Monday, November 17, 2008

Lead Us Not Into Temptation --- Part One

For a long time the most perplexing line of the Lord's Prayer for me has been "lead us not into temptation." I have found some help in understanding this petition from Lionel Windsor. I will post his article in two parts. --Bill



‘Lead Us Not Into Temptation’ (Matthew 6:13)

Lionel Windsor, Sydney, Australia

14 September 2005

As part of a series on the Lord’s Prayer, I was charged with preaching a sermon on this line: ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One’ (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.1 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, cf. 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 (e.g. 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).2 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.’3 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. ‘[T]he 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.”’4 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.

Inadequate trails

Suggestions that I received from others about how to apply the text, ‘Lead us not into emptation’ were mainly along the lines of advice about avoiding various temptations (e.g. install Internet blocking software to avoid Internet pornography). Unfortunately, this advice by itself wasn’t very helpful given that Matthew 6:13 is found in a prayer rather than in a piece of ethical exhortation. It’s about asking God to not lead you into temptation—not about how to avoid temptation yourself per se.

Furthermore, when people in our society (Sydney) use the word ‘temptation’, they’re generally thinking about relatively trivial things. There’s the game-show ‘temptation’ that tempts contestants with various materialistic prizes like internet fridges and Volvos. ‘Temptation’ is also used of things like food and sex. But if this is what ‘temptation’ is all about, then it doesn’t seem important enough to explain why ‘lead us not into temptation’ is the sole negative request in the Lord’s Prayer, up there alongside such cosmic and theological concerns as ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ and ‘forgive us our sins’.

What is ‘temptation’ anyway? Carson comments that the word for ‘temptation’ (peirasmos) almost always outside the NT means ‘testing’ rather than ‘temptation’.5 He goes on to suggest that in the light of James 1:13-14, which says that God cannot ‘tempt’ anyone or be ‘tempted’ himself (assuming that the word here means ‘tempt’ and not ‘test’), it is hard to see that peirasmos means ‘temptation’ in Matthew 6:13, for then it would be asking God not to do something that is impossible for him to do anyway. On the other hand, Carson continues, if the word means ‘testing’ there is another problem, because the Bible promises that we will face testings of various kinds and we should consider them pure joy (James 1:2). Carson suggests that we read it more expansively, ‘trial or temptation that results in fall’, and that we simply
run with the tension between asking God to spare us testing but rejoicing when such testing comes anyway.


A large part of the problem, of course, is that we are dealing with a Greek word (peirasmos) that has a different semantic range to any of our English equivalents (e.g. ‘trial’, ‘test’, ‘temptation’). In answer to the question, ‘What does peirasmos mean?’ we could answer that sometimes it comes close to the English words ‘trial’ and ‘test’ (e.g. James 1:2, 12) and sometimes it has the same meaning as the English word ‘tempt’ (e.g. James 1:13-14). Or, we could answer, it means both. Or we could answer that it is ambiguous. However, in this case there is a better way. We don’t have to import our own preconceived notions about what ‘temptation’ or even ‘testing’ might mean from the English usage of these words. Instead, we can look at what the Bible
itself says about the word peirasmos. Who was ‘tested / tempted’ in the Old Testament, by whom, how, where, when and why?


Understanding the Old Testament Background

I began with a word study on the word peirasmos as it appears throughout the Bible.6 Of course, it’s important to realise that word studies by themselves can be misleading.

This is because there is never a perfect overlap between a word and a concept. A word study can fail to pick up other words associated with the same concept, and can pick up usages of the word that are extraneous to the concept under investigation. The main way to guard against this is to look at the context of every instance of the word to check out how it is being used; and to follow up on other words that consistently appear in these contexts.

Nevertheless, in this case there seemed to be a very close relationship between the word peirasmos and the concept of ‘testing’. This is mainly because the word peirasmos in the Old Testament is most commonly the name of a place, ‘Massah’. This place is named in Exodus 17:7. ‘Massah’ is simply the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek word peirasmos; it seems to be derived from the piel feminine singular participle of nasah, to test or ‘put to the test’, hence ‘place of putting to the test’. The Greek verb equivalent is peirazo. Although in later references the name has the definite article (e.g. Deut 6:16, 9:22, Psa 94:8) when originally introduced it has no
article (Exo 17:7; as here in Matt 6:13).


‘Massah’ was a place named after an event. In my sermon, I explained this by reference to a few place names in Australia. When Captain James Cook was exploring the East Coast of Australia in the 1700’s, his boat the Endeavour struck a reef, and nearly sank. He wasn’t a very happy sailor at the time. The first thing next morning he looked out and saw a Cape. He called it ‘Cape Tribulation’. Behind it was a mountain. He called it ‘Mount Sorrow’. Up the coast, the place where they finally rested for repairs was called ‘Weary Bay’. They’re all places with stories attached to them, and ‘Massah’ is the same. In the OT, Massah was the paradigmatic place where Israel’s relationship with God was fractured and God became somewhat distant from them, despite his covenantal commitment just recently demonstrated in their deliverance
from Egypt.


