1 Corinthians 5 - Putting Away Wickedness
Christianity, like other religions, has its days of mourning as well as its seasons of rejoicing. There is a time to fast, but there is also a time to feast. One such a feast is the Lord's Supper. Even though it is Christ's death which believers celebrate, this sacrament calls not primarily for grieving, but for rejoicing. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:8 refers to the Lord's Supper as a feast. 'Let us keep the feast not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.'
What does the apostle mean by the old leaven or yeast of malice and wickedness? As we have seen in previous studies, in this letter Paul deals with a number of problems that existed in the congregation of Corinth. The church was being torn apart by a terrible party spirit and all sorts of sins were being committed. There was even a case of incest. One of the male members of the congregation was living with his own stepmother. This was a sin so reprehensible that even the pagans did not approve of it.
Bad as this sin was, there was something that was even worse. The congregation apparently condoned this shocking behaviour. Rather than grieving over this sin and disciplining the offender, the believers, in Paul's words, were 'puffed up'. They were proud. What could they possibly be proud of? Obviously they were not boasting that they had a case of incest among them. They could not be proud of the sin itself. But evidently they were proud of their broadmindedness. The elders may have said to one another as they discussed the case: 'What our brother does in private is his own business; his doctrine is sound; he attends the worship services; he is a nice man; let's not be too judgmental. It is possible that he and his stepmother are having a meaningful relationship. Let's try to understand why this has happened and show our love to both of them'.
Sounds modern, doesn't it? This is how many Christians talk today. This attitude of 'live and let live' is sweeping the churches in our time. Situation ethics they call it. That means something may be good or bad, depending on the situation. There are no absolute moral standards that apply to all people in all situations. As a result, churches are becoming soft on such biblically condemned activities as homosexual behaviour and gay marriages as well as pre- and extra-marital relations. Such 'alternative' life-styles are quite all right as long as they are meaningful and do not hurt anyone.
Here we see that such things were already going on in the first century. Again, there is nothing new under the sun.
How did Paul deal with this problem? He had to do something quickly or else the evil would spread. Your boasting is not good, he writes. Don't think that by your broadmindedness and tolerance you are serving the cause of Christ. If you don't discipline this brother, his sin will spread through the whole congregation. Sin is like leaven or yeast. A little bit of it is enough to permeate the whole batch of dough. If sin is allowed to spread, the whole church is affected before long. Spiritual life will be undermined and communion with God will be interrupted. The Spirit of God is grieved, and consequently the blessings of the Lord are withheld.
Paul instructs the Corinthians to take immediate action. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, he says in verses 4 and 5, I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus Christ is present; deliver this man to Satan.
What does Paul mean by delivering or handing a church member over to Satan? It does not mean to deprive him of salvation, since it is not the church that grants salvation to begin with. When a Christian is in fellowship with the Lord and his church, he enjoys special protection from Satan. But when he is out of fellowship with God and excommunicated from the local church, he is 'fair game' for the enemy. God then allows Satan to destroy the offender's flesh or body to the point where the sinner cries out to God in repentance and returns to the fold.
This is indeed drastic action, but it is absolutely necessary, for the spiritual health of the entire church is at stake. 'Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump,' Paul says in verse 7. Only by removing this wicked person from your assembly you can stay pure.
While the apostle's primary reference to purging is to this particular discipline case, there is also a wider application that we should not miss. Paul is not only concerned with public sins which need to be dealt with by the church to ensure purity and holiness. He also stresses the need for personal and individual self-examination. Every believer must search his or her own heart to see if there is any leaven there so it may be removed.
The apostle is alluding to what took place under the old covenant in connection with the Passover feast. That feast was always celebrated by eating a roast lamb with unleavened cakes and bitter herbs. The purpose was to commemorate the miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egypt, where they had been slaves. On the eve of the Passover the head of every household would search the house to remove every trace of leaven. That leaven symbolized whatever was evil in Egypt. They should cross the Red Sea leaving behind them everything that belonged to that wicked and heathen land.
Also for the New Testament church leaven is a symbol of sin, which the believer is required to remove from his life. Old leaven, Paul calls it. That means, our old nature with all its corruption. True, God's people, by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, have become a new lump or dough, but there is still so much sin left in their hearts. That is why the apostle exhorts us to purge out the old leaven. Just as the Israelite would search his house with candles to remove anything with leaven in it, so the New Testament believer must examine his life in the light of God's Word to root out every known sin.
