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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 5

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-13

Chapter 5

SIN AND COMPLACENCY ( 1 Corinthians 5:1-8 )

5:1-8 It is actually reported that there is unchastity among you, and unchastity so monstrous that it does not even exist among the heathen, unchastity the consequence of which is that a certain man has formed a union with his father's wife; and you have regarded the matter with inflated self-complacency and you have not--as you should have--regarded it with a grief so bitter that it would take steps to see that the perpetrator of this deed should be removed from your midst. Now I, absent in the body but present in the spirit, have already come to a decision as if I were present. Regarding the man who has perpetrated this deed, it is my judgment that when you have assembled together in the name of the Lord and when my spirit is with you, backed by the power of the Lord Jesus, you should hand over this man who has acted in such a way to Satan until his sinful lusts shall be eliminated from his body so that his spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus. Your glorying is no fine thing. Do you not know that a little evil influence can corrupt a whole society? Cleanse out the old evil influence that you may make a clean fresh start, even as you are cleansed from it; for our Passover sacrifice has been made--I mean Christ; so that we feast not on the old corrupt things nor with the evil influence of wickedness but with the pure bread of sincerity and truth.

Paul is dealing with what, for him, was an ever recurring problem. In sexual matters the heathen did not know the meaning of chastity. They took their pleasure when and where they wanted it. It was so hard for the Christian Church to escape the infection. They were like a little island surrounded on every side by a sea of paganism; they had come so newly into Christianity; it was so difficult to unlearn the practices which generations of loose-living had made part of their lives; and yet if the Church was to be kept pure they must say a final good-bye to the old heathen ways. In the Church at Corinth a specially shocking case had arisen. A man had formed an illicit association with his own step-mother, a thing which would revolt even a heathen and which was explicitly forbidden by the Jewish law ( Leviticus 18:8). The phrasing of the charge may suggest that this woman was already divorced from her husband. She herself must have been a heathen, for Paul does not seek to deal with her at all so that she must have been outside the jurisdiction of the Church.

Shocked as he was at the sin, Paul was even more shocked by the attitude of the Corinthian Church to the sinner. They had complacently accepted the situation and done nothing about it when they should have been grief-stricken. The word Paul uses for the grief they should have shown (penthein, G3996) is the word that is used for mourning for the dead. An easy-going attitude to sin is always dangerous. It has been said that our one security against sin lies in our being shocked at it. Carlyle said that men must see the infinite beauty of holiness and the infinite damnability of sin. When we cease to take a serious view of sin we are in a perilous position. It is not a question of being critical and condemnatory; it is a question of being wounded and shocked. It was sin that crucified Jesus Christ; it was to free men from sin that he died. No Christian man can take an easy-going view of it.

Paul's verdict is that the man must be dealt with. In a vivid phrase he says that he must be handed over to Satan. He means that he must be excommunicated. The world was looked upon as the domain of Satan ( John 12:31; John 16:11; Acts 26:18; Colossians 1:13) just as the Church was the domain of God. Send this man back to Satan's world to which he belongs, is Paul's verdict. But we have to note that even a punishment as serious as that was not vindictive. It was in order to humiliate the man, to bring about the taming and the eradication of his lusts so that in the end his spirit should be saved. It was discipline, not exercised solely to punish, but rather to awaken; and was a verdict to be carried out, not with cold, sadistic cruelty, but rather in sorrow as for one who had died. Always at the back of punishment and discipline in the early Church there is the conviction that they must seek not to break but to make the man who has sinned.

Paul goes on to some very practical advice. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 have been modernised in the translation. In the original they literally run: "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, even as you are unleavened. For our Passover sacrifice has been sacrificed--I mean Christ, so that we feast not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of wickedness and evil, but on the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." Here we have a picture expressed in Jewish terms. With very few exceptions, leaven stands in Jewish literature for an evil influence. It was dough which had been kept over from a previous baking and which, in the keeping, had fermented. The Jews identified fermentation with putrefaction; and so leaven stood for a corrupting influence.

Now the Passover bread was unleavened ( Exodus 12:15 ff; Exodus 13:7). More than that, on the day before the Passover Feast the law laid it down that the Jew must light a candle and search his house ceremonially for leaven, and that every last bit must be cast out (compare the picture of God's search in Zephaniah 1:12). (We may note in the by going that the date of this search was 14th April and that in the search has been seen the origin of spring-cleaning!). Paul takes that picture. He says our sacrifice has been sacrificed, even Christ; it is his sacrifice which has delivered us from sin, as God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. Therefore, he goes on, the last remnant of evil must be cleared out of your lives. If you let an evil influence into the Church, it can corrupt the whole society, as the leaven permeates the whole lump of dough.

