Matthew 6:13: Lead Us Not into Temptation?

The traditional rendering of the Lord's Prayer in English contains as its second-last petition, "And lead us not into temptation." It is a petition that has puzzled successive generations of Christians for whom the word temptation ordinarily means temptation to sin. Why should we ask God not to lead us into this? As if God would do any such thing! "God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone" (Jas 1:13).

Perhaps this was absolutely the last petition in the original form of the Lord's Prayer, as it is to this day in the authentic text of Luke's version. The petition which follows it in the traditional rendering, "but deliver us from evil," found in Matthew's version, was perhaps added to help explain the preceding one--whether the added petition means "Deliver us from what is evil" or "Deliver us from the evil one." Is God asked to deliver his children from evil by preserving them from temptation or by preserving them in temptation? By preserving them in temptation, probably. It is appropriate to be reminded of a very similar petition which occurs in the Jewish service of morning and evening prayer: "Do not bring us into the power of temptation." That seems to mean, "When we find ourselves surrounded by temptation, may we not be overpowered by it."

Temptation, when the word occurs in the older versions of the Bible, means more than temptation to sin; it has the wider sense of testing. God tempts no one, according to James 1:13; yet the same writer says, according to the KJV, "Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations" and "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation" (Jas 1:2, 12). What he means is brought out by the RSV: "Count it all joy . . . when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness" and "Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him." To the same effect other Christians are assured in 1 Peter 1:6-7 that the purpose of their being called to undergo various trials--"manifold temptations" in the KJV--is "so that your faith . . . may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." That is to say, when faith is tested it is strengthened, and the outcome is reinforced stability of character.

It was so in Old Testament times. When the KJV of Genesis 22:1 says that "God did tempt Abraham," the meaning is that he tested him--tested his faith, that is to say. An untested faith is a weak faith, compared with one that has passed through a searching test and emerged victorious.

Jesus himself was led into "temptation." So Matthew implies when he says (Mt 4:1) that "Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil." Mark (Mk 1:12) uses an even stronger verb: after Jesus's baptism, he says, "the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness" (RSV). What was the nature of his "temptation"? It was the testing of his faith in God, the testing of his resolution to accept the path which he knew to be his Father's will for him in preference to others which might have seemed more immediately attractive. It was from that testing that he returned--"in the power of the Spirit," says Luke (Lk 4:14)--to undertake his public ministry.

So, whatever is meant by the petition "Lead us not into temptation," it is highly unlikely that it means "Do not let our faith be tested" or, as the NEB puts it, "Do not bring us to the test." "Do not bring us to the test" is at least as obscure as "Lead us not into temptation." It invites the question "What test?"

Perhaps Paul had this petition in his mind when he says to his friends in Corinth, "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Cor 10:13). This could well be regarded as an expansion of this problem petition, which unpacks its concentrated meaning. It was evidently so regarded by those whose thought lies behind the fifth-century Eastern Liturgy of St. James. In this liturgy the celebrant, after reciting the Lord's Prayer, goes on:

Yes, O Lord our God, lead us not into temptation which we are not able to bear, but with the temptation grant also the way out, so that we may be able to remain steadfast; and deliver us from evil.

This implies something like the following as the intention of our petition. We know that our faith needs to be tested if it is to grow strong; indeed, the conditions of life in this world make it inevitable that our faith must be tested. But some tests are so severe that our faith could not stand up to the strain; therefore we pray not to be brought into tests of such severity. If our faith gave way under the strain, that might involve us in moral disaster; it would also bring discredit on the name of the God whom we call our Father.

When we use the prayer, we may generalize this petition along these lines. But in the context of Jesus' ministry and his disciples' association with him, the petition may have had a more specific reference. What that reference was may be inferred from his admonition to some of his disciples in Gethsemane just before his arrest: "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation" (Mk 14:38). When some regard is paid to the Aramaic wording which probably lies behind the Evangelist's Greek rendering of the admoni-tion, there is much to be said for the view of some scholars that it meant, "Keep awake, and pray not to fail in the test!" The disciples had no idea how crucial was the test which was almost upon them. It was the supreme test for him; what about them? Would they, who had continued with their Master in his trials thus far, stand by him in the imminent hour of ultimate trial, or would they fail in the test? We know what happened: they failed--temporarily, at least. Mercifully (for the world's salvation was at stake), he did not fail. When the Shepherd was struck down, the sheep were scattered. But he endured the ordeal of suffering and death and, when he came back to life, he gathered his scattered followers together again, giving them a new start--and this time they did not fail in the test.

Our perspective on the events of Gethsemane and Calvary, even when our lives are caught up into those events and revolutionized by them, is necessarily different from theirs at that time. Jesus was prepared for the winding up of the old age and the breaking in of the new--the powerful coming of the kingdom of God. The transition from the old to the new would involve unprecedented tribulation, the birthpangs of the new creation, which would be a test too severe even for the faith of the elect, unless God intervened and cut it short. This tribulation would fall preeminently on the Son of Man, and on his endurance of it the bringing in of the new age depended. He was ready to absorb it in his own person, but would he find one or two others willing to share it with him? James and John had professed their ability to drink his cup and share his baptism, but in the moment of crisis they, with their companions, proved unequal to the challenge.

Going back, then, from our Lord's admonition in Gethsemane to the problem petition we are considering, we may conclude that in the context of Jesus' ministry its meaning was "Grant that we may not fail in the test"--"Grant that the test may not prove too severe for our faith to sustain." The test in that context was the crucial test of the ages to which Jesus' ministry was the immediate prelude. If we adopt the rendering of the petition followed in the Series 3 Anglican Order for Holy Communion, "Do not bring us to the time of trial," or the variant proposed by the International Consultation on English Texts, "Save us from the time of trial," then the "time of trial" originally intended was one against which the disciples who were taught to use the petition needed to be forearmed. But the force of the petition would be better expressed by rendering it, "May our faith stand firm in the time of trial" or "Save us in the time of trial." Through that trial we can no longer pass; the Son of Man passed through it as our representative. But the time of trial which will show whether we are truly his followers or not may come upon any Christian at any time. Those who have confidence in their ability to stand such a test may feel no need of the petition. But those who know that their faith is no more reliable than that of Peter and James and John may well pray to be saved from a trial with which their faith cannot cope or, if the trial is inescapable, to be supplied with the heavenly grace necessary to endure it: "Grant that we may not fail in the test."

See also comment on GENESIS 22:1; JAMES 1:13.