Recently a friend of mine asked my opinion of the meaning of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11, specifically, what the apostle had in mind when he spoke of receiving the elements of the Eucharist in an “unworthy manner” (11:27; ESV). The question drove me back to the study I did on this passage several years ago. I hope you find helpful what I discovered in my analysis of Paul’s words:
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord (v. 27). Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup (v. 28). For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (v. 29). That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (v. 30). But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged (v. 31). But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world (v. 32). So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another – (v. 33) – if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home – so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come (v. 34).”
Let’s note several things about this passage.
First, note the word “therefore” with which v. 27 begins (it could be translated “it follows that,” expressing result). The point is that because of the sacred nature of the sacrament one must be reverent in the use of it. Because the Lord is exalted, remembered, and proclaimed in the sacrament, flippancy and indifference are grave offences.
Second, the word translated, in an “unworthy manner” or “unworthily” (NASB), must be explained. Let’s begin by noting what it does not mean. Ernest Kevan writes:
“So many true-hearted believers have been disturbed by a misunderstanding of this. It is said that if you feel ashamed, and crestfallen and depressed because of your failure and sin that therefore you must not come [to the Lord’s Table]. Oh no! That is the right way to come. To take the Lord’s Supper unworthily is to take it without regard to its true worth [not yours; emphasis mine]. To do it unworthily is to come complacently, to come light-heartedly, to come without a care about your own sin and your shame. But to be burdened with your sin, even to be weighed down with a sense of your guilt and utter unworthiness – that is to take the Lord’s Supper worthily. Only in this spirit do you truly reckon it at its worth” (The Lord’s Supper [London: Evangelical Press, 1973], 23).
I. H. Marshall concurs:
“In some Christian circles today the fear of partaking unworthily in the Supper leads to believers of otherwise excellent character refraining from coming to the table of the Lord. When this happens, Paul’s warning is being misunderstood. The Lord’s Supper is the place where the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and offered to all who would receive it. Paul’s warning was not to those who were leading unworthy lives and longed for forgiveness but to those who were making a mockery of that which should have been most sacred and solemn by their behaviour at the meal” (Last Supper and Lord’s Supper [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980], 116).
What, then, is the significance and application of Paul’s warning? The first answer is found in the context preceding Paul’s instruction. The Eucharist in the early church was evidently held in conjunction with a general meal. The problem arose due to the social and economic differences among the many members. The church was composed of both wealthy and poor, slaves and ex-slaves. Typically people would eat and drink what they brought to the gathering, rather than sharing it with others in the way that we do in a “pot luck dinner.” The wealthy, notes Marshall, “brought so much food and drink that they could indulge in gluttony and even in drunkenness. The poor, however, had little or nothing to bring with the result that some of them went hungry and could not enjoy a decent meal. Paul further says that some people, presumably those who had more to eat, began eating before the others” (50).
Paul was clearly disturbed by this abuse of the Lord’s Table and the way in which it violated the unity and love in the body of Christ which the supper itself was designed to display (cf. 1 Cor. 10:17). This lack of concern and disregard for their poorer brethren, coupled with their riotous behavior, constituted their sin. Selfishness and lack of love were the essence of their transgression, a fact that must be kept in mind as we seek to make contemporary application of Paul’s words.
The truth of 1 Cor. 10:22 might well shed some light on this matter (“Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”). Marshall explains:
“Despite their superstitious reverence for the sacraments as guarantees against the danger of falling into sin and under judgment, the Corinthians needed to be warned against attempting to combine the worship of idols with participating in the Lord’s Supper; they may have thought of the Supper as not being essentially different from a pagan religious meal and thus failed to give the Lord his due honour. This may have been one aspect of their unworthy participating in the meal” (116).
