Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
The main problem the Apostle Paul seeks to correct in his first letter to the Corinthian congregation is their divisiveness. Three times Paul directly addresses the issue of division as if he were trying to stomp out a fire (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-12; 3:4-5; 11:17-18). Ironically, Paul criticizes the Corinthians for coming “together as a church” only to exhibit the divisions present in their gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:18). But what really irks Paul is that divisions would be present even during Jesus’ mandated celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which was meant to be a unifying commemoration of the body of Christ. As a remedy to their divisions, Paul briefly outlines the tradition of the Lord’s Supper, highlighting its meaning in three main orientations: past, present, and future.
First, Paul’s restatement of the Lord’s Supper is presented as being a handing down of a tradition, which began with the Lord Jesus himself. Gordon D. Fee comments that “the verbs ‘received’ and ‘passed on,’ which occur again in combination later in the letter (15:3), are technical terms from Paul’s Jewish heritage for the transmission of religious instruction.”1 Thus, by tracing the origin of the institution of the Lord’s Supper back to the original source, Jesus, Paul aims to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the Corinthian dinner gatherings, which have nothing to do with the unifying commemorative meal established by Jesus in the past.
Indeed, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for gathering merely to eat and get drunk, rather than sharing their time and meal with everyone in the congregation regardless of their social status (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). Some left these dinner parties hungry; others were humiliated (verses 21-22). What is more, the Corinthians had the audacity to refer to their gatherings as a church gathering. For Paul, this was to demean the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which originally was celebrated by Jesus and his disciples on a religious day for all Jewish people. Just as the Jewish Passover served to connect people with an event from the past, the Lord’s Supper was a solemn reenactment connecting believers with the atoning sacrifice of their Lord.
The next time the Corinthians gathered to partake of the Lord’s Supper, Paul’s careful repetition of Jesus’ instructions would serve to remind them that the elements pointed back to the night of his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion (1 Corinthians 11:23). Thus, they were commanded to keep the death of Jesus at the center of the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus’ action of breaking the bread (verse 24) was a reminder of his broken body on the cross, and the cup of the covenantal sacrificial pouring out of his blood (verse 25). The Lord’s Supper, then, was a solemn time for looking back at the atoning sacrifice made on their behalf by Jesus Christ and the eternal salvation that it accomplished. It was not a time to indulge in partying; for that they had their homes (verse 22)!
The present orientation of the Lord’s Supper relates to the understanding of it as an act of proclaiming the death of Jesus. Paul highlights this in the first part of his explanatory comment: “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Participating in the Lord’s Supper serves as a proclamation to everyone who is present that Jesus died for their sins. Thus, it is a time for repentance not only for those participating in the Lord’s Supper, but also for those in attendance who are hearing the gospel through it. Uniting to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, then, was an act of proclaiming the death of Jesus and announcing its atoning efficacy for everyone in attendance.
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a theological reenactment of Jesus’ death. As the Jewish people annually celebrated Passover acting out their ancestors’ ancient Exodus from Egypt, the Lord’s Supper served as a scripted object lesson meant to instruct the congregation of the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death. As more than mere actors in a play, those partaking of the holy bread and cup become living epistles of the divine drama.
The future orientation of the Lord’s Supper is associated with the anticipation of the Lord’s return mentioned in Paul’s explanatory note when he tells the Corinthians to do this “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). During the Lord’s Supper, believers look forward to the future great gathering in which they will celebrate the same feast being present with the Lord. This is what Jesus promised when he told his disciples: “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). At this future event, all of those that have gone before us will be present and we will drink and eat with the Lord and one another as he promised his disciples.
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper, then, is a proleptic act announcing that future gathering that will take place at the consummation of the ages, which as the church of Christ we eagerly await. Seen in this way, every time the church gathers in the present to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we unite with the church of the past, anticipating that future reunion with the saints in heaven. The past, present, and future aspects of the partaking of the bread and the cup form an integral part of the sacred feast. The unity of the church in its past, present, and future dimensions is envisaged beautifully in the restatement of the Lord’s Supper by Paul. The church gathers to remember the benefits of Jesus’ atoning death, proclaim the good news of his saving death, and announce the return of the Lord with whom the church will be reunited one day.
- Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2014), 607.
April 6, 2023