RPM, Volume 14, Number 6, February 5 to February 11, 2012

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

A Sermon




By Scott Lindsay



As I was reading to prepare for this week?s message I came across one writer who told the story of a groundskeeper at a sports arena who was working hard one day to convert the field in a local park from a soccer field to a football field, or maybe it was a baseball field to a football field.... At any rate, some sort of conversion was going on and, in the process, this groundskeeper got confused and ended up erasing lines that shouldn?t have been erased, and drawing lines where they weren?t supposed to be drawn. In the end, he had one big mess and had to start all over again.

This writer then used that story as an analogy of what is going on in Chapter 11 of 1st Corinthians. Last week we looked at 11:2-16 where Paul confronted the Corinthians for blurring lines and minimizing distinctions between men and women - and so erasing things that were never meant to be erased. Then, in verses 17-34, the opposite thing is happening - lines are being drawn and divisions were occurring in the church where such things ought never to occur - and they were occurring, unbelievably, in the midst of their corporate worship - indeed, while they were observing the Lord?s Supper.

Now, all of this is situated in a section of this letter that runs from 11:2 through to the end of chapter 14, and which centers around issues of how the Corinthians should and should not be conducting themselves in their meetings together. So, that is where are. And, with that brief introduction, let?s pray together and then we?ll go straight into the passage...Let?s pray....

(Pray and read 1 Cor 11:17-34)

Now, as we did last week, it is helpful to think a little bit about some preliminary and background issues before we tackle the passage itself. For starters, you have to remember as you look at this passage that we are talking about a church that didn?t have its own building. Indeed, no church back then did. Instead, they would typically meet in the homes of their more wealthy members. (See 1 Corinthians 16:19).

If you study the architecture of that day, you learn that in the larger homes there was often a dining room - called the Triclinium - which would hold about 8-10 people, and then there would be a larger, courtyard area called the Atrium which might hold anywhere from 30-50 people. And, when it came to eating customs, these two rooms actually served to maintain certain class and social distinctions that were common in that day.

So, for example if a person was having a large dinner party, the guests would arrive and certain ones would be invited to dine in the smaller Triclinium while the rest would eat in the Atrium. At such events, typically, the closer friends and more preferred guests were in the smaller room and actually received the better portions of what was on offer. Everyone else got what was left.

Now you and I might think this sort of thing a little odd, but nobody back then did. It was simply the way things were. And it was against that sort of backdrop and in the wake of those sorts of practices that the church began to meet in the homes of its wealthier members and to observe their own fellowship meals together. Now, a lot more could be said about all of that, but that will be enough for our purposes.

A second background/preliminary sort of comment is just to say that the Lord?s Supper observance that we see in the New Testament was something that obviously took place in the context of a full, regular meal. The bread and the cup were a subset of a larger dinner and fellowship time together. Clearly this is not our own practice today - although we have, at this Church, observed the Lord?s Supper in this fashion on some special occasions.

The third background issue is to simply note that, as one commentator has put it, if it weren?t for the fact that the Corinthians were getting it wrong - we would be missing some important pieces of information in our understanding of the Lord?s Supper. It is only because they were having problems that Paul addressed this subject in the first place.

On the one hand, this is a helpful thing. It is helpful because it does give us more than we would have otherwise. However, because Paul?s purpose is to address a problem - and not to give a full explanation of the Supper and it purposes - then what we have here is an incomplete statement about the Lord?s Supper. So, while we can and do learn some things, a lot has still been left unsaid.

With all that as background then, let?s have a look at the passage, in four parts. Firstly, we?re going to look at the basic problem - the fact that a number of people were only thinking of themselves when the church came together for meals and to observe the Supper. Secondly, we?re going to look at how Paul rebukes them by reminding them that the point of the Supper is not to think about themselves and pursue selfish interests. Rather, the point is to think about Jesus and promote his interests. Thirdly, we?re going to look briefly at some of the consequences that the Corinthians were experiencing because of their misbehavior. And, finally, we?re going to look at the response Paul makes to all of this - what he sees as the solution to the problem.

