In general, tense in Greek involves two elements: aspect (kind of action, [sometimes call Aktionsart, though a difference does need to be made between the two]) and time. Aspect is the primary value of tense in Greek and time is secondary, if involved at all. In other words, tense is that feature of the verb that indicates the speaker's presentation of the verbal action (or state) with reference to its aspect and, under certain conditions, its time. [See Wallace's discussion of the significance of tense, aspect, and time, and also his discussion of the difference between portrayal and reality.]
With reference to aspect, the present tense is internal (that is, it portrays the action from the inside of the event, without special regard for beginning or end), but it makes no comment as to fulfillment (or completion). The present tense's portrayal of an even "focusses on its development or progress and sees the occurence in regard to its internal make-up, without beginning or end in view" (Fanning, 102). It is sometimes called progressive: It "basically represents an activity as in process (or in progress)" McKay, 225).
With reference to time, the present indicative is usually present time, but it may be other than or broader that the present time (e.g. historical present, gnomic present).
The specific uses of the present tense can be categorized into three groups: narrow-band presents, broad-band presents, and special uses. "Narrow band" means that the action is portrayed as occuring over a relatively short interval; "broad band" means that the action is portrayed as occurring over a longer time interval; "special uses" include instances that do not fit into the other two categories, especially those involving a time frame that is other than the present.
A. Narrow-Band Presents
The action is portrayed as being in progress, or as occurring. In the indicative mood, it is portrayed as occurring in the present time ("right now"), that is, at the time speaking.
1. Instantaneous (Aorist, Punctiliar) Present
The present tense be used to indicate that an action is completed at the moment of speaking. This occurs only in the indicative.
Mark 2:5 Jesus ... said to the paralytic, "Child, your sins are forgiven."
2. Progressive (Descriptive) Present
The present tense may be used to describe a scene is progress, especially in narrative literature.
Matt 25:8 Our lamps are [right now] going out.
B. Broad-Band Presents
The following four categories of the present tense include those that are used to indicate an event or occurence taking place over a long interval, or an extended sequence of events.
3. Extending-from-Past Present (Present of Past Action Still in Progress)
The present tense may be used to describe an action that, begun in the past, continues in the present. The emphasis is on the present time.
Luke 15:29 I have served you for these many years.
4. Iterative Present
The present tense may be used to describe an event that repeatedly happens.
Matt 7:7 Ask ... seek ... knock.
5. Lifestyle (Customary, General) Present [customarily, as a lifestyle]
The customary present is used to signal either (1) an action that regularly occurs or (2) an ongoing state. The action is usually iterative, or repeated, but not without interruption.
Luke 18:12 I [customarily] fast twice a week.
1John 3:6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning [as a lifestyle]
6. Gnomic Present
The present tense may be used to make a statement of a general, timeless fact. "It does not say that something is happening, but that something does happen" (Williams, 27). The action or state continues without time limits.
2Cor 9:7 God loves [as a general, timeless fact] a cheerful giver.
C. Special Uses of the Present Tense
7. Historical (Dramatic) Present
The present tense may be used fairly frequently in narrative literature to portray a past event vividly, as though the reader were in the midst of the scene as it unfolds. [The category is frequently misunderstood; see Wallace for his discussions of exegetically significant examples.]
Matt 26:40 He came to his disciples and found them sleeping, and he said ...
8. Futuristic Present
The present tense may be used to describe a future event, though it typically adds the connotations of immediacy and certainty. Most instances involve verbs whose lexical meaning involves anticipations.
a. Completely Futuristic
The present tense may describe an event that is wholly subsequent to the time of speaking, as if it were present.
John 4:25 Messiah is coming.
b. Mostly Futuristic (Ingressive-Futuristic)
The present tense may describe an event begun in the present but completed in the future.
Mark 10:33 I am going up to Jerusalem.
9. Present Retained in Indirect Discourse
Generally speaking, the tense of the Greek verb in indirect discourse is retained from the direct discourse. This category is frequently confused with the historical present with dire exegetical consequences; see Wallace.
John 5:13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who he was.
Like the present tense, the imperfect tense displays an internal aspect. That is, it portrays the action from within the event, without regard for beginning or end. This contrasts with the aorist, which portrays the action in summary fasion. For the most part, the aorist takes a snapshot of the action while the imperfect (like the present) takes a motion picture, portraying the action as it unfolds. As such, the imperfect is often incomplete and focusses on the process of the action.
A. Narrow-Band Imperfects
The action is portrayed as being in progress, or as occurring in the past time (since all imperfects are in the indicative).
1. Progressive (Descriptive) Imperfect [continually]
The imperfect is often used to describe an action or state that is in progress in past time from the viewpoint of the speaker.
Mark 9:31 He was teaching his disciples and was saying to them
2. Ingressive (Inchoative, Inceptive) Imperfect [began doing]
The imperfect may be used to stress the beginning of an action.
Matt 5:2 And when he opened his mouth, he began teaching them.
B. Broad-Band Imperfects
Like the present tense, several imperfects involve a time-frame that is fairly broadly conceived.
3. Iterative Imperfect [kept on]
The imperfect is sometimes used for repeated action in past time. It is similar to the customary imperfect, but it is not something that regularly recurs.
John 19:3 They kept on saying, "Hail!"
4. Lifestyle (Customary, General) Imperfect [used to, as a lifestyle]
The imperfect is used to indicate a regularly recurring activity in past time (habitual), or a state that continues for some time (general).
Luke 2:41 And his parents use to go [or customarily went] into Jerusalem each year.
Col 3:7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived [as a lifestyle]
C. Special Uses of the Imperfect
5. Conative (Voluntative, Tendential) Imperfect [wanted to, could almost]
This use of the imperfect tense occasionally portrays the action as something that was desired (voluntative), attempted (conative), or at the point of almost doing something (tendential).
