Present Tense: A Closer Look

An Expanded Discussion of the Present Tense

 

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"?

Continued 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.

Matthew 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.

 

3.  Customary

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."

Hebrews 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 for each.

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.

 

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.

 

3.  Historical 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 the twelve."

 

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.