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Understanding Greek Verbs

The Bible was not originally written in English. Because of that, there is no "inspired" English translation. If there was, you'd immediately stop seeing new English translations hit the market. So how can we tell which translators "got it right?" Fortunately, with today's modern tools it's easier than you might think. Download your FREE Greek Verb Quick Reference Guide at the bottom of this post.

The New Testament was written primarily in Greek. Greek is a much more precise language than English, and it can be a bit intimidating at first. Since verbs are "action words," understanding how verbs are rendered in the original Greek is one of the most powerful concepts to grasp.

In Greek there are three primary attributes to any verb:

  • Tense
  • Voice
  • Mood

Tense usually has to do with time - when something has happened, is happening, or will happen. In English we have verb tenses that we are all familiar with: past tense, present tense, and future tense. The confusing part for most English-speakers are the other Greek verb tenses we don't have in English, so we'll focus on those:

First, the Aorist tense - This tense is typically translated in the past tense, but it can have a feeling of something happening without respect to time. In the verse below, the underlined word "sent" is in the Greek aorist tense:

John 1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name [was] John.

There are two other tenses that are extremely important in Greek that we don't have in English: the perfect and imperfect tenses. The perfect tense is used to indicate an action which is done only once, never to be repeated again. This is a very important tense to understand, since the implications can be profound. Below is an example of the Greek perfect tense:

John 19:30 So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.

The meaning behind those powerful words would be missed completely in English, but in the Greek you can easily see that this action was a one-time thing.

The imperfect tense is the exact opposite, and it's used to indicate an action which is repeated over and over. That gives the verse below added meaning as well:

Mark 14:65 Then some began to spit on Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him, and to say to Him, "Prophesy!" And the officers struck Him with the palms of their hands.

In the Greek it's clear that Jesus was not simply struck once or twice, as you might think by only reading the English. This "striking" was happening over and over.

Voice is typically used to indicate whether the verb's action is being performed by a person (active), or to a person (passive). Below is an example of an active verb:

Mark 14:71 Then he began to curse and swear, "I do not know this Man of whom you speak!"

In the passive example below, the action is being done to the subject:

John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses, [but] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

The Mood of a verb is usually either imperative (a command), participle (usually translated into English with a suffix like -ed or -ing), or indicative (a simple statement of fact).

Imperative verbs look like the underlined verb below.  That same passage also has a participle verb example in the same sentence, in bold:

Jude 1:22 And on some have compassion, making a distinction;

An indicative example is underlined in the passage below:

John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses, [but] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

You might say, "but wait, I thought that you said the verb in John 1:17 was "passive?" Yes it is. A verb has three attributes, and they all play together to make the author's point.

Click here to DOWNLOAD your free Greek Verb Quick Reference Guide PDF

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