In a previous article, I discussed some translation missteps that are frustratingly unnecessary. Let’s move on to more critical examples when it comes to verse tenses. The following is from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:
KIRK: What’s going to happen when you release the whales?
GILLIAN: They’re gonna have to take their chances.
KIRK: What does that mean, exactly? ‘Take their chances.’
GILLIAN: It means that they will be at risk from whale hunters … same as the rest of the humpbacks…. What did you mean when you said all that stuff back at the Institute about extinction?
SPOCK: I meant…
KIRK: He meant what you said on the tour, that if things keep going the way they are, humpbacks will disappear forever.
GILLIAN: That’s not what he said, farm boy. ‘Admiral, if we were to assume those whales are ours to do with as we please, we would be as guilty as those who caused’ … past tense … ‘their extinction.’… I have a photographic memory. I see words.
SPOCK: Are you sure it isn’t time for a colorful metaphor?
The premise of the film is about time travel: returning to the past to fix a problem in the future. Gillian caught the significance. Kirk tried to reinterpret a significant time indicator to protect his mission.
When it comes to Bible prophecy, verb tenses are important, as are words used to identify the timing of prophetic events. Let’s look at several passages from the book of Revelation:
● Revelation 1:19: “Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which [μέλλει/are about to] will take place after these things.”
● Revelation 2:10: “Do not fear what you are about to [μέλλεις] suffer. Behold, the devil is about to [μέλλει] throw some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days.”
● Revelation 3:2: “Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to [ἔμελλον] die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.”
● Revelation 3:10: “Because you have kept My word of perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of the testing, that hour which is about to [μελλούσης/being about] come upon the whole world [oikoumenē, not kosmos/Matt. 24:14; Luke 2:1], to test those who live on the earth.”
● Revelation 3:16: “‘So because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I will spit [μέλλω/I am about to spit] you out of My mouth.’”
In each case, the Greek word mello is used. Sometimes it’s translated as “about to,” while other times it is untranslated. Some claim that mellō can mean certainty with no reference to timing. I’m not sure how translators can be certain about that. They will say the “context tells us.” But maybe it’s a person’s eschatological position that influences the way mellō is translated.
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Why can’t mellō mean that the described event is “about to” take place with certainty? T. Everett Denton offers a clear and helpful explanation:
What people do … is force mellō to have two different meanings instead of realizing that they aren’t two different meanings but two parts of one meaning. What do I “mean”? The “certainty” found in mellō is based upon its imminence, and the imminence found in mellō is based in its certainty — the two cannot and should not be separated so that we can conveniently choose which one we want in any given passage. This is why, in the McReynolds [Greek-English] interlinear [Paul R. McReynolds’ Word Study Greek-English New Testament includes a complete concordance based on James Strong’s numbering system (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1999)], mellō is translated as “about to” in every single case, for the term expresses certainty and thus imminence or imminence and thus certainty.
It’s a mixed bag among Bible translations, with most leaving out the time frame factor found in other passages in close context. The above five verses are within the context of Revelation, saying the events are “shortly to take place” (1:1) “because the time is near” (1:3). Young’s Literal Translation reads, “Write the things that thou hast seen, and the things that are, and the things that are about to come after these things.” In his Concise Critical Comments on the Holy Bible, Young puts it this way in Revelation 1:19: “WRITE at once [therefore], the things thou didst perceive … are about to happen after (or with) these.”
Henry Alford, in his four-volume work, The Greek New Testament, comments: “and the things which are about to happen after these”(4:1790). Consider the following:
“And [Paul] having reasoned concerning righteousness and self-control, and the Judgment that is about to be [μέλλοντος], becoming afraid, Felix answered, ‘For the present, go; but taking time later, I will call for you’” (Acts 24:25).
Why was Felix afraid? Because Paul mentioned a judgment that “is about to be.” Someone posting on Facebook tried to argue that, for example, Acts 17:30–31 addresses certainty but not an event that was “about to take place.”
So having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now proclaiming to men that all people everywhere are to repent, because He has set a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all people by raising Him from the dead.”
Mellō is used, making it read, “He is about to judge.” It’s claimed since the “world” is to be judged, mellō can’t be translated as “about to.” The thing of it is, the Greek word oikoumenē is used and not kosmos. Once again, in a note, the NASB includes: “Lit., the inhabited earth.” Luke regularly uses oikoumenē in terms of limited geography in his gospel (Luke 2:1; 21:26). So does Matthew (24:14). In Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse, he writes: “all these things are about to take place” (21:36) on the oikoumenē. He does the same in Acts. The famine is over “all the world” (11:28) with a note in the margin giving us the literal translation of “the inhabited earth.”
