Fun With Verb Tenses – Seriously, Fun!

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I’ve pasted in a screenshot of the ESV translation of John 9.13-7 so I can demonstrate how we can learn a lot if we pay attention to verb tenses when we study the Scriptures.  I know, I know, you thought you were done with that stuff when you finished your sophomore year in high school; you weren’t.

Notice two things: First, I’m using an English translation; second, that I’ve color coded the Greek! verb tenses.  Any good computer Bible program will allow you to do this so even if you don’t know Greek, but do have a little money, you can study verb tenses.

Green is the present tense.  Red is the imperfect tense [this is something in the past that was ongoing, it wasn’t a one time moment in the past.  Yellow is the aorist tense [this is something in the past that happened in a moment of time, a snapshot of the past as it were].

Some cool things that are worth knowing.  First notice “brought” in verse 13 and “said” in verse 17.  They are color coded green which means they are the present tense in Greek.  But wait!  The ESV translates them in the past tense.  What is going on here?  One of the characteristics of John is that, when relating a story, he will often slip into the present tense while telling it [we call this the “historical present”].  This made the story immediate and powerful to the reader of the original text.  Verse 13 then literally reads: “They bring to the Pharisees…” and verse 17 begins: “so they say again.”  Using the present tense makes the story spring to life for the reader, as if it were happening right now.  Most translations change the tense in order to make it grammatically “correct.”

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Verse 18 is a good demonstration of the difference between the imperfect [ongoing in the past] and the aorist tense [snapshot of the past].  “He had been” blind is red so we know it is imperfect.  This means that he was continuously blind in the past, but look what happened, he “had received his sight.”  This is yellow so we know it is the aorist [snapshot] tense.  Sometime in the past [not very long ago because we read John 9.1-13] the man “received his sight.”  Something happened and he went from being blind to seeing.

I love how the authors of the New Testament took pains to be accurate in recounting things that had happened.  Understanding how they used verb tenses helps us get a better grasp on what they really wanted to communicate about events or doctrinal truths.  The very precision of the Greek language allowed them to do this.

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