Examining Hebrews 11:40 –Aorist, Passive, Subjunctive, Third-Person, Plural

In another post I posited that Hebrews 11:40 tells of an arrangement that had already come to pass.  Here it is, along with verse 39:

Hebrews 11:39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

To be super-clear, I believe that those mentioned in Chapter 11 had already been “made perfect” when this verse was written, and that this event had been put on hold specifically so that it would happen during that very generation, where they could see it.  It was not, therefore an event that happened “apart from us”, as the writer had put it.

One reader challenges this position based on the particulars of the Greek verb used for “should…be made perfect”.  She points out that the verb τελειωθῶσιν has the following traits:

Tense:  Aorist
Voice:  Passive
Mood:  Subjunctive
Person: Third
Number: Plural

This specific set of traits are indicated by the ending of the word:  τελειωθῶσιν.  If the word had other traits instead, it could not have this ending.

The traits or form of this verb, she argues, makes it highly likely that what was in view here (the perfecting of the people in question) would have been yet future to the writer at the time of the writing.  No rule of Greek grammar was put forth in support of this claim, however.  Nor could I find such a rule in my searching.  So I went in search of examples of usage that might answer whether a verb with these traits might ever be used of something that is already accomplished.  I found that such a verb can be used to speak of things that have happened already.

Before we look at what I found, let me make sure that the question in view has been clearly spelled out.  Here’s verse 40 again, with the clause in question highlighted:

40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

40  τοῦ θεοῦ περὶ ἡμῶν κρεῖττόν τι προβλεψαμένου ἵνα μὴ χωρὶς ἡμῶν τελειωθῶσιν

The question is whether those who had already died before would have been “made perfect” by the time the Hebrews author wrote this verse.  In other words, would a Greek writer using the words in the Greek here, ever be speaking of things that had already happened yet?  Let’s note a pattern, and then we’ll start looking.  In our passage:

 

  1. Something was done.  (God had provided something better for us)
  2. For a purpose (that apart from us they should not be made perfect)
  3. And it had either happened or started happening, or it hadn’t happened yet.  (And this question is the goal of this post.)

 

So let’s look at other passages using verbs of the exact same form, that also are instances where something was done for a purpose:

2 Corinthians 5:15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

5:15  καὶ ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀπέθανεν ἵνα οἱ ζῶντες μηκέτι ἑαυτοῖς ζῶσιν ἀλλὰ τῷ ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν ἀποθανόντι καὶ ἐγερθέντι

The verb in question here is “might…live”.  That is, Jesus had died so that people might live for him.  It’s the “might” that makes it the subjunctive mood.  And you’ll notice that the word here has exactly the same ending as is used in the verse in question:   ῶσιν.  This shows that it matches perfectly the tense, voice, mood, person, and number of the verb in question.

Now that we have checked that the form is the same, let’s consider what the verse is saying.  It’s talking about a situation that was previously set up when Jesus sacrificed himself.  That sacrifice made it possible that people might live for Jesus.  It did not make it impossible for them to do otherwise, mind you, but simply opened a way for those who would live for him to do so.  And that brings us to this question:  had anyone yet lived for Christ as of the time Paul wrote this line?  Of course they had!  While it was still possible for people to live for Christ as of the writing, some had certainly already done so, or been doing so.  In fact, if scholars are right that the letter was written in the mid 50s AD, then people had already been living for Christ for well over 20 years when this line was penned.

So here’s the pattern we’re looking for:

  1. Something was done (Christ died for all)
  2. For a purpose (that some might live for him)
  3. And this had already been happening as of the time of the writing.  (And was still going on in some cases.)

Keep this pattern in mind as we continue with another example:

1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

2:19  ἐξ ἡμῶν ἐξῆλθαν ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἦσαν ἐξ ἡμῶν εἰ γὰρ ἐξ ἡμῶν ἦσαν μεμενήκεισαν ἂν μεθ’ ἡμῶν ἀλλ’ ἵνα φανερωθῶσιν ὅτι οὐκ εἰσὶν πάντες ἐξ ἡμῶν

In this passage, it is obvious that such was already “plain”.  Otherwise, John wouldn’t have known about it to write about it.  So here’s our pattern:

 

  1. Something was done (They went out)
  2. For a purpose (that it might become plain)
  3. And this had already been happening as of the time of the writing.  (And might still going on in some cases.)

 

Thus, our pattern continues.  And here’s another example:

Acts 22:5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.

22:5  ὡς καὶ ἀρχιερεὺς μαρτυρεῖ μοι καὶ πᾶν τὸ πρεσβυτέριον παρ’ ὧν καὶ ἐπιστολὰς δεξάμενος πρὸς τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς εἰς Δαμασκὸν ἐπορευόμην ἄξων καὶ τοὺς ἐκεῖσε ὄντας δεδεμένους εἰς Ἰερουσαλὴμ ἵνα τιμωρηθῶσιν

The verb here follows exactly the same form.  We see that Paul did a thing in the past (journeyed to Damascus), and that he had done it with a goal (that they might be punished).  That punishing, however, we understand to have happened shortly after their arrival at Damascus.  We would be very surprised to hear that those believers he had formerly persecuted were still awaiting punishment as of the writing of this epistle!

Once again, our pattern is followed:

  1. Something was done (Paul went to Damascus to return with prisoners)
  2. For a purpose (that they might be punished)
  3. And this punishing had already happened as of the time of the writing, and was probably not going on anymore.

Once again, the pattern is shown.  And here’s one final example:

Acts 23:23 Then he called two of the centurions and said, “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night.

23:23  καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος δύο τινὰς τῶν ἑκατονταρχῶν εἶπεν ἑτοιμάσατε στρατιώτας διακοσίους ὅπως πορευθῶσιν ἕως Καισαρείας καὶ ἱππεῖς ἑβδομήκοντα καὶ δεξιολάβους διακοσίους ἀπὸ τρίτης ὥρας τῆς νυκτός

The order was given to prepare the troops that they might go as far as a certain city.  As we continue reading the narrative, we discover that the command was indeed carried out, and they went to Caesarea as envisioned.  So here’s yet one more example in which a thing had been planned for some intended purpose that was written about in the subjunctive mood, and that was also completed.

  1. Something was done (Troops were readied)
  2. For a purpose (that they might go as far as Caesarea)
  3. And this had already happened as of the time of the writing, and was not still going on.

So that brings us back for a final look at the passage in question:

Hebrews 11:39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

And now let us look at the pattern we have developed:

  1. Something was done.  (God had provided something better)
  2. For a purpose (that apart from us they should not be made perfect)
  3. Had it happened already, or started happening?  Or was it yet future?

As we have seen, there is nothing in the grammar of the verb to rule out the cases in which it had been completed in the past or started in the past.  I believe, of course, that it was both started and completed in the past, and was not still going on as of the time of the writing.  I think that Jesus glorified those saints and took him to heaven with him “when he ascended” in Acts 1:8.

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