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05.20.12 Lead Us Not Into Temptation, John 20.1-19, Sermon Summary

by on May 21, 2012

Does the God Jesus called “Father” deliberately lead his children into temptation? That’s apparently the case with the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.”

Summary Points

  • The nature of temptation that does not come from God
  • The temptation that does come from God
  • Why God tempts us
  • What we’re praying for in this petition
  • Trials of Temptation vs. the Great Trial
  • What we can learn from Thomas’ example
  • In conclusion on the Lord’s Prayer
  • Questions for Discussion or Reflection

Many people have a difficult time understanding why Jesus would have us pray to God not to be led into temptation, given the assumption that God is good, temptation is bad, and the two don’t mix. After all, doesn’t James 1:13 say, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one”?

And Paul, when describing his own struggle with sin, exonerates the law of God—and presumably God himself—when he says in Romans 7, “It’s not me doing the things I shouldn’t do, it’s sin living in me!”

With this perspective, the Christian tradition has assigned temptation to the work of the flesh, the world, and the devil. Luther offers this helpful insight: throughout our lives we are more tempted by one of these than the others. When we are young, it is the flesh that tempts us most. When we are older, it is the world—the things we have, crave, or lament not having. Then when we are older and more spiritually mature, having endured all those earlier temptations, it is the devil himself that assails us.

As interesting and helpful as this traditional perspective is, it doesn’t address the sixth petition in the Lord’s Prayer, or the fact that the Bible itself attributes temptation not just to the flesh, the world, and the devil, but to God.

In order to see, we must look beyond the various English translations that attempt to exculpate God. We have to remember that the words “try” and “tempt” and “test” are, in the biblical languages, the same word. So also “trials” and “temptations.” So, in one of the most well-known stories from Genesis 22, we read, “And God tested Abraham.” This is, of course, the story of the binding of Isaac for sacrifice, and it ends with Abraham being exalted as the exemplar of faith for Jews and Christians because Abraham “passed the test.” Or in other words, Abraham endured God’s temptation.

In Deuteronomy, presented as Moses’ farewell sermon to the people of Israel, he refers to the forty years in the wilderness as God’s “testing” of their hearts (8:2), and warns of false prophets whom God will use to “test” the people (13:3). David, in Psalm 26:2, actually asks God to “test” him. In all these instances, we might just as well read “tempt” as “test.”

But the definitive example of God’s temptation as it relates to the Lord’s Prayer is the temptation of the Lord himself. After being baptized, Jesus is led by the Spirit to the desert in order to be tempted by the devil. Who led Jesus to temptation? None other than the Spirit of God.

So when Jesus instructs us to pray that God would not lead us into temptation, he’s speaking out of the biblical tradition and his own experience. Calvin offers us a helpful distinction between the temptations of the flesh, world, and the devil, and the temptations that come from God. Satan tempts us to destroy us; God tempts us to strengthen us.

When God tempts us, it is to prove our faith, that is, to show its strength and to make it stronger. And as we grow in faith, God’s name is hallowed (the first petition). For example, 1 Peter 1:6-7 says, “you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (see also Genesis 22, 1 Cor. 3:10ff)

Paul explains further in Romans 8:18-21: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” In other words, God subjected creation to futility—difficulty in child-bearing and crop-harvesting, and enmity in relationships—for the purpose of revealing his glory when creation is finally delivered.

So what are we praying for in the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer? Well, one thing we’re NOT praying for is to be free of all temptations. We know this because God tempts us to strengthen us, and God desires us to have strong faith. Plus, 1 Cor. 10:13 says, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” Note that God “will also provide the way out,” implying that the temptation itself originated with God.

Luther likens this prayer to that of a person caught on a stormy sea; there’s nothing we can do about the waves, but we can pray that we don’t drown. He also refers to the saying of the Desert Fathers, “You can’t keep the birds from flying around your head, but you can keep them from building nests in your hair.” So, Luther says, this petition is a prayer for strength during temptation, not exemption from temptation.

Calvin places the emphasis of the last petition upon the second half: “but deliver us from evil.” This, he says, is the actual substance of the petition. So he paraphrase it: “Deliver us from evil, that we may not be led into temptation.”

These interpretations have to do with the issue of temptation as we commonly talk about it. But there is another sense in which the petition may be translated which expands our understanding and may well be more in keeping with what Jesus actually had in mind. Recall that “temptations” and “trials” are the same word. In Matthew 26:41, when Jesus is praying on the night of his arrest, he finds the disciples incapable of staying awake with him. He exhorts them to, “watch and pray that you not enter temptation,” or “enter the time of trial.” The greatest trial of his life was about to commence, and he desires his disciples to avoid it, and thus to pray to avoid it.

This greatest trial is the final showdown between God and the devil, between good and evil. Jesus had come to proclaim, bring, and manifest God’s kingdom. What was about to happen in his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection is the great trial between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. If we follow the international and ecumenical church by praying “save us from the time of trial” vs. “lead us not into temptation,” we actually get both senses: our personal and routine “trials of temptations” and the larger “time of trial.”

In one of the closing scenes from the Gospel of John, the disciple Thomas is said to have doubted. I think Thomas fell to a temptation, namely the temptation to exalt one’s personal experience above the testimony of others when determining truth. Thomas basically rejected what others were saying about Christ and said instead, “I have to have my OWN experience or it isn’t true.”

But what the testimonies say IS true, despite our unbelief: Christ is risen from the dead, the kingdom of God has come, the great trial has been overcome in Christ. But even though Thomas falls to temptation, Jesus appears to him and blesses him. And I think John includes this story to remind the rest of us that faith must overcome temptation, and when it does, we will be even more blessed. Thus Jesus affirms the goodness of experience, but calls us to a faith that can operate independently of it. This, we might say, is the “Twin” aspect of Thomas’ story (“Twin” being Thomas’ nickname in the Bible).

As we bring this series on the Lord’s Prayer to a close, let’s review the relation of this last petition to the other petitions. God’s name is hallowed when we are tried and proven. God’s kingdom is manifest when we overcome temptation. God’s will is accomplished through our obedience. All have bread when we overcome greed, gluttony. Forgiveness becomes increasingly real as our faith matures and we learn to forgive. This is why Jesus tells his disciples that if they forgive others, they are forgiven; but if they do not forgive others, they are not forgiven.

God has answered all our prayers in Christ. Christ has saved us from the Great Trial. And Christ is with us through our Trials of Temptations. This is true even when we doubt, for in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism: “My prayer is much more certainly heard by God than I am persuaded in my heart that I desire such things from him.”(Q 129). And Luther can assure us, “The efficacy of prayer consists in our learning also to say ‘Amen’ to it—that is, not to doubt that our prayer is surely heard and will be answered.”

“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • What are some of your “trials of temptations”? Do they originate in the flesh, world, or the devil? How might praying the Lord’s Prayer, petition by petition, help you overcome these temptations?
  • How does reframing temptation as a test from God to prove and strengthen your faith change the way you think about and respond to temptation in your life?
  • Do you agree that praying “save us from the time of trial” is more helpful than the traditional “lead us not into temptation”? Why or why not?
  • In what ways are you like Thomas, seeking personal experience to verify what others say? Are you willing to embrace a truth in faith that you might not yet have experienced? What might this truth entail?
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