1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Nik Hookey brings understanding to 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, which is all about taking communion, or the Lord's Supper.

Nik Hookey
Nik Hookey

"Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves." (1 Corinthians 11.28-29 NIV)

This sounds very serious, so we need to get it right. But what does it mean to examine yourself, and to discern the body?

The Message translation of the Bible seems to explain it, "Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe. If you give no thought (or worse, don't care) about the broken body of the Master when you eat and drink, you're running the risk of serious consequences."

However, I think the translation of this verse in this way is unhelpful. Let me explain why.

The phrase 'examine yourselves' is a plural, not a singular in the text. Paul is not asking each believer to examine themselves, but he is asking the group of believers as a whole, as a group, to examine themselves.

Why would he ask such a thing?

Well, we have to consider the whole context of the letter. Paul is writing to a young church in Corinth that has some serious problems. There are clearly divisions in the church. Divisions between those who think they are more spiritual than others. Divisions between rich and poor. Divisions between slave and free.

Paul reprimands the Corinthians for this behaviour. But it seems as though these divisions are being expressed even as they celebrate the Lord's Supper.

The very meal which should emphasise their unity in Christ, is instead parading their divisions.

How so?

Well, recent archaeological research has shown us what a wealthy home would have been like in Corinth in the first century. The layout of the home would have meant that the dining room filled up quite quickly.

The rich people would not have needed to work, and so could arrive early at the Lord's Supper, shared at the end of a working day, (Sunday was a working day then). The poor would be coming from work, and often arrived late.

So when the poor people arrived, there would be no room left in the dining room (triclinium), and they would wait outside the door. The rich would have had plenty to eat and drink, as well as breaking bread together.

So now it makes more sense when Paul says to them, "Your meetings do more harm than good! In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?"

When Paul speaks of the 'Body of Christ' as he does in verse 29, he is referring to the local church.

So 'examining yourself' is not about whether you are good enough to share in communion - none of us are.

'Discerning the body' is not about whether we fully understand what Jesus did on the cross - none of us can do that either.

Instead, we need to think carefully about our meetings together. Do they exclude groups of people, or discriminate against others, or make others feel inferior?

In the body of Christ everyone is important, and has honour and dignity given to them by Jesus himself. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.