Sin is sin. But sometimes sin feels scarlet. Sometimes it leaves behind a broad facial scar … creating an ugly change of identity. For the son of Corinth, his sin stood out like a ruby stain against white satin. Even if you believe sin comes in different shades, no one would argue that his was bright red. Yet, his name remains nameless; his identity is still shrouded in secrecy.
Initially, Paul may have had a passing thought about publicly marking this son of Corinth — like Achan of old, or Alexander, Paul’s contemporary. But Paul chose a different path.
Maybe to Paul, this sin seemed different. Even among secular Corinth — notorious for temples dedicated to sexuality and widespread commercial immorality — this sin was unthinkable. The woman at the well with a history of five husbands and one live-in, or the half-dressed woman seized in adultery, were child’s play compared to the reports coming out of Corinth. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1).
Scripture does not indicate whether the husband was living or dead when his wife and son began their sexual relationship. From an Old Testament position, the Law of Moses was clear about such liaisons: “Cursed is the one who sleeps with his father’s wife” (Deuteronomy 27:20).
There was no provision in the Old Testament law for a son to take in a deceased man’s wife. The Law forbade it under all circumstances. Some theologians have suggested that she may have been his stepmother and not his biological mother. While that may lessen the unpleasantness, God still forbade it.
Something snapped in the minds and hearts of these two individuals. It was high-stakes perversion. I can picture Satan receiving this report and dispatching an executive team of demons to confirm the accuracy of the report. If true, he would hammer the faithful of Corinth for years and create permanent division among leadership. Corinth, the city, could shrug its shoulders and move on. But how could Corinth, the church, ever recover? One simple phrase says it all. “I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:8).
I find it both remarkable and freeing as a pastor that the Lord placed this story in the Bible. It is ugly, yet it makes the Lord beautiful.
Providing leadership during a moral catastrophe is difficult. People tend to question everything. A pastor feels pressured to do something quickly to show leadership and strength. This story, however, unfolds with a balance of decisiveness and sincere compassion. Paul found that Kingdom-sweet spot with his handling of this messy graphic display of human depravity.
Paul could have left this paragraph out of his letter. He did not mention every problem or issue the Corinthian church faced, so why this one? Easy. It has been a picture of all that God can do when fearless leaders who champion grace instead of religion give Him clearance to act. Just as the Jews demanded the release of Barabbas, some in the church were calling for the wrong outcome. Many saw punitive judgment as the proper course of action against such a sinner. But Paul led from an entirely different worldview. Nothing is beyond the bounds of grace, not even someone whose sin made pagans blush.
Growing up as a kid in the seventies, one thing was clear: our family television was not that impressive. We had a used, portable black-and-white Zenith. Our family moved 27 times by the time I was 16, so portability was a necessity.
Let me say that when it came to riches and fame, our family stood out like a tree in the middle of dense forest. We had one bathroom and one couch with a big tear on the middle cushion. Even my blue jeans had the perpetual patches over both knees. But the real clincher was the family car — a 1966 Rambler. The problem? It was 1975. Please do not get me wrong; love abounded, just not in the form of fancy materialism. Our cereal boxes were full. So was my Christmas stocking. And I always had a new Eveready battery for my transistor radio.
The idea of elaborate might have meant a new soap-on-a-rope, or maybe a full box of store-bought Popsicles in the freezer. As for that old Zenith TV, we placed it precariously on a creaky stand in the comer of our living room. Cable was for the rich; so to improve reception, we wrapped the two bent antennas in aluminum foil from a freshly recycled Ho-Ho wrapper.
I remember watching the grainy images of men landing on the moon on that Zenith. I can also remember Walter Cronkite’s nightly death tolls from Vietnam.
To turn on the set, you pulled out the small on button. But when you first pulled the button, nothing happened. We did not worry; we all understood that the set had to warm up. You knew things were okay if you saw the dot. After a few more seconds, the dot became a thin line stretching from one side of the screen to the other. Then all of the sudden the line would explode into a bright square. Then after another 30 seconds a clear picture formed.
So why are we talking so much about an old Zenith? Because sometimes a God story takes time to warm up as well. The dot, the line, the square … it is like grace. You need to be patient and give it a minute to warm up and work. Especially if the person we are loving and leading is in moral chaos.
Grace requires reality as its starting point. Denial never activates grace. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians dealt with the reality of the man’s sin. After delivering him over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5) Paul writes, “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” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
Paul was telling the congregation that, by his own actions, the man had forfeited all rights to a normal life. Paul instructed the church family to give the man what he wanted until the man could stand it no more. The length of the detention would be up to him.
It is amazing what a year alone with the devil can do for the soul. The power of grace, when given the chance over time to work, brings miraculous results. We find the real grace of Paul’s leadership in the chronology of his second letter to the Corinthians. Paul penned and delivered 1 Corinthians possibly in spring A.D. 55. He penned and delivered 2 Corinthians possibly in fall A.D. 56. A little over 12 months had passed.
To some, his words about the incestuous son are more shocking than the original sin. “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:6,7).
Paul was calling them to regard the feelings of the one who had disregarded theirs just over a year earlier. The man who had lived on the outside of the church for the past year wanted and needed back in. But the lock on the door was inside, not on the outside. It would take an action on the inside to get the outsider back into fellowship. He had fulfilled his part of the deal; the church must fulfill theirs.
It is not easy to welcome home front-page sinners. It is much easier to bolt the door and tell everyone on the inside to stay quiet until the knocking ends and the outsider leaves thinking no one is home.
Paul demanded that grace become a policy of the church. He chose his test case well. The key was patience, then some proper prodding. Just like the old Zenith, grace takes time to warm up. The key is not to turn it off thinking it is broken before the picture comes into focus. Grace is timely, but it can also be time consuming. Restoration has moving parts. Pastoral leadership takes true courage, because all you can do is hold steady while things play themselves out.
The beauty of grace is this: not only is it at work inside the heart of the sinner, it is also working on the hearts of the audience who watched him sin.
May we all discover that same sweet spot.
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