The Perfect Tense
I can’t remember the last time I heard someone get excited about a verb tense. Grammar isn’t often the source of real excitement. At its best, perhaps, grammar is used to express great truth that excites — However, perhaps the grammar itself is in the background in those moments. What excites us is the truth and not the grammar that was used to express it.
There are moments in the Bible that are like this, though the original grammar is in Hebrew or Greek. So, while the truth comes through in translation, there are sometimes subtleties that are lost. For example, when Christ cries out from the cross on Good Friday, “It is finished!” In English the meaning seems clear enough — the work he came to accomplish has been completed. And that is true, as far as it goes. The Greek is richer, however. In Greek, Christ cries out “Tetelestai!” This is the perfect tense, which in Greek not only describes an action that is completed in the past, but one which has ongoing implications in the present.
New Testament translators are often at pains to communicate this concept, torn between the past tense and the present. Christ’s cry could be translated, “It has been finished!” That would accurately capture the past completed reality that the perfect tense communicates, but it would lack any sense of the ongoing implications. It may also be translated, as our English Bibles do so today, “It is finished!” This captures the present and ongoing realities, but it softens the completed nature of the action. Since the verb used itself communicates this completion, translators have gone with the latter option.
What we need to know, though, is the fullness of that perfect tense. Jesus Christ came into this world on a mission, and he perfectly fulfilled that commission from the Father. Christ did all that he came to do. He secured the salvation of his people by taking all of their sin upon himself and then receiving the just wrath of God against that sin in his own person. The work has been finished.
But Christ’s cross-work was too important to be relegated to the past tense. Immediately, the implications of that work began to unfold. Matthew 27:52 relates that dead believers were resurrected and the veil in the Temple was torn. The power of the cross-work of Christ is going out into the world even today as the gospel is proclaimed, and Christ’s defeat of death raises men and women and children from the spiritual dead. And a day is coming when his finished work will raise our bodies from the grave as well, never to die again.
That’s the perfect tense - a past completed act with continuing present implications. We preach this perfect tense every Sunday at All Saints and will focus on it again this week as we consider Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in Psalm 22. I hope you will join us!
Your fellow servant in Christ,