Up until now, we have surveyed the Lord’s Supper from a birds-eye. Now we come to the letter of 1 Corinthians where we will examine in more detail more specifics of the Lord’s Supper.
Surprisingly, 1 Corinthians 11 is actually the only place in the Bible where the Lord’s Supper is explicitly mentioned. And the passage has more to do with behavior at the Lord’s Supper, than the Lord’s Supper itself. In fact, had there not been a gross abuse of the Lord’s Supper, we would know hardly anything at all about the Supper. God has a way of working all things out for good, and as a result, the Apostle Paul offers us a blueprint of the Lord’s Supper.
In the next three articles we will examine Paul’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper which be divided up into three sections:
The Apostle Paul offers a Rebuke: Paul confronts the abuses taking place during the Lord’s Supper. (11:17-22)
The Apostle Paul offers a Reminder: Paul reminds them of the Last Supper. (11:23-26)
The Apostle Paul offers a Warning: Paul warns the believers of the importance of the Lord’s Supper. (11:27-34)
This article will focus on the context of the Supper and his initial rebuke of the Corinthians. This rebuke still applies today.
The Rebuke: Paul confronts the Abuse of the Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-22)
In the previous section in 1 Corinthians Paul teaches about the practice of head coverings, and he commends the Corinthians. But not here. Not in their practice of the Lord’s Supper. There are divisions, factions, and impatience. There is insensitivity. There is drunkenness. The Bible student might be tempted to ask, “Are you serious?”
Starting in verse 17, Paul references some major divisions taking place.
“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. For, in the first place, 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…” (11:17)
What is Paul saying when he says “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized?” It’s possible Paul is being sarcastic; or he is making that point that when people act like this, they prove themselves to be unbelievers. Maybe it’s both? A Christian who acts like this, yet claims Christ, is not genuinely saved. They are not actually born again. Instead, they are self-deceived and unregenerate. Belief and behavior go together. A Christian who claims Christ, but refuses to obey Christ, is not actually a Christian in the New Testament sense of the word. They are a Christian by name only, which is not only meaningless but dangerous and confusing to the world.
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” (11:20)
The divisions were so bad, that what they were doing could not be called the Lord’s Supper. What’s going on is so antithetical to the gospel, that Paul actually refuses to call it the Lord’s Supper. As was previously noted, this is the only place in Scripture where this meal is referred to as the Lord’s Supper. It is the Supper of the Lord. It is His Supper. He is the Host and the Guest of Honor. He ordained it. He commanded it. It’s His. But the Corinthians have hijacked the Supper. They have turned it into something else.
“For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 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 to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (11:21)
One goes hungry and another gets drunk. This is hard to imagine. But let me try to shed some cultural light on this. The early church usually met in homes. And when the church got together, it would be in the evening, usually in a large home of a wealthy member who had enough square footage to host such an assembly. In those days, especially in Corinth, there was a cultural custom of dinner parties. The Romans had dinner parties followed by drinking parties.
So in the Greco-Roman world, you had a nice meal, and after the meal, you sang some songs, and then hung around. The ladies and children would go home, and the men would stay up and drink, and some would get wasted. That was customary in the culture. Well, the Corinthian church had the same kind of party, only they put a Christian spin on it. The early church called this gathering the “Love feast.” (“Any distinction between ‘love feast’ and ‘Eucharist’, or ‘fellowship meal’ and ‘Holy Communion’, is artificial from a New Testament point of view.” Pg. 218 Engaging with God).
Some of these Corinthians in the Church thought it was ok to bring the culture into the Church, and so their church service looked a lot like the culture. And Paul says, “It’s a disgrace to even call this the Lord’s Supper.” In Roman culture, the dinner parties also had special seating. There was a social pecking order as to where you sat. There seems to be a little of that creeping into this church too. Some people are in and some people are left out. Not good. Not gospel.