The geographical area of the famine is no larger than that required of Luke 2:1 where we learn “that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth [oikoumenē].” Famines are generally confined to limited geographical areas and are often brought on by governmental policies. While there might be a famine in one part of the world, other parts have an abundance (e.g., Gen. 41-43). Simon Kistemaker points out that the famine has a limited geographical scope in Luke’s account:
The famine that Agabus predicted occurred during the reign of Emperor Claudius, who ruled from A.D. 41 to 54. Luke calls it a severe famine, for in varying degrees it affected the entire Roman empire. Egypt sold grain for the benefit of the people in famine-stricken Jerusalem. Cyprus supplied figs, and the Christians in Antioch sent aid to the believers in Judea (v. 29). Different parts of the Roman empire suffered famines. Therefore, we interpret Luke’s description, “a severe famine all over the Roman world,” not in a literal but in a broad sense.
Acts 17:6 makes no sense unless it refers to a limited time and place: “These men who have upset the world have come here also.” You guessed it. “World” is oikoumenē and the NASB gives us the literal translation in the margin. Later in Acts, we learn that Jews at Thessalonica were so upset at the effects of the preaching of the gospel that they dragged Jason and some of his friends before the city officials and made the following charge: “These men who have upset the world [oikoumene] have come here also” (Acts 17:6). This use of oikoumenē is even more limited in scope because it’s obvious that Paul and Silas had not traveled throughout the entire Roman world. Everett F. Harrison calls its use in this context “a hyperbole.”
In addition to political threats, the preaching of the gospel upset the worshipers of the Greek goddess Artemis who is said to have been worshiped by “all of Asia and the world [oikoumenē]” (Acts 19:27). This is hardly possible if oikoumenē’s meaning is global. But its use in this context makes perfect sense if the Roman empire and its immediate environs are in view.
Near the end of Acts we read that Paul is described as “a real pest … who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world [oikoumenē]” (Acts 24:5). Jews were not in every part of the world in the first century. This brings us to Luke’s use of oikoumenē in Acts 17:31: “He has fixed a day in which He is about to judge the world [oikoumenē] in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Thomas Ice sees this use of oikoumenē as a reference to a distant future end-time global event. “Surely this speaks of the whole globe,” Ice writes, “even though it may have a more restricted sense.” Like Luke’s use of oikoumenē in his gospel and Acts, I believe it has the same meaning: a reference to the world at that time. It was their world that God would judge.
As F. F. Bruce notes, “Greek thought had no room for such an eschatological judgment as the biblical revelation announces.” By using oikoumenē instead of kosmos, Paul was warning the Athenians that even they would come under God’s judgment. There would be no exceptions. The Greeks would have accepted Paul’s denouncement of the kosmos (everyone but them) as appropriate. J. A. Alexander’s comments puts the meaning of oikoumenē in its proper historical perspective:
Throughout all the world, literally, on (or over) the whole inhabited (earth) [Acts 11:28]. This phrase, though strictly universal in its import, is often used in a restricted sense. The Greeks in their particular pride of race, applied it to their own country; the Romans, in like manner, to the empire.
Paul removes all pretense of Athenian superiority by telling them that even their world will be judged, not in the distant future but in their day.