Matt 3:14 but John was trying to prevent him
6. Imperfect Retained in Indirect Discourse
Like the present, the imperfect can be retained from the direct discourse in the indirect.
John 2:22 His disciples remembered that he had said this.
With reference to aspect, the future seems to offer an external portrayal, something of a temporal counterpart to the aorist indicative. The external portrayal "presents an occurrence in summary, viewed as a whole from outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence." (Fanning, 97). With reference to time, the future tense is always future from the speaker's presentation (or, when in a participle formm, in relation to the time of the main verb).
1. Predictive Future
The future tense will often indicate that something will take place or come to pass.
Acts 1:11 This Jesus ... will come.
2. Imperatival Future
The future indicative is sometimes used for a command, almost always in the OT quotations (because of a literal translation of the Hebrew). However, it was used, even in classical Greek, though sparingly.
Matt 22:37 You shall love the Lord your God.
3. Deliberative Future
The deliberative future asks a question that implies some doubt about the response. The question, asked in the first person singular or plural, is generally either cognitive or volitive. Cognitive questions ask, "How will we?" while volitional questions ask, "Should we?" Thus, the force of such questions is one of "oughtness" - that is, possibility, desirability, or necessity.
Rom 6:2 How then shall we still live in it?
4. Gnomic Future
The future is very rarely used to indicate the likelihood that a generic even will take place. The idea is not that a particular event is in view, but that such events are true to life.
Rom 5:7 Scarcely for a righteous man will one die.
The aorist tense "presents an occurence in summary, viewed as a whole from the outside, without regard for the internal make-up of the occurrence" (Fanning, 97). It may be helpful to think of the aorist as taking a snapshot of the action while the imperfect (like the present) takes a motion picture, portraying the action as it unfolds. In the indicative, the aorist usually indicates past time with reference to the time of speaking (thus, "absolute time"). Aorist participles usually suggest antecedent time to that of the main verb (i.e., past time is a relative sense).
1. Constative (Complexive, Punctiliar, Comprehensive, Global) Aorist
The aorist normally views the action as a whole, taking no interest in the internal workings of the action. It describes the action as bare fact.
Rev 20:4 They reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
2. Ingressive (Inceptive, Inchoative) Aorist [began to]
The aorist tense is often used to stress the beginning of an action or the entrance into a state. Unlike the ingressive imperfect, there is no implication that the action continues. This is simply left unstated.
Matt 22:7 Now the king became angry.
3. Consummative (Culminative, Ecbatic, Effective) Aorist
The aorist if often used to stress the cessation of an act or state. Certain verbs, by their very lexical nature, almost require this usage. For example, "he died" is hardly going to be an ingressive idea. The context also assists in this usage at times: It implies that an act was already in progress and the aorist then brings the action to a conclusion.
John 1:42 He brought him to Jesus.
4. Gnomic Aorist
The aorist indicative is occasionally used to present a timeless, general fact. When it does so, it does not refer to a particular event that did happen, but to a generic event that does happen. Normally, it is translated like a simple present tense.
1Pet 1:24 The grass withers and the flower falls off
5. Epistolary Aorist
This is the use of the aorist in the espistles in which the author self-consciously describes his letter from the time frame of the audience.
Phil 2:28 I have send him.
6. Proleptic (Futuristic) Aorist
The aorist indicative can be used to describe an event that is not yet past as though it were already completed in order to stress the certainty of the event.
Rom 8:30 whom he justified, these he also glorified.
7. Immediate Past (Dramatic) Aorist [just now]
The aorist tense can be used of an event that happened rather recently. Its force can usually be brought out with something like "just now," as in "just now I told you."
Matt 26:65 Behold, just now you heard his blasphemy.
The perfect and pluperfect tenses are indentical in aspect though different in time. Thus both speak of an event accomplished in the past (in the indicative mood) with results existing afterwards - the perfect speaking of existing results in the present, the pluperfect speaking of existing results in the past.
A. The Perfect Tense
The force of the perfect indicative is simply that it describes an event that, completed in the past, has results existing in the present time (i.e., in relation to the time of the speaker).
1. Intensive (Resultative) Perfect
The perfect may be used to emphasize the results or present state produced by a past action. The English present often is the best translation for such a perfect.
Mark 6:14 John the baptizer is risen from the dead.
2. Extensive (Consummative) Perfect
The perfect may be used to emphasize the completed action of a past action or a process from which a present state emerges. It should normally be translated in English as a present perfect.
John 1:34 I have seen and I have testified that this is the Son of God.
3. Perfect with a Present Force
Certain verbs occur frequently (or exclusively) in the perfect tense without the usual aspectual significance, especially with stative perfect verbs. They have come to be used just like the present tense verbs. Oida is the most commonly used verb in the category, but other verbs are also used this way.
John 1:26 In your midst stands one whom you do not know.
B. The Pluperfect Tense
As was stated above, for the most part, the perfect and pluperfect are identical in aspect though different in time. The force of the pluperfect tense is that it describes an event that, completed in the past, has results that exist in the past as well (in relation to the time of speaking). The pluperfect makes no comment about the results existing up to the time of speaking. Such results may exist at the time of speaking, or they may not; the pluperfect contributes nothing either way.
1. Intensive (Resultative) Pluperfect
This use of the pluperfect places the emphasis on the existing results. Its force can be brought out by translating it as a simple past tense.
Luke 4:29 They led him to the brow of the hill on which the city was built
2. Extensive (Consummative) Pluperfect
The pluperfect may be used to emphasize the completion of an action in past time, without focusing on the existing results. It is usually best translated as a past perfect ("had" + perfect passive participle).
John 4:8 For his disciples had gone into the city.
Edition: Feb 10,2009