1CORINTHIANS 11:17-34 - THE LORD'S SUPPER
© Rosemary Bardsley 2015
Paul introduces this section of his letter with a stern rebuke, in strong contrast with 11:2, where he praised the Corinthian Christians for holding to the traditions he had passed on to them. It is quite obvious that they did not follow accepted practice in relation to the Lords Supper; indeed, they were making a mockery of it.
A. PAUL'S CRITICISMS
Read 11:17-22. Make a list of Paul's criticisms.
Paul was very concerned that their church meetings, and in particular their meeting together for the Lord's Supper, was doing 'more harm than good' [verse 17]. He did not believe everything he had heard about this, but he did believe some of it – enough for him to rebuke them quite strongly.
A.1 '… there are divisions among you …' [verse 18]
This sounds very much like his criticisms in his first four chapters. There the 'divisions' were leader/teacher based. Here the divisions are based on socio-economic status. Not, it seems, deliberately, as were the leader-based divisions, but resulting from the thoughtless, unloving, inconsiderate self-centredness of the rich. Just as the people who felt free to eat meat sacrificed to idols were trampling all over 'weak' Christians', so here the rich are trampling all over the poor Christians, totally disregarding the good of their fellow believers.
A.2 'No doubt there must be differences …' [verse 19]
This verse is an explanatory comment: that divisions that separate godly believers from ungodly believers are unavoidable. Such differences are obvious and automatic. Paul is not criticising these necessary differences. He is criticising divisions in which some people act as though they are more important than others, making the others feel insignificant and of no value.
A.3 '… it is not the Lord's Supper you eat …' [verse 20]
This is a terrible indictment. They think they are eating the Lord's Supper. They have come together for the purpose of eating the Lord's Supper. But Paul sees nothing like the Lord's Supper in what they are doing.
Let us remember the context in which Jesus instituted this 'supper'. It was on the night on which he was betrayed, the night on which he celebrated the last predictive Passover with his disciples. It is recorded in Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26 and Luke 22:7-38. John does not mention the institution of the supper, but he does give us extended additional detail about the context. In John 13 he reports:
 how Jesus washed his disciples feet and taught that this was symbolic of the spiritual cleansing he was about to achieve through his death.
 Jesus' extended teaching on Judas' betrayal, and extended teaching on Peter's denial.
 that Jesus commands a love for one another that parallels the love that he has for us.
This is the context of the Lord's Supper:
Humility grounded in an awareness of our own vulnerability and weakness, and in our common need for cleansing by Jesus;
Love for each other that takes its example from the self-denying, self-abasing, love of Jesus;
A humility and love that is willing to appear nothing if such an action results in the well-being of the other, that puts aside its personal honour and glory in order to achieve the other's good.
Such attitudes were absent in the Corinthians' practice of the 'supper'. They had robbed it of its meaning. They had robbed it of Christ. The blood of Christ that exposes us all as sinners then cleanses all who believe with an equal cleansing was being ignored. Instead of the unity expressed in the 'there is no difference' of the Gospel [Romans 3:22-24] there were divisions. Instead of the 'communion' embedded in the supper there was only loveless self-centredness.
A.4 '… for as you eat …' [verses 21,22]
It seems clear from Paul's comments that 'the Lord's Supper' was not a formal ritual as it is in churches today. It seems more like a fellowship meal, to which everyone brought food and drink. This kind of meal was also practised in the culture of the times. What was happening that drew Paul's rebuke was:
Some (Paul actually says 'each of you') were beginning to eat and drink before everyone had arrived.
Some (maybe those who arrived later than others) were missing out on food.
Some were getting drunk.
Paul extends his criticisms to include the implications of these actions:
They all have homes in which to eat and drink. Eating and drinking is not the purpose of the 'Lord's Supper'.
By their actions they are despising the church of God. The church of God is essentially the coming together of a group of people who are all 'one in Christ Jesus' [Galatians 3:28] – all cleansed by the same blood of Jesus, all credited with the same free gift of righteousness. Their divisive behaviour despised this blood-bought unity, despised the blood of Christ, and despised those redeemed by that blood. It lacked the love for and humble service of one another that is a key aspect of the Lord's Supper.
