A Lord’s Supper Rebuke

In a recent post, The Corinthian Heresy, we returned to a passage from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 in order to give it an extended, in-depth look. This passage should be a familiar one concerning the Lord’s Supper. In that post, we noted the likelihood that it followed a chiastic structure (forms an X), which helped us to see the pattern of rebuke and instruction that the Apostle Paul makes regarding the agape (common meal), the Lord’s Supper, and subsequently the disunity that had resulted.  This structure looks looks something like the following:

  • A Agape Meal Rebuke (vs. 17-22)
  • B Lord’s Supper Directions (vs. 23-26)
  • B’ Lord’s Supper Rebuke (vs. 27-32)
  • A’ Agape Directions (vs. 33-34)

Having already worked through the arguments that were set forth in the Agape Meal rebuke from 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, and having noted previously the purpose of reciting the Lord’s institution of His Supper – as a prescription for all subsequent observances – we turn now towards the latter part of the passage to finalize our study.  Here, we need to unpack the nature and meaning of the Lord’s Supper rebuke. It’s a complicated and oft-debated passage, so we’ll need to step through it in a detailed way.

This section of rebuke, from 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, is cited below

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.

The rebuke is broken down into essentially 5 parts:

  • A Warning
  • A Command
  • A Threat
  • An Observation
  • An Application

First, the warning. Letting us know that this section (B’) does indeed refer to the previously rehearsed institution of the Lord’s Supper (B), we find the word, therefore, which is followed by a repetition of the eating of bread and drinking from the cup. With this, we arrive at our first difficulty, namely what partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner means. The word, represented in the ESV by the phrase, unworthy manner, is anaxios and it’s rarely used in the New Testament, occurring here as an adverb (also 11:29 in the Textus Receptus) and in 1 Corinthians 6:2 as an adjective. The difficulty arises from what this unworthy manner refers to. Perhaps partly influenced by the King James translation, which just says “unworthily”, traditionally this has been taken to refer to the spiritual condition of the one who partakes of the Lord’s Supper. In this way, anaxious is used as an adjective to modify a person, place, or thing, in this case referring to the unworthy spiritual condition of one who partakes in the Lord’s Supper. This has led to the widespread practice of introspection and searching of the heart for any hidden or unconfessed sin, which is a right and good practice, but may not be what the Lord has in mind here. After searching the heart, then following up with repentance, one partakes of the bread (body) and cup (blood) of the Lord, finding themselves now “worthy” of participation. Taken this way, the entire act resembles the Roman Catholic mass, i.e. repentance from sin and participation in a new sacrifice of Christ, which by the way is their meaning behind calling it a sacrament, i.e. a conference of grace.

Contrary to this, Charles Hodge notes that one of the conditions of partaking of the Lord’s Supper to begin with is a recognition that we are unworthy. Self-examination, repentance, and then participation wouldn’t suddenly increase one’s worthiness, if anything it would lend itself towards self-justification and self-righteousness which would increase the unworthiness. Perhaps this is made more clear through the ESV translation (interpretation) by the phrase, “unworthy manner,” which highlights the shift of focus away from the partaker and towards the manner or practice of the participation in the Lord’s Supper. This is a more helpful interpretation allowing the reader to rightly see anaxious as an adverb, which modifies the action, not the actor. Commenting further on the meaning, Hodge makes the following noteworthy statements

To eat or drink unworthily is in general to come to the Lord’s table in a careless, irreverent spirit, without the intention or desire to commemorate the death of Christ as the sacrifice for our sins, and without the purpose of complying with the engagements which we thereby assume. The way in which the Corinthians ate unworthily was, that they treated the Lord’s table as though it was their own; making no distinction between the Lord’s supper and an ordinary meal; coming together to satisfy their hunger, and not to feed on the body and blood of Christ; and refusing to commune with their poorer brethren.

pg. 231

While Hodge concludes that this is not the only way that a person may a person may eat and drink unworthily, it is most probable this was the way in which the Corinthians were partaking in an unworthy manner. For them, their problem was primarily in the “how” that was affecting the individual “who”. In other words, it is because they misunderstood and distorted the right practice of the Lord’s Supper, instituted by Christ on the night He was betrayed, that it caused them to approach it in a careless and irreverent manner. This should cause us to reflect on our own practice, to ensure that we are following properly the example and pattern of our Lord, so that we too avoid trivializing the Supper with an irreverent attitude.

Next, the warning is strengthened by the addition of the phrase, “guilty concerning the body and blood of our Lord” to those who would partake in an unworthy manner. As Hodge helpfully clarifies, the relationship between the Lord’s Supper and His sacrifice on the cross is much like the relationship between the symbol of a nation, such as its flag, and the nation itself. If one were to desecrate the flag, it would be as if they had disrespected the country which it represented. In a similar fashion, disrespecting the Lord’s Supper brings the guilt of disrespecting the very sacrifice that Christ made on the cross. This warning statement, which will soon be reissued in the form of a command, should alert us to the seriousness of this occasion.

