The Sense of Tense

“An event to remember! A great time for all!” What do you make of the previous phrases? We are all used to seeing such phrases in bulletins, flyers, newspapers and other advertisements. But do the words indicate when the event will take place? Did the event already happen? Is it happening right now? Will it happen in the future? You don’t know, do you? Why is that? It is because there were no verbs attached to the phrase. If one were to add “It was” to the beginning of each phrase, then we would understand that the event has passed. If one were to add “This is” to the beginning, we would see that we are currently participating in it. If one were to add, “It will be,” then, well, you get the picture. The tense of verbs is important in our language because tense tells us when action happens — past, present, or future.
One of the things that make the Greek language difficult is that the Greeks thought about the concept of “tense” differently from our concept today. We think of tense in a very temporal way. That is, we associate tense primarily with time. Past tense = past time. Future tense = future time. But the Greek language didn’t quite express tense in that way. Oh, yes, the Greek speaker knew the past, present, and future, but the tense of Greek verbs didn’t quite express things along that line. The focus of the Greek verb was more in reference to the action of the thing being done as opposed to the time of the thing being done.
In Greek, the past tense was represented in two different ways. One way was to talk about actions that were completed. For completed actions, the Greek used the aorist tense. “John baptized Jesus.” There is a completed action. But there was also the imperfect tense, which, in Greek, is considered more a function of the present tense verb, because the action is continuing for a period of time. “Jesus was healing the sick.” There is ongoing action, but in past time. Both verb tenses describe what English speakers would see as action occurring in past time, but the Greek mind focused upon the completion or ongoing nature of the action. The present tense Greek verb, in this regard, represents ongoing action, as opposed to completed action. The future tense verb represents potential action that has not yet begun. Greek also has the perfect tense which expresses action that began in the past and completed in the past but had lasting effects.
1 Corinthians 15:1 serves as a good illustration of these distinctions. Paul writes, “Now I make known unto you brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye received, wherein also ye stand, by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain.” Paul said, “I make known.” This is a present tense verb that indicates that Paul is currently engaged in doing this action as he is writing. “I preached” is an aorist tense verb, meaning that Paul had completed the action of preaching (publicly, orally) to them in the past. “Ye received” is another aorist tense verb indicating that the Corinthians had completed the action of receiving the gospel prior, i.e. they accepted it. “Ye stand” is a perfect tense verb indicating that they began standing in it in the past, and they are continuing to stand in it. “Are saved” is a present tense verb meaning that as Paul writes to them, they are continuing to be saved by the gospel. “Hold fast” is another present tense verb meaning to continue to hold fast. “I preached” is an aorist tense verb meaning that Paul had completed that action prior. And finally, “ye believed” is an aorist tense verb meaning that they had completed the action of believing at some point in the past.
The Greek verb is different from the English verb in that it considers state of action above consideration of time. I hope that as you continue to read these columns that you will keep in mind these differences in tense in the Greek New Testament — aorist, imperfect, present, future, and perfect. As we discuss various passages I hope you will remember the difference between completed action, ongoing action, and completed action with lasting effects. Reference to action is the primary way in which the Greek verb communicates tense.

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