Firstly, in verses 17-22, we get a description of the problem in the Corinthian church - one among many as we have seen on other occasions. But the problem in view here seems to be this: When they are coming together for their fellowship/Lord?s Supper observances, apparently some are arriving before the others and so begin eating and drinking before the others - with the result that they are getting more than their share and even becoming drunk while others are ending up with little or nothing left for them by the time they arrive.

Now a slightly different view, and one which is held by the majority of the commentators, is that what was going on was a continuation of the class and status distinctions that were prevalent in the culture of that day - a distinction between the ?haves? and the ?have nots?. On the basis of this assumption, these writers go on to say that what was happening in Corinth was that when the people came together, some were getting preferential treatment at the church fellowships: perhaps going to the ?head of the line?, so to speak, perhaps getting better portions of food, or larger portions. And perhaps, along with all of that, these same people were being invited to dine in the more exclusive Triclinium, while the rest were left to fend for themselves in the Atrium and anywhere else they could fit.

Now, that may have been what was going on in Corinth. It is certainly a possibility. But if what was going on was essentially a rich/poor problem, then it is difficult to see how the solution that Paul offers in verse 33 really addresses that. He says nothing about not viewing themselves as superior to one another. He says nothing about not making an idol out of one?s wealth. He says nothing in the solution that would lead you to believe that the problem was a rich/poor problem.

And so, while there may have been elements of the rich-poor distinctions that played into the situation, the reality is that the main issue seems to have been that some were simply acting very selfishly, arriving early and indulging themselves to excess, and in a way which resulted in their being ?haves? and ?have nots? at their own fellowship gatherings. Their selfishness and greed created both situational divisions in that some were hungry and others were stuffed as well as relational division by the resentment this would obviously create.

Now, as Paul says in verse 19, some divisions within the church are unavoidable and even necessary. For example, there are the divisions that come when the circumstances of life reveal - over time - who the true believers are within a church, and who the merely religious people are. Paul has no problem with accepting that those sorts of divisions can and do occur.

But what Paul has difficulty believing is that divisions that were entirely avoidable and completely unnecessary were taking place in the church - and in the midst of a Lord?s Supper observance no less - the thing that was meant to be the very picture of unity and oneness. And so Paul can hardly contain his frustration with them when he 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 to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.?

Well, after rebuking the Corinthians here for their very self-serving behavior, Paul moves on from there to the task of drawing their attention back to the Lord?s Supper and its original intention and purpose - which will also serve as a rebuke all its own. By reminding them again of the Supper and what it was all about, Paul is intending to draw a pointed contrast between what the Corinthians ARE presently doing and what they were MEANT to be doing. (Read Verses 23-26 again)

The Corinthians, at least some of them, were clearly only thinking of themselves when they came together for their fellowship meals. They weren?t remembering Jesus at all. Instead, they were remembering the roast beef that was so good the last time they got together, or the cherry pie that somebody had eaten the last of before they got a chance. They were thinking of those sorts of things, of satisfying their hunger. They were thinking of themselves and their stomachs. They were thinking of all sorts of things, but they weren?t thinking about Jesus.

So Paul reminds them of Jesus. He reminds them how on the night he was betrayed, Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it apart and said ?This is my body which is for you? - and then proceeded to distribute that one loaf amongst them all so that they could partake of it - as the one people, sharing the one loaf. Paul wanted the Corinthians to remember that, and to think of the body of the Lord, broken at the cross in order to reconcile them to God, and further, to unite them to each other, and to insure that the unity they had now - as a church on earth, would be an enduring unity - that would continue into all eternity.

And, just as Paul wanted them to remember Christ in the breaking of the bread, he wanted them to remember Christ in the sharing of the cup. He wanted them to remember how Christ?s blood was shed and how - just as the covenant with God?s people was confirmed in Exodus (24) by the shedding of blood - so too was the covenant that Christ established, confirmed with his own blood. In short, he wants them to remember the awesome significance of what Christ accomplished.

