6 September 2010

1 Corinthians 5:1-8

"For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgement in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord." (v.3-5)


Paul, the author of this letter, has heard of a Corinthian Christian living in a sexual relationship with his stepmother. We can assume that the father is dead, but the Jewish insistence that such a relationship is incest (see Leviticus 18:8) is also found in most other codes of law.

Whilst we can only guess why the man thought such behaviour was acceptable, it is perhaps related to Paul's bigger concern in verse 2, that the Church takes an 'anything goes' attitude. They are "arrogant" and, in verse 6, "boasting". Paul recently founded this church and regards himself as its senior minister even when working somewhere else, so he has "pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus".

He therefore instructs them formally to exclude the sinful man from their fellowship. 1 Timothy 1:20 also uses "hand over to Satan" as a description of such exclusion, but the Church did not generally adopt such ambiguous language. Paul is unlikely to mean that the man should be literally handed over to let Satan go to work on him, but rather that outside the Church he will be in the realm where Satan is still generally active as God's enemy.

The more difficult thing to understand is how this will destroy the man's flesh and save his spirit. We need to know that Paul sees "flesh" and "spirit" not as parts of our make-up but as different orientations for our life (see Galatians 5:16-25) - what we might refer to as our lower and higher natures. It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to live according to what our higher nature knows to be right, and hopefully the man will be brought to his senses and choose that way in future.

Verses 6 to 8 use the idea of leaven to show that tolerating any immorality quickly contaminates the whole Church. "Yeast" is not the right translation; it was rare in the ancient world, but good (see Matthew 13:33). By contrast, leaven, as in sour-dough recipes, was a portion saved from the previous bread-making and allowed to ferment, with increasing risk of infection as time passed, so the Jewish festival of Unleavened Bread enabled a fresh healthy start to be made once a year. And that is what Paul wants to happen for the Corinthian church.

To Ponder

Sexual immorality is a frequent concern in New Testament letters, not because Christians were hung up over sex, but because adultery, casual sex and aberrant sexual behaviour were so widespread in society. Is today's Church too lax or too firm in its teaching on sex? What do you think its position should be?

How do you think the Church ought to deal with members who pursue lifestyles that are inconsistent with biblical standards? What kinds of behaviour - other than sexual ones - might prompt Paul to issue similar instructions to this passage if he were with us today?

What little things in your life (no bigger than a teaspoon of yeast in the bread mix) might be a threat to your whole spiritual well-being if you do not get rid of them?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

Stephen Mosedale is a recently retired Methodist minister now living in Devon. He is enjoying the freedom that gives, whenever mood and weather dictsate, to walk on Dartmoor, photograph varied and ever-changing seascapes, or grow vegetables in the garden.