I had the privilege of teaching the importance of Greek verb tense as it relates to the proper interpretation of difficult bible passages in a class called “Contextual Principles” at this past weekend’s Inductive Bible Study Training conducted by In Worship at Mt. Hebron Church in Mobile, AL. Before you read on, please understand I am no Greek scholar and these are basic principles I gleaned from research I conducted to prepare for teaching this subject. A great resource is Kay Arthur’s book, How to Study Your Bible: The Lasting Rewards of the Inductive Method available here. Another great resource is Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study New Testament available here.
Understanding Greek verbs is instrumental in the proper interpretation and application of Scripture. Since verbs express action, they are often the most significant elements in the expression of thought and are key to understanding what the author is trying to say. Greek verbs tend to clearly show who is doing the action, whether as a command or suggestion, whether the passage is speaking of reality or possibility. The major features of Greek verbs are known as the mood, tense, and voice.
Tense shows the kind of action and points to a time of occurrence relative to the time of utterance. English has only past and non-past forms and uses non-past forms to indicate future time as well as present time. Greek indicative verbs can point to three different times: past, present or future. In considering tenses, you need to understand the aspects of verbs too. Aspect is the characteristic of a verb indicating how the user regards its degree of completion or result (beginning, duration, repetition, achievement, permanent effect, etc.), but not relative to the time of utterance. Greek verbs identify actions or states as having one of three different degrees of completion or result: ongoing, completed (with continuing results) and simple occurrence (completed but not marked as to whether the results are continuing). Thanks to this site for putting all this info in one place.
Tense-aspect: an indicative verb form in Greek must express both time and aspect. Three possible times and three possible aspects yield a grid of nine possible tense-aspect combinations. The seven named grammatical tenses of Greek are really tense-aspect combinations in the indicative, covering eight of the nine possibilities.
|Completed with Continuing Results||Pluperfect||Perfect Future||Perfect|
So what does all this mean? When observing the text of Scripture, a proper understanding of verbs is essential to proper interpretation and application. Unless you understand verb tense, your interpretation may not be accurate.
Let’s look at some examples. In the difficult passage of Rom. 7:14-25 we need to consider the relationship between a believer of Jesus Christ and sin. Paul had just written in Rom. 5:20 that, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And he asks in Rom. 6:1, “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound?” Here’s where you need to understand about tense. Present tense is a linear action, one that is ongoing. Sin (Strong’s #266) here is a noun and is defined as missing the true goal and scope in life; offense in relation to God with the resultant guilt. The key word here though is not sin, but continue. Continue (Strong’s #1961) is a present (or future depending on the resource) tense verb that means persist in an activity or process. Present (future) tense indicates that it is occurring now. So Paul asks the rhetorical question in v. 2, “How shall we who died [past tense] to sin still live [present tense] in it?”
Let’s look at 1 John. First in 1 John 2:1. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Both uses of the word sin(s) are verbs that are in the aorist tense. That means it is a one-time event from the past.
Look now at 1 John 3:9. “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” There are a couple of key verbs here. Born is in the perfect tense indicating a completed action with continuing results: “born of God.” Practice is the present tense indicating this is occurring now. Sin is a present tense verb. Born is in the perfect tense again. From the New American Commentary, “The life of the child who has been born of God is marked by the purity and righteousness of the One whom he follows. The child of God does not live a life of habitual sin because (1) the seed of God remains in him, and (2) he has been born of God. Although the Christian still falls prey to sinful acts, John insists that it is impossible for sin to become a believer’s pattern of life.” The conclusion from this verse indicates that no one who is a child a God can continually, or habitually engage in sin. There is no such thing as a Christian “wilderness period.” Maybe you’re familiar with the term back-sliding. It’s a made up doctrine for people that are habitually engaged in sin to make themselves feel better about what they’re doing. It is not consistent with the teaching of John and Paul.
Back in Romans 7:14. “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” Sold is in the perfect tense meaning an event that occurred in the past with continuing results. Paul is not talking about himself. He understood and wants us to understand that a real, true, born-again Christian does not practice sin as a habit of his life. There is a marked difference between one time sin (aorist tense) and habitual sin (present tense).
Isn’t it interesting that we don’t often hear it taught like this? That’s why we let Scripture interpret Scripture. That’s why studying Greek verb tense is important to correct interpretation of Scripture.