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Luke tells the story of the seven sons of Sceva, Jewish priests who had gone into the business of casting out demons (Acts 19:13-16). Having no power of their own, they would invoke the names of Jesus and Paul to command the demons to come out of the possessed victims. One day their scheme backfired on them. In response to their formula, a demon, having admitted to knowledge of Jesus and Paul, denied the priests' right to draw on their names and used the possessed man to give them all a sound beating. One thing is clear: these Jewish priests did not realize the danger of the one with whom they thought to do battle.
Paul clearly does recognize the dangers involved. For this reason he qualifies the command of verse 18 by referring, without a break in the sentence, to the believer's personal spiritual condition in verse 19.
The qualifying phrase, holding on to faith and a good conscience, considers the spiritual life from two perspectives. Faith here means a correct knowledge of God and Christ (or the gospel). Good conscience is that inner faculty that causes faith to issue in godly conduct (1:5). According to Paul, the purity of one's faith is directly related to the effectiveness of one's conscience (4:1-2). The concern here is that while opposing the false teachers and their subtle doctrines Timothy could, if inattentive or unprepared, suffer a severe blow to his faith. It is like the doctor who risks infection while attempting to treat a sick person. But in the Christian's case, one has to remember that the enemy is Satan (compare 4:1; 2 Cor 11:1-15), and his powers of deception and persuasion are not to be taken lightly or ignored.
Some Christians in Ephesus—Paul singles out two leaders, Hymenaeus and Alexander (v. 20)—made this mistake (and Paul's language, rejected and blaspheme, suggests that it was a conscious one), with devastating results to their relationship with God. Shipwrecked raises images in the mind of "destruction," not "setback." Furthermore, the disciplinary measures taken are severe. Handed over to Satan refers to excommunication from the church back into Satan's realm.
We should not misunderstand the nature of this process. It was not simply intended to "cut out a cancer" in order to preserve the rest of the body, as some churches view it today. Neither is it a practice that the church today can afford to ignore, as if it were an aberration belonging to the Inquisition. Taken together, Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 and 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 reflect the development of a carefully measured process. Each step was designed to bring the erring individual to the point of admission and true change of mind and behavior. Even if the individual persisted in a stubborn refusal to change (like the two mentioned here), the final step of expulsion from the fellowship back into the hostile world was ultimately intended as a means (desperate and last-ditch though it be) of reclamation. To be handed over to Satan (compare 1 Cor 5:5) is to be exposed, without the protection God promises to his people, to the dangers of sin. For some it takes being cast off into the sea to realize the advantages on board ship.
No faithful Christian can avoid engaging the enemy (2 Tim 3:12), and the danger involved is real. This goes doubly for ministers and Christian leaders. They must stand in the gap and fend off attacks on the gospel message, because of the threat to the church and to its mission in the world. God's people must take their place in the battle lines.