We must also pay close attention to how closely the conclusion of v. 27 is related to the premise established in vv. 23-26. These latter verses state that the sacrament is designed to cultivate in us loving remembrance of all Christ accomplished on our behalf. At the table we reflect on the nature and sufficiency of his death and thereby proclaim it to the world until he comes. “Therefore . . .” (v. 27). That is, to partake in an unworthy manner is to do so without giving full consideration to the nature of the supper as it is explained in vv. 23-26. It is to partake with motives incompatible with the intent of Christ when he instituted the sacrament. It is to come to the table with thoughts other than of his person and work. It is to come thinking of tomorrow’s worries rather than Christ’s return. It is to come remembering yesterday’s disappointments rather than Christ’s death. To partake in an unworthy manner is to partake either in ignorance of or conscious disregard for the instruction found in vv. 23-26.
The point of emphasis, then, is not on unworthy partakers, but on unworthy partaking; not on the character of the actor, but the act.
Is “confession of known sin” essential when we partake? If known sin is a hindrance to proper regard for what the Supper is designed to accomplish, Yes. If confession of sin is necessary to enable one to adequately approach the table in that frame of mind and with those motives proper to its observance, then by all means confess! But we must remember that confession of sin is not primarily (nor even secondarily) what Paul had in mind when he warned against partaking in an unworthy manner.
The third major point to be noted (the first two were the contextual link between vv. 23-26 and v. 27 and the meaning of “in an unworthy manner”) is Paul’s statement concerning the consequences of unworthy participation (“guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord”). By this he means that guilt is incurred when one profanes what is sacred by treating it as something that is common. To despise the symbol is to despise that to which it points. By abusing the Eucharist we are acting with the calloused indifference and even malicious enmity of those who crucified him. Proper regard for the Lord’s Supper is no small matter!
Fourth, how do we avoid partaking in an unworthy manner? In v. 28 Paul says we should “examine” ourselves. The word “examine” (dokimadzo) most often assumes the success of the test. It refers to the act of proving or testing something with a view to its emerging approved. The implication is that the self-examination will have a positive outcome. Either the individual will discover that he/she is already in a proper spiritual condition to receive the elements or, if not, will take the required steps to become so. Thus the point of self-examination is not to hinder participation but to make it possible and meaningful.
Also, to “examine” oneself entails analyzing one’s understanding of the true meaning of the Eucharist as set forth in vv. 23-26. Why are we partaking? What do we hope to gain? Are we doing so in accordance with the purpose and spirit in which our Lord instituted the supper? Is our partaking reverent? Is it a reflection of that unity in the body of Christ which Paul mentioned in 1 Cor. 10:17? To examine oneself is to ask these questions in preparation for approaching the table in a spiritually appropriate frame of mind.
Finally, vv. 29-34 deal with the consequences of partaking unworthily. To eat and drink judgment to oneself (v. 29) is to incur the discipline of the Lord (v. 32). The Christian who partakes unworthily does not incur eternal condemnation. To the contrary, he incurs temporal chastisement in order that such condemnation may be avoided. This discipline is identified in v. 30 – “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (literally, some “sleep”). Paul regards the bodily weakness and sickness of these believers
“as evidence of the Lord’s judgment. A connection of this kind between sin and disease or [physical] death was certainly made in the first century (John 9:2; Jas. 5:15) and Paul probably shared this view. We may observe that in Paul’s view the judgment was intended for the good of those who were thus disciplined. The Lord’s purpose in it was that those who suffered his judgment now might be spared from the judgment on the sinful world at the End, and thus the judgment had a deterrent and reformatory purpose. It was better still, of course, if the Corinthians were to ‘judge’ themselves, so that they might be spared this temporal judgment of the Lord on their sin” (Marshall, 115).
According to v. 29, the believer is to be careful about “discerning the body” or should “judge the body rightly.” The word “body” may be a reference to the church, the “body” of believers. Indeed, in vv. 17-22 the problem in Corinth was a failure to show consideration to other members of the church. However, inasmuch as v. 29 is strikingly parallel to v. 27, I take “body” to be a shorthand form of the “body and blood” of the Lord himself. Therefore, not to “discern” or “judge” the “body” rightly means not to perceive and reverence the Lord’s Supper as a unique and sacred meal, thereby underestimating and de-valuing its true character.
I pray these observations are helpful and will awaken in all of us a proper reverence for the sanctity of the Eucharist and Him to whom it so gloriously points.