The most powerful title or position I’ll ever hold is “Dad.” I absolutely love being a dad to my three children. It is a privilege and a joy. I concur with Bill Cosby who said, “Nothing I’ve ever done has given me more joys and rewards than being a father to my children.” As a father, the greatest gift I can receive is when another person blesses one of my children. Similarly, the most hurtful thing anyone can do to me is to hurt one of my children. If there is anything that is capable of bringing out my wrath, it is this. What is especially hurtful is when one of my children hurts another one of my children. Worse yet, when one of my boys hurts his little sister.
Did you know that God the Father feels the same way I do? He absolutely loves being a dad. He cares about each of His children in the deepest way imaginable. But what grieves Him is when one of His children hurts another one of His children. Worse yet, when one of His children who has been given much dishonors one who has little.
We will discover that God will not tolerate divisions and distinctions within His body—the church. The reason is simple: God is dead serious about His body. In 1 Cor 11:17-34, Paul provides three exhortations for us to follow.
- Include the entire body of Christ in worship(11:17-22). In these first six verses, Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for being divided. Paul begins this section in 11:17 with sobering words: “But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.” The conjunction “but” serves to contrast the worship events of 11:17-34 with 11:2-16. Ironically, the very equality the Corinthians were misusing in 11:2-16 was resolutely denied when it came to the observance of the Lord’s Supper. This is confirmed by the use of the verb “praise.” In 11:2, Paul praised the Corinthians because they remembered him in everything and maintained the teachings he passed on to them. But in 11:17 (cf. 11:22) he does not praise them on account of their class divisions (see 11:18). Instead, he declares that they “come together not for the better but for the worse.”
The verb translated here “come together” (sunercomai) is used five times in this passage (11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). Elsewhere, the verb refers to either coming or going with one or more persons (i.e., to travel together with someone). Additionally, sunercomai is used in sexual contexts to describe coming together to unite in an intimate relationship. Hence, with more than a sprinkling of irony, Paul repeatedly describes the Corinthians as coming together in one location, knowing full well that their eating was anything but “together” as a unified body. Thus, the very ritual that was intended to celebrate the gospel and symbolically act out their oneness in Christ had become an occasion for splitting the church on the basis of status. This explains why Paul stated that the Corinthians “come together not for the better but for the worse.”
Paul now explains this problem further in 11:18: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it.” The phrase “in the first place” is emphatic since no “second” follows. First and last on Paul’s mind are the “divisions” that are taking place in Corinth. It is for this reason that Paul cannot praise the Corinthians. Instead of treating one another with brotherly love and acting as the family of God, there are divisions among them. What Paul has in mind is a division between those who have more than enough to eat and drink at the Lord’s Supper and those who have insufficient quantities. This is evident from the contrast in 11:21-22 between “one who is hungry” and “one who is drunk.” In 11:22, Paul identifies a group within the church as the “have-nots,” whose members are humiliated by the actions of their counterparts. This deeply grieves the heart of God for God is dead serious about His body.
As in 11:18, Paul explains himself further in 11:19: “For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.” “Factions” or “divisions” can have a positive side. They serve to clarify whom God approves as faithful and who are not. God’s approval (dokimoi) contrasts with what Paul had written earlier about being disapproved (adokimos; 9:27) by God. Thus, “the approved” are those who behave in a Christian manner and thus stand out from the ones who do not. Mature Christians will become evident in times of crisis.
The indictment of 11:17-19 is expanded in 11:20-22. Yet, before we read these verses we need to make sure we understand how the Corinthians are abusing the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was usually part of a meal the early Christians shared together—the “love feast.” In Corinth, instead of sharing their food and drinks, each family was bringing its own and eating what it had brought. The result was that the rich had plenty but the poor had little and suffered embarrassment as well. This was hardly the picture of Christian love and unity. They were eating their own private meals rather than sharing a meal consecrated to the Lord. Furthermore, some with plenty of wine to drink were evidently drinking too heavily.
Now with this scenario in mind, read Paul’s words in 11:20-21: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk.” Paul provides a glaring contrast in these verses. Instead of partaking of the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthians devour their food while the poor go hungry. The idea here is not eating first, but refusing to share food and drink. Furthermore, the grammar suggests that the “devouring” took place during the meal itself. Thus, the wealthy members of the Corinthian church were guilty of gluttony and drunkenness while the poor went without (11:21). This notion can also be supported from the customary practice at Greco-Roman banquets where wealthy hosts—those with homes large enough to host the communal meal—would have assigned the biggest and best portions of food to the more privileged.
Nevertheless, Paul did not tolerate what was socially acceptable in ancient Corinth.
He closes out this section in 11:22 with a series of rhetorical questions, creating a strong rhetorical appeal. Paul exclaims, “What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.” Paul is grieved at the behavior of the church; therefore, his words are flavored with a righteous indignant anger. The response of the Corinthians should be repentance. Whatever the precise circumstances, a meal designed to express unity was being so abused as to highlight the disunity of this church. The cliquish behavior of the Corinthians reflected significant social and economic differences; thus, members who brought nothing with them to the meal were being humiliated and going hungry, while those who could bring plenty to eat and drink, enjoyed their own food without sharing it. What should have been an inclusive community meal had become an occasion for simultaneously private meals. This was an affront to Christ and His gospel.
