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Q. Please explain what the apostle Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 5:5.

A. The verse reads, “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Paul was referring to the immoral man in the church at Corinth, mentioned in the previous verses. The carnal body of Corinthian believers was not only unoffended by this sordid affair, but actually gloried in it. So Paul came down hard on the congregation and said in verse 5 that they needed to perform this certain drastic action.

The phrase “deliver such a one to Satan” can mean one of two things, or both. First, it indicates that the man needed to be excommunicated, or thrown out, from the local church to avoid his further influence. Second, John wrote, “We know that we [believers, body of Christ] are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19). The idea is that this immoral man was to be separated from the local body of believers (they were not to keep company with him or eat with him—1 Corinthians 5:9, 11) unless he repented and left his ungodly lifestyle. To be outside the safety and fellowship of believers in Christ is to make oneself vulnerable to the Evil One, who is the prince and power of this world and who can give people a real thrashing in lots of ways. Verse 5 might be the essence of verse 13: “Therefore put away from yourselves the evil person.”

On another occasion, Paul wrote, “Concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:19, 20). This passage would point out that apostles had a special power to turn extreme troublemakers and evil, immoral, unrepentant sinners directly over to Satan as a form of divine chastening (see also Matthew 16:19, John 20:23, Acts 5:1–12, and 13:6–12). Since apostleship lasted only until the canon of Scripture was completed and only until the last apostle (apostles were eyewitnesses of the Lord Jesus) left this earth in death, that special divine power would no longer be in use today, though today the Lord certainly answers prayer concerning people who cause trouble and get in the way of God and His servants.

The next phrase in verse 5 is, “For the destruction of the flesh.” This, too, can mean one of two things, or both. It might mean God would send or allow the discipline of physical suffering so that the man living in sin might repent. It could also mean that the man would incur the danger of the “sin leading to death” (God’s taking a sinning believer out of this life before his or her time; 1 John 5:16), or incur a sickness that would eventually take his life if he failed to repent in the meantime.

The third phrase is, “That his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” This is key, as it shows that restoration to fellowship and spirituality was the aim of the actions to be taken toward the man. The phrase “for the destruction of the flesh” has led some people to believe the death penalty is necessitated for this type of sinning individual, but how could that be? A dead person cannot be restored to fellowship in the body. Paul’s words about Hymenaeus and Alexander showed they were to be disciplined, not so they would die, but so they would “learn not to blaspheme.” Also, some have concluded that “for the destruction of the flesh” means delivering a person to Hell or to loss of salvation, but again, “that his spirit may be saved” would refute this idea.

This article appeared in the “Q & A” column of the Baptist Bulletin by Norman A. Olson. 

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