The Lord’s Supper | 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

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  • The Lord’s Supper | 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
  • The New Testament church practices two ordinances: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. 

    • Baptism is a rite-of-initiation that celebrates Christian conversion. 
    • The Lord’s Supper is an ongoing practice that celebrates Christian fellowship. 

    We call baptism and the Lord’s Supper ordinances, not sacraments. They are rituals Christ has commanded the church to observe. They do not provide, renew, or secure salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are symbols of salvation. But they are not mere symbols. They are living illustrations that teach us what it means to be in Christ. In this message, we will study the nature, meaning, and practice of the Lord’s Supper. 

    The Gospels record the Last Supper in which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. Several New Testament passages mention the Lord’s Supper. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is the most comprehensive statementabout the Lord’s Supper. Biblical scholars tell us Paul wrote 1 Corinthians before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written. If so, this text contains the first recorded words of Jesus. Those first recorded words are about the Lord’s Supper. Christ has commanded the church to regularly practice the Lord’s Supper to remember him. There are three reasons we should reverently and regularly share the Lord’s Supper.

    The Unity of the Church 

    Verse 17 says, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” These “instructions” are corrective. The church’s behavior was not commendable. Their worship services were not for the better but for the worse. Our meetings are more destructive than edifying when sin divides and despises the church.  

    Sin Divides the Church. Healthy churches are characterized by truth, holiness, and unity. When a church is unhealthy, disunity, division, and disharmony break out. Division infected the church at Corinth. The pandemic was symptomatic at the Lord’s Table. 

    Division Rebuked. Verse 18 says, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.” The “first” and only issue was what happened when they came together as a church. This is the second time Paul says, “when you come together.” The phrase occurs five times in this text. The Lord’s Supper is to be observed when the church meets together. 

    • It is a shared meal at the family table. 
    • It is not fast food from a drive-thru window.

    There are dynamics of church life that cannot be reproduced virtually. The Lord’s Supper is one of those dynamics. It is to be celebrated when the church meets together. “Church” refers to the assembly, not a location. The church is not a building. It is the gathered assembly of redeemed people in Christ that must not tolerate division. 1 Corinthians 1:10 says, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” 

    Division Redeemed. Paul heard about divisions in the church. Verse 18 ends, “And I believe it in part.” See the pastoral heart of Paul. In love, he gave them the benefit of the doubt. 1 Corinthians 13:7 says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Paul was confident that God was in control even amid division. Verse 19 says, “For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” In God’s wise providence, factions are necessary, inevitable, and useful. How a person reacts reveals what they are made of. This is not an excuse to be divisive. Luke 17:1 says, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come.”  

    Sin Despises the Church. The early church shared potluck meals called “love feasts.” The Lord’s Supper would take place at the end. A wealthy person hosted the feast. He gave the best seats to his rich friends. Because the poor people had to work later, the wealthy had eaten all the food by the time they showed up. In early chapters, Paul addresses sectarian division. Now he addresses social division. It was a case of the haves and have nots. Verse 20 says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.” They were only going through the motions. Verse 21 says, “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” Feel the tension between verses 20-21: 

    • The Lord’s Supper 
    • His own meal 

    Verse 22 says, “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? What shall I say you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” Paul expressed his righteous indignation with rhetorical questions. He distinguishes that the Lord’s Supper for the church, not your home. It must not despise the church or humiliate the poor. Here is a high view of the church. Any division that does not honor the fellowship of the church or our calling to care for the poor is not commendable.

    The Sacrifice of Christ 

    Verse 23 says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,” This is a claim of divine revelation. The apostles did not teach Paul the Lord’s Supper. He “received” it from the Lord. It was not new news to the Corinthians. He had delivered to them what he received from the Lord. This is the high standard of Christian preaching. The Lord’s Supper is not a man-made ritual. It is handed down to us from Christ himself. 

    The Purpose of the Lord’s Supper. Verse 23 says, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread.” 

    • Who instituted the Lord’s Supper? “The Lord Jesus.” 
    • When did he institute it? “On the night he was betrayed.”

