Word of the Week
March 12, 2022
A Matter of Tenses: God in the Background
I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.
1 Corinthians 3:6
How big is the church you attend? Is it a gathering of 50 or 60? Or is it part of a multi-campus entity with total attendance of 35,000?
Why do some churches mushroom while others wither on the vine?
We often point to the leadership as a key to success. One pastor comes with the gifts and drive to stimulate rapid growth, while another focuses on serving the needs of the existing membership.
Many find it easy to pick favorite leaders: “Pastor Tim really knows how to take care of his people.” “Pastor Wayne moves our church to reach our community.”
A similar dynamic was at work in the first century in the church at Corinth. When Paul wrote his first letter to the church, he was dismayed to discover that the church had split into factions, each promoting their favorite church leader. Some swore by Paul himself, who had founded the congregation. Others trumpeted the virtues of Apollos, a dynamic Jewish convert who had provided leadership after Paul left. Still others wished that the apostle Peter head the congregation. Others turned up their nose at any human leader, declaring that they were followers of Christ alone. (See 1 Corinthians 1:12).
The apostle Paul called for a halt to this comparison game. They were forgetting one vital fact – and the key to his statement lies in his choice of Greek verb tenses.
Remember this one truth, Paul urged: I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).
He makes his point with a word picture from the farm. Paul was like the farmer who first sows seed in the field. Apollos is like a second farmer who comes along afterwards to water the seed. However, farmers can’t make anything grow. They can try to set up the right conditions for growth, but they can’t make a single seed sprout.
No matter how gifted the human leaders, only God can produce genuine growth.
Look at the three verbs Paul uses here:
Planted – aorist tense
Watered – aorist tense
Caused growth – imperfect tense
The apostle chose the tenses for these verbs carefully. A Greek would use the aorist tense when he wanted to simply tell you that an event happened, without any emphasis on how long or how often. Aorist is the tense a reporter would use – just the facts. In an earlier article, we pointed out that aorist verbs can describe something that took time to happen. Paul spent over a year starting the Corinthian church. But it still adds up to a single event.
The imperfect tense, on the other hand, is the ideal tense to describe something that happens over a period of time, something that happens gradually or continually. That’s why the New American Standard renders it “was causing the growth” rather than “caused the growth.”
The verb tenses paint a beautiful picture of how church growth works. The aorist verbs remind us that people come and go. Paul ministered in Corinth. That was an event in the church’s history. Then he left and Apollos came to serve for a while. His ministry too was an episode that lasted for a while and then ended.
In the background, however, God was quietly and continually at work. He was the one who caused the seeds to sprout and flourish, no matter which leader was tilling the soil and pulling the weeds.
Human leaders come and go, and we can be grateful for their contributions. But it is important to remember that none of them holds the secret of spiritual success. Whether we are talking about individual growth or the development of a church, God is the only one who makes it all happen.
The explanation of these Greek tenses is not the whole story. Like many other features of Greek, verb tenses can have several shades of meaning. It is important to look at the entire sentence in its context to know precisely what to think about a tense. The explanation given here Is one that makes sense in the flow of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 3. You can find out more about Greek tenses in the Grammar section of www.ezraproject.com. In addition, there will be a fuller explanation in the Ezra Project Greek Grammar course which will become available in the next few weeks.
Q – When you wrote about the four ways to say “If” in Greek, you said that the key to recognizing them was the verb which follows “If.” Could you expand on how that works in the temptations of Christ?
A – I won’t go into a complete discussion of this part of grammar, but let me explain what is happening in the temptation accounts in Matthew and Mark.
Underlying fact: Greek verbs all come in one of four “moods.”
Indicative mood is a statement of fact.
Subjunctive mood is a statement of probability.
Optative mood is a statement of remote possibility.
Imperative mood is a command.
You can tell which is which by looking at the way they are spelled.
How it applies here:
When Greeks say “If” followed by a verb in the indicative mood, they assume that the “If” is true.
This is what Satan used for the first two temptations: “If you are the Son of God” [and we can assume that you are].
When they follow “if” with a verb in the subjunctive mood, they are saying that it might or might now happen. No assumptions are made.
This is the form Satan used in the third temptation: “If you fall down and worship me” [maybe you will, maybe you won’t].
NOTE: If you found this article on verb tenses to be helpful, you will enjoy the free fact sheet which is currently available from Ezra Project: “Insights and Myths: The Most Useful Facts of Greek Grammar.”
To get the fact sheet, just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and say, “Send me the fact sheet.”
Next week we will focus on another verse where grammar makes a difference. In the story of the woman at the well, we will watch as the grammar reveals a surprising twist.
©Ezra Project 2022
Someone has said that Jesus never bore His own cross. When I quoted John 19:17, his response was that this verse is inconclusive because of the pronouns, and it has to be interpreted through the lens of the other gospels.
We all know Simon of Cyrene did carry the cross, but he is adamant that Simon carried it directly from the Praetorium all the way to Golgotha.
Can you address the language in John 19:17? Is there anything there to make it possible that John is NOT saying: Jesus came bearing His own cross?
I just looked at the other three Gospels, and all three of those accounts mention Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross. In each case, the writer says that they brought Jesus out, and then it says that they drafted Simon to carry the cross. I assume that’s what your friend means by “interpreting through the lens of the other Gospels.” At the same time, I don’t see anything in John 19:17 that connects any pronouns to someone other than Jesus. There is no mention of Simon, so a pronoun could hardly refer back to him.
The only odd thing about the pronouns is that the word “His” or “His own” is in the dative case, rather than the genitive that I would have expected. Grammar scholars would probably call this a dative of possession, which is a legitimate usage. I would paraphrase it something like, “He went out, carrying the cross for Himself.”
When we put all four Gospels together, I think it’s quite possible that Jesus only carried the cross at the beginning of the trek and it was transferred to Simon before He got very far. He at least started out with the cross. I can’t prove whether He gave it up just past the threshold or a hundred yards down the road. But John 19:17 seems pretty clear to me.
Thank you again!