1 Corinthians 11:17–34
Today, Lord willing, we will finish the three part series on the meaning of the Lord's Supper. If you think this is all about a mere religious ritual with little relevance for your larger life-concerns, you are wrong, and I hope you will keep listening to see how wide and long are the implications of what happens at the Lord's Supper—as wide as love is wide, and as long as eternity.
I have described four biblical meanings of the Lord's Supper and promised that I would deal with two more today. The first meaning was that the Lord's Supper is a proclamation of the gospel ("As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." 1 Corinthians 11:26). The second meaning was that the Lord's Supper is a remembering of Christ ("Do this in remembrance of me." 1 Corinthians 11:24). The third meaning was that the Lord's Supper is a spiritual feasting by faith on all that God is for us in Christ ("I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst." John 6:35). And the fourth meaning was that the Lord's Supper is a savoring of the promises of the New Covenant ("This cup is the new covenant in my blood." 1 Corinthians 11:25).
Now today we look at two final meanings—not that there are no others, but these are the two we will focus on in conclusion. One is that the Lord's Supper is a call to love the people of Christ, and beyond. And the other is that the Lord's Supper is a call to self-examination. Both of these meanings are found in 1 Corinthians 11.
Before I take them one at a time, I want to address one urgent and practical issue, namely, when should children take the Lord's Supper. The way I want to do this is by reading a few paragraphs from something that David Michael, our Associate for Parenting and Children's Discipleship, wrote about this and then send you to the website to read the rest of it. David answers this question in a way that tells you something about our church. There are matters in Scripture that we regard as less vital than some others. And there are matters that are less clear than others. When something is less clear and less vital we are less decisive in what we teach. Here is the way David says it.
A General Response
When people inquire about children taking the Lord's Supper, I have two perspectives to share with them. The first is that our communion services are open to all present, including children, who are:
- trusting in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins and the fulfillment of all his promises to us (including eternal life), and
- who intend to follow him as Lord and obey his commandments.
Therefore, children are welcome to participate in the Lord's Supper:
- when they can understand its significance;
- when they are able to give a credible profession of faith in Christ;
- and when they consciously intend to follow the Lord in obedience.
There is no test they take or class they attend to help establish their readiness [like the class we have for baptism]. We simply leave it up to parents to decide when their young disciples are ready.
A Personal Response
My other response to this question is to share how Sally and I dealt with the issue for our two daughters. Our way is certainly not the only acceptable way to handle the issue. Other spiritually wise parents at Bethlehem, including some of my respected colleagues on the pastoral staff, have handled it differently. Nevertheless, I commend "our way" to you for your consideration as you lay out a path for your children.
When our girls were small, we explained that they would be able to fully participate in the Lord's Supper sometime after they were thirteen. Admittedly, this response was somewhat arbitrary and sounds a bit legalistic-but it was a simple response that they could grasp, and it was enough to settle the issue for them. There were, however, important reasons why we encouraged them to wait.
- Wait for Understanding
- Wait for More Independent Thinking
- Wait for Significance
- Wait for Anticipation
- Wait for Memories
- Wait for Maturity
Even though we may ask our children to wait for a season before they fully participate in the Lord's Supper, it can still be a significant experience for them in their pre-teen years. We should not wait to teach them about the meaning of the celebration and how to examine themselves, to confess their sins, and to remember the Lord's death until he comes.
My aim in writing this article is not to have all our children going through the proper religious motions at the "perfect" time (whenever that is). My aim and earnest prayer is that our children will know the sweet fellowship with the living Christ and experience his life-changing, soul-satisfying work in their hearts. May the Lord use our efforts in preparing our children for his table to nudge them into closer fellowship with him.
In other words, in a matter like this, we encourage parents to bear the burden of wisdom and Biblical reflection and love for your children. And we share how we come to our own decisions. You can read the whole statement here.
The rest of this message, I hope, will help you see the Lord's Supper in a light that will make it more powerful for you and help you think through the matter of when your children should take it.
1. The Lord's Supper Is a Call to Love
It seems to me very significant that in 1 Corinthians Paul does not introduce the Lord's Supper as part of a systematic teaching on worship. He introduces it as a way of supporting his rebuke of their unloving behavior at church meals. In other words, the main issue he is dealing with in these verses is the selfish behavior of Christians when they come together to enjoy a meal. And the question we should ask is: What can we learn about the Lord's Supper by the way Paul brings it up in this moral mess at Corinth?
So look at what is happening. Verse 17: I don't commend you for what is going on when you come together. The first reason I don't commend you is that there are the same old divisions and factions that I spoke of back in chapter 1. Verse 18: "When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized." The factions are owing to sin, but even in this Paul sees a good divine purpose. Verse 19: at least factions let the authentic people stand out.
But there is a difference from chapter one. Part of the division here was economic. Some Christians are poor and some are not. And the more well-to-do seem almost hostile to the poor. Look at verse 21: "For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk." In other words, the well-to-do seem oblivious of the poor and even get drunk while the poor go hungry right in their church gathering. Seems impossible, doesn't it? Or could there be ways here at Bethlehem that one class of people shuns or belittles another?
Paul is very upset about this. Verse 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?" In other words, eat at home before you come to the Lord's Supper if you are going to turn the feast of the church into gluttony and drunkenness and partiality.
