In Part I, we saw that the Lord’s Supper is a weekly meal. In Part II, we saw that the Lord’s Supper is an experience of intentional fellowship. We live out that fellowship in a focused way in the meal itself. In most churches this meal is nonexistent. Rather, the Lord’s Supper has become for many the most independent and even private (or vertical only) aspect of worship in their gatherings, essentially emptied of the fellowship with one another which is the reason for it being made a supper in the first place.
In Part III we are going to attempt to make better sense of the insertion by Paul of the words of Jesus about his body and blood at his last Passover Supper just prior to his death. It will bring us to a high point of comprehension and in some ways is the most important of the articles. It is therefore somewhat longer as well. We will find that there is an inseparable connection with those words and the actual fellowship meal called the Lord’s Supper. Paul is convinced that the church of Corinth is guilty of not applying the implications of Christ’s words to their meal together. We will call this: The Lord’s Supper is a Meal to Proclaim Christ’s Death
The Lord’s Supper is a Meal to Proclaim Christ’s Death
For many, the insertion of the words about Jesus’ body and blood in Paul’s rebuke and instruction about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 is an enigma. Upon first glance, they seem as if they were added without consideration of what Paul had just said and what he would say following. Why did Paul insert them where he did? How do those words relate to what he has been talking about?
As you read those words which I have included below, remember that Paul has just spoken firmly to the church about how they were turning the Lord’s Supper into their own supper by the lack of intentional fellowship across all status lines. He could not praise them for this. By going ahead to eat without consideration of others, the church had committed a sin that brought God’s severe judgment against them, as will be seen. Some had died because of this thoughtlessness. Now, as if inserting something that does not seem to flow with his argument, he writes the following. I want to highlight two terms I will discuss in a moment.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 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.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:23-27)
Why Does Paul Include These Words About Christ’s Death?
It is obvious that many pastors have assumed that these words were included in Paul’s rebuke and warning to the Corinthian church for the purpose of being repeated each time churches participate in the Lord’s Supper. I’m not sure that pastors would actually say this, but I write it because it is a practice I have noted over and over again through the years of my growing up and throughout my extensive travels to various kinds of churches around the world. Almost without exception, these words are repeated during a more or less formal ceremony for passing the bread and the wine or juice. It is true that leaders are free to speak these words as they wish, but nothing is said by Paul requiring or even suggesting that these words must be said.
Rather, I believe that Paul is bringing these words to mind because of the vital connection between what Christ said at his last Passover supper and how the Corinthian church had been acting when they ate together. I will show, I hope, that it is not in saying what Jesus said about his death that is the issue behind his rebuke, but in their behaving as if his death actually means something about the way this meal is to be eaten. He lays out through these words the reason they are guilty of a remarkable sin, one which many church members today are unaware of themselves.
So What Is the Point?
Paul is including Christ’s words about his death to say that in the meal, with its assignment of very significant meaning to the otherwise normal cup and bread, the Corinthians had been displaying the very opposite of what the cup and bread was to provoke in them. While Christ’s death should engender selflessness and unity played out in intentional status-free fellowship, their meal exhibited selfishness and disunity. They were proclaiming a counter message though their actions to the message that was intended to be on exhibit in the meal itself!
The hint that this is so is found in the word “for” in the first sentence of this section, and “therefore” in the last sentence of the section, which I highlighted. He ties this section you just read to what is above it — namely, to the Corinthians selfish disunifying actions during their supper — with the word “for.” This will show them the basis for evaluating their actions, that is, that their actions need to be thought of in the light of what Jesus said about his pending death, and what he actually did in dying. And then Paul concludes something by stating that their actions have, as a consequence, placed guilt on them, by using the word “therefore.” By these two words introducing and concluding the section we just read, we see that Christ’s words are essential as Paul’s way of drawing attention to their problem. And that problem is very serious indeed.
So, this meal proclaims something. In fact, it screams something! It is to herald the Lord’s death until he comes, by word and behavior!
