Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (29)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (29)

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Broadcast: September 6, 1998; Message Number 1488

Proper Behaviour at the Lord's Supper

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul dealt with the subject of women's head covering and we learned that the main issue in this passage was not head covering, but headship. When women take part in the worship service, whether by praying or prophesying, the apostle says, they must do so in such a way as to show their submission to male leadership. But male headship is not the only issue dealt with in this chapter. Paul has another matter that he needs to address. It is the matter of the Lord's Supper and the way the Corinthian Christians are using this sacrament. Actually, I should say how they are abusing it.

To understand what was going on in Corinth we need to know that during the New Testament period the Lord's Supper was preceded by a so-called agape or love feast. All the members of the congregation would come to these love feasts, bringing what food they could and when the resources were pooled they all sat down to a common meal. It was a wonderful custom whose purpose was to produce and cultivate real Christian fellowship as well as giving the more affluent members an opportunity to share with those who were less privileged.

But in Corinth something had gone wrong with these potluck suppers--if I may use a modern equivalent. The rich members of the congregation brought an abundance of food, while their less affluent brothers and sisters could only bring a little. No doubt, there were slaves who came with nothing at all. But it seems the rich were not so eager to share their abundance with others. They would eat their food in their own little corner, while their poor brothers and sisters had next to nothing, and could do little more than look on with envy. The result was that this fellowship meal, whose purpose was to remove class distinctions among church members, only helped to sharpen and aggravate them.

When Paul got wind of this he became furious. So he writes, "by giving you this instruction I praise you not, because you come together not for the better but for the worse." Why was the apostle so upset about this? Because by acting the way these Corinthians did, they were violating a crucial principle of the Christian faith, namely their unity in Christ and with each other.

Living as they did in a very class conscious society, the church was the one place where all people could and did come together, even masters and their slaves. But in Corinth the traditional social distinctions continued to be observed in clear violation of the principle laid down by Christ when He said: "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:35).

Paul realized that divisions cannot be entirely avoided in the church of Christ. Until the Lord returns, there will always be tares among the wheat, and backsliding believers as well. He says therefore in verses 18 to19, "For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies [divisions or factions] among you that those who are approved may be made manifest among you." The worldliness and fleshly disobedience of those who caused the divisions would bring to light the love, harmony and spirituality of those who were living the Spirit-filled life.

Approved here means passing a test. The term was used of precious metals tried in the fire and proved to be pure. Church divisions, ungodly and sinful as they are, nevertheless are used by the Lord to prove the worth of his faithful saints. In the midst of bickering and divisiveness they are separated out as pure gold is from the dross. Evil helps to bring out the good. Trouble in the church creates an environment in which the graces of true spiritual strength and wisdom become visible.

While it is necessary that divisions occur, it is not necessary that they be tolerated. They must be dealt with, swiftly and decisively. Paul does that here. He is very concerned about the impact the division among the church members is having on the Lord's Supper which followed the communal love feast. The selfish attitude which some displayed at the love feast was carried over to this holy ordinance, with the result that it was desecrated in a terrible way. The celebration of the Lord's Supper had become a mockery. It was not a communion service at all! That's what Paul means when he says in verse 20, "When you come together therefore into one place this is not to eat the Lord's Supper." You are going through the motions, but it does not mean anything. You may break some bread, pass the cup around and repeat some of Jesus' words, but what you are doing has nothing to do with the ordinance our Lord instituted. You are not experiencing communion with Christ because you are divided among yourselves.

When the horizontal relationship breaks down the vertical relationship suffers too and is disrupted. "For in eating, every one takes before other his own supper; and one is hungry and another is drunken," Paul says next in verse 21. Before coming to the Lord's Supper, he means, everyone eats his own supper first, but the poor members are left hungry--physically as well as spiritually--because the rich refuse to share their food with them. They gorge themselves and get drunk and then they dare to partake of the Lord's Supper while intoxicated! What a travesty of what the Lord's Supper is all about!

Paul is indignant. What? he asks in seeming frustration, don't you have houses to eat and to drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? If you want to indulge yourselves, he means, why not do it at home? If you can't show love to each other, why have a love feast at all? Why all the pretense?

What shall I say to you, the apostle concludes. Shall I praise you in this? I will not. You are behaving yourselves in a despicable way. By your conduct you show that you completely misunderstand the meaning and purpose of the Lord's Supper. He then goes on to explain both.

"For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which He was betrayed took bread," etc. In this familiar passage dealing with the institution of the Lord's Supper, Paul focuses on the significance of the bread and the wine. During the Passover, Jews ate unleavened bread to recall their hasty departure from Egypt, when God rescued them from the hands of Pharaoh. The head of the household would open the meal with prayer and then distribute pieces of the bread broken from a common loaf. (cf. 10:17). When Jesus said "This is my body," He meant this bread symbolizes or represents my body which I will soon lay down as a sacrifice for sin. When He added: "this do in remembrance of me," this meant that each time the Corinthians celebrated this ordinance they should recall Christ's death and act in ways consistent with His self-giving love on their behalf.

