A Helpful Tool Every Christian Should Use

Everyone who has engaged in some sort of craft or art knows the importance of having the proper tools. In my shop, I have bar clamps to hold wood together. With these clamps I have assembled untold chairs, chests, and all manner of woodworking items. They have served me well.

When it comes to the Bible, there is a tool you should get to know. That tool is the English participle. A participle is a verbal adjective and is typically rendered with the “ing” ending (i.e. walking, swimming, hearing). A participle is used in a subordinate clause. Oh please do not run from this point! Give me a minute, and you will see what I mean.  A typical sentence often will have a main clause. For example, “I went to a restaurant” is a complete sentence with no subordinate clause. Such a sentence can stand by itself. It is independent. A subordinate clause on the other hand is “dependent” and cannot stand by itself. For example if I said, “Because I am hungry,” that would not be clear to anyone. A subordinate clause cannot stand by itself, but needs a main clause or independent clause. The subordinate clause submits to the main clause. For example let’s put both clauses together:

“I went to the restaurant because I was hungry.” Here the main clause is served by the subordinate clause. The main clause states the fact that I went to the restaurant. The subordinate clause gives the reason for me going to the restaurant. A subordinate clause can give the time, condition, reason, manner, or result of purpose of a main clause. In the above example, the subordinate clause (underlined) gave the reason for me going to the restaurant.  A main clause is independent, and the subordinate clause is dependent on the main clause and serves the main clause.

The participle often functions in a subordinate clause giving the reason, purpose, time, condition, manner, means, or result of a main clause. Let me give an example. “Playing the guitar, Tom entertained the people.” The main clause is “Tom entertained the people” and can stand by itself and make complete sense. The subordinate clause “playing the guitar” by itself makes no sense or in the least keeps us in suspense.   The subordinate clause in this case enhances the main clause telling us how Tom entertained the people.  We will look at some Biblical examples. To do this you should use a more literal version such as the New King James Version, King James Version, or New American Standard Bible (versions such as the New International Version often use more colloquial English and often do not translate the Greek participle).

“I have sinned (main clause) betraying innocent blood” (Matt 27:4).  The subordinate clause tells us how Judas sinned. This one is pretty easy to see but there are other passages that Christians often misinterpret by failing to see what the subordinate clause with the participle convey. We will look at another simple example before looking at some more complex passages yet full of blessings. 

“…he went away grieving…”  (Matt 19:22). The participle in this example functions in a subordinate clause telling us how the young man walked away from Jesus.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt 28:19). Some in this familiar text fail to see what the main point of this is. They think Jesus gave four commands (Go, make disciples, baptize and teach. Yet there is one commanding idea and everything else is subordinate (for technical reasons the verb “go” is translated as an imperative since it is a participle of attendant circumstances).  Jesus used two participles telling us how disciples are made: by baptizing them and teaching them. The participles “baptizing and teaching” are not the main point but are subordinate to the main command to make disciples.

In John 20:31 we read, “and that believing you might have life in His name.”  Here the participle tells us how we can have eternal life—by believing.

In Ephesians 5:18 we are commanded to be filled by the Spirit. Paul gave us a string of participles that describe what a Spirit controlled person looks like “—speaking to one another in psalms and hymns…singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father….submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Eph 5:19-21).  The thing to keep in mind is that Paul gave one command (Be filled by the Spirit), and all else is descriptive showing us the results of one who is Spirit controlled. It would be incorrect to say that Paul gave six commands here, “be filled by the Spirit, speak to one another in psalms, make melody, give thanks, and submit to one another.” It is true that such things are commanded in the Bible in other places, but in this context, Paul is showing us how one looks who is Spirit led.

In Colossians 1:10, the main idea is the concept of living in a manner worthy of the Lord. Now we might be tempted to truck in all kinds of ideas on how this is done (and we could come up with good suggestions and be correct) yet we do not have to guess what it means to live a life worthy of the Lord. Paul gave us four participles to show us how this is done: being fruitful in every good work, increasing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all might…, giving thanks to the Father…” (Col 1:10-12).

In 1 Peter 5:6 we are told to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God so that He might exalt us in due time. I might have all kinds of ideas to bring that about and be correct in my observation, yet in this context, Peter already tells me what it means to humble oneself under God’s mighty hand—casting all my worry upon Him. In other words the way to humility is not self-sufficiency but dependence upon God. Thus I humble myself by casting all my worry upon Him (1 Peter 5:7).

In Philippians 2:7 a great theological difficulty is greatly enlightened by the participle. Paul wrote that Christ emptied Himself (not a literal emptying, of course, but a humbling of self as the King James has it, “Made Himself of no reputation”). How did Jesus empty Himself? The participle tells us by taking the form of a bondservant. The rest of the passage can be explained via Christ’s incarnation.

The participle often gives us the grounds or reason for the action of a main verb in an independent clause. Take Romans 5:1, “Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God…”  “Being justified= because you have been justified.” In James 1:2, 3 we read, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith…”= because you know that the testing of your faith produces patience.  

As with Ephesians 5:19-21, we see that the participle can give the results of the action of the main clause. This is clearly seen in John 5:18. Jesus said that God was His Father “making Himself equal with God” = with the result that He was making Himself equal with God.

Dozens of examples could be shown but you can see that the participle can become the exegete’s best friend and a very great tool.