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Lesson 11: How To Come To The Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34)

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June 25, 2017

Come with me to a typical church. We’re going to look at a few of the members, both as they look from the outside and also as they are on the inside, as seen by the Lord.

Here comes Mary Smith. She seems happy as she smiles at various friends as she enters the church. But you may have missed that icy glance that she cast toward Linda Brown. The two women aren’t talking to one another since that falling out they had a couple of months ago. “To think that she calls herself a Christian!” Mary thinks to herself as she goes down the aisle toward her seat. As Linda notices Mary smiling at everybody, she thinks, “That hypocrite! What a phony!”

And over there is Jerry Jones. He serves on the deacon board, is active with the men’s fellowship, and teaches a fourth grade boys Sunday school class. He’s there every time the church doors are open. Jerry is a real servant—if you need anything done around the church, just call Jerry. He helped out every Saturday and a lot of evenings the year they were putting up the new social hall! The pastor calls Jerry, “old faithful.” He’s the kind of church member every pastor is looking for!

Or is he? If you could look beneath the frenzy of activities, you would find a man who is trying to work off a load of guilt. There are some things in Jerry’s past that nobody here at First Church would ever guess. Not even his wife knows about some of the terrible things he did when he was in the Navy. Maybe if he can just do enough serving the Lord, he can forget about all those things and tip the scale so that he can forgive himself. Besides, he and his wife don’t get along well, and it’s just easier at home if he keeps himself busy with church work.

Oh, and there is James, a single young man who is fighting a losing battle with pornography. He’s not alone—he’s only one of many single and married men who are defeated by this plague. These are just fictional people that I made up. I’m sure that there aren’t real people like these in evangelical churches, are there?

There were in the church at Corinth. There were various factions in the church, vying for predominance. Some were involved in sexual immorality. Some had drinking problems! While the church should have had an influence on their pagan city, the reality was that the city had quite an influence on the church.

The early church had no church buildings, and Sunday was not a day off. It was their custom to gather on Sunday evenings in the homes of the wealthier members to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Their worship time was preceded by a pot-luck supper called the Agape, or Love Feast (Jude 12). The problem in Corinth was that the wealthy members got there first with their sumptuous dinners and gorged themselves. When the slaves and other poor people arrived, the food was gone. Even worse, a few of the wealthy filled their wine glasses a bit too often, so that they were getting drunk. As a result, they completely missed the significance and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. Some of the members were suffering severe discipline from the Lord for their irreverence.

That’s the background for our text. Paul writes to correct these problems and to show how to come to the Lord’s Supper:

Come to the Lord’s Supper often with love for others, remembrance of the Lord, and examination of yourself.

The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20), along with baptism, is one of two ordinances or sacraments that Jesus commanded His church to observe. It is probably also called, “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11). We get the name “communion” from 1 Corinthians 10:16 (“sharing” is the Greek word, koinonea, which means “fellowship” or “communion”). It’s also called “the table of the Lord” (1 Cor. 10:21) and the Eucharist, from the Greek word for “thanksgiving” (Mark 14:23).

The original Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal, where Jesus adapted and applied the meaning of that Jewish feast to Himself. The idea is that just as Israel was delivered from the death of their firstborn and from slavery to Pharaoh through the blood of the Passover lamb, so you are spared from God’s judgment and slavery to sin by the death of the Lamb of God (see The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Zondervan], 3:380-381). In our text, Paul gives four ways that we should come to the Lord’s Supper:

1. Come to the Lord’s Supper often (1 Cor. 11:25-26).

Paul cites Jesus’ words (1 Cor. 11:25), “do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” He adds (v. 26), “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” If “the breaking of bread” in Acts refers to the Lord’s Supper, then at first in the early church, they seemed to have celebrated the Lord’s Supper daily (Acts 2:46). Later (Acts 20:7), it became a weekly occurrence that took place on “the first day of the week” (our Saturday night). Many churches today observe it every Sunday. Some do it once a month. A few churches are less frequent. There is no command as to how frequently we are to observe it, but it should be often.

We had a visitor last year who came up to me after the service very upset because we did not observe the Lord’s Supper that Sunday. I tried to explain why, but she informed me that she would not be back. If we had only one service with no need to get the first service over by a certain time, I’d prefer having the Lord’s Supper weekly. But the need to fit in announcements and missions reports only allows us to celebrate it every other week.

However often you come to the Lord’s Supper, the complaint often arises that it just becomes an empty ritual. How should we deal with that problem? Anything that you do often can become an empty ritual. Reading your Bible every morning can become something that you just check off your “to do” list. Or, you can truly seek the Lord through His Word, asking Him to apply it to your heart. Prayer can become an empty ritual, where you just run through your prayer list. Or, you can really make contact with the Lord. Singing during worship can be a mindless ritual. Or, you can think about the words and worship God in spirit and in truth. I tell my wife that I love her and kiss her goodbye every morning. Even that could become a perfunctory ritual. But I try to make it memorable and meaningful! So, come to the Lord’s Supper often, communing with the Lord in a meaningful way.