    In an atmosphere of treachery, Jesus demonstrated his love. Paul points the church to the sacrificial suffering of Christ. This is the purpose of the Lord’s Supper. This simple meal of bread and cup exalts Christ crucified.

    The Purpose of the Bread. Verse 23 says Jesus “took bread.” It was one loaf of bread. Verse 24 says Jesus gave thanks. It is by Christ’s example we offer thanks before we eat a meal. This is the nature of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is called the Eucharist because it is a thanksgiving feast. The Lord’s Supper is a time of grateful praise. It should be like a wedding reception, not a funeral repast. As the host, Jesus broke the bread. Then Jesus said, “This is my body, which is for you.” These is the first recorded statement of Jesus. It affirms his Incarnation. The Son of God had to have a body that he might die. This statement also affirms the substitutionary atone of Christ. He gave his body for you! 

    Roman Catholics believe the blessed bread becomes the body of Christ. Lutherans and Anglicans claim that Christ is present in, with, and under the bread. We deny these “real presence” views. This is metaphorical language. The bread symbolizes the body of Christ. But it is no mere symbol, as the American flag is not merely decorated cloth. Jesus commands, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This is an imperative. The Lord’s Supper obedience to Christ. Jesus often tells us to do things for our good and his glory. He says do this to remember him. We are prone to forget. The Lord’s Supper is Jesus’ “forget-me-not” to the church. 

    The Purpose of the Cup. Verse 25 says, “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’” Paul does not say as much about the cup as he does the bread. But what he says is no less significant. He calls it “the cup,” with no reference to wine. In the Old Testament, “cup” typically refers to the wrath of God. After the Passover meal, Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Covenant refers to the terms by which God dealt with man. 

    • In the old covenant, God gave his law to sinners. 
    • In the new covenant, God gave his Son for sinners. 

    The old covenant was based on the behavior of Israel. When they obeyed, God blessed them. When they disobeyed, God punished them. The new covenant is based on Christ’s blood. Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” Verse 25 says, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” The purpose of the Lord’s Supper never changes: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The Passover meal celebrated how the Lord redeemed the children of Israel from the bondage of slavery. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper that we would remember how he redeemed us from the bondage of sin. It is not a casual recall. It is an intimate recollection that makes the absent present.

    The Practice of the Lord’s Supper. Verse 26 says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The Lord’s Supper is not optional. Any Christian or congregation that does not observe it is in sinful rebellion. But discretion is given as to frequency. Scripture only says do it “often.”

    Acts 20:7 indicates the early church had Communion each Lord’s Day. Some churches celebrate Communion weekly. It is our custom to take the Lord’s Supper monthly. Other churches do it less frequently. The frequency of your observance should be governed by the fact that it proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes. A.T. Robertson wrote, “The Lord’s Supper is the great preacher of the death of Christ till his second coming.” 

    The Lord’s Supper proclaims the cross of Christ. Verse 26 says, “We proclaim the Lord’s death.” This is the essence of Christian preaching. It is the center of Christian preaching. 

    • We proclaim that the Lord died. 
    • We proclaim how the Lord died. 
    • We proclaim why the Lord died. 

    But the proclamation here is visual, not verbal. We say the gospel in the sermon. We see the gospel in the supper. “Proclaim” denotes a prophetic announcement to the unbelieving world. 1 Corinthians 1:23 says, “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and follow to Gentiles.” Communion is the church’s “silent sermon.” Consider the genius of Jesus. Some churches have become ashamed of the gospel. Embarrassed by the scandal of the cross, they do not preach the substitutionary atonement of Christ. But every time they take the Lord’s Supper, they proclaim the death of Christ till he comes.

    The Lord’s Supper proclaims the coming of Christ. Verse 26 says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” As the Lord’s Supper looks back in remembrance, it looks ahead in anticipation. The memorial is a pledge and a promise. We receive Communion as an act of obedience and an act of faith. 

    • We believe the crucified Savior died on the cross for us.
    • We believe the risen Savior is coming back again for us.  