Consider some of many comments on Acts 17:31:
● “Will judge, is about (or just about) to judge.” (Joseph A. Alexander, Acts Explained, 2:159)
● “It is implied that the day is near, otherwise the warning would carry little force.” (C.K. Barrett, ICC, Acts, 852)
● “He no longer means that men shall worship ignorantly, but announces to men, through the gospel witnesses, that they shall all, everywhere, change their ideas and ways. This announcement he bases on, and enforces by the fact that he has set a day on which he is about to judge the inhabited earth (all the inhabitants of the earth) in righteousness.” (William Owen Carver, TCS, Acts, 180)
● “μέλλει κρίνειν … its form here may = 12:6, ‘on the point of judging’ (Weiss).” (R.J. Knowling, EGTC, 2:379)
● “God has instituted a tribunal (ἡμέραν [day] as in 1 Cor. 4:3 ἀνθρωπίνης ἡμέρας a human tribunal) at which he is now ready (μέλλει) to judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom he has definitively constituted (ὥρισε, the same verb as in Rom. 1:4 τοῦ ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει, definitively constituted Son of God in power, as also Acts 10:42) and of whom, as thus ordained, he has given evidence demanding belief of all men in having raised him from the dead.…The verb ἔστησεν from ἵστημι does not signify appoint with reference to the future, but establish at the present. A reference to the use of this word in the Scriptures will make this apparent. See Matt. 26:15. Acts 1:23. 7:60. Rom. 3:31. 10:3. Heb. 10:9. Matt. 18:16. John 15:16. The text, then, does not assert that God has ‘appointed’ a future day when he will judge the world, but that he has constituted or established a court at which he is now ready to judge the world by Jesus Christ— ‘all nations’ (Matt. 25:32). And this is given as a reason v. 30 why God now commandeth all men everywhere to repent. He has ‘anointed the Most Holy,’ Dan. 9:24, and now whosoever believeth in him has received (λαβεῖν) remission of sins. Acts 10:43.” (Lee, Samuel — Eschatology, 127–128).
● “[I]nasmuch as he set a day in which he is about to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness in the person of a man whom he ordained” … “And the reason God now orders all men to repent is the fact that ‘he did set a day in which he is about to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness.’” (Richard C.H. Lenski, LCNT, Acts, 735, 736)
● “The Root Meaning of Mello…In favor of Weymouth’s translation of 17:31; 24:15; and 24:25 we may note that he has given us the most obvious and natural translation, were one to come to Acts without any presuppositions as to the Lukan eschatology, for the primary meaning of mellō is ‘to be on the point to do or suffer something.’ [Pickering, Lexicon, p. 852]” … “Mellō in the New Testament… In the NT as a whole mellō has the sense of ‘soon’ sixty times (and is so rendered forty-six times by Weymouth)… Outside of Acts 17:31; 24:15, 25, mellō appears 108 times in the NT; ninety-two or eighty-five percent of these 108 appearances may reasonably be taken to mean ‘soon’ (thirty-two times to indicate the imminent expectation and sixty times otherwise). If, then, mellō in the NT in general and in the Lukan-Pauline writings in particular is so frequently used in the sense of ‘soon’ (and often—thirty percent—to bring out the Naherwartung [Near Expectation]), it seems not unreasonable that it should be so used in Acts 17:31; 24:15, 25.…Perhaps ho mellōn aiōn should be translated as ‘the age which is soon to come’ (Matt 12:32; Eph 1:21; Heb 6:5), and hē oikoumenē hē mellou as ‘the world soon to come’ (Heb 2:5).” … “Our contention that Luke in [Acts] 17:31 has in mind the quick return of the Son of Man receives strong support from the fact that Luke more than once uses mellō in connection with the Son of Man to suggest the imminence of coming events. The reference to the Son of Man’s coming in glory (Luke 9:26) is followed by the conversation of Moses and Elijah about Jesus’ death (exodus), which he ‘was so soon (mellō) to undergo in Jerusalem’ (9:31) (Weymouth). In 9:44 Luke informs us that ‘before long (mellō), the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of men’ (Weymouth), within a few months.” … “In sum, Luke himself points out how imminent his use of mellō is in connection with his Son of Man passages. Moreover, the ‘day’ of 17:31 is the day of the Lord, which is also part of Luke’s Naherwartung [Near Expectation] (Section G). Hence in 17:31 there are three indications of a speedy end: the day of the Lord, mellō, and the Son of Man.” (A.J. Mattill, Jr. — Luke and the Last Things, 43–44, 45, 46, 47)
There is a debate over the timing and application of 2 Peter 3 and the passing away of the heavens and earth. Is Peter referring to the physical heaven and earth or the end of the old covenant ages described symbolically as “heavens and earth”? How should 2 Peter 3:11–12 be translated?
- Since all these things are to be destroyed [present participle/being destroyed] in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness,
12. looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heart.
If the above is a reference to a time in the distant future, why does Peter use “you”? Why should they care if this event is not near for them? The verb tense stated to them that these things “are being destroyed,” that is, they are in the process of being destroyed. Here’s how Robert Young translates the verse:
All these, then, being dissolved [λυομένων], what kind of persons doth it behoove you to be in holy behaviors and pious acts?