2. Come to the Lord’s Supper with love for others (1 Cor. 11:17-22, 33-34).

Before and after Paul gave instructions about how to come to the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:23-32), he confronted the problem of divisions and strife in the church. He has already dealt extensively with this problem in this letter, but he’s still shocked at their display of factionalism at such a sacred occasion as the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 10:17, he wrote, “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” Apparently, they passed around a common loaf of bread and each person broke off a part as they observed the Lord’s Supper. That one loaf pictures the fact that we are one body in Christ. But the divisions among the Corinthians contradicted the reality of the one body of Christ. Thus he writes (1 Cor. 11:18-19):

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.

Verse 19 is difficult to understand. Most commentators understand Paul to be saying that God works good even out of a bad situation. He permits the factions in a church to reveal who the truly spiritually mature ones are. But even though I’m going against the majority of scholars, I side here with The New Living Translation and J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase, both of which understand Paul to be using sarcasm. The NLT [Tyndale] puts it, “But, of course, there must be divisions among you so that those of you who are right will be recognized!” I would paraphrase, “Of course you must have your factions, so that your favorite leaders can be in the spotlight!” Paul says that it would be better not to come together as a church at all than to come together with this sort of rivalry (1 Cor. 11:17).

Then (1 Cor. 11:20-22) Paul confronts the selfishness and gluttony of those who were stuffing themselves and even getting drunk at the common meal before coming to the Lord’s Supper. They were not considerate of the slaves and other poor who were a part of the church. When he says (1 Cor. 11:20), “when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper,” he means that their selfish approach nullified the very meaning of the remembrance of the self-sacrifice of our Savior. Their selfish gluttony and drunkenness despised the church of God and shamed the poor (1 Cor. 11:22). Paul was shocked by their selfish behavior!

Paul says it in a negative way, but stated positively the point is that we are to come to the Lord’s Supper with genuine love for one another. The Lord’s Supper is one spiritual activity that you do not practice alone. You can and should pray and read the Bible by yourself. Much of the spiritual life is hidden. But the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated with the Lord’s people. So to come to it rightly, you have to deal with damaged relationships as best as you can. Our common participation in the symbols of the body and blood of our Lord should demonstrate the self-sacrificing love of the one who gave Himself up to die on our behalf.

I realize that some relational conflicts take time to resolve and some are never fully resolved. As Paul says (Rom. 12:18), ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” But to the best of our ability, we should seek to be right with others before we come to the Lord’s Supper. As Jesus taught in a Jewish context (Matt. 5:23-24), “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” God wants us to be reconciled with one another before we worship Him. Otherwise, we become religious hypocrites.

For example, in my opening story, “Mary” and “Linda” who weren’t talking to each other need to meet privately. Each one needs to ask the other’s forgiveness for however she wronged the other one. Each one needs to grant forgiveness and affirm the other as a sister in Christ. Then each one can participate in the Lord’s Supper with a clean conscience.

Husbands and wives who have angrily fought during the week need to realize on Saturday that they will be coming to the table of the Lord the next day. They need to ask forgiveness of one another and affirm their love for one another before they take communion on Sunday. Parents who were angry with their children need to say, “I was wrong when I yelled at you yesterday. I’ve asked God to forgive me. Will you forgive me, too?” If you don’t do that, your kids watch you go to church and partake of communion and think, “What a phony! His Christianity is worthless!” The Lord’s Supper should display the truth that we are one body in Christ. Before we partake, we should clear up all relational conflicts to the best of our ability. Coming often to the Table means that we need to deal often with relational issues.

3. Come to the Lord’s Supper with remembrance of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

Since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians before Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written, we have here the earliest recorded words of Jesus and the earliest account of the first Lord’s Supper. Scholars differ over whether Paul means (v. 23) that he received this as a direct revelation from Christ or whether he received it from the Lord through the other apostles. I think that the Lord directly revealed this account of the first Lord’s Supper to Paul (see Gal. 1:11-12). Remember four things:

A. Remember the Lord Himself.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a minute! I’m a Christian! How could I forget the Lord?” But the reality is, we get busy with all sorts of things, even with serving the Lord, and we easily forget the Lord Himself.

In my office I have several photographs of my family. If you were to ask, “Are those pictures there because you can’t remember your family?” I would answer, “No, those pictures are not there to jog my memory. They are there to touch my heart.” When I look at those pictures during the day, they remind me of my loved ones from whom I am temporarily separated. I think about what each of them means to me. I recall good times we’ve had together. I thank God for giving them to me and to pray for His ongoing protection and grace in their lives. I look forward to seeing them again, to feel their hugs, and to enjoy their company. The value of a picture is emotional. It touches our hearts.

In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus left us a picture of Himself for us to remember Him by. We should pause and look at it often. When we do, it should remind us of His great love for us as shown supremely on the cross. It should fill our hearts with the desire to see Him when He comes again. It should make us look to ourselves to ask, “Is there anything in my life that needs to be dealt with before I meet my Bridegroom face to face?” It should touch our hearts and make us say, “Thank God for what He has given us in Christ!” The Lord’s Supper is a time to remember our beloved Savior.