But most important, look again at how Paul describes this behavior in the middle of verse 22: "Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?" This is really strong language. This kind of behavior amounts to despising the church and humiliating the poor. Do you think these well-to-do folks would have agreed with Paul that they were despising the church - the people of Christ? Not without a lot of convicting grace. I think they would have said, "What do you mean, 'we despise the church'? We love being here. We wouldn't have come otherwise. We love these feasts at church. We don't despise the church."
This is devastating. Test yourself. What this means is that coming to church is no sure sign of not despising the church! You can love coming to church and at the same time despise the church. And not only that, Paul says to the well-to-do, at the middle of verse 22, "[You] humiliate those who have nothing?" So they are despising the church and they are shaming the poor.
That is, they are treating the church as something utterly beneath what it is. The church is the body of Christ (1Corinthians 12:27), the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25-27), the dwelling place of God (Ephesians 2:22). And you eat and drink as though you are the center of the universe and the gathered church were nothing.
Specifically you shame the poor. You make him feel, and make him look, foolish for things that are not foolish. People ought to be shamed for doing shameful things. But being poor, and having no food to bring to the church feast, is not shameful. And all of this - despising the church and shaming the poor—they were doing in a gathering that would climax with the Lord's Supper.
So Paul, at the end of verse 22 asks, "Shall I commend you in this?" And answers, "No, I will not." And then, precisely here, he narrates the Lord's Supper and introduces it with "for" or "because." I will not commend this loveless behavior "For [because!] I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you.'" In other words, I will not commend this loveless behavior because it contradicts the meaning of the Lord's Supper.
The Lord's Supper is not a mere religious ritual. It is a call to love. It is an indictment of lovelessness. You despise the church. You shame the poor. Don't you realize that in a few minutes you will take bread and cup in your hand. And they will mean: Christ died for the church. Christ died for the poor. Brothers and sisters, if you are among the "genuine" —the "authentic" (verse 19)—you will love the church and you will embrace the poor at your table. That is what the Lord's Supper means.
2. The Lord's Supper Is a Call to Self-Examination
Therefore, since there is such a close correlation between the meaning of the Lord's Supper and the heart of the Christians who take the Lord's Supper, it is also a call to self-examination. As soon as Paul finishes narrating the Lord's Supper, he goes back to the moral issue in the church and says in verses 27-28, "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning 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."
What does eating "in an unworthy manner" refer to? The context that we have just seen would say, it means 1) failing to appreciate what the bread and cup signify—that Christ loved the church and died for her—and then 2) failing to feel any remorse that our attitudes and actions are so inconsistent with the love of Christ, and then 3) failing to renounce those attitudes and actions and turn to the path of love, and then 4) failing to trust Jesus for forgiveness and for the power to walk in love.
Or let's put it positively. What does it mean to eat the Lord's Supper worthily, properly? And here I bid all parents to assess yourselves and your children here. The Lord's Supper is a call to self-examination. 1) Do you see and savor what the bread and cup signify—that Christ loved the church and gave himself for her? 2) Do you feel remorse—do you feel bad—that your attitudes and actions are inconsistent with the love of Christ for his church and for the poor in particular? 3) Do you renounce those attitudes and actions and turn from them into the path of love, and say, "I will not treat the church as something cheap; I will love the church and cherish the blood-bought people of God; I will not humiliate the poor; I will love the poor and serve the poor"? 4) And do you trust Jesus for the forgiveness of these bad attitudes and actions and for the will and power to walk again in love?
If so, eat and drink at his table. There are no perfect saints at the Lord's table. We are all debtors to grace. Forgiveness is our only hope of acceptance. But look carefully here, lest you think that forgiveness and grace mean there is no severe fatherly discipline. The rest of this chapter is Paul's warning about the kinds of things that may befall Christians who lapse into a season of lovelessness. Verses 29-30: "For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body [that word may have a double meaning here: the body that was broken for you, and the church as the body of Christ to be loved and honored] eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died."
This is very shocking and very sobering. Where does this weakness, illness and death come from? Verse 32 makes it plain: "But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world." The weakness, illness, and death of some Christians is God's judgment, but not God's condemnation. In fact, amazingly, the weakness, illness, and death (verse 30) of some Christians are called in verse 32 the Lord's discipline which prevents condemnation with the world. "We are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world." Our illness, weakness, and even our death is grace. It is designed by our gracious, heavenly Father to keep us from being condemned to hell with the world.
"There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). But there may be lapses. There may be seasons of lovelessness. God knows where we are heading. And it may be that an illness or death is the rescue of grace from the shipwreck of faith.
So I conclude, the Lord's Supper is 1) a proclamation of the gospel, 2) the remembrance of Christ, 3) the feasting on all that God is for us in Jesus; 4) the savoring of the new covenant promises, 5) the call to love, and 6) the call to examine ourselves.
It is all grace and all mercy for those who believe in Christ Jesus. Sometimes tender and sometimes tough. Sometimes sweet and sometimes severe. But always gracious. Parents, look to yourselves. And ponder carefully when you think your children can and do comprehend these things sufficiently to truly examine themselves. And let us all examine ourselves now as we close. What is your heart toward the church, and what is your heart toward the poor?
1. Matthew Henry observes, "Those who, through weakness or understanding, cannot try themselves, are by no means fit to eat of this bread and drink of this cup" (Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6 [Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.], p. 566).