Paul praised the Corinthians for their commitment to the apostolic traditions - "the ordinances" (1 Cor 11.2) - and then his tone changed as he revisited the problem of the "divisions" among them. Here he describes them as "heresies", meaning schisms or factions (vv.17-19), hence "I praise you not" (vv.17,22). Previously, battle-lines had been drawn up on the basis of partiality towards preachers but, in this context, the cliques were the result of social disparities, with the better off somewhat insensitive towards the 'have-nots' in the assembly (v.22). It was all part of a culture that diminished the value of assembly gatherings (v.17) and, in particular, downgraded the importance and sanctity of the Lord's Supper. But they were paying a high price for their careless and irreverent attitude towards God and "the church of God" (v.22). "For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep" (v.30). Many of the Corinthians had believed (Acts 18.8). Many of the many were now ailing as a result of divine discipline; "a good many" (JND), "not a few" (RV), had actually died. Assembly numbers were being reduced dramatically and, if they failed to address the situation, the existence of the assembly was at risk.
The solemn lesson is that God reserves the right to discipline His misbehaving people, in some situations inflicting illness and, in extreme cases, effecting death. It is worth making one or two points in this connection. First, miracles of both blessing and judgment were always prevalent at new stages in God's dealings with men. Thus the book of Acts is peppered with remarkable happenings but, though it may not be the norm, God can still intervene in unusual ways today. Second, it goes without saying that, generally, an unexpected illness is not the result of divine chastening although, in some cases, it can be. Third, we should never dare to pass an opinion that a saint who falls ill in uncommon circumstances is suffering under the disciplining hand of God.
It appears that at Corinth the Lord's Supper had degenerated into a social occasion, and what ought to have been a hallowed weekly occurrence had merged with a fellowship meal. That was bad enough, but it seems that their conduct at that fellowship meal left much to be desired, and apparently a party atmosphere prevailed. Thus Paul asks, in effect, "How can you call the breaking of bread the Lord's Supper when so much disorder exists?" (v.20). Their behaviour made that a misnomer.
This unhealthy development served to magnify the social gulf between assembly members. There was no communal meal being prepared for all but everyone brought their own provisions, giving well-to-do believers an opportunity to flaunt their wealth. They even had a supply of wine on their menu in which they overindulged, while disadvantaged families went hungry (v.21). It was tantamount to despising the church of God, and it left the underprivileged feeling worthless and excluded. One can barely understand the mindset of believers who would treat their less-privileged brethren so callously, effectively ignoring them and creating the feeling of being unwanted.
To my knowledge this precise scenario is never replicated today, yet there is still the danger of treating the Lord's Supper with less respect than it demands. Flamboyance can still detract from the solemnity and significance of the occasion and have the same discouraging effect on 'ordinary' people as was experienced by the 'have-nots' at Corinth. Being fashion-conscious, snobbish or pompous could become an irritation to others and hence a distraction from the focus of the gathering, the remembrance of the Lord Jesus.
As ever, God is able to turn evil circumstances to good account, so the misbehaviour of the Corinthians gave rise to Paul unfolding a prophecy regarding the Lord's Supper. It would now be part of the inspired record for future generations of believers. Similarly, their doubts about the doctrine of resurrection gave rise to him penning an exquisite exposition on that theme in the fifteenth chapter. We would have been the poorer without these gems of truth, and yet their disclosure was born out of the misconduct and misconceptions of the church of God at Corinth.
I have referred to the verses about the Supper as a "prophecy" on the basis that Paul had "received [it] of the Lord" (v.23). He was one of the "stewards of the mysteries of God" (4.1) and as such had responsibility to communicate the revelations that he had received including these details of the Lord's Supper and the facts of the gospel (15.3). "It is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful" (4.2) - thus the custodian of these revelations "delivered" them orally as a New Testament prophet, and we now have them incorporated in Holy Scripture.
The following are some salient points from the prophecy:
• While being betrayed, the Lord Jesus set the pattern for what should be done by taking bread, giving thanks and breaking it and, "In like manner also the cup" (v.25, RV).
• He indicated that the loaf symbolised His body, and the cup His blood.
• While He had previously intimated His rejection and crucifixion, His usage of the phrase "for you" was the first indication that His death would be vicarious and substitutionary.
• He commanded His people to perpetuate the ordinance "in remembrance" of Him. Scripture gives no mandate as to events surrounding the focal point of the eating and drinking but, if the main purpose is remembrance, then any hymns that are requested would have Him as the theme and anything addressed to the Father would have Him at the centre.
• His use of the word "oft" (vv.25,26) denotes a not in-frequent celebration of the Supper, with the added indication of continuity "till he come". In New Testament times it took place "upon the first day of the week" (Acts 20.7) and, apparently the word week is plural, the inference being that it was done every first day of the week. That Biblical pattern should be maintained.
• Paul added a further dimension by stating that in the eating and drinking we "proclaim the Lord's death" (v.26, RV). Angels attend (v.10), and it is anticipated that outsiders will be present at gatherings of the local church (14.23-25). To those interested parties, what takes place is a vivid reminder of all that transpired at the cross, and of the wealth of blessing that flows to believers as a consequence of "the Lord's death".
In summary, the celebration of the Supper is a command to be obeyed, it is an act of remembrance, it is a proclamation of His death, and it is an anticipation of His coming.
The problem outlined in previous paragraphs exposed the Corinthians to great danger - the threat of divine judgment. Scripture is clear that genuine believers can never be lost, but eating and drinking "unworthily" left them open to divine intervention in the form of physical sickness and even death; they were eating and drinking judgment to themselves in that temporal and physical sense (v.29). This was on account of their "not discerning the Lord's body" (v.29). Their behaviour at the Supper gave evidence that they had lost sight of the importance of what the loaf symbolised. They had become so familiar with the story of the cross that it had lost its impact, and generally their attitude to the things of God had become flippant, with concerns about His holiness and His interests sidelined in favour of the convivial atmosphere of their interaction with each other at the fellowship meal.
Our attitudes and actions may never approximate to the blatant impiety of the Corinthians, but there is still the need to heed Paul's injunction "let a man examine himself" (v.28). Self-judgment obviates divine judgment (v.31), the chastening that the Lord inflicts on wayward saints (v.32). That chastening will be administered if necessary, for it is an evidence of fatherly affection (Heb 12.6). If it is effective and produces a change of direction, that outcome proves the reality of the believer's assured position in Christ, meaning that they will never "be condemned with the world" (1 Cor 11.32). Mutual respect among believers when they "come together" is a major factor in avoiding the "condemnation" of fatherly chastening (vv.33-34).
It should be stressed that the self-examination of v.28 is with a view to eating and drinking rather than anticipating disqualification. Obviously there are times when the scrutiny exposes failure and necessitates confession and readjustment. Let these be in place to avoid the peril of divine intervention.
To be continued.