. Tattoo-Inspired New Testament Exegesis

Tattoo-Inspired New Testament Exegesis

man holding tattooed arm inspiration for Greek exegesis

I was at Costco getting gas. The guy across from me had a tattoo that caught my eye—it was ancient Greek: ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ.

And suddenly, the meaning of a famous saying of Jesus became clear in my mind.

This kind of thing happens to me. It’s why I go to Costco. I interrupted the tattooed man: “Sir? Sir?” He turned with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance.

“I write about Greek—can I take a picture of your tattoo?”

His look changed into a smile—this is one he had not heard before. He raised his arm proudly. I snapped the picture above.

You’ve probably seen ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ before on a bumper sticker. Probably on a pickup truck featuring gun racks, if I may be permitted one stereotype. It’s an NRA-style rallying cry, one in fact echoed by Charlton Heston in his own famous update of the phrase.

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The phrase comes from the words the Spartan king Leonidas used to respond to the invading Persian king Xerxes in 480 B.C. Xerxes demanded that Leonidas surrender his weapons, and Leonidas replied, “Come and take them.”

Certain expository preachers

But if certain of my fellow expository preachers got hold of this phrase, they would hasten to “clarify” it, like so:

The first word is a participle, so literally what Leonidas said was, “Coming . . . ,” or “Having come, take.”

That is all true. You’re right, certain expository preachers. Wikipedia’s article on this famous phrase says the same thing, and it sounds exactly like some commentaries I’ve read and not a few sermons I’ve heard. Here’s Wikipedia:

The first word, μολών molōn (“having come”) is the aorist active participle (masculine, nominative, singular) of the Greek verb βλώσκω blōskō “to come.” The aorist stem is μολ- (the present stem in βλώ- being a regular contraction of μλώ-, from a verbal root reconstructed as melə-, mlō- “to appear”). The aorist participle is used in cases where an action has been completed, also called the perfective aspect. This is a nuance indicating that the first action (the coming) must precede the second (the taking).

Go and make

This is where the saying of Jesus comes in. You see, when Jesus says, “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19), he uses a similar construction: aorist participle + imperative finite verb (πορευθέντες οὖν μαθητεύσατε).

Now, dear expository preachers, I love you and I am one of you. But this kind of thing is your linguistic downfall, your homiletical siren song, your exegesis-enhancing steroid that has been banned by OLSHA

Because this is what you want to say—I know you! You want to say, “Jesus uses a Greek participle here which, literally, means ‘Having gone.’ This means he assumes his hearers are going out to spread the gospel! It’s like the going is assumed, and once you’ve gone, then you need to make disciples.”

But that’s where ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ helps us. Because it’s not Bible, we’re less inclined to read extra meaning into it, meaning that goes underneath and beyond the English translation in our hands. ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ means—it has to mean, given the context—only one thing: “COME AND TAKE THEM.” There’s just no way that Leonidas, in that moment when he is called upon to be the macho trash talker insolently defying the massive opposing army, said something as frilly and hair-splitting as, “Dear Xerxes, once you have come, take.” 

ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ provides some evidence that participle + imperative was just the ancient Greek way of saying stuff. Good idiomatic Greek that sounds like the Greek of native speakers often went participle + imperative in situations in which good idiomatic English that sounds like the English of native speakers would never, ever do this. “Having come, take” is not an accurate translation of ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ. It belongs buried deep in the niceties of a grammar book that no self-respecting Spartan warrior would ever touch (because he uses it in Λογος, of course).

Jesus, then, did not say, “Having gone, make disciples.” He said, “Go and make disciples.”

Using Logos to study a Greek construction

Now I have to acknowledge that Leonidas would have written his famous words five centuries before Christ (though they are reported to us by Plutarch in the first century) and that the word for “come” that he uses (βλώσκω, blosko) does not appear in the NT. Liddel-Scott-Jones suggests that it dropped out of the language around the time of the Septuagint (in which it also does not appear). Similarly, what counted as good idiomatic Greek surely changed between the death of Leonidas and the birth of Jesus. But I observe the same participle + imperative pattern in the New Testament. 

Using the Morph search tab in Logos Bible Software, I looked for places where imperatives follow participles. I cast a wide net by looking for any time one appeared “NEAR” the other:

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The second hit I got is similar to Jesus’ wording in the Great Commission. It’s Herod sending the wise men to look for baby Jesus. And it’s participle + imperative.

