3 Things ‘Lead Us Not into Temptation’ Might Mean—and Which Fits Best

In Matthew 6:13 Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Wait a second—what’s God’s relationship to temptation we face?

In this excerpt adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament, author Murray J. Harris explores this controversial petition of the Lord’s prayer.

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Although the Greek of this sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is unambiguous, its meaning is certainly elusive and has exercised the minds of Christians for centuries. The key word is peirasmos, which may mean “temptation” in the sense of “enticement to do wrong.” 

But against this possible meaning, James 1:13 states a truth that admits no exceptions: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘I am being tempted by God.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one.” Consequently, it is impossible for God actively to lead people into wrongdoing; he cannot contradict his nature.

Testing of faith

This prompts the interpreter to consider the other, more common meaning of peirasmos—“trial,” “test,” or “testing.” Thus the NAB translates the verse, “Do not subject us to the final test,” the trials or tribulations destined to occur at the end of the age (compare Rev 3:10). But the difficulty here is that the noun peirasmos lacks the definite article, which would be expected if the meaning were “the (well-known) final test.”

Attention is therefore sometimes given to the preceding verb, “bring/lead into,” which is sometimes given a permissive force: “Do not allow us to be brought into trial,” or “Don’t let us yield to temptation” (NLT). But it is linguistically doubtful that “Do not bring us” can be construed as meaning “Do not let us be brought/yield.”

The testing of faith can be beneficial, as Peter makes clear in his first letter. 

In the midst of various kinds of trials, the proven genuineness of his readers’ faith would result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ was revealed (1 Pet 1:6–7). 

learn about the controversial petition lead us not into temptation

Loss of faith

On the other hand, tested faith can result in the loss of faith, whether temporarily or permanently. 

Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you (plural) as wheat. But I have prayed for you (singular) that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31–32a). In Peter’s case, this failing of faith was to prove temporary, for Jesus added, “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32b). As Peter himself later said, “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly (such as Noah and Lot) from trials” (2 Pet 2:9)—not from the trials themselves, but from the hazards that accompany trials, such as the danger of losing faith.

There is reason to believe that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is Paul’s commentary on this sixth petition in the Lord’s Prayer. He writes to the Corinthian believers, “No testing has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. But God is faithful, and he will not allow you to be tested beyond what you can bear. But when you are tested, he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” 

That is, Paul is saying that God will not bring us into testing that we cannot endure. But then we might ask, “Why make the petition, if we trust God’s judgment about the intensity of the testing?” 

Perhaps the petition is prompted by a humble and commendable self-distrust, since we are fully aware of the possibility of losing faith when immersed in severe testing (see Luke 22:31–32, cited above). Peter showed the opposite of this self-distrust after Jesus predicted that all his disciples would fall away. “For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’ ” (Mark 14:27, citing Zech 13:7). Peter’s brazen and prideful response was, “Even if all become deserters, I will not.… Even if I must die with you, I will never disown you” (Mark 14:29, 31).

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Remaining strong in faith

This use of 1 Corinthians 10:13 to understand the petition is reflected in the fifth-century Eastern Liturgy of St. James (cited by F. F. Bruce). After the celebrant recites the Lord’s Prayer, he continues, “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.”

In the second part of the sixth petition we are encouraged to pray, “but deliver us from the evil one.” The “but” introduces a contrast between divine testing (v. 13a) and divine deliverance (v. 13b). If apo tou ponērou meant simply “from evil,” we might have expected “from every kind of evil” (as in 2 Tim 4:18). And ho ponēros refers to “the evil one” in Matthew 13:19, 38, and probably 5:37, as also in John 17:15. Satan is particularly active when Christians are being tested, using his wiles and stratagems in an effort to bring about their downfall.

We conclude that this sixth petition in the Lord’s Prayer is a request for the avoidance of severe testing that would result in the failing of faith and dishonor to the name of God. It should be translated not simply “Do not bring us to hard testing” (GNT), but rather “Do not lead us into unbearable testing.”

