When Jesus taught his disciples The Lord’s Prayer, he included what might seem like a strange phrase — “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Does God tempt us to do wrong? If not, why should we pray this part of the Model Prayer? Tomorrow as I preach this sermon, I will be answering those and other questions about this puzzling part of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.
When You Pray: Seek Guidance and Protection
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” — Matthew 6:13
In our journey with the Lord’s Prayer during Lent we have looked at each of the main phrases in the Lord’s Prayer. For a prayer of only 53 words, not counting the addition of the doxology at the end, we have discovered that those 53 words are packed with theological meaning, with holy history, and with practical instruction for both Jesus’ disciples and for us.
But today we come to the phrase that has puzzled most of us as we have said the Lord’s Prayer — we appear to be praying that God will not “lead us into temptation,” but will “deliver us from evil.”
The Meaning of Temptation
First off today, we have to deal quickly with what this prayer is NOT saying. For us, the words “lead us not into temptation” sound as though there is the possibility that God WOULD lead us into temptation. But the problem lies in our understanding of the word “temptation.”
When we use the word “tempt” in any of its forms, we usually think of an enticement to do wrong. The best example we have of this is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent tempted them — enticed them — to eat of the tree that God had forbidden. The serpent enticed Adam and Eve by saying that as soon as they ate of it, they would be like God, knowing good from evil.
And we use the word “tempt” today with the same meaning. For instance, if you’re on a diet and someone offers you a piece of chocolate cake, you might say, “Don’t tempt me.” Of course, you might also eat the cake, which is giving in to temptation, but you get the idea.
But when Jesus uses the word that most translation have rendered as “temptation” because that’s the familiar phrase that we learned from the King James Version, Jesus really meant “don’t lead us into a time of testing.”
While temptation is the enticement to do wrong, testing in the Bible is usually the opportunity to be faithful, and to show commitment to God. The NRSV translates this phrase, “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” That is probably closer to the intent that Jesus had.
But does God bring us to times of trial and testing? The best New Testament example we have of that is Jesus himself. In Matthew 4, Matthew describes why Jesus went into the desert after his baptism:
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” — Matthew 4:1 NRSV
Mark’s description is more powerful:
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan…” — Mark 1:12-13 NRSV
Implied in both of these passages is that the Spirit of God led or drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested — tempted — by Satan. In the case of Jesus, God did lead Jesus into a time of testing. We’ll look at exactly what that means in a moment, but the time in the desert became a time for Jesus to prove his faithfulness to God, and to his mission to inaugurate the Kingdom of God through his earthly ministry.
So, when Jesus instructs his disciples to pray that God would “lead us not into temptation,” it is because it is possible for God to do just that. But, doesn’t God test people, and if testing is an opportunity to prove our faithfulness to God, why is that a problem? Shouldn’t we then be praying “God test us” so we can prove ourselves to you?
There is no doubt that in the stories of the Bible, God tests people at various times and in various ways. God tested Noah by asking Noah to build an ark. Noah passed the test.
God tested Abraham by calling him to be the father of a great nation when Abraham and his wife had no children, and were too old to have any, they thought. Abraham eventually passed the test, but not without some struggle.
God tested Moses when God called him, and during his leadership of the nation of Israel. God tested the spies who spied out the holy land, and only 2 out of 12 thought they God would give them the land. God tested Joshua as the nation occupied the Promised Land. And, in the best example we have of God allowing someone to be tested, we have Job and an entire book of the Old Testament devoted to the question of evil and suffering.
So, why is Jesus telling his disciples to pray that God would not “lead them into a time of testing?”
A Prayer For The Community
First, let me tell you that I believe this prayer, as is much of the Lord’s Prayer, is intended for the community of faith, and possibly even for the entire nation of Israel. Jesus has taught us in the Model Prayer to address God as “our Father,” and to ask God for “our daily bread.” And, most recently that God would forgive “our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” All the pronouns referring to those who pray this prayer are plural pronouns — our, us, and we. There is a collective, communal idea behind the Lord’s Prayer. It is to be prayed by the community of faith and for the community of faith, and it is not just an individual prayer.
