My Big Fat Greek Verb

To Tattoo or Not To Tattoo?

My next tattoo would be my first tattoo. Yep, I’m a tattoo virgin. While I love the idea of a good tattoo, I’m terrified of a botched one. We’ve all seen them. You know how people try to do their own projects they see on Pinterest and they end up looking nothing like the desired outcome? You want your tattoo to be a true work of art, not a candidate for a failed #nailedit post.

But before I get too far into this post, you should know it’s not about whether tattoos are permitted for Christians or not. We could have a long discussion about it or I could simply remind everyone that it is by grace we are saved, through faith. It is a gift from God; not by works so that no one can boast. In other words, God doesn’t care whether or not you have a tattoo; He cares whether or not you have Jesus.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get back to the subject at hand (or arm or back or ankle). I think the reason I’ve never pulled the trigger to get a tattoo—aside from not wanting to spend the money—is that with it being so permanent, I’ve never been confident about what I would want to get.

I (heart) mom? I’m not a momma’s boy.

A sleeve? That’s not really my style.

A butterfly? I’m not a chick.

Whatever it is, it obviously needs to be meaningful. With that in mind, I’ve narrowed my choices down to something to do with my faith. And with God being as small as He is, that should make things much easier…(yeah right).

My Big Fat Greek Verb

I can sometimes become captivated by the original Greek and Hebrew of the Bible. There’s so much depth, irony, humor and theology that gets lost in translation when we only look at one version or one language. One such word that loses something in its translation is found on the lips of Jesus moments before He gave up His spirit. It has fascinated me ever since learning about it in my Greek class at seminary.

In John 19:30, Jesus says, “It is finished.” What’s finished Jesus?

  • Your life on earth?
  • Your earthly ministry?
  • The pain and humiliation you are suffering?

In order to get the answer to this question, we are going to have to break down this verb. Let’s parse it and see what we’ve got.

Τετελεσται (Tetelestai) is the third person singular, perfect passive indicative, of Τελεω (Teleo), meaning “it is finished” or “it is fulfilled.”

Oh, I get it…now, what does THAT mean?

A Greek verb has many different parts. Its components are Person, Number, Voice, Mood and Tense. Let’s explore those a bit.

Person and Number

This is an easy place to start. Third person means “it” as opposed to “I” (1st person) or “you” (2nd person), while Number refers to how many. Singular is simply one versus many. So, whatever our verb says is happening, it’s not caused by or happening to me or you or us, but rather “it”.

Voice

Voice is also easy to understand. There are three different voices in Greek.

  1. Active – the subject is performing or causing the action. (I have something.)
  2. Middle – the subject gets more emphasis as if participating somehow. (I cling to something.)
  3. Passive – the subject is being acted upon. (Something has me.)

Our verb is in the passive voice, which means whatever is happening is not being caused by the subject, but rather is happening or has happened to the subject.

Mood

Now we’re starting to get a bit more complicated. Greek verbs have one of four different moods, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just focus on the mood of our verb: the Indicative mood.

The Indicative mood presents something as being certain as opposed to being uncertain, possible or intended. This means that in our verb, the subject is being portrayed as certainty or fact.

Tense

Here’s where we need to dig in a little bit. We all understand that there is past tense (happened before), present tense (happening now) and future tense (happening later), but Greek verbs can choose from six different tenses (four of which also have a secondary form). Again, for simplicity’s sake, let’s just focus on the tense of our verb: the Perfect tense.

In A Grammar of New Testament Greek, James Hope Moulton says the Perfect tense is “the most important, exegetically, of all the Greek Tenses.” Daniel Wallace observes in The Basics of New Testament Syntax, “The Perfect is used less frequently than the present, aorist, future, or imperfect; when it is used, there is usually a deliberate choice on the part of the writer.” In other words, John used our verb with purpose and we should take note because it’s probably packed with theology.

Wallace goes onto say, “The force of the perfect tense is simply that it describes an event that, completed in the past (specifically the perfect indicative), has results existing in the present time (in relation to the speaker).” It carries with it the idea of a continuance of a completed action. Wallace continues, “It is incorrect, however, to say that the perfect signifies abiding results; such conclusions belong to the realm of theology, not grammar.” Good thing we are talking about both!

The Theological Ramifications

Our verb is in the Perfect tense. This means, grammatically speaking, the subject occurred in the past and has continuing results at the time of Jesus. Theologically speaking, based on the context and the testimony of the Bible itself in many other places such as John 10:28-29 or Romans 8:35-39 to name a few, those results ARE in fact, abiding and everlasting.

What I find extremely fascinating is that the it Jesus is referring to was completed in the past. How can that be? Logically speaking, you would think Jesus would use the Present tense because He is dying on the cross right now – not in the past. But He used and John recorded our verb in the Perfect tense, meaning something theological is happening here.

I propose that God was planning on the cross even before the very beginning; it was always part of the plan.

Way back in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve allowed sin to worm its way into the world, God wasn’t surprised. He knew it would happen. As He pronounces judgment in Genesis 3:15, we see the first mention of God’s overall redemption plan when He says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will crush your head, and you will strike His heel.”

Even here at the beginning, it was already decided – already a certainty that Jesus would flesh out God’s plan and drive the final nail into death’s coffin which was sealed thousands of years before Jesus breathed His first.

As Jesus spoke His final word, τετελεσται, He was declaring that God’s plan, which was established, decided, and completed from the very beginning was now played out in the course of perfect historical timing.

Was Jesus saying His life on earth was finished? His mission and ministry was complete? His time on the cross was over? Yes. But even more than that, He was affirming God’s redemptive plan from before creation and declaring the victory that has always been His, even as He gave up His spirit to death.

Even BEFORE the resurrection to come three days later, Jesus testified that sin’s reign in humanity has come to an end once and for all. Your sins and mine were paid for. It is finished.

To Tattoo My Big Fat Greek Verb or Not to Tattoo My Big Fat Greek Verb?

Considering my affinity for Greek and Hebrew, a word or two in the original languages sounds like a rather appealing idea for a tattoo, and τετελεσται is as good a word as any; better than most, in fact. I had what I thought was the original idea, albeit cliché, to turn each Τ into a cross. Since there’s three of them, it works perfect for Calvary. Of course, once I did a Google search for the word I discovered my idea wasn’t so original at all.

Still, I like the thought of it. I’m just not ready to pull the trigger. Maybe it’s a commitment issue. I mean once it’s done, it’s done. You might even say, “it is finished.” (Come on, you had to have seen that coming!)

Perhaps it will never happen. But if it does, I suppose you could say it had always been a forgone conclusion just waiting for the perfect time in my history for that certainty to finally be fleshed out in all its abiding and everlasting glory.

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