Discerning the Body
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 11:17–11:34
17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk, 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
The passage I have just read is, for many of us, one of the more familiar in the New Testament. That is because we as a church family either quote from it or refer to it whenever we gather to partake of the Lord’s Supper. And while we readily identify with much of what is found in these verses, we must also admit that there are things here that remain curious to us. The Apostle Paul wrote these words assuming that his original readers were aware of some things that may not be immediately clear to us. Therefore, if we are to accurately interpret and apply this text, we must seek to determine and understand what is left unsaid.
In establishing His Church, the Lord Jesus gave to it two ordinances that were intended to mark off His elect people. One of those was the baptism of believers, and the other was the Lord’s Supper. “Baptism is,” as one writer has put it, “where faith goes public.” In other words, by submitting to the waters of baptism, a believer declares before witnesses his or her allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ by identifying with His death, burial, and resurrection. The Bible teaches that baptism follows the act of conversion and in no way contributes to it. It is, however, an act of obedience to our Lord and is often the first public testimony one makes of his or her newfound faith.
In the Lord’s Supper, Christians renew their commitment to Christ and His people. It is something that the church practices regularly when it gathers together. It marks off an entire group of believers as one body, creating a line of distinction between them and the unbelieving world. Whenever it is observed, the Lord’s Supper enables followers of Christ who have covenanted together to seal their union with one another. In a word, it consummates the commitment by which Christians become a church.
Let me again emphasize that these two ordinances were given by Christ to His Church and are to be enacted by local bodies of believers in obedience to His Word. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper inscribe the Gospel into the very shape and structure of a local church. Both represent how the many are made one in Christ.
As with so many aspects of “church life” in Corinth, Paul saw the need to write words of correction to the believers in that city. The observance of the Lord’s Supper should have been a means of accepting one another and strengthening the unity of God’s people, but instead their abuses surrounding that ordinance called for further apostolic instruction.
There are three movements to this passage and I would like to consider with you one today. We will refer to them as the meal, the memorial, and the message. My hope is that our appreciation for the Lord’s Supper will increase, so that when we observe it again in a two weeks we will have a better understanding of why we do what we do.
So let’s begin in verses 17 through 22 with...
The meal (verses 17-22).
The opening words of Paul’s first paragraph set the tone for what he will say throughout this section. “In the following instructions,” he writes, “I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” Immediately we see the contrast with how he began this chapter. Back in verse 2 he had “commended” them for holding fast to what he had taught them, but here he does not.
You will notice three times in this paragraph, he refers to “when you come together.” It is found twice more near the end of the chapter. The problem within the Corinthian church was not their failure to “gather,” but to be the people of God when they did. Paul is pleading for them to demonstrate appropriate behavior whenever the saints “came together.” Namely, they needed to remember whose they were and to respect and accept one another.
While it is not immediately clear from this passage, but is alluded to in other New Testament passages, is that a fellowship meal known as “the Αγαπη” or “the Love Feast” customarily preceded the observance of the Lord’s Supper. It is believed to have originated from the pattern established by Jesus Himself when He instituted the ordinance near the conclusion of the Passover meal celebrated with His disciples on the night of His betrayal. I take you back to Mark’s Gospel, where we read in chapter 14, verses 23 through 25;
“And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’”
Almost from the beginning of the New Testament Church, Christians would gather for a common meal, which would conclude by remembering these words of Jesus and sharing a common loaf and cup. Quite likely, that is what is being referred to in Acts 2(:42 and 46) and Acts 20(:7 and 11) when the “breaking of bread” is mentioned. The lone direct reference to “the Love Feast” is Jude 12, where already it appears to have begun falling into disrepute. By midway through the 2nd-century, the Church Fathers fail to mention it altogether. Apparently, the abuses occurring in Corinth were beginning to happen elsewhere.
