The text to which I’d like to turn our attention this evening is found in what we know as Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, chapter 5.
It’s good to be back in the pulpit, and good to be back in Paul’s wonderfully rich and theological letter to a troubled church in Corinth. As you will recall, Corinth was a Greek city that was known for its sexual reputation. It had temples to pagan gods that involved sensual rituals and temple prostitutes, all under the guise of being religious ceremonies.
And in our text tonight Paul transitions from addressing the pride of the church over their leaders and their wisdom and their gifts, to addressing the pride of the church over their sin, specifically their sin of toleration, toleration of sexual sin.
In every age the church will be tempted to adopt the moral standards of the world. And be assured that toleration of those standards will eventually lead to their acceptance. And acceptance of the world’s standards will eventually lead to prideful endorsement of those standards. And that’s where the Corinthian church had found itself.
But we’re not without hope. God in his word exposes the sin of the church and the sins of any believer, not because He is mean and wants to shame someone, but because he is a loving father who reveals our sin to us so that we can be re-directed back to Him, our only source of good and joy.
Let’s read together Paul’s words to the Corinthian church, and to us, in the first 5 verses of 1 Corinthians chapter 5. Hear the word of our Lord:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Lord willing, over the course of this sermon, we will see from our text in Chapter 5, 2 main points from Paul: we’ll see the problem, and we will see Paul’s prescription. A Problem, and Paul’s prescription.
Let’s look together at the first two verses again carefully and see the problem that Paul is addressing. Paul says,
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.
The problem on the surface seems to be sexual immorality, which is how several bible translations translate the Greek word Porneia, the word from which we get our word “pornography.” Porneiarefers to any sinful sexual activity, either adultery or fornication or any other sexual deviancy or unnatural sexual relations.
Jesus uses the same word in Matthew 19 when he says that Divorce is unacceptable, except on the grounds of sexual immorality, on the grounds of Porneia. Or again in Matthew 15 when he says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, and sexual immorality” which is the word Porneia again.
In the Corinthian church, a member was engaging in clear sexual sin, and Paul’s language in verse 1 makes is very clear that this is publicly known. It’s no secret, both within the church and without.
And what exactly is the sexual sin? Paul charges the man of “having his father’s wife,” which means his step-mother.
The language sounds strange, “his Father’s wife,” but it is the same words used in Leviticus 18:8. Turn with me for a moment to Leviticus 18. Leviticus 18, in the third book of the Torah, of the Law of Israel. I wouldn’t ordinarily chase down this text, but I think it is important, especially given where our culture is heading down the road of sexual deviancy, and I want us to be clear.
Leviticus 18, starting in verse 6. The word of the Lord says,
“6 “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord. 7 vYou shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness. 8 wYou shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.”
This is where Paul is getting his language of “Father’s wife,” which is from a different Hebrew word than the one used for mother in verse 7, and that’s how we know that Paul is talking about a man being with his step-mother in Corinth.
The Leviticus passage continues to list very explicitly all the unnatural and unlawful sexual relationship that are abhorrent to God. But before we leave this passage, skip down to verse 24 and let’s see what God says about the effects of these kinds of sins:
“24 k“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, lfor by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the mland became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land nvomited out its inhabitants. 26 But oyou shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the pnative or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29 For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people.”
The effects of these sins are that the nation and the land is defiled, and the transgressors are to be cut off from among the people. File that away, we will come back to those principles.
Let’s go back to 1 Corinthians 5. So, Paul has put his finger on a sinner in a particularly unnatural, incestuous relationship. We don’t know what happened to the man’s father: did he die? or did he divorce the woman? We don’t know specifics. Either way it doesn’t matter. The incestuous relationship is unnatural.
So unnatural, that Paul points out that even the pagans wouldn’t tolerate it. The Roman orator Cicero spoke of a similarly incestuous situation as “unbelievable…unheard of except for this single instance.” God’s people were aware of a particularly egregious and unnatural sexual sin, so egregious that even pagans wouldn’t tolerate it. And what were they doing about it? Nothing.
In fact, Paul exposes that the problem was even bigger than just a man’s sin. The problem in the Corinthian church had expanded to a church-wide level: they were proud. They were proud. That’s what he reveals in verse 2, to their shame:
2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?
Rather than being grieved, they were boasting. The same sins Paul has blasted in the first few chapters, pride and boasting and arrogance, those same sins have reared their head again, but this time in relation not to their leaders, not to their maturity and their gifts, but in relation to their “toleration.” They were tolerant of terrible sexual sin, and they were proud of it. Proud of how accepting, proud of how tolerant, proud of how not judgmental they were.
My goodness, Paul sounds like he is writing to a 21st century church.
