It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 1 Corinthians 5:1
We note that Paul comes on rather abruptly here. He was obviously shocked, and he makes no bones about it. The problem was open and flagrant sexual sin right in the middle of God’s congregation. It was public knowledge. The Greek word here is porneia. In Old Testament times this word was confined to things like prostitution, but in the New Testament the term was broadened out to include all types of sexual misconduct. 1 In this case, the problem was incest. A man had taken his father’s wife and was having sex with her.
Scholars are pretty well agreed that the woman was not this man’s actual mother but was likely his stepmother. The woman was probably much younger than the father. There is no agreement among scholars as to whether or not the father was still alive. There is also no agreement as to whether or not the woman was divorced. Paul gives little attention to the wife and quite a number of commentators feel this is because she was a pagan and not a believer. 2
We have spoken before of how Corinth was a sexual sinkhole in the ancient world. Much of this was due to the temple of Aphrodite (goddess of love, beauty, pleasure) in their midst. The worship in this, and in most pagan temples, promoted all types of sexual degradation. Yet, even in the pagan world incest was generally not accepted. Bruce sums up the Greek and Roman feelings toward this sin saying: “The traditional Greek reprobation of this particular kind of union finds expression in Euripides’ Hippolytus: for the conventional Roman attitude to a similar relationship, cf. Cicero’s Pro Cluentio 14, where a marriage between son-in-law and mother-in-law is denounced as ‘incredible and, apart from this one instance, un-heard of.’” 3 Roman society particularly had high regard for the father’s position and valued the stability of the family. Keener says, “parent-child incest was universally abhorred throughout the Roman world…” 4
Of course, this particular sin was treated very seriously in the Old Testament and among the Jewish people. Incest was strictly forbidden by Jewish law (Lev. 18:8; Deut. 22:27-30; 27:20). There was the tragic story of Reuben (Gen 35:22), who had an incestuous relationship with his father’s concubine. Incest was a sin that carried a curse (Deut. 27:20), as was clearly seen in the life of Reuben (Gen. 49:3-4).
We really can’t imagine the task Paul and others had as they ministered in the pagan world. They no doubt did a wonderful job for the time allotted and the people they had to work with. In Judaism most people knew what could and could not be done. In the Gentile world all that had to be taught. More than likely most Gentile Christians had little access to the Old Testament. We remember that it was these Gentile Christians at Corinth who were getting drunk at the Lord’s supper (11:20-22). No doubt some of their spiritual understanding was much like a block of Swiss cheese, all full of holes.
“And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? (5:2). We have already seen that the Corinthians had a pride problem (cf. 4:10, 18). Now we see how that pride problem has worked itself out in the acceptance of serious sexual sin in their midst. We must leave it to our imagination as to how the Corinthian pride sought to justify this evil situation. Perhaps they were proud of their great tolerance in accepting it. Today in our postmodern society there is what is being called “the new tolerance.” The new tolerance accepts everything and passes judgment on nothing. Dr. James Kennedy says of it: “Tolerance is the last virtue of a depraved society.” G. K. Chesterton adds that “Tolerance is a virtue of a man without convictions.” Josh McDowell & Bob Hostetler say of it, “Those who have been deceived by the new tolerance naturally view a person of conviction with suspicion or contempt.” 5
McDowell and Hoestler add: “Tolerance seeks to be inoffensive; love takes risks. Tolerance is indifferent; love is active. Tolerance costs nothing; love costs everything.” 6 Sometimes tolerance can be a good thing, but often in our society it is not. Someone once remarked concerning open-mindedness, that we can be so open minded that our brains will fall out. Perhaps the Corinthians had found themselves in just this fix.
Also, according to much Greek thinking, reality was only in the spiritual world and the flesh amounted to nothing. It is possible that these ideas influenced the Corinthians to lightly regard what they were doing in the flesh, even when it was outrageously bad.
The Corinthians may have justified this great sin because of the freedom and liberty they had in Christ. Like some Christians today, they may have fancied themselves as free from the restraints of the law, and they may have felt that now, love was the only thing that mattered. Whatever their thinking was, it had clearly gotten them into serious trouble.
