The Lord's Supper
Factions (I Corinthians 11:17-19)
Where the prior issue was one Paul found much to praise the Corinthians about in regards to their keeping the traditions delivered, though he emphasized the need to continue following the customs delivered, in this next section were practices he found disappointment in their practice. Their gatherings should be for the benefit of those coming to worship, but instead, the gatherings have been detrimental.
The first problem is the divisions in their assemblies. (The second problem is not directly labeled, but is likely the division caused by their abuse of the spiritual gifts [I Corinthians 12-14]). Paul would like to think that what he heard could not be true, but he remembers the people well enough that he isn’t completely surprised by what he has heard. The source of what he has heard about the conduct in worship likely came from members of Chloe’s household (I Corinthians 1:11), though it could have come from others who had met with Paul (I Corinthians 16:12, 17).
Paul speaks of coming together as a church. People can gather together for various reasons, but there are specific times when Christians gather as a church. During such times rules must be observed for such gatherings.
Sadly, factions will always exist among the Lord’s people. Not because it is desired or wanted, but because there will always be some unwilling to follow the Lord’s commands. The Greek word for “factions” in I Corinthians 11:19 is hairesis, from which we get the word “heresy.” It can be used to refer to a division or sect, such as in Acts 5:17, but it generally carries the implication of a division due to false doctrine (Acts 24:5; Galatians 5:20; II Peter 2:1). Discord is a deed of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). Quarrels are best not even started (Proverbs 17:14; 20:3). Division should not exist among God’s people (I Corinthians 1:11-16; Romans 16:17). But at the same time, Christians will always be dealing with false teachers and the divisiveness of their doctrine (I John 4:1; II Peter 2:1-2). Factions will occur when someone attempts to bring in false doctrine. and, in this case, the resulting division demonstrates that some are willing to oppose it. Such divisions demonstrate and separate the true Christian from the false.
Division is seen in how the Lord’s Supper is taken (I Corinthians 11:20-22)
Paul’s prime example of such division is seen when they assemble for worship. Notice the phrase “come together in one place.” Worship isn’t a happen-chance event or one that is continually taking place. There is a location agreed upon (“one place”) for the express purpose of worship (“as a church”). A primary reason for that gathering is for the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, but in the situation at Corinth, the Lord’s Supper isn’t truly being observed.
Oh, I’m sure the Corinthians called their partaking the Lord’s Supper, but what they were doing didn’t meet the requirements. Paul previously touched on the point that a core element of the Lord’s Supper what the sharing of the body and blood of Christ (I Corinthians 10:16-17). However, the Corinthians were not waiting for each other when partaking. Thus, when they assembled, one partakes before others arrive. Some have not partaken (are hungry) while others have partaken (are drunk or satisfied).
Note that the word “drunk” does not imply that Christians were getting drunk during worship. Such would be a sin in itself (I Corinthians 6:9-10) that the Corinthians knew was wrong (I Corinthians 6:11). The word methuo means “filled to the full.” When used in regards to alcoholic beverages, it does imply drunkenness, as it does in English. But in regards to other things, it means filled to the point of satisfaction. Since it is being used in contrast to hunger, it is being used in regards to satisfaction in this verse. As Johnson notes in People’s New Testament Commentary, “This last clause means that he had eaten and was satisfied.”
Paul’s point is that unity is not being demonstrated in the sharing of a common meal with the Lord; instead, their disharmonious partaking demonstrates division. If they were hungry they should have eaten at home. The gathering of the church is not to provide meals, that is the function of the home. Their action shows disdain for the church and for their brethren left with nothing of which to partake. If they expected praise from Paul in this matter, they had the wrong idea.
How the Lord’s Supper Should be Done (I Corinthians 11:23-26)
Paul mentions again his inspiration. The source of his teachings come directly from Jesus (Galatians 1:11-12). Thus the memorial feast was never the idea of men wanting to commemorate the death of their Savior. This was the command of the Lord to his followers. The importance of the command is also seen in the time frame in which it was given. Jesus instituted his memorial meal on the same night his betrayal led to his death.
