Help from John Owen on Not Entering into Temptation
In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus was praying about his upcoming crucifixion, he told his disciples in Mark 14:38, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” We could say, as John Owen reminds us in Temptation: The Nature and Power of It, there was never a time those words were uttered in a climate more conducive to their obedience.
After all, Jesus had just celebrated the first Lord’s Supper with them. He has been teaching them for hours straight about living in relationship to the Triune God by abiding in Christ, praying to the Father, and receiving the help of the Holy Spirit. He himself had just told them them about the solemnity of the night, as he had revealed that he would be betrayed and delivered over to death. Peter had just affirmed how he would never forsake Jesus even if everyone else did. Jesus had shared with them how sorrowful and heavy his heart was, deeply grieved to the point of death, so they should have been moved emotionally. Jesus was a stone’s throw away praying fervently that he might be delivered from the cup of the crucifixion.
Yet a short period later Jesus found them sleeping on duty and asked, “So you men could not keep watch for me for one hour?” How could they so readily fail? Owen opens up this verse and turns it upon us with this statement:
Indeed it would be an amazing thing to consider that Peter should make so high a promise, and immediately be so remiss and careless in the pursuit of it, but that we find the root of the same treachery abiding and working in our own hearts, and do see the fruit of it brought forth every day, the more noble engagements unto obedience quickly ending in deplorable negligence.”
In the Savior’s presence, at the height of intensity of his ministry, we see the disciples not only falling asleep but failing abysmally. Shortly Peter will swing a sword, deny his Lord three times, and nearly succumb to Satan in despair. The other men flee and hide in fear. Owen at this point shows a great perceptiveness so easily missed by us. As he focuses on Christ's call to watchfulness and asking God that we may not “enter into temptation,” he distinguishes that from simply being tempted. Jesus did not say, “Watch and pray that you may not be tempted,” but that we “may not enter into the temptation.” What’s the difference?
When we pray in the Lord's Prayer “lead us not into temptation”, we are praying in part that temptations will not come our way. But in this world we know that there will be times of temptation and, as Owen points out, special hours of intense activity by the evil one seeking to get us to fall. As the Westminster Larger Catechism Question 195 teaches:
We pray, that God would so overrule the world and all in it, subdue the flesh, and restrain Satan, order all things, bestow and bless all means of grace, and quicken us to watchfulness in the use of them, that we and all his people may by his providence be kept from being tempted to sin; or, if tempted, that by his Spirit we may be powerfully supported and enabled to stand in the hour of temptation.”
The hour of temptation is a season of intense temptation that, if entered into, will be ruinous. David’s life provides both a positive and negative example of this hour of temptation. David had been tempted to murder Nabal when he refused to feed him and his men, but through Abigail’s efforts David stopped and recognized the Lord had kept him from entering this temptation. However, at the height of his power, he spent time contemplating adultery with Bathsheba and then walked right into it. He then faced the awful consequences as it was eventually uncovered.
So beware! When life is most intense, or success is most attainable, or ministry is most dangerous, you are most susceptible to an hour of temptation. Like a watchman on a wall, you must keep alert for an attack. Praying with others that you may stand is not only a good idea, but a Christ-mandated necessity.