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This post is adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament by Murray J. Harris, available now through Lexham Press. Post title and headings are additions of the author.

learn about the controversial petition lead us not into temptation

Comments

  1. I’m thankful to have a prayer that makes me engage and wrestle with God!

    Another prayer that Jesus modeled is in Gethsemane:
    Jesus went to Gethsemane knowing his betrayal and crucifixion were imminent (a trial he has set his face toward like flint). He tells his disciples in Matthew 26:41 “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation (peirasmos); the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” His subsequent prayer in verse 42: “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done.”
    He literally models prayer to avoid entering into temptation–I’m never tempted to do God’s will; the temptation is always to oppose God’s will; to do something I think is right, or safe, or better for me instead of what God says is right for Him. Jesus says out loud what is causing him distress; then submits to his Father’s will. I am tested when I am pursuing God’s face, and the adversary attempts to tempt me; I am tempted when, according to James 1:14b I am “carried away and enticed by [my] own lust.” I think the difference I stick on between test and tempt is along the same lines of refining and consuming fire; less of me, more of Him–not a better version of me; but a truer reflection of Him.

    Here is the whole prayer:
    Matthew 6:9-13 (NASB)

    ‘Our Father who is in heaven,
    Hallowed be Your name.
    ‘Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
    On earth as it is in heaven.
    ‘Give us this day our daily bread.
    ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
    ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

    Which of those things is God only going to do because I asked? In the preceding verse Jesus states that “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him”–so why am I telling Him these things? How much of this prayer is for me to repeat with my mouth and hear with my ears God’s own intention and character?

    Is He not in heaven?

    Is His name not holy (what part do I have in making his name common and profane? Am I thinking, speaking and acting in a way that shows His glory, or am I attempting to glorify myself instead?)

    Is His kingdom not coming? (His kingdom is here, it is real, but it is not fully realized—am I living today as a citizen-ambassador of His kingdom, or of my own? Am I introducing people to His kingdom?)

    Is His will not accomplished, on earth as it is in heaven? (Am I abiding in His will today, or my own? The Creator who spoke all of creation into existence; the One on the throne in Revelation 4—His will is accomplished, whether I see it or am a part of it or not–a little later in Matthew 7:21 Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” One of the easiest ways for me to see His will done here on earth is to simply do it.)

    Does He not give us our daily bread? (The very fact that I am alive today typing this proves that He has literally given me at least what I need each day to get me to here—some days felt like not as much as I would have liked; but it was enough. Spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally—my needs are met today by my Father in heaven–and I will be content!)

    Does He not forgive our debts (not just mine; but our debts); and do we not also act in lovingkindness towards those around us by forgiving their debts to us? (that last one is a convicting reminder of my own judgmental selfishness, and the price paid for the burden of my debt)

    Does He lead us into temptation that would tear us away from Him? (No; we do that when stop talking to Him, and start doing what we want)

    Does He not deliver us from evil? (His people? Yes! Noah and his family from the flood; Joseph and the sons of Israel from the famine; the Israelites from Egypt; the remnants from Babylon/Assyria; every believer who has gone to sleep! Maybe not always in the way, or the time we want. Jesus was undeservedly crucified on a cross–a horrible, evil event–but he was delivered; resurrected and ascended to the Father’s right hand! Through the cross, I know a little bit better God’s unconditional, sacrificial, tangible love–and His deliverance.)

  2. Gregory Lawhorn says

    The title of the article says there are FOUR things “lead us not into temptation might mean,” but only three are listed: Testing Faith, Loss of Faith, and Remaining Strong in Faith. Is one missing from the article, or is it simply miss-titled?

    • Karen Engle says

      Hi Gregory, Thanks for pointing that out! We’ve adjusted the title to “3.”

      Karen from Faithlife

  3. PAUL STROUP says

    Great insight in this article. Perhaps Jesus was teaching this prayer and included “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one” because He himself had been lead by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted and knew that such a thing for his followers would be to much to endure. It was such a powerful experience in the desert that Jesus wanted to keep us from such an encounter.