Throughout the New Testament, “family language” is used to describe the relationship of believers to God and Jesus. The Lord’s prayer instructs us to address God as “our Father” (Matt 6:9). Hebrews 2:11–12 reveals that Jesus considers believers his own siblings. Paul says Christians comprise “the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). How is it, then, that Paul tells Christians living in Corinth that believers unrepentantly living in sin should not only be put out of the Church (1 Cor 5:9–13) but also “delivered to Satan” (1 Cor 5:5)?
If a person is given over to Satan, does that mean they then belong to Satan? Does the person lose salvation and have to be re-converted to Christ? Nowhere in the passage does Paul suggest that the believer in question becomes an unbeliever or is without hope of salvation.
After demanding the unrepentant believer be delivered to Satan, Paul notes the goal of such a decision is “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). What does Paul mean by “destruction of the flesh?” Paul often uses the word “flesh” (σάρξ, sarx) to refer to the physical body, but sometimes he uses it to refer to self-sufficiency, worldliness, or manner of life. Since someone expelled from a church is not going to die as a result, the second possibility is best. Paul is insisting that the unrepentant person be dismissed from the church to live in his or her sin and endure the consequences of their behavior.
Paul’s explanation in verse six helps answer what he means by “destruction of the flesh,” but it does not explain what the phrase “delivered to Satan” means. For that, we need to look to the Old Testament. The Israelites viewed their land as holy ground and the territory of the non-Israelite nations as controlled by demonic gods. Israel was holy ground because that was where the presence of God resided. The opposite was true everywhere else.
This perspective shifted after the formation of the Church. God’s presence was no longer in the Jerusalem temple, but in the temple which is the body of believers (1 Cor 3:16–17). Where a church was, the Lord was present. Therefore, the church was considered “holy ground”; anywhere outside the church was the demonic realm. Hence Paul’s thinking: to be expelled from the church—the local manifestation of the place God lives—was to be thrust into the realm of Satan.
Dr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.
This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.
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