The command, which follows next in verse 28, is essentially a positive assertion of the warning. In other words, the warning says Don’t Do This, while the command says Do This. This is expressed with the familiar statement that one should, “examine himself”. With this, it’s easy to see the connection that is so often made with the previous phrase, unworthy manner or unworthily, which would then lead us to proceed with the practice of self-examination and introspection prior to partaking of the Lord’s Supper. However, noting as we have that the focus, at least so far, is primarily on right practice and meaning of the supper, here we again turn to Hodge for clarity to unpack the meaning of this examination

…let him ascertain whether he has correct views of the nature and design of the ordinance, and whether he has a proper state of mind,

pg 232

First, as Hodge says, do we have a right understanding of the institution of this ordinance? Again, this is the purpose for the Apostle reciting and rehearsing the institution of the His Supper on the night He was betrayed, in order to bring into crystal clear focus the correct observation. Then, as Hodge notes, a right view of the ordinance leads to a right state of mind, to which we may add leads to correct practice. This is actually the process for all of the Christian life: doctrine–>heart–>practice. Or we might even say, theology leads to doxology which leads to application.

This brings us to the threat in verse 29. If you ignore the warning and disobey the command, then you will be eating and drinking judgment upon yourself. There is a slight textual variant here, as noted above. In the KJV and NKJV we find our second use of anaxious, however, in the ESV, which is based on the Critical Text, the little word is absent. Nevertheless, given the context, it’s not really difficult to see how it could be implied, if not directly stated. The difficulty in this statement is the phrase, “without discerning the body.” Some debate exists over whether the body here refers to the individual (corresponding with the popular view of introspection), the body of believers gathered to observe the Lord’s Supper, or the body of the Lord. Body used in verse 27 seemed to clearly refer to the physical body of Christ. Likewise, in that verse there was guilt incurred associated with the body and blood, where here discernment of the body is required. As Hodge points out, the word translated discernment means to separate, to differ, or we might even say to distinguish. He comments as follows

…either in the sense of discriminating one thing from another, or in the sense of estimating aright. This passage may therefore mean, not discriminating the Lord’s body, i.e. making no difference between the bread in the sacrament and ordinary food; or, it may mean, not estimating it aright, not reverencing it as the appointed symbol of the body of the Lord.

If Hodge is on the right track, and apart from his sacramental language, it would appear he is, then discerning the body here corresponds with all of our earlier exegesis that what is in view here through the warning, command, and threat is a right view of how to observe the Lord’s Supper, understanding its proper meaning, and approaching it with a right attitude. Any deviation from this results in eating and drinking judgment upon yourself. There appears to be a slight play on words (picked up again in verse 31), either judge rightly the Lord’s Supper or be judged, though the judgment in view is not eternal punishment, rather it is disciplinary, which leads to the Apostle’s discourse on the evidences and then the nature of this disciplinary action.

With this, he observes that those among the Corinthian assembly who are weak, sick, and dead have actually experienced the consequences of the threat. Perhaps prior to this statement, the Corinthians may have simply assumed “natural” causes for the various maladies and deaths, but the Apostle, speaking under divine inspiration of the Spirit, interprets these as not merely natural happenings, but divine afflictions directly related to their misappropriation of the Lord’s Supper. If we paused to consider this in our day, with our own practice of the Lord’s Supper, would it affect how we approached the table of the Lord? Would it cause us to review the institution of the supper, not in a methodical recitation of it just before partaking, but actually laboring through God’s Word to ensure that our practice matched the doctrine outlined in the Scriptures?

Finally, Paul turns towards a practical application choosing to focus on the discipline of judgment. This judgment in view here, even though in some cases has brought death, is not final in the sense of losing salvation, but preventative to keep them from multiplying their sins. Reiterating what we saw earlier with the play on words, judge or be judged, the passage makes even more clear that we should judge ourselves. Again, making use of the same word translated as discerning earlier, here the call is to literally discern ourselves. This application moves from the specificity of rightly discerning whether the practice of observing the Lord’s Supper is correct to a more generalized statement on the nature of self-discernment or awareness. It is imperative that we continually look to God’s Word for refinement of our doctrine, alignment of our attitudes, and reformation of our practices. Failure to do so will result in God judging us, but we ought to notice that this judgment isn’t alongside the condemned world, but as a preventative to keep us from being judged alongside the condemned world. In this way, it’s much more like the discipline of a loving Father who does not want to see His children run wayward, so He lovingly corrects them.

Having now worked through the most difficult section of this passage, in the next and final post we’ll conclude with the final instructions on the Agape meal and some practical applications for how this correction of the Corinthian Heresy affects us 2000 years later.

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