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Texts: John 1:12 (YLT)

But as many as did receive (ἔλαβον - Aorist Indicative Active) him to them he gave (ἔδωκεν -Aorist Ind. Act.) authority to become (γενέσθαι -Aorist Infinitive Middle) sons of God -- to those believing (πιστεύουσιν - Present Participle Active) in his name.

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It is certainly intriguing that something is to be received (action, and presently happening), something is given (action, and presently happening), something is yet to happen (in this case, 'to become'), and something is already happening (in this case, 'believing').

Yes, the tenses of the four verbs show a profound relationship between faith and salvation.

Something happens, something is given, something then becomes, and those who receive this something, then become something, and something continues to happen with them - the same thing that happened at the start of the sentence.

Individuals 'receive' Christ by believing in him - actively putting their faith in him. To those ones is given 'authority' for something that will happen, namely, becoming children of God, and those ones continue to have believing faith in Jesus.

Importantly, the YLT quoted, correctly says, 'authority' is given, and not the potentially misleading popular word, 'power'. An authority that is given comes from outside the person receiving it. Whereas for a person to receive power then indicates the person is responsible for exercising that power which he now has. But to be given authority for something to happen to you means that the authorising authority has enabled you to obtain that which you could never do yourself, namely, become a child of God. God gives that authority, so nothing in all creation can object to, or prevent what God has authorised. It will happen.

This leads into why, perhaps, there are changes in tenses, with regard to faith and salvation. And it may be because Jesus had not yet died, so that his shed blood had not yet secured the ground of salvation - enabling the righteousness of God's wrath on sin to be poured out on Christ while he hung on the cross. Only after that had happened at Golgotha, and then (having been made sin) he died as the perfect sacrifice for sin, would the promised salvation no longer be "in process of being transacted" (if I could put it like that.)

Receiving Christ by faith was starting to happen with individuals who believed he was, indeed, "the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:36).

To all such is authority given so that God will accept them as justified and, therefore, saved. But God determines the point at which his miracle of grace happens, through the Holy Spirit.

Believing by faith in the name (power and authority) of Christ is the constant here; which is why it is at the start, and remains at the end. Hence the switching of tenses.

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Interpreting Greek tenses is part science and part art. While not in anyway an expert, I will try to break down the tenses in John 1:12 and interpret their use as best I understand them.

Sentence Structure

First, I note the sentence structure. John 1:12 is formed by a main clause sandwiched between two subordinate clauses. Below, I have formatted Jn 1:12 (YLT) to show the chiastic structure to highlight the central role of the main clause as well as the relationship between the two subordinate clauses, showing how they work together to identify the “them” of the main clause.

   But as many as did receive him [Subordinate Clause]

        to them he gave authority to become sons of God [Main Clause]

   to those believing in his name [Subordinate Clause].

Narrative Sequence

The first three verbs (receive, gave, and become) are all in the aorist tense, creating a natural narrative sequence. In this sequence there are actually only two actions, represented by the verbs “receive” and “gave”. The infinitive “to become” serves in an adjectival role, explaining the kind of authority that is given.

   as many as did receive him –> he gave authority (–>) to become sons

Functions of the aorist in John 1:12

In general, the action of the verb in the main clause serves as a point of reference for the actions of those in the subordinate clauses. “When the aorist is used of an action which is subordinate to another in the past, it implies completion before the main action” (Meaning of Aorist Stem). Thus the aorist of “receive” implies that the action of “receive” in the subordinate clause precedes that of “gave” in the main clause.

While the aorist is often used to describe actions as occurring in the past, its most basic function is to describe summary action.

Meaning of the Aorist Stem

The aorist gives the meaning of a verb without the accessory notion of progress or continuance. It does not describe, or transport us to a time in the past when the action was present (as the imperfect does), but makes us think of it as now past. Hence it asserts a single occurrence—an action, or series of actions, regarded as an undivided whole—or completion, a culminating point, in which the action is summed up.

Because of the versatility of the aorist, it can be also used to describe actions that are currently happening (Dramatic Aorist) or even future events (Prophetic/Proleptic Aorist) to emphasize the certainty of the action. This emphasis on the certainty of the action is how I interpret the use of the aorist in the verbs “gave” and “become.”

