The wording of this petition has caused difficulty for many—a difficulty little eased by the rendering, “Let us not be led into temptation.” Naturally, we do not think of God tempting us. We recall the words of the apostle James when he wrote, “No one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (Jas 1:13). What does this petition mean?
I. THE MEANING OF TEMPTATION
To best understand this petition, we must start with the biblical meaning of “tempt.” To most of us, the word “tempt” has a bad connotation: it suggests being seduced into evil. However, as William Barclay explains, “in the Bible the verb peirazein is often better translated ‘test’ than ‘tempt.’ In its New Testament usage, to tempt a person is not so much to seek to seduce him into sin as it is to test his strength and his loyalty and his ability to serve.” Viewed in this light, every experience of life is a temptation. Our joys and sorrows, health and sickness, work and play, and adversity and prosperity can and do put us to the test quite as effectively as Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden.
II. THE NATURE OF TEMPTATION
1. Temptation is a test. Abraham is a classic example. His loyalty to God was severely tested when he was asked to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. While the Standard English Bible says “that God did tempt Abraham,” the Revised Version renders the text, “Some time later God tested Abraham” (Gen 22:1). Clearly, it was a test of Abraham’s loyalty and obedience. “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus asks Philip. “He asked this,” comments the evangelist significantly, “only to test him” (John 6:5–6). In both these instances, the verb is that from which the noun “temptation” in this petition is derived. So God makes muscles for His servants. They are strengthened by the fires of testing. “When he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
It was this kind of thing that the apostle James was thinking of when he wrote, “Count it all joy when you fall into diverse temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience” (“the testing of your faith produces perseverance,” Jas 1:3). And Robert Browning: “Then, welcome each rebuff / That turns earth’s smoothness rough, / Each sting that bids not sit nor stand but go.”
But, what about Jesus’ wilderness temptation? The inspired record says He was led by the “Spirit.” So, when He was “tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1), is the Bible saying that the Holy Spirit partnered with the devil in compelling Jesus to sin? Absolutely not! Jesus’ temptation was a negative preparation for His ministry. In His baptism, He had received the Spirit and confirmation of His mission; in His temptations, He received the strengthening that comes directly from trial and testing. It was a test, as Ellen G. White observes, of His “trust in God.”1
“My dear Redeemer and my Lord, I read my duty in Thy word; But in Thy life the law appears Drawn out in living characters.
Such was Thy truth, and such Thy zeal Such deference to Thy Father’s will, Such love, and meekness so Divine, I would transcribe and make them mine.
Cold mountains and the midnight air Witnessed the fervor of Thy prayer: The desert Thy temptation knew, Thy conflict and Thy victory too.
Be Thou my pattern; make me bear More of Thy gracious image here; Then God the Judge shall own my name Amongst the followers of the Lamb.”
—Isaac Watts (1709)
2. Temptation is inevitable. Every Christian, while in the world, will face temptation and dangers, and as long as there is any evil in him, he will be prone to yield to them. There is a law written across the universe that no one shall be crowned unless he has first struggled. No halo of merit rests suspended over those who do not fight. Only after a fight, a fight with the evil within him, around him, a fight which he is at times tempted to abandon in despair, is the victory his. Therefore, Jesus adds to the petition for forgiveness a further petition: “Lead us not into temptation.” As forgiveness points to the past, temptation points to the future. When we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” we think of contracted guilt that we ask God to cancel, liabilities we have failed to meet that we ask Him to pardon. When we pray, “And lead us [bring us] not into temptation,” we think of the trials and difficulties lying before us and ask for grace and strength to meet them. It is as if, with the psalmist, we cried, “For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life” (Ps 56:13; 86:13).
3. Temptation places us under the guidance of God. It may be asked, “Why should we pray such a petition to God?” Do we not know that as He “cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (Jas 1:13)? Yet, God may permit temptation; however, unlike the tempter, He does not stand on the side of temptation and desire to see evil as the result of it. He may at times place us in a situation where it is very easy for us to do wrong and very hard for us to do right. So it was with Jesus when He was led into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil.” He was as much under the guidance and direction of God then as when He went to be baptized, and because He surrendered to the guidance of the Word of God, the outcome was predictable: He overcame. And so, when we anticipate the temptations we are to meet in the world, what petition can be more natural for us than that God should not bring us into such as may prove too strong for us? It is our prayer of conscious weakness, the weakness that shrinks from the danger by which it may be overcome, that God would keep us from being tempted to sin or support and deliver us when we are tempted. So this petition is best understood as an admission of our frailty, an acknowledgement of our liability to sin, as well as a promise of His support and guidance when we are tempted.
4. Temptation must be avoided. If we are following Christ fully, we will not hesitate to go with Him into any experience, however perilous it may be. “He that saveth his life shall lose it.” Yet, so much is involved in temptation, such possibilities of defeat and failure are dependent on the issue, that we dare not desire to enter into it. It is presumptuous to clamor for and be led into conflict. More than once, Jesus warned His disciples to watch, that they might not enter into temptation. He knew how inadequate their courage and strength would prove in battle with Satan, how their faith would fail in the moment of assault. Temptation is too terrible an experience to be rushed into, unled by God. So, poised between good and evil, we turn to our Father for support. We would rather not be put to the test, but our way out has been prescribed: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas 4:7). And remember, “Satan trembles and flees before the weakest soul who finds refuge in that mighty name.”2
5. Temptation has an eschatological connotation. Certainly, the clauses “hallowed be Thy name” and “Thy kingdom come” both have an eschatological reference: they quote the old Jewish prayer, the Qaddish, imploring God to reveal His final glory, asking for the coming of the hour in which God’s name will be hallowed forever and His kingdom will prevail. The petitions for bread and forgiveness are for the here-and-now—this is “realized eschatology,” the message that God’s kingdom is already effective if we open our hearts. Then, in the sixth petition, we swing back to the fully eschatological note: “preserve us from falling away in the last temptation.” He will not bring us into it, and He will not suffer our enemies to prevail over us. Hallelujah!
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, 125.
2 Ibid., 130.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University