable.36 This
of course involves personal judgment, and the list may vary from
person to person. There is no mechanical way to recognize a com-
mand; only the context can indicate it. And that is always an exe-
Of the 53 possible instances, 39 (74%) were found in citations
from the OT. Eleven were used in citations of the Ten Command-
ments, although even here there is variety. "Honor your father and
mother" is always expressed with the imperative, but the negative
commandments are usually expressed with the future indicative
(although in Luke the aorist imperative is used). The rest of the
OT citations vary from the "greatest command" of all (Matt -
39) to the one forbidding the muzzling of an ox (1 Cor 9:9, 1 Tim
36The list is available" see above.
BOYER: A CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVES 51
). Two of them probably are to be understood as permissive
rather than demanding (Matt ). Two could be considered simple
future statements. The 14 possible examples that are not taken from
OT citations also range from one that is in parallel construction with
the "greatest" commandment (Matt ) to one used by Pilate when
he said "See to that yourself!" (Matt 27:4).
Perhaps the nearest to a "rule" that might be deduced is that
these future indicatives are nearly all in the second person. There are
39 second singular, 9 second plural; the remaining 5 are third singular,
and it is possible to consider all 5 of these to be simple future
statements.37 One place where such a rule would be helpful is 1 John
, where the verb ai]th<sei should be identified as a simple future
statement of what a "brother" will do when he sees another brother in
sin (that is, if he is really a brother--it is a test of "life").
The Significant Use of the Future Indicative
While this construction undoubtedly shows the influence of the
LXX on the language of the NT, it does not get thereby a quasi-
religious or special significance. Jesus used it both in instructing the
disciples what to say to some men they met in a village (Matt 21:3,
Luke , ) and to rebuke their ambition for rank (Mark
). A landowner used it to order his servant to cut down an
unproductive tree (Luke 13:9). The OT law used it to forbid the use
of muzzles on oxen when they were threshing the grain (1 Cor 9:9,
1 Tim 5:18). In the light of these "common" uses, it is surprising to
find the claim being made38 that " . . . the future indicative is used
when the speaker wants to give a solemn, universal, or timeless
command rather than an urgent, particular, or temporary com-
mand . . . used for commands which are always proper to obey."
Such language describes quite well the significance of a present im-
perative, but not of the future indicative.
What then is the significance of the future indicative when it is
used to express a command? It is simply another indication of the
enormous flexibility of language, its ability to say the same thing in
many different ways. It has no "special" significance.
Other Imperatival Constructions
In addition to the aorist subjunctive in prohibitions and the
future indicative, there are "other imperatival constructions," each
needing separate treatment. There are three more ways of expressing
37Matt (two); Luke , ; Heb 12:20.
38D. Wallace, "Notes," 204-5.
52 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
the imperatival idea that can be dealt with briefly but need to be
mentioned. Grammarians have often warned against the terminology
sometimes used in saying that something is "used for" something else,
as if implying a conscious substitution. Rather, these varied methods
of expressing the same or similar concepts are better seen as part of
the richness and flexibility of the language.
Classical Greek had a true imperatival infinitive use, but there
are no examples in the NT that match the classical pattern for this
construction, namely that the subject be present in the nominative
case. Elsewhere,39 these have been dealt with in an attempt to support
the position that the NT examples may all be satisfactorily explained
as examples of ellipsis, the infinitive being one of indirect discourse
depending upon a verb of speech understood from the context but
The situation is much the same here as with the infinitives. Those
cases where the participle has been claimed to be imperatival may all
be seen as elliptical expressions where an imperative form of the
linking verb is to be supplied, thus making the participle a peri-
39See my article, "The Classification of Infinitives: A Statistical Study" GTJ 6
40See my article, "The Classification of Participles: A Statistical Study" GTJ 5
(1984) 173-74. Reference should be made here to a syntactical structure that has
inaccurately been called an "imperatival participle." This structure involves the use of
an adverbial participle with a main verb that is imperative, thus giving the participle an
imperatival sense. Used primarily, if not solely, in the discussion of Matt 28:19, it
involves the question whether "go" is a command parallel to "make disciples."
There is nothing unusual about the grammatical structure of this passage; it is a
simple adverbial (or circumstantial, as it is termed by some) participle modifying an
imperative verb. Such adverbial participles express a wide variety of ideas; time, cause,
manner, means, condition, concession, purpose, or any other "attendant circumstance."
Which of these possible meanings was intended is always an interpretational choice,
based on context. Time is most frequently indicated, next in order of frequency is the
last one listed, the catch-all category called "attendant circumstance." This one is
usually translated into English by two coordinate verbs connected by "and," as is the
case with Matt 28:19 (KJV, NASB, NIV, RSV, etc.).
