Read the passage here.
Due to my vacation, it has been a while since we’ve looked at 1 Corinthians (and I’m sorry that I missed the sermons from all of the folks who covered for me). So today, we pick up where we left off, resuming our study at chapter 5.
Now because it’s been such a long time, it’s worthwhile reviewing what we’ve previously covered. However, I don’t want to spend too much time on this. So I thought we might just hit some of the highlights – or at least those elements that may help us understand and frame our passage today.
Firstly, a reminder of the characteristics of the city of Corinth, and thus (to some extent) of the members of the church in Corinth. Corinth was a city that displayed a lot of diversity. People came from all over and brought with them their various religions, philosophies, customs, and so on. Similarly, as in most large cities, there was a large discrepancy in wealth, position, and privilege. Again, the church in Corinth likely reflected much of this diversity.
Now it seems that some of this diversity – specifically, some of the philosophy and worldview – has worked itself into the church. Again, we won’t review this in detail. But at least in the early chapters of the letter, Paul seems to be addressing those in the church who have “gone beyond” his apostolic teaching, being enraptured instead by various ideas, beliefs, and values from the world.
And so, Paul’s concern is that the Corinthians return to, or keep to, a true gospel: A gospel that has its foundation solely and completely on the person, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this gospel that Paul preaches, and this alone.
Our passage today picks up after Paul’s argument about his apostolic authority, although that is probably an over-simplification. As we will see, Paul is still very much concerned with his authority, inasmuch as that authority is about keeping the Corinthians to the true gospel. So without saying more than that, let’s take a look at 1 Corinthians chapter 5.
Now as we can see, Paul is dealing with some pretty serious issues here. 5:1 tells us that Paul is concerned with an issue of sexual immorality: Specifically, a man is sleeping with his father’s wife. Now there are a couple of things that might be worth noting about this situation.
Firstly, and just for clarity’s sake, what we are likely talking about is not a man who is sleeping with his own mother (i.e. Father’s wife), but rather his father’s second wife (or whatever number – i.e. his step-mother). It also seems probable that the “father” is no longer around – the way that Paul phrases this suggests that the man in question is in an on-going relationship with the step-mother.
Regardless, and recognizing that it’s not really necessary to delve into the details, Paul notes that this is a kind of behaviour that is abhorrent even to the pagans (“even the pagans do not tolerate [it])”. The implication is that, though the pagans do not tolerate it, the church in Corinth does.
We’ll come back to this idea. For now, let’s continue in the passage. And Paul’s accusation is that, in their so-called “tolerance” the Corinthian church has not done anything about this man. Specifically, in v. 2 and v. 5 Paul recommends what sounds like casting this person out of the community (that is, excommunication).
There are further considerations here, including vv. 3&4 which discuss Paul’s role and relationship with the congregation. I don’t want to get hung up there. But v. 5 is worth considering a little more: Paul says, “5 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.” Again, without examining this in depth, we might read this as something like, “Put this man out of the community of the Spirit so that the things of the flesh may be destroyed and he may return to the community of the spirit and be saved.” In other words, Paul is not making a demand for punishment but a recommendation for restoration.
Now that is, more or less, what Paul has to say about the issue of the sinning man. But I want to draw your attention to something in the text which should be very obvious but can be easily missed. And that is, Paul is not talking to the man. Paul’s purpose in this part of the letter does not seem to be to address this particular man’s particular sexual immorality.
Make no mistake, Paul condemns it and he affirms a biblical understanding of sex and sexuality (we have to assume – he doesn’t spell it out here). But he’s not writing because of the sin; he’s writing because of the Corinthians’ attitude and response to it (or lack thereof).
V. 5:1-2 again says,
1 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. 2 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?1 Corinthians 5: 1-2
And he continues in v. 6:
6 Your boasting is not good…1 Corinthians 5: 6
Now we may not remember but this language of pride and boasting picks up on something that Paul was addressing in the immediately preceding verses. In 4:6-7, Paul says:
6 Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. 7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?1 Corinthians 4: 6-7
And in 4:18,
18 Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you.1 Corinthians 4: 18
Now without re-tracing too much territory, in the previous section (up to and including chapter 4), Paul has been concerned with asserting his own apostolic authority because there are those in the church who feel like they have gone beyond Paul. Paul was fine for the basic stuff, they may have thought, but these other Corinthians have become more sophisticated, more insightful, more worldly. They have found more charismatic leaders, leaders with more wisdom, with more power. They see the world, they understand the gospel, in a way that Paul simply cannot. So they have left Paul behind.
And Paul says to them, what he preaches is the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and there is no other gospel, there is no other truth. They may think they are following a “better gospel,” but they are merely falling into the ways of the world.