The solemness of the occasion is established by Paul’s recounting of the event. It is at odds with the casual manner in which the Corinthians had been treating this memorial. The Lord had emphasized that each time it is eaten we remembering the fact that Jesus died on our behalf. The bread represents the broken body of the Lord and the contents of the cup represent the Lord’s blood. That blood was what sealed the new covenant (Hebrews 9:15-22), thus replacing the old (Hebrews 8:13; Ephesians 2:15-16; Colossians 2:13-14).
The elements of the Lord’s Supper are unleavened bread and grape juice. We use unleavened bread because the Lord established his memorial meal on the night of the Passover, which is during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Matthew 26:17; Luke 22:17). Leavening can represent sin, so the use of unleavened bread emphasizes that the Lord was sinless (Hebrews 4:15; I Corinthians 5:7-8). For similar reasons, grape juice and not wine is used for the drink. Wine is made with yeast (a leavening agent), and such was not allowed in the homes of those celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It should be also noted that unlike almost every other reference to grape products in the New Testament, the content of the cup was called “fruit of the vine” not the typical Greek word oinos, which is translated as “wine.” It appears it was important not to connect the blood of Christ with an alcoholic beverage even indirectly.
By pointing out that the memorial feast was instituted after supper, Paul further emphasizes that this memorial meal was not connected with the Passover, nor with meals eaten to satisfy hunger. The memorial meal’s purpose is to serve as a reminder of Jesus’ death.
Both here and when the Lord’s Supper was instituted, the frequency of the partaking is not mentioned. It only says as often as it is done. It is from Acts 20:7 that we learn that the disciples partook of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. The duration is given. This memorial is to be done until the Lord returns.
In partaking of the Lord’s Supper, it is not only a reminder of the Lord’s death to the participants, but it is also a declaration of the event to the world around us. It is a public ordinance and not a private celebration.
- How do you drink a cup? What type of figurative language is being used?
- What is being eaten? What does this do to the Catholic belief that elements are literally transfigured into the flesh and blood of Christ?
- When Jesus said the bread is his body and the cup is his blood, what type of figure of speech was being used?
- Of the three gospel accounts, Paul’s recounting is closest to Luke’s. Does this have any significance?
Partaking in an Unworthy Manner (I Corinthians 11:27-32)
Because of the solemness of the memorial, it is important to partake of the memorial in a manner that is worthy of the event it symbolizes. Paul is not saying that the participants had to be worthy of Christ’s death – in reality, we aren’t truly worthy, but Christ saw in us people worthy of his sacrifice (Romans 5:8-11). What he is pointing out, and had been pointing out, is that the manner in which the Lord’s Supper is observed should be in accordance with what it represents. To not do so makes the participant guilty of the death of Jesus.
The Corinthian’s irreverence during the Lord’s Supper had bled over into their spiritual life. Many were weak and sickly spiritually and some had even died spiritually because they had not kept the memory of Christ’s death. Sleeping is a common idiom in the Bible for death (Job 14:10-15; Daniel 12:2; John 11:11-14). It is used because it emphasizes the fact that someone asleep can be awakened again. To the child of God, death is not permanent – even spiritual death. One can be brought back.
If we kept a proper close watch on ourselves (I Corinthians 11:28) and correct ourselves when wrong, there would be no need for God to chastise us to bring us back into line with His will (Hebrews 12:5-13).
- Could Paul be talking about physical weakness, sickness, and death in I Corinthians 11:30?
Summary (I Corinthians 11:33-34)
Paul’s conclusion is that when the Lord’s Supper is taken that the brethren are to wait for each other so that it can be taken jointly (I Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:21) and giving equal respect to all participants. Meals are to be taken at home. The Lord’s Supper is not intended to be a meal to fill the stomach. If people insist on mixing common meals with worship, God will bring the people into judgment because it is not treating the Lord’s Supper with proper respect.
Other matters, probably pertaining to details regarding the observance of the Lord’s Supper, Paul would handle when he returned to Corinth. He wasn’t speaking of general matters as his letter continues to address other questions. It is possible that when Paul penned I Corinthians, he had intentions to return to Corinth shortly, though such did not work out for him (II Corinthians 1:15-17).