For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—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. – 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 ESV
The gospel was central in all of Paul’s life and teaching. Everything he did centered around and was based upon the gospel. So when he heard that the Corinthians were misusing and even abusing the ordinance of the Lord’s table, he was less than thrilled. The celebration of the Lord’s table was to be a time to remember the central aspect of the gospel: The death of Jesus. It was not to be taken lightly or treated contemptuously. Paul had given the Corinthians instructions regarding the Lord’s table – it’s meaning and it’s import. And he reminded them that what he had taught them regarding the ordinance had come from Jesus Himself, not from Paul’s imagination. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…” (1 Corinthians 11:23 ESV). This does not mean that Paul got his instructions regarding the Lord’ table directly from Jesus Himself, but that, ultimately, any teaching he or the apostles shared about this vital ordinance of the church came from one source: Jesus.
While the gospels are clear that Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples that night, He was actually instituting something new. He was taking that time-honored ritual of the Passover celebration and breathing into it new life. It was no longer about a meal, but about the work of the Messiah. Jesus was going to become the Passover lamb. His body and blood would be shed. His life would be given as a substitute, so that those who placed their trust in His death would receive life. In essence, the death angel would pass over them, just as it had over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt all those years ago.
Jesus had made Himself very clear that night. He broke the bread, gave it to His disciples and told them, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24 ESV). Then He took the cup, held it up to His disciples and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25 ESV). Jesus wanted them to call to remembrance, to recall, what He was about to do. The Lord’s table was to be a time of reflection and recollection, soberly considering the significance of what Jesus’ death had accomplished on their behalf.
But the Corinthians had turned the Lord’s table into a feast, focusing their attention on the food, not the selfless sacrifice of the Savior. Paul wanted to remind them that the intention of the ordinance was to proclaim the Lord’s death until the day He returned. It was to be a visual and verbal expression of the gospel. In chapter 15 of this same letter, Paul articulates the central message of the gospel:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 ESV
So when Paul accuses the Corinthians of eating the bread and drinking the cup in an “unworthy manner”, he is saying that they have been failing to remember and appreciate what Jesus had done for them. They were treating His death with contempt by focusing on the meal instead of the one to whom the meal was meant to point. To take the Lord’s table unworthily meant to do so irreverently, flippantly and with no regard to its significance. And to do so, Paul says, was to be “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27 ESV). They were profaning or treating with contempt the death of the Savior. In a less significant sense, it is what most of us as Americans have done to the celebration of Memorial Day. Rather than focus on those brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives in defense of our country as part of our military, we have turned the day into a personal holiday. We have made it all about us and our own enjoyment. It has become all about time off from work, shopping discounts and meals. In the same way, the Corinthians had turned the Lord’s table into little more than a reason to enjoy a good meal.
So Paul warns them to examine themselves. He wants them to take a long hard look at their motivation. He tells them, “if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself” (1 Corinthians 11:29 NLT). They were opening themselves up to God’s discipline and Paul even indicates that some of them were already experiencing it in the form of physical weakness and sickness. Some had even died. To treat the death of Jesus lightly was serious business. Several times in this letter, Paul has told them that they were bought with a price. Their salvation cost God the life of His own Son. Peter says, “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19 ESV).
The Lord’s table was not to be taken lightly. The significance of Christ’s death was not to be treated flippantly. And the reality that He died so that we might become part of His body – the church – was not to be overlooked. The Corinthians were neglecting their love and concern for one another. The Lord’s table was to be a community celebration, not an opportunity to indulge one’s appetites. Belief in the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus was to be the bond that held the Corinthians together. It was to be the unifying factor that made it possible for them to live with and love one another. We are to remember the death of Christ until He calls us home or until He comes again. It was His death that gave us life. It was His sacrifice that provides us with salvation. It was His taking on of our sin and suffering in our place that made possible our righteousness and right standing before God. Why would we ever take that for granted? Why would we ever treat it lightly?