So, having said that, let me say that this part of the prayer that we not be led into temptation or testing, means the community as a whole, not the individuals within the community. In other words, God may still allow times of individual testing, but what this prayer is praying is that God will not lead the community of faith, and possibly the entire nation of Israel, into a time of testing.
So, what does that mean, you ask? If we’re not talking about individual testing, what kind of testing would a community be exposed to?
About three weeks ago we watched in horror the video images of the earthquake and tsunami hitting the eastern coast of Japan. We watched as this relentless wall of water pushed everything in its path miles into the interior of Japan. We saw entire communities — houses, cars, trucks, buildings, belongings and people — swept away before anyone could do anything about it.
Commentators quickly began to talk about the resolve and character of the Japanese people, noting that they had faced challenges before, and would face this challenge with their historic patience and fortitude.
That’s what an entire community, in this case the nation of Japan, being tested looks like. I am only using Japan and the tragedy there as an example of testing, but I am not saying that this was sent from God to test them, so please do not confuse the two.
But Jesus is urging his followers to pray that God would not lead them into a time of testing as a community. Here’s what I think this means, and to understand it you have to understand a little Jewish and Roman history.
An Example of Testing From History
In 4 BC, Herod the Great died. According to John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Greatest Prayer, an uprising against the rule of Rome took place after Herod’s death in the city of Sepphoris, the capital city of Galilee. I’ll cut a long story very short, but the bottom line is that the Roman legions came, 12,000 strong, and wiped out the city, enslaved its inhabitants, and the city of Sepphoris was relegated to the dustbin of history. In that same military excursion, another contingent of Roman legionnaires marched on Jerusalem, and there crucified 2,000 men who were charged with participating in the uprising. When Rome came with sword and fire, they did not intend to have to repeat the lesson, again.
The tiny village of Nazareth, the boyhood home of Jesus, was only about 5-miles from Sepphoris. We know that Jesus had been born before the death of Herod the Great, but we do not know where he and his family were at the time. Perhaps this is the time they fled to Egypt and were spared the cruelty of the Roman invasion.
We also do not know if Nazareth was destroyed or attacked, but Josephus, the Jewish historian records that Emmaus was totally destroyed, along with Sepphoris. So, when we find Jesus after his resurrection walking the road to Emmaus, he is walking to the rebuilt city which is only about 30-years old.
Whether Nazareth was destroyed or not, 4 BC was known as “the year the Romans came” throughout the region. If you think that community memory does not last that long, I would ask you what anniversary is being marked during this month. The answer is the Civil War, which started 150 years ago this month, and which has not been forgotten in the collective memories of black and white, northerners or southerners, in over 150 years. So, the passage of only 30 years or so would have only slightly dimmed the memory of the Roman assault.
Couple that history with the on-going occupation of Judea and Galilee, and the entire Mediterranean by the Roman Empire, and you have the constant concern that the same thing will happen, again. An example of that kind of national fear is our own experience with 9/11. The stated goal of our national security under both Republicans and Democrats since then has been that we would not have another terrorist attack on US soil.
Now, turn to Matthew 24, or just listen to some of what Jesus says about the end of the age:
“As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” — Matt 24:1-2
Of course, that was an outrageous thing to say. The Temple in Jerusalem was the spiritual center of the nation. Herod the Great had started its reconstruction, which had taken 40-years. To say the Temple would be destroyed was the worst kind of blasphemy. But in 70 AD, the Roman army again invaded Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, and leveling the city to the ground. Jesus prophecy foretold a coming time of testing like the nation had never seen.
Matthew devotes the entire 24th and 25th chapters in his Gospel to Jesus warnings about the coming peril and time of great distress. Listen to what Jesus says to his disciples about that time:
15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’[a] spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.
22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.
Jesus says to “pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath..” because it will be harder to flee then that at other times. In other words, pray that you will have an easier time than you might otherwise have.