So what was taking place that would move Paul to write the following words of correction? In verses 18 and 19 he identifies their problem as having “divisions...(and) factions” among them. In other words, this was not a united church and yet they were “going through the motions” as if they were. As far back as chapter 1(:10ff), he had pointed out that their “divisions” were hindering the ministry of the Gospel with those around them. Here he points out how those “divisions” were obstructing their fellowship with one another. While they may have gathered at a common table, they were not really celebrating “the Lord’s Supper” at all!
Ironically, as Paul points out in verse 19, such “divisions” were providentially necessary (“δει”) so that “those who are genuine (‘δοκιμοs,’ ‘approved’) among you may be recognized (‘φανεροs,’ ‘revealed’).” It was part of “the sifting process” by which the Lord separated the “chaff” from the “wheat” (cf. Matthew 3:12) within the professing church.
The “divisions” of which he was most critical appear to have been over social-class distinctions...the “haves” and the “have nots.” The more wealthy among them seem to have shown little concern for those who were in need. Rather than displaying generousness or hospitality toward their needier brethren, “each one goes ahead with his own meal.” While one wiped his mouth with delightful satisfaction, another went home hungry.
One writer has attempted to explain Paul’s criticisms in verse 21 this way: “The Lord’s Supper should have been the remembrance of a preeminently selfless act, Christ’s death on behalf of others. Instead the Corinthians had turned the memorial of selflessness into an experience of selfishness and had made a rite of unity into a riotous disunity.”
The apostle is appalled at such behavior and interrogates these self-centered, well-to-do church members with a series of rhetorical questions in verse 22: “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.”
Today we do not typically gather for a fellowship meal before partaking of the Lord’s Supper, but the principle of caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ remains our responsibility. Fellow believers, as the bread and the cup is passed whenever we partake of the elements together, are you mindful of your relationship with others with whom you have agreed to join together in covenant-pledge? Do you look around thank God for those who are a part of this local body with you? As you do and recall their specific circumstances and needs, do you pause to pray for them before eating the bread and drinking the cup?
By calling it “the Supper of the Lord,” we are recognizing that it belongs to Him and that we have both individually and collectively have been consecrated or set apart unto Him.
Verses 23 through 26 delves more deeply into what that means, and Paul refers to it as...
The memorial (verses 23-26).
“Do this in remembrance of me,” have become familiar words to us whenever we re-enact “the Lord’s Supper” together. “Remembrance” suggests something that looks back, but it also suggests a future orientation as we anticipate the consummation of all of God’s promises.
When Paul writes, “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,” he is likely referring to the transmission of the Lord’s command which had been passed along to him by those who were with Jesus on that night in the upper room. With both the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup, Jesus wanted us to partake “unto His remembrance,” which is literally how that phrase is written.
We are told that He offered up a word of “thanks” and “broke” the bread, saying, “This is my body which is for you.” Unlike Catholics who believe that the substance of the bread and wine convert into the body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), or like the Lutherans who believe that the bread and the wine “co-exist” with the body and blood of our Lord (consubstantiation), we as Baptists believe that the elements are symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood, and that by partaking of them we do so as a memorial to His death on our behalf. Therefore, we hold that when He said, “This is my body,” he implied that the bread “signified” His body.
Notice further that it was a body that was said to be “for (“‘υπερ”) you.” In other words, it was given as a “substitute” “in our place” and “on our behalf.” Like the ram that was “caught in a thicket” and sacrificed “instead of” Isaac (cf. Genesis 22:13), Jesus offered up Himself as the fulfillment of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Similarly on the evening before He would be that sacrifice, “He also took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Through the Scriptures, the symbol of the “cup” suggests a violent death. I wonder if we fully recognize that when we sip from the small communion cup that we receive the first Sunday of every month. The next time that we hold that cup in our hands, may God help us to recognize that we are voluntarily entering into the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. And as we do, let us further recognize that we are renewing our commitment to the Savior as well as our covenant with one another.
The suffering of Jesus was necessary for the “new covenant” to be put into effect. As Hebrews 9:22 reminds us, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” and as 1 Peter 1:19 adds, it took “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” to provide the payment that God required.
