If the angel Gabriel was seeking Mary's consent to be the mother of God*, why did he speak to her in the future tense in Lk. 1:26-38, as though the prophesied events will occur through her regardless of her consent?

you shall conceive (συλλήψη) in your womb and shall bring forth (τέξη) a Son; and you shall call (καλέσεις) His name Jesus. He shall be (έσται) great, and shall be called (κληθήσεται) the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give (δώσει) Him the throne of David His father, and He shall be king (βασιλεύσει) over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there shall be (έσται) no end. […] And the angel answered and said to her, The Holy Spirit shall come (επελεύσεται) upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow (επισκιάσει) you; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called (κληθήσεται) the Son of God.

The indicative future tenses here are middle voice. Does the middle voice suggest doubtful certainty about future events?

Why wasn't a conditional tense used? "You would conceive", "You would bring forth", etc.

*which is clear from her final statement, submitting to the will of God (Lk. 1:38): "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word." cf. Summa Theologica III q. 30 a. 1 arg/ad 1

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    You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” ( NIV) . Different versions use different phraseologies. In general English the usage ' shall' when used with Second and Third Persons imply a command like " You shall respect you parents " . Commented Apr 9 at 14:46
  • Compare this with Isiah 53. The Prophet uses Past Tense in describing the Passion of Christ ! Commented Apr 13 at 13:51

4 Answers 4


The OP has answered the question.

As is well-known Greek has three forms of the verb action:

  • active voice where the subject carries out the action on something else
  • middle voice where the subject carries out the action on themselves
  • passive voice where the subject has the action done to it

The future middle voice (impossible to translate in English because English does not have such a construction without using a prolix such as "on himself") used throughout the angel's prophecy to Mary recorded in Luke 1:31-35, suggests that these actions, prophesied by the angel, would be with the consent and cooperation of Mary.

By contrast, if the prophecy had been entirely in either active voice, it might suggest that Mary would have accomplished the action by herself (an impossibility); or, if in the passive voice, that God would have done these things to Mary whether she consented or not.

Thus, the angel chose words carefully to reveal what would happen. At the conclusion of this angelic encounter, Mary simply says (Luke 1:38)

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.

Thus, the prophecy was fulfilled with the full consent of Mary.


Venerable Bede gives some insight into this (Catena Aurea on Luke, cap. 2 l. 10), arguing that the future tense shows that divine and human natures were united in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity:

Let Nestorius then cease to say that the Virgin’s Son is only man, and to deny that He is taken up by the Word of God into the unity of the Person. For the Angel when he says that the very same has David for His father whom he declares is called the Son of the Highest, demonstrates the one Person of Christ in two natures. The Angel uses the future tense (vocabitur ["shall be called"], regnabit ["shall reign"]) not because, as the Heretics say, Christ was not before Mary [He certainly was, being eternal!], but because in the same [divine] person [the Second Person of the Trinity], man with God shares the same name of Son.

  • @NigelJ It may not answer that aspect, but it does give a reason for why the future tense is used.
    – Geremia
    Commented Apr 8 at 21:55
  • Did Nestorius truly say that Christ was "only a man?" His writings are lost (destroyed by his opponents) but it seems: " He never considered Christ simply as a man, but made a precise distinction between divine nature (ousia) and person (hypostasis)." newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Nestorius Commented Apr 9 at 0:42
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    The word, only, is ambiguous in English. It can mean exclusively or it can mean minimally or as a deprecation: "He only (exclusively) won the first chess match," or "He was only (minimally) six years old when he won." Thus being "only" a man is ambiguous.
    – Dieter
    Commented Apr 9 at 16:40

In Lk 1:36 ( KJV) the Angel cites the case of Elizabeth to reassure Mary that nothing is impossible to God ;

And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

< Many versions use the phrase " even Elizabeth...has conceived" .It is then that Mary submits herself to God's Will( Verse 38). So, when did Mary realise the spark of a new life entering her womb ? Not when the Angel saluted her and told of the Divine Plan to her, but when she accepted that Plan after convincing herself that it was nothing but Divine Intervention. In case the Angel told her in the Present Tense like : " You are now conceiving a child.." it would not explicitly invoke her consent, which was required for the reason that Mary would be, by getting pregnant during the stage of betrothal , putting herself at the risk of being deserted by Joseph and eventually getting killed for being unfaithful. In sum, the Future Tense used by the Angel in unfolding the events to come, including the very Virgin Conception, is most appropriate. PS: Phrases of conditional tense like could, would etc are used to make the presentation of a future event agree with the Past Tense of the main verb . eg John said on 5 th April that he would visit New York on 10 th April. It is equal to saying ; John said on 5 th April :" I will visit New York on 10 th April." Such usages are peculiar to English language.


The future tense is usually used to express a plan or prediction. It does not necessarily mean that an action or event will take place for certain. An example is when I say, “I will do my homework tonight.” While I may not end up doing my homework, the future tense means that I have every intention of doing so. Saying that I might do my homework introduces uncertainty not only to the event, whether it will happen or not, but also to the plan itself, opening up the possibility that I might do something else instead.

Tense future

The Principal uses of the future tense are:

  • Predictive Future - The principal use of the Future tense in the indicative mood is to refer to an unspecified action or event (aspect) that will occur in the future. It is therefore predictive in nature.
  • Future Imperative - The Future tense in the indicative mood may be used as a command instead of using the imperative mood.
  • Deliberative Future - The Future tense may be used in the form of consideration or deliberation or thinking out the effects or consequences of a course of action. This often occurs in the form of a question.
  • Gnomic Future – The Future tense may be used to describe an event that can reasonably be expected to occur in the future.

Based on the context, the use of the future tense in Luke 1:31-38 is the predictive future. In other words, the angel’s message constitutes God’s plan or vision for Mary’s future. Based on her reply, this is how Mary understood it as well. Her response is thus a prayer that the angel’s words be fulfilled in her.

Luke 1:38 NKJV

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”

Just as the angel’s message is more than just a question, Mary’s response is more than just a consent. It conveys her hope that God’s plan be fulfilled in her. Note that γίνομαι (let it be) is in the optative mood, a mood used to express a wish, something hoped for, or a prayer (Mood). The optative is considered to be one step further from reality than the subjunctive, the mood commonly expressed with words like should, would, might.

“Should” or “Will” Perish? - John 3:16.

The normal definition of the subjunctive is that it is the mood of what may or might be. It is one step removed from reality (as opposed to the optative, which is two steps removed from reality, describing what we wish would be). Wallace defines the subjunctive as representing “the verbal action (or state) as uncertain but probable” (page 461), clarifying that it is not the mood of uncertainty (which is the optative) but of probability.


The OP also asks, “Does the middle voice suggest doubtful certainty about future events?” Unlike mood, the voice of a verb does not convey certainty or doubt. Instead, the voice of a verb indicates the relationship between the subject and the action. Following is a good way to conceptualize the difference between the active and middle voice, especially as used in the verses in question.

Voice: Middle Voice

The difference between the active and middle voice is one of emphasis. The active emphasizes the action of the verb; the middle emphasizes the actor [subject] of the verb. For many middle voices (especially the indirect middle), putting the subject in italics would communicate this emphasis.

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