Don’t worry, this isn’t an article about grammar. I don’t want to bore you with verb moods and why they’re important. What I want to do, instead, is show you how Scripture uses language to invite us into a new story, to cast us as characters in a life-giving script, and to make us into actors of the kingdom of God. This is because indicatives create new identities for the people of God and imperatives give them a script for living into the roles they now play.
Stories are filled with indicatives. They’re statements of fact. When an author vividly depicts a setting, sketches a charming portrait of the characters, or records the words of a tense conversation, she does so in the indicative mood. These verbs are action words that shape the storyline of each scene.
Similar things are true when Scripture uses indicative verbs. They narrate events such as “Jesus walked to Jerusalem” or “Jesus wept.” The verbs “walked” and “wept” are both in the indicative mood and move the plot forward. Yet Scripture can also use indicative verbs in more profound ways. Rather than simply describe an event, indicative verbs create new realities.
One of my favorite examples of this is found in 1 Peter. Peter uses the indicative verb “you are” to make a strange claim about Christian suffering (2:9). Though these Christians have been misunderstood and even mistreated, they are in fact a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). This is a surprising message, because this community’s Christian identity made them outcasts in their own society. Their exclusion from public life in Rome, however, didn’t mean God also shunned them. On the contrary, Peter crowns this wounded community of Jesus’s followers as privileged members of the kingdom of God.
In most societies, pain is viewed as a sign of defeat. In the kingdom of God, on the other hand, unjust suffering is actually a sign of one’s entrance into the life of the risen Jesus. Since Jesus himself suffered injustice (2:21-25), the meaning of pain is reimagined within the kingdom-of-God story. That’s because the self-donation of Jesus on the cross becomes a source of healing and hope for communities of faith. Since their identity is found in the story of the cross, they can wear the scars of injustice along with the crown of resurrection life at the same time.
That’s what indicative verbs do in the gospel. They gift God’s people with new identities in the story he’s telling about the world. This enables Christians to reclaim their value and purpose. Rather than being defined by cultural labels, the people of God receive renewed identities as actors in the kingdom of God.
Imperatives are direct speeches that demand immediate responses. They’re like marching orders a general gives to a cadet. If he commands jump or stop, that action is required instantly.
These kinds of verbs are common in Scripture as well. They range from simple negative commands such as not praying like hypocrites who want to be seen praying because it makes them appear devout (Matt. 6:5), to seemingly radical commands such as gouging one’s eye out rather than commit adultery (5:29). Yet there’s more to imperatives than that. Imperatives are like the scripts that help the kingdom-of-God actors lean into their new roles with passion and insight.
Once again, Peter beautifully connects Christian identity with Christian responsibility. He first creates a role for God’s people in the story of God by defining them as “sojourners” and “exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11). Or, to use a modern analogy, these Christians are like refugees in God’s good yet fractured world. Then he summons these refugees to practices of self-restraint and integrity that help them align their roles in the kingdom-of-God story (2:11-12).
Notice the pattern here. The new identity comes before the script. It’s not that a Christian becomes a Christian by practicing self-denial and honesty. The refugee ethic only makes sense after one belongs to the refugee community. This is the important difference between indicatives and imperatives. Indicatives always come before imperatives because our identity defines our responsibilities.
The Christian life isn’t an endless pursuit of trying to gain God’s attention. God doesn’t hit a divine “like” button when he finally approves of our performance. It would be exhausting to continually strive after divine approval in this way. God first casts us as actors in the kingdom-of-God story before he gives us our lines. He gifts us the identity of adopted children, sons and daughters of the crucified yet risen king, then summons us to live like royalty (Gal. 4:5). Reciting the script doesn’t make us suitable for the role. Our identity and belonging in his family make our performance of the script possible.
Embrace Your New Identity
If you feel like you’ve lost your identity, read the Scriptures and be surprised by God’s extravagant welcome for refugees. The Scriptures tell a story of belonging for hurt and wandering people. They will help you reimagine your story so that it fits into the larger kingdom-of-God story. You’ll gain a fresh start and a sacred purpose within the family of God. With this new identity will come a script that makes a claim on your life, because your life isn’t your own once you’ve been adopted into God’s family. I invite you to embrace your new identity as an actor in the life-giving story of God. You won’t regret it.