Even further, as they partook of these things, he wanted them to remember that their participation was also meant to serve as an act of proclamation. ?For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord?s death until he comes.? In other words, every time they properly observed this meal together, they were preaching, as a community, the Lord?s death. And that?s not just a reference to the words that were said when the Supper was observed ? that?s a statement about what was happening as the Supper was observed. As God?s people together took this supper they preached the very thing that they were celebrating.

And so there is a strong element of both remembrance and proclamation associated with the Lord?s Supper. Which is why what the Corinthians are doing is such a tragedy and it is the reason that Paul draws their attention back to it in the first place. When the Corinthians got together - it wasn?t Christ they were remembering. It wasn?t his Gospel that they were modeling or preaching. That wasn?t the message that was coming through. No, if you had attended one of their fellowship meals, you would have left with the very distinct impression that the point of the whole meal was ?every man for himself?.

Which is why Paul makes the astonishing statement that he does in verse 20, ?when you come together, it is not the Lord?s Supper you are eating.? Clearly they were coming together, and having a meal. And clearly they were doing the whole thing with the bread and the cup in the midst of that meal - but it did not mean anything. It looked like the Lord?s Supper. But it wasn?t.

Well, after identifying the problem, and showing just how awful it was by comparing what they were doing with what was supposed to be happening when they came together - after all that Paul talks to them about some things that were going on amongst them and, in the process, makes a connection that perhaps some of them had not yet made. (Read vs 27-32)

It is clear from these verses that there are both right and wrong ways to participate in the Lord?s Supper, and the Corinthians were getting it wrong, and there were consequences that resulted from all that. Paul says so here. But what are we to think about all this? What does it all really mean? Well, for starters, I think it is worth re-stating the obvious: The Lord?s Supper can be taken in an unworthy manner. Now, for a long time, earlier bible translations (such as the King James) used the word ?unworthily? here, instead of the more helpful translation: ?unworthy manner?. Now, the difference may not seem that great but it is. Because, you see, to talk about someone doing something ?worthily? or ?unworthily? suggests that one has to be a certain kind of individual or possess a certain quality - called worthiness - in order to participate in the Supper.

Tragically, that understanding - or that sort of misunderstanding - has, for many years sent people on a never-ending quest to root out and discover every un-confessed sin, to engage in endless bouts of self-scrutiny in order to unearth whatever might be hidden in the dark recesses of their conscience that would render one ?unworthy? of participating in the Supper. The result of that sort of thinking has been, and still continues to be in many places, that the very people who most need to come to the Supper - the broken, sinful, the contrite, the weary - the very people who most needed to see the grace on offer there were the people who most felt that they shouldn?t partake and had no right to avail themselves of that particular means of grace. Why? Because they weren?t ?worthy?. And so, the table of mercy, for such as these, became an inaccessible table - a table of judgment and reproof.

But a better translation here is ?unworthy manner? - with the changed wording signaling, more properly, that the emphasis here is not on whether a certain quality - like ?worthiness? is present, but whether certain other realities are true - realities that have more to do with one?s perception or attitude or perspective. Now, in order to understand just what Paul has in mind here, we need to think a little further about what he is saying. Paul says - if I can summarize a bit - that partaking of the Lord?s Supper in an ?unworthy manner? is a consequence of not examining oneself to see whether one ?discerns the body?. Now, what does he mean by all this? Well, let?s work backward, thinking first about what Paul means by the word ?body?.

When you take the entirety of this passage into consideration - the problem as outlined and the solution offered - and everything in between - then it seems clear that the main thrust of all that is said here is centered upon the congregational disunity that is occurring because of the selfish behavior of some. As a result, it would seem that the primary sense, then, in which Paul uses the word ?body? here is in reference to the ?body of Christ? - i.e., the church.

With that in view, ?discerning the body?, then, would be a reference to a person examining his/her own heart to see whether or not he/she was partaking of the Lord?s Supper as one who was not only aware of one?s brothers and sisters - but also valued them, cared about them, was interested in their well-being, even to the point of putting them ahead of oneself. In terms of the particular situation in Corinth, it would be asking a person to think about whether their own behavior, in the last half hour, during the meal that had just taken place would illustrate their concern FOR and valuing OF their brothers and sisters.