B. Remember the Lord’s substitutionary sacrifice for you.

Jesus took the bread, broke it, gave thanks, and said (1 Cor. 11:24), “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53 that Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, would die for our sins. Our guilt was placed on Him. The guilt-ridden deacon in my opening story should realize when he comes to the Lord’s Supper that Jesus died in his place and bore all his guilt. Now, by faith in Christ, he can live guilt-free.

Christians have been divided over the meaning of Jesus’ words, “This is My body.” Without going through all the different views, I understand that Jesus was speaking symbolically: the elements picture Jesus’ body and blood, which was shed for us. Is He spiritually present with us when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Yes, but not in some mystical sense any more than He is spiritually present when we worship or hear His Word preached. Partaking of the elements does not automatically confer grace on anyone unless they partake in faith.

So when you come to the Lord’s Supper, by faith remember Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross for you. As 1 Peter 2:24 puts it, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” Never forget that!

C. Remember your complete forgiveness through the new covenant.

The old covenant sacrifices could not take away sins permanently (Heb. 10:11). But Jesus said (1 Cor. 11:25), “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” The “new covenant” refers to the Lord’s promise (Jer. 31:34; cf. Heb. 8:12; 10:16-17), “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” We should remember that the Lord forgets! Of course, He is omniscient, so He doesn’t forget our sins as we forget things. Rather, He means that He will not bring our sins up for judgment against us if our faith is in Jesus and His death for us on the cross. If you’ve never come to Christ and put your trust in Him, that is your greatest need. If you have done that, never forget that His death reconciled you to God forever!

D. Remember that Jesus is coming again.

1 Cor. 11:26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” The Greek verb translated “proclaim” is used elsewhere of proclaiming the gospel (1 Cor. 9:14). The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, because He couldn’t come again if He were not raised from the dead. Each time we partake of the Lord’s Supper could be the last. The trumpet may sound, the dead in Christ will rise, and we shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:16-17)! The Lord’s Supper reminds us to be ready for that day! But, Paul goes on to give a sober warning:

4. Come to the Lord’s Supper with examination of yourself (1 Cor. 11:27-34).

I don’t have time to explain this section in detail. In summary, Paul says that many of the Corinthians were suffering sickness and even death because they were coming to the Lord’s Supper in the relationally unloving, irreverent, self-centered manner that he has described. He clarifies (1 Cor. 11:32) that this judgment does not mean eternal condemnation, but rather divine discipline. To avoid such discipline, he gives the prerequisite for coming to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:28): “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” By judging the body rightly (v. 29), I understand Paul to be referring to the body and blood of the Lord (v. 27). He means that we should not partake of communion flippantly or irreverently, but worshipfully and thankfully.

By examining ourselves, Paul means that we should do a private, mental inventory of our relationship with Christ (2 Cor. 13:5). Am I truly trusting in Him alone for salvation? Am I sinfully at odds with anyone else? Is there any sin that I have not confessed and turned from? The Lord’s Supper is not for the sinless, but for those who are dealing with their sin on the heart level as they are walking with Christ.

It’s encouraging to remember that at the first Lord’s Supper, the disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest. Jesus predicted Peter’s threefold denial of Him that very night. A short time later, the disciples couldn’t stay awake to watch and pray with Jesus in the Garden. So the Lord’s Supper is not for perfect saints, but rather for those who struggle with the shortcomings and sins that are common to us all. But, we should not shrug off any known sin or excuse it by saying, “It’s just my weakness.” As Paul rhetorically asks (Rom. 6:1-2), “Are we to continue in sin that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” The Lord’s Supper gives us a frequent reminder that we need to deal with our sins on the heart level before God.

Conclusion

John Duncan was a prominent Scottish theologian. Once as communion was being held in a Church of Scotland, when the elements came to a 16-year-old girl, she suddenly turned her head aside and motioned for the elder to take the cup away; she couldn’t drink it. Professor Duncan reached his arm over, touched her shoulder, and said tenderly, “Take it, lassie, it’s for sinners.” (In Billy Graham, How to be Born Again [Word], p. 137.)

John Stott once forcefully stated (cited by David Watson, I Believe in Evangelism [Eerdmans], p. 71), “If the cross is not central in our thinking, it is safe to say that our faith, whatever it be, is not the Christian faith, and our creed, whatever it be, is not the Apostles’ Creed.” The Lord’s Supper reminds us to keep the cross of Jesus Christ central. Come often with love for others, remembrance of the Lord, and examination of yourself.

Application Questions

  1. Why must the cross be central to our Christian lives?  What does this mean practically?
  2. When does looking to ourselves go too far? How much introspection is healthy?
  3. Is it spiritually and emotionally healthy to think often of our own depravity? Why/why not?
  4. Practically, how can we keep communion from becoming an empty ritual?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Communion

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