I wish divisions and partiality were problems only in first-century Corinth, but I am sure they are alive and well in the 21st century at Mobberly. Do we prefer certain people over others? Do we gravitate toward those who have money or are successful by the world’s standards? Do we only want to socialize with those who are like us? Why do we struggle so to reach out to those who are different than we are? Our prayer must be that we will not allow any kind of prejudice, whether social, racial, generational, or cultural, to control our attitudes toward anyone in the body of Christ. We must always remember that God is dead serious about His body. [As a loving and impartial Father, God calls us to include all of His children in worship.]
- Recapture the significance of the Lord’s Supper(11:23-26). In 11:23-26, Paul gives a brief theology of the Lord’s Supper. In doing so, he reminds us to remember that the Lord’s Supper pictures Christ’s self-sacrifice on behalf of His people. Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 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.’ In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’” Twice in these verses, Paul urges the Corinthians to remember the death of Christ. By partaking of the bread and the cup, we remember that Jesus Christ took our hell that we might have His heaven. It is His “body on our behalf.” The Lord’s Supper is God’s way of getting us to keep the cross of Christ central in the life of the church. We use the Lord’s Supper to draw close to Jesus in gratitude for what He has done for the entire church through His cross. As we draw near to Him through His Supper, He will draw near to us.
Many couples renew their marriage vows on an anniversary of their wedding. Some couples plan large celebrations; others simply renew their vows before each other. Either way, this act declares a confirmation of original vows and a commitment to continued faithfulness. But we can also think of the new covenant with the tenderness and devotion of renewed marriage vows. Unlike a human marriage, however, the new covenant represents God’s declaration of His devotion and commitment, even though the other covenant partner, His people, had not remained faithful. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we remember what Jesus has done for us in spite of ourselves.
Paul closes this section by stating, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (11:26). The proclamation of the Lord’s Supper is to show forth the Lord’s death until He comes. By means of the Lord’s Supper the Corinthians are to show in a physical way the death of Jesus and what it accomplished for their salvation and corporate fellowship. The result should be that the Corinthians will not overindulge themselves, despise and shame others, or allow brothers and sisters to go hungry. To do less is the epitome of selfishness.
A well-known painting of the Vietnam Wall depicts a young widow and her daughter standing at the wall, reaching up and touching the name of the husband and father who died. The reflection in the polished granite is not of the mother and daughter but of the husband and father reaching out his hand to touch theirs. That is the Lord’s Supper. We arrive at the table and reach out our hands to take the bread and the cup. In response to our act of faith, Jesus touches us. The significance of the Lord’s Supper is this: We remember Christ and proclaim Him because He laid down His life for us. If you have never believed in Jesus Christ’s person and work, please do so today. [Our loving and impartial Father wants us to remember and proclaim the great sacrifice of His Son.]
- Judge yourself to avoid God’s judgment(11:27-32). In this section, Paul warns us against abusing the Lord’s Supper. In 11:27-29 he writes, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” The opening word “therefore” (cf. 10:12; 11:33) indicates that Paul is now resuming his main discussion from 11:22. Furthermore, he is drawing a conclusion from what he has said and giving an explanation to his teaching. Since the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of Christ’s death (11:23-26), eating and drinking “unworthily” is unconscionable. The word rendered “unworthily” (KJV) or “unworthy manner” (NASB, NIV, NKJV) is not an adjective describing the condition of the one partaking of communion, but an adverb, describing the manner in which one partakes of the Lord’s Supper. The sin of the Corinthians, for which divine discipline was imposed, was related to the manner in which the Lord’s Supper was observed.
The Corinthians are not commanded to examine themselves to see whether or not they are Christians, but to see if they are properly discerning the body of Christ. There is likely a double-entendre in 11:29 with the reference to “the body,” referring literally to Jesus’ physical body “which is for you” (cf. 11:24), and the church as the Lord’s corporate body, which was being divided by the Corinthian attitude (cf. 11:17-22). In other words, one who treats fellow believers poorly fails to discern that they are members of Christ’s church, His body. One may also fail to discern the significance of Christ’s death since by His death He created a people; and therefore one who mistreats fellow believers at the Lord’s Supper reveals that he or she has little understanding of why Christ died.
Practically speaking, this means that if you are not in fellowship with another believer strive to resolve the schism in your relationship before you partake of the Lord’s Supper. In Matt 5:23-24, Jesus told His disciples not to worship God until you have first reconciled with your brother. Fortunately, Paul provides a supplementary note when he writes, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18). It’s not always possible to attain this, but God’s goal is that there not be any outstanding balance in your fellowship bank account. Instead, we are to pursue peace.
