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After reading 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, some people breathe a sigh of relief. They see that they are not included in this list of vices that disqualify from membership in the kingdom of God. Others read this list and even though they are not guilty of the major sexual sins and criminal activities listed, they recognize that they are sometimes dishonest, or want more things than they need, or have said things which hurt other people, or have an alcohol problem. Are they excluded from the kingdom? Still others reading this text who have misused the gift of sexual intimacy outside the boundaries of the covenant of marriage, or who find themselves overpowered by a homosexual orientation and its expression, hear in this text a harsh word of judgment and condemnation.
The question "Who inherits the kingdom?" becomes even more acute when we recognize that the list of sins enumerated here is only representative and not exhaustive. Paul catalogs several other vices that exclude people from kingdom membership. In Galatians 5:19-21, in addition to sexual immorality, idolatry and drunkenness (which are in the 1 Cor text), Paul lists the following: impurity, debauchery, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, orgies. He closes the list with these words: "Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."
The lists in Ephesians 5:3-5 and Colossians 3:5-9 share some of those already in the other two and add a few more: obscenity, foolish talk, coarse joking, evil desire, anger, malice, lying. The Ephesians list also speaks of disqualification from kingdom membership (Eph 5:5). In Colossians, Paul assigns these sins to the "earthly nature" (Col 3:5), the "old self" (Col 3:9), "the life you once lived" (Col 3:7), and tells them they must rid themselves of these (Col 3:8), for they have no place in the "new self" (Col 3:10) which "will appear with [Christ] in glory" (Col 3:4).
Once we have read all of Paul's lists, we become painfully aware that even those among us who breathed a sigh of relief after reading 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are also tainted and, as such, disqualified from kingdom membership. And so we are tempted to ask, with Jesus' disciples, "Who then can be saved?" (Lk 18:26). We shall see that Paul's answer to this question is surely the same as Jesus' response to his disciples: "What is impossible with men is possible with God" (Lk 18:27).
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul has addressed the presence of a particularly scandalous case of sexual immorality. After calling for action that could lead to the offender's salvation, Paul speaks about the nature of the Christian fellowship via elements from the Jewish Passover (1 Cor 5:6-8). The church is like the dough used for the Passover bread. Yeast, which in the Old Testament symbolizes evil, is to be removed so the dough can become uncontaminated, unleavened bread. So in the church a little yeast (for example, sexual immorality, a haughty spirit) contaminates the whole batch of dough (the church, 1 Cor 5:6). The church must remove the yeast so it can be a new batch without yeast, which, in a real sense, it already is (1 Cor 5:7).
We have here a typical example of Paul's understanding of both the church and individual believers as living in the tension between the "already" and the "not yet." The church is the present expression of the reign of God, the kingdom of God in the midst of the world; but it is still on the way, not yet identical with the kingdom of God at the end of history. Christians have been set free from the bondage to sin; yet they must appropriate that freedom in specific decisions to continually resist the encroachments of evil (see Rom 6).
In 1 Corinthians 6:8 Paul exposes another fragment of "yeast" that needs to be dealt with. The spectacle of church members taking each other to civil court underlines the "not-yet" dimension of the church. They cheat and wrong each other!
These evidences of unrighteousness among the Corinthian believers lead Paul to denounce all forms of evil as incompatible with the kingdom of God: "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?" (1 Cor 6:9). Why not? Because by definition, the future kingdom of God is one of absolute righteousness, since the forces of evil have been overcome (see 1 Cor 15:24-28). In such a kingdom, the unrighteous will have no part.
As we saw in the discussion of 1 Corinthians 5:5, not only was Paul concerned about specific acts of immorality or conduct incompatible with our status as the community of the Spirit. He was also concerned with a religious view that disregarded practical morality and thus encouraged, perhaps even affirmed, immoral and unethical behavior. Toward that stance, Paul is emphatic: "Do not be deceived" (1 Cor 6:9 RSV). The Corinthians were deluding themselves into believing that God's moral demands did not need to be taken seriously. But to reject God's moral imperatives is to reject membership in God's kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-10).
Having laid the cards on the table so there could be no misunderstanding about the lofty goal of Christian life and faith (that is, a kingdom of perfect righteousness), Paul now reminds them of God's transforming intervention in their former lives of unrighteousness. "That is what some of you were" (1 Cor 6:11). Paul had founded the church several years earlier (1 Cor 4:15), and the faces of his converts, including the lives they had lived, may have flashed across his mind as he was penning the list of representative vices. "But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor 6:11).
Paul reminds them of what is possible when the broken and sin-scarred wrecks of human lives are yielded to God in faith and touched by his grace. They were the result of a miracle, redeemed sinners won from destructive ways of life by God's power. The image of having been "washed" surely recalled their baptism and reminded them of what the ritual symbolized: an inward cleansing brought about by God's forgiving love in Christ. Further, they were "sanctified." In this context the term does not have the more technical meaning, namely, that of moral-ethical growth toward perfection. Rather, it reminds them that through baptism they became part of the people of God, whom Paul called "saints." Finally, they are reminded that they were justified, called back into right relationship with God, on the basis of God's relation-restoring love in Christ.
On the ground of this action of God and their faith response in the past, Paul can speak of them in analogy to the Passover dough as really unleavened, free from evil. Yet, on the basis of their present reality, marred by acts and lifestyles of unrighteousness, he can call them to become what they are, to remove from their fellowship and their individual lives "the yeast of malice and wickedness" (1 Cor 5:8), to "flee from sexual immorality" (1 Cor 6:18), to honor God with their bodies (1 Cor 6:20). How is that possible? It is possible because their bodies are the dwelling places of the Spirit of God (1 Cor 6:19), who can continue to transform them toward conformity with the image of their creator (see also Col 3:10).
Who inherits the kingdom? All those whose lives have been scarred by one or more of the sins in the Pauline lists with which we began, whose scarred lives have been healed and cleansed by the grace of God, and who reject the continuing encroachments of sin, moving in the power of the Spirit toward the coming kingdom of the Lord.
Paul's words to the Christians in Ephesus, in the context of one of his catalogs of vices, are an apt summary for this chapter: "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. . . . Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness" (Eph 5:8, 11).