1 Corinthians 5:1-13: Incest

Sun, 27/05/2018 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Introduction: A Startling Issue

Well, I wonder what you made of that reading. Paul describes something that would need a movie to be a 15 or 18 certificate. The editors have added a shocking heading to our English Bibles: “Dealing with a case of incest”.

The really shocking thing is that this was happening in a Christian church. Paul makes no effort to hide his disbelief at what has been reported to him.

The challenge for us is that it’s so unexpected, it’s hard to see the relevance of a chapter like this. It may fascinate us, but does it connect with us?

It does. So let’s look at the chapter. We’re going to have to look closely, to see exactly what he’ is and is not saying. And then let’s take home the very powerful lessons for us today.

The Problem

Let’s start with the problem. They’ve got two problems.

First is what someone in the church family is doing. It’s a particular case of what verse 1 calls “sexual immorality”. That refers to any kind of sexual activity outside of the context God created for it: the lifelong marriage between one man and one woman.

But here it’s very specific. Verse 1: “A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.” If he meant “mother”, he’d have said so. So this is his step-mother, and we may assume his father is still alive. A man is sleeping with the same woman as his father.

This was condemned in the ethical laws of the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 27 verse 20 says: “Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his father’s wife, for he dishonour his father’s bed.”

But it was also thoroughly frowned upon in ancient Greece and Rome. As Paul says, this is sexual immorality “of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate”. God disapproves, but so does non-Christian society. The church would be dismissed as disgusting, the kind of place no decent person should be seen. And that’s a problem.

But they have a second problem. Verse 2: “And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning.” The church is actually proud that they have this kind of behaviour amongst their number. They put it on their website and on all their publicity. “We are a tolerant church. We are a non-judgemental church. We are fully inclusive. No matter what your lifestyle, you will be welcome here. Look, we even have a man who sleeps with his stepmother. Come and join us, we’re great!”

Two problems: What the man was doing, and their boasting. Together, they’re massive, and the Corinthians don’t see it.

Why This Needs Solving

Why does this problem need addressing? What’s wrong with what this man was doing? What’s wrong with the Corinthian church doing nothing about it?

The answer to that comes in verses 6 to 8, which speak of yeast, bread dough and lamb. Let me re-read those verses, and then I’ll explain them.

“Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 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. 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.”

Paul is talking about the Passover, the night that God rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

The people were slaves. God wanted them to go free. Pharaoh did not. God changed Pharaoh’s mind. God won the contest. Here’s how.

God told the Israelites that have to leave in a hurry, so they were to eat bread without any yeast in. There wouldn’t be time for the bread to rise. Then God killed the firstborn son in every Egyptian family. He should have killed the firstborn sons of the Israelite families as well. Except that he let them kill a lamb that would stand for them, that would die instead.

And sure enough, just as God had said, the Egyptians wanted them out. And fast.

They were to remember that night forever. Once a year, they were to eat lamb, to remember that God provided a lamb to die in their place. Once a year, they were to eat unleavened bread to remember how fast God had got them out.

Paul says that rescue from Egypt is a symbol of God’s rescue of us. Jesus is the true lamb of God, who died in our place. And yeast symbolises our sin. Just as they had to get rid of yeast, we have to get rid of the sin in our lives. That’s the way we celebrate God’s great rescue.

Here’s why the Corinthians must solve this problem. At the moment, they’ve forgotten the death of Jesus by which God rescued them. And they’re harbouring sin, like yeast that was never cleaned out. Harbouring sin, rather than getting rid of it. And like yeast, the problem will spread until the whole church is affected. Until the whole church is sick. Until the whole church is compromised.

The Solution

So there’s their problem. And there’s why it matters.

What to do to solve it? That’s verses 4 and 5: “So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 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.”

Here’s what there to do, and I warn you we might not like this.

In a nutshell, the church is to expel the man. “Hand over to Satan” means to hand him over to Satan’s realm. That is, outside the church. He’s not welcome to come any more.

