LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION
Updated: Apr 4
Text: Matthew 6:13
In Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer occurs in the midst of Jesus’ teaching about prayer (6:5-15) which in turn is part of Jesus’ famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7). Even a brief glance at the Sermon on the Mount reveals that Old Testament forms a significant part of the background for Jesus’ discourse (5:12, 17, 21, 27, etc.). Indeed, the whole Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham (1:1), as the one who fulfils Old Testament categories and expectations. At some points, Jesus recapitulates significant events in Israel’s history e.g. the Exodus (2:15) and the exile and return (2:17). Jesus is also depicted as succeeding where Israel failed e.g. The temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11) and the restoration of the far reaches of the promised land overrun by Gentiles (4:15, Isa 9:1). When, in 5:1-2, Jesus sits and begins to teach his disciples on ‘the mountain’, there are strong echoes of the two great mountains of Old Testament revelation: the historical Sinai (e.g. Exo 19:3) and the eschatological Zion Isa 2:3).
It soon becomes apparent that in this ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (5:1-7:29), Jesus is forming his disciples into a new eschatological people. The Sermon’s unifying theme is ‘the kingdom of heaven’, a phrase which occurs at significant points in the Sermon (5:3, 10, 17; 6:10, 33; 7:12, 21-23; cf. 4:17, 23) . The Sermon ‘provides ethical guidelines for life in the kingdom, but does so within an explanation of the place of the contemporary setting within redemption history and Jesus’ relation to the OT. Hence the identification of Old Testament background, and the nature in which Jesus’ disciples are to ‘fulfil’ the Old Testament, are primary interpretive questions for the Sermon on the Mount and its constituent parts. The primary difference between the eschatological ‘kingdom of heaven’ and the Old Testament kingdom of Israel is the nature of the relationship between God and his people.
The emphasis in the Gospels on God as “Father” rests directly upon the announcement of the eschatological salvation that brings about this new relationship between God and his people. The expression “Father in heaven” is remarkable in that it combines the personal, or immanent, element of fatherhood with the transcendental element of God’s otherness, in heaven. Hence the Lord’s Prayer, which begins, ‘Our Father in Heaven’ (6:9), is the prayer of the new people of God a people who are the fulfilment of the expectations of the Old Testament people of Israel but who go far beyond Old Testament Israel in their relationship to God as both universal Lord and personal Father.
Jesus the Ultimate Test
One of the first acts of Jesus is to go out into the wilderness after emerging from the waters of baptism. He is led into the wilderness by the Spirit of God, but he is not actually tested by God. Instead, he is tested by Satan (Matt 4:1, 3; Heb. 4:15). And instead of failing the test, like the people of Israel did, Jesus passes. He proves that he completely trusts God as God’s loving and faithful Son. He is hungry, but trusts God’s Word to sustain him (Matt 4:4). He isn’t suspicious of God his Father; he completely trusts his Father to give him whatever he needs whether it is food in the wilderness or authority over the world. He doesn’t ‘put God to the test’ (Matt 4:7). From then on, there are two types of people. There are those who continue the pattern of the old Israel, people who ‘test’ God and Jesus, people who don’t trust God but are suspicious of his love and care for them. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees and associated hangers-on are like this (16:1, 19:3, 22:18, 22:35). But those who follow Jesus, his disciples, must be characterised by trust in God and Jesus. They mustn’t go by the way of Messiah, they mustn’t have an attitude of ‘testing’ but of ‘trusting’ (1 Cor 10:9, Heb. 3:8-9). In the Garden of Gethsemane, that place of great fear and anxiety before Jesus is arrested and taken to die on the cross, Jesus tells his disciples to ‘watch and pray that you may not enter into testing.’ The cross of Jesus is the ultimate act of deliverance, where we are saved from our sins, where we can have confidence that our debts are forgiven (Matt 6:12). But it looked like the ultimate disaster, where God’s Son Jesus seemed defeated by the world and all the authorities. In the midst of this greatest trial of all, the disciples are urged to pray that they will not enter into testing – suspecting God of reneging on his word, and so turning away from Jesus.