Or not....

However, while I think the primary sense in which we are to understand ?body? refers to the church, there is also good reason to think that Paul intended something in addition to that. Because it is also the case that while the context of the whole passage does emphasize the church community - the immediate context draws our attention to something else - the body of Christ himself. After all, it is in the verses just before that Paul uses the word ?body? - and when he does so there - he is clearly referring to Jesus.

And so, summarizing a bit, what the Corinthians have not been doing is discerning the body as they took part in the Supper. And this meant two things. It meant, firstly, that they were not thinking about their brothers and sisters in Christ and how their sinful disregard of them or their needs was being manifested in their very ?fellowship? together. Further, it meant that they were not thinking of the significance of the supper itself - they were not seeing Christ in the broken bread and in the shared cup. They had lost sight of what that all meant and how very important it all was.

Well, as a consequence of their blatant abuse of their fellowship gatherings and of the Supper itself, Paul says that the sickness and death that was currently happening within their church was no accident. Paul says that there is a connection between what is happening to them - healthwise - and their divisive behavior and disregard for one another. Now, what should we think about all this?

Well, we can?t go very far with this one because we are very quickly into the land of speculation, but it seems painfully clear that Paul - in his role as Apostle - saw a real connection here. Paul was saying in no uncertain terms that they were currently undergoing the judgment and discipline of the Lord - as a congregation - because of their sin. Now, to be sure, Paul makes it clear that this is discipline and not ultimate judgment they are going through.

And, further, because it is discipline from a loving Father, that means it is ultimately an act of mercy - something that - if they looked back on it from the standpoint of eternity - they would only say ?Thank God?. And they would fall on their knees and praise God for disciplining them, but not condemning them. But all that being said, things were happening among them and Paul connects the dots for them so they can see that their sin has consequences and IS having consequences.

At the same time, while it is true that God does respond to his people with discipline at times - it is nevertheless important to say that while there IS a connection, there is not a necessary connection between these things. In other words, it would be biblically inaccurate to say that there is a one-to-one correspondence here such that every act of sin results in an act of discipline so that every time we are sick, or something goes wrong, we ask ourselves - ?I wonder what it is I did this time?? Jesus own actions toward others - for example the woman caught in adultery - as well as other examples, and indeed the whole event of the cross itself show that clearly there is NOT an automatic connection between our sin and the harsh discipline of God. Indeed, it seems that sometimes - maybe even most of the time - God?s way with us is to show us His kindness and mercy, in the midst of our failure. And such kindness, coming at times like that, can be, and in fact is, the most searching discipline of all.

Because when it comes, we recognize it for what it is, and we recognize that it is coming at a moment where we are profoundly aware of our sin - and yet still it comes, and it penetrates our hearts as deeply as any sort of retributive discipline ever could. The grace of God is incomprehensibly wide and unfathomably deep. And his discipline is a function of his grace - and it can come in all sort of packages, and under all sorts of conditions.

And so, again, their failure to ?discern the body? meant that they were not valuing either Christ himself, or their brothers and sisters in the Lord - and so were profaning the very blood and body of Christ that they allegedly were celebrating. And the consequence of that was real. There was a real connection, in space and time, between their behavior and what was happening all around them. People were sick. People were dying. That?s how serious things were.

Well, in addition to seeing what the nature of the problem was, and how a true understanding of the Lord?s Supper only makes it more obvious, and after dealing with the consequences that they were experiencing as a result of these things, Paul turns finally to make a couple brief comments about how they ought to address this problem. (Read 33-34)

For starters, it should be noted that Paul has already started telling them how they ought to address their situation in verses 27-32. He tells them that they need to makes sure that when they come together for their fellowship - and specifically when they come together to observe the Supper, that they need to examine themselves - to see if they are rightly ?discerning? the body - in the senses we have just described. They need to ?judge themselves truly?, to use Paul?s words. If they will do these things, then ?they would not be judged? - as verse 32 says.