Πορευθέντες ἐξετάσατε ἀκριβῶς περὶ τοῦ παιδίου.

Go and search diligently for the child. (Matt 2:8)

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Here’s another from 12 verses later, and it uses the same root as ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ:

Ἐγερθεὶς παράλαβε τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ.

Rise, take the child and his mother. (Matt 2:20)

English speakers would just never say in these contexts, “Going, search for the child,” or “Rising, take the child.” It would be like saying to my kids—and this one was suggested by my wife, who got better grades in Greek than I did—“Sitting down, eat your dinner!” 

It is right for translators to do in these places what they nearly always do and “change” the participles into English imperatives. They aren’t being overly interpretive; they are doing their job. They are translating from Greek into English. “Rising, take the child” isn’t English, because no one would ever say that. It’s Biblish, a linguistic surd, zombie syllables. And Tyndale didn’t die to give us Biblish, because it goes by a more common name: gibberish. 

When expository preachers make a point of saying, “What-x-passage-really-means-is . . . ,” and they then give their hearers Biblish, they are erecting a linguistic barrier to understanding that is unnecessary at best and misleading at worst. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 says that edification requires intelligibility; he even expects “outsiders or unbelievers” (14:23 ESV) to be able to basically understand what they hear in church. Almost every time I hear, “In the Greek, this literally means . . .” I cringe.

Now, there are places where the context indicates that the Greek idiom of participle + imperative shouldn’t be rendered as two imperatives in English. Here’s one:

σὺ δὲ νηστεύων ἄλειψαί σου τὴν κεφαλὴν.

When you fast, wash your head. (Matt 6:17)

In this case, context shows that the best translation into English would not involve turning both these verbs into imperatives. So I’m not setting up a new grammar rule in which participle + imperative in NT Greek must always become imperative + imperative in English. I’m trying, in my small way—for the eternal honor of King Leonidas and of some guy at Costco—to restore context to its rightful rule over grammar.

A practical suggestion here: before you take a grammar book’s word for something, and before you go repeating a footnote in a commentary, use Logos to check up on their work. Check newer commentaries that might interact with the claim. (After writing this piece I checked a few, and Carson says the same thing I do—but includes no pictures of tattoos). But go the extra mile: look at similar constructions and see if their conclusions work elsewhere. If they do, the writers you’ve read are probably describing something that is really happening in the language. If not, they’re finding more meaning than God put there, a common temptation for certain expository preachers . . .

A public threat

I need to end with a public threat. If someone says to me, “Surrender your linguistic observations from daily life that shed light on NT interpretation; there are too many of them!” If someone says that, I will beat my chest and say, ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ.


Mark L. Ward received his PhD from Bob Jones University and serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • Mark, would it be better then to translate Matthew 28:19 as “Therefore, go make disciples…” since there (1) is no conjunction within the phrase, and (2) the participle seems to add to the imperative to “sharpen it” (think of the difference between the command “Clean your room!” and the other, more emphatic, “GO clean your room!”)? This would also seem to be true of Matthew 2:8, where the command to search is heightened by the participle go (i.e. “GO search diligently”).

    • I like your English example!

      I’m fine with, “Therefore, go and make disciples.” In fact, now that I think I see what you’re getting at, I prefer it. This is the next step in the argument, isn’t it? “Go, therefore, and make disciples” is too literal. By following the Greek word order, this rendering could possibly put too much emphasis on the “going.” Right? Is that what you’re saying?

      • Yes, but I just think that adding an “and” softens the urgency of the command. It just seems (sorry to be so subjective here) that “go make disciples” better describes what Jesus is saying. Adding “and” just is unnecessary in my opinion (though I confess I am not an expert by any means). Plus, the sun (therefore) is a post-positive so it cannot come first by grammar convention.

        • Boy… I’ll have to think about this. This is a worthy option, in my opinion. I feel like, as I often do, we may have reached the point at which only a native speaker and/or a person who could hear Jesus’ inflection would be able to cut the interpretation this finely. But this is one reason we have multiple translations. This may indeed be what Jesus said.

        • As an Australian speaker of English who lives in an international setting (for 20 years), with English speakers from around the globe ….”go make disciples” is decidedly USA specific colloquial spoken English. It is not a widely accepted grammatical form, sorry. Internationally accepted English is e.g. “Go and tidy up your room (now)”, or “Go!! Tidy up your room (now!)”. If you use the word “clean” it would indicate the child is expected to do just that.