Aorist Tense: A Closer Look

  1. DRAMATIC AORIST An aorist used to describe an action happening in the present, usually to emphasize its certainty.

John 13:31 — “Now is [literally, was] the Son of man glorified.” Jesus makes this statement at the Last Supper the night before His arrest and crucifixion. The events culminating in His death were just beginning, yet John uses the aorist tense to describe the idea. Most translations render “is glorified” in the present tense because the rules of English grammar demand that rendering.

  1. PROPHETIC AORIST An aorist used to describe a future event, usually to show that it is so certain that you can view it as already completed.

Romans 8:30 — “Them he also glorified.” This phrase occurs in a series of verbs describing the steps in salvation, from predestination to calling to justification. The first three have already been accomplished in the life of a believer; the glorification is yet in the future. But once God has begun the process, he will certainly finish it. Thus the aorist tense is appropriate.

Function of present participle “believing”

The present participle “believing” plays an adjectival function, identifying the “them” of the main clause. While the present tense generally describes continuous action, because of the adjectival nature of the use of the present participle here, it loses some of its aspectual force (Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax, p. 268). Thus “believing” may imply an ongoing process or it may be describing “them” simply as those who believe.

I propose that there is another option, one that is based on the complex sentence structure outlined above and how it seemingly applies two different aspects, the aorist of “receive” and the present tense of “believing,” to the same action. Because the aorist of “receive” implies a summary aspect and the present tense of “believing” implies an ongoing aspect, the action can be visualized not as a linear/continuous process but as a continuum - a line formed by a series of adjacent points, each one a distinct act of receiving.

Implications

Given the complex sentence structure and the elusive nature of the Greek tenses, it is hard to draw any definite conclusions about the grammatical significance of the tenses in Jn 1:12. That said, I personally take comfort in the aorists in the verse, seeing in them a reflection of God’s promise and the certainty of aid to those who believe.

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    Nice answer. You could add the passage is arranged as a chiasm (A - X - A') and could be read (A - A' - X). But as many as did receive him [Subordinate Clause] to those believing in his name [Subordinate Clause] to them he gave authority to become sons of God [Main Clause] Commented Jun 28 at 17:27
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The various verbs with their grammatical forms in John 1:12 are as follows:

  • ἔλαβον = "received" Aorist Indicative Active = already accomplished action
  • ἔδωκεν = "gave" Aorist Indicative Active = already accomplished action
  • γενέσθαι = "to be" Aorist Infinitive Middle. This is essentially a tenseless form of the verb but it actual tense must be deducted by the accompanying verb, in this case, ἔδωκεν = "gave", ie, past tense.
  • πιστεύουσιν = "trusting" Present Participle Active - a present continuing action suggestion that the given right to be sons of God continues as long as the believers continue trusting in His Name.

Further, the subject of the middle two verbs is the "True Light" (V9), Jesus; and because these verbs are in the active voice, this suggests that salvation is the initiative of Jesus.

The first verb has the subject of "many", ie, sinners, is active voice meaning it is an action accomplished by the believer.

Next I observe that the final verb is in the middle voice suggesting that it is an action done by the subject (believers) upon themselves; this suggests that our response to salvation is our choice, not God's choice. That is, it is the sinners' choice to trust in God.

However, I hope that one might examine far more than this single verse to explore the large topic of soteriology.

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  • Thank you for this enlightening answer. I wonder what Calvin and his followers would say in response to your observation that the verse implies that our response to (the offer of?) salvation is our choice, not God's. (I see that he speaks at length about the verse but does not take the bull by the horns. I find his commentary on this verse quite disappointing.) Commented Jun 16 at 11:38
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    I cannot see any support in the text for your wording the given right to be sons of God continues as long as the believers continue trusting in His Name. This appears to be your own conjecture.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jun 16 at 14:09
  • Perhaps an edit clarifying would help, since the "the given right...trusting in His Name" is a bit ambiguous. Is it, "those given the right and continuing to have that right are described as the ones who are believers". Or, is it, "those given the right are those who continue in believing"? FWIW: I think it's the former; however, the later can be implied. But, the Greek isn't explicit about it. To be explicit would require a reworking of the Greek. The participle as written, while articular and therefore substantive, simply defines the 'who' that receives the main action. Commented Jun 16 at 17:27
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I don't want to read too much into this one verse, but basically it is emphasizing believing/trusting/faith as a continuing (not a one time) action.

Nore also how John used the present tense: In John 1:15, why is μαρτυρεῖ present tense while ἦν in οὗτος ἦν ὃν εἶπον is imperfect?

Thus, be careful not to read too much into this one verse.

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