Action Words

Verbs are action words and they exist as the very heart of language.  If we want to communicate any action at all we need to use a verb, whether we are talking about eating, seeing, thinking, creating, living or dying.  Every time we talk about an action we use a verb.

When we use a verb we also use a tense to provide more information about the action.  If the action happened in the past we use the past tense.  So instead of writing “he is working,” we write “he worked.”  Likewise, if we want to write about an action that will take place in the future we put it in the future tense and write “he will work.”

English verb tenses are primarily focused on the timing of an action.  However this is not true of all languages, and Hebrew and Greek verb tenses are at times quite different from English tenses.  In order to really appreciate Scripture we need to be able to read the verbs and understand the original verb tenses.  When we see the original verb tenses we get the extra information that the tenses give the verbs.  In other words, there are Greek and Hebrew tenses that have no exact equivalent in English.  Translators need to choose what they believe is the closest match, or add extra words to convey some of the additional information that comes from the Greek or Hebrew verb tenses.

The Discovery Bible lets us see the original verb tenses of Scripture by using a system of symbols to mark each tense as it appears.  Below is a quick summary of the different Greek verb tenses highlighted by The Discovery Bible.

Current Symbol  Verb Tense  Meaning
Present Tense
(! denotes a command/imperative)
The Greek present tense is used to express an action in progress in an ongoing, habitual or continual sense. When the present tense is used, we need to use our imagination to picture the action as continually repeating.  So when we read our call to be “filled with the Spirit” in Eph 5:18, we need to understand that by using the Greek present tense, Scripture is calling us to be continually filled with the Spirit.  Through the present tense verb, Scripture reveals that being filled with the Spirit is an ongoing experience that we need to continually seek.  When a present tense command in Scripture is negated (/) it means we need to stop an action that is in progress, or that we need to continually avoid an action.  So when Scripture uses the Greek present tense negatively and says “do not sin” (Jn 5:14, Eph 4.26), it means we need to continually (and habitually) avoid sinning.
Aorist Tense If the Greek present tense shows ongoing or continual action, the aorist invites the reader to focus on the immediate application of the action.  At the same time, the aorist can also relay a series of events and summarize them all at once (as if they were a single event).  For example, in Col 1:28 Paul says he proclaims Jesus and teaches people so that he might present (aorist) everyone complete in Christ. Here Paul uses the aorist to focus on the moment of presentation, while at the same it summarizes all the actions that worked towards that moment as a single event.
 Perfect Tense The Greek perfect tense points to the ongoing effects or significance of a completed action.  It is used when an action that was completed in the past has effects which are continuing right up to the present time (and beyond). 1 So when Paul uses the perfect tense to write “you have been saved by grace,” he shows us that salvation is complete but continues to have resonating effects throughout our lives.
Imperfect Tense The Greek imperfect tense is used to show an action that is continuing or ongoing in the past.  It is a dramatic tense that calls the reader to actively imagine the scene as though they were watching it like a movie. For example, when Luke writes of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet he uses the imperfect tense because he wants the reader to really see her as she was wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.  He wants the reader to picture her as she was kissing His feet and anointing them with oil.  When we see the imperfect tense in Scripture we can really start to use our imagination to appreciate the drama and beauty of God’s Word.

 


  1. The perfect can be used to focus on future effects of an action as the context allows.  For example, at the cross Jesus declared in the perfect tense that “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).  He used the perfect tense to focus on the effects of His sacrifice.  While His sacrifice was final and complete, it would have resonating effects throughout all time. 

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