by Benjamin L. Merkle
One of Jesus’ most well-known—but difficult—statements is found in Matthew 16:24: “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me” (HCSB; εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἐλθεῖν, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι). Notice that in this verse we find two aorist imperatives (ἀπαρνησάσθω and ἀράτω) and one present imperative (ἀκολουθείτω). Why is there a shift in tense-forms and how should they be interpreted?
To argue that the switch in tense-forms signals a deliberate shift in the type of action required—from a once-and-for-all action to a continuous type of action—is unfounded. In other words, the tense-forms do not indicate that Jesus is teaching that we must decisively come to the point where we deny ourselves and take up our cross and then keep following Jesus (continuous discipleship).
Such a conclusion from the tense-form of the verbs is saying too much since the tense-forms do not communicate the type of action. We must also be cautious, however, of putting too much significance on the subjective choice of the author and claim that the author is drawing attention to the present imperative (ἀκολουθείτω) as being more prominent. Here are two reasons why we must resist the urge to over-interpret the switch in tense-forms.
First, some verbs, based on their lexical meaning, prefer one tense-form over another. For example, verbs that have a natural terminus (i.e., ending) prefer the aorist tense-form whereas those that have no natural terminus or convey a state prefer the present tense-form. In this case, the verbs ἀπαρνέομαι (“deny”) and αἴρω (“take up”) convey actions that have a natural terminus (it doesn’t take long to deny or take up something) and so prefer the aorist tense-form. This conclusion is confirmed by the actual usage of these verbs as imperatives: ἀπαρνέομαι occurs twice as an aorist imperative and never as a present imperative and αἴρω occurs 22 times as an aorist imperative and only four times as a present imperative.
In contrast, verbs of motion occur almost exclusively in the present tense-form in the imperative mood. For instance, ἀκολουθέω occurs 16 times as a present imperative and only twice as an aorist imperative. Thus, one would expect the present tense of ἀκολουθέω as the default imperatival form. If such is the case, then a subjective choice was not really made since the form used is the conventional, default form. Consequently, it is problematic to argue that the author is drawing attention to the verb.
Second, although it is true that followers of Jesus must make a decisive, life-altering decision in their lives to repent of their sins and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, it is questionable that this is what Jesus is emphasizing. Is it not also true that followers of Jesus must make a daily decision to deny themselves and daily take up their crosses? In fact, this emphasis is brought out in Luke’s Gospel which adds that Christians must take up their cross “daily” (καθ᾽ ἡμέραν; Luke 9:23). So, although Luke indicates that taking up one’s cross is to be a repeated, daily act, the aorist tense-form is still used because of the lexical meaning of the verb.
To claim that Jesus’ commands in Matthew 16:24 (or Mark 8:34 or Luke 9:23) to deny oneself and to take up one’s cross is a one-time act is pressing the imperatives too far. In fact, it could be argued that Jesus is teaching that denying oneself and taking up one’s cross should also be an ongoing, characteristic of his disciples.
Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from Going Deeper with New Testament Greek.
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