Testing and God’s redeemed people
God never tests his people in the NT like he did in the OT. Christians certainly do undergo ‘tests’ in the NT, but these ‘tests’ are not an act of God ‘testing’ us to see if we will obey him, like a distant examiner or a suspicious husband. Christians never undergo special ‘tests’ such as God gave his people in the wilderness, but simply the ‘trials’ that are common to humanity (1 Cor 10:13), or the temptations of Satan (1 Thess. 3:5). God always provides a way of escape from these type of trials (1 Cor 10:13, 2 Pet 2:9). They are described like a refiner’s fire, proving our trust in God and our willingness to follow Jesus (1 Pet 1:6, 4:12). In all these things, God’s attitude to us is always as a loving heavenly father, never as a ‘suspicious heavenly examiner’. People realise that the Bible is not necessarily talking directly about the things we care about it often has far more important things to teach us: Now when we read the Bible, sometimes we can read it as if it’s talking directly about our own issues.
So, we might read this line, ‘lead us not into temptation’, and we think it’s a prayer asking God to miraculously guide our steps away from internet fridges and Harleys and hi-fat chocolate ice cream. Of course, the Bible is deeply relevant to our personal lives. But sometimes we need to just pause and ask ‘What exactly is the Bible saying?’ before we presume we know what’s it’s all about. You see; what, exactly what does Jesus mean by this word ‘temptation’? And what is so bad about it? Do you notice that ‘lead us not into temptation’ is the only negative request in the Lord’s Prayer? All the others are positive, asking God to do something. ‘Give us our daily bread’, ‘Forgive us our sins’. But ‘lead us not into temptation’ is the only thing in this prayer that we specifically ask God not to do. It’s a serious thing. Surely, it’s not just about game shows and chocolate? A ‘test’ is something you do to somebody to see what they’re made of, to check out their performance. So, another way of saying this line of the prayer is, ‘Lead us not into testing’. (Matthew 4:1-11) Jesus is sort of reliving the experience of Israel.
God’s Spirit led him into the desert to be tempted. It’s as if God led Jesus back into Massah. He didn’t eat for forty days. And he was hungry, starving. But Jesus didn’t do what Israel did in the desert. Jesus did the opposite of Israel. No complaining, no whingeing. The evil one came, the devil, Satan. He ‘tested’ Jesus. He lied. He tried to capitalise on Jesus’ weakness and hunger. He quoted the Bible at Jesus, verses out of context, trying to get Jesus to stop trusting his Father. And what did Jesus do? He refused to test God. He trusted God, he served God, he worshiped God, even in this most extreme situation. He proved through his obedience that the relationship between him and God his Father is one of pure love. No suspicion. No testing required on either side. Then we move on to talk about the relevance of Jesus for us and our situation, through his death on the cross: What has that got to do with us? When Jesus died on the cross for us, he brought us into a perfect relationship with God. He brought complete forgiveness by his death. And he rose from the dead, to bring us life. He gives us a relationship with God as dearly loved children. The kind of relationship where God is pleased with us because he is pleased with Jesus. A relationship with God where there is love, not suspicion; trusting, not testing. And you can see that by the kind of prayer Jesus gives his disciples to pray. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of trust in God our Father. It begins ‘Our Father in Heaven’. You can only pray the Lord’s Prayer if you trust God as your heavenly Father, like Jesus did. You can only pray this prayer if you trust that God’s name is wonderful and holy (‘hallowed by your name’), that his kingdom and his will is the best thing for us, that he will give us our daily bread, that he will forgive us our sins. And so, when you pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation’, you’re asking God to keep you trusting him, to stop you from doubting his loving care for you, to form you more and more as his child, just like Jesus. Hence the prayer of Matthew 6:13 is a prayer of confident trust, asking God to keep us trusting his loving care for us.
