I mentioned the last time that 1 Corinthians 11 is the beginning of a new section in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. For the previous three chapters he was dealing with the issue of food sacrificed to idols and whether Christians may eat such food or not. In chapter 11 he begins to deal with the subject of worship and how Christians are to conduct themselves when they meet together for worship. In the passage we studied last time, he wrote about head-coverings and what Christians should wear when they meet for worship. Then, in the today’s passage, he’s writing about the Lord’s Supper and how believers should conduct themselves when they gather around the Lord’s Table. Then, in chapter 12, he writes about spiritual gifts and how the Lord has given different gifts to different people in the church; but he’s given them all for the common good.
And that leads to chapter 13 and that famous chapter about love where he reminds his readers in Corinth about how they’re to love one another with a love that is patient and kind and which does not envy or boast and so on. Then, having reminded them of the importance of love, Paul goes back in chapter 14 to writing about spiritual gifts and especially the gifts of prophecy and tongues. And this whole section of 1 Corinthians ends in verse 40 of chapter 14 where Paul instructs the believers in Corinth and believers in every age that everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. Everything in our worship should be done in a fitting and orderly way, because God is not a God of disorder, but of peace. And so, when the Lord’s people meet together for worship, we should worship him in a fitting and orderly way.
So, Paul is teaching us about worship. And in today’s passage, he’s writing about the Lord’s Supper. And the passage can be divided into three main parts. First of all, there’s verses 17 to 23. Then there’s verses 24 to 26. And thirdly, there’s verses 27 to 34. In the first part, he rebukes them for the way they were behaving at the Lord’s Supper. In the second part, he reminds them of the tradition which he had passed on to them concerning the Lord’s Supper and its significance. In the third part, he warns them about participating in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. So, those are the three things we need to think about this evening.
Verses 17 to 22
And so, in the first part he rebukes them for the way they were behaving at the Lord’s Supper. In verse 17 Paul says to his readers in Corinth that in the following directives he has no praise for them — no praise whatsoever — because their meetings do more harm than good. Isn’t that a devastating thing to say to a church? When we gather together as a church, it’s meant to be for our good. The reading and preaching of God’s word, the administration of the Lord’s Supper, the prayers, the fellowship, they’re all there to help us so that we grow in the faith and are built up in holiness and in comfort and able enabled to persevere as believers. It’s all meant to be for our good. But when the Corinthians met together, their meetings were doing more harm than good.
And Paul goes on to explain what he means; and one of the main problems with their meetings when they came together as a church was the divisions among them. Do you see that in verse 18? Now, way back in chapters 1 and 2 and 3 Paul was writing about divisions in the church; and in those chapters we learned that the church was divided over who they followed. Some were saying, ‘I follow Paul.’ Others were saying, ‘I follow Peter.’ Still others boasted about Apollos. The church was divided into these different groups or factions. And Paul appealed to them to agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among them. Well, here in chapter 11 Paul is referring to another way in which the church was divided. You see, when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper in those days, it was part of a full meal. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it’s only a token meal. We receive a little bit of bread to eat and a little cup to drink. But in the early church, the Lord’s Supper was part of a full meal. And the members of the church would bring with them a packed lunch which thy would consume at this congregational meal. And it seems from what Paul says in this passage that some of the members of the church were rich; and they had plenty to eat and drink. Their lunch box was full of the best foods and wine. But others were poor; and they had very little to eat and drink. Their lunch boxes contained a few limp sandwiches and a bottle of water. And so the division which Paul refers to in verse 18 is the way the church was clearly divided into the haves and the have-nots. The haves had plenty and the have-nots had little. And the difference between them was emphasized visibly when they met together, because some were able to stuff themselves while others went away hungry. What a way to behave in the church of Jesus Christ!
