An Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Introduction

The New Testament epistles contain many important lessons for believers today.  Although they were written for their primary audience, the church today can discover vital principles of godly behavior and worship that is expected of Christians for all time. The first epistle to the Corinthians suggests that there were several problems that were found at the Corinthian church. These problems had brought divisions, heresies, and bad behavior among the members. Despite the church’s boasting of spiritual gifts, its religious behavior triggered the apostle’s hot displeasure, especially after reading of the report of this church and the testimony of witnesses who had been in fellowship with them (chapter 1). To this end, the whole epistle is pastoral and correctional. The apostle answers some questions, and it gives commendation and chastisement at the same time, so that the Corinthians can be established in the faith again. It is for this reason that this writer seeks to engage the teaching of the apostle Paul in this passage and to see how it is applicable for the church today.

Context

This letter under review was written to the church at Corinth by the apostle Paul (1:1-2). His intention appears to be that of correcting the church’s religious behavior, the report of that behavior having reached the apostle through reports from the household of Chloe (1:11), concerning certain disputes that had arisen. Moreover, in their quest for a more urgent response, they had even sent Paul a letter, which this writer assumes detailed the areas of concern within the church that needed the apostle’s intervention (7:1). The book’s context can then be divided as follows:

The prologue of the book – Greetings and Thanksgiving (1:1-9)

Paul’s first response to the Corinthians based on the household of Chloe’s testimony (1:10-6:20)

Paul’s second response based on their own letter to him (7:1-15:58)

Final Instructions and Conclusion (16:1-24)

1 Corinthians 11:17-34[1]

The thoughts that precede the 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 discussion has to do with Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to imitate him as he follows Christ (11:1). He then proceeds to commend them for keeping the traditions he had taught them before (11:2), and then he quickly shifts to address the problem of women’s worship in the Corinthian church, the issue of head coverings, and male leadership (11:3-16). 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 gives insight to one of the questions that the Corinthians had sent the apostle in their unknown letter which has not reached us. It is safe to assume then that the church had issues in the way they observed the Lord’s Supper and they engaged the apostle’s wisdom on how it had to be done, since some radical believers had taken it to the extreme! Was the practice a mere religious practice, an empty symbol or did it have a theological significance? It can be inferred that most members at this church were ignorant, unsure, or untaught as is reflected in their conduct.

PART A: 17-19

17 Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. 18 For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. 19 For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.  

11:17 Paul shifts his focus again by introducing a new concept through the use of the phrase “now.” Other translations seem to favor the use of the word “but,” as previously done in 11:3. Paul condemns the Corinthians for the kind of meetings they had which had become for “worse” instead of the betterment of the church. Paul clearly indicated that he “partly believe it,” that is to say, based on the witnesses’ testimony and possibly his experience with them, the Corinthians had proved that they can be divisive. In 11:18-19, Paul explains why their meetings were unbeneficial: a) they were marked with divisions, and b) they were teaching heresies. This becomes the point of importance in his discussion. The church had no spiritual unity and, as a result, there was discord among the brethren, hence implying that Christ’s body is divided. Moreover, the church’s attitude in partaking of the Lord’s Supper was divisive, encouraging individualism and not promoting unity and fellowship among all.

PART B: 20-22

20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. 22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.  

In verse 20, Paul then emphasizes that the way they come to gather to partake of the Lord’s Supper does not support a spiritual attitude that is for the betterment of the church, for their divisions reflect even in the way they ate. He specifically mentions three attitudes: a hurried approach as referring to those that were impatient to partake with others; the hungry attitude – not eating for remembrance of the Lord but for hunger purposes and the drunken – that comes to quench his desire for wine with the church’s wine meant for the benefit of all. In 11:20-22 Paul asks 5 questions into the behavior of the Corinthians when they partook of the Lord’s Supper and the reason of his displeasure. As a result, he could not commend the Corinthians for such attitudes and uncontrolled appetites which they brought to the Lord’s Table. He sees their behavior as being irreverent and it brings shame to the church of God. Moreover, it hurts those that were seriously seeking fellowship at the Lord’s Table. The behavior of some brethren at Corinth was not spiritually edifying and was worthy zero recommendation from the apostle. The Corinthians seemed to have observed the Lord’s Supper in the context of a “fellowship meal,” a “love feast.”  Their conduct betrayed insensitivity, cliquishness, and a general lack of brotherly love.  Such an atmosphere was totally unsuitable for the observance of the Lord’s Supper.

PART C: 23-26

23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.

In 11:23, Paul explains his reason for the instruction that follows, as having received it from the Lord himself. It is His supper, and it held to be held in great esteem because of the nature of the giver of the Supper, the Lord Himself.  His point is that the Corinthians had erred by partaking of the Lord’s Supper in their own way and not in the way that the Lord had formerly revealed. They had treated the Lords Table with great contempt. In this, they were not justified but had condemned themselves. In 11:24-25, the broken bread symbolizes Christ’s body; the cup symbolizes his blood; combined together, v. 26, they are a remembrance of Christ’s death which the partakers proclaim until the coming of the Lord. Thus, the bread and the cup are a symbol of Christ’s body that suffered for the believers. Note also that Paul specifically mentions that the bread was eaten after the giving of thanks and, likewise, the cup after the same manner. This explains the spiritual significance and importance of the Lord’s Supper as having a great theological significance, and not merely the church’s practice (c.f. Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24 and Luke 22:17ff). Christ had thus ushered in a new covenant that was not written on stone or clay, without the use of animal sacrifice, but wrought it through his body and blood (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Thus, the church at Corinth should not have lost sight of such an important institution.

