No church today is without issues, differences of opinion, and diversity of theological understanding. We know from reading the letter of First Corinthians that the church at Corinth was no different. In fact, many of the problems and issues dealt with in the book are still relevant to churches today. The specific issue Paul deals with in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is the Lord’s Supper. This section of the book outlines Paul’s answer, teaching, and application to the church at Corinth regarding this topic.
We know from the first verse of the book that the author is Paul and the book was written to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:1-2). It also appears that the purpose of the book was for Paul to respond to reports that he heard about the church as well as a letter that they wrote to him (1 Corinthians 1:11; 7:1). Using these two verses as a guide, a simple outline of the book can be made:
- Greeting and Thanksgiving (1:1-9)
- Response to reports made about the Corinthian church (1:10-6:20)
- Response to questions made in the Corinthian’s letter to Paul (7:1-15:58)
- Concluding matters and final instructions (16:1-24)
Chapter 11 verses 17-34 appears right after a section about head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and precedes Paul’s section on spiritual gifts starting in chapter 12. Chapter 11 is also in the middle of Paul’s response to the Corinthian’s letter. It is most likely then that all of Paul’s comments, teaching, and application are made in response to the Corinthians’ question regarding the Lord’s Supper. However, since we do not have the letter the Corinthians wrote to Paul we can only guess what their question or issues may have been. Although, by reading verses 17-34, it is evident that the Corinthians were uncertain of the exact purpose and theological understanding behind the Lord’s Supper and that there was some division among the church on this issue.
Section A – Verses 17-22
“17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” – 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 (ESV)
Paul begins the preceding section on head coverings by commending (epainō), or as other translations put it, “praising,” the Corinthians because they have remembered Paul and maintained the traditions he delivered to them (1 Corinthians 11:2). He now begins the section on the Lord’s Supper with the same word epainō (“commend” or “praise”), however, this time it is in the negative (ouk epainō) (1 Corinthians 11:17). The reason Paul does not commend them for coming together is also clear from verse 17, that is because it does more harm than good. It can be seen from the next verse (18) that divisions existed within the Corinthian church and this is why Paul says that their coming together is harmful. The Lord’s Supper is meant to be partaken in unity, yet instead of creating unity it was actually causing disunity within the church.
The sentence at the end of verse 18 which continues verse 19 is a little more ambiguous in comparison to the rest of the paragraph. The ESV notes that the phrase could also be, “I believe a certain report,” instead of “I believe it in part.” What is clear is that Paul to some extent does believe that the report of divisions among the church is true. More important is what Paul says about these divisions in verse 19, which is that they must exist. The reason Paul gives for this is that divisions make it clear who in the church is genuine and who is not.
Paul goes on to say in verse 20 that while the Corinthian church does come together to partake of the Lord’s Supper, they are not really partaking of it. While a church or group of Christians may physically eat the bread and drink from the cup, there is more to the Lord’s Supper than this. This is seen more in the next verses (21-22), which explain why divisions occurred concerning the Lord’s Supper. First, the Corinthians connected the Lord’s Supper to a larger meal, perhaps a dinner. The result of this was that “each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21). It appears that some in the church were in a sense abusing the gathering and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. While the purpose of the meal should have been to bring unity and remembrance of the Lord’s death, instead divisions and drunkenness resulted. The Corinthians were missing the true meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper since they were not actually partaking of it (verse 20). In doing this, Paul says that the Corinthians were both despising the church (or fellowship) of God and humiliating fellow Christians (who had nothing and were going hungry). For these reasons, Paul could not commend the Corinthians in their practice of the Lord’s Supper and begins to correct them in the next section.
Section B – Verses 23-26
“23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when 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 also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (ESV)
Here in this section of verses, Paul reminds the Corinthians that his teaching on the Lord’s Supper is not his own but a direct teaching from Jesus Christ. Verses 24 and 25 contain quotes from Jesus himself. Although they are not exact word-for-word quotes from any of the gospels they are close and certainly do not contradict the gospel accounts. The quotes seem to be closest to what Luke wrote in Luke 22:17-20 (other gospel accounts can be found in Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24). It is evident from both First Corinthians and the gospels that the bread represents Jesus’ body and the cup of wine represents his blood.