Most of the time, we want people to come. We want new people to join us. We want to draw people in. This goes against the grain for us, but in this situation, he needs to go.

The very first ever episode of Tom and Jerry was made in 1940. They hadn’t even come up with the name “Tom” for the cat at that point. In that episode only, the grey cat is named “Jasper”. But after causing the pandemonium for which he is legendary, Tom gets the boot, as the words are pronounced: “O U T – Out!”

Slapstick Hanna Barbera cartoons are not a model of how this is to be done, but it does give the bottom line. “O U T – Out!”

To be sure, there’s a process to follow. Paul says it’s when the whole church is gathered together. This is a public, conscious action, with due process. Jesus taught that the man should have been challenged privately first, and then again with a few other leaders present. But the bottom line is that they have to leave.

They’re now a non-member. And hopefully, it’s not permanent. The end of verse 5: “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” Physically hard, in the hope that he’ll be rescued spiritually.

It’s like when parents have to discipline their children. There is some truth in the saying that it hurts me more than it hurts you. Physical punishment in the old days, withdrawing privileges today, no parent wants to do these things. But we love our children, and we want them to grow up to be healthy and constructive rather than spoiled.

Our biggest need is to be prepared for judgement day. I want to say every week that God’s forgiveness is free. Jesus’ death paid for even the most awful sins you might ever commit. Next time we’ll think through how flagrant immoral living could put us in danger of reaching judgement unprepared. That must not happen for this man in Corinth.

Nobody wants to tell someone that they’re not welcome in church any more. It’s never something to do lightly or casually. But if this is what it takes to lead them to turn away from the wrong they’re doing, and come back to Jesus, then it’s a small price to pay.


So that’s what was going on in Corinth. A man was sleeping with his father’s wife, and they were proud of it. This needed solving. Jesus is their Passover lamb; he’s rescued them from the judgement to come. This is to be celebrated by living transformed lives. So with great care, and with much prayer, this man must be put outside.

This is hard to swallow, and I suspect some of us will really dislike this. Actually, there are two very different reasons why people dislike it.

Some dislike it because their thinking is not in tune with the Bible. This teaching only makes sense once you accept that Jesus is the Son of God. That our biggest problem is our sin. That the only way to heaven is to have turned to him to ask his forgiveness. That Jesus will return as judge. That on that day there are two destinies: heaven and hell.

Without that, this will be just plain offensive.

But there’s another really good reason to dislike this, and that’s because you’re a thoughtful reader of 1 Corinthians. Last week, in chapter 4, we said that we should not play the judge. Doesn’t this chapter totally contradict that?

It’s a good question, and the answer to that will be in the text. Paul wrote both chapters. He put them next to each other. He’s no fool. In his mind, there’s no contradiction. We just need to look more closely to see what he’s saying. Or, more to the point, what he’s not saying.

So, let’s look more closely. Here are 3 things that this chapter is not saying.

He’s not talking about secret, private, debateable sins.

Number 1: He’s not talking about secret, private, debateable sins. He’s not talking about secret, private, debateable sins.

This is something public and scandalous. The ten commandments are broken in ways that everyone knew what was happening. It was beyond dispute.

The same is true of the other sins he lists in verse 9 and verse 11. It’s pretty public rob others, or attend the temples and worship of other religions. So is greed, when it’s not just an attitude in your heart but something you put into effect, trying to grab and wheedle your way you have things that are not yours.

He’s not talking about secret, private, debateable sins.

He’s not talking about judging those who are not Christians.

Number 2: He’s not talking about judging those who are not Christians. He’s not talking about judging those who are not Christians.

This could not be clearer in verses 9 to 11: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”

He's not talking about those outside the church. We’re not looking at someone, and saying that they’re behaviour should fit with how we think they should live.

Instead, he’s talking about those within the church. Those who say they are Christian brothers and sisters. Those who have said publicly that they wish to live for Jesus Christ. We’re measuring them against the standards that they’ve chosen for themselves.