The cup that was drunk after supper was the third of four cups of wine consumed during the Passover meal, again with redemptive implications. This was the point in the ceremony at which the words "I will redeem you" from Exodus 6:6 were read. By shedding His blood Christ would redeem His people from the bondage of sin but also from the wrath of God against sin. In so doing Christ inaugurated the new covenant that had been prophesied by Jeremiah (31:31-34). "As often as you drink it," Jesus said, "do it in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you show or proclaim the Lord's death till he come."

In verses 27 to 34 Paul draws out the implications for the Corinthians of what he has just said. Jesus' self-giving love for them makes their behaviour as described in verse 21 all the more shameful. "Therefore," he warns, "whoever shall eat this bread and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord."

Perhaps there is no phrase in Scripture that has so scared people away from the Lord's table as this one, and often because of a misunderstanding of the term unworthily and of that other word further on in verse 29, the word damnation.

Many people think that what Paul means is that unless we are worthy of taking communion we should abstain from this sacrament. But this is not at all what he says. The word unworthily is an adverb meaning "in an unworthy manner." If he had used the adjective unworthy this would have referred to a person's character, but now he uses the adverb which describes a person's actions or conduct. His warning is not addressed to those who feel unworthy because of their sins and long for forgiveness. Such people are welcome at the Lord's table. But the people Paul is warning here are those who by their shameful conduct at the meal were making a mockery of that which should have been most sacred to them .

It is not likely that such conduct as the Corinthians were guilty of will take place among us today. Few will partake of the Lord's Supper while intoxicated. But that does not mean that unworthy partaking no longer occurs. There are many ways in which one can come to the table of the Lord in an unworthy manner. What they all have in common is that those who come like that are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.

Therefore, Paul says, let a man examine himself and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. The word examine means testing. Let a man test himself so as to be approved, so as to qualify for coming to the sacrament. According to the context of this passage, the focus of this examination is on our relationship to fellow believers. What Paul is saying here is this: if you cannot get along with your brother or sister in church the Lord's Supper is not the place for you. Examine yourself, therefore, on that issue especially. That this is indeed Paul's meaning seems clear from what he says in verse 29. A person who eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks damnation to himself because he does not discern the Lord's body.

What does not discerning the Lord's body mean? The usual interpretation is that in order to come to the Lord's Supper we need to understand the meaning of Christ's death. The Corinthians, according to this interpretation, failed to distinguish between the ordinary bread that they ate at their love feast and the spiritual bread that was eaten at the Lord's Supper which bread pointed to the body of Christ sacrificed for sin.

No doubt this is correct as far as it goes. A person attending the Lord's Supper should know what he is doing. He needs to know he is a sinner and there must be faith in Christ the only Saviour and other marks of faith. But is this all the apostle meant to say here? According to some commentators the expression the Lord's body may also refer to the corporate body of Christ, namely the Church. or the fellowship of believers. This sounds plausible. Paul is accusing the Corinthian believers of failing to discern or understand the nature of the church as Christ's body. The way some of them treated their poor brothers and sisters by disregarding their physical needs proved this. Mistreating members of Christ's body means mistreating Christ Himself, for He is the Head of the body.

Watch out, Paul warns them, lest in failing to discern Christ's body you bring damnation upon yourself. Here is that other word that has so alarmed generations of timid Christians. If I go to the Lord's Supper as an unworthy sinner I will eat and drink damnation to myself, many have sighed. Therefore they thought it better to stay away. But Paul does not mean damnation at all. The Greek word krina means judgment in the sense of chastisement or discipline, not condemnation and certainly not eternal damnation. What Paul means is that if the Corinthians don't change their ways and keep on abusing the Lord's Supper they will be made to feel the rod of divine discipline. In fact, some of that discipline was already taking place. "For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, "Paul says in verse 30, "and many sleep." That means some had already died.

Does this mean they were lost? Did they go to hell? No, not at all. Sleep as a metaphor for death is only used in Scripture in connection with believers. Lazarus is described as sleeping. Stephen also is said to have fallen asleep in Jesus. In what sense, then, was the death of these Corinthians a judgment or discipline? God took them out of this world to protect them from further damaging themselves or others and as a warning to other sinners what might happen to them if they do not repent.

Paul also mentions that there is a remedy for the kind of sins the Corinthians had been committing. "If we would judge ourselves," he says, "we should not be judged." This means, if we discern what we are and what we ought to be and confess our sins and shortcomings to the Lord, there is forgiveness with Him.

We have seen that the misfortunes which fell upon the church at Corinth were mostly due to the fact that they came to the table of the Lord while failing to show love to the brethren. They may have talked about love, but they did not show it in deeds. That's why the Form for the Lord's Supper used in Reformed churches says very wisely that all who by a true faith are engrafted into Christ "must be altogether one body, through brotherly love, for Christ's sake, our beloved Saviour, who has so exceedingly loved us, and that we should not only show this in word, but also in very deed towards one another. Hereto assist us the Almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit." Amen!

Additional Info

  • Audio: 120515562
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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