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72

CHAPTER VII.

THE PUNISHMENT OF HYMENÆUS AND ALEXANDER.—DELIVERING TO SATAN AN EXCEPTIONAL INSTRUMENT OF PURIFICATION.—THE PERSONALITY OF SATAN.

“Holding faith and a good conscience; which some having thrust from them made shipwreck: of whom is Hymenæus and Alexander; whom I delivered unto Satan, that they might be taught not to blaspheme.”—1 Tim. i. 19, 20.

In the preceding discourse one of the special charismata which distinguish the Church of the Apostolic age was considered,—the gift of prophecy. It seems to have been an exceptional boon to enable the first Christians to perform very exceptional work. On the present occasion we have to consider a very different subject—the heavy penalty inflicted on two grievous offenders. This again would seem to be something exceptional. And the special gift and the special punishment have this much in common, that both of them were extraordinary means for promoting and preserving the holiness of the Church. The one existed for the edification, the other for the purification, of the members of the Christian community.

The necessity of strict discipline both for the individual and for the community had been declared by Christ from the outset. The eye that caused offence was to be plucked out, the hand and the foot that 73 caused offence were to be cut off, and the hardened offender who refused to listen to the solemn remonstrances of the congregation was to be treated as a heathen and an outcast. The experience of the primitive Church had proved the wisdom of this. The fall of Judas had shown that the Apostolic band itself was not secure from evil of the very worst kind. The parent Church of Jerusalem was no sooner founded than a dark stain was brought upon it by the conduct of two of its members. In the very first glow of its youthful enthusiasm Ananias and Sapphira conspired together to pervert the general unselfishness to their own selfish end, by attempting to gain the credit for equal generosity with the rest, while keeping back something for themselves. The Church of Corinth was scarcely five years old, and the Apostle had been absent from it only about three years, when he learnt that in this Christian community, the firstfruits of the heathen world, a sin which even the heathen regarded as a monstrous pollution had been committed, and that the congregation were glorying in it. Christians were boasting that the incestuous union of a man with his father’s wife during his father’s lifetime was a splendid illustration of Christian liberty. No stronger proof of the dangers of lax discipline could have been given. In the verses before us we have instances of similar peril on the doctrinal side. And in the insolent opposition which Diotrephes offered to St. John we have an illustration of the dangers of insubordination. If the Christian Church was to be saved from speedy collapse, strict discipline in morals, in doctrine, and in government, was plainly necessary.

The punishment of the incestuous person at Corinth 74 should be placed side by side with the punishment of Hymenæus and Alexander, as recorded here. The two cases mutually explain one another. In each of them there occurs the remarkable formula of delivering or handing over to Satan. The meaning of it is not indisputable, and in the main two views are held respecting it. Some interpret it as being merely a synonym for excommunication. Others maintain that it indicates a much more exceptional penalty, which might or might not accompany excommunication.

1. On the one hand it is argued that the expression “deliver unto Satan” is a very intelligible periphrasis for “excommunicate.” Excommunication involved “exclusion from all Christian fellowship, and consequently banishment to the society of those among whom Satan dwelt, and from which the offender had publicly severed himself.”3030   Dr. David Brown in Schaff’s Popular Commentary, iii., p. 180. It is admitted that “handing over to Satan” is strong language to use in order to express ejection from the congregation and exclusion from all acts of worship, but it is thought that the acuteness of the crisis makes the strength of language intelligible.

