Study Notes for I Corinthians 11:17-34
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Again in this section of I Corinthians Paul reprimands the Corinthians for their factions and divisions. Their meetings together, he says, do more harm than good. They were divided among themselves, separating themselves into groups and snubbing the people they didn't include.
We remember that in I Corinthians 1 Paul told them they were not to divide themselves into subgroups following different teachers, such as himself, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter). We know the Corinthians church had sectioned itself into groups which each felt superior because of their loyalty to certain dynamic leaders. Those divisions are probably part of the underlying problem Paul addresses in this chapter.
Additionally, though, the church was dividing itself into social, financial, and political groups. These new Christians had lost the sense of all being part of one body-Christ's body, and they were using the church and their meetings to serve or advance themselves.
Paul is very upset with what's happening to them, and he says, "I have no praise for you." Then he adds a curious thing, "No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval." Paul is not grudgingly allowing these divisions, but he is saying that when they happen, such splits in the church serve one purpose; they reveal who is being divisive and who is remaining faithful to Jesus. Conflict has a way of polarizing people. Those committed to serving Jesus in love will stand apart from those who are greedy and critical.
Agape Feasts or Bacchanals?
The early church held "agape (love) feasts" in connection with the Lord's Supper. These feasts were full meals, and everybody brought food to share. The rich apparently brought much more food than did the poor, but the tradition of the early believers was to share everything in common when they met. The Corinthians, however, were eating in cliques composed of people from the same social classes. Instead of acting on the truth that in Christ there is no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave or free, rich or poor, they turned these agape feasts into gluttonous revelries. The rich ate together, hogging the food and wine, and the poor went hungry. They began treating these Christian meals as if they were pagan Bacchanals, eating and drinking to the point of gluttony and drunkenness.
In this hedonistic atmosphere they actually observed the Lord's Supper, breaking bread and drinking wine and supposing they were remembering Christ.
Paul's criticism was severe. "Don't you have homes 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 praise you for this? Certainly not!"
What began as the Lord's Supper had turned into a sort of free-for-all, with people grabbing and eating with no regard for each other. The rich scorned the poor and elbowed them out of the way, not caring that they didn't get to eat. The meal that had been a symbol of Jesus' once-for-all sacrifice that unified all believers in him had become a divisive, status-conscious social event at which the poor were disrespected and excluded from fellowship and participation.
In addition to humiliating the poor, the gluttons in the crowd were not only eating more than their share but were actually getting drunk on the wine that symbolized the death of Christ. They were disrespecting not only each other but also Jesus himself.
After chastising the Corinthians for their disrespectful, hedonistic observance of the Lord's Supper, Paul tells the story of Jesus initiating communion. Jesus was observing communion with his disciples "on the night he was betrayed." He took bread-the unleavened bread typical of Passover meals-and in one sentence infused the symbol with fulfillment and new meaning. "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." (v.24)
For centuries the Jews had eaten Passover bread in memory of their flight from Egypt. At the Last Supper, Jesus revealed what that bread had always represented; it represented himself, the Bread of Life, which had sustained his people from the beginning of their calling as a nation. Passover wasn't just about leaving Egypt; it was about Messiah setting people free from a bondage greater than slavery to a nation. Now Jesus was actually about to be the sacrificial Lamb, and the symbols of Passover would forever change from pointing back and looking ahead to representing present reality.
Jesus himself lived out the spiritual truth of the entire saga of the Israelites' flight from Egypt to find identity in God. Now God's people would no longer need to remember Moses leading Israel. The Old Covenant was ending, and from now on God's people would remember their new leader, Jesus himself, providing them with victory and freedom NOW!
Jesus likewise transformed the Passover cup of thanksgiving with present fulfillment and meaning. The Passover wine had symbolized the blood the Israelites had sprinkled on their doorposts on the night the angel of death passed over Egypt and killed the firstborns. Those with the blood on their doors were safe from the fatal touch in their homes because they were "under the blood".
In the Sinai desert, after Moses had received the law from God and had returned to camp and read it to Israel, he built an altar "and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord." (Ex. 24:5) Then Moses took the blood of the bulls and sprinkled it on the people and said, "This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words." (Ex. 24:8)
This is the first reference to "the blood of the covenant". The covenant to which Moses referred was the Mosaic covenant, or the Old Covenant into which God and Israel entered by mutual agreement. In that covenant, Israel agreed to do all that God commanded them upon pain of being cursed if they failed to obey.
At the Last Supper Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant. "This cup is the new covenant in my blood;" he said; "do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." No longer were God's people under a blood oath which sentenced them to disinheritance or death if they disobeyed. No longer were they under the symbolic blood of bulls. Now God's people are under the blood of Christ himself, shed one time for everybody.