A Meal With Peter
At another time, and in another place (Syrian Antioch), Paul also used very strong language before the church about their failure to eat a meal corresponding to the gospel of Christ’s death. Let’s think about this Antioch experience and how it relates to the 1 Corinthian 11 disconnect with the gospel we have been considering above. Here is what happened. Again, notice the words I have emphasized:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.
But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14, emphasis mine)
We do not know if this awkward Antioch experience was a Lord’s Supper. We do see, though, how the gospel of Christ’s death is either being proclaimed in a meal among believers, or being distorted. In this Antioch case, Peter, Barnabas, and others were rebuked in a very severe way by Paul. This happened in front of everyone, guests included. Peter earlier had been eating with Gentile believers, something he could not have done before believing the gospel. Yet, when caught in a hard situation with guests from the church in Jerusalem (whether commissioned by that church or coming on their own), he separated from the Gentiles and ate in the Old Covenant style, solely with the Jews.
Paul was incensed at this weakness and capitulation of Peter to a practice that had been decimated by virtue of the death of Christ, that is, their pattern of separating as Jews from Gentiles in meals. Those old distinctions of Jew and Gentile were now erased in Christ. This action of Peter’s reflected directly on the gospel that Peter and Paul preached. It was every bit a gospel issue and Paul could not eat his meal without setting straight the gospel reality of unity between Jew and Gentile in Christ which must be lived out in terms of true fellowship. It was not just rhetoric that Paul wanted, but action. I fully expect that Peter and others were forced through these words to actually get up and move to another table to intermingle as before with the Gentiles. How could they sit there separated on purpose from those for whom Christ had died. What hypocrisy!
Paul’s outrage in Antioch is very similar to his reaction to the Corinthians practice in their weekly meal in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul knew that failure to speak up about this would establish a long-term problem for the churches emerging all over the Gentile world.
How we eat the fellowship meal among believers is indeed a gospel issue. Anything, anything, that distorts the gospel of Christ’s sacrificial death for his church played out in the members’ meal must be corrected according to Paul — now!
The Lord’s Death Proclaimed
But let’s organize and expand our thoughts about this proclamation of Christ’s death in the meal a bit more. What did Paul mean when he told the Corinthians that the Lord’s death is to be proclaimed in the Lord’s Supper? First, Christ’s death is to be seen in the symbols themselves. But this is not so much Paul’s point in this passage. Though Paul uses Jesus’ words about the meaning of the bread and the cup, as I explained above, Paul is not including those words to correct a misunderstanding the Corinthians had about their symbolic meaning. Rather, while fully knowing their meaning, the Corinthians failed to conduct themselves in a corresponding way in their meal. For most churches today, this symbolic aspect is affirmed, but is usually the sum total of their proclamation of Christ’s death.
Second, Christ’s death is proclaimed in the sacrificial example of his death. Think of it. He gave his life “for you,” Christ said. The hypocrisy begins here. These are people who are eating based on the fact of Christ’s sacrificial death, yet in their selfishness they do not mirror Christ’s sacrificial attitude of love. If we are so loved because of Christ’s death, at great cost, how could it be acceptable for us to deny that sacrificial love toward others out of our self-interest?
Third, we proclaim the Lord’s death by dramatizing in our behavior in this meal the outcome of his death — unity. The unity between believers caused by his death additionally motivates the sacrificial love we have for each other. This was even clearer in the Apostle’s words in chapter 10 leading up to his rebuke in chapter 11. He said, “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (10:17). Even enemies are brought together in Christ’s death. We are reconciled to God and to each other. So, when the Corinthians went ahead to eat their meal and drink their wine in eyesight of those without anything much to eat, they shamed those poor people who were actually part of their own body, Christ’s body, and made a mockery of Christ’s accomplishments on the cross. The unity we have in Christ further compels the sacrifices we make, which is only symbolized in the special bread and cup. We live this out in the meal, or we make light of the implications of his death. This was unacceptable to Paul and it should be to us. He died to remove our separation, and we must live to show our unity, especially in our weekly meal together. It starts there.