Paul doesn’t tell us specifics of their toleration. Were the Corinthians distracted by more pressing matters in their church, like the leadership and doctrine, and therefore unable to get to this issue of sexual sin? I don’t think that’s the case.
Were they convinced that the incestuous relationship was prudent for financial reasons? Like the man’s father dies, and in order to keep the inheritance in the family he married the step-mother, rather than letting her marry another man and take the family’s wealth to that new husband? We don’t know.
What I think is more likely, is that the church had pridefully confused their minds into thinking that TOLERATING sin is loving to the SINNER. That’s what the world wants us to think. That’s what our flesh wants us to think. And that’s what Satan wants us to think. That to love the sinner we must tolerate the sin.
But as we see in the text, and as we’ve seen throughout church history, and as we’ve seen in churches in America in just the last 10 years, when you capitulate to tolerating sin, you will sooner or later drift into arrogantly celebrating it. It’s no surprise that we have congregations in this nation who celebrated pride month last month.
The Corinthians were proud. Proud of their toleration, arrogant of their own brand of worldly wisdom, when instead Paul tells them that they should have been grieved. They should have been mourning.
- Grief that Satan has gotten a foothold in someone’s life.
- Grief over the evil one’s victory in this case.
- Grief that a fellow member is in a position of disgrace.
- Grief that a brother has been overwhelmed by sin.
- Grief that God and his gospel are defamed by the pagans around us.
- Grief that little ones among the body might be led astray by this terrible example.
- Grief that the purity of Christ’s bride has been defiled.
Brothers and sisters, when a church doesn’t mourn sin, especially sin in its own ranks, it is dangling over the cliff of destruction.
Why do I say that? Because the bible makes clear that God takes the purity of his people VERY seriously. That’s why I pointed out the end of the passage in Leviticus 18. The People of God and the nation as a whole were defiled and made unclean by the presence of tolerated sin, and the appropriate course of action was to REMOVE the transgressor, lest the whole nation be defiled.
God takes the purity of his church seriously. Our heavenly father cares for us and our purity. And why wouldn’t he? Earthly fathers feel the same way about our children’s welfare, wouldn’t our heavenly father do the same? If your child was infected with a terrible disease, wouldn’t you do what was necessary to quarantine the infection and cut off what was necessary in order to save the child’s life?
Listen for a moment as I read from a passage in the Old Testament. Lamentations 2 speaks about a similar situation where sin is not handled appropriately, where sin is left to persist among God’s people, and mentions a major problem that results. The false prophets fail to expose sin, and God’s name is defamed among the nations.
Lamentations 2, starting in verse 14,
“Your prophets have seen for you
false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
that are false and misleading.
[And what is the result?]
15 All who pass along the way
clap their hands at you;
they hiss and wag their heads
at the daughter of Jerusalem:
“Is this the city that was called
the perfection of beauty,
the joy of all the earth?”
The false prophets failed to expose the sin in the midst of Jerusalem, and the result is that all the passersby defamed the name of God, defamed the city of God, and mocked God’s people because of it. God cares about the purity of his people, for their own sake, and for the sake of HIS name.
But he doesn’t just do this in the Old Testament. Turn with me to Revelation chapter 2. Revelation chapter 2 contains the words of Christ himself to the various churches in the region, and of note for us are the words to the church in Thyatira, in verse 18:
“18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
The church at Thyatira was tolerating sexual immorality and refusing to repent of it. They failed to acknowledge the sin in their midst, and were pridefully tolerating that temptress, lady Jezebel, and Christ was promising terrible punishment unless they repented. God cares about the purity of his church.
Christians must not tolerate sin in the church of God any more than we would in our own lives. That’s why Paul writes in Ephesians 5:11-12, “11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.” Rather, we strive for vs 3 of that passage, “But sexual immorality and all impurity … must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” Purity is what we’re called to as a church.
Are we a church that strives for purity, that is marked by purity, that is known for purity? Or are we a church that can let our arrogance blind us? Are we a church that pridefully can tolerate sin? We need to constantly check ourselves on this. But perhaps the more pertinent question for each of us is not, “Am I tolerating someone else’s impurity,” but rather, “am I tolerating impurity in myself?”
Are you someone marked by purity? Or has the temptation for sexual sin gotten the better of you? Are you keeping a safe distance from anything remotely tempting or distracting? Or has the lady Jezebel seduced you into her ways, and into her bed?
Brothers and sisters, keep in front of you the words of Christ to the church in Thyatira, and be warned that God will discipline his people for their pride and stubbornness. He is a loving and faithful father that will not let his children continue to run down the path of sin toward their own destruction.