By their actions they are humiliating their fellow believers 'who have nothing'. This criticism infers that some of the Christians were so poor that they were unable to contribute anything to the fellowship meal. This poverty would have included that of slaves, who were at a disadvantage both in terms of ability to arrive at the appointed time and in terms of their ability to contribute to the feast. Whether simply 'poor' or slaves, these believers, for whom Christ died, were being humiliated by the behaviour of those who arrived early or on time, brought plenty of food, and sat down and ate what they had brought, without any love or consideration for those less fortunate than themselves.
Paul closes this section of his rebuke by repeating his opening sentiments that there is no way he is going to praise them for their behaviour in this matter.
B. PAUL'S EXPLANATION OF THE LORD'S SUPPER
In correcting this misunderstanding and abuse of the Lord's Supper Paul goes to the source of this sacrament and its significance. [Note that this written account is understood by scholars to be the earliest of the biblical written accounts/instruction about the Supper, predating the Gospel records.]
Firstly, Paul received his understanding of the Supper directly from the Lord himself [verse 23]. This is in line with Paul's statement that he received direct instruction from the Lord [Galatians 1:12]. What he received from the Lord he had previously passed on to the Corinthians.
Secondly, the Supper was instituted by the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed [verse 23]. It is not a human ritual. Both its institution by Jesus Christ, and the timing of its institution on the night of his betrayal and arrest, which, in Jewish time, was also the day of his crucifixion, make the Supper particularly holy and particularly significant. It is instituted by the Son of God, and it is focused on his death: the death that had been planned for our salvation before the beginning of time, as we have seen previously.
This supper commemorates and proclaims the eternal purpose of God, consummated and completed in the death of Jesus Christ.
To make a mockery of this ritual is to despise both the One who instituted it and the deep and powerful reality it portrays.
Thirdly, Paul quotes Jesus' words about the bread: 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me' [verse 24]. This refers to the bread as a symbolic reminder and proclamation of all that was achieved for us by the body of Jesus Christ. [Note that some translations include the words 'broken' or 'given' before 'for you', based on some ancient manuscripts.]
The real, physical, human body of Jesus is referred to here by the symbol of bread. This real human body was necessary firstly, for Jesus to live the authentic human life subject to the same pressures/temptations as everyone. Secondly, only such a real human body and such a life qualified him to die as our substitute and to represent us in the presence of God. Here in this bread we are confronted with the reality of the incarnation; here in this bread we are confronted with the reality of the substitutionary and atoning sacrifice: here we bow in awe of the Son of God who put aside his glory and becoming one of us bore our sins in his body on the cross.
Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:14-16
Fourthly, Paul quotes Jesus' words about the cup: 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it in remembrance of me' [verse 25]. Jesus does not say 'this cup is my blood', but 'is the new covenant in my blood'. This makes it clear that we are not to understand either the bread or the cup as becoming the actual body of Christ and actual blood of Christ in the context of the Supper. [That is the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.] Like the bread, the cup is a symbolic remembrance and proclamation of all that was achieved by the real blood of Jesus.
The prophets anticipated a 'new covenant' [Jeremiah 31:31ff; see also Ezekiel 36:24ff], that impacted the hearts of people, generating an obedience that came from the heart, not from external conformity to a legal code. Read Hebrews 8.
This 'new covenant' is sealed with the blood of Jesus. Just as the 'old' covenant was sealed with blood [Exodus 24:8], so the 'new' covenant is sealed with blood.
As indicated in Hebrews 13:20 the 'new' covenant is actually the 'eternal' covenant – that same covenant out of which came all the promises of redemption from Genesis 3:15 onwards. All other covenants are the servants of this covenant.
Fifthly, Paul states that 'whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes' [verse 26]. While the two previous verses command eating the bread and drinking the cup 'in remembrance' of Christ, this act of remembrance is not the only thing that is going on in the Lord's Supper. Paul now focuses on the impact of this symbolic remembrance: as we eat and drink the symbolic bread and cup we are actually proclaiming the reality they symbolise: 'the Lord's death'. As we eat this bread and drink this cup we are proclaiming to ourselves, to each other, to any unbeliever present, and to the entire spiritual world [see Ephesians 3:10.11] that the eternal Son of God became flesh and died, making peace between us and God by his blood shed on the cross.
