Last Sunday, I preached a sermon on the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Nearly all modern translations rightly understand that, contrary to the traditional language of the King James, Jesus is referring not to evil in general, but to “the evil one,” the devil. The ESV follows the KJV but indicates in a footnote the alternate interpretation.
The expression in Greek (tō ponērō) appears in two other places in the Sermon on the Mount. In the first (Matthew 5:37), everyone agrees that it refers to the devil. In the second, just two verses later (Matthew 5:39: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”), all translations assume tō ponērō refers to an “evil person.”
In his commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner disagrees that Jesus is only talking about evil people, offering the following insight:
I hear in the words “the evil one” [in Matthew 5:39] both (1) the human evil one and (2) the spiritual Evil One, in that order; both the possessed and the possessor, the enemy person and the enemy power. The significance of the double meaning is this: the evil ones whom we encounter in daily life are “possessed” by the Evil One; so, while we are rightly agitated by their wrong, have a heart—they are not entirely “themselves.” There is an Evil One behind every evil. In interpersonal relations we rightly “get even with” the devil by not trying to get even with evil people—that is the greatest paradox of our Command.
After citing Church Father Chrysostom, who also endorses his interpretation, Bruner writes:
While the Evil One works in the evil one, “possesses,” as we say, nevertheless the possession does not absolve the possessed of responsibility. But the possession does reconfigure one’s perception of the other person (and of oneself!). For our profoundest war, as the apostle reminds us, is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and so ultimately against the cosmic Evil One himself.[†]
So when someone sins against you, can it rightly be said that that person is under the influence of the Evil One (“possessed” seems a bit strong)? If so, then we have to also accept that when we sin against someone, we are under Satan’s influence. Paul himself hints at this when he describes the plight of unredeemed human nature in Romans 7: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
Again, as Bruner says, this doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our sins, but reminding ourselves of Satan’s influence over us helps us summon the pity or compassion that we need to forgive others (and ourselves).
† Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 250.