He’s not talking about judging those who are not Christians.

He’s not calling us to condemn someone.

And number 3: He’s not calling us to condemn someone. He’s not calling us to condemn someone.

Let’s remember what the purpose of this is. It’s not to write them off. It’s to win them back. The aim is their restoration, their eternal salvation. We put them outside the church now, for now, physically. We do so in the hope that their soul will be saved then, for eternity.

He’s not calling us to condemn someone.

Not Judgemental

When we notice what he’s not saying, the contradictions with chapter 4 just disappear.

If he’d been asking us to probe into people’s private lives, that would be judgemental. But he’s not. He’s talking about public, undisputable sins.

If he’d been asking us to get society to pull up their socks, and live as we do, that would be judgemental. People are quite free not to be Christians if they don’t want to be. It’s not for us to say they can’t. But he’s talking about professing Christians.

If he’d been asking us to write people off as bad cases, then that would be judgemental. We’d be doing what only God will do at the judgement day. But he’s not. He’s asking us to restore people.

The aim of this chapter is gently to treat those within the church according to their own confession and to see them restored. That’s not judgemental. That’s beautiful. That’s gracious. It’s also impossibly hard to do, which is why we’ll only do this if we truly love people.

Now we’ve understood this properly, there’s still the danger that we see this as something so scandalous, so outrageous, so unusual, that it’s of no relevance for us today.

Well, for a start, we’ve learnt the process for dealing with this if ever we should encounter something on this scale.

But apart from that, let me draw out three things we learn from this that are very relevant for us.

We mustn’t think that sin is a joke

First, we mustn’t think that sin is a joke.

Remember there were two problems in Corinth. The first was the behaviour of this individual. The second was the response of the church as a whole, which was to be rather proud of what was going on.

We mustn’t take something that God clearly says is wrong, and make a joke out of it, be rather proud at our capacity to tolerate it.

We mustn’t think that sin is a joke.

We mustn’t think that sin doesn’t matter

Second, we mustn’t think that sin doesn’t matter.

We are Christians who have been rescued by the Lord Jesus from sin and death and hell. It wasn’t just the blood of a lamb that did that. It was what Paul calls elsewhere “God’s own blood”.

That means the yeast must go. We cannot just live in our old ways as if nothing has changed.

God is immensely good. He doesn’t show us all of our sin at once, but only as much as we are able to cope with. But as we become aware of sin in our lives, it matters immensely. We need to seek God’s help to deal with it. It matters so much that God let his own Son die to deal with it. Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are.

We mustn’t think that sin doesn’t matter.

We mustn’t think that sin is purely private

And third, we mustn’t think that sin is purely private.

This chapter holds out a way that we can care for each other.

There are two possibly dangers. One is to be overly, inappropriate nosey and interfering. The other danger is simply to assume that what someone else does is their business and not mine.

On that scale, I suspect that most of us are by temperament more likely to make the second mistake. Maybe some of us need warning not to be interfering busybodies, but most of us need encouraging to take care of our Christian brothers and sisters. To get involved. Not to gossip. Not to stand back. But to get alongside one another, in loving friendship, and gently to confront, to challenge, to pray where that needs to be done.

Sin is not purely private. If I persist in a particular sin, the damage works itself out corporately. Sin is like yeast. It spreads, and affects the life of the whole church.

If a brother or sister in your family was about to make a disastrous move, you’d want to try and stop them. If your relationship is strong enough that you can bring up the subject. It’s the same in our church family. We’re family, and we need to care for each other. But that only works where we have the relationships and the trust, where we know each other.


We mustn’t think that sin is a joke.

We mustn’t think that sin doesn’t matter.

We mustn’t think that sin is purely private.

This scandal in ancient Corinth is most certainly not irrelevant.

Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. Jesus died to save us from our sins. Jesus died to save us from hell, and to give us eternity in heaven as a free gift. And he’s placed us in a church family, so that we can love and care for each other.

Let’s live as those who are grateful for the gift. Let’s live as a true family with one another.

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