2. But the strength of language needs no apology, if the “delivering unto Satan” means something extraordinary, over and above excommunication. This, therefore, is an advantage which the second mode of interpreting the expression has at the outset. Excommunication was a punishment which the congregation itself could inflict; but this handing over to Satan was an Apostolic act, to accomplish which the community without the Apostle had no power. It was a supernatural infliction of bodily infirmity, or 75 disease, or death, as a penalty for grievous sin. We know this in the cases of Ananias and Sapphira and of Elymas. The incestuous person at Corinth is probably another instance: for “the destruction of the flesh” seems to mean some painful malady inflicted on that part of his nature which had been the instrument of his fall, in order that by its chastisement the higher part of his nature might be saved. And, if this be correct, then we seem to be justified in assuming the same respecting Hymenæus and Alexander. For although nothing is said in their case respecting “the destruction of the flesh,” yet the expression “that they may be taught not to blaspheme,” implies something of a similar kind. The word for “taught” παιδευθῶσι implies discipline and chastisement, sometimes in Classical Greek, frequently in the New Testament, a meaning which the word “teach” also not unfrequently has in English (Judges viii. 16). In illustration of this it is sufficient to point to the passage in Heb. xii., in which the writer insists that “whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.” Throughout the section this very word (παιδεύειν) and its cognate (παιδεία) are used.3131   Heb. xii. 5, 11; comp. 1 Cor. xi. 32; 2 Cor. vi. 9; 2 Tim. ii. 25; Luke xxiii. 16, 22: Soph., Ajax 595; Xen., Mem. I. iii. 5. It is, therefore, scarcely doubtful that St. Paul delivered Hymenæus and Alexander to Satan, in order that Satan might have power to afflict their bodies (just as he was allowed power over the body of Job), with a view to their spiritual amelioration. This personal suffering, following close upon their sin and declared by the Apostle to be a punishment for it, would teach them to abandon it. St. Paul himself, as he has just told us, had been a blasphemer and by a supernatural visitation had been converted: why should 76 not these two follow in both respects in his steps? Satan’s willingness to co-operate in such measures need not surprise us. He is always ready to inflict suffering; and the fact that suffering sometimes draws the sufferer away from him and nearer to God, does not deter him from inflicting it. He knows well that suffering not unfrequently has the very opposite effect. It hardens and exasperates some men, while it humbles and purifies others. It makes one man say “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” It makes another will to “renounce God and die.” Satan hoped in Job’s case to be able to provoke him to “renounce God to His face.” In the case of these two blasphemers he would hope to induce them to blaspheme all the more.

We may pass by the question, “In what way did Hymenæus and Alexander blaspheme?” We can only conjecture that it was by publicly opposing some article of the Christian faith. But conjectures without evidence are not very profitable. If we were certain that the Hymenæus here mentioned with Alexander is identical with the one who is condemned with Philetus in 2 Tim. ii. 18 for virtually denying the resurrection, we should have some evidence. But this identification, although probable, is not certain. Still less certain is the identification of the Alexander condemned here with “Alexander the coppersmith,” who in 2 Tim. iv. 14 is said to have done the Apostle much evil. But none of these questions is of great moment. What is of importance to notice is the Apostolic sentence upon the two blasphemers. And in it we have to notice four points. (1) It is almost certainly not identical with excommunication by the congregation, although it very probably was accompanied by this other penalty. 77 (2) It is of a very extraordinary character, being a handing over into the power of the evil one. (3) Its object is the reformation of the offenders, while at the same time (4) it serves as a warning to others, lest they by similar offences should suffer so awful a punishment. To all alike it brought home the serious nature of such sins. Even at the cost of cutting off the right hand, or plucking out the right eye, the Christian community must be kept pure in doctrine as in life.

These two passages,—the one before us, and the one respecting the case of incest at Corinth,—are conclusive as to St. Paul’s teaching respecting the existence and personality of the devil. They are supported and illustrated by a number of other passages in his writings; as when he tells the Thessalonians that “Satan hindered” his work, or warns the Corinthians that “even Satan fashioneth himself into an angel of light,” and tells them that his own sore trouble in the flesh was, like Job’s, “a messenger of Satan to buffet” him. Not less clear is the teaching of St. Peter and St. John in Epistles which, with those of St. Paul to the Corinthians, are among the best authenticated works in ancient literature. “Your adversary the devil as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour,” says the one: “He that doeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning,” says the other. And, if we need higher authority, there is the declaration of Christ to the malignant and unbelieving Jews. “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father it is your will to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and stood not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his 78 own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof.”3232   1 Thess. ii. 18; 2 Cor. xi. 14, xii. 7; 1 Pet. v. 8; 1 John iii. 8; John viii. 44. With regard to this last passage, those who deny the personal existence of Satan must maintain either (1) that the Evangelist here attributes to Christ words which He never used; or (2) that Christ was willing to make use of a monstrous superstition in order to denounce his opponents with emphasis; or (3) that He Himself erroneously believed in the existence of a being who was a mere figment of an unenlightened imagination: in other words, that “the Son of God was manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil,” when all the while there was no devil and no works of his to be destroyed.

