By Murray J. Harris
What does “lead us not into temptation” mean in the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:13?
In this excerpt adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament, Murray J. Harris explores this part of the Lord’s Prayer—and how 1 Corinthians 10:13 can help us unpack what Jesus was saying.
Although the Greek of this sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is unambiguous, its meaning is certainly elusive and has exercised the minds of Christians for centuries. The key word is peirasmos, which may mean “temptation” in the sense of “enticement to do wrong.” But against this possible meaning, James 1:13 states a truth that admits of no exceptions: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘I am being tempted by God.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one.” Consequently, it is impossible for God actively to lead people into wrongdoing; he cannot contradict his nature.
This prompts the interpreter to consider the other, more common meaning of peirasmos—“trial,” “test,” or “testing.” Thus the NAB translates the verse, “Do not subject us to the final test,” the trials or tribulations destined to occur at the end of the age (compare Rev 3:10). But the difficulty here is that the noun peirasmos lacks the definite article, which would be expected if the meaning were “the (well-known) final test.”
Attention is therefore sometimes given to the preceding verb, “bring/lead into,” which is sometimes given a permissive force: “Do not allow us to be brought into trial,” or “Don’t let us yield to temptation” (NLT). But it is linguistically doubtful that “Do not bring us” can be construed as meaning “Do not let us be brought/yield.”
The testing of faith can be beneficial, as Peter makes clear in his first letter. In the midst of various kinds of trials, the proven genuineness of his readers’ faith would result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ was revealed (1 Pet 1:6–7). On the other hand, tested faith can result in the loss of faith, whether temporarily or permanently. Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you (plural) as wheat. But I have prayed for you (singular) that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31–32a).
In Peter’s case, this failing of faith was to prove temporary, for Jesus added, “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32b). As Peter himself later said, “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly (such as Noah and Lot) from trials” (2 Pet 2:9)—not from the trials themselves, but from the hazards that accompany trials, such as the danger of losing faith.
How does 1 Corinthians 10:13 connect?
There is reason to believe that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is Paul’s commentary on this sixth petition in the Lord’s Prayer. He writes to the Corinthian believers:
No testing has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. But God is faithful, and he will not allow you to be tested beyond what you can bear. But when you are tested, he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.
That is, Paul is saying that God will not bring us into testing that we cannot endure. But then we might ask, “Why make the petition, if we trust God’s judgment about the intensity of the testing?” Perhaps the petition is prompted by a humble and commendable self-distrust, since we are fully aware of the possibility of losing faith when immersed in severe testing (see Luke 22:31–32, cited above). Peter showed the opposite of this self-distrust after Jesus predicted that all his disciples would fall away: “For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Mark 14:27, citing Zech 13:7). Peter’s brazen and prideful response was, “Even if all become deserters, I will not. . . . Even if I must die with you, I will never disown you” (Mark 14:29, 31).
This use of 1 Corinthians 10:13 to understand the petition is reflected in the fifth-century Eastern Liturgy of St. James (cited by F. F. Bruce). After the celebrant recites the Lord’s Prayer, he continues, “Yes, O Lord our God, lead us not into temptation which we are not able to bear, but with the temptation grant also the way out, so that we may be able to remain steadfast.”
In the second part of the sixth petition we are encouraged to pray, “but deliver us from the evil one.” The “but” introduces a contrast between divine testing (v. 13a) and divine deliverance (v. 13b). If apo tou ponērou meant simply “from evil,” we might have expected “from every kind of evil” (as in 2 Tim 4:18). And ho ponēros refers to “the evil one” in Matthew 13:19, 38, and probably 5:37, as also in John 17:15. Satan is particularly active when Christians are being tested, using his wiles and stratagems in an effort to bring about their downfall.
We conclude that this sixth petition in the Lord’s Prayer is a request for the avoidance of severe testing that would result in the failing of faith and dishonor to the name of God. It should be translated not simply “Do not bring us to hard testing” (GNT), but rather “Do not lead us into unbearable testing.”
So what does “lead us not into temptation” mean? It means asking God to keep our faith strong and avoiding the kind of temptation that ends in turning our backs on God and dishonoring him.
This post is adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament by Murray J. Harris, available now from Lexham Press.
- The Lord’s Prayer Collection (10 vols.)
- The Lord’s Prayer by Jeff Lucas
- The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father by Wesley Hill