          • I had not considered the implications on other English-speaking cultures. Thanks for that perspective! And whatever you say to get kids to have neat bedrooms works for me!

  • Look up Wallace’s grammar – Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. He’s got a good writeup about this. He calls it “attendant circumstance” p. 640.

  • There’s a good chance that the man you photographed is a Marine Corps vet. This Greek expression is used by the Marines as a symbol of morale and general aggressiveness in combat, similar to the Army’s “Oorah!”. This phrase is often seen on various Marine Corps awards and souveniers.
    BTW I’m not now nor ever have been a Marine; I’m just an avid student of military history.

    • Very interesting! If I ever see him at Costco again, I’ll have to ask!

      I’ve heard from one reader so far whose father sent him the article because he had the same tattoo.

  • Retired Army here. Marines and Army both use a version of “Oorah!” I have seen service members of all branches use this Greek phrase, to include a plaque for someone in the Air Force (that wasn’t a jab or anything), though maybe not as much as the Marines have done, or as apparent. At any rate, the use of it is interesting if you consider military doctrine in ground warfare. However, you are correct in your description as an NRA rallying cry. Really, not so much the NRA as it has become a second amendment rallying cry in general, and can be found littered across the firearms community on pretty much anything from aftermarket firearms parts, holsters, t-shirts…you name it.

    I do appreciate the clarity on interpretation. I have some upcoming courses where exegetical studies of the languages will be a key component, and the “Biblish” you referred to is something I struggle with.

    • This is helpful. Never been in the military, though my mom was a secretary in the Navy and I still have an NFCU account nearly 40 years on…

  • I have absolutely no greek or Hebrew languages training and will make sure to tell all my friends that “reading, go and read this post.” LOL!

    Thanks Mark!

    PS. even without the knowledge of these languages, I’m certainly willing to be an honorary member of OLSHA if you’ll join my own TBDST (The Bible Doesn’t Say That) Society… :-)

  • My argument would be why would we ever make a doctrinal teaching on Matt 28:19 as the standard when clearly the very disciples you are referring to obviously NEVER followed this command verbatim anywhere in the New Testament afterwords. So the more important thing to me is to focus on why they(the disciples) never did use this terminology for baptizing or making disciples. It never ceases to amaze me how we can get caught up on semantics and miss the forest because of the trees.
    So can someone tell me why we have built a doctrine out of one verse as many teach many modern theologians teach.
    Here is an example from Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament pages 221-223 Logos Bible Software