There should have been much shame seen in the faces of the Corinthians who heard this stern and logical rebuke being read to them. Surely they hung their heads in embarrassment at Paul’s words. The meal they enjoyed so much failed to proclaim the truth about Christ’s death. Now, surely, they saw it and repented.
What is the “therefore” about in 1 Corinthians 11:27? “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (emphasis mine).
Obviously Paul has arrived at an important conclusion to this section, which could be called a result or consequence. The word “unworthy” could be translated something like “unfitting” or “not corresponding to” or “inappropriate.” One of the meanings of “worthy” in the New Testament is “correspondent to” and “suitable.” I believe this is the idea in Paul’s mind here. If a person eats this meal with behavior that is unfitting in its relation to Christ’s death, or not corresponding to the death of Christ, which certainly the Corinthians had done, he is guilty of the body and blood of Christ!
Think about the strength of the words, “guilty of the body and blood of Christ.” Paul means what he has said with these shocking words. How is it that these believers who are forgiven children of God could be guilty of the body and blood of Christ? We must let the awful sound of those words sink in without finding an escape from them. God will have his own response to their culpability, resulting in judgment that you may consider too strong for the sin and too broad in its application. There will be much more to say about this in the next section; it is better worked out there. But, for now, do not for a moment think that Paul is giving the Corinthian church a slight slap on the hand for their actions, nor is he doing so for us if we neglect to proclaim Christ’s death in the weekly meal called the Lord’s Supper.
Paul finally leads the Corinthians to a specific action related to their meal. It is a simple but integral action — “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink the cup” (vs.28).
For many years I assumed this meant that we must take time to be somber together in order to think about our sin and Christ’s death in a very deliberate manner. Or, I have employed the Lord’s Supper as an occasion when believers were sent to those they had sinned against to ask for forgiveness. I thought during those times that if we did not keep the mind focused on our sin and Christ’s death then in this way we were taking the meal in an unworthy manner. Though there are immeasurable benefits for having moments of stillness in the life of the church, and repenting before God and reconciling with brothers and sisters, I doubt that this was the intention of Paul’s statement. In this banquet of joy and love, he was simply reminding the Corinthians to deliberately remember what they were there for as they come among the others. Take a look at yourselves as you step into the group of believers to eat. Only in the right attitude, that of remembering and living out sacrificial love and unity, should you eat this meal together with its special blessed cup and bread.
So, to summarize, the Lord’s Supper is a meal that proclaims Christ’s death. We should love this idea. And because it is so, how you and I eat it is highly significant. Some would say that having no meal but merely a few independent moments of worship is enough — a meditative personal gaze at Christ’s death in the presence of the church while consuming a tiny piece of bread and sipping from a small cup — but in the Apostle’s mind, only an extended supper including the symbolic bread and cup could portray adequately in both words and behavior our proclamation of “Christ’s death until he comes!” Our meal should rise to become a joyful expression of sacrificial love and unity in Christ. And, besides, should we not seek the fullest possible expression of his death when we come together, rather than the most limited?
We have seen the remarkable connection between Christ’s death and the Lord’s Supper in Part III, a connection that Paul will not permit to fade, or be distorted, or be neglected. I realize that the way you could be neglecting or distorting Christ’s death in the Lord’s Supper may not be exactly in the form the Corinthians did so, but do not forget that they were blind at first to their problem and we may be blind as well to our failures in fellowship. What should this all mean to you and the church you lead or are part of? Will something change? Discuss these important matters for the sake of the gospel.
In the next article we will look at the sober reality. I will call it “The Lord’s Supper is a Meal That May Bring Judgment.” We will see what being guilty of the body and blood of Christ results in. If you have not read Part I (The Lord’s Supper is a Weekly Meal) and Part II (The Lord’s Supper is a Meal for Intentional Fellowship), I encourage you to do so in order to have the fuller picture.