 

PART D: 27-34

27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. 29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.  30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world. 33 Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. 34 And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. And the rest will I set in order when I come.

   In verse 27-34, the apostle then speaks of the danger of eating of the Lord’s Table irreverently and its consequences. Three significant words the apostle uses in verse 27: whosoever, unworthily and guilty. It can be assumed then that Paul may be having in greater view those outside the Corinthian church too in his usage of the word “whosoever” is a supposition, implying the general broad usage of the term. Suppose there in the Corinthian church or in the distant future, if someone eats “unworthily” (Greek, anaxios which means unfit, unsuitably or valuing differently in an improper manner) will be guilty, thus by implication, shall be liable for his conduct. In view of the grave danger of eating unworthily, Paul is not intimidating the Corinthians or trying to ban the partaking at the Lord’s Table. Rather, he gives some sound advice on the requirements for partaking the Lord’s Supper.

In verse 28, he says that any man desiring to eat of the bread and drink of the cup should first examine himself. The Greek translated examine is dokimazo which suggests that an individual has to verifiably approve himself, to have first tested himself if he is worthy (and who would be “worthy?”) of partaking the Supper. From this, can be inferred the person’s attitudes and reason for eating the Lord’s Supper. Each believer has the obligation and the spiritual responsibility to check himself if he is in a right relationship with the Owner of the Table before he can partake of His table. In the immediate context, the examining should be done in view of one’s participation in the unacceptable behavior of those practicing cliquishness and division in their common meal together.

In verse 29-32, Paul goes further to show the Corinthians the consequences of failing to discern the Lord’s body.  He lists several things: damnation (v.29), weakness and sickness (v.30) and death. Why a person who eats unworthily is said to eat and drink himself to damnation is clear in that he has not discerned the Lord’s body. The Lord’s body can refer to the Lord’s Supper (since it is His body and blood) or the church itself (since some Corinthian brethren were bringing discord and divisions in it). Either way, the conduct of those who eat on the Lord’s Table affects other believers and the Lord holds them accountable.

It appears in verse 30 that many at Corinth, as reflected in the words “among you,” had become more feeble, impotent, or weak. The word used here implies that several had become morally weak and also physically sick. Not only so, some had even died because of their unspiritual behavior that failed to bring awe and reverence on the table when they came to remember the Lord. Thus, Paul uses a euphemism, “sleep” for death, to suggest that perhaps, some sickness that had came upon some of them had proved to be incurable and eventually led to their death. However, there will be hope for them in the resurrection as can be inferred in his great treatise in chapter 15 when he answers about death.

In verses 31-32, he stresses the importance of self evaluation when it comes to the eating of the Lord’s Supper. He exhorts the Corinthians to examine themselves so that they could not be judged for things they could have settled on their own. However, he warns that if they cannot judge themselves, then they will be judged. It can be assumed then, that Paul here is in great view of the sicknesses and deaths that have happened at Corinth and he views them as God’s judgment. Thus, he admonishes the Corinthian church to be on the lookout, to take heed and examine themselves, for if they would fail to do so, there is God waiting to judge them. However, his judgment is meant to chastise them and help bring them back to the proper path of righteousness. In verse 32, God’s love and grace in chastising the Corinthians is manifested. It appears then that this chastisement is not to condemn them in the same way as unbelievers, but to help them be restored back to the ways of the Lord.

In the last two verses, the apostle Paul encourages the Corinthians to restore the proper manner of observing the Lord’s Supper. They were supposed to tarry for one another and understand that they were not coming to church with eating in mind. They had to eat from their houses whatsoever they desired, but, when they came for the Lord’s Table, it was His and not theirs. In regard to the “common meal,” if they were so hungry that they could not wait for one another as shown in their cliquishness, then they should have eaten at home.  This seems to be said in sarcasm. They had to remember and observe the Lord himself. Paul thus brought back the Corinthian church from the path of error and encouraged it to restore the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper. The last part of the verses indicates that Paul had other matters to address concerning the Lord’s Supper, but what he had instructed was at least enough to restore the true spirit of the Lord’s Supper.

Conclusion and Application

While Paul has addressed the situation at the church at Corinth, vital lessons can be drawn from this passage. There are several lessons to learn:

  • The Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s. It was His institution and will remain likewise.
  • The Lord’s Supper should be partaken in the Church with right attitudes and motives.
  • Self examination is a must requirement for would be partakers.
  • In the Lord’s Supper, we remember the owner of the Supper Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, His sacrificial death, and God’s love for us who made peace with us through Christ’s blood and ushered in a new covenant.
  • The Lord’s Supper is not only a mere observance; it is the message of our preaching. “We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
  • Those who usurp their place at the table will be chastised by the Lord.
  • The Lord’s Table should be an opportunity to promote fellowship, unity, and peace in the body of Christ and should help us remember our oneness in Christ.

While the passage can have several ideas, it is safe to conclude that it stresses the importance of unity in the body of Christ and the importance of a proper conduct when approaching spiritual things. It is not the bread or the cup that matters, but the theological significance of the practice. This is one unique practice in the New Testament that is specifically followed by a command, hence the church has no other choice but to obey and do it accordingly, lest it will be judged for treating with contempt the Lord’s body.

_____________________

[1]All Scriptural quotations are from the Authorised King James version.

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