If you see within you a toleration of sexual sin, a toying with that which is clearly condemned in God’s word, then I urge you to hear the word of God that calls you to repent. Hear that you are condemned, guilty, and defiled.
But also hear that God’s word offers more than just condemnation. God’s word also offers hope to the guilty and defiled. God’s word makes clear that there is another who has come, but he has remained perfectly pure. He has come and avoided any defilement, by remaining perfectly chaste. And that one who has come is Jesus Christ. Christ is perfectly pure and holy, and so holy that he can take away your defilement and impurity, just as he touched a leprous man and made him clean.
And even more than that, he can take away not only your defilement and impurity, but also your guilt. Every time you indulged in sexual sin you compounded the guilty sentence upon your head, but when you come to Christ by faith, your guilty sentence is removed. You go from being branded a transgressor and sentenced with death, to being marked out as holy and adopted into God’s own family. Forgiveness and cleansing can only come to those who come to faith in Christ and believe that he is the Son of God sent to take away the sins of the world.
Won’t you come to Christ and believe? Come to him and be cleansed and forgiven, and you too can experience the fullness of joy that God intends for his people to experience, both individually and corporately.
And for us believers, as we continue to reflect upon Christ’s love for us, reflect upon how we’ve been cleansed by his blood and forgiven because he died in our place, let that stir our hearts with love toward him, and stir us to fight even harder against the temptations of sexual sin. Let our love toward Christ produce within us steadfast resolve to cut off sin at the first hint of it, and lay aside the weight of sexual immorality that clings so closely.
God intends for people to see our good works, which includes our purity, and glorify our father in heaven. May we be ever growing in that area, as we seek to have purity, both individually and as a body.
Next, we’ve seen the first point, which was the problem of pridefully tolerating sexual sin, and moving into the second point, let’s now look at Paul’s prescription. Paul’s prescription for the problem.
The church had terrible sin in their midst, but instead of being grieved by it, the Corinthians were not sorrowful, they were proud. And the absence of godly grief led to the absence of action.
Something had to happen. No faithful parent would allow a terrible disease to run through their children without isolating the infection. That’s why God, through Paul, tells the Corinthian church to carve out the infection. We see this in the end of verse 2:
Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
Similar to what we read in Leviticus, the whole body stands to be defiled if the impure element were to remain. So, to prevent a systemic infection, the gangrenous element must be removed.
Paul then moves into some language that has been quite perplexing for commentators. He says,
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.
I won’t wade into all the technical debates on this verse. Instead I’ll just summarize that I think Paul is saying that as his letter is read to the church in Corinth, as was the standard practice, the Spirit will speak through is inspired, apostolic instruction, just as if he were present with them in person.
And what was that instruction, specifically? Verses 4 and 5:
4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Paul uses some interesting language here to describe the effects and goal of excommunication, of removing from membership a professing believer in unrepentant sin.
Paul says that the church is to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh. Let’s break that down. To deliver this man to Satan is language that illustrates the spiritual dimensions of what is happening when you remove someone from membership. You’re removing them from the spiritual protection and benefits that are afforded by being a part of a spiritual community. You’re barred from the spiritual benefits of the Lords supper, of prayer, and of fellowship.
And rather than enjoying these spiritual benefits, you’re instead transferred to the world, the domain of darkness, over which Satan and his principalities and powers hold sway. You’re being dropped, as it were, behind enemy lines, inside of enemy occupied territory, and you’re there with no backup, no weapons, no defenses, and no fellow troops. That’s the terrifying reality of being handed over to Satan.
And then Paul says the intended effect of being handed over to Satan is “the destruction of the flesh.” Some have argued that Paul is urging a physical destruction, similar to the punishment of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5. I don’t think that’s the case for several reasons, one of which is that if Paul was intending to mean the physical death of this man, then I don’t think he’d need to mention in verse 11 for them to not associate with someone who retains the name of brother while remaining in their sin.
Rather, when Paul says the destruction of his flesh, I believe he is using typical Pauline language to describe the sinful aspects of our person. Paul often uses language of “flesh” and “spirit” to describe our nature from two different angles. “‘Spirit’” means the whole person as oriented TOWARDS God; ‘flesh’ means the whole person as oriented AWAY from God. The ‘destruction’ of one’s sinful nature would thus belong to the same kind of imagery as ‘crucifying’ it” like Paul says in Galatians 5:24.
This is similar to what Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:20, when he sent out Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme, Paul says.
So, what does all that mean? I think Paul is urging the Corinthian believers to immediately remove from their membership a man engaging in egregious and public sexual sin for the good of the congregation AND the good of the individual. And that last bit is important. The purpose of discipline is for the good of the individual and for the good of the congregation.