Unity in the Supper
Think about this: This is a meal of unity and togetherness in Christ. This is a meal that leveled the playing field. This is a meal where we are equally in need of Christ. Where race and status didn’t matter or count. And when Paul sees a pecking order he goes ballistic! Racism and elitism cannot survive around the Lord’s Table. Furthermore, the Lord doesn’t sort us out by race, talents, achievements, degrees, and retirement accounts. Praise God we are included and invited to the Table—not because of who we are, but because of Who He is.
The Lord’s Table is a place for all repentant sinners. It’s not a place of hierarchy. There is no stratification of society in the Supper. This shouldn’t be surprising. Remember what Jesus said about this in Luke 14:12-14?
“He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”
Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God. In light of what’s happening in Corinth, it is unthinkable. You not only had people getting drunk, but you also had poor people getting shafted. Jesus loves the poor and the needy, and this Church isn’t caring for them. That’s a problem. There is no such thing as Christianity that isn’t concerned with the poor. Particularly, the poor in its midst.
The Rebuke in Church History
Now that we have looked at the Apostle’s rebuke, let’s look at the witness and example of church history. Listen to a few of these descriptions of how the Lord’s Supper was practiced in the early Church. Pay attention to the Church’s concern for the poor and needy, and also the attention given to over-drinking. The very things Paul was warning about.
Church father Justin Martyr gives us a window into the Lord’s Supper in the early church; let’s take a peek into a Lord’s Supper service in the second century.
“On the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a given city or rural district. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the president [pastor] in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things. Next we all rise together and send up prayers. When we cease from our prayer, bread is presented and wine and water. The president in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the 'Amen.' A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present they are sent by the deacons. Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills, and what is collected is deposited with the president. He provides for the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, those who are in bonds, strangers who are sojourning, and in a word he becomes the protector of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.” (First Apology, 67)
Church father Tertullian also gives us a glimpse into how the early church sought to bring correction to Paul’s rebuke in 1 Corinthians.
"Our feast explains itself by its name: the Greeks call it love (Latin: dilectio). Whatever the food provided, our expenditure is profitable since we feed the needy; . . . as God does, so do we show particular respect for the lowly. The purpose of our banquet is upright, and the order of its proceedings should be judged in this light. Since it is a religious service, nothing base or unbecoming is allowed. We recline at table only after we have had a foretaste of prayer offered to God. We eat what is enough for the hungry; we drink what is right for the modest. The meal satisfies those who remember that they ought to worship God even at night. Our conversation is fitting for God to hear. After water for washing our hands and lights are brought out, we call upon each one to stand and praise God with a text of scripture or something of their own devising—which shows that our drinking is moderate. We close the banquet with another prayer.” Tertullian 197 AD (Apologia)
They come forward and are asked to sing a Psalm. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington said, “this is like a public breathalyzer.” In other words, the Lord’s Supper is not a place to get tipsy (no place is).
When Christianity moved from the home to the basilica the love feast seemed to have dropped off. Right or wrong, eventually the love feast and the Lord’s Supper became one and the same. A traditional love feast would have probably felt a lot like a Jewish Passover. Songs would be sung; some would share a word. Within the context of this love feast, they would take the Lord’s Supper. Ben Witherington says:
“1 Corinthians 11-14 describes first a meal, then a drinking party, followed by religious activities that took place thereafter, as described in 1 Corinthians 12-14. This would follow the normal pattern of events in a religious association. This might explain some of the chaos addressed in 1 Corinthians 14—some of the participants may have been inebriated, indeed some may have even seen inebriation as the means to set aside one’s inhibitions and allow the Spirit to speak through them.”
All this to say, Paul rebukes them for their version of the Lord’s Supper. This leads us to ask, “What would the apostle say today?” “What areas of rebuke might come to you or your church?” At least the early church attended and participated in the Lord’s Supper. Today, many believers and churches skip it altogether. This is a different sort of phenomenon. And it needs to be rebuked.
David Anderson is a pastor/elder at Littleton Bible Chapel in Littleton, CO where he lives with his wife and three kids. David also serves Biblical Eldership Resources in many areas, including hosting their new podcast.