    Allegory of wise and unwise master-building

    The much-disputed passage in 1 Cor. 3:10–15, is an allegory. In the preceding context Paul represents himself and Apollos as the ministers through whom the Corinthians had believed. “I planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (ver. 6). He shows his appreciation of the honour and responsibility of such ministry by saying (ver. 9): “For we (apostles and ministers like Paul and Apollos) are God’s fellow workers,” and then he adds: “God’s tilled field (γεώργιον, in allusion to, and in harmony with, the planting and watering mentioned above), God’s building, are ye.” Then dropping the former figure, and taking up that of a building (οἰκοδομή), he proceeds:
    According to the grace of God which was given unto me, as a wise architect, I laid a foundation, and another is building thereon. But let each man take heed how he builds thereon. For other foundation can no man lay than the one laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if any one builds on the foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; each man’s work shall be made manifest, for the day will make it known, because in fire it is revealed, and each man’s work, of what sort it is, the fire itself will prove. If any one’s work shall endure which he built thereon, he shall receive reward. If any one’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.
    Are the materials persons or doctrines; Both views allowable
    The greatest trouble in explaining this passage has been to determine what is meant by the “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble,” in verse 12. According to the majority of commentators these materials denote doctrines supposed to be taught in the Church. Many others, however, understand the character of the persons brought into the Church. But the most discerning among those who understand doctrines, do not deny that the doctrines are such as interpenetrate and mould character and life; and those who understand persons are as ready to admit that the personal character of those referred to would be influenced and developed by the doctrines of their ministers. Probably in this, as in some other Scripture, where so many devout and critical minds have differed, the real exposition is to be found in a blending of both views. The Church, considered as God’s building, is a frequent figure with Paul (comp. Eph. 2:20–22; Col. 2:7; also 1 Peter 2:5), and in every case it is the Christian believer who is conceived as builded into the structure. So here Paul says to the Corinthians, “Ye are God’s building,” and it comports fully with this figure to understand that the material of which this building is to be constructed consists of persons who accept Christ in faith. The Church is builded of persons, not of doctrines, but the persons are not brought to such use without doctrine. As in the case of Peter, the stone (Matt. 16:18), the true material of which the abiding Church is built, is not the doctrine of Christ, or the confession of Christ put forth by Peter, nor yet Peter considered as an individual man (Πέτρος), but both of these combined in Peter confessing—a believer inspired of God and confessing Christ as the Son of the living God—thus making one new man, the ideal and representative confessor (πέτρα), so the material here contemplated consists of persons made and fashioned into various character through the instrumentality of different ministers. These ministers are admonished that they may work into God’s building “wood, hay, stubble,” worthless and perishable stuff, as well as “gold, silver, precious stones.” The material may be largely made what it is by the doctrines taught, and other influences brought to bear on converts by the minister who is to build them into the house of God, but is it not clear that in such case the doctrines taught are the tools of the workman rather than the material of which he builds? Nevertheless, this process of building (ἐποικοδομεῖ) on the foundation already laid, like the work of Apollos in watering that which was planted by Paul (ver. 6), is to be thought of chiefly in reference to the responsibility of the ministers of the Gospel. The great caution is: “Let each man (whether Apollos or Cephas, or any other minister) take heed how he builds thereon” (ver. 10). Let him take heed to the doctrine he preaches, the morality he inculcates, the discipline he maintains, and, indeed, to every influence he exerts, which goes in any way to mould and fashion the life and character of those who are builded into the Church. The gold, silver, and precious stones, according to Alford, “refer to the matter of the minister’s teaching, primarily, and by inference to those whom that teaching penetrates and builds up in Christ, who should be the living stones of the temple.” So also Meyer: “The various specimens of building materials, set side by side in vivid asyndeton, denote the various matters of doctrine propounded by teachers and brought into connexion with faith in Christ, in order to develop and complete the Christian training of the Church.” These statements contain essential truth, but they are, as we conceive, misleading, in so far as they exalt matters of doctrine alone. We are rather to think of the whole administration and work of the minister in making converts and influencing their character and life. The materials are rather the Church members, but considered primarily as made, or allowed to remain what they are by the agency of the minister who builds the Church.
    The passage paraphrased
    The great thoughts in the passage, then, would be as follows: On the foundation of Jesus Christ, ministers, as fellow workers with God, are engaged in building up God’s house. But let each man take heed how he builds. On that foundation may be erected an edifice of sound and enduring substance, as if it were built of gold, silver, and precious stones (as, for instance, costly marbles); the kind of Christians thus “builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:20) will constitute a noble and enduring structure, and his work will stand the fiery test of the last day. But on that same foundation a careless and unfaithful workman may build with unsafe material; he may tolerate and even foster jealousy, and strife (ver. 3), and pride (4:18); he may keep fornicators in the Church without sorrow or compunction (5:1, 2); he may allow brother to go to law against brother (6:1), and permit drunken persons to come to the Lord’s Supper (11:21)—all these, as well as heretics in doctrine (15:12), may be taken up and used as materials for building God’s house. In writing to the Corinthians the apostle had all these classes of persons in mind, and saw how they were becoming incorporated into that Church of his own planting. But he adds: The day of the Lord’s judgment will bring every thing to light, and put to the test every man’s work. The fiery revelation will disclose what sort of work each one has been doing, and he that has builded wisely and soundly will obtain a glorious reward; but he that has brought, or sought to keep, the wood, hay, stubble, in the Church—he who has not rebuked jealousy, nor put down strife, nor excommunicated fornicators, nor faithfully administered the discipline of the Church—shall see his life-work all consumed, and he himself shall barely escape with his life, as one that is saved by being hastened through the fire of the burning building. His labour will all have been in vain, though he assumed to build on Christ, and did in fact minister in the holy place of his temple.

  • This is great, Mark! Thanks! A few observations which I’ll put in separate replies:
    1) There is an easier way in Logos to find participles with an imperative sense. Friberg’s Analytical Greek New Testament (and the accompanying Lexicon) is available as a Logos module, and when the Friberg’s tagged the GNT, they included a special category of “Participle (imperative sense).” Using the AGNT, just search from @VR (< R is the Participle imperative code) and you will get 168 results in 135 verses. Whether you agree with that analysis is a matter of opinion, and I'm presuming that's why none of the other Greek testaments tag it. (It also means that if you are looking for all participles in the AGNT, you have to search for @V[PR].)

