Exegetical Insights to Greek Verbs
Each Greek verb has five essential elements: Person, Number, Tense, Mood, Voice. Here we will focus only on the more important issues relating to the latter three.
In Greek, unlike English, tense primarily portrays the kind of action from the viewpoint of the author, not the time of action. Only the future tense in Greek is concerned primarily with time. When we talk about the time of action, we mean action that occurs in either past, present, or future. When we talk about the kind or nature of action, we are looking at whether the action is durative (i.e., progressive, repeated, ongoing), undefined, or completed.
1. Present Tense
a. Progressive or durative - the action of the verb is conceived as on-going, in progress, or repeatedly done.
"I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying . . . " (Rom. 9:1).
* Observe the imperative, present, passive verb in Eph. 5:18 ("be filled with the Spirit"), hence: (1) being imperative, God commands us to be filled; (2) being present tense, it is to be repeated, it is an ongoing responsibility; and (3) being passive, we are to yield to the influence of the Holy Spirit.
* Observe the problem posed by 1 John 3:6,9. Does John's use of the present tense indicate that he has in mind repeated, habitual, persistent sin, rather than singular, momentary acts of disobedience? If we conclude that the present tense in 1 John 3:6,9 is durative in force, we must not think that it always has this emphasis. See John 14:6b.
* Observe the present tense participle in Gal. 3:5. What theological significance does this have?
b. Customary or Gnomic - in which the action of the verb is timeless, i.e., the author doesn't mean something is occurring now, but that something occurs. In other words, the author's intent is to express a general truth tht customarily (perhaps "always") happens or applies.
See Rom. 1:18; Mt. 7:17; 2 Cor. 9:17; John 3:35.
c. Futuristic - in which a present tense verb is used to refer to an action that is certain to occur.
See Mt. 27:63 ("I am rising" = "I will rise"); Mk. 9:31 ("is delivered" = "will be delivered"); John 14:3 ("I am coming again" = "I will come again").
d. Historical - in which a past event is viewed as present for vividness and dramatic effect.
In John 1:29 it literally reads, "He sees Jesus coming to him and says," but is translated "He saw . . . and said."
In Mt. 18:21-22 Peter's question is introduced by a past tense ("he said"), whereas Jesus' response is introduced with a present tense ("he says"), even though Jesus' statement was undoubtedly also made in the past. In this way the words of Jesus are given an emphatic and continuous application.
2. Imperfect Tense
Generally speaking, the imperfect tense describes action as going on in past time. There are four common uses of the imperfect.
a. Customary - in which the imperfect denotes something that commonly or repeatedly occurred.
"Whom they used to set down every day . . . " (Acts 3:2)
"For He [Jesus] had been saying to him, 'Come out of the man, you unclean spirit (Mark 5:8)!'". Does the use of the imperfect tense here imply that the demon did not immediately obey Jesus and that Jesus found it necessary to repeat his command? Should we build a theology of deliverance on the use of the imperfect tense?
"Jesus kept saying . . . " (Lk. 23:34), i.e., not just once, but a repeated plea.
"They kept beating him on the head" (Mt. 27:30), i.e., again and again.
b. Progressive - which simply expresses continuous action in the past.
In Gal. 1:14 Paul refers to his life as a Pharisee by saying, "and I was advancing in Judaism."
c. Conative - expresses attempted action in the past, and is often rendered in English by the words "tried to".
Again, in Gal. 1:13 Paul refers to his persecution of the church and describes how "I tried to destroy it".
d. Inceptive - expresses the initiation or beginning of an action in the past and is often translated in English by the words "began to".
3. Perfect Tense
Generally speaking, the perfect tense is used to emphasize the present results or state of being consequent to a completed past action.
"For by grace you have been saved [and now are saved] through faith . . . " (Eph. 2:8).
"God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit . . . " (Rom. 5:5). The emphasis is on the completed past action (it has been done) and the abiding results for us (we live in a state of being flooded with God's love).
Cf. also John 1:41 ("we have found the Messiah"); John 19:22 ("Pilate answered, 'What I have written, I have written'"); 2 Cor. 12:9 ("He has said to me"); 2 Tim. 4:7 ("I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith"). Cf. the use of both aorist and perfect in Col. 1:16.
It is always possible to read too much theology into a Greek tense, such as the perfect. Be careful.
* Observe the use of the present and perfect tenses in 1 John 5:1 and the theological implications it bears: "Everyone who believes [present tense] that Jesus is the Christ has been born [perfect tense] of God." Does this mean that regeneration or the new birth precedes and causes faith in Christ?