And then he adds that “for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.” Without getting into a big theological discussion about who the elect are, let’s just assume that God is shortening or curtailing this period of trial for the sake of his followers.
So, we have Jesus’ own words that we can pray for times of trial to be made less severe, and that they will be shortened on behalf of those who follow him. In other words, we can pray that God would not lead us into a time of testing that would lead to our destruction and the destruction of the community of faith.
That idea is further supported by the message of Revelation. John’s Revelation was written in the first century to the first century church. The purpose of Revelation was not to foretell the future for people living 20-centuries later, as many suppose. The purpose of Revelation was to encourage those undergoing persecution in the first century under the Roman Emperor Domitian. Persecution of Christians had been widespread first under Emperor Nero, who blamed Christians for his own failures. But by the time of John’s writing, the persecution of the church was full-blown under Domitian.
John was given the vision that we know as the book of Revelation to encourage those who were being persecuted, and to say to them, God is judging the Roman empire, and the Lamb of God will prevail over the evil of the Roman empire.
A Second Dimension
But, there is a second and related meaning that “lead us not into temptation” might also have. If the first meaning is that God will spare us from a time of testing like the nation had already endured in 4 BC, and would endure again in 70 BC, then there is another dimension to this prayer.
For that we have to look at the temptation of Jesus. So we return to the wilderness experience, where Jesus was driven into the desert for the express purpose of being tempted, or tested, by Satan.
What were the temptations he faced? First, that he turn stones into bread. Second, that he throw himself off one of the highest points of the Temple because God would send angels to protect him. And third, that if Jesus worshipped Satan, then all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory, would be his.
So, quickly, let’s analyze these temptations, or tests. The first is an individual test. Jesus is hungry, and he has the ability to create his own bread to meet his own need. But instead, Jesus responds to Satan by recalling the story of the manna, where God fed the nation bread from heaven.
Secondly, Satan takes Jesus to the Temple for several reasons. The Temple is the spiritual heart of the nation, as we have said. Plus, there are always crowds at the Temple. Lots of people would witness anything that happened there. One scholar estimated that 20,000 priests served in the Temple, plus worshippers, merchants, and those who used the Temple as a short-cut from one part of the city to another. So, this temptation is communal — it was impact the community of faith and draw attention to Jesus supernatural power, displacing the worship of God in the Temple dedicated to God.
Finally, the third temptation is that Jesus can have his kingdom, and rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The quickest way to do that is for him to bow down and worship Satan. Jesus, of course, rebukes Satan a third time and Satan leaves him finally.
What do all these temptations have in common? They are all temptations to take a shortcut, to bring in some aspect of the Kingdom of God, but without acknowledging God as sovereign.
In other words, the temptations of Jesus were that he could accomplish his stated goal of inaugurating the Kingdom of God, but he could do it without sacrifice, without suffering, without doing the will of God. The three temptations were to do the right thing, but in the wrong way.
So, perhaps Jesus is having us pray “lead us not into temptation” so that we will not be tempted and tested as he was to take a shortcut, to do things our way, to attempt to bring in God’s kingdom on earth by some other means than God has ordained.
So, when the conquistadors came to the New World, they either conquered or converted the native populations rationalizing their conquests by saying that even if they killed the pagan natives, they were only hastening their arrival in hell.
Or when the Crusaders considered their mission a holy war, a crusade to save the land of Palestine, the holy land, from the infidel hoards that had invaded it.
Or when Christian missionaries turned South American Indians into their own forced labor to extend the Kingdom of God. And the list of examples where Christians have tried to take a shortcut to bring in the Kingdom extends farther than we can imagine.
Thy Will Be Done
So, today we are praying for both guidance and protection. Protection that we do not have to endure a time of testing like those of the first century. Or we are praying that God will guide us so that we will not face the temptation, or test, of attempting to bring in the Kingdom of God in ways that betray the love on which that Kingdom is built.
Either way, we are praying for the community of faith, and perhaps for the entire world. Certainly we are praying that God show us his will, so that we can pray another prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsamene — “Not my will, but thine be done.”