Perhaps the most important statement Jesus makes is that the cup is the “new covenant in my blood” (verses 25). This New Covenant was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and fulfilled by Jesus’ broken body and shed blood on the cross which is now represented by the Lord’s Supper. Just as the Old Covenant had a meal of remembrance (the Passover), the New Covenant also has a meal (the Lord’s Supper). In fact, Paul also states in the same book that Christ is our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7).
It is clear from the gospels and verses 24-25 that Jesus desired for his disciples to continue this meal in remembrance of him, however, no further reason was given besides remembrance. This makes verse 26 interesting because Paul now states that partaking of the Lord’s Supper proclaims (kataggellete) the Lord’s death. This word (kataggellete) that is often translated as proclaim also has the sense of declaring or preaching. Paul seems to then connect the Lord’s Supper not only as a meal to remember the Lord’s death but also to proclaim it.
Section C – Verses 27-34
“27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” – 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (ESV)
Verse 27 in Greek starts with hŌste (so that, therefore), connecting this verse with the previous thoughts. So then, it is because the Lord’s Supper is both for remembering the Lord’s death and proclaiming it, that it must be eaten in a worthy and respectful manner. It is a serious meal deserving of personal examination before partaking. Jesus’ death, as God’s way of salvation and redemption, should be seriously proclaimed and remembered. Those who do not honor God by accepting Jesus’ atonement on the cross remain in God’s judgment. Paul says the same is true for those who do not honor the Lord’s Supper. Instead of eating and drinking the meal in honor, remembrance, and thanksgiving, they instead eat and drink God’s judgment upon themselves (1 Corinthians 11:29). In fact, Paul even states that sickness and death have resulted within the Corinthian Church precisely because people have partaken of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:30). Lastly, in verses 31-32, Paul teaches that Christians can judge themselves in truth, but it is when they dishonestly judge themselves that God judges them. Also, God’s judgment has a positive purpose of bringing Christians back to him so that they may not continue in the ways of the world and be condemned.
Section D – Verses 33-34
“33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.” – 1 Corinthians 11:33-34 (ESV)
Conclusion & Application
These last two verses sum up Paul’s teaching and application regarding the Lord’s Supper. Paul’s solution is that the Corinthians should wait for one another. “Wait for” could be translated “share with,” underlining the point of having the Lord’s Supper. The meal is to be shared in the community, done in unity, in a worth manor, and as a remembrance and proclamation of the Lord’s death. The Lord’s Supper should always be a unifying ritual done to remind the church of their salvation and that they are now one body in Christ. Whenever the Lord’s Supper is partaken in an unworthy manner or in disunity, the result will be God’s judgment.
While the last verses highlight Paul’s application, other applications can be made from the other verses, namely:
- The Lord’s Supper should be partaken in each church until the Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 11:24-26).
- Each person should examine himself/herself before partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28).
- The Lord’s Supper can and should be used as a time not only for remembering Jesus’ sacrificial death but also for proclaiming it. It can be used as a time to evangelize those that are not yet believers and to explain to them the meaning of Jesus’ death, as well as to proclaim his future return (1 Corinthians 11:26).
While the issues the Corinthian Church faced regarding the Lord’s Supper can be seen in the passage, churches today can experience a variety of other issues not mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians. These issues may be theological, for example: are the bread and wine the actual body of Christ? Or there are practical issues such as, what kind of bread should be used and must the meal include wine or is something else okay? While not mentioned specifically in this passage of Scripture, it seems Paul does give guidelines that cover how these questions should be answered. As long as the Lord’s Supper is practiced in unity and in a manner that glorifies and proclaims the death (and return) of Christ, other issues are only secondary.