Guzik comments: “As bad as the sin itself was, Paul was more concerned that the Corinthian Christians seemed to take the sin lightly.” 7 Paul was shocked and he demanded that the Corinthians also be shocked, even to the point that they go into mourning over this affair. The word for mourning here is the Greek word pentheō, a word used of those who mourned for the dead. 8
The apostle, being a Jew and being familiar with Jewish practices, immediately demands that the offender be put out of the church. Of course, in Hebrew times sexual offenders were often stoned to death. In New Testament times the punishment was to be excommunication from the church. 9
“For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this” (5:3). Some today might look at this passage and think that Paul was involved in some sort of astral projection. However, Keener points out that letter writers in this era were known to express their intimate concern for their readers by saying things like although “they were absent in body,” they were nevertheless “present in spirit or mind” with their readers. He therefore sees this as a statement of intimacy rather than a statement of some metaphysical presence.10
To Paul, the situation was crystal clear and he was able to pass immediate judgment upon it. We see his apostolic authority being expressed here as he strongly insists that the church do something about the problem.
“So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (5:4-5). We see once again confirmed here that when Christians assemble, the power of the Lord Jesus is present as he promised (Mt. 18:18-20). Paul is also with them in spirit. We probably cannot rule out the possibility that Paul is using the spiritual gift of discernment of spirits here, which he will speak of later (12:10). The apostles may have possessed such gifts in an extraordinary measure. 11
Paul now advises that this man be turned over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that he ultimately can be saved. This statement has provoked much commentary among scholars. We wonder exactly what Paul meant by saying this. It certainly did not mean that the man was to be turned over to death, because they fully expected his repentance. We do see some instances in the Bible where similar things were mentioned and happened. Job was in a sense turned over to Satan to be tested in the flesh, but God would not allow his life to be taken (Job 1:6 – 2:10). Elymas was struck with blindness because he resisted the ministry of Paul (Acts 13:8-11). On a later occasion, we see Paul saying similar things about Hymenaeus and Alexander, who were also handed to Satan until they learned not to blaspheme (1Tim. 1:20).
The Greek word paradidōmi is used here and in the Gospels for turning a person over to the authorities for proper punishment (cf. Matt. 4:12; 5:25; 10:4,17; 18:34; 20:19; 26:15; 27:2). It is used in Romans for turning a person over to spiritual powers (cf. Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). Utley thinks this idea fits the context best.12 Paul was in a sense lending his apostolic authority to the church so that they could deal with the problem. We must remember though that average Christians have been given the power to bind and loose as we see in Matthew 18:18.
There are probably two ideas present here. One is the idea of excommunication or casting out of the assembly. However, in this early age this word did not bear the significance that it would later have.13 The second idea seems to be that the person should be turned loose to be chastised by Satan so that he could come to repentance. 14
We should understand that believers in the First Century had a unique view of the world and the heavens. They believed that to be outside the church was to be in the sphere of Satan (Col. 1:13; 1 Jn. 5:19; Eph. 2:12). A person placed outside the realm of the church would lose his or her Christian privileges.15 As was true of Job, this man’s flesh could be attacked mercilessly but his life would be spared. We cannot dismiss the spiritual binding authority of Paul and also of the church here. This cannot be seen as merely turning the person back over to a sinful life. That usually has an adverse effect, rather than bringing a person to repentance.
In the first century people had a much greater investment in the church than many do today. To be a Christian and a member of the local church was to make an abrupt turn away from the pagan world with all its interests and relationships. It was extremely costly in many ways. Therefore, if a person was cast back into the world and was removed from all church relationships, their situation could be dire.
Today the church situation, particularly in the west, is much different. People have little investment in the church. They can quickly leave one church and join another assembly. They can play the blame game, pretending to be a victim, and their story likely will be accepted by the new church and pastor. 16 Obviously, church discipline, First Century style, will have to be administered judiciously in such an environment as this.
