This past Foundation’s Bible Study, we dove a bit into some basic Greek grammar. This exercise could cause some initial panic at the thought of dealing with a foreign and ancient language, but the idea is to equip us with a small amount of knowledge that will help the words of the New Testament come to life. Foreign languages have always been a struggle for me, but these tools are easy and accessible. First, I’m going to discuss the benefits of being able to distinguish between different verb tenses. Secondly, I will explain the differences and features of the different tenses. Finally, I will give you some tools you can use to be able to find out the Greek actually is without having to take a Greek class (though that is greatly recommended if possible!).
1. The benefits of knowing the verb tenses.
Any casual observer could take one look at the Koine Greek language, which the New Testament was written in, and the English language are two different schools of thought. In the English language, we have 3 main tenses: Past, Present, and Future. In the Greek, there are a lot more. For the sake of this exercise, we are going to focus on 5: Present, Aorist, Imperfect, Perfect, and Future.
Each of those different tenses have various features that will enrich the message of the author. Unfortunately, when it is translated, we are more limited in the English language. There are a few tenses in Koine Greek that could be translated as a past tense in English. Which one did the author use? He probably had a pretty good reason for choosing the one he did and it could change the way you see the passage if you knew it.
2. The basics of Greek verbs.
I am going to make this as basic and clear as I can.
In Koine Greek, there are three basic voices: active, passive, and middle.
Active- An action a subject is presently doing. John 3:22- After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing.
Passive- An action being done to the subject. Mark 1:9- In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
Middle– Subject acting on their own behalf or doing the action to themselves. Philippians 2:12- “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,”
Indicative- An actual occurrence. A vast majority of the verbs you will see are in the Indicative mood. This is a basic action.
Imperative– A command. II Timothy 2:22- “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
Interestingly, there are times where there are Imperatives in the passive voice. In Romans 12:2, the command to be ‘transformed’ is passive. Almost a command to let it be done to you. The command to not be ‘conformed’ is in the middle voice. So don’t do conform yourself to this world, but allow yourself to be transformed by God.
Subjunctive– what possibly could happen. Ephesians 3:10- “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Present– Continuous action, presently in progress. Ephesians 2:22- “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Aorist– A simple occurrence, completed action without concern to the time it was accomplished. Simple past. Ephesians 2:5- “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”
Imperfect- continuous action in the past. Something that was ongoing, but in the past. Ephesians 5:8- “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light”
Perfect– This is a very cool one! It is a completed action, but the effect is ongoing. Ephesians 3:17- “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,”
Future– action to be completed in the future- I John 3:2- “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
3. Tools for further study.
If you are interested in learning more about these basic Koine Greek concepts, this a great resource that I gathered information from. It breaks it down pretty succinctly.
If you want to study on your own and know what kind of verb it is, go to Blue Letter Bible. Once there, place whatever text you would like into the search bar and select which translation you want it in. Once you see the text, there will be a box next to each verse that says “Tools”. Click that link and the verse will be broken down by each word. Under the Greek text, there will be two tabs, “Interlinear” and “Reverse Interlinear”. Click on “Interlinear” and a column will appear on the right that says ‘Parse’. If you click that, a small box will pop up that will show you what the parsing is.
There is another fun tool you can use in your New Testament studies, and it is Kenneth Wuest’s “New Testament” translation. While most translations strive for ‘readability’, this translation strives to give you the truest sense the author was trying to communicate. This often means using a lot more words, but he will give you the sense the author was trying to communicate. If it was a Present Active Indicative verb, usually it would be translated “walking”, but Wuest will translate it “continually in the process of walking”. It is a fun translation to read if you are studying a passage or doing some repetitive reading.
I hope this was helpful to you, in your quest to understand God’s Word. The text is deep and rich and there is a lot there if you are patient to mine it out!