When we are writing and talking about Jesus of Nazareth, our gospel compels us to write in the right tense. Present.
Together, let’s avoid speaking of Jesus in the past tense as much as we can. I cringe when I read, “Jesus was kind.” Is he not kind today? He is alive, let’s speak of him as though he is still kind—because he is.
It’s not uncommon to find prominent authors, well-meaning preachers, and social media sharers speaking of Jesus this way. I heard a man say in his sermon, “Jesus was God.” I get what he was trying to say. You do too. He’s trying to communicate the non-diluted deity of Jesus. But the problem is in the was. Jesus hasn’t stopped being God. In fact, Jesus never started being God—he’s always been. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Tense matters.
N.T. Wright in his book, Simply Jesus, makes this oversight too. The subtitle—on the cover!—reads, “A New Vision of who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.” See what I’m saying? Who he was? No, no. Is. Don’t forget the is. I know N.T. Wright believes Jesus is alive. He wrote a heavyweight book on it. But subtleties in our sentences matter. Contrast Wright’s book title with Greg Gilbert’s book on Jesus, Who is Jesus?—“is” for the win.
Right theology requires right grammar. Our gospel has a radical grammar to it: He is.
It’s right to speak of Jesus in the past tense when we are looking at events fixed in the past, namely the Gospels. “Jesus was kind to the woman at the well”, “Jesus was gracious to Nicodemus”, or “Jesus had power over the wind and waves.” No qualms. But, there is great power in reminding the reader or listener that Jesus still has power over the wind and waves, he is still gracious and kind.
In Reading The Bible Supernaturally, John Piper says about Jesus, “Jesus was a person of unwavering and incomparable love for God and man” (27). Now, in context he is talking about the portrait we see of Jesus in the Gospels, and he goes to list examples from New Testament of the heart of Jesus. But this section could be strengthened by something as simple as, “Jesus was—and is—a person of unwavering and incomparable love for God and man.” This helps us see the heart and character of Jesus displayed in the Gospels, is the same Jesus for us today.
There is a gigantic difference in the tenses we use. Mind your tenses when you speaking of the King of kings—it reminds us of the risen Lord.