So with our passage today, we might understand that Paul is using this situation of the man committing incest as a kind of case study of the Corinthians’ pride. They have gone so far beyond the gospel, we might say, that they are oblivious to this obviously serious situation.
And perhaps this is the reason for Paul’s exhortation in vv. 9-11, that the church should have nothing to do with the sexually immoral, the greedy, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards, or swindlers – not that the persons must be avoided, but the perspectives or worldviews that makes such actions possible. And note that Paul is not talking about such “immoral people” outside the church – he is talking about those “immoral people” who claim to be a brother or sister. Perhaps Paul’s concern is those who would come into the church and pervert, shift, or corrupt the gospel.
So at this point, I want to try to sum up the main ideas or items that we’ve touched on in this passage.
Firstly, I don’t want to give the impression that Paul doesn’t take seriously the sin of the man in question or that we shouldn’t. In fact, Paul’s point is that the Corinthians aren’t taking this situation seriously, and they must.
Which brings us to the second thing. That is, Paul is not speaking to the man, he is speaking to the church. The occasion for Paul’s writing (these specific verses) is not the sin of the man, but the church’s attitude towards the sin of the man. Again, Paul is legitimately concerned about this instance of sin, but his reason for bringing it up (presumably, from among a plethora of possible options), is to demonstrate how far the community has fallen.
And that brings us to the third thing – which in fact brings us back to what Paul has been addressing for the previous four chapters. And that is, what is the nature of the gospel. Specifically, in the previous chapters, Paul has been asking the question (or perhaps making the judgement), what are you allowing to shape your understanding of the gospel? Is it shaped by the person, the life and death of Jesus Christ (as Paul preaches)? Or have we become enamored by some other thing, some other wisdom, some other power?
And if this is what Paul has been writing about in the previous chapters, we might say that what he’s talking about here (and in subsequent chapters), has to do with how do we know what does the gospel life look like? Who or what do we allow to inform us of what the saved life looks like? And perhaps most to the point, what does it really mean to be a kingdom community?
When we discussed the previous chapter (ch. 4) prior to our break, one of the things we explored was how difficult it is to examine ourselves, to be critical of our own thinking, and to be humble and open to correction. We’re seeing that difficulty in our passage today. Paul is assessing that the congregation at Corinth, for likely a variety of reasons, is unable to recognize their own need for repentance.
And as we’ve discussed before, repentance can mean asking forgiveness for and forsaking specific sins. But what it may also mean is re-orienting our worldview, our ideas and assumptions about how the world actually is, in light of the revelation of Jesus and the truth of the gospel. In other words, repentance means (at least in part) recognizing that there is a God, there is a King, and I am not Him; repentance means recognizing that all the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; and repentance means giving up all of those things that our sinful selves are so desperate to hold on to.
But as we’ve explored, we human beings are woefully poor at recognizing when we need to repent. We are exceedingly poor in recognizing how and where we fall short of the mark. And we are frequently blind in acknowledging when we are following something or someone other than Jesus.
But I also wonder if the problem is that we tend to think of repentance as something we have to do rather than a characteristic of who we are. Perhaps we tend to think of repentance as something we did in the past (in order to get into the “club”), something that we may have to do in the future, but in the present is something merely abstract or irrelevant.
But if sin, at its root is desiring to be gods for ourselves (knowing for ourselves what is right and wrong), isn’t repentance at its heart acknowledging and proclaiming that there is only one God. And that is something that we don’t do periodically, but a way we orient our lives and our very identities.
And we should recognize that this is precisely what the church in Corinth was not doing. Rather than situating themselves under the Lordship of Jesus, they rested in the confidence that they had it all figured out. Rather than humbling themselves because of the sacrifice of Jesus, they took pride in the belief that they had already arrived.
Now I suppose I should have a better explanation or description of, “what then should I do?” I wish I could give a step-by-step guide as to how to ensure we are in line with the word of God, being obedient to the Spirit of God. But again, perhaps repentance is less about something that we do than about who we are (or what kind of people we are).
What I would say, however, is this. I’m not suggesting that we should be perpetually in a state of self-doubt or self-condemnation. I’m not suggesting that we should always assume the worst of ourselves. And more so, I’m not suggesting that we should doubt the sufficiency of Jesus’ work on the cross.
What I am trying to suggest is that the kingdom life, on this side of eternity, is a perpetual striving a continuous seeking. Or perhaps it is about always desiring. As kingdom people, recognizing that we are in the in-between time, in a fallen and broken world, we are constantly called towards and desiring the more. The more that is found only in and through Jesus.
Maybe this too is repentance. That we will not be satisfied with the promises and explanations of the world. And so we examine ourselves – we allow the Spirit to reveal our own hearts. That we may leave behind all that is of this world and take hold fully of the promise we find in Him.