About: this paper was delivered to Dr. David Nystrom at Fuller Theological Seminary during my second year for a class on the Gospels.
The Lord’s Prayer is an important lesson in Christianity. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he gave them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is in a sense a set of specific instructions for prayer from Jesus according to the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But how are we to understand what to pray when the Lord’s Prayer is hard for us to think about, interpret and comprehend? For example, one of the most difficult parts of the Lord’s Prayer is the last phrase–“do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13, my translation). This phrase is difficult because it is often questioned theologically as to how temptation can be linked with God. If God does not tempt anyone, why would Jesus say, “do not lead us into temptation?” By taking into consideration the biblical understanding of the testing of God, the use of the word temptation in the New Testament, and the functions of the two petitions together in Matthew 6:13, we will be able to determine how Jesus could make such a statement while directing and instructing his disciples to pray.
The Lord’s Prayer involves a petition against being tested. The Greek word for temptation means “tempt” but also “test” (Barclay 1958, 225). To test someone in the New Testament is to determine how strong and loyal one will be in service to God (1958, 225). This idea of testing is seen in the Old Testament. God gives tests in Genesis 22:1, Exodus 15:25; 16:4; 20:20, Numbers 14:22 and still in other places of the Old Testament (Dunn 1992, 623). God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac (Barclay 1958, 225). Genesis 22:1 reads, “And it came to pass that God did tempt Abraham” (1958, 225; italics in original). The word tempt in Genesis 22:1 does not mean to entice into wrongdoing, but is used in reference to a test that functioned to determine how strong Abraham’s service was to God (1958, 225-6). When said in reference to God in the Old Testament, tempting is understood as testing obedience and loyalty (1958, 226). But in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus instructed his disciples to make a request to God to spare them from very trying times of testing (Nolland 2005, 292).
The petition is broad in scope. It has been suggested that Jesus was referring to the testing that will come in the end times (Nolland 2005, 292). The idea behind this suggestion is that Jesus was teaching his disciples to make a petition to God to spare them from the eschatological testing that could lead to apostasy (2005, 292). This petition has also been understood in reference to a time or period of testing (Morris 1992, 148). However, the text does not support an eschatological reference, nor does it allow for a period of testing. No evidence can be cited to support one particular kind of testing in this text. On the contrary, the text points towards “testing in general” (1992, 148).
The petition concerns a negative outcome. Testing can have either a positive or negative result. Either the one being tested will resist or give in. It would be undesirable for the one to give in. Such a result is what the prayer seeks to avoid. The petition asks God to spare the disciples from those tests that would lead to a negative outcome (Dunn 1992, 623). This petition admits the weaknesses that they have; it “reflects a sense of one’s own frailty and limitation, one’s vulnerability to [tests]” (Nolland 2005, 292). Knowing that we are weak, this prayer seeks to keep the disciples far from anything that might lead into sin (Morris 1992, 148). Thus, this petition is actually a prayer of utmost commitment to the will of God, for it demonstrates a desire for obedience to God and loyalty to His will (Dunn 1992, 623).
God is known to test people, yet Jesus instructed his disciples to ask God to spare them from those trying tests that would have a negative outcome. However, we must understand this petition in light of the next one–“but deliver us from the evil one.”
The Lord’s Prayer involves a petition for relief. Jesus has already instructed his disciples to ask God to withhold testing that would bring their faith to the brink, but now he adds that they should ask for deliverance from the intentions and purposes of the evil one if they do go through trying tests (Hagner 1993, 151-2). While God tests people so that they might be strengthened, the opposite is true for the intentions of the evil one for those he puts into tribulation. The conjunction that introduces this final petition in the Lord’s Prayer sets the new action in a contrasting relationship with what precedes it (Morris 1992, 148). God tests for good, but the evil one tempts for harm. Therefore, Jesus urged his disciples to be devoted to God in the tests that he gives him and to request that God would only test them in those areas that would not break their faith, and at the same time he exhorted them to ask for deliverance from the purposes of the evil one. The first petition requests for God to not put the disciples “into ‘hot water’” (Nolland 2005, 292). The second petition requests for God to deliver the disciples from situations in which they already find themselves in “hot water” (2005, 292). These two petitions “reflect a confidence in the sovereign love of God that will preserve us in the testing of our faith now and in time of tribulation” (Hagner 1993, 152).
Jesus was encouraging his disciples to be dependent on God. The Lord’s Prayer reflects a dependency on God as the Father–the provider. It reflects a desire for God’s will to be done. The two petitions in Matthew 6:13 continue this thought. The disciples’ prayer for God to keep them from terrible tests that would ruin their faith was a prayer of dependence. Such a prayer recognizes the weaknesses on the part of the disciples and their need for God’s sovereign help. Furthermore, prayer for deliverance is also a prayer of dependence. To pray for deliverance was to admit that the disciples were not able to withstand the temptations of the evil one on their own strength. The disciples were to be fully dependent on God and to seek God’s will. The Lord’s Prayer brought their focus onto their dependence on God. Jesus could use the words in the Lord’s Prayer in reference to the Father because the Old Testament attributed testing to God and in this instance the word temptation was not to be understood as an enticement into wrongdoing. Such language was particularly helpful in this instance to emphasize total dependence on God.
Barclay, William. 1958. Gospel of Matthew. Vol. 1. Daily Study Bible. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press.
Hagner, Donald. 1993. Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1-13. Vol. 33a. Bruce Metzger, Ralph Martin, and Lynn Losie, eds. Columbia: Word, Incorporated.
Nolland, John. 2005. The Gospel of Matthew: A commentary on the Greek text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. I. Howard Marshall and Donald Hagner, eds. Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and The Paternoster Press.
Morris, Leon. 1992. The Gospel According to Matthew. Pillar New Testament Commentary. D.A. Carson, ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and Apollos.