Published: 23 May 2022

What Does It Mean To Be “Handed Over To Satan?”

Handed Over To Satan
Image by Monique Stokman from Pixabay

On two different occasions when discussing unrepentant Christians, the apostle Paul said that they had been “handed over to Satan.” 

you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:5 ESV)

19 By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Tim. 1:19–20 ESV)

While it’s not hard to get the gist of what Paul is saying, (he had put them out of the church) the phrase itself is somewhat odd. Paul was dealing with people who called themselves Christians, yet acted like the devil. In the passage from 1 Corinthians 5, the person under discussion was a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife! In the passage from 1 Timothy, men named Hymenaeus and Alexander had blatantly rejected their faith. Paul removed them from the body of believers, but in what sense had they been handed over to Satan?

An Old Testament connection

Like a number of curious New Testament phrases which we find difficult to understand, the phrase “handed over to Satan” has an Old Testament connection. However, in this particular case, our English language Bibles makes this connection very difficult to recognize. 

The phrase “handed over to Satan” is a quote from the Septuagint translation of Job 2:6. The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and it was the Bible of choice for Greek speaking Jews and Christians in the early days of the church. Here is how Job 2:6 reads in the Septuagint: 

Then the Lord said to the slanderer, “Very well, I am handing him over to you; only spare his life.” (Job 2:6 NETS (LXX))

However, in our English Bibles the verse reads like this:

And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” (Job 2:6 ESV)

While the meaning is the same, the English translation obscures the obvious connection between Paul’s quote and Job. Knowing that Paul’s choice of words are an allusion to the suffering of Job, we can intuitively understand Paul’s intention for these unrepentant “Christians.”

Outside of God’s protection

Although Job was not guilty of wrongdoing, his being handed over to Satan illustrates what happens when a child of God is no longer under his Father’s protection. Just as Satan tormented Job, it was likewise Paul’s intent that Satan torment Hymenaeus and Alexander in the hopes that their suffering would result in learning a hard lesson – not to blaspheme.

“The world outside the church is Satan’s realm. By being removed from Christian fellowship, Hymenaeus and Alexander are separated from the spiritual protection of the church and fully exposed to the power of Satan. The lesson they must learn is best taught by personal exposure to the malice of those who like themselves are fighting the truth.”1

“The appropriate remedial measure for those who live within believing fellowship but conduct themselves as outsiders is to return them to Satan’s realm. There Satan will deal with them as recaptured deserters, sinners experiencing the natural consequence of their sin.”2

A little leaven leavens the whole lump

It wasn’t Paul’s intention to be cruel anymore than a parent intends cruelty when they discipline a defiant child. When every effort to get someone to repent fails, we need to practice tough love. Notice in 1 Timothy 1:20 that it is Paul’s hope that they would “learn not to blaspheme.” In other words, he is hoping that by the time Satan is finished with them, they’d be eager to humbly repent. God will not turn away those who come to Him in genuine repentance. 

While it is the aim of such discipline to return the wayward Christian to the family of God, there were other reasons as well. In connection with the impenitent brother in Corinth, Paul said, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6 NKJV). When we allow sin to fester in a congregation it will spread like cancer. By removing the offending person from the congregation, we eliminate his or her sinful influence. In addition, we have made an example of the defiant and unrepentant brother or sister. The others in the congregation will know that the shepherds of the church will not allow sin to go unchecked in their midst.

Discipline is never easy

Some parents never discipline their small children because they don’t want to “upset” them. One look at modern society shows us this approach has been a total failure. Likewise, too many church leaders are afraid of upsetting people. We think that if we take a strong stand against sin that we’ll run people off. 

Indeed, some will leave. Nevertheless, God did not make church discipline optional. We cannot disobey God in order to pacify people who have no real desire to serve Him in the first place. 

References

  1. Mounce, William D. Word Biblical Commentary, Pastoral Epistles, Vol 46, Nelson, 2000, 312.
  2. Ibid., 317.