    The crucifixion is connected to the return of Christ. You do not believe in the cross if you do not believe he is coming back again! Acts 1:11 says, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The Lord will return physically, sovereignly, and gloriously. Matthew 26:29 says, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Jesus drank wine. But when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, he made a vow of abstinence. Jesus refuses to drink wine until he drinks it with us at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. 

    The Judgment of God 

    You would think the primary text about the Lord’s Supper would emphasize amazing grace. It instead emphasizes divine judgment. To show you a stone’s value, a jeweler places the jewel on a black cloth. The dark backdrop reveals the beautiful clarity. Grace works the same way. Grace is amazing when wrath is deserved. How should we practice Communion in light of the judgment of God? 

    Self-Examination. Verses 27-2 contrast the unworthy and worthy practice of the Lord’s Supper. 

    The Unworthy Manner. Verse 27 says, “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.” The KJV warns of taking the Lord’s Supper “unworthily.” That term has troubled many tender consciences. They avoid the Lord’s Table. Or they approach it hesitantly because they feel unworthy. But Paul is not talking about personal worthiness. No one is worthy of taking the Lord’s Supper. We are made worthy positionally by faith in the finished work of Christ. 

    Noticing a member’s reluctance to take the cup, a pastor said to her, “Take it, woman; it’s for sinners, it’s for you.” Christ makes sinners worthy by his body and blood. But the baptized can take the Lord’s Supper in “an unworthy manner.” It is a sinful attitude toward Christ and the church. Unconfessed selfishness, rebellion, or divisiveness makes you guilty of further sin. Irreverence mocks the finished work of Christ and would crucify him again. 

    The Worthy Manner. Verse 28 says, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” It is not our job to examine others. We must examine ourselves. “Examine” is the term for assaying metals. It means to test to approve. Anthony Thiselton wrote, “A person should examine his or her genuineness.” This does not involve deep introspection. After all, the focus of the Supper is Christ, not us. But it should involve sincere prayer. 

    Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” When we find something amiss, this should not be an excuse to miss the Supper. It should cause you to confess and repent so you can take Communion with a clean conscience. I walk into the house to a prepared meal. My wife says, “Don’t touch that food, Mr. Charles.” I do have to go to bed hungry. I have to wash my hands before I make a plate. 

    Self-Judgment. Paul shows us how to provoke and prevent divine judgment. 

    Provoking Divine Judgment. Verse 29 says, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” You may pray, sing, read, or hear thoughtlessly. But you better not take the Lord’s Supper without thinking carefully about the sacrifice of Christ. It is to eat and drink judgment on yourself. Verse 29 shows us that non-Christians should not participate in the Lord’s Supper. Pastors should “fence” the Lord’s Table. We should make it clear that to take the supper without believing what it symbolizes invites judgment. Taking Communion without honoring Christ also invites judgment. 

    Verse 30 says, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Sicknesses weakened many. Some died. A pandemic stuck because they were playing church at the Lord’s Table. We do not know the spiritual implications of a person’s sickness or death. We cannot lose our salvation. But we can compromise our witness. The judgment of God against the Corinthians was for specific sins. But beware that God may check you out of her for mocking Christ’s death by how you act in church. 

    Preventing Divine Judgment. Verse 31 says, “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” The Bible does not say we should forgive ourselves. It does say that we should judge ourselves. A good father will punish his son when he does wrong. But he shows mercy if the child confesses, rather than hoping not to be found out. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It is better to judge yourself than letting the Lord catch up to you in your sin.

    Verse 32 says, “But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” There are two types of judgment. The judgment of the world, which is eternal condemnation. And the judgment of his people, which is discipline to keep us from being condemned along with the world. Hebrews 12:6 says, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” Thank God that God loves us enough to chastise us and protect us from ourselves. 

    Self-Denial. Verse 33-34 conclude: “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another – if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home – so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.” This is one of the more than thirty “one another” commands in the New Testament. Instead of going ahead of each other, we are to wait for one another. If you are that hungry, eat at home. Here is one final affirmation that the Lord’s Supper was a family meal. Paul says don’t mix up what you do at your table with what you do at the Lord’s Table. Wait for one another. 


    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.