For the congregation, sin must be removed before it spreads. And for the individual, discipline is for their good as well. We want them to know the enormity of their sin and the terrible fate that will result if they continue on their path. Toleration of the sin may hurry him down the road to hell, but discipline might be God’s means of saving this deceived man or woman for heaven.
I see Paul’s language about the destruction of the flesh in a similar way to the Prodigal Son. When the prodigal son had spent all his money, lost all his so-called friends, and had nothing to eat but the slop in the pig sty, then he realized his true poverty and the enormity of his foolishness and ran back to His father.
That’s what we hope will happen when we have to excommunicate someone. We hope that turning them over to Satan will be used for their good. That they will see that they’ve traded their glorious spiritual robes for fleshly rags; that they’ve traded a seat at the table of the Lord for a bucket of slop in the world’s pig sty; and that they’ll see that it’s better to be a servant in God’s house, than a ruler over all the world.
And we prayerfully plead with God that He would use the destruction of their flesh to bring the sinner to the end of themselves, SO THAT they would repent and be restored. That’s the desired goal of all this: restoration. We want them to see the weight of their sin, and turn back from destruction. We want them to repent and turn from their immorality. We want them to reject impurity and return again to the only one who can purify them. We want them to, as Paul says, have their Spirit saved on the Day of the Lord, which is the final day of judgment.
Now, let me close tonight with a few observations from the text, observations from which I believe you may draw application.
Observation #1: It is worth noting that Paul’s command for immediate excommunication bypasses the normal, private steps of discipline found in Matthew 18. This isn’t a contradiction nor an inconsistency in the discipline process, but rather a clear acknowledgment of Paul’s apostolic authority, and an acknowledgement that there may be some situations of egregious and public sin of such a degree that immediate action is required in order to protect the name of Christ and public purity of the church. Thankfully, such cases are rare in scripture and rare in church life, but we need to have a category for such discipline cases.
Observation #2: Private sin has corporate impact. This passage should remind us of the corporate impact that even private sin has. We need to remember that even the sins that I commit in the privacy of my own bedroom have impact upon the purity of the bride of Christ. And that makes sense because, as I discussed in my last sermon, we are MEMBERS OF ONE ANOTHER, so if part of the body is defiled, the rest of the body will be impacted. So, let that drive us to Christ, to be quick to confess to him our private sin, to repent, and to strive for purity, even in our private lives.
Observation #3: It struck me that this passage reveals the genuine privilege it is to be a part of the church’s corporate life in the Spirit. Churches and church members today tend to have such a low view of church membership that if we were cut off from a church it wouldn’t really be a big deal. We could just pack up and move on, maybe joining another church or maybe not. We could take church or leave it.
But this passage reveals just how anemic that view of church life really is. It should be spiritually tragic, even traumatic, to be cut off from the people of God because of our own sin. Paul’s language of being removed from God’s people, of being cut off, of having our flesh destroyed by Satan, all that should awaken us to the tremendous privilege it is to be a part of the spiritual life of a local body of Christ.
We have access to God’s means of grace, like preaching, prayer, fellowship, and the Lord’s supper. We have the protection afforded by having spiritual shepherds and leaders, of having brothers and sisters who pray for our safety, of having others around us who care for our spiritual well-being and our flourishing in the faith. We see what privileges God has opened up for us to have, and we likewise see how degraded a view of the church and of church membership is so common today. Do you regularly thank God that he has made you to be part of a local expression of his body? Are you thankful to be a member of a church body, and not left alone in the world to single-handedly fight against Satan? We should be thankful for the privilege of being a part of the church’s corporate life in the Spirit.
If you have not yet come to Christ, then know that you don’t have access to these privileges. You may be sitting in a pew regularly, but you’re not partaking of the privileges and the protections and graces afforded to you by faith in Him. Come to Christ tonight by faith, and you too can have these privileges.
And if you have come to Christ, then cherish these privileges, including the one we’re about to taste together. We have the privilege of partaking in the Lord’s supper together, which is spiritual communion with Christ, by Faith, and spiritual nourishment for us as we journey together as a body.
v For ver. 7–16, see ch. 20:11–21
w Deut. 22:30; 27:20; 1 Cor. 5:1; [Gen. 49:4; Amos 2:7]
k ver. 30; [Matt. 15:19, 20; Mark 7:21–23]
l ch. 20:23; [Deut. 18:12]
m Num. 35:34; Jer. 2:7; Ezek. 36:17
n ch. 20:22
o See ver. 4, 5
p See ch. 16:29
 Cluent. 6, (Loeb, 1:237), quoted in Fee, 1 Corinthians, NICNT (2014), 220 n. 34.
 Fee, 233.