We can see from this episode that public sins must be judged and condemned publicly.17 Other sins can be dealt with in the Matthew 18 style where we first go to the person and bring up the offending matter. If they hear us we have won that person. If they do not we can take with us other brothers or sisters in hopes the matter can be reconciled. If there is no progress, we can then take the matter before the whole church.
The hope in all these cases is that the person can be corrected and restored to the full fellowship of the church. Some commentators feel that this erring man was finally restored and they take this information from 2 Corinthians 2:6-7 and 7:9-12. Others disagree and feel that there is no certainty that the man eventually repented. 18
GETTING RID OF THE OLD LEAVEN
Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 1 Corinthians 5:6
Paul now takes his picture from the baking of bread and the use of yeast for leavening. In Bible times yeast was not something bought at the store. Bread was leavened by keeping back a portion of the previous leavened batch and mixing it with the new batch. Occasionally, my wife makes a batch of sourdough bread and she keeps on hand the old mixture, taking portions as needed for her baking. It is amazing how the yeast works through the whole batch to make it rise. With few exceptions yeast in the Bible refers to some principle of evil. 19
The point Paul is making is that sin is like leaven. It works through the whole batch or through the whole church (Gal. 5:9). Calvin remarks “that a whole multitude is infected by the contagion of a single individual.” 20 It is much like the old adage that one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel. We are careful with our fruit to quickly remove the rotten apple or the rotten grape or any other piece of contaminated fruit.
We note that the Corinthians were puffed up about their sin. That is exactly what most sin does. It puffs us up in some way. When we think of pride, we think of how it puffs people up to think they are more important than they are. When we are angry we get puffed up. In the Hebrew language the word for anger is af. Interestingly, the word for nose is also af. When we get angry our nostrils puff up by flaring out.
Perhaps the Corinthians were glorying in their great tolerance, but their glorying was having a detrimental effect. Chrysostom remarks, “…by taking pride in this man they have hindered him from repenting.” 21
“Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch— as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (5:7). Apparently there is a problem in keeping yeast too long. Pett says, “There would indeed come a time when the leaven had become too acidic and was unhealthy, thus the wise necessity for getting rid of all leaven once a year and starting again.”22 Without the old leavening agent the bread would be a new unleavened batch.
The picture here is that of the Jewish Passover celebration (Exod. 12:8-20). In preparation for their deliverance from Egypt the Hebrew slaves were commanded to slay the Passover lamb, to place the blood on the doorposts of their houses and to remain inside, eating their roasted lambs, while God passed over Egypt in judgment. In further preparation for this sacred time they were to get rid of all leavened items in their houses and eat only unleavened bread. In Exodus 12:17, we learn that this is a lasting ordinance that is to be celebrated through all the centuries.
Today, Jewish people still celebrate the Passover on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. Over the last few decades many Christians have joined them in celebrating the Passover. For us, it is really a celebration of our salvation in Jesus the Messiah. We remember how John the Baptist spoke when he saw Jesus approaching. He said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29). By the gospel we know today that through the blood of Jesus, our Passover Lamb, our many sins are forgiven. The persistent message of Passover and the following Feast of Unleavened Bread, is that we must get sin (the old leaven) out of our lives.
All the Hebrews were commanded to cleanse their houses of all leaven as the celebration approached. Still today Jewish people do the same thing. The night before the Passover the father makes a last search for leaven (bedikat hametz). This search is traditionally done with a candle and the last bit of leaven is removed with a feather. It is placed in a bag and then burned outside the house on the following morning.23 Of course, the removal of leavened items is a huge problem for bakeries and food stores. In Israel the bakeries generally close for a week-long holiday and the grocery stores rope off all the sections where leavened items are displayed. Only unleavened bread or matzah is offered for sale. Cafes and Restaurants for the whole week of Unleavened Bread following Passover offer such strange delicacies as matzah pizza. Many visiting Americans nearly go crazy trying to find a slice of bread or a yeast roll in Israel at this time.
