During a recent discussion in an online Bible forum a question was raised regarding the significance of Greek tenses. A particular passage was presented in which the questioner wondered whether the significance of the tenses is as firm as often presumed. The questioner cited the word KATABAINW in John 6:33-50 as an example. In verse 33 it is a present participle; in verse 38 it is a perfect indicative; in verse 41, an aorist participle; verse 42, a perfect indicative; it is in verse 50 a present participle and then in verses 51 and 58 aorist participles. With such diversity of usage regarding the same event (Jesus coming down out of heaven) can we really make such fine distinctions in the meanings of tense?
As in all translation/interpretation, the key to understanding how any one given word is used is found within the context. When dealing with Greek tenses, the same holds especially true. The context complements the meaning of tenses as well as the tenses the context. Why would these various tenses be employed where it seemingly wouldn’t seem to matter what tense was used? The answer lies in the specifics. Let’s examine the tense of KATABAINW in John 6:33-58.
The first assumption with which we must deal in the translation is found in verse 33. That assumption is in regard to the translation of the participle KATABAINWN. The KJV translates the participle “he who cometh down” but the ASV more correctly, I believe, translates it “that which cometh down.” Why the difference? It is because the participle is ambiguous as to its antecedent. Is the antecedent the person of Jesus or is the antecedent the bread? Looking at the tense of the participle helps to answer the question. By understanding that this is a present tense participle the action in the participle is ongoing in relationship to the main verb, which is also, in this passage, present tense (ESTIN). Hence, it refers to something that is continually happening. Jesus, in his person, had already come down. But what was continuing to come down? It was his teaching. Hence, the participle refers to the bread (Jesus’ continual teaching), not to Jesus Himself. So, in verse 33 the present tense is used metaphorically in regard to the continual teaching that Jesus was giving. This is what was continually coming down out of heaven, not Jesus’ person. Understanding the significance of the tense in this verse plays a decisive role in correctly translating and understanding the passage.
In verse 38, Jesus says, “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” Here we have KATABEBHKA. The reduplication of consonants and the presence of the kappa in the verb ending tells us this is a perfect tense verb. The perfect tense generally indicates completed action with abiding results. In this passage we understand Jesus to say that He had already come down and the results of that haven’t changed; He remains in a state of being down. Why don’t we see the aorist tense here? The context more or less forbids it. Jesus came down to do the will of the Father. The aorist would have indicated that his coming was completed. It wasn’t. He was in the midst of it. The perfect tense best captures the idea that Jesus’ action of coming down continued to have direct consequences.
In verse 41, KATABAINW is in the form of an aorist participle (KATABAS). It is used in conjunction with the present tense verb “I am.” Usually when you have an aorist participle used with a present tense verb, the speaker is trying to indicate that the action in the participle occurred prior to the action in the main verb. This is because a participle generally contains no time of its own. The main verb supplies the time; the tense of the participle then tells you whether it’s action is before, contemporaneous, or subsequent to the action of the main verb. In this instance the force of the participle is simply to indicate that Jesus “coming” occurred prior to his current statement.
In verse 42 the Jews are quoting what Jesus said in verse 38. This is an example of direct discourse. The quotation is introduced by the particle hOTI. Hence, they use the same tense that Jesus used. We have already discussed why that tense was used in verse 38.
In verse 50 we see similar language as we find in verse 33. The present participle KATABAINWN is used with the present tense verb ESTIN. The present tense indicates that the bread is continually coming from heaven. Jesus is speaking metaphorically of his teaching which is continuing to come down from heaven. This is the bread of which one eats he shall not die.
In verses 51 and 58 we have similar constructions as in verse 41. It is the aorist participle KATABAS in relation to the present tense be verb (EIMI in verse 51 and ESTIN in verse 58). Again we emphasize that the time of the participle is relative to the time of the lead verb. The analysis is the same as in verse 41. What is interesting about verse 58 is that the tense does shift to aorist. In light of verse 38, one might expect a perfect participle here. Why the aorist? It is because the relationship between Jesus and His teaching is being emphasized. For all practical purposes Jesus and His teaching are the same. Jesus referred to His personal coming in the aorist tense (verse 41). In verse 58 he refers to His teaching in the aorist tense, but only because “the bread” in this verse refers to Jesus person per verse 57; here Jesus’ person is His teaching. The aorist here doesn’t militate against the perfect or the present tenses previously used. Rather, the aorist points out a relationship between Jesus’ person and teaching that hadn’t previously been directly elucidated.
What can we conclude from this? The passage clearly teaches a relationship between Jesus’ person and Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ person came to earth with lasting effects (perfect tense). This happened prior to the words which Jesus spoke in this context (aorist participles with present tense lead verbs). Jesus’ teaching was continuing to be taught as the effects of His presence (present tense participles with present tense lead verbs). Jesus’ person and Jesus’ teaching were codependent upon each other so that when the one came the other was present as well (aorist participle of verse 58 instead of the perfect as used in verse 38).
This passage is really quite beautiful once one understands the interplay of the different tenses. Each tense tells us something different about Jesus’ present situation. In answer to the question which began this study, the passage doesn’t diminish the role of tense, but accentuates it! The shift from one tense to another doesn’t blur the tenses, but, as in the rainbow, the transition from one to another provides contrast so as to differentiate their true colors.
Are nuances in Greek tenses significant?