“Deliver us from evil,” does not make clear whether the adjective is neuter (“what is evil”) or masculine (“the evil one, Satan, evil personified”). We cannot tell which idea was in Jesus’ mind; perhaps both ideas were. What is clear is that the negative of the first half of the petition (“Lead us not”) gives place to the urgent, positive plea of the second (“Deliver us”).
Most Bible students feel that “evil” here stands for Satan, the evil one. Others see in it the impersonal, destructive force that threatens to deprive us of salvation. The difference does not affect the deeper meaning of the last petition. Asking the Lord to rid humanity of the “evil” exploding all around us in a pandemonium of violence and crime is one of the most timely pleas we can send up.
Who is the destructive opposer to our deliverance, who is the Deliverer, and from what are we to be delivered so as to maximize the thrill of our new freedom?
1. The identity of the one opposed to our deliverance. The apostle Paul says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). In other words, the temptations that come from visible and tangible sources draw their strength from an unseen source. Behind visible foes is one invisible; behind the visible opposition of evil men is an invisible prince of darkness and an unseen host of fallen spirits intruding themselves into our lives and obstructing our walk with God.
The unseen person is Satan. He is mentioned by name thirty-three times in the New Testament, and he also appears thirty-two times in the translated form diabolos, the obstructor, the devil. He is likewise called “the tempter” (1 Thess 3:5), “the evil one” (Matt 13:19), “the accuser” (Rev 12:10), “the prince of demons” (Luke 11:15), and “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Eph 2:2).
Every New Testament writer takes Satan’s existence as a reality. Peter bids us to “be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). Jude looks back to the fall of the angels. They were not always devils, but they “did not keep their positions of authority” (Jude 1:6). James, a practical writer, bids us to “resist the devil” (Jas 4:7). Paul recognizes Satan as the prince of this world, and John, the theologian, declares the object of the Incarnation was to “destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8) and, in Revelation, joyfully pronounces Satan’s “lake of fire” ending (Rev 20:14). Satan stands for everything that is anti-man and anti-God. It is from this ruining power that Jesus teaches us to pray to be delivered.
2. The form of the sins from which we are to be delivered. Satan appears invariably as a distinctive personality. He is represented as entering into man and the responsible author of their evil deeds and passions. It is Satan who tempts Judas and Simon Peter (Luke 22:3, 31; John 13:27), who prompts Ananias to withhold his contribution (Acts 5:3), and who shuts men’s hearts and ears to the message of God (Mark 4:15; Rev 2:9).
But the devil does not assail all of us alike; he comes to us in many ways:
- To some, he comes in great spiritual dullness, rendering them unable to lift up their thoughts or hearts to God, whispering that God has forgotten them and no longer cares for them, His children.
- To others, he comes in all the might of some besetting sin—anger, pride, impurity, intemperance—binding them with cords that seem too strong to be broken.
- For those who are not aware of any outstanding temptation and can point to no special hindrance in their Christian path, yet know that their lives are not what they should be, he attempts to lead them—consciously or unconsciously, openly or secretly—to do things they ought not to do and to leave undone those things they should have done.
From all these besetments, we need deliverance!
3. The subtlety of the sins from which we need deliverance. Here are some:
- irritability with others who do not work on par with us or in our way
- self-satisfaction, with the blunting of sympathy for others that so often accompanies it
- trust in self rather than reliance on God
- a disposition to be so anxious to attain a good object that we, as Shakespeare says, “to do a great right, do a little wrong”
We may also name uncharitable judgments, disregarding other people’s points of view, thinking we are doing so much good for God that He will overlook our shortcomings with others (that is, letting our practical duties swallow up all our time for prayer, or being very kind to those we love but not quite upright and sincere in our dealings with our neighbor, or being devout and good to the poor while living in some sinful habit). We can also add impatience for results and fearfulness under disappointment.
Little wonder we cry out in bitter frustration with the apostle Paul, admitting “for I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19) and pleading for deliverance from this “body of death” (Rom 7:24, NKJV)! What heart is there in which these words are not echoed? Who shall deliver us from this spiritual deadness of soul, this corruption of the affections, this impotence of the will, this unwillingness to love and obey?
1. Jesus is the Deliverer. This truth is seen most clearly in Paul’s writings. Christ is the Deliverer from sins in the past; He is the Defender against sin in the future. It is Christ who delivers the wretched man, beaten in all his endeavors to free himself from the body of this death of sin. It is that which has done through Christ what the law could not do: enabled the righteousness of the law to be fulfilled in His redeemed. Christ is emphatically the power who wipes out the past and upholds the soul, the power who alone can preserve us blameless unto His coming and whose strength is made perfect in our weakness, who shall one day “change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body.” And observe the lyrical note in the words of Paul when he writes that God “has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13, RSV). The language is similar to that of the prayer. There has been, as it were, a change of sphere. The sphere in which evil, the power of darkness, held sway has been exchanged for the sphere in which God’s beloved Son reigns in power. The kingdom has arrived with His coming, His cross, and His resurrection, and we will be delivered from evil and the evil one. Praise God! That is the true spirit of this petition of the Lord’s Prayer.
How many of you would like to say to the Lord, “Deliver me from evil?” Let’s pray.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University