Over time I've worked on three posts related to this passage.
- First, a smattering of Greek tid-bits that will one day become a more coherent post
- Second, an investigation into the brilliance of Mark's Greek tenses
- Third, a Tour de Force (if I do say so myself) on Mark's Greek to highlight the nature our confession
This is the second.
Summary: Mark offers us a Greek 101 clinic in the power of verb conjugation. He changes tense, voice and mood to portray key concepts. Alas, because he writes in Greek (as opposed to English) he needs no helper verbs or adverbs, but rather can show mood/tense/voice through endings, which to us are very complicated. Too often we throw in the towel when it comes to parsing verbs, but come along for the ride in these passages and discover Mark's point, adroitly conjugated: We must always confess Christ; suffering will happen, no matter: Jesus is Lord.
Key concepts relating to verbs:
The tense of the verb in Greek not only indicates when the action occured (past, present and future) but also the nature of the action (on-going or discrete event). English also offers this distinction: "I was running" implies something slightly different than "I ran." In English, we normally need a helper verb/adverb to convey both the timing and nature of the event; Greek simply adds letters before or after the verb, much the dismay of the student.
The present tense in Greek suggests an on-going nature of the action. The aorist tense suggests a one-time event. Grammar books sweat over these distinctions because in everyday usage, it is sloppier than this. That caveat aside, a good example of this distinction is found in verse 34: If anyone wants to follow me, they must deny (aorist) themselves, take up (aorist) their cross and follow (present) me. The idea being that following Jesus is an on-going event, whereas taking up the cross was a discrete event.
Theological disclaimer: These verbs might make us move into decision theology; I don't think the point is that we only get one cross to bear in our lives or that we only have to make one choice to follow Christ. The point here, which needs interpretation, is that Jesus points toward an event of denial, an event of taking up a cross and then an on-going activity of following him.
The imperfect tense connotes on-going action in the past. In verse 27 and 29 Jesus asks his disciples "Who do you say that I am?" The verb ask is in the imperfect tense, suggesting that Jesus asked this question multiple times, almost like he was walking around and in their faces. They respond (aorist): "Elijah...etc" However, when Peter confesses "You are the Christ" the tense is present, suggesting that Peter said this more than once and that this confession will be on-going.
To drive this all home: We are always asked and must always confess Jesus as Lord.
English has two voices, passive and active. Passive means you got it done to you; active means you do it. Greek has a third, middle, but this is rarely used and more just makes everything complicated because it was used by Homer. By the time of Jesus, generally the middle voice is less common.
Anyway, in vs. 31 Jesus discusses his suffering, arrest and death and the entire thing is in the passive voice, meaning he is not the agent, but the one having the action done to him.
This helps shed light on picking up our cross. Jesus does not find his cross, but rather it comes to him. In life, to quote, however vagely, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we don't need to find our cross, we simply follow Jesus and it comes to us.
The verb rise (αναστημι) is active, suggesting that Jesus has the power, even over death, to raise himself! The cross will come, but resurrection is on the wings...
English and Greek have a bunch of moods for verbs. They can be infinitives, indicatives, imperatives, participles...and subjunctives. Subjunctive in Greek means different stuff than in English, but the basic idea of subjunctive would be "hypothetical." In vs. 35 and 38 Jesus uses the words ος εαν to mean whoever and in vs. 35 uses ει to mean "if."
While I want to reassert my caution about simply saying subjunctive = hypothetical, Jesus makes it clear that following him is not necessarily automatic. There is something unsure and uncertain about our willingness to follow. Jesus does not say we have no hope of following him; nor does he say all will follow him. Obviously choice and faith are a tricky matter. We can debate how to put these together; we cannot debate that Jesus uses the subjunctive and in this case, this means following Jesus is an uncertain reality. (And yes, I did phrase that ambiguously).