Now we are under a new covenant established not between God and man but between God and Jesus. We are saved from destruction if we are under the blood of Christ, because He kept the covenant for us. His death saves us. We are alive because He has lifted the curse of our disobedience and put it upon himself. We are free because he has risen from death and grants us living souls, forever connected to himself by the Holy Spirit. The blood of the new covenant has put us into a new relationship with God. We are forgiven; we are no longer under judgment for our lives. Jesus took our death sentence and gives us his righteousness and a new kind of life. We aren't stuck anymore with a mere physical life span and a promise of eternity. We actually begin eternity now; we are spiritually alive, and we will always be with him.
Eating and Drinking Unworthily
In verses 27 to 32, Paul begins his most serious and startling instruction regarding the Lord's Supper. "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," he says.
In the context of this passage of I Corinthians, Paul is referring to the church's internal disrespect and scorn for one another when he refers to eating in an unworthy manner. "For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself," Paul continues. (v.29)
In this verse the "body of the Lord" can be read to have two meanings: the body of Jesus, which the bread represents, and the church, which is the body of Christ. Both meanings are valid, and both fit the context. But the fact that Paul does not mention recognizing the cup of the Lord in this sentence suggests that he is primarily referring to the church. In other words Paul is saying, "Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing that all believers are one in Christ and without respecting each other as equal parts of the body of Christ, eats and drinks judgment on himself."
The judgment to which Paul refers is not the judgment of eternal life or eternal death. As Christ-followers we can be confident that our eternal life is assured. But Paul is saying that God brings judgment on us when we disrespect each other, his own body. God brings these judgments on us, Paul says, "so that we will not be condemned with the world."
In other words God disciplines us when we resist the Holy Spirit's promptings as He continuously and lovingly teaches us how to live as true Christians, bearing the living Christ to each other and to the world.
The Corinthians' massive disrespect of each other in their communion celebrations had brought God's judgment on them, Paul says. "That is why many of you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep." Many in the Corinthians church had become physically sick and had even died because of their self-absorption and gluttony. But these judgments were not evidences of eternal condemnation.
"When we are judged by the Lord," Paul explains, "we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world."
In the big picture which we cannot see but can only trust by faith, God is sovereign. The only thing in life-in the universe, in fact-which counts is the glory of God. The glory of God and his sovereign love are more important than even a human's physical life. In the big picture God cares about our eternal life. We exist to love and enjoy God and to glorify him. If we are intractable and resist his guidance, he will discipline us, according to this passage, as a means of bringing us to maturity and to an increasingly clear understanding of his love for us and of our accountability to him and to our fellow believers.
God's discipline of us is not only for ourselves; it is also for each other. It is possible that if God had not dealt so strongly with the Corinthians in this instance, future generations of the church might not have understood the seriousness of the Lord's Supper and the necessity of celebrating it with self-examination and reverence. God's dealings with the Corinthians ensured that the church would always know that the Lord's Supper is sacred and not to be trivialized.
"If we judged ourselves," Paul says, "we would not come under judgment." (v.31) In other words, if we were willing to be truthful and examine our own feelings and behaviors, the Holy Spirit would instruct us as to how we needed to change. He would show us where we need to trust God, who we need to pray for, what pockets of pride and arrogance we harbor-He would make clear to us the ways in which we need to change and to submit to him.
On the other hand if we refuse to be humble and to examine ourselves in the light of God's love, God will discipline us until we recognize his sovereignty and his will for us. As Christ followers we are to grow. Jesus does not save us and then leave us to wallow in slavery to sin. He teaches us and instructs us. He lives in us so we can begin to experience life and victory and freedom now, not only in the future.
God's discipline of us is not a judgment of condemnation. It is, rather, a judgment of love. His discipline does not mean we have fallen out of grace. It means that we are beloved, that we are God's children, that God is preparing us "to share in his holiness." (Hebrews 12:10)
"So then, my brothers," Paul summarizes, "when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment." (v. 33, 34)
A Call to Accountability
We are to eat the Lord's Supper with reverence. We are to recognize that it represents Jesus himself. We are not to think of it as a merely social event or a feast at which to indulge our appetites. We are to remember that it represents the death of God himself, our Savior who took our death sentence on himself so he could give us his life.
We are to honor and respect each other. We are each part of the body of our Lord. No one is less significant than another. We are to honor God's love and salvation of each one of his followers, and we are to treat each other with love and respect.
God calls us to be accountable for our actions. He asks us to be honest, to be willing to know the truth about ourselves. He asks us to submit to the Holy Spirit when he impresses us that we should allow him to change us. He asks us to live with integrity.
As Christ-followers we are to treat each other with dignity and respect. We bear the living Christ in us. The indwelling Holy Spirit is the presence of Christ in the world. When we act haughty or arrogant or condemning, we misrepresent our Lord.
God calls us to serve each other in love . He asks us to live with the authority of his Spirit. He asks us to trust him to transform us.
He calls us to share his holiness.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised July 7, 2000.