Paul, in his letters, refers to a circumstance whereby a person is handed over to Satan.
It means to be turned over into the hands of men.
It is what happens when the shield of Grace (our divine protection) is partially withdrawn. It happened to Jesus when He was apprehended by the Chief Priests and Temple guards and taken to be crucified. Paul has written about this process not just once, but several times, showing that it is a theological principle of the Apostolic Church.
There is great mystery surrounding this subject. What is it? How does it work? What are its ramifications? Roman theologians see purgatory. Protestant theologians see enigma. The Old Testament offers us a reflection of it in the Book of Job. Obviously, in the case of Jesus it was done for divine purposeto secure our salvation (see Psalm 22).
The reason why it is of such importance is that it seems to represent an alternative mechanism in the atonement process, but a tough one. It represents an almost physical destruction of the wicked or immoral body in the fire of Satan. It represents a trip through hell. Not permanent residence there, just a focused visit through it so that the person can understand exactly where their behavior is taking them.
In Alcoholics Anonymous it is taught that a person cannot be cured of alcohol addiction until they have fallen to the very bottom. Until then, they keep rationalizing, protecting their 'love' of drink. It is only at the depth of despair that most alcoholics can begin the road to recovery. They have to go through the fire of perdition first. In that fire they can lose their finances, their property, their wives, even their children. Many end up on the street sleeping in culverts and beneath freeway bridges begging for food and longing for alcohol.
As far as prophecy is concerned, a similar situation occurred in the Old Testament book of Job. God said to Satan, "Very well, he (Job) is in your power but keep your hands off his person" (i.e., don't kill him). From that day on, all sorts of evil befell him, but he did not die. It was at Satan's urging that Job fell into this fire, to test him. And we read in the Old Testament that it was Satan's desire to test every person on earth the same way.
"Simon, Simon! You must know, Satan has got his wish to sift you all like wheat; but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers." (Luke 22:31)
This shows that the test of Job has followed into the Christian era. God has granted Satan permission to test us all like wheat, but not in the same way as Job. The Job test God reserved for the unrepentant wicked. It is a terrible process and fortunately we do not have to all go through it. That is why Jesus told us to pray not to be put to the test (Luke 23:46).
"Because you have kept my commandment to endure trials, I will keep you safe in the time of trial which is going to come for the whole world, to test the people of the world." (Rev.3:10).
Others, however, are not so fortunate. Paul wrote this to Timothy:
"Some people have put conscience aside and wrecked their faith in consequence. I mean men like Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to teach them not to be blasphemous." (1 Tim.1:19-20).
When a person is turned over to Satan it means God has withdrawn from him (Hosea 5:5-6). That allows the evil of Satan to penetrate his defenses and attack him. But not kill him. At least, not at first. Not until a person has refused God even through the fire.
"The arrogance of Israel is his own accuser, the iniquity of Ephraim knocks him down, and down comes Judah with him. Though they go in search of the Lord wth their sheep and oxen, they do not find him; for he has withdrawn from them. They have proved unfaithful to the Lord, they have fathered bastards, and now the destroyer will devour them and their estates." (Hosea 5:5-7)
"Yes, I am going to return to my dwelling place until they confess their guilt and seek my face; they will search for me in their misery. (Hosea 5:15)
"I have been told as an undoubted fact that one of you is living with his father's wife. This is a case of sexual immorality among you that must be unparalled even among pagans. How can you be so proud of yourselves? You should be in mourning. A man who does a thing like that ought to have been expelled from the community. Though I am far away in body, I am with you in spirit and have already condemned the man who did this thing as if I were actually present."
"When you are assembled together in the name of the Lord Jesus, and I am spiritually present with you, then with the power of our Lord Jesus he is to be handed over to Satan so that his sensual body may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord." (1 Cor.5:1-5).
"On this foundation (Jesus Christ) you can build in gold, silver and jewels, or in wood, grass and straw, but whatever the material, the work of each building is going to be clearly revealed when the day comes...If a person's structure stands up to it, he will get his wages; if it is burnt down, he will be the loser, and though he is saved himself, it will be as one who has gone through fire." (1-Cor. 3:12-15).
It is on this last quotation that some Catholic theologians see purgatory, i.e., "going through the fire". There can be no question that Paul's statement reflects pain and suffering, but whether or not it comes after the death of the flesh or before is the subject of theological debate. The most important part to be sure comes before the death of the body so that a person can see the Light and repent and be assured of salvation, but there may be additional punishment afterward as well (Mat. 5:25-26).
In scripture we are taught that the buildings being referred to as needing rebuilding are our own bodies. Our bodies are the "ruins of Jerusalem" that Jesus came to rebuild in His image. We can sanctify them or debase them so that they have to be burned down in fire. Salvation can come either way, but, according to Paul, in the fire that salvation comes at a price.
To see additional "test" references, go to this link.
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