* Observe the use of the aorist (past) and perfect tenses in 1 Cor. 15:3-4. We read that Christ "died" (aorist) and "was buried" (aorist) and "was seen" (aorist) but "has been raised" (perfect). David Black points out that "has been raised" renders a Greek perfect tense verb, "accentuating the permanence of the resurrection and its consequences in contrast to the impermanence of Christ's death, burial, and appearances" (Using NT Greek in Ministry, p. 76).
4. Aorist Tense
The aorist or past tense in Greek is surely the most misunderstood and abused of all. Frequently, students of the NT concluded from the use of an aorist verb that the action in question was "once-for-all" or "completed". One often would come across the word "punctiliar" (i.e., point in time) to describe the meaning of the aorist.
The truth is, the aorist "simply refers to the action itself without specifying whether the action is unique, repeated, ingressive, instantaneous, past, or accomplished" (Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, p. 70). In other words, the aorist is used to depict an action without reference to how the action took place; only that it took place.
Some examples where too much theology is derived from the use of the aorist:
Rom. 5:12 - does the aorist "all sinned" mean a once-for-all action, presumably when Adam sinned? Yes, but not because the verb is aorist.
Rom. 6:13 - does the aorist imperative "present yourselves to God" mean a one-time, unique, unrepeatable act of dedication? Surely not. See also Rom. 12:1.
Cf. 1 Cor. 5:7; Rev. 3:19.
D. A. Carson points out "that the presence of an aorist verb does not mean the action is not once-for-all or located in past time or temporally punctiliar. When we read that Sapphira fell (epesen) at Peter's feet, the context makes it pretty clear that her falling was as 'instantaneous' an action as that kind can ever be. . . . [Similarly] No believer doubts that Christ was sacrificed once only (1 Cor. 5:7), since after all some passages explicitly affirm this (e.g., Heb. 10:2); but this theological conclusion, as important as it is, derives no sure support from the presence of an aorist verb" (71).
Consider these examples of the use of the aorist that clearly do not mean once-for-all, punctiliar action:
"It took forty-six years to build this temple and you will raise it up in three days (John 2:20)?" Action that took 46 years is hardly temporally puntiliar (point in time)!
"But you, whenever you pray, go into your room" (Mt. 6:6). Here, repetition is assumed.
"So then, my loved ones, as you have always obeyed . . . " (Phil. 2:12). Their obedience was not once-for-all, but ongoing.
See also 1 John 2:24 ("what you have heard from the beginning"); 2 Cor. 11:24 ("five times I received the thirty-nine lashes"); Rev. 20:4 ("they lived and reigned a thousand years"); Eph. 2:1-2 ("transgressions and sins, in which you used to walk [aorist] when you followed the ways of the world"); 1 John 5:21 ("guard yourselves from idols"); Eph. 2:7 ("that he might show in the coming ages the incomparable riches of his grace"); Mark 1:11 ("in you I am well pleased"); 1 Pt. 1:24 ("the grass withers").
A good example of what the aorist means is found in Col. 1:7 where Paul writes: "Just as you learned [aorist] from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant." Scot McKnight explains:
"The Colossians undoubtedly listened to Epaphras instruct them many times, perhaps for months on regular occasions. Thus, Paul could have easily chosen the imperfect emanthanete to depict this continual process. Instead, he chose the aorist because he wanted to depict the action without reference to how it took place but that it took place. The importance of this observation for exegesis is that we cannot conclude from the aorist tense that the Colossians only learned about the gospel on one occasion. Paul's concern is neither how often they learned nor for how long they listened" (Introducing NT Interpretation, p. 86).
Some examples of different uses of the aorist:
a. Constative - views an action in its totality.
See John 2:20 above for an example.
b. Ingressive - emphasizes the beginning of an action.
"Christ died and lived" (Rom. 14:9). I.e., Christ returned to life; he began to live again.
c. Effective - this use of the aorist views an action from the perspective of its conclusion.
"I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am" (Phil. 4:11).
In summing up the significance of the aorist, observe the differences between it and the perfect tense, and between it and the imperfect.
* The difference between the aorist and the perfect may be seen by comparing Acts 2:2 and Acts 5:38. "A sound filled [aorist] the whole house" (Acts 2:2), but "You have filled [perfect] Jerusalem with your teaching" (Acts 5:38). David Black cites another example:
"Similarly, when the Greek philosopher Archimedes discovered the law of buoyancy while taking a bath, he is reported to have scampered (without his clothes) through the streets of Athens shouting, heureka, heureka, 'I have found it, I have found it!' What Archimedes apparently meant by the use of heureka (the perfect of heurisko) was that his discovery had become a part of his intellectual awareness. If, on the other hand, he had found a drachma on the street and then lost it before he got home, he probably would have used the aorist heuron, 'I found it,' which says nothing about the existing state of affairs" (Learn to Read NT Greek, 69).
