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1 Corinthians 5:5 (KJV):

To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

What I don't really understand is how delivering someone to Satan destroys the flesh?

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Excellent question. Some understand this as "destruction of the sinful nature" or "destruction of the fleshly desires" or "destruction of the old Adam". The problem I have with such an interpretation is that it is the Spirit who accomplishes this, not Satan. Thus it seems to be clearly referring to destruction of the physical body (sickness, injury, etc.) –  Jas 3.1 Jul 11 at 17:57

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The destruction of the flesh is indeed a difficult expression to determine the meaning of.

One of the difficult aspects of interpreting a difficult-to-interpret phrase is related to exegesis. Exegesis is the process of determining what a text says. As exegetes, we need to ask at least two questions of a phrase within a text:

  • What are the exact words the author uses?

  • What do those words mean, especially to the author?

Only after we answer those two questions can we go on to interpret the verse (the task of hermeneutics) in its context, in the context of all the author's writings, and in the context of the entire canon of Scripture.

The NET Notes on this passage provide a reasonable summary of how various biblical scholars have performed their exegesis of the phrase and the verse in which it appears:

"Or perhaps 'turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of your fleshly works, so that your spirit may be saved . . .'; Grk 'for the destruction of the flesh, so that the spirit may be saved.'

This is one of the most difficult passages in the NT, and there are many different interpretations regarding what is in view here.

(1) Many interpreters see this as some sort of excommunication ('turn this man over to Satan') which in turn leads to the man’s physical death (“the destruction of the flesh”), resulting in the man’s ultimate salvation (“that [his] spirit may be saved…”).

(2) Others see the phrase 'destruction of the flesh' as referring to extreme physical suffering or illness that stops short of physical death, thus leading the offender to repentance and salvation.

(3) A number of scholars (e.g. G. D. Fee, First Corinthians [NICNT], 212-13) take the reference to the 'flesh' to refer to the offender’s 'sinful nature' or 'carnal nature, which is 'destroyed' by placing him outside the church, back in Satan’s domain (exactly how this 'destruction' is accomplished is not clear, and is one of the problems with this view).

(4) More recently some have argued that neither the 'flesh' nor the 'spirit' belong to the offender, but to the church collectively; thus it is the 'fleshly works' of the congregation which are being destroyed by the removal of the offender (cf. 5:13) so that the 'spirit,' the corporate life of the church lived in union with God through the Holy Spirit, may be preserved (cf. 5:7-8). See, e.g., B. Campbell, 'Flesh and Spirit in 1 Cor 5:5: An Exercise in Rhetorical Criticism of the NT,' JETS 36 (1993): 331-42.

The alternate translation 'for the destruction of your fleshly works, so that your spirit may be saved' reflects this latter view."

Paul uses a somewhat similar expression in First Timothy:

"This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme" (1:18-20).

Additionally, from elsewhere in the Scripture, we know, for example, that Satan targets believers:

"Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8 NAS, my emphasis).

Again, these are believers who are targets of Satan's wiles and schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11 NAS, and Ephesians 6:11), and believers can be "members in good standing" of a local fellowship of believers (i.e., a "church"):

"But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife's full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, 'Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?' (Acts 5:1-3 NAS, my emphasis).

Satan requires God's permission to target believers, and in a sense he also needs our "permission," which we effectively give him when we allow ourselves to be "carried away and enticed by [our] own lust (James 1:14).

Comedian Flip Wilson became famous for his comedic line, "The devil made me do it." The devil, of course, does not make us do anything without our permission. We must remember, however, Satan (not to mention evildoers in general) can never escape God's supervision, as we learn from Job:

"The LORD said to Satan, 'From where do you come?' Then Satan answered the LORD and said, 'From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.' The LORD said to Satan, 'Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil'" (Job 1:7,8).

Now the context of Job is quite different from the context of the person of whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 5:5 in that Job was blameless, whereas the sexually immoral person of whom Paul speaks was clearly in the wrong. Nevertheless, the general teaching of Scripture, as Jesus confirmed, is

""The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy ; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly'" (John 10:10).

While their are many "thieves" in the world, the master thief is Satan, who delights in wreaking havoc in the world in general and in the church in particular. Nothing delights Satan more than destroying God's work in a person's life, particularly a believer's life.

Before I "tip my hand," so to speak, and offer my interpretation of the difficult phrase, "the destruction of the flesh," we need to ask what Paul means when he uses the word flesh.

The Greek word sarx can be translated in many ways, with the two most common translations being flesh and body. The word body is seldom, if ever, controversial in the same way the word flesh is. Generally speaking, when Paul talks of "the flesh" he is referring to that anti-God principle within all the children of Adam. True, there is overlap between the flesh and our human bodies, and Satan delights when we "give in" to the sins of the flesh when we choose to pleasure ourselves in ways that God forbids (e.g., "Thou shalt not commit immorality").

The flesh in opposition to the spirit (and/or Spirit), however, is not dependent only on our physical bodies and appetites, but it can also appeal to our pride, our willful independence from God and other believers, our refusal to forgive, our careless tongues (see James, chapter 3!), and many other such sins "of the mind."

In the case of the man in 1 Corinthians 5:5, however, his body--his sarx--was the instrument, as it were, of Satan. He allowed the lust of the flesh to take over his behavior and committed the heinous sin of adultery (likely with his stepmother).

For this reason, then, I believe the destruction of the flesh refers to the destruction of this man's body, even to the point of death, if need be.

In conclusion, the words of Jesus ring in my mind, as they should in all our minds,

"'Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell'" (Matthew 10:28 NAS).

While Bible commentators are divided on exactly who Jesus was referring to when He said "rather fear Him" (the NASV Updated obviously assumes Jesus was referring to God and not Satan!), the message is still the same; namely, the human soul is immeasurably more valuable than the human body. Even if God allows our bodies to experience pain, disease, and ultimately death, whether these things are punishments--as they seem to have been with the man in 1 Corinthians 5:5, whether the disciplining hand of God in our lives, or simply the effects of living in a fallen and imperfect world, God is willing and ready to do what it takes to save the soul and spirit of a child of His, even if that means letting Satan have his way with such a child.

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I reckon you've dedicated a great portion of your time to answer me. I pray God increases you in wisdom. Thanks very much. –  Cupidrex Jul 11 at 20:22
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@Cupidrex: Thank you for your kind words. Yes, I try to do a thorough job when answering a good question such as yours. I enjoy doing it, by the way, and I also enjoy connecting with Christians--like you--around the world. We will meet each other one day, of that I am sure! Don –  rhetorician Jul 11 at 21:53
    
@rhetorician Thanks Don, for another fine answer! –  Tau Jul 14 at 3:42

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