Even though I am not with you in person, I am with you in the Spirit. And as though I were there, I have already passed judgment on this man in the name of the Lord Jesus. You must call a meeting of the church. I will be present with you in spirit, and so will the power of our Lord Jesus. Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.
1 Corinthians 5:3–5 NLT
The big idea: When the Spirit is absent, the church ceases to be herself.
Years ago, I saw a first-person monologue where the actor played C. S. Lewis. The show was brilliant. At times, I forgot I was not watching Lewis himself. The actor’s voice, mannerisms, and stories were so realistic, it was as if Clive Staples himself was there. In some sense, Paul hoped that 1 Corinthians would have a similar function.
This letter would not have been passed around and read quietly by individuals. It would have been read aloud before the community. Even more, Paul would have coached the letter-carrier, also the presenter-performer, on how best to perform it. The end goal: to lead the hearers to feel as though Paul himself was there speaking. Although not physically present, he was present in spirit. Via a performer, his epistolary presence was made known.
Some may have blamed Paul for the incestuous man’s deeds. He was culpable in the man’s sin, they argued, because he hadn’t taught them clearly about the Law. They thought he had shunned the Law. Thus, the commands against incest no longer applied. Yet, even in Roman law, incest was forbidden. Paul, a Roman citizen, was disgusted at such actions. Paul laid the foundations for ethics and theology in all the churches he started (see 1 Cor. 3:10–12; 7:17, 19).
The apostle told the assemblers in Corinth to expel the incestuous man and hand him (i.e., his flesh) over to Satan. The “Satan” figure is neither a Roman official nor a person in general (i.e., an accuser). This is Satan, the enemy of God. Such a command, undoubtedly, seems harsh to modern sensitivities. In congregations where political correctness reigns and offending someone runs the risk of losing them (and their money!), this is a bold word.
This man was to be handed over so that the Spirit would be preserved among the believers on the day of the Lord. Paul was looking ahead to Christ’s return but was also concerned with the present. Expelling and handing over is a means of removing sin and preventing division. Where sin is offered a home to dwell, there is no room for the Spirit abide. Paul was not merely writing to preserve the unity of the assembly, but to preserve the presence of the Spirit. The Spirit is the glue that unifies the assembly.
Again, Paul never elevated unity to the status of an idol. Paul wrote so those in Corinth would be aware of the Spirit’s presence. Anything threatening the Spirit’s presence is cause for removal. When the Spirit is absent, the church ceases to be herself. But what causes the Spirit to leave? Blasphemy: attaching that which is vain to that which is holy. The incestuous man mixed vain sexual practices with a holy act (i.e., sex). Others attempted mixing the presence of sin, manifest in the incestuous man, with the presence of the Holy Spirit. But the two simply cannot coexist; a house divided falls (Matt. 12:25). Unless the sinner is expelled, there is no room for the Holy Spirit.
One might respond: We’re all sinners, does that mean there is not room for us? Well, once one becomes a believer, they no longer view themselves as a sinner. “Sin remains,” as Wesley said, “but no longer reigns.” We are called to sanctification. We no longer view ourselves as sinners. We strive to avoid sin. When it happens, we cut it off immediately. When we do, we move on toward maturity and perfection in Christ.
- How is the presence of the Spirit related to the unity of believers?
- Why is the presence of sin, especially blasphemy, a threat to the presence of the Spirit? How?
This is an entry from Michael Halcomb’s Bible study, The First Letter to the Corinthians.
If First Corinthians was a show, it might be slotted into the daytime melodrama genre. This letter has it all: fighting, sex, jealousy, divorce, money, and death. Like many of the apostle’s works, First Corinthians reminds us how dysfunctional the early church was. Two thousand years on, the church’s warts show no sign of fading. In some ways, that’s good news. If Paul held out hope for this stunted community, God’s people today are in no less position to receive his transforming and sanctifying grace.
The difference is that we have the opportunity to learn from their moral failures, not to mention their gross misunderstanding of the gospel. But it’s also a cautionary tale—many of the behaviors celebrated within the church today are patterns the founders of our faith ardently opposed. Thus, we’re left to wonder: Can this epistle offer some guidance on such things? Amid the turmoil present in this letter and paralleled in our present world, there is hope. This study will walk us through a vision of what a life of faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, can look like.
- Sunday school classes
- Weeknight small groups
- Individual Bible study
In these pages you’ll:
- Gain an in-depth understanding of the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians
- See parallels between the ancient church’s struggles and our modern context
- Appreciate how the saving grace of God in Christ transforms us into his holy people
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