Exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:23–29 Proclaim the Lord’s death, not division

1 Corinthians 11:23–29

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 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.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

Because Christian churches so frequently use the words contained in 1 Cor. 11:23–25 for conducting communion services, it is almost certain that you will initially believe that these words were originally given by Paul primarily for that purpose. But Paul had previously taught them the meaning of the Lord’s Supper — when he spread the gospel in Corinth — and was here seeking to correct abuses that had developed. Recall that Paul has just told the Corinthian Christians that the divided and class-conscious meal they are customarily having cannot possibly be the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20).

Note carefully that verse 23 begins with the word “for” — with the sense “because” — to signal the fact that the problems Paul has just spoken about will become obvious in light of what he is about to tell them. David Garland explains Paul’s intent by saying: “He does not intend to teach the Corinthians something new about the Lord’s Supper or to correct their theology of the Lord’s Supper. He cites it only to contrast what Jesus did at the Last Supper with what they are doing at their supper.”[1] (emphasis added).

English versions of the Bible, including the NIV, speak of “the night he [Jesus] was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23), but increasingly scholars see this verb to be bearing its much more common meaning “hand over.”[2] Consider the italicized verbs in the verse: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread ….” (1 Cor. 11:23). The two italicized verbs are forms of the same Greek verb. Second, the latter usage of the verb is in the Greek imperfect tense, which generally means the action took place over a period of time in the past; Jesus was “betrayed” only once,” but he was “handed over” again and again during his trial and crucifixion including the moment when he voluntarily gave up his spirit in death for the sake of others (John 19:30).

You may be asking why this matters. Paul is not seeking to emphasize the sin of Judas, but instead to stress the sacrificial giving of the Father and the Son. Anthony Thiselton explains that the context in both the Gospels and here is that Jesus was “handed over” to death by God for our sins; God “gave him up” for all of us (Rom. 8:32).[3]

The sharing of the bread and the cup during the Last Supper involved everyone. Even though Peter James and John were arguably the closest to Jesus, they got the same bread and cup that everyone else got. As we have seen, that is not how things were done in Roman Corinth when the believers gathered to share the Lord’s Supper.

Garland explains how Paul’s conscious imitation of the Lord’s Supper allows him to make his point forcefully: “They are to imitate Christ’s example of self-giving. Everything they do in their meal should accord with his self-sacrifice for others. . . . Chrysostom [an early church father] . . . grasps the essence of Paul’s admonition: ‘He [Christ] gave his body equally, but you do not give so much as the common bread equally.’”[4]

“The new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25) looks back to the blood of the sacrifices which Moses sprinkled on the people to establish the old covenant with Israel. The blood Jesus shed in his death for us established the new covenant God had promised through Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31–34); this new covenant is discussed more thoroughly in Hebrews 8 and 10.

When Jesus said we should eat the bread and drink the cup ”in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25), he is not speaking about remembering in the mere sense of mental recollection. To remember in the biblical sense includes acting on what you remember, and in this context it means to behave as Jesus did — to imitate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). Thiselton explains, “Remembrance of Christ and Christ’s death retains the aspect of self-involving remembering in gratitude, worship, trust, acknowledgement and obedience.[5]

Paul explicitly tells the Corinthians that the Lord’s Supper has one purpose: “to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Do you see the warning? The one who filled this special meal with meaning by his death is coming back! When he does, every Corinthian — high and low — will stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). So, verse 26 gives a transition to verses 27–29, where judgment is the prevailing theme.

Paul does not say specifically what it takes to participate in the Lord’s Supper in “an unworthy manner” (1 Cor. 11:27). But by this point that explanation is not necessary. Garland points out the sea change in tone: “They cannot treat this meal as a pleasant gathering of in-group friends . . . . It is fraught with spiritual peril if they treat the meal or those gathered for it in a cavalier manner. They will incur God’s judgment.”[6]

The NIV has made a concerted effort to be gender-inclusive, and has generally succeeded, but not in verse 28. Paul uses singular nouns and verbs here to stress individual responsibility for self-examination. The Common English Bible does a good with “Each individual should test himself or herself, and eat from the bread and drink from the cup in that way” (1 Cor. 11:28, CEB). No one else can do this for you; you have to do it yourself! The verb Paul uses places emphasis on the result of the self-examination; did it affirm the genuineness of your faith or not?

Some people go through life “playing the game,” whether at work or in a social setting. In relation to the Lord’s Supper, each of us must come to it with an attitude of humility and an awareness that we are dealing with Christ, not just some religious ritual. The phrase “discerning the body” (1 Cor. 11:29) — NIV adds the words “of Christ” to the phrase to point the reader toward an interpretation — contains a Greek verb which means “to make a distinction.”[7] Thiselton says the distinction believers must make is to “be mindful of the uniqueness of Christ, who is separated from others in the sense of giving himself for others in sheer grace.”[8]

Merely to go through the motions of communion is to eat and drink judgment on ourselves (1 Cor. 11:29). Tomorrow we will see just how far that judgment may go.

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 545.

[2] BDAG-3, paradid?mi, hand over, q.v.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 869.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 545

[5] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 880

[6] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 550.

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 892.

[8] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 893.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!