It is a prayer that God our Father will keep our focus firmly on his ultimate act of care and provision for us: the deliverance from sin provided by Jesus’ death on the cross. It is a prayer that, in the midst of the common trials of this life, God will help us remember that he is not distant from us, he is not standing back and testing us to see if we will obey, he is not inflicting these things on us as a test; but that he is lovingly refining us and making us more like his Son Jesus Christ. It is a prayer asking God to ‘give us our daily bread’, not to test us to see if we will obey him (as he did when he gave bread to the people in the wilderness), but simply to provide us with what we need as a loving heavenly Father. It is a prayer to deliver us out of the clutches of Satan, who lies to us, who tells us that God does not have our best interests at heart in the midst of these trials, who wants us to become suspicious of our Father and forget how much he loves us. The evil one wants us to think that we know best, and that God doesn’t love us as much as we love ourselves.
We may not know exactly why we are suffering; like Job, we may never find out the precise reason for until the Lord returns all we may know is that God is compassionate and merciful in our suffering (James 5:11). But that is enough. You see, in our life, things can sometimes look a lot like they did for Israel back at Massah. The Israelites passed through the Red Sea they were saved from slavery and mortal danger. But out in the desert, they were thirsty. They were hungry. They knew God had saved them. But they felt that had to test God to see if he was really still with them. They suspected that God had just brought them out into the desert to starve to death. You might be tempted to think the same thing. You might be confident that God has done the big things for you saved you, died on the cross for you, given you eternal life. But you might start to think that’s all very well, but does God actually care about me day to day? Especially when I’m hungry or thirsty or in pain, grieving, abandoned, used, persecuted, ripped off, depressed. You might start to think that God is testing you. That he’s fiddling with your life. Up there in heaven with his computer watching you on the screen, and putting various tests in your way to see how you’ll react. Tempting you.
When would you need to pray, ‘Lead me not into temptation’?
Maybe you have accepted that Jesus died for you and brought you into heaven. But you still think your life is a desert wilderness, and you need stuff to fill up the void. You suspect God because you don’t trust that he will give you what you need. So instead of generosity and love, your life is about greed and holding on to things that you don’t really need. Satan is just as active in material things as he is in spiritual things. You need to pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’. Maybe you are tempted when it comes to your relationships. Maybe you’re unhappy with whatever relationships you have, or unhappy because you don’t have a relationship that you long for. You may be single, widowed, divorced, married, friendless, unappreciated, just tired of giving. And you know that God has saved you from sin, and given you eternal life. But you suspect that he doesn’t really have your best interests at heart when it comes to these human relationships. And you think he’s being mean; he’s saved you from the greatest enemy of all sin and death but he’s just brought you into a dry desert wilderness and he’s not going to give you anything to drink. Of course, that can lead to disaster, can’t it? You are tempted to look for other ways to gratify your desires, ways that God hates. You join in with your mates when they drink too much so you’ll be accepted by them. Or you look for cheap thrills. But you don’t care because God doesn’t seem to care for you. You need to pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’, trusting God’s goodness, even in the desert. Addiction can be a form of temptation too, can’t it? When you start to feel that something can look after you, or ease the pain, because you think that God doesn’t care.
Whether it’s alcohol or pornography or sex or even food. Of course, it might be helpful to take some active steps to remove these temptations from your life. Don’t watch the TV shows that provoke you to greed or lust. Put blocking software on your computer. Whatever. But the most important thing you can do is to pray. And do you know, this is quite an amazing prayer? Because the act of praying is itself part of the answer to the prayer! If you ask God to not lead you into temptation, to help you to trust him, that prayer is itself an act of trust. When you talk to God, you trust him. And the more you trust, the less you suspect him of being mean, and the less you are tempted; because you know that God is good to you, even in the hard times. You may not know why your life seems like a desert now. You may never know until the end of time. But we do know that God is our Father. And God is our Father because Jesus has died for us and made us God’s children.