* Look again at Gal. 1:13-14 and note the differences between the aorist and three usages of the imperfect. "For you have heard [effective aorist] of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute [customary imperfect] the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy [conative imperfect] it; and I kept advancing [progressive imperfect] in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries."
5. Future Tense
The future tense is usually predictive in force, as in John 14:26 where Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, "He will teach you all things." But there are two other uses to be noted.
a. Imperative - occasionally the future may be used to express a command.
"You will call his name Jesus" (Luke 1:31), by which is meant, "You are to call [or simply, call] his name Jesus."
b. Gnomic - in which the future is used to state a generally accepted fact.
"A man will leave father and mother . . . " (Eph. 5:31). This use simply asserts a performance that may generally be expected under otherwise normal conditions.
[The pluperfect and future perfect tenses are rare in the NT [especially the latter] and will have significance depending on the context in which they are found.]
Mood is the way an author portrays the relation of the action to reality. There are four moods in Greek:
Indicative (statement of fact)
Subjunctive (doubtful assertion; uncertainty)
Optative (wish; cf. 1 Thess. 5:23)
It isn't always the case that you can tell the difference between indicative and imperative. Observe 1 Cor. 12:31 where Paul says: "But earnestly desire the greater gifts." The problem is that the imperative, translated "earnestly desire," is zeloute, which is identical in form with the indicative of that verb. So what is Paul saying? Is it: 1) "earnestly desire the greater gifts" (command), or 2) "you are earnestly desiring the greater gifts" (statement of fact)? Look at this verb in Mounce. Ultimately, only context can help. See 1 Cor. 14:1,39, in which the same verb form appears. See also 1 Cor. 14:12. A similar problem is found with the use of pisteuete in John 14:1.
Voice describes how the subject is related to the verb. There are three voices in the Greek verb.
1. Active Voice
When a verb is in the active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb.
2. Passive Voice
When a verb is in the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb.
NT exegetes draw attention to a usage of the passive called the "theological" or "divine" passive. Often, when reporting a saying of Jesus, the author will avoid mentioning the name of God by turning the expression into the passive voice. Examples:
"Because they will be comforted" (Mt. 5:4), rather than "because God will comfort them." As McKnight notes, "Matthew omits 'God' out of reverence for him and a passive construction emerges. What the interpreter needs to avoid is thinking that the comfort just occurs; rather God's merciful favor is in view" (83).
See also Mk. 2:5; Luke 12:7; 2 Cor. 12:7.
3. Middle Voice
When a verb is in the middle voice, the subject in some way participates in the results of the action of the verb.
In Col. 1:6, Paul describes the gospel with a present tense middle participle, "to indicate the innate productivity of the gospel. God's work is done, not simply because of human efforts, but because the gospel is inherently effective" (McKnight, 82-3).
On rare occasions, the middle will have a reflexive force, i.e., the subject in some sense acts upon himself. See Mt. 27:5 ("Judas hanged himself", where "himself" is not in Greek text); 1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Cor. 11:14; Mk. 7:4. Most times, however, you find a verb in the active voice with a reflexive pronoun (Jn. 17:19).
Often the cessationist appeals to the use of the middle voice in 1 Cor. 13:8 ("if there be tongues, they will cease," where the verb "cease/stop" is middle voice). He argues that, far from being valid for the church today, tongues were temporary. In other words, whereas prophecies will be done away, and knowledge will be done away, tongues will simply cease, "that is, there is no need for tongues to be destroyed (passive) by someone or something, for the middle (it is argued) suggests that tongues will cease by themselves, because of something intrinsic to their very nature" (Carson, 78).
But as Carson goes on to point out, the verb pauo, translated "cease" or "stop", regularly occurs in the middle voice but with an active meaning. Cf. Luke 8:24; Acts 21:32; 1 Pt. 4:1.
Finally, the intensive middle emphasizes the agent as producing the action rather than participating in its results. In Heb. 9:12 we read that "He himself secured eternal redemption," i.e., Jesus, and no other, has accomplished redemption. The word "himself" is not in the Greek text.
A good comparison of the Greek voices is found in 1 Cor. 13:12.
"Now I know [active voice] in part, but then I will fully know [middle voice], even as I have been fully known [passive]."