I lived in Arizona for nearly 40 years, an experience that gave me an inflated idea of the abilities of weather forecasters.
Every day, the meteorologist would say, "It's going to be sunny." And almost every time, she was right!
the last ten years, I have lived in Indiana, and I now have a much more realistic picture of the limitations of high-tech
forecasters. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong -- but I often find myself looking at the radar
map and drawing my own conclusions.
When we come to the New Testament, it's good to be reminded that a prediction
is only as good as the person who does the predicting. New Testament writers typically use the future tense to make
predictions about the future. That's the normal use of the future, the one we encounter most of the time.
However, there are at least two additional facts that we need to remember:
1. Not every prediction is accurate.
When God says something is going to happen, you can count on it! When the Pharisees predict something, you might want
to get a second opinion!
2. Sometimes the future tense is a command, not a prediction. When your
kid says, "I'm not going to pick up my toys, you might say, "Son, you will pick up those toys."
It may be phrased as a forecast, but your tone of voice transforms it into a command. In the same way, when Jesus explains
the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37, he doesn't use an imperative. He follows the pattern of the original
Hebrew and employs a future tense when he says, "You shall love the Lord your God." You can observe the same
construction in Matthew 19:18 when he lists some of the commands for a self-satisfied young man: "You shall not
murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness." In each case, the
Greek verb is in the future tense, not the imperative or command form.
Daniel Wallace, in his text Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, devotes 14 pages to the imperfect tense in Greek
-- and the imperfect is undeniably one of the simpler tenses! You can see why a blog post will never give a complete
explanation of the tense. However, we can offer the first few ideas that a student should have in mind when she is trying
to interpret a verb in the imperfect tense.
The basic idea of the imperfect tense is continued action in past time.
While the aorist tense gives you a snapshot of an event, the imperfect tense points a video camera at it. You see it
The most common translation uses the pattern "was/were ____ing": I was reading; they were
When you look more closely at an imperfect tense, you will find that there are several shades of meaning.
The variations that will prove most useful are:
1. Progressive Imperfect
The most basic usage, the
progressive imperfect describes a process happening in the past. It catches the process in mid-action, without giving
any information about the beginning or the end of the process. You could compare it to stepping into a church service
while the choir is singing an anthem: you can tell that they are in the process of performing the song, but you don't
know when they began or when they will end.
Example: Mark 12:41 -- "Many rich were
casting large sums of money [into the treasury]. When Jesus arrived at the temple, people were already lined up
to present their offerings; they had begun before his arrival, and they would continue afterwards.
An imperfect verb can sometimes refer to an action that usually or regularly happened in the past This
action normally happens at regular intervals, and it continues over a significant period of time. You might translate
it with the phrase "used to."
Example: Luke 2:41 -- "his parents used to go to
Jerusalem each year."
3. Iterative Imperfect
This usage is similar to the customary imperfect,
in that it describes repeated action in the past, but the action does not occur on a regular schedule.
Example: Matthew 3:6 -- "They were being baptized in the Jordan River by him."
Ingressive or Inceptive Imperfect
An imperfect tense can be used to indicate the beginning of an action, with the suggestion
that the action will continue for a while. You may add the words "began to" in order to make the usage clear.
Example: Mark 1:31 --"Her fever left, and she began to wait on Him."
This use of the imperfect describes an action that someone is attempting to do, but has not yet
been able to complete.
Example: Matthew 3:14 -- "And John tried to hinder him [from
being baptized]." John was in the process of trying to keep Jesus from being baptized, but he was obviously unsuccessful
in carrying out his intention.
How can you tell which of these uses appears in a particular verse? It comes down
to our usual formula: context and common sense. When you encounter an imperfect, try out each of these ideas and
ask yourself which one makes the best sense in this context. You may not do it perfectly, but that's OK -- after
all, you too are imperfect!