Insight into the Lord's Supper!
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Over the last couple of Sundays we looked at 1 Cor. 11:2-16 where Paul confronted the Corinthians for blurring lines & minimizing distinctions between men & women. Now, in vv 17-34, the opposite thing is happening - lines are being drawn & divisions were taking place in the church - & they were occurring, implausibly, in the midst of their communal worship - indeed, while they were observing the Lord’s Supper.
Now, let’s look at some preliminary & background issues before we tackle the passage itself. For starters, you have to remember that we are talking about a church that didn’t have its own building. In fact, no church back then did. Instead, they would meet in the homes of their more wealthy members.
And, in the typical home there was often a dining room - called the Triclinium - which would hold about 8-10 people, & then there would be a larger, courtyard area called the Atrium which might hold anywhere from 30-50 people. And, when it came to eating customs, these two rooms actually served to maintain certain class & social distinctions that were common in that day.
So, for example if a person was having a large dinner party, the guests would arrive & certain ones would be invited to dine in the smaller Triclinium while the rest would eat in the Atrium. At such events, typically, the closer friends & more preferred guests were in the smaller room & actually received the better portions of what was on offer. Everyone else got what was left.
A second background/preliminary sort of comment is just to say that the Lord’s Supper observance that we see in the NT was something that obviously took place in the context of a full, regular meal (agape meals or love feasts). The bread & the cup were a subset of a larger dinner & fellowship time together.
The third background issue is to note that what we have here is an incomplete statement about the Lord’s Supper. You see, Paul’s purpose is to address a problem. It’s not to give a full explanation of the Supper & it purposes. So, we can learn some things about it, but much has been left unsaid.
With that as background then, let’s have a look at the passage, in four parts.
· Firstly, we’re going to look at the basic problem - the fact that a number of people were only thinking of themselves when the church came together for meals & to observe the Supper.
· Secondly, we’re going to look at how Paul rebukes them by reminding them that the point of the Supper isn’t to think about themselves & pursue selfish interests - rather, the point is to think about Jesus & promote his interests.
· Thirdly, we’re going to look briefly at some of the consequences that the Corinthians were experiencing because of their misbehavior.
· And, finally, we’re going to look at the response Paul makes to all of this - what he sees as the solution to the problem.
Firstly, in vv 17-22, we get a description of the problem in the Corinthian church - one among many as we have seen. But the problem in view here seems to be this: when the people come together, some were acting very selfishly, arriving early & indulging themselves to excess, & in a way which resulted in their being “haves” & “have nots” at their own fellowship gatherings. Their selfishness & greed created both relational division (e.g., resentment, bitterness, hostility) as well as situational divisions in that some were hungry & others were stuffed.
Now, as Paul says in v 19, some divisions within the church are unavoidable & even necessary. These are the divisions that come when the circumstances of life reveal - over time - who the true believers are within a church, & who the merely religious people are. Paul has no problem with accepting that those sorts of divisions can & do occur.
But what Paul finds intolerable is that there are divisions which were entirely avoidable & completely unnecessary taking place in the church - & in the midst of a Lord’s Supper celebration no less - the thing that was meant to be the very picture of unity & oneness. And so Paul can hardly contain his frustration with them when he says, (quote v.22).
Now, after rebuking the Corinthians for their callous & merciless self-serving behavior, Paul moves on to draw their attention back to the Lord’s Supper & its original intention & purpose - which will also serve as a rebuke by itself. But by reminding them again of the Supper & what it was all about, Paul is intending to sketch a pointed contrast between what the Corinthians are presently doing & what they were meant to be doing (vv 23-26).
You see, some of the Corinthians were clearly only thinking of themselves when they came together for their fellowship meals. They weren’t remembering Jesus at all! They were thinking of satisfying their hunger! They were thinking of themselves & their stomachs! They were thinking of all sorts of things, but they weren’t thinking about Jesus!
So Paul reminds them about Jesus! He reminds them how on the night he was betrayed, Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it apart & said “This is my body which is for you” - & then proceeded to distribute that one loaf amongst them all! All could partake of it - as the one people, sharing the one loaf! Paul wanted them to remember that & to think of the body of the Lord, broken at the cross in order to reconcile them to God! It was intended to unite them to each other & to insure that the unity they had now - as a church on earth, would be an enduring unity - that would continue into all eternity.
