When we hear a communion message today it is often based on the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ words, but rarely have I heard a message based on Paul’s account found in 1 Corinthians 11. In this account Paul address the situation of His readers with a piercing challenge directed at the selfish ways they were practicing the Lord’s Supper. He clarifies what he received from the Lord (11:23) and delivers a scary pronouncement “29For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. 30For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.” This is a terrifying statement, I can understand why some would avoid it; but Paul is writing as an inspired author of Holy Scripture and we need to heed the things that he has to say. The question is; what exactly does Paul mean with what he writes in this passage?
The first thing that strikes a reader approaching this passage in its context is Paul’s strong reprimand in vs. 17-22. Paul writes that when they come together in worship and as they practice communion, what is meant to celebrate their unity (10:16), they do not come together for “the better but for the worse” (11:17). As they come together there is much divisiveness—not all of which is completely harmful in their situation (11:19)—for they come and they eat and they drink without regard for one another. This resulted in some, who had nothing, being humiliated (20-22). Instead of treating communion as it was supposed to be treated, the Corinthians were acting as if it was just another feast (20-21). In the passage at hand Paul specifically addresses concerns about the way the Corinthians have been practicing the Lord’s Supper, they have shown disregard for the unity it represents and have approached it as a common feast looking out for their own desires above those of their brethren. Because of this division Paul reiterates what he had delivered to them before on the Supper and addresses the present results of their disobedience in practicing the Supper. As we come to 11:23-34 in the flow of Paul’s argument he has been addressing different concerns raised by the Corinthian Church. Starting in verse 2 of this chapter, and extending to the end of it, Paul begins to address concerns about their worship.
After addressing their divisiveness and failure to properly practice the Supper in vv. 17-22, Paul then gives the grounds for his charge in vv. 23-34. In vv. 23-26 Paul presents the content of what he received “from the Lord” (v. 23) about the supper, he then proceeds to draw an inference as to the guilt of those partaking of the Supper “in an unworthy manner” (v. 27) from the content of what he received. Finally, in v. 33-34, he concludes with a final inference—drawing on his argument in vv. 23-32—as to how the Corinthians should properly act in regards to the Supper. Paul, in addressing the disunity of the brethren in Corinth, calls their attention to the sickness and even death coming upon them (30) as evidence of a corrective judgment on the part of God (29-32). In the center of his argument is a rather difficult statement, Paul writes that they eat and drink judgment upon themselves if they do “not judge the body rightly” (29). We must ask, what does it mean to not judge the body rightly? Historically the position taken has been that “the body” is a shorthand reference to the blood and body of the Lord commemorated in the Supper. From this perspective what the Corinthians are failing to discern (διακρὶνω, diakrinō) properly is the true nature of the supper and are confounding it with a regular meal.3 Paul here simply writes “the body” and it seems to be a rather conspicuous absence for him to neglect “the blood” and “of the Lord” if this is what he is referring to, especially since the blood and the body are given in pairing in one sense or another 6 times in the previous verses.4 In speaking only of the “body” it would seem that Paul is harkening back to what he has already said about the bread and the body in 10:16. In this verse Paul writes of the bread, “the bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” In verse 17 he then follows up with “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Paul in these verses argues that in partaking of the one bread they Corinthians are participating in the body of Christ, they are declaring their unity as one body. 5 For them to fail to discern the body rightly in 11:29 is for them to fail to acknowledge the meaning of the body in the communion service, in their disunity they are throwing out the core of what it is meant to represent. Overall, then, Paul is writing that the disunity of the Corinthians in partaking of communion has caused sickness and death, for those in disunity are drinking the corrective judgment of God. His imperative from this argument is that they are to come together in unity, waiting for one another and getting their fill at home so that they are not causing division with the pursuit of their appetites (11:33-34).
Today we can apply what Paul is speaking of here to our communion service by having a time set aside for self-examination. As we talk about the bread and blood and what they represent we need to remember that in instituting a New Covenant through His blood Christ has established a new covenant community of regenerate believers, as we break the bread we remember our unity as the body of Christ, a community of believers in covenant relationship with God. We must examine ourselves and ask ourselves where we are in relationship with our brothers and sisters; do our actions demonstrate our union with them or do we portray disunity? If our answer is disunity then we must takes steps to reconcile our relationships with these brothers and sisters and truly represent the united Body of Christ in our partaking of communion.
Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. ESV text ed. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008.