We are reminded of two Old Testament passages, the first of which relates to the Old Covenant established by God with Israel. In Exodus 24:8 we read, “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” But that would not be the ultimate covenant, for the Messiah would come, offering not the blood of animals but His own sinless blood. And in doing so, He would fulfill the later promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34, where it is written,
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.’”
Do you reflect upon that promise when you come to the Lord’s Table, and do you meditate on what it cost God to provide those promises to those who would receive them by faith? Jesus said, “‘Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” To which Paul adds, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” To “proclaim” something means to “preach” it. Every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, you and I are preaching the Gospel to one another.
As a footnote to this section, just in case someone may be wondering, there is no prescription regarding how often a local church is to observe the Lord’s Supper. The implication is frequently, but not so frequently that it becomes routine and it loses meaningful significance. “Remembrance” of Christ and His finished work and its application on behalf of His people is what is paramount.
When the church gathers, we are to be respectful and accepting of one another as fellow-members of the local body of Christ of which we are part. That was the purpose of the “love feasts,” which were originally intended to enhance our relationship with one another. And while such meals are no longer practiced—at least as they once were—every time we “come together as a church,” “αγαπη”-love is to be on display.
Paul took great pains to explain for us the significance of the Lord’s Supper as it was initially instituted by Jesus Himself. We are to be diligent to maintain its observance as a memorial to Him until He returns. So, from the meal and the memorial, Paul now moves into...
The message (verses 27-34)
...he has for the Corinthians to take from this passage. We find it in verses 27 through 34, and it serves as a strong warning to that church and every church from that day until now. The straightforwardness of his counsel is clearly noted in verse 27: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” We need to let those words to sink in and to impact us with the force that the apostle intended them.
There is a very real sense in which none of us could ever be counted “worthy.” In fact, it is only “unworthy” people who are invited to the Lord’s Table. Those who consider themselves “worthy” do not see their need of the Lord’s Supper or what it symbolizes. Approaching the Table of the Lord in an “unworthy” manner is to do so acknowledging Christ’s death while simultaneously harboring sin without repentance and self-examination. Indeed, that is precisely what Paul calls for in verse 28. To “examine (‘δοκιμαζω’) (one)self” means to “scrutinize” or “put oneself to the test.” It was a word used to assess the “genuineness” of gold or other precious metals. Is our faith what it claims to be? The term he uses comes from the same root word that we saw in verse 19, in reference to recognizing the “genuine” believers.
The failure to “examine (one) self,” so Paul insists in verse 27, is to render a person “guilty” (“ενοχοs”) concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” That word implies “liability,” so as to suggest that such a person is “held accountable” for the death of Jesus. Verses 29 through 32 amplify that point through a torrent of forensic terms related to “judgment.” Look again at verses 29 through 32, paying attention to the language of “judgment”:
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning (‘διακρινω,’ ‘making a distinction’) the body eats and drinks judgment (‘κριμα’) on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged (‘διακρινω’) ourselves truly, we would not be judged (‘κρινω’). But when we are judged (‘κρινω’) by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned (‘κατακρινω,’ ‘for destruction’) along with the world.”
That last verse is critical for us to understand. There is a time of “judgment” for us all. For those who are without Christ, it will be a judgment of “condemnation” because they have either actively rejected or passively neglected salvation offered through the death of Jesus Christ, and thereby have forfeited any hope of eternal life. These people have never been invited to the Lord’s Table because they are not a part of the Lord’s family. If they come, they come as intruders. Oh, they could eat all the bread they want and drink from the cup until they are full, but none of that would bring them one step closer to eternal life, which is granted only to those who have turned from the sin and embraced the sin-bearing Savior.
At the same time, there is also a “judgment” for believers. But it is not a “judgment” that is similar to the one that awaits the person who refuses to acknowledge that “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Romans 10:9 and 1 Corinthians 12:3). Instead, the “judgment” that Christians face is corrective and instructive rather than punitive and condemnatory. Paul uses the word “discipline” (“παιδευω”), which refers to the “training of children.” On this Father’s Day, every good “dad” knows that there must be a future orientation associated with parenting. They must be more concerned with what their child will become than with what they may presently be. That is certainly how God raises His children.