The Greek word luomenōn is a present participle. The ages (1 Cor. 10:11) — from the first Adam to the last Adam — were in the process of being dissolved as the writer of Hebrews points out: “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old [παλαιούμενον/present participle] is near to disappear” (Heb. 8:13). The NASB has “ready to disappear” but adds a note stating, “or near.” The Greek word used (ἐγγὺς/engus) is best translated as “near” (see Rev. 1:3; 22:10).
I found this comment from the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges interesting:
Lit. “Now that which is becoming antiquated and waxing aged, is near obliteration.” The expression “near evanescence [vanishing away]” again shows that the Epistle was written before the Fall of Jerusalem, when the decree of dissolution which had been passed upon the Old Covenant was carried into effect.
Russell makes an important point about the obvious time indicators of “looking for and hastening” in verse 12 and “since you look for these things” in verse 14:
Words have no meaning if a statement like this may refer to some event still future, and perchance distant, which cannot be ‘looked for’ because it is not within view, nor ‘hasted unto,’ because it is indefinitely remote.
Where is the promise found for Peter’s mention of a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13)? If the “new heavens and a new earth” is covenant language and not a physically destroyed and renewed heavens and earth, we are not looking for a time and place where everyone is acting righteously. Peter is referencing Isaiah 65:17–18:
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.
“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create;
For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing
And her people for gladness.
What Jerusalem is this? In New Testament terms, it’s the New Jerusalem. That’s where righteousness dwells. Being in Christ places us in the New Jerusalem. “But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26), and it’s the reality of this truth that we can “rejoice” (4:27). Follow this from the book of Hebrews:
For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words, which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. For they could not cope with the command, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I am terrified and trembling.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns us from heaven. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “YET ONCE MORE I WILL SHAKE NOT ONLY THE EARTH BUT ALSO THE HEAVEN.” This expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let’s show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
Notice the audience references: “you” (new covenant people) and “they” (old covenant people). The people in the lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem had come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. The earthly Mount Zion where the temple stood was figuratively cast into the sea (Matt. 21:21). They and we are “enrolled in heaven.” Heaven and earth were being shaken so the eternal things would remain. In addition to shaking, there was a fire, both metaphorical (the burning up of the Old Covenant elements: stoicheia) and physical (Matt. 22:7; Luke 19:27).
With the above, do you think it might be “time for a colorful metaphor?”
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Once again, the NASB adds this note: “Lit., the inhabited earth.”
Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), 425. For a summation of the famines during Claudius’s reign, see F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (NICNT), rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 230, note 39.
Everett F. Harrison, Acts: The Expanding Church (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1975), 262.
F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (NICNT), rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 340B341.
J. A. Alexander, Acts of the Apostle (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust,  1980), 438.
“Throughout the New Testament, the word ‘elements’ (stoicheia) is always used in connection with the Old Covenant order. St. Paul used the term in his stinging rebuke to the Galatian Christians who were tempted to forsake the freedom of the New Covenant for an Old Covenant-style legalism. Describing Old Covenant rituals and ceremonies, he says “we were in bondage under the elements (stoicheia) of this world…. How is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements (stoicheia), to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years….” (Gal. 4:3, 9–10). He warns the Colossians: ‘Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the basic principles (stoicheia) of the world, and not according to Christ…. Therefore, if you died with Christ to the basic principles (stoicheia) of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle”’ (Col. 2:8, 20–21). The writer to the Hebrews chided them: ‘For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elements (stoicheia) of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food’ (Heb. 5:12). In context, the writer to the Hebrews is clearly speaking of Old Covenant [elements that the book of Hebrews argues have passed away]—particularly since he connects it with the term oracles of God, an expression used elsewhere in the New Testament for the provisional, Old Covenant revelation (see Acts 7:38; Rom. 3:2). These citations from Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews comprise all the other occurrences in the New Testament of that word elements’ (stoicheia). Not one refers to the ‘elements’ of the physical world or universe; all are speaking of the “elements” of the Old Covenant system, which, as the apostles wrote just before the approaching destruction of the Old Covenant Temple in A. D. 70, was ‘becoming obsolete and growing old’ and ‘ready to vanish away’ (Heb. 8:13). And St. Peter uses the same term in exactly the same way. Throughout the Greek New Testament, the word ‘elements’ (stoicheia) always means [covenantal elements], not [physical elements]; the foundational ‘elements’ of a religious system that was doomed to pass away in a fiery judgment [Matt. 22:7].” – David Chilton