  • 2) There are also instances where one can argue that the participle FOLLOWING an imperative can have an imperative sense. (Some are even present participles: “eat and drink” in Luke 10.7?.) E.g., Mark 9.22: βοήθησον ἡμῖν σπλαγχνισθεὶς ἐφʼ ἡμᾶς. The participle usually gets translated as an imperative with the “help,” but in just about every English version, the verbs get switched: Have pity and help us. (The exceptions are the Vulgate>Douay and the CEB which reads: “Help us! Show us compassion.”) It is possible to take the participle adverbially–Help us by showing us compassion–and that may be the thought that accounts for the participle following the imperative.
    Another good example is Mark 15.30: σῶσον σεαυτὸν καταβὰς ἀπὸ τοῦ σταυροῦ. > Save yourself and come down from your cross. The participle is usually translated as an attending imperative. Again, the participle could be adverbial–Save yourself by coming down–but I would have expected it to be present tense. But, interestingly, the Textus Receptus turns the participle into an imperative! σῶσον σεαυτόν, καὶ κατάβα ἀπὸ τοῦ σταυροῦ.

  • 3) Re: Matthew 28.19f: I heartily agree with your point and with Wallace’s explanation, but it is still Matthew’s choice to use the grammar that he does. This is how I’m reading it. “Go” does have an imperative (and not simply a temporal) sense, but it still is ‘attendant’ to the imperative which is the main thought. I.e., the main thought is the “making disciples,” but they will have to “go” to make that possible. The “baptizing” and “teaching” participles are, as Wallace notes, attendant circumstances, and work well as the means in the process of making disciples.
    Thanks again for your post!

    • I meant to add… To get back to the tattoo: The “come” is an attendant imperative that is secondary to the “take.” E.g., Leonidas might have said, “Come… and receive them from us.” The “take” part is the one that has the emphasis and the edge.

  • The inability to recognize a participle of attendant circumstances is a telltale sign that a Greek student never went beyond the basics level.

    • Yes!


      I really think that there is a stage beyond the learning of grammatical labels in which you’re just *reading* the text. I’ve said in past articles that grammatical labels help you see what’s there, and I still think that’s true. But I’ll wager that very few of Leonidas’ warriors knew a grammatical label for ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ, and that if they did, they weren’t thinking about it when they heard the phrase. =) And yet they all understood it.

      Why do I bother to say this? Because it is my concern that we expository preachers not let assigning these (very important and helpful) grammatical labels make us feel like we’ve exhausted the interpretive process.

  • Could you clarify this line:
    “Having come, take” is not an we’re less inclined to read extra meaning into it, meaning that goes underneath and beyond the English translation in our hands.

    • I follow Moisés Silva in generally tending to look for the least a word must contribute to a sentence rather than the most. All the participle + imperative structure has to mean, minimally, given this context is that the going precedes the disciple-making. “Go make disciples.” But we already knew that from reading our English translations—so I tend to think that no grammatical comment from an expository preacher, in his sermon, is necessary.

      Does that help?

      • Paul, I now see what you were after! I wondered what in the world you were doing! Ha! I’ve fixed the crazy typo that got introduced somehow during the editorial process.

  • Thanks for your explanation, Mark. Very helpful.

    I’m wondering about analogous constructions, such as we find in Eph.1:13, πιστεύσαντες ἐσφραγίσθητε

    Some use this verse to argue for a doctrine of subsequence: that the sealing of the Spirit is something that takes place at some time after one believes… “having believed, you were (later) sealed” (cf. NIV84). (The NIV2011 has “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal,” which reflects the kind of exegesis you speak about in this article.

    IOW, aorist participle plus passive (in this case) does NOT mean “having believed, you were, at some later time, sealed.

    What think you?

    • I agree; this seems to be a logical progression that may or may not be a chronological one. There certainly is no justification for taking this to *teach* a gap between believing and sealing. Contextually, it feels most natural to me to take these as contemporaneous. And Paul speaks as if all of his hearers have both believed and been sealed. He doesn’t speak as if there are two categories, 1) people who have believed and been sealed and 2) people who have believed but have not yet been sealed.

Written by Mark Ward