Paul now applies the general truths of 11:27-29 specifically to the situation at Corinth. In 11:30 Paul writes, “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.” The judgment here is physical and it is progressive: weakness, sickness, death. The word “weak” refers to illness of any kind (depression, anxiety?) while the term “sick” refers to weakness and on-going poor health. The verb “sleep” refers to the death of a believer. Paul is dealing with illness as a physical divine judgment; but not all illness is. These verses apply only if and when the problems of weakness, sickness, and death are problems resulting from divine discipline because of unconfessed sin.
It has been said, “God has been known to give ‘dishonorable discharges.’” In other words, eventually, God says, “Enough is enough. Your time is up!” Why does God do this? For the simple reason that He loves us and wants to ensure that we are in fellowship with Him. Since pain gets our attention, He uses pain. “Sometimes Christ sees that we need sickness for the good of our souls more than healing for the good of our bodies.” But even when He resorts to this form of discipline, He does so because He loves us. God is dead serious about His body.
Paul continues his argument in 11:31-32 with two powerful truths. First, in 11:31 Paul writes, “But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.” Paul clearly states that the Corinthians will not be judged if they judge themselves. His logic here seems to be: Judge yourselves so that the Lord will not have to. Our goal must be to judge the sin in our own lives before God has to expose it. We must humble ourselves before we are humbled or humiliated. I don’t know about you, but I have enough issues in my life to keep me busy.
Yet, we are so good at judging others. Some of us look down on people who listen to worldly music, watch R-rated movies, drink alcohol, dance, play cards, spend money on things we wouldn’t buy, etc. The ability to see sin in others and ignore it in your own heart is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a Pharisee, and being a Pharisee is so easy. It’s great to make rules to guide our own behavior, but when we extend those rules to everyone around us, we’re in danger of becoming pharisaical.
A second truth is found in 11:32 where Paul writes, “But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” The verbs “judged” and “disciplined” are both present tense verbs indicating on-going activity. This suggests that the goal of God’s discipline is remedial. This is the difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline is for the good of another; punishment is to extract a pound of flesh. God disciplines us because He is a loving Father (Heb 12:5-11). He desperately wants our good.
One man asked his middle child how he knew the father loved him. He was shocked with his response. He said, “Dad, I know that you love me because you always discipline me.” This is the fruit of fatherhood. God knows our biological children will never mature apart from biblical discipline. Likewise, God disciplines us so that we will mature spiritually. Apart from His discipline we will never mature. And if we are not disciplined, the Bible indicates that we are illegitimate children (Heb 12:8). Hence, we should welcome discipline as a sign that a loving Father cares about us.
Scripture speaks of three levels of God’s chastening, or discipline:
- Plan A—Internal Chastening. In this level, God deals with us in our hearts and nobody knows it is happening except us. If God is disciplining you at this moment, that is the best way to have your problem solved. One of my daily prayers is, “Lord, humble me so that you don’t have to humble me.” If you and I can come to the place that God puts his finger on something, and you can say, “Thank you, Lord, for loving me this much,” you are judging yourself. If this level of discipline is not effective, God moves to…
- Plan B—External Chastening. In this level the consequences of our sin become obvious because God’s discipline goes public. This is where Jonah ran from the Lord, and God chastened him. He was not weak or sick. Plan B led to being swallowed by the fish. Had Jonah not surrendered to God’s will the second time, God had another plan. If this second level of discipline fails, God will up the ante.
- Plan C—Terminal Chastening. In this level, God calls the believer home prematurely.
The proper course of action from the Corinthians should be to honor and respect their fellow believers. Paul concludes this passage in 11:33-34 with these words: “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.” The verb “come together” harkens back to 11:17 and serves to bracket this unit. Paul then provides a direct answer to the issues raised in 11:21. Instead of some gorging themselves while others go hungry, each should share what they have, and all should eat together. In this way the Corinthians reflect the unity of the body (“they judge rightly,” 11:29), and avert the judgment of God.
The phrase translated “wait for one another” more likely means “welcome one another.” If the Corinthians merely “wait for one another” the problem at hand is not corrected. The crisis in Corinth is that the poor are without food. The rich “waiting” for the poor to arrive and then partaking together will not remedy this difficulty. Fortunately, this translation issue is ironed out when it is recognized that when ekdechomai (“wait for”) is used of persons, it usually means “to take or receive from another” or “to entertain.” In this specific context, it seems appropriate that Paul’s command should be translated, “Care for one another!” “Receive one another warmly!” “Grant one another table fellowship!” “Show hospitality to one another!” Thus, in this context Paul is perhaps instructing the Corinthians, as his summary statement, to receive each other as equal members of the body of Christ.
The command to “eat at home” connects to Paul’s first warning that the Corinthians are worse off for having gathered together (11:17). If they are intent only on indulging their appetites, then they should stay at home. If the church’s gathering is to be meaningful it has to be an expression of real fellowship, which includes sharing.
Paul’s words in Rom 12:10 sum up this entire passage: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor.” God is dead serious about His body, so may we live out the Scriptures in obedience to Him.