Let’s look at the primary text concerning the communion / Lord’s supper / partaking of the Lord’s body:
1 Corinthians 11
20 Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.
21 For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,
24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.
32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
First, let’s see the larger context of the passage.
If you read the preceding verses starting with v. 17, you will see that there were cliques / divisions in the Corinthian gathering. (This problem goes all the way back to chapter 1 of the epistle, vv. 10-17 – “I hear there are divisions among you”. Chapter 11 describes some of the ways these divisions play out in practice).
Let’s unpack the concepts of “guilt” and “unworthiness”.
Vv. 20-21 – instead of focusing on the Lord’s body, the Corinthians were focusing on eating / drinking ahead of each other. So, each for himself, or each faction for itself. So what Paul faults them with is a wrong focus – on food items as something to be eaten and drunk, as opposed to focus on what they represent. (If they focused on Christ, it would hardly be possible for them to be so selfish as well, since the spirit of Christ in them would prompt them to act differently). He says “it’s not the Lord’s supper you eat”, but “your own supper”, or simply food.
V. 26 proclaims that by partaking of the elements. we proclaim HIS death (in our place, as opposed to our own). Any ailment that we have testifies of death as a process working in our bodies – the body of Christ speaks of HIS death. So instead of taking the testimony of our senses – that death is working in us, we take the testimony of Jesus – that death HAS worked in him, and whatever I may be experiencing has belonged on him already, and is therefore illegal and can’t be present in me. It’s the same as death of the sacrificial animal in place of the one bringing the sacrifice to the priest – once the sacrifice is brought, the animal, and not the one bringing it, is examined for faults and slain.
V. 27 – first off, see how the word “in an unworthy manner” is a translation of a Greek adverb ἀναξίως – unworthiLY. As an adverb, it modifies the verb “partake”. So while the manner of partaking may be unworthy, people partaking the communion never become unworthy. If “Christ died for us while yet we were still sinners”, then our worth all along has been no less that Christ himself (when someone pays a certain amount to purchase a certain item, the item has to be worth the price for a purchase to take place). And now we are a purchased possession and are “in Christ”, meaning again that our worth is intrinsically determined by Christ, who is our purchase price.
So, the unworthy manner of partaking here is simply not ascribing / focusing on the true worth of the body and blood of Christ.
V. 27 – “guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord” – this is an interesting part – is failing to appropriate full benefits by faith. It’s not a judicial guilt. The only persons that could have been said to be judicially guilty of that were the people who crucified him and approved of the crucifixion at the time. We weren’t even born yet when it happened. And Jesus addressed that by asking the Father to forgive them. Just as any prayer of Jesus, I believe it was answered. So, if there’s no judicial guilt – there’s no judicial verdict. The being “guilty” here is simply wasting a perfect, fully paid for opportunity. The ones directly impacted as the result of that are not God or Christ, but the very people who wasted the opportunity.
Now, the next part. Logically, there are 2 options there:
- If people don’t focus on the Lord’s finished word (in this case, via the Lord’s supper), they might get sick and die prematurely, and some have, since that’s the default setting of the world. In this case, partaking incorrectly (without discerning the Lord’s body) is the same as not partaking at all. In other words, it’s a wasted opportunity.
- Partaking incorrectly makes people worse off health-wise and brings sickness and death. Not partaking at all would be better than that.
I contend that option 1 is the correct one, and that’s the option directly supported by the text. Paul in v. 20 says that it’s not the Lord’s supper they eat. in v. 21, he says that each takes HIS OWN [not the Lord’s] supper. So at that point, it’s simply stuffing themselves with food items. If it’s not the Lord’s supper they eat, then they don’t get its benefits.
1 Corinthians 8:8 says this:
4 Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.
7 However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.
8 But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.
The context of that verse is eating food dedicated to idols. It says that if we eat the food dedicated to idols, in and of itself it doesn’t make people better, or worse. If food dedicated to idols in and of itself can’t make people worse off, surely the food dedicated to Christ can’t make people worse off either, since God isn’t even the author of sin and sickness. (What can happen though, per v. 7, is that people having a consciousness of an idol stronger than their consciousness of God, if they eat the food dedicated to idols, their consciousness is defiled. So it’s a question of faith either way. In this case – fearful faith in the negative.)
By analogy, since Corinthians were eating just food and not the Lord’s supper at that point in ch. 11, their eating food in and of itself didn’t make things better or worse, but kept them the same. However, if they engaged their minds by being conscious of Christ’s finished work while eating the food that they purposed for that remembrance, it would have an impact.
In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul says this:
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
There is a similar idea in this verse. v. 16 – eating or drinking [in the context of a religious observance, in this case] in and of itself is not sufficient basis for making a judgment / forming an opinion. v. 17 – the issue is focusing on “in Christ” reality. The whole idea behind the “Lord’s supper” is simply using simple tangible objects to help remember and focus on what Christ has done.
(continued in part 2)