C. PAUL ADDRESSES THE ISSUES
Having reminded his readers of the meaning of the Supper Paul proceeds to draw attention to the great difference between the real meaning of the Supper and the way it was being celebrated in the church in Corinth.
C.1 Participating in the Supper in an 'unworthy manner' – verse 27
C.2 'A man ought to examine himself …' - verse 28
It is very important that these verses be understood in their context, which identifies the harmful [verse 17] aspects of the Corinthians' practice:
The divisive attitude of some participating in the Supper [verse 18].
The inconsiderateness of some participating in the Supper [verse 19,22].
A failure to honour the church of God [verse 22].
Misusing the Supper by treating it as merely a meal [verse 21,22].
The context also includes Paul's accusation:
That such attitudes indicate a failure to recognise the body and blood of the Lord [verse 29].
Paul's reference to eating the bread and drinking the cup in an 'unworthy manner' is directly related to this context: that the manner in which the Corinthians engaged in the Lord's Supper failed to recognise that this 'meal' was all about the death of Jesus Christ by which all inter-personal differences were removed and by which all who believed in him were 'one in Christ Jesus'. Both the death and the unity it generated (the church) were being ignored; indeed, being denied by their self-centred and flesh-centred attitudes and actions.
Nowhere does Paul command the Corinthians to make sure there is 'no sin in their lives' or that they have 'kept short accounts with God', or 'confessed all known sin', or any other command that makes Christians think that if they have sinned, or are struggling with a sin, that they would be eating and drinking in an 'unworthy manner' if they shared in the Lord's Supper.
It is not 'sin in my life' that makes me 'unworthy' to participate in the Supper. My 'sin' is actually the reason the Supper exists, and is addressed by the real meaning of the Supper which proclaims to me the Lord's death for my sin. The Supper, while it exposes my real personal guilt that made Christ's death necessary, is not a messenger of guilt, condemnation and death, but a message of sheer grace: that here by the death proclaimed by this Supper, my sin is forgiven, my guilt is removed.
The Prayer of Humble Access from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is instructive:
'We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting to our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou are the same Lord, whose property is to always have mercy …'
These words draw our attention to the truth that here, in the Lord's Supper, we stand in the presence of God depending wholly on his mercy, wholly on his gift of righteousness – always unworthy of his love and acceptance, but loved and accepted nonetheless, because of the real body and real blood of Jesus Christ. Only those who so acknowledge their personal unworthiness are 'worthy' to participate in this grace.
The person who eats and drinks in an 'unworthy manner', 'unworthily', is the person who presumes to take the bread and the cup believing that he/she is worthy in themselves – that they do not need the sacrifice of Christ to atone for their sins – past, present and future. And, similarly, such a person, failing to perceive their own sin, and the death of Christ for that sin, also fails to perceive that his/her fellow-participants in the Supper, are exceedingly precious – purchased by Christ the Son for God the Father by his blood.
C.3 'guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord' – verse 27 [The Greek text reads 'guilty of the body and blood of the Lord'].
C.4 '… anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord ...' – verse 29
As indicated above, there are three solemn realities embedded in the symbols of the bread and the cup:
The real physical incarnation of the Son of God.
His substitutionary, sin-bearing death, by which the 'new' covenant is established.
The unifying bond that renders all who trust in Christ 'one' – one body, one people, saved by the one grace.
To eat unworthily is to eat as if none of these were true. It is to be guilty – enochos – a word also translated 'in danger of (the penalty)' and 'worthy (of the penalty)'. Those who do not receive the death of Christ as their salvation are by that same death confirmed under judgment. The message of the Gospel, embedded in the Supper, speaks salvation to those who receive it and condemnation to those who reject it.
How does it do this? The death of Christ is in its very essence God acting in judgment: this death is the outpouring of his wrath and judgement that is due to the sinner. For those who receive Christ, his substitutionary death is counted theirs. Their judgment has been taken in full. There is no condemnation. But those who do not believe in him, who do not receive him, must still bear their own judgment. They cannot have the gift of righteousness [legal acquittal] because they do not believe in the one who gained it for them. They do not have Christ so they cannot have the benefit of his death. They still carry their sin and their guilt.