And, just as Paul wanted them to remember Christ in the breaking of the bread, he wanted them to remember Christ in the sharing of the cup! He wanted them to remember how Christ’s blood was shed & how - by the shedding of blood – both the remission of sin & the establishment of the new covenant was sealed! In short, he wants them to remember the awesome significance of what Christ accomplished, of who he is & what he did!
Even further, as they partook of these things, he wanted them to remember that their participation was also meant to serve as an act of proclamation. “For as often as you eat this bread & drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” In other words, every time they properly observed this meal together, they were preaching, as a community, the Lord’s death. You see, as God’s people together took this supper they preached the very thing that they were celebrating!
And so there’s a strong element of both remembrance & proclamation associated with the Lord’s Supper. But when the Corinthians got together - it wasn’t Christ they were remembering! It wasn’t his Gospel that they were modeling or preaching! That wasn’t the message that was coming through. No, if you had attended one of their fellowship meals, you would have left with the very distinct impression that the point of the whole meal was “every man for himself”.
Which is why Paul makes the sad statement that he does in v 20 (quote). Clearly they were coming together, & having a meal. And clearly they were doing the whole thing with the bread & the cup in the midst of that meal - but it did not mean anything. It looked like the Lord’s Supper. But it wasn’t!
Well, after identifying the problem, & showing just how awful it was by comparing what they were doing with what was supposed to be happening when they came together - after all that Paul talks to them about some things that were going on amongst them &, in the process, makes a distressing connection about the actual physical health of the congregation. (Read vs 27-32)
Now it’s clear from these verses that there are both right & wrong ways to participate in the Lord’s Supper, & the Corinthians were getting it wrong, & there were consequences that resulted from all that. Paul says so here. But what are we to think about all this? What does it all really mean?
Specifically, Paul says - that partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” is a consequence of not examining oneself to see whether one “discerns the body”. Now, what does he mean by all this? What does Paul means by the word “body”.....
You see, what the Corinthians haven’t been doing is discerning the body as they took part in the Supper. And this meant two things. First, they were not thinking about their brothers & sisters in Christ! Second, & more vital, they were not seeing Christ in the broken bread & in the shared cup. They had lost sight of what that all meant & how essential it all was to life.
So, as a consequence of their blatant abuse of their fellowship gatherings & of the Supper itself, Paul says that the sickness & death that was currently happening within their church was no accident. Paul says that there’s a connection between what’s happening to them - healthwise - & their divisive behavior & disregard for one another.
Well, it seems painfully clear that Paul - in his role as Apostle - saw a real connection here. Paul was saying in no uncertain terms that they were currently undergoing the judgment & discipline of the Lord - as a congregation - because of their sin. Now, certainly, Paul makes it clear that this is discipline & not ultimate judgment they are going through (v. 32).
Of course it would be biblically inaccurate to say that there is a one-to-one correspondence here such that every act of sin results in an act of discipline so that every time we’re sick, or something goes wrong, we ask ourselves - “I wonder what it is I did this time?” Remember, God’s discipline is a function of his grace - & it can come in all kinds of packages, & under all sorts of conditions. After all, the grace of God is incomprehensibly wide & unfathomably deep!
And so, again, their failure to “discern the body” meant that they were not valuing either Christ himself, or their brothers & sisters in the Lord - & so were profaning the very blood & body of Christ that they allegedly were celebrating. And the consequence of that was real! There was a real connection, in space & time, between their behavior & what was happening all around them. People were sick! People were dying! That’s how serious things were.
Well, in addition to seeing what the nature of the problem was, & how a true understanding of the Lord’s Supper only makes it more obvious, & after dealing with the consequences that they were experiencing as a result of these things, Paul concludes with a couple brief comments about how they ought to address this problem. (Read 33-34)
In addition to what he has already said about self-examination - Paul adds, in v 33, a further - & very simple - solution: wait for one another. They are to wait until everyone is present & then constitute their time together. That way, no one starts early & therefore it is less likely that they will over-indulge.
Finally, as a further safeguard, he tells people that if on the day of a church fellowship they are feeling particularly hungry - then they ought to eat something at home before they show up at the church event.