In addition to what he has already said about self-examination - Paul adds, in verse 33, a further - and very simple - solution: wait for one another. They are to wait until everyone is present and then constitute their time together. That way, no one starts early and therefore it is less likely that they will over-indulge. With hungry eyes staring on, they would perhaps be reminded of their brothers or sisters needs, perhaps the additional, un-necessary spoon of mashed potatoes wouldn?t find its way to the plate. Perhaps the one glass of wine would be enough. Even further, perhaps their waiting for one another would cause them to slow down and remember again the realities to which the Supper pointed - i.e., the reason they were even celebrating this in the first place - and that too would affect their attitude and behavior toward one another.

Lastly, as a further precaution, he tells people that if on the day of a church fellowship they are feeling particularly hungry - then they ought to eat something at home before they show up at the church event. And in reading such things we are reminded, once again, of how very practical Paul is and how he regularly depended upon and made use of his God-given common sense in a number of situations.

Some Conclusions

As we close out our time this morning, let me make some final comments to add to what you have probably already begun to take on board from these verses....
1) The situation that Paul was addressing - divisions that were forming because of the selfish behavior of some of the Corinthians - that situation was not unique to the Corinthian church but is part of every church - at least every church I have seen, including our own. And that means you and I need to examine ourselves to see if we discern the body - i.e., to see if we value and esteem our brothers and sisters, and whether our actions toward them confirm or deny that. Further we need to see that - whatever form our disregard for our brothers and sisters takes - whether it is passive disinterest, or a more active disdain or something like the Corinthians - a behavior that sees us trampling on our brothers and sisters in the pursuit of our own selfish agendas - whatever form our disregard takes - it is simply unacceptable, and as long as it stands, renders your participation in the Lord?s Supper as something of a sham. Even further, the fact that there were real world consequences for the Corinthians who did these things ought to be a strong warning to us. Brothers and Sisters, Reconcile yourselves to one another. Pray for God to give you a genuine love for your brothers and sisters in this church - every one of them.

2) Building on the first point - please notice here that the warning that is given IS a warning - first and foremost - for Christians. Judging from the ways we talk about the Lord?s Supper, it does not seem that this is appreciated well enough - I certainly don?t think I have appreciated it well enough until now. As we have seen, it is the behavior of the Christians toward one another that has aroused Paul?s anger. To be sure, there is an implied warning here for unbelievers - but the emphasis is clearly upon the believers. It is they who most of all need to be examining themselves to see if they are valuing their brothers and sisters in the Lord - but not just THAT - they need to see if they are really appreciating and grasping the significance of the Supper and discerning the body of Christ Jesus himself - his death for our sin. And so, as believers ourselves, we need to take these things to heart. At South Baton Rouge, we do communion the first Sunday of the month. And one of the reasons for that regular pattern is so that you will know about it in advance and so will prepare yourselves for taking part in the Supper - not just in the 30 seconds prior to it being administered, but in the days leading up to it. The hope is that we will all take time to ?examine ourselves? long before we get here - and specifically to see if we are truly remembering the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup. Such examination will, obviously, lead to our seeing some things about our hearts that we need to see. And that will lead to repentance. And THAT will cause us to come to the Lord?s Table in the proper frame of mind.

3) Finally, as we are thinking about how we have approached these things in the past - and perhaps are convicted in various ways by our own hearts, we need to understand that because the Table of the Lord is the Lord?s, it is a table where grace and mercy can be found - and that means we can ?come as we are?, so to speak, to the table - admitting the ways that we have not valued one another in the Lord, admitting the ways that we have lost sight of the Lord Jesus himself - and what he has done - indeed, admitting a thousand other things as we come - needy, hungry, thirsty, dependent, and thoroughly wrecked - to his table - again and again - to taste and feel and handle the kindness and goodness of the Lord, to be refreshed by his grace and forgiveness. And as we do, every time we do, we proclaim the Lord?s death. We are preaching - together - the Good News of Jesus Christ.





This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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