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John 3:16 is perhaps one of the most frequently quoted passages, especially when it comes to salvation. Here is the passage together with some of its context:

John 3:14-18
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Three times in the above five verses we meet the phrase “whoever believes in him”, followed by a wonderful promise. Just taking the most popular of these verses, John 3:16, we learn that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”. The word “believes” here is in the present tense, denoting something that is a reality now. Many however, read the passage as if it says: “whoever believed” i.e. once in the past. This is obviously not what the passage says. This passage, as well as those seen in the first chapter of this study, is in the present tense. Therefore, such passages speak about something that is happening now, about a present, an active, state and not about something that happened once in the past. They speak about a present reality instead of a past history.

In fact it is worth mentioning some facts concerning the present tense in Greek. This website has an abundance of information on the matter, with lots of references and examples. The basic conclusion (you can check it out in the above or in other similar scholarly websites) is the following: as a rule, the present tense in ancient Greek denotes duration. It can also denote something that is happening currently in the present and will not happen again but this is an exception to the rule and it becomes very obvious from the context. The rule is that the present tense of a verb denotes duration, i.e. denotes that something “goes on” happening.  Applying this rule, John 3:14-18 would read:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever goes on believing in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever goes on believing in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever goes on believing in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The promises of John 3:14-18 are in no way promises to people who once upon a time believed but eventually moved away without returning. In contrast, they are to people who believe now, in the present, and they go on believing.

Understanding that the present tense in Greek indicates duration, i.e. that something goes on happening can really revolutionize the way we understand many passages. My suggestion would be that whenever you see the present tense (“believes”, “forgives” etc.) replace it, after checking the context, with the construction “goes on” + the present participle ( for example: “goes on believing”, “goes on forgiving” etc.). This will perhaps change the way you read many passages.

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