The first of these views cuts at the root of all trust in the Gospels as historical documents. Words which imply that Satan is a person are attributed to Christ by the Synoptists no less than by St. John; and if the Evangelists are not to be believed in their report of Christ’s sayings on this topic, what security have we that they are to be believed as to their reports of the rest of His teaching; or indeed as to anything which they narrate? Again, how are we to account for the very strong statements made by the Apostles themselves respecting the evil one, if they had never heard anything of the kind from Christ.

The second view has been adopted by Schleiermacher, who thinks that Christ accommodated His teaching to the ideas then prevalent among the Jews respecting Satan without sharing them Himself. He knew that Satan was a mere personification of the moral evil which every man finds in his own nature and in that of his fellow-men: but the Jews believed in the personality 79 of this evil principle, and He acquiesced in the belief, not as being true, but as offering no fundamental opposition to His teaching. But is this consistent with the truthfulness of Christ? If a personal devil is an empty superstition, He went out of his way to confirm men in their belief in it. Why teach that the enemy who sowed the tares is the devil? Why interpret the birds that snatch away the freshly sown seed as Satan? It would have been so easy in each case to have spoken of impersonal temptations. Again, what motive can Christ have had for telling His Apostles (not the ignorant and superstitious multitude), that He Himself had endured the repeated solicitations of a personal tempter, who had conversed and argued with Him?

Those who, like Strauss and Renan, believe Jesus of Nazareth to have been a mere man, would naturally adopt the third view. In believing in the personality of Satan Jesus merely shared the superstitions of His age. To all those who wish to discuss with him whether we are still Christians, Strauss declares that “the belief in a devil is one of the most hideous sides of the ancient Christian faith,” and that “the extent to which this dangerous delusion still controls men’s ideas or has been banished from them is the very thing to regard as a measure of culture.” But at the same time he admits that “to remove so fundamental a stone is dangerous for the whole edifice of the Christian faith. It was the young Goethe who remarked against Bahrdt that if ever an idea was biblical, this one [of the existence of a personal Satan] was such.”3333   Strauss, Der alte und der neue Glaube, p. 22. And elsewhere Strauss declares that the conception of the Messiah and His kingdom without the antithesis of an 80 infernal kingdom with a personal chief is as impossible as that of North pole without a South pole.3434   Herzog und Plitt, XV. p. 361.

To refuse to believe in an evil power external to ourselves is to believe that human nature itself is diabolical. Whence come the devilish thoughts that vex us even at the most sacred and solemn moments? If they do not come from the evil one and his myrmidons, they come from ourselves:—they are our own offspring. Such a belief might well drive us to despair. So far from being a “hideous” element in the Christian faith, the belief in a power, “not ourselves, that makes for” wickedness, is a most consoling one. It has been said that, if there were no God, we should have to invent one: and with almost equal truth we might say that, if there were no devil, we should have to invent one. Without a belief in God bad men would have little to induce them to conquer their evil passions. Without a belief in a devil good men would have little hope of ever being able to do so.

The passage before us supplies us with another consoling thought with regard to this terrible adversary, who is always invisibly plotting against us. It is often for our own good that God allows him to have an advantage over us. He is permitted to inflict loss upon us through our persons and our property, as in the case of Job, and the woman whom he bowed down for eighteen years, in order to chasten us and teach us that “we have not here an abiding city.” And he is permitted even to lead us into sin, in order to save us from spiritual pride, and to convince us that apart from Christ and in our own strength we can do nothing. These are not Satan’s motives, but they are 81 God’s motives in allowing him to be “the ruler of this world,” and to have much power over human affairs. Satan inflicts suffering from love of inflicting it, and leads into sin from love of sin: but God knows how to bring good out of evil by making the evil one frustrate his own wiles. The devil malignantly afflicts souls that come within his power; but the affliction leads to those souls being “saved in the day of the Lord.” It had that blessed effect in the case of the incestuous person at Corinth. Whether the same is true of Hymenæus and Alexander, there is nothing in Scripture to tell us. It is for us to take care that in our case the chastisements which inevitably follow upon sin do not drive us further and further into it, but teach us to sin no more.


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