But these Corinthians did indeed have Christ. Paul has addressed them as 'those sanctified in Christ Jesus' [1:2] and assured them that Jesus Christ 'will keep you strong to the end' because 'God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful' [1:8,9]. However, in this matter of the Lord's Supper, Paul's Corinthian readers were, as in other matters he has addressed, acting as like unbelievers, acting like people who did not know the truth, acting like people who were not saved.
In the matter of the Lord's Supper, by despising the deep meaning of the bread and the cup:
They were treating the whole incarnation event with contempt.
They were treating the Lord's death with contempt.
They were treating their fellow-believers with contempt, as if they were not one with them in Christ.
They were not recognising the body of the Lord in each of these inter-related aspects.
C.5 ' … eats and drinks judgment on himself … that is why many among you are weak and sick ...' - verses 29-34
Read 11:29-32. Discuss and answer these questions:
 What does Paul say results from partaking of the Supper unworthily? [verse 29]
 How could this be avoided? [verse 31]
 How does verse 32 make it clear that Paul's reference to 'judgment' or being judged, in this context, is different from the judgment that will fall on unbelievers on the Day of Judgment?
In studying these verses we need to be very careful. Their content is unique: there is no parallel passage in the Bible that would assist us in understanding these verses. But there are passages that help us to understand Paul's meaning here.
C.5.1 The Gospel. Repeatedly the Gospel, both in its Old Testament anticipations, and in the New Testament, affirms that sin is not held against those who believe in the Lord. This is a big part of the blessedness that is possessed by Christians.
Whatever Paul is teaching in 1Cormithians 11:29-32 does not and cannot undo statements such as these.
C.5.2 The rest of 1Cornithians. We have already seen, and we will see again, that Paul's Corinthian readers, although believers in Christ and therefore saved, were quite immature in their faith. Paul calls them 'worldly, mere infants in Christ' [3:1]. The entire letter is full of Paul's criticisms and corrections as he endeavours to get them to see the implication of the Gospel for the various actions and attitudes of the personal lives and for their corporate life as Christ's Church. We have noted, and will note again, something that can only be called 'arrogance', and this same arrogance appears to be very present in the approach of some to the Lord's Supper – in both their disrespect for the saving death of Christ and their failure to be considerate of one another. They have still to learn to connect the Gospel to their attitudes and actions.
C.5.3 Scriptures denying a legal/penal connection between sickness and sin. Jesus' disciples assumed, in keeping with popular theology, that some person's sin (either the man or his parents) must have caused the blindness of the man born blind. Jesus' reply was that it was neither [John 9:1-3]. In the book of Job, each of Job's three friends attributed Job's multi-faceted suffering to sin, but God stated that each of them was wrong [Job 42:7].
C.5.4 Scriptures affirming a connection between sickness and sin. While humans do not have the necessary knowledge to state that a specific person's sickness is a result of that person's sin, we do know, with absolute certainty, that all physical weakness, sickness and death, are in this world only because of the original sin in Genesis 3. Death entered, along with everything that causes death, in Genesis 3. They are part of the human lot from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20. So long as sin exists, death and all causes of death, also exist. They are restrained and limited only by God's grace. They are also used by God as expressions of his preliminary judgments which warn humans of the final judgment that is to come. As such they are also expressions of his grace: reminding us of our necessary dependence on him, and aimed at moving us to repentance and faith.
Genesis 2:17; 3:1-24
C.5.5 Scriptures that speak of the necessity of judging. The Gospel does not teach that 'anything goes'. Sin is still sin. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong. The cross of Christ, while achieving the forgiveness of our sins, is at the same time a very clear and strong affirmation of the extreme sinfulness of sin. Jesus taught 'Judge not' in Matthew 7:1, then for the rest of the chapter commanded that we exercise critical judgment/discernment towards both ourselves and others. The whole of 1Corinthians was written because Paul, and others, had judged the Corinthian Christians and found them lacking or wrong in a range of attitudes and actions. Similarly, all the apostolic letters, and Christ's letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, contain judgment statements. Salvation does not eliminate the need for our attitudes and actions to be judged/assessed; rather it intensifies that need.
