The Lord’s Prayer continues to be one of the most beautiful pieces of private and public worship, lifting the hearts and minds of those who recite the words. Yet the prayer that begins on a high note ends with a tone of fear and trepidation implying the reality of humanity’s weak and sinful existence. With two statements, Jesus defines life in the world under the power of evil as dangerous to those who would seek to do the will of God, and he calls them to pray to God for protection.
But what does it mean to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”, as we traditionally do? To answer this question, we need to take each statement separately and define as specifically as possible the important words. From there we can discover the essence and meaning of these declarations for Jesus’ first disciples and for those who seek to follow Jesus today.
First, the meaning of the phrase, “Lead us not into temptation,” is dependent on the definition of the Greek word peirasmos. This word can mean “temptation”, as we normally find in English translations, or it can mean “testing”. If we take the word as primarily indicating temptation, as we usually define the meaning of the English term, then we are presented with a highly individualistic prayer that focuses on our personal struggle with sin. This may indeed be part of what Jesus intends, for he certainly was concerned about personal sin, and his teachings do focus on the morality of his followers.
However, if we take account of the context of the early Christian movement in the Roman Empire, then we might consider the importance of the English word “test” or “trial” to capture the meaning of Jesus’ statement. While the persecution of early Christians was sporadic during the infancy of this Jewish sect, we know that under Nero, Roman Emperor in the late 60s, torture of Christians became an act of the state.
In such an environment, Christians might find it easy to deny their faith in order to save their lives. Thus, while Jesus may indeed be calling his followers to pray to God for protection against the temptation to commit personal immorality, he is certainly encouraging them to pray that God would not lead them into a time of testing where they might recant their faith.
This helps us understand the second statement in this portion of the prayer; “Deliver us from evil.” Some biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus’ reference to evil was not pointing toward evil in general, but more specifically to the one who does evil, “the evil one”.
Although Jesus may have the mythical figure of Satan in mind, “the evil one” could also be a reference to a powerful person who carries out evil; an allusion, perhaps, to the emperor or any other political leader who wields power unjustly and oppressively. The petition to be delivered from the evil one is not simply a call for protection from moral failure; it is also a plea to God to be delivered from the testing brought about by Imperial persecution that could cause the disciple to deny his or her faith.
A second century story might help to illustrate my point. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was put before the proconsul of the Roman Empire and commanded to “revile Christ” or be put to the flames. Polycarp was being tested by the evil one to give up his confession of Christ and his commitment to the gospel in order to save his life. Polycarp refused and was put to death.
But Polycarp’s story, and the context of the early disciples, is vastly different from our own. While there are Christians around the world who face persecution, believers in the West do not face the tests many early Christians faced. So how do Jesus’ words remain important for us without limiting their reference only to our protection from individual moral failure?
While we may not face the power of the evil one who threatens us with bodily harm, we are confronted by an evil and powerful system that tests us to renounce the living of the gospel by our failure to remain true to our confessional practice as Christ’s disciples. By this, I am not saying that we recant our faith intellectually. We may do this. But more tragically, we recant our faith in practice when we fail to love our neighbors and our enemies, when we neglect the poor and oppressed, and when we use abusive power against others. The evil of our culture can test our faith by tempting us from authentic discipleship, and thus we must seek God’s protection from denying our faith through unfaithful living.