In Exodus 14-15, God had saved the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, taking them through the Red Sea into the wilderness of Sin. This great event is summed up in the word rhuomai, ‘to deliver’ (cf Matt 6:13, ‘deliver us from the evil one’): Exodus 14:30 Thus the LORD delivered (errusato) Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

But no sooner had God delivered Israel from the Egyptians, then they began to grumble and complain against God their deliverer. They had been delivered through two walls of water ‘into the wilderness’, and their first act on being delivered was to complain about the lack of water (Exod 15:24). They seemed to think that the God who had just parted the Red Sea couldn't give them a few mouthfuls of water in the desert! From that time on, God’s relationship with the Israelites was a relationship characterised by ‘testing’. God gave them water, but in doing so he ‘tested’ Israel to see if they would obey his commandments (Exod 15:25). Next, they complained about food, so he gave them bread, but even the bread-giving included a ‘test’ from God, a command not to gather too much (Exod 16:4)—which many failed (Exod 16:20).

Then, once again, in Exodus 17 the people complained about lack of water. Moses ominously describes this complaint as ‘putting the Lord to the test’, that is, ‘testing’ God to see if he really loved them and cared for them (Exod 17:2). God again gives them water, but the place is named from that time on ‘Massah’, the place of testing (Exod 17:7):

Exodus 17:7 And he called the name of the place Massah (peirasmos) and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested (peirazein) the LORD by saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"

God had delivered them from Egypt because of his love. But he had then led them into ‘testing’ in the wilderness, the place where God tested their commitment to him and where the people tested God’s love for them. I suggested that God and Israel are like a newlywed husband and wife; on the honeymoon, the wife complains that her husband doesn’t love her and wishes she were back home as a single woman and the husband sets up surveillance cameras and hires a Private Eye to make sure she’s going to be faithful.

Like any relationship that begins on such a rocky start, the prognosis was not good. Sure enough, the ‘testing’ continued. Later on, just before the people are about to enter the Promised Land, they again ‘tested’ God. God had promised them the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, to be theirs. But the people didn't believe him. They were afraid of the previous inhabitants of the land, they suspected that God didn't love them and they didn’t trust God. They didn’t enter the land. As a result, God told them they would not inherit the land for forty years. This ‘test’ was the final straw for God; his people didn't trust him and so he banished them to forty years’ wandering in the wilderness (Num 14:22-23).

Throughout the rest of the OT, ‘Massah’ is referred to as that terrible place of testing, the place where mutual suspicion entered into the relationship between God and his people (which was not God's fault, of course for he was always faithful to his promises. They had no right to test God). The law and the prophets began to refer to Massah, the ‘place of testing’, as if it applied to the whole wilderness experience, from the crossing of the Red Sea until the entry into the Promised Land 40 years later. (Deut 6:16, 8:2, 9:22, 33:8; Psa 78:18, 78:41, 78:56, 95:8-9, 106:14) In the end, Israel emerged chastened and humbled by the whole ‘testing’ experience (Deut 8:16). But even then, the people still had a problem: they did not fully trust God, and so the testing continued throughout Israel's history. God tested them to see if they would obey him (Deut 13:3; Judg 2:22, 3:1, 3:4; 2 Chron 32:31) and they generally failed; for their part, the people tested God to see if he really cared for them and loved them and would keep his promises (Judges 6:39).

In the light of the OT, Matthew 6:13 literally means ‘Don’t lead us into Massah’. That is, it is a prayer asking God to make sure that we don't relive that desert experience of Israel, where they suspected God of foul play, and God (quite rightly) suspected them of ungrateful and disobedient hearts.

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 Massah, 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.


1 D. A. Carson, ‘Matthew’, in The Expositor's Bible Commentary Vol. 8 (ed. Frank E. Gæbelein; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 1-599 (28-29).
2 Carson, ‘Matthew’, 127-28.
3 Carson, ‘Matthew’, 128.
4 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Word Biblical Commentary 33A; Dallas: Word, 1993), 101.

5 Carson, ‘Matthew’, 173-74.
6 Using the computer program Bibleworks, I performed a search on all words with roots beginning with the letters peira in the LXX (Greek Old Testament) and in New Testament. I confirmed this with a search on the equivalent Hebrew root N-S-H in the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament, and crosschecked with the article by J. I. Packer, ‘Temptation’ in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (ed. J. D. Douglas; Leicester: IVP, 1980), 1532-33.





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