Does the fact that the main verb is imperative automatically give an imperatival
sense to the participle? The answer clearly is no. There are 93 examples of adverbial
participles modifying imperative verbs in the NT. As an indication of their varied
character the NASB translates them by English participles 18 times (thus preserving the
anonymity of the original), by "when" (temporal) 7 times, by ''as'' (manner) 5 times, by
BOYER: A CLASSIFICATION OF IMPERATIVES 53
Imperatival !Ina Clause
There are examples where a i!na clause seems to express a com-
mand; two are frequently cited. Eph , h[ de> gunh> i!na fobei?tai to>n
a@vdra / 'And let the wife see to it that she respect her husband';
2 Cor 8:7 i!na kai> e]n tau<t^ t?^ xa<riti perisseu<hte / 'See that you
abound in this grace also'. The translation given here from the NASB
demonstrates how easily these may be considered as ellipses of an
easily supplied governing imperatival verb. There are many other
examples of such ellipsis with i!na clauses,41 although these others do
not involve an imperative.
The propriety of considering these other imperatival construc-
tions to be elliptical should be judged in the light of the fact that
Greek uses ellipsis of the verb much more easily than English.
The “Rank Relationship” Involved with an Imperative
One of the goals of this study was to investigate the "rank
relationship" between the one using the imperative and the one to
whom it is addressed. A coded listing was made identifying the
speaker, the one spoken to, and the relative rank or level of authority
between the two, for each imperative verb. These were sorted and
counted by computer and some results are presented here.42
The persons were identified in specific terms and came under
four general categories: (1) God [God, God's word, Holy Spirit,
Jesus]; (2) heavenly beings [angels, demons, Satan]; (3) man [men
generally, man's self, disciples, apostles, unbelievers]; and (4) things.
"since" or "for" (causal) twice, by "if" (conditional) once, and by the coordinate verbs
with "and" more than 50 times. Of these, 36 times the participle is of a "verb of
motion" (in order of frequency, poreuqei<j 12, a]na<staj 7, e]gerqei<j 3, e@lqwn 3, a@raj 2,
a@pe<lqwn 2, once each: dia<baj, ei]se<lqwn, e]ce<lqwn, e]rxo<menoj, pare<lqwn; in English,
"go," "come," "arise" or "rise," "sit down," "take"). Grammarians (Turner, Syntax,
154; BDF, 216) speak of this as a pleonastic participle deriving from the Hebrew idiom
which often puts both verbs in the imperative. "The aor. ptc. por. is oft. used
pleonastically to enliven the narrative. . . in any case the idea of going or traveling is
not emphasized" (BAG, 699; cf. similar comment on a]na<staj, 69).
The reader is referred to two significant journal articles. Robert D. Culver, "What
is the Church's Commission? Some Exegetical Issues in Matthew 28:16-20"(BSac 125
 243-53), presents the normal "circumstantial participle" view. Cleon Rogers,
"The Great Commission" (BSac 130  258-67), presents the view that an impera-
tival sense is to be seen from the Hebrew background which often used two imperatives
in similar construction. If there is any "imperatival" sense in this participle it must
come from the Hebrew, not from the Greek. Most have seen the Hebrew idiom as
pleonastic, not imperatival.
41Cf. John 1:8, , ; 1 John , 37:1. See above.
42Statistics from this study are available, see above.
54 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
The rank relationship was stated in three categories: the speaker
(1) greater than, (2) less than, or (3) equal to the one spoken to.
As expected, the vast majority (1416 of 1632, 87%) of imperatival
statements were spoken by those who were greater in rank and
authority than those to whom they spoke. Of these, 1310 are com-
mands and 53 are requests. It is this relative rank that puts the force
or pressure upon the hearer to obey, not the imperative itself or its
tense.43 However, not all imperatives are from superiors; a signifi-
cant number (170, or 10%) are spoken by those of lesser rank to
their superiors, mostly in requests and prayers (116 instances), but
even commands are addressed to superiors (47 instances where men
addressed commands to Jesus, whose superior rank they did not
recognize). Both commands and requests are addressed to equals
(46 instances, 3%).
There is no automatic or mechanical correspondence between
relative rank and the imperative mood. The imperative expresses an
appeal of will to will, whether it be command or request, "telling" or
"asking." Only the context indicates which is intended, sometimes not
The exegesis of the imperative mood, like all exegesis, must be
usage-oriented. This study has shown that the imperative mood has a
wide latitude of possible meanings from which the exegete must
choose the one which, in the light of the context, the speaker intended.
This study has attempted to deal with many of the NT passages where
questions have been raised about the meaning of an imperative verb,
and to point to possible answers. It has expressed some warnings
against several of the more commonly encountered errors in the
exegesis of imperatives. The rich potential of the Greek language
provides its user with a most flexible tool for expressing his thought.
The exegete, therefore, must exercise considerable discipline in attend-
ing to the full range of imperatival usage and in avoiding the errors of
popular exegesis. He must resist the temptation to glamorize his
translation while at the same time taking care to maximize his use of
the contextual clues that will enrich that translation while keeping it
faithful to the intent of the writer.
43See above, pp. 45-46.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
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