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God’s Word for You

1 Corinthians 5:3-5 Hand him over to Satan

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, January 3, 2023

3 Even though I am absent in the body, I am present in spirit. And just as if I was present, I have already passed judgment on the one who did this. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present,  5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

The Corinthians weren’t filled with grief over this man’s incestual sin, but Paul was. They had not judged the man, but Paul had. They were present, but he wasn’t, but just as if he were there, he had judged this case.

Paul talks about being with them in spirit, an expression we still use today. He says this again in Colossians 2:5 (“I am with you in spirit”). This might be an echo of the prophet Elisha’s words when he said to his servant, “Wasn’t my spirit (lit. “heart”) with you when the man got down from his chariot?” (2 Kings 5:26).

By talking this way, Paul lets the congregation know that he himself has thought about this, prayed about it, and come to a decision. Unlike his letter to Philemon, in which he leaves a matter of accepting a returned runaway slave as a brother in Christ to the Christian owner (see Philemon 1:10-17), Paul shares what he thinks should be done with this sinner among the Corinthians. The difference between the two cases is considerable. Philemon and his repentant runaway slave were both Christian men, and the matter of the man’s freedom or continuing service was entirely up to Paul’s friend Philemon. Here in Corinth, an unrepentant man was living in a sin and needed to be called to repentance through law and gospel.

The woman is not addressed. This is not because a woman was not called out for her sins in their time or culture. Quite the reverse! Grandmother Eve was called out for her sin exactly as Adam had been (Genesis 3:13). In the same way, Sarah was rebuked for her doubt (Genesis 18:13-15). Women were accountable for their sins under the Law of Moses: “Do not allow a sorceress to live” (Exodus 22:18) ; “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the LORD must be destroyed” (Exodus 22:20), and most significantly: “If a man sleeps with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:11). From Paul’s silence about the woman, we should consider that the woman was not a Christian, and perhaps not a Jew, either, or he would have spoken about her and perhaps to her. But as it is, Paul says nothing, and the Corinthians were left to deal with her or not, according to their own judgment.

Paul’s words are such that I think they would have been read or mentioned at the meeting the church was to call together to discuss and judge the case. Paul tells them to hand the man over to Satan. By this, he doesn’t mean that they were to give Satan any special power (or attention), nor was this simply a warning such as, “You know you’re under the devil’s power, don’t you?” They were actually delivering this sinning man over to the devil by expelling him from their midst. Toppe explains: “So that Satan may have his way with him and may reduce him to shame and utter wretchedness, perhaps because of the excess into which Satan leads the man will lead to disgust and revulsion” (p. 53-54).

This is how God treats sin. When a sinner refuses to repent, God will hand him over to the terrible consequences of his sin. Paul describes sexually transmitted diseases as punishment for sexual immorality: “The men abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” (Romans 1:26). So the Corinthians were to cast this man into the hands of the devil so that whatever wretchedness might follow would show him just how far away from God he had fallen, and then perhaps to turn back and ask for forgiveness.

For this sinning, incestuous man, the full punishment of the law, humanly speaking, needed to fall on his shoulders. This included the realization that there is no salvation apart from Christ (John 14:6). Salvation comes through the sole and only object of our faith: Jesus Christ our Lord, crucified for our sins and risen from the dead. A mere knowledge of Christ is not faith, for the sinning man had this knowledge. The man must not be led to imagine that Christ “in us” is the path to salvation. The only time that the phrase “Christ in you” (or anything like it) is used in the Scriptures is in Paul’s proclamation that the glorious riches of the mystery (that is, “the word of God in its fullness”) is “Christ in you” (Colossians 1:27), but this is the apostle acknowledging that the Colossian Christians had heard the complete message of the gospel and had put their faith in Christ through it.

The sinning man must be led to condemn his own sin, acknowledge that his action was reprehensible and put aside this relationship the way the sinning exiles did when they were led to repentance by the preaching of Ezra. One hundred and eleven cases were investigated and examined over the course of three months, but only four men objected (see Ezra 10:15 and 10:18-44). Those 111 men put away their wives, presented offerings to the temple, and we presume, followed the prescribed law. This meant that they continued to support the women that they divorced but no longer lived or slept with them, and did not remarry (see Deuteronomy 24:1; 2 Samuel 20:3).

Whatever the sin, a sinner who repents can be forgiven. Apart from unbelief (which rejects the gospel), all sin is covered by the blood of Christ. When we are led to trust in Christ, his victory on the cross is our victory. It is a gift from the Holy Spirit, given through faith in our hearts.

“Turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). “A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). When we turn away from sin and put our faith in Jesus, we have all of the blessings of life, salvation, the resurrection, and a place with God forever in heaven.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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