Exposition of 1 Corinthians 5:4-8, Live as you really are!

1 Corinthians 5:4-8

4 So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 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.

6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The first two verses (v. 4-5) of our lesson have challenged many interpreters. Verse 4 speaks of the assembled church with whom Paul is spiritually present along with the power of our Lord Jesus. Note carefully that while Paul orders the expulsion of the man guilty of incest, it is the entire church that must carry out that action. Remember that in 1 Cor. 3:16-17, Paul said: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. The church’s toleration of blatant incest — along with their spiritual complacency — is destroying the church in Corinth!

The most convincing analysis of 1 Cor. 5:5 arises from demonstrating that Paul, drawing on his familiarity with the Old Testament prophets, uses a literary structure with certain verses being parallel to others. If, for example, we could show an A-B-A literary structure was present, this would mean that the two verses labeled with the letter A were similar and thus could be used to clarify each other. In our case, such a pattern does exist[1] and 1 Cor. 5:2b is parallel to 1 Cor. 5:5a. Lets put those two verses together and see what we learn.

1 Cor. 5:2b = put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this

1 Cor. 5:5a = hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh

What does the comparison of these two verses tell us? Many have puzzled over the meaning of 1 Cor. 5:5a, wondering what hand . . . over to Satan might mean. The Greek verb for hand over has an ominous history; it is used in the Gospels for handing over Jesus for trial by the Jews and later Pontius Pilate, so it means here to give into the custody of Satan. Similar language occurs in 1 Tim. 1:20 in relation to two men guilty of blasphemy.

Anthony Thiselton further explains, “Consigning to Satan means putting him outside the sphere of God’s protection within the church, and leaving him exposed to the satanic forces of evil in hope that the experience would cause him to repent and return to the fellowship of the church.”[2] The last part of that quotation might seem confusing to those who thought “the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5a) meant physical death, but the interpretation affirmed here is that the word destruction has metaphorical force.

For that matter, “flesh” is also metaphorical. Gordon Fee explains, “Flesh means the whole person as oriented away from God.”[3]David Garland similarly says that “flesh is the sin-bent self characterized by self-sufficiency that wages war against God.”[4]

How do we know that “destruction” does not mean death? Consider the purpose stated for putting the man out of the church: so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5:5b). Thiselton says, “What is to be destroyed is the self-glorying or self-satisfaction of the offended and perhaps also of the community.”[5] Of course, Paul does attribute some deaths in the Corinthian church to abuse of the communion table (1 Cor. 11:30).

In 1 Cor. 5:6, we begin a section in which Paul uses three metaphors about leaven and Passover. To unravel its meaning requires some background.

Modern Bible translations sometimes fail to distinguish between leaven and yeast. Unlike today, yeast was generally unavailable in the ancient world. C.L. Mitton explains: In ancient times, instead of yeast, a piece of dough [called leaven] was held over from one week’s baking to the next. By then it was fermenting, and so could cause fermentation in the new lot of dough, causing it to rise in the heat.[6] This was handy but not safe because dirt and disease could be passed from week to week. The Jewish feast of Passover broke the leaven cycle and was followed by eating unleavened bread for seven days (Lev. 23:6). That information will help.

Consider the following ABA literary structure in 1 Cor. 5:6-8 (ESV):

6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? OLD LEAVEN A
7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. New Dough
For Christ, our Passover lamb, CHRIST/LAMB B
has been sacrificed. Sacrificed
8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, Feast
not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, OLD LEAVEN A
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Unleavened Bread

(adapted from Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 166).

The sin they are tolerating (leaven) affects everyone (v. 6). They must expel the man committing incest (the old leaven v. 7a) to demonstrate their renewal in Christ and their true identity as a people no longer dominated (unleavened) by the sin of their former lives. Christ died and enabled us to live each day (present tense “celebrate the festival” v. 7b) not as the people we used to be (“the old leaven . . . of malice and evil” v. 8) but as those whose lives show the presence of the Spirit (“the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” v. 8b).

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2011) 163.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 397, quoting J.T. South, Disciplinary Practices in Pauline Texts (New York: Mellen Press, 1992) 43.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 212.

[4] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 175.

[5] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 396.

[6] C.L. Mitton, The Gospel according to St. Mark (London: Epworth, 1957) 61.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!

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