In English, we use the present tense to show that something is happening right now -- at the present time. That's
simple and obvious. When you say, "It's raining," I know I'll need an umbrella if I'm on my way
out the door.
In Greek, the present tense is more versatile . . . and more complicated. Sometimes
the present tense does tell us something about the time
when something happens. But sometimes it doesn't.
However, present tense always tells
us something about the type of action. In Greek, the present tense is normally
used to show continued action. It goes beyond the bare statement that an act happened; it lets me know that the act
keeps on happening.
What do we mean by "continued action"?
action can include three variations:
1. Progressive -- the standard use of the present.
This describes an action that is in the process of happening. The act has begun but it is not yet finished; we are watching
it in the middle of the action. Example: "The sun is rising." During the few moments when the
fiery disk is sliding above the horizon, we watch it make the transition.
25:8 -- "Our lamps are going out." One by one, the lamps are in the process of running out of oil, then flickering
weakly, and then dying out with a thin column of smoke. We are watching the process happen.
2. Iterative or Repeated -- the present tense may describe an event that happens repeatedly, at
regular intervals. Example: "The sun rises every morning." Used in this way, the tense does not
imply that sunrise happens all through the day. It simply means that it occurs every morning.
1 Corinthians 15:31 -- "I die daily." Paul is not describing a long, agonizing death scene. He
is reporting the fact that he has to die to his sin every day; it is a fresh decision every time.
-- The verb here refers to something that occurs habitually. It may not recur according to a schedule, but you may expect
it to occur from time to time. Example: "The sun melts snow."
3:14 -- "For every house is built by someone." This verse does not envision a daily routine of housebuilding
or a long process of construction. It simply states the fact that houses are built all the time, and someone is responsible
These are the most obvious ideas conveyed by the present tense. But in certain situations, it can do
more exotic things -- particularly in the indicative mood, where it bears the double burden of indicating both the time of an action and the type of action.
Here are some special
uses of the present tense:
1. Aoristic Present -- Sometimes a New Testament writer may simply want to say that
an event is happening right now, with no concept of continued action. Just as the aorist tense describes simple action
in the past, the present tense occasionally shows simple action in the present. After all, Greek does not have a separate
tense to convey this idea.
Acts 9:34 -- When Peter encounters a man who has been bedridden
for eight years, he announces, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you." The
verse goes on: "And immediately he arose." Obviously, this healing took place in an instant, not over
an extended period. As Peter says the words, the miracle happens.
2. Futuristic Present -- Sometimes the
present tense is used to describe a future event. The future event is so certain to happen that the writer speaks of
it as if it is already coming to pass.
Matthew 26:2 -- Two days before his final Passover,
Jesus tells his disciples, "The Son of man is delivered up for crucifixion."
The event will not happen until later that week, but Christ uses the present tense to announce it.
Present -- There are times when the present tense is used where English would use a past tense verb. In the New American Standard Bible, historical present verbs are marked with an asterisk. The editors explain:
[I]n some contexts the present tense seems more unexpected and
unjustified to the English reader than a past tense would have been. But Greek authors frequently used the present tense
for the sake of heightened vividness, thereby transporting their readers in imagination to the actual scene at the time of
occurrence. [The translators] felt that it would be wise to change these historical presents into English past tenses.
(New American Standard Bible, Reference Edition. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1973, p. x.)
Mark 14:17 -- "And when it was evening He "came [lit., comes] with
4. Tendential (or conative) present -- In certain passages, the present tense is used to express
an action that is being attempted, but may not actually be happening.
John 10:32 -- Facing
an angry crowd, Jesus asks, "I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning me?" A glance at the context makes it clear that no stones are flying; the people
picked up stones in verse 31 and they intend to use them, but they have not yet begun.
5. Static (or gnomic) present
-- The present tense can also be used to state a general truth which can always be taken for granted as a fact.
2 Peter 3:4 -- "Ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as
it was from the beginning of creation."
You may find some of these usages surprising, but there are times when
grammar must stretch to convey the incredible variety of subtleties that a person may want to communicate.