One of the commentators suggests as well that since the church met in someone’s home — remember in those days they didn’t have special church buildings — since the church met in someone’s home, then perhaps the haves met in one room and the have-nots met in another. When I was a child, I remember going to visit my grandparents; and it might have been a big family occasion — someone’s birthday or Christmas perhaps — and lots of uncles and aunts and cousins were there. And there was never enough room when it came to the meal. So the parents and older children sat in one room. And the smaller children sat in another. And I remember that stage when I felt I was too old to be with the little ones, but the adults didn’t think that I was old enough to be with the grown ups. And I was just miserable. I didn’t want to be where I was. And perhaps there was something like that going on in the church in Corinth when they met together: the have-nots were made to sit in one room; and they were kept away from the haves in another room.
Well, Paul says something surprising in verse 19. He says that there have to be divisions among them in order to show which of them has God’s approval. What did he mean by that? Well, it’s possible he meant that this kind of unkind and selfish behaviour revealed something about the people and their true character. So, he’s saying: If they’re being selfish and greedy, doesn’t that say something about them and what they’re really like? And the ones who are approved by God are the ones who don’t behave like that. Paul could mean that. Or perhaps he was being ironic or sarcastic. In that case, he’s saying: These divisions have to exist in order to show who the really important people are! Either interpretation could be correct, but the main point to note is that the fellowship of God’s people was being destroyed because of these divisions; and so Paul says that their meetings were doing more harm than good.
And in verses 20 to 22 Paul goes on to explain a little more about what was happening when the church met together to eat this meal and to share in the Lord’s Supper. And he begins with another of those devastating comments which he uses from time to time. He’s already said that when they meet together, their meetings do more harm than good. Now he says that when they eat together, it’s not the Lord’s Supper they’re eating. He’s saying to them: ‘You think you’re celebrating the Lord’s Supper! Nothing could be further from the truth, because look what you’re doing when you meet together.’
So, what’s the problem? Well, according to verse 21, when they came together, some of them aren’t waiting for the others. And the commentators suggest that what was happening was that the poorer members were arriving later than the rest, perhaps because they had work to finish before they could come out to church. You see, in those days people didn’t have Sundays off; they had to work on Sundays and the service of worship was probably held in the evening after work. Well, the rich members perhaps didn’t work; or they were able to get away earlier than the others; and they could be at church early. And then, instead of waiting for the others, they just went ahead and started to eat.
And then — as we’ve already noted — not only did they start without waiting for others, but the haves then stuffed themselves with their food and they drank too much of their wine, while the others — who were poor and didn’t have so much to eat — went away hungry, with their stomachs rubbling. And Paul says to the haves in verse 22:
Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?
He’s saying to them: If you’re going to be that greedy, if you’re going to be that selfish, then you should just stay at home. The rest of the church would be better off if you didn’t come to church if that’s the way you’re going to behave!
Well, Paul had no praise for them, because it seemed to him that those who behaved like this were despising the church and they were humiliating those members who were poor.
Verses 23 to 26
And so, having rebuked them in the first part, he goes on in the second part to remind them of of the tradition which he had passed on to them concerning the Lord’s Supper and its significance. And it’s the significance of the Lord’s Supper which is what Paul wants to emphasise here, because if they understood the significance of the Lord’s Supper, then they would behave in a very different manner.
What’s the significance of the Lord’s Supper? Well, it’s to remember and to proclaim the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our forgiveness. And so, in verse 23 and 24 he reminds his readers of how the Lord — on the night he was betrayed by Judas — took some bread and said:
This is by body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
He was saying: This bread signifies my body; and therefore, take and eat this bread to remember me and my death on the cross.
He also took the cup and said:
This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.
The Old Testament is full of covenants, isn’t it? There was the covenant which God made with Adam and Eve after the fall when he promised that one of Eve’s descendants would crush the Devil. Then there was the covenant he made with Noah never again to destroy the world with a flood. Then there was his covenant with Abram to make him into a great nation and to give him and his descendants the Promised Land to live in. Then there was the covenant which God made with the Israelites at Mount Sinai when God promised to make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and when they promised to turn to obey him and to do all they he commanded. And there was God’s covenant with David when he promised that one of his descendants would rule for ever. The Old Testament is full of covenants; and very often the covenants were made with the shedding of blood. So, at Mount Sinai, Moses took the blood of an animal which had been offered to the Lord and he sprinkled it on the people and said to them:
This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.
