The Lord's Supper: Warnings for All
George W. Knight III
Our confessional standards understand 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 as providing warnings to all Christians. But some say that the warnings apply only to those who have sinned as the Corinthians did. Most of these desire to admit children to the Lord's Supper who are unable to do what the warnings require. This article defends the historic way of understanding the warning statements.
First Corinthians 11:17–34 has four sections: (1) verses 17–22, (2) verses 23–26, (3) verses 27–32 (subdivided into verses 27–29 and verses 30–32), and (4) verses 33–34.
In the first section, Paul indicates the abuses and divisions of the Corinthians. They are not eating the Lord's Supper when they "come together" (vs. 20). The reason is: "For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk" (vs. 21). This is further explained by rhetorical questions in verse 22, such as: "Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?"
These charges and questions show that Paul is especially addressing those he is charging with this abuse. He concludes: "What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not" (vs. 22).
In the next section, the words of institution indicate that the Supper is to be observed, "as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me" (vs. 25). "As often as you drink it" implies that every Lord's Supper is an act "in remembrance of me."
Verse 26 adds, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." Since these things are so, one may not partake of the Supper in an unworthy manner.
General Warnings to "Whoever" Partakes (Vss. 27–29)
"Therefore" connects verse 27 with the previous words of institution, making it the consequence of what precedes. If one eats "in an unworthy manner," one is "guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (vs. 27). This applies to "whoever" partakes of the Supper.
The adverb that Paul uses to describe such partaking (not the person's standing before God) is well translated by the phrase "in an unworthy manner." In order to avoid such partaking, a person must first "examine himself" (vs. 28) and not eat without "discerning the body" (vs. 29). Thus, Paul mentions two dimensions of this unworthy manner of partaking: (1) within oneself, which demands examination, and (2) concerning the body, which demands discernment. If the person partakes in an unworthy manner, he "will be guilty of profaning," in the sense of becoming "liable for" the body and blood, as if he himself had killed Christ.
Some argue that the "unworthy manner" refers only to the kind of action of which some Corinthians were guilty in verses 17–22. They restrict the application to them, or at least to the kind of sins of which they were guilty. Calvin takes up this argument in his commentary:
Some restrict it to the Corinthians, and the abuse that had crept in among them, but I am of opinion that Paul here, according to his usual manner, passed on from the particular case to a general statement, or from one instance to an entire class. There was one fault that prevailed among the Corinthians. He takes occasion from this to speak of every kind of faulty administration or reception of the Lord's Supper.… To eat unworthily, then, is to pervert the pure and right use of it by our abuse of it. Hence there are various degrees of this unworthiness, so to speak; and some offend more grievously, others less so.
Calvin's argument is significant, even more so when it is connected with the tone of this section and with its use of "whoever" and of the verb forms in the third person singular.
Verse 28 is introduced by a particle translated "then" by the ESV, and describes the action demanded by the preceding requirement. It reads: "Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup." The verb is in the third person singular: "let him examine himself." It calls on every potential partaker to examine himself so as not to partake in an "unworthy manner."
The verb used is "examine." A well-know Greek lexicon indicates that the word in this place is used with the general meaning "to make a critical examination of someth[ing] to determine genuineness"; and thus they offer "put to the test, examine." Paul uses the same verb in 2 Corinthians 13:5 in a context where one's faith is examined (our verb is rendered by "test" in this passage): "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!" The word also occurs in Galatians 6:4, where one's work is examined: "But let each one test his own work" (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13). Thus, one's faith and one's work are both subject to examination, as well as any sin that may impinge upon either or both. Similarly, 1 Timothy 3:10 says, "And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless."
Whatever else one may say about this admonition to examine oneself, it is certainly a looking into oneself to ascertain whether one is partaking in an unworthy manner. The language of verse 31 is helpful: "But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged." There are certainly more errors to discover in oneself than those that are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11:17–22 (such as those mentioned in 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 6:4; 1 Tim. 3:10). Therefore, Presbyterian and Reformed churches have used a more inclusive statement in instructing us during the Lord's Supper to examine ourselves.
The examination in verse 28 is made with a view to taking the Supper, as indicated by the "so" following the "and," giving us the meaningful "and so." An examination is called for, and it is to be followed, if the examination goes well, by the partaking: "and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup."
The "for" that begins verse 29 indicates that one should also be concerned about "discerning the body." The text reads: "For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself." Here Paul states the need for "discerning the body" and gives a solemn warning of the Lord's chastisement (i.e., "judgment") if one fails to do so.
This verse, just like verses 27 and 28, is an application of the words of institution to "whoever" partakes. Earlier we were warned not to be "guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (vs. 27) because the Supper is a remembrance of Jesus and a proclamation of his death. Insight into the significance of the phrase "discerning the body" is also to be sought in the meaning of the Greek word for "discerning." Our lexicon indicates that it means "recognize" or "discern" here. The body of our Lord Jesus, which was mentioned in verses 24 and 27, is surely the body in view in verse 29, and thus we need to discern that body as signified by the elements.
"Judgment" in this context must be understood in the light of verses 30–32, especially verse 32. There the judgment in view is the chastening of the Lord to keep us from being "condemned along with the world."
Specific Warning for the Corinthians (Vss. 30–32)
In verses 30–32, Paul turns from his general warning, based on the words of institution, and returns again to the particular abuses of the Corinthians—the "you" in verses 30 and 31 (in distinction from the "whoever" in verses 27–29). In verse 30, he indicates "that is why" these things have happened to them (i.e., to "many of you").
He urges them to judge themselves truly (vs. 31), in view of their self-examination and their discerning of the body, so that they will not be judged by the Lord.
Specific Instructions for Corinth (Vss. 33–34)
Paul finally gives specific instructions to the Corinthians ("you") so that they may overcome the problems indicated in verses 17–22. He harks back to the abuses mentioned in those verses, using the same word "then" found in verse 27.
Those who have food when they come together to eat, Paul says, should "wait for one another" (vs. 33). And if anyone is hungry, he should "eat at home" (vs. 34). By observing these injunctions, they will avoid God's judgment: "so that when you come together it will not be for judgment" (vs. 34).
In verses 27–29, Paul gave instructions to all, "whoever" they may be, who partake of the Lord's Supper. Similar words of warning (and invitation) are given by our church standards for use at the Lord's Supper. These have been deduced from the biblical words and incorporated in our confessional standards, and hence they should be heeded. Larger Catechism 177, for example, indicates that the Lord's Supper is to be administered "only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves."
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He quotes the ESV. This article is abridged from Ordained Servant, vol. 14, no. 2 (September 2005), pages 40–46. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2008.