But even His “discipline” is measured out with grace. When it is said that some believers are “weak and ill, and some have died,” this is a strong word of warning to Christians—as well as churches—who do not partake of the Lord’s Supper in a Christ-honoring manner. Something that we do not see in our ESV Bibles is the word that Paul uses in speaking of the “death” of the Christian (“κοιμαω”). It is a term that literally means “to fall asleep.” It is used euphemistically throughout the New Testament in reference to the passing of a believer. Never is the death of the unsaved described as “sleep,” and that is because their passing is anything but “restful.”
This warning is not meant to imply that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the believer’s lack of discernment in approaching the Lord’s Table and the application of God’s “judgment.” Nevertheless, it does serve to caution us that God will judge the disobedience of His people. Peter spoke of judgment beginning with “the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17), so even as His people we must maintain a reverential “fear” of our holy God. As with ancient Israel, the sin of a few can result in a disatrous outcome for the entire body. Let us, therefore, not take the apostle’s words lightly. We must approach the Lord’s Table with reverence and awe, as well as with joyful thanksgiving.
The apostle wraps up this section with a concluding word of application in verses 33 and 34. It applies specifically to the “Love Feast,” I believe, but extends to the gathering at the Lord’s Table as well: “So then, my brothers, when you comer together to eat, wait (or ‘show deference’) for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment (‘κριμα’). About the other things, I will give directions when I come.” Paul had more to say—and how we wish we knew what that was—but what he had said was sufficient to call for and expect correction to be made.
This entire passage serves to remind us that the Lord’s Supper is not to be observed in a thoughtless and haphazard manner. Indeed there are consequences when we do. The same is true whenever the saints gather to worship and to serve. We must keep in mind that our testimony is always at stake. Once we proclaim our faith in Christ, never do we cease to be the visible representation of Him to an unbelieving world that looks at us with suspicion and scrutiny. And when we partake of the bread and the cup together, we are “proclaim(ing) the Lord’s death until he comes.”
On Sunday evening, two weeks from today, we will gather as a church family to observe the Lord’s Supper together. As we anticipate that time—and I trust that we will do so eagerly and expectantly—I want to suggest that we keep four perspectives in mind.
- • In the first place, let us look backward. The broken bread reminds us of Christ’s body, which has been given for us, and the cup reminds us of the blood He shed in order to satisfy the righteous demands of a holy God with respect to our sin. Everything we have as Christians has been given to us as a result of “the Lord’s death.” We must remember that He died. We must remember how He died. But most importantly, we must remember why He died...to save those who would repent of their sin and trust Him to save them.
- • Secondly, let us look forward. The church has been called to observe the Lord’s Supper “until he comes.” The return of Jesus Christ is “our blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). He not only died for us, but He rose again and ascended into heaven. One day He will return to take us to live with Him forever (cf. Acts 1:11, John 14:3).
- • Third, let us look inward. The Scripture does not say that we have to be “worthy” in order to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, if that were so, none of us would eat of the bread and drink from the cup. What it does say it that we must not do so “in an unworthy manner.” The Table is for sinners...but sinners who have been saved by God’s grace. Therefore, as we observe this ordinance, we must “examine” our hearts before the Lord and confess our sins to the Lord. The failure to do so leaves us open to the chastening and discipline of the Lord.
- • And finally, let us look outward. Along with those with whom we have covenanted, we are members of Christ’s local body known as Temple Hills Baptist Church. At least in part, I believe this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote of us rightly “discerning the body.” Every time the Lord’s Supper is served, it should be a visible demonstration of the unity of our local fellowship. In that sense, it is our “family meal.”
We may not still observe “the Love Feast” in the manner that the early church did, but whenever we “come together as a church” we are to display the love—the “Αγαπη”—that Jesus said would characterize His people. “By this,” He said, “All people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
No one ought, therefore, to come to the Table who is not a baptized follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor should a “genuine” believer partake of the elements if his heart is not right before God and those with whom he has covenanted.
Therefore, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).