C.5.6 Scriptures that speak of correctional/disciplinary actions. In verse 32 Paul, in speaking of the 'judgment' that was upon the Corinthians because of their abuse of the Lord's Supper, states that in this kind of judgment 'we are being disciplined (paideuo) by the Lord'. This verb is related to the noun pais – child; at its centre is the concept of bringing up children. It is more to do with instruction/correction/bringing to maturity than with legal/penal judgment/condemnation. Such disciplinary action is referred to in the following:
1Cornithians 5:5: Here Paul commands the Corinthians to hand the incestuous man over to Satan, so that his flesh may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. He also commanded them to 'expel the wicked man from among you.'
1Timothy 1:20: Here Paul states that he had handed Hymenaeus and Alexander 'over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme' – where the verb translated 'taught' is paideuo – discipline.
2Timothy 2:25 and Titus 2:12, where paideuo refers to instruction with a view to correcting wrong behaviour.
Hebrews 12:5-13: These verses teach about God disciplining Christians as a father disciplines his 'sons', and views such discipline as evidence of the loving relationship between God and his 'sons'. Both the verb paideuo (instruct/discipline/chastise) and the noun paideia (discipline/instruction/chastisement) are used repeatedly in this passage. These verses teach us:
That any hardship we experience is to be endured as God's discipline [verse 7].
God disciplines us for good so that we may share in his holiness [verse 10].
It seems painful, not pleasant, at the time [verse 11], but brings a later harvest of righteousness and peace.
Revelation 3:19: Jesus' message to the church in Laodicea was 'Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.' (The verb is paideuo).
C.5.7 Paul's personal experience. In 2Corinthians Paul again addresses the arrogance of the Corinthian Christians. To press his point home he engages in some boasting himself [chapters 11 and 12]. In the context of his own boasting (which he calls foolishness – 11:1] he relates how God prevented him from becoming arrogant because of his unique and privileged encounters with God [12:7-10]: 'there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me'. This physical problem, this 'weakness', was, in God's hands, his instrument by which Paul was constantly reminded of his need to depend on God and his power, rather than on himself.
So what is Paul saying in 1Corinthians 11:29-34?
Putting all the above insights together, we may conclude:
Paul considered that the Corinthians' abuse of the Lord's Supper incurred God's disciplinary action.
This discipline was with a view to correcting their attitudes as part of the transforming work that he does in his children. Such transformation is the evidence that they were indeed his children. It is evidence of God's fatherly love, not of his rejection. It distinguishes believers from 'the world' – God does not discipline the world, he condemns the world.
Paul understands the fact that 'many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep' as the evidence of God's disciplinary work among them. This is quite an unusual statement. Any group of people contains people who are weak and sick, and people to die. But it would seem that the ratio of such people in the Corinthian church was greater than the norm – it was notable enough to attract Paul's comment. This more than average occurrence of physical ailments and death would serve as a potent reminder of human frailty – of human dependence on God. Just as Paul's physical weakness forced him to humbly depend on God, so here Paul is pointing out to the Corinthians that their unusual rate of physical ailments was intended by God to break down their human arrogance, and bring about a humility and dependence on God and love for each other that demonstrated the truth of their confession of faith. Only such practical evidence of faith would validate the integrity of their claim to faith. Only such clearly demonstrated genuine faith would confirm their exclusion from the final judgment.
Verse 31 indicates that if the Corinthians had judged themselves regarding their abuse of the Lord's Supper, and corrected their attitudes and actions, there would have been no need for God to intervene with his disciplinary actions.
On the basis of his understanding that the Lord was disciplining the Corinthians Paul urged them to 'wait for each other' when they came together for the Lord's Supper [verse 33]. Mutual consideration, not arrogant self-centredness, is the appropriate attitude in participating in the Supper. He did not want to have to rebuke them about this when he visited them.
Discuss the way the Lord's Supper is celebrated in your church. Use these questions:
 In what ways does it recognise whose body it was that died?
 In what ways does it proclaim that Christ’s body was given and his blood was shed to obtain forgiveness of sins for all who believe in him?
 In what ways does it express the unity of all believers in Christ?