the Lord's Supper

Paul's teaching regarding the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is a commonly misunderstood Scripture. Often, this misunderstanding has contributed to significant division among believers and Christians.

Let's reexamine this important text together.

The Text

Here's the text:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come I will give further directions.
(1 Cor. 11:17-34 NIV)

Historical Context

The letter we call "First Corinthians" was not actually the first letter that Paul had written to the Corinthian Christians (see 1 Cor. 5:9).

There was at least one previous letter, and these brethren had also previously written Paul at least once (see 1 Cor. 7:1).

In their letter, the Corinthian Christians apparently asked Paul about a number of subjects, evidenced by Paul's frequent statement, "Now concerning..." (see 1 Cor. 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12).

In the letter we refer to as 1 Corinthians, Paul was responding to those questions, as well as addressing problems he had become aware of from members of Chloe's household (1 Cor. 1:11).

In order to properly understand Paul's message, it is essential that we read the letter with the historical context in mind.

Textual Context

The letter begins with Paul addressing widespread division among the Christians in Corinth. They were dividing based on who taught them the gospel, or who baptized them, or which man they were following.

This division was also negatively impacting their keeping of the Lord's Supper, and that is the fundamental problem Paul was correcting in these verses.

Examining the Text

Verses 17-19 are straightforward and need no explanation.

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.

Is it location or love that's the core issue?

Verse 20 says, "So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat." Here, what Paul was saying is basically, "What you guys are doing there...that's not Jesus' supper you're eating. You're doing something else entirely."

Paul continued:

21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

These two verses are commonly misunderstood.

Paul identified the following problems:

  1. They were not eating the Supper together.

  2. Each person or family was bringing their own food and drink.

  3. Some were over-indulging, even to drunkenness, and others didn't have enough.

  4. The poor or unprepared were humiliated, rather than edified.

I have heard brethren point to the question "Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?" and conclude that:

  1. The Christians in Corinth were assembling in a church building or meeting place other than a house.

  2. Paul is teaching that no common meals should be eaten together in this public meeting place. Those should all be eaten at home.

Both of these conclusions miss Paul's point entirely by focusing too narrowly on that one question.

Instead, Paul was teaching that, if a Christian assembles with the brethren to eat the Lord's Supper merely for the physical benefit of simply filling their belly, they could just do that by themselves at home.

It isn't about the place where they were assembled.

It's about our intentions and thought process.

Our heart must be in the right place, focused on Jesus, on one another, and not food. This is further evidenced by verse 34.

How often should we observe the Lord's Supper?

In verses 23-25, Paul reiterates the events Jesus told Him personally, regarding His Supper. Verse 26 gives us two additional important details: frequency and purpose.

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Over the centuries, there has been significant division over the "proper" frequency of observing the Lord's Supper.

This is the only Scripture that speaks definitively to the frequency of observance, and essentially what it says is, "every time you eat it..."

In other words, GOD does not specify how frequently we should eat the Lord's Supper.

What this verse says is that every time we celebrate the Supper (assuming we're observing it correctly), we're proclaiming Jesus' death to the world around us.

This is the only Scripture that speaks definitively to the frequency of observing the Lord's Supper, and it says, "every time you eat it." In other words, GOD did not specify how frequently Christians should eat the Lord's Supper. Click to Tweet

 

[For more on this subject, see: Lord's Supper Frequency.]

 

In a worthy manner...

In verses 27-32, Paul was teaching the Corinthians about the impact that their division and improper observance of the Supper was having upon the family there.

The "unworthy manner" referred to in verse 27 is a reference to the way they had been perverting their observance of the Supper.

At several places earlier in the letter, Paul talked about the body of Christ and the requirement for holy living (see 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 5:6-13; 6:13-20; 10:16-22).

Thus, when the Holy Spirit said, "those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment," this was a reference to those earlier instructions. In other words, before a person eats and drinks the Supper, they need to think about their spiritual condition and what impact—good or bad—they will have with what they are about to do.

It's apparent from verses 30-32 that Jesus had disciplined the Corinthians as a result of their sins.

Together: what it's all about

Verses 33-34 conclude the Holy Spirit's teachings through Paul on this subject:

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

Here, Paul reminded them to eat together—to wait for one another, and to approach the Lord's Supper for with a spiritual focus (as opposed to wanting to fill up their belly).

So, if you see a congregation that is overrun with health problems and death, perhaps you should look at their observance of the Lord's Supper.

Perhaps Jesus is disciplining them too.

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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