Again and again when John begins to recount a narrative event in Christ’s life, he slips into the present tense. Well, I say, “slips,” but really this is his plan all along. It’s kind of unfortunate that we just can’t see this reflected in the translation, because John gives immediacy and urgency to his narrative when he highlights the crucial parts by using the present tense.
Take the above passage: John 6.16-21. This is the ESV, but I’ve plopped a visual filter on it that highlights all of the verbs that are in the present tense in the underlying Greek word [pretty cool, right?]. Notice that John takes up the present tense, just at the critical point in the story, when the storm begins to blow. Here is how it might read if we translate the present tense as present tense, beginning at verse 18: The sea becomes rough because a strong wind is blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles [literally 25 or 30 stadia], they see Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he says to them, It is I; do not be afraid.
Do you see how when John uses the present tense it makes the narrative seem somehow more urgent, more immediate? Pretty brilliant of him if you ask me.
This is kind of funny because this very day I read what is definitely the best single article on preaching I’ve ever found, not to mention the best titled: Deadly, Dull and Boring. Tip #7 in his 10 tips for preaching is: translate narratives into the present tense. He writes:
“Odd as it seems, translating narrative into the present tense makes a story seem real and immediate—it’s just like being there. Retell a biblical narrative with present tense verbs, and something refreshing happens. The same applies to illustrations. You can take your listeners back in time and put them right inside the action just by adjusting the tenses… they look, he whispers, he says. It’s alive! Keeping narratives in the past tense coats everything with dust.”
Well isn’t that interesting. Perhaps he has been reading the Gospel of John.