Well, by that covenant, the Lord promised to make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and to be their God. The people in turn promised to obey the Lord and to do all that he commanded. That was the covenant they made at that time. But though the people promised to obey the Lord, they nevertheless disobeyed him again and again and again. They broke the covenant which the Lord made with them with the blood of the sacrifice. And so, eventually, the Lord promised through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel that he was going to make a new covenant with them. And according to the terms of this new covenant, God promises to write his law — not on stone tablets as his did at Mount Sinai — but on their hearts and minds to enable them to keep it. And he would give them a new heart to obey him; and the Holy Spirit to help them. And he promised to forgive their wickedness and to remember their sins no more. God promised through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel that one day he would make this new covenant with them. And on the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus announced that this new covenant was about to be put into effect by the shedding of his own blood. And the cup which we take as part of the Lord’s Supper is a sign of this new covenant and of God’s promise to forgive our iniquity and to remember our sins no more. God has promised that he will pardon us for our sins for the sake of Christ whose body was nailed to the cross and whose blood was shed for our forgiveness. And, of course, after the Lord’s death and burial, he was raised from the dead and he was lifted to heaven; and from heaven he pours out his Spirit upon his people to renew our hearts and to enable us to obey the Lord and to do his will more and more.
And so, whenever we take the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper, we’re remembering the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our forgiveness. We’re remembering his sacrifice and how God has promised to pardon us for the sake of Christ who died for us.
So, the Lord’s Supper is about remembering what Christ has done for us. And according to verse 26, it’s also about proclaiming his death. So, whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, we’re proclaiming his death; we’re announcing the good news of salvation.
And then, according to verse 26, we’re to continue to do this until he comes again. The Lord who died and who was buried has risen from the grave and he’s ascended to heaven. And one day — when the time is right — he will come to earth again to raise the dead and to glorify his people so that we might live with him for ever and ever in the new creation to come. And until that day comes, his people are to gather together and they’re to eat the bread which is a sign of his body, and we’re to drink the cup, which is a sign of the covenant made in his blood whereby God promises to remember our sins no more.
And so, what’s the significance of the Lord’s Supper? What’s the point of eating this meal? Well, it’s to remember and to proclaim the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s not about stuffing ourselves with food, as some of the Corinthians were doing. It’s not about getting drunk on wine, as some of them were doing. It’s not about being selfish, as some of them were being. No, it’s about proclaiming the good news of the Saviour who did not think of himself, but who gave up his life for us and for our salvation.
Verses 27 to 34
Therefore, says Paul in verse 27, whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
Now, we need to be careful here. Paul is not saying that we must be worthy in order to take the Supper. He’s not saying that we mustn’t take the Supper unless we’re good enough or worthy enough to take it. He’s not saying that; we know he’s not saying that, because none of us is good enough We’re all sinners. Some of us sin a lot. Some of us sin a little. But we’re all sinners and not one of us is good enough for God to accept. The only reason God accepts us, and welcomes us into his family, and invites us to sit at the Lord’s Table, is because he is merciful towards us. He doesn’t accept us because we deserve it or because we’re good enough or because we’re worthy. He accepts us because he’s merciful.
So, Paul isn’t talking about being unworthy to take the Supper. He’s talking about taking part in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. And that means taking part in the Lord’s Supper in a way which is not fitting or appropriate. And that’s exactly what was happening in Corinth. It wasn’t right that some in Corinth were being greedy and selfish. It wasn’t right that some of the congregation were being humiliated. It wasn’t right that some of them were stuffing themselves and getting drunk on the wine. It wasn’t fitting to behave like that, when the Lord’s Supper was all about how the Lord Jesus gave up his life for his people in the church. And so in verse 28 Paul instructed the members of the church in Corinth to examine themselves before taking part in the Lord’s Supper, because anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
What does it mean to recognise the body of the Lord? Well, it seems to me that what Paul means is that we’re to recognise that this is no ordinary meal. It’s a special meal which speaks to us of the body which was nailed to the cross and of his blood which was shed on the cross. Some in Corinth treated the Lord’s Supper as a meal just like any other dinner party when friends gathered together. You know, it was a chance to over-indulge and to enjoy yourselves. But no, says Paul. They should think before coming to the Lord’s Table and remember that this is a special meal to remember and to proclaim what Christ has done for us.