This is necessary at all times; not just in connection with the Lord's Supper. God's people should always be engaged in this search and destroy mission. Just as the Israelites after the conquest of Canaan still had to annihilate the native inhabitants who had survived the initial take-over of their country, so every Christian must fight against his inward corruption. That is a life-long battle. 'Purge out therefore the old leaven,' Paul says, 'that ye may be a new lump.' But then he adds: 'as ye are unleavened.' This sounds rather puzzling, doesn't it? First, he tells them to get rid of the old leaven, but then he says they are already free from it. What Paul means, however, is this: 'you are unleavened, therefore remove any old leaven that remains.'
We should distinguish between the position of the believer and his condition. As far as his position in Christ is concerned, he is unleavened, that is, sinless. By faith we are united to Christ and therefore we are perfect in him, so that God sees no sin in us any more. All our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus. That is our position as believers. But what about our condition or our situation in life at a given moment? Then it is often true that we are full of leaven — full of sin. When we look at ourselves we are not so pure and perfect. Corruption abounds. My sins are more than I can count, David complains in Psalm 40.
Such a sight of indwelling sin can really depress a child of God. So much so, in fact, that he or she comes to the sad conclusion: maybe I am not a Christian. Can I be a new lump, a new creation in Christ Jesus? Where is the evidence?
Is this also your fear? Maybe you are also confusing your position with your condition. You are mixing justification and sanctification. Whenever we do this, we are in danger of falling into legalism. Then, when we hear that we must purge out the old leaven of sin, we go about it the wrong way. We think we have to earn the right to God's favour and fellowship.
Paul has anticipated this danger. That is why he says, purge out the old leaven, because you are already unleavened. You see, he is speaking to believers, not to unbelievers. The Corinthians are Christians. They believe in Christ. They have embraced the gospel that he, Paul, had preached to them. Therefore, his exhortation here and elsewhere, to sanctify themselves, comes to people who have already been sanctified by the blood of Christ.
The only hope is the blood of the atonement. It is very instructive to learn when the Israelites had to search out the leaven. The first time, when they were still in Egypt, they were commanded to put blood on the doors of their houses, so that the angel of death would pass by their doors – hence the name Passover. They had to kill a lamb, drain its blood and smear it on the posts and lintels of their doors. Only then, while hiding behind their blood-sprinkled doors, they had to go with candles through their dwellings to look for leaven. In other words, their hope of acceptance with God was not based on their success in removing leaven, but only on the blood they had put on their doors. It was as redeemed sinners that they laboured to cleanse their homes and lives from all that reminded them of their old life in Egypt.
It is no different with us today. It is only by hiding behind the blood of Christ that we escape the wrath of God. By that blood we are reconciled to him. By faith in Christ our sins are forgiven and our guilt blotted out. We are new creatures in Christ Jesus — a new lump of dough as it were. As new creatures — new lumps — we labour to purge out the old leaven of indwelling sin. The apostle explains this further when he says in verse 7, 'For Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.' Everything that was symbolized by the Old Testament Passover has been fulfilled in Christ. He is the true Passover. He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Christ gave Himself as a sacrifice to God. In this way he has delivered us from Satan, sin and death. The blood that was shed on Calvary's tree covers us, hides us from the wrath of God against sin.
Now there can be communion between sinners and God again. That is what the Lord's Supper is all about. It is a supper based on a sacrifice, just as the Passover consisted of a meal that was held after the lamb was slain and its blood smeared on the doors of the Israelites in Goshen. They could celebrate the Passover as a feast only because they knew themselves to be redeemed by blood. As redeemed people they also desired to consecrate themselves to the Lord and his service. That is why the leaven had to be removed. It symbolised their total dedication to the Lord. Just as their homes were to be completely free from leaven, so their lives had to be completely free from every known sin. It is no different with New Testament believers, even more so.
All who believe in Christ and are covered by his blood and righteousness want to be free from sin. Although they cannot attain to perfection while in this life, they sincerely desire to please their Lord and Saviour by living a holy life. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it: 'Even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this new obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.' If that is also your desire and your resolve, be assured that you are a Christian. You are part of that new lump or batch of dough from which all sin will someday be completely removed, so you will glorify God perfectly and enjoy him forever.