First Corinthians 11 is probably familiar to most Christians for Paul’s instructions about the Lord’s Supper (vv. 23-32). There are several significant points every Christian should recognize in these verses.
Notice first that Paul expressly says that he taught the Corinthian saints to observe the memorial of the Lord’s death exactly as Jesus delivered it to him, verse 23. (In verses 23b-25 he describes exactly what the Lord told him – and this record agrees perfectly with the accounts in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22). What this means for Christians today is that we have no right nor authority to “modify” our observance of the Lord’s Supper by things like…
- Combining the prayers for the bread and the fruit of the vine into one prayer.
- Using “substitutes” for the things Jesus used (because they were parts of the Passover meal, the bread was unleavened and the fruit of the vine would have been fresh [i.e., “grape juice” rather than alcoholic wine] – many denominations use alcoholic wine, and the Mormon cult uses leavened bread and water in place of the elements Jesus authorized).
- Adding singing or humming during the time we are partaking of the Lord’s Supper; if we have to “create” an atmosphere at the Lord’s table, we’ve already missed the purpose of the memorial!
- Next, we should note that Jesus “took bread,” and Paul notes nothing “special” about it, and does not describe it with any of the “special” terms commonly used in the denominational community (such as sacrament, Eucharist, or “the host” – these words express specific theological ideas that are not based in the new testament). Likewise, the Lord’s only other “terminology” for the fruit of the vine are the words cup and blood – which are simply metaphors for the grape juice He used.
Another lesson we should note (from the examples in the gospel records and from Paul’s account here) relates to the prayers we offer as part of partaking of the Lord’s Supper: In 1 Corinthians 11:24 Paul says the Lord gave thanks (cf. Matthew 26:26-27). We need to understand that the Lord’s “blessing” of the bread and the cup was a prayer of thanksgiving for the memorial. It was NOT a request for the Father to “do” anything with or to the bread or fruit of the vine, and it was not a request that we partake “worthily.” (Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27-31 – our “worthiness” should be addressed before we come to the Lord’s table; it is not something God will change for us based on our eating the Lord’s supper!). Neither were our Lord’s prayers in this context requests for “Aunt Mabel’s health to improve,” for the Lord to send “more rain,” nor for the nation to change course politically. To genuinely follow the Lord’s example, we need to focus on the fact that we are engaged in a memorial of the Lord’s sacrificial death, and the fact that He lives again and is coming to receive us, 1 Corinthians 11:26.
Concerning the matter of “eating unworthily” (verse 27), we need to understand that this word refers to the spiritual condition of one participating in the Lord’s supper – Paul is not saying “Don’t partake if you feel ‘unworthy’.” Rather, all Christians are charged to examine/judge ourselves beforehand (vv. 28-32), and set right whatever might cause us to feel “unworthy” to participate in the Lord’s supper. There is NO bible example of Christians shaking their heads and passing the bread and fruit of the vine to the person beside them without partaking! The point Paul is making comes in verses 31-32, with the word “judged;” in this context, this word means condemned, and what Paul tells us is that Christians ought to routinely and consistently inspect our own lives and actions so that we can correct our sins – “be chastened/disciplined” by the Lord – in order to able to partake of the memorial with clear consciences!