Here again we have a great practical truth. Discipline has sometimes to be exercised for the sake of the Church. To shut our eyes to offences is not always a kind thing to do; it may be damaging. A poison must be eliminated before it spreads; a weed must be plucked out before it pollutes the whole ground. Here we have a whole principle of discipline. Discipline should never be exercised for the satisfaction of the person who exercises it, but always for the mending of the person who has sinned and for the sake of the Church. Discipline must never be vengeful; it must always be curative and prophylactic.

THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD ( 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 )

5:9-13 In my letter I wrote to you not to associate with fornicators. You cannot altogether avoid associating with the fornicators of this world, or with those who are greedy and grasping for this world's goods, or with idolaters, for, in that case, you would have to withdraw entirely from the world. But, as things now are, I write to you not to associate or to eat with anyone who bears the name of brother, if he is a fornicator, or a greedy person, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunken person, or a thief. What business have I to judge those who are outside the Church? Is it not those who are within the Church that you judge, while God judges those who are outside? Put away the wicked man from among you.

It appears that Paul had already written a letter to the Corinthians in which he had urged them to avoid the society of all evil men. He had meant that to apply only to members of the Church; he had meant that wicked men must be disciplined by being ejected from the society of the Church until they mended their ways. But some at least of the Corinthians had taken this to be an absolute prohibition, and, of course, such a prohibition could be observed only if they withdrew themselves from the world altogether. In a place like Corinth it would have been impossible to carry on a normal life at all without associating in ordinary everyday affairs with those whose lives the Church would utterly condemn.

But Paul never meant that; he would never have recommended a kind of Christianity which withdrew from the world; to him it was something that had to be lived out in the world. "God," as the old saint said to John Wesley, "knows nothing of solitary religion." And Paul would have agreed with that.

It is very interesting to see the three sins which he chooses as typical of the world; he names three classes of people.

(i) There are the fornicators, those guilty of lax morality. Christianity alone can guarantee purity. The root cause of sexual immorality is a wrong view of men. In the end it views men as beasts.

It declares that the passions and instincts which they share with the beasts must be shamelessly gratified and regards the other person merely as an instrument through which that gratification may be obtained. Now Christianity regards man as a child of God, and, just because of that, as a creature who lives in the world but who always looks beyond it, a person who will not dictate his life by purely physical needs and desires, one who has a body but also a spirit. If men regarded themselves and others as the sons and daughters of God, moral laxity would automatically be banished from life.

(ii) There are those who are greedy for this world's goods. Once again only Christianity can banish that spirit. If we judge things by purely material standards, there is no reason why we should not dedicate our lives to the task of getting. But Christianity introduces a spirit which looks outwards and not inwards. It makes love the highest value in life and service the greatest honour. When the love of God is in a man's heart, he will find his joy not in getting but in giving.

(iii) There are the idolaters. Ancient idolatry is paralleled in modern superstition. There can have been few ages so interested in amulets and charms and luck-bringers, in astrologers and horoscopes, as this. The reason is that it is a basic rule of life that a man must worship something. Unless he worships the true God he will worship the gods of luck. Whenever religion grows weak, superstition grows strong.

It is to be noted that these three basic sins are representative of the three directions in which a man sins.

(a) Fornication is a sin against a man's own self. By falling to it he has reduced himself to the level of an animal; he has sinned against the light that is in him and the highest that he knows. He has allowed his lower nature to defeat his higher and made himself less than a man.

(b) Greediness is a sin against our neighbours and our fellow men. It regards human beings as persons to be exploited rather than as brothers to be helped. It forgets that the only proof that we do love God must be the fact that we love our neighbours as ourselves.

(c) Idolatry is a sin against God. It allows things to usurp God's place. It is the failure to give God the first and only place in life.

It is Paul's principle that we are not to judge those outside the Church. "Those outside" was a Jewish phrase used to describe people outside the Chosen People. We must leave their judgment to God who alone knows the hearts of men. But the man within the Church has special privileges and therefore special responsibilities; he is a man who has taken an oath to Christ and can therefore be called in question for how he keeps it.

So Paul comes to an end with the definite command, "Put away the wicked man from amongst you." That is a quotation from Deuteronomy 17:7 and Deuteronomy 24:7. There are times when a cancer must be cut out; there are times when drastic measures must be taken to avoid infection. It is not the desire to hurt or the wish to show his power that moves Paul; it is the pastor's desire to protect his infant Church from the ever-threatening infection of the world.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 5". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dsb/1-corinthians-5.html. 1956-1959.
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