The Passover seder has a very strong emphasis on the matzah or unleavened bread. It is a picture of the unleavened life of Christ and the unleavened life that he wishes to bring forth in each of us. The clear message is that we have to get the sin out of our lives and keep it out. Now through Jesus we have become an unleavened loaf. The other great emphasis of Passover is on the lamb and we know today that Jesus is the Lamb of God (Isa. 53:7; Jn. 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:6, 12). From the Fourth Gospel we know that Jesus died at the exact time that the Passover lambs were being offered (Jn. 18:28; 19:14, 31). 24
“Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (5:8). Here we are all challenged to keep the feast. The Greek is hōste heortazōmen, and it is present active subjunctive with the meaning of keeping on keeping the feast, or as Lightfoot says we are to keep it as a perpetual feast.25 How are we to keep it? We are to keep it without malice and wickedness. The word for wickedness (ponērias) is so close to the word “fornication” in the Greek that some ancient manuscripts actually have this translation.26
This is to be the Christian life. It is to be a perpetual unleavened celebration where sin is swept out and righteousness through Christ prevails. We are to be unleavened bread full of sincerity and truth. As J. Vernon McGee, the old radio preacher had it: “Sincerity never saved anyone. But if you are a child of God, you will be sincere.” 27
DEALING WITH SINFUL PEOPLE
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 1 Corinthians 5:9-10
Obviously, Paul had written the Corinthians an earlier letter which is now lost to us. Quite simply, the Holy Spirit did not see fit to use this earlier letter as a guide for the church through the ages.28 Perhaps the letter was a little confusing, as we can see from the remarks here. The Corinthians had concluded from it that they were not to associate with unsaved people. Such an understanding would have been tragic. How in the world could we ever win any of the people of this world if we didn’t associate with them?
The early medieval church chose such a course as this. That was partly what the monastic movement was all about.29 Many of the church’s leaders and educated folk tried to shut themselves off from the world. The Dark Ages of the church and of civilization ensued.
The apostle knew if the Corinthians separated themselves from sinners they would have to find themselves a new planet to live on. Jesus says of believers that they are the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). The saints of God are here on earth to help heal the sick, to help purify the polluted, to add a pleasant flavor to the otherwise bland fare of earth.
“But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people” (5:11). Macknight has put it well saying: “It is an everlasting rule that a conscientious Christian should choose, as far as he can, the company, intercourse, and familiarity of good men, and such as fear God; and avoid, as far as his necessary affairs will permit, the conversation and fellowship of such as Paul here describes.” 30
The apostle is particularly concerned that we do not associate with such people if they still insist on calling themselves “Christians.” Back in the 60s and 70s the liberal media shamed the church for saying that there was such a thing as “guilt by association.” Now we can see a little better through the fog that they cast upon us. Common sense and experience tell us that there is such a thing as guilt by association. If an otherwise innocent person happens to be in the car with thieves or drug dealers, that person will likely be arrested and sentenced right along with them. Paul wants our associations to be holy and pure.
He tells us that we should not even eat with a so-called Christian if that person persists in being “sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.” Guzik says here: “… In the culture of that day (and in many cultures today), eating with someone is an expression of friendship and partnership. In some cultures, if a man eats at your table, you are bound to regard him as a friend and a partner.” 31 Bruce says: “you should accord no man the status or privileges of a brother in Christ if he is guilty of fornication, or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard or robber.” 32
“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (5:12). In the early years of the church it was considered as a branch of Judaism. Keener says, “Rome allowed local Jewish communities to judge Jewish offenders of Jewish laws….Paul expects the Christians of his day to follow the same model, correcting the behavior of erring fellow Christians.” 33 It was the duty of Christians to purge their own ranks and to cast out the obvious offenders. Morris says, “Paul’s main point is that the church must not tolerate the presence of evil in its midst, and this is clearly of permanent relevance.” 34
“God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you.’” (5:13). Bruce sees this as an almost exact quotation from the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 17:7b; 22:24; cf. 13:5. In these instances both idolatry and adultery were purged from the Israelite community by very drastic means. 35 Chrysostom remarks here that Moses would have likely had the man stoned to death, but Paul is thinking only of trying to lead him back to repentance. 36