And then in verse 30 Paul goes on to refer to one of those extra-ordinary cases of discipline which we discussed when we were studying chapter 5. You see, there’s an ordinary and an extra-ordinary way for church disciple to take place. The ordinary way is by means of the elders: the Lord gives the church elders who have the right and responsibility to exercise biblical church discipline in order to protect the purity of the church from scandal and in order to lead sinners to repentance. So, back in chapter 5, he instructed the leaders of the church to excommunicate one of their members who was doing something scandalous. That’s the ordinary way. But sometimes — and we thought about this when studying chapter 5 — God himself disciplines his people in an extra-ordinary way. And that seems to be what was happening in Corinth.
Now, once again we need to be careful here not to misunderstand what Paul is saying. You see, the Bible teaches that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Those who belong to Christ will not be condemned by God whenever we stand before his judgment seat. Whoever believes is justified which means we’ve been pardoned and accepted by God for the sake of Christ who died for us. And our salvation is secure because of Christ. However, when God’s people fall into serious sins, and continue in them without repentance, they can bring temporal judgments on themselves. Not eternal judgment, but temporal judgment. Judgment in this life only, but not for eternity. And that’s what Paul is referring to here: temporal judgment on God’s people not eternal judgment.
So, some of the believers had become ill and some had even died because of how they had abused the Lord’s Table. Therefore Paul says to his readers that in order to avoid God’s discipline — in order to avoid bringing temporal judgment on themselves — they needed to judge themselves. They needed to look at themselves and how they were behaving; and see that what they were doing was wrong and needed to be put right. Paul’s saying to them that if each one of them judged themselves like that, then they won’t come under the temporal judgment of God. So, examine yourselves, so that you’re able to take part in the Lord’s Supper in a way that is fitting and appropriate.
And so, in verse 33 he tells his readers to wait for one another. And instead of treating the Lord’s Supper like an ordinary meal for satisfying your hunger, eat your dinner at home so that when you come together around the Lord’s Table, you won’t spoil the Lord’s Supper by your greed and so bring judgment on yourselves.
Paul had strong words to say to his readers in Corinth, because of the way they have spoiled the Lord’s Supper, which the Lord has given his people to remember and to proclaim that he died for us so that we might be forgiven and have eternal life. They were treating this special meal like an ordinary meal. Instead of regarding it as a special meal to remember and to proclaim the Saviour’s death, they were treating it as an occasion to satisfy their hunger with food and to enjoy themselves with their feasting.
Well, by means of this passage believers in every age are warned to watch out and to be alert lest we become like the Corinthians. Like them, we too are sinners are therefore we’re liable to take this holy meal and turn it into something unholy. We’re warned that it’s possible to take this sacrament — which the Lord has given us for our good — and we’re able to turn it into something that harms the church of Jesus Christ and which dishonours his holy name. Since we too are sinners like the Corinthians — and we so often fall short of living the heavenly life which God has called us to — we can abuse the Lord’s Supper so that instead of using the sacrament to build up the church, we use it to destroy the church and to wreck the peace and unity of his people. So, we need to watch out and be alert to all the ways that the sin in our hearts can spoil our worship of the Lord.
And then, by means of this passage, believers in every age are taught the significance of this sacrament; and how we’re to come to the Lord’s Table in the right manner, remembering what it means and how our Saviour loved us and gave up his life for us and for our salvation. We’re to receive the Lord’s Supper with reverent and believing hearts, giving thanks to God for the salvation he has provided. And every time we receive it, we proclaim to one another and we proclaim to an unbelieving world the good news of Jesus Christ who died for sinners.
And finally, if the think of worship generally in church and not just the Lord’s Supper, we must remember that our worship is not about me and what I want and what I like, which is what the Corinthians made it. We must be careful not to make our worship an occasion for selfishness, because our worship is about Christ the Saviour: proclaiming what he has done and giving thanks to God for him.