I remember as a 10 year old boy watching in terror as the communion plate came closer and closer. Why was I afraid? Because there was unresolved sin in my life – I had argued with my sister before church! I knew that those who took communion in an unworthy manner risked condemnation, even death, for the Bible told me so:
1Co 11:26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1Co 11:27 Therefore, 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.
1Co 11:28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.
1Co 11:29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
1Co 11:30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.
1Co 11:31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.
1Co 11:32 When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.
Thankfully, I was wrong.
This passage above must be one of the most abused and misunderstood passages in the entire Bible. It is regularly used to deny communion to those who need and it is frightening to 10 year olds. As we will see, it is one of the most liberating scriptures in the Bible, yet many believers are condemned by it. Doesn’t this seem a bit odd to you? Afterall, this passage was written by the same apostle who said, “there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” So what’s going on here? Did Paul have a change of heart? Is he now saying that God will condemn us if we partake of communion in an unworthy manner? No he is not.
For if we would judge (diakrino) ourselves, we should not be judged (krino). But when we are judged (krino), we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned (katakrino) with the world. (KJV)
If you click on the Greek words italicized above, you will see that diakrino and krino mean to distinguish and decide, while katakrino means to give judgment against or condemn. In other words, the only time Paul refers to explicitly bad judgment (the condemning, punishing kind) in this passage, is when he is referring to those who condemn themselves through unbelief and not the Corinthian Christians. (More here.) Contrary to what you’ve heard, this is not about Christians examining themselves to see whether they’re worthy of communion and Paul never says we damn ourselves by taking it in an unworthy manner.
So what sort of judgments or decisions does Paul want us to make when taking communion? And what does it mean to proclaim the Lord’s death? To answer these questions we need to look at the two mighty deeds Jesus’ accomplished when He went to the cross. These two deeds are represented in communion by the bread and the cup.
At the Last Supper Jesus handed out the bread, said it was His body, and told the disciples to eat it in remembrance of Him (Lk 22:19). He didn’t say much else because no doubt they could all recall the fuss that happened the last time He said He was the bread of life:
“I am the bread of life… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (Jn 6:48,51-54)
As a result of these words many disciples turned away from following Jesus (Jn 6:66). To them, the idea of eating His flesh and drinking His blood was repelling. They did not grasp that Jesus was referring to His impending sacrifice – that He would give up His body in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4-5 so that we might have life. But the lesson wasn’t lost on Peter for he later quoted Isaiah when he wrote, “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pe 2:24).
What does it mean to eat the flesh of Jesus? It means to behold Jesus and all that He has done for you, both at the whipping post and on the cross. In communion the bread represents His body which was broken so that you might have life and health. This is good news for the sick, but it will have no effect in your life unless you believe it. In the passage above, Paul is basically exhorting us to judge whether sickness or health is from God. Sadly, many believers are confused about these things. They think that God wants them sick so they can learn stuff. They don’t recognize (diakrino) that Jesus gave His body so that we might be healed. By failing to honor His body and blood they take communion in a less than worthy manner. It’s like saying, “Jesus was wounded for nothing,” or “by His wounds I have not been healed.”
Sickness and death are part of the curse of sin (Ge 2:17). Jesus died to set us free from sin and all its effects, but we won’t be free unless we put our faith in His work. The good news profits nothing unless it is mixed with faith in them that hear it (He 4:2). The Corinthians were suffering unnecessarily because they were not recognizing or discerning the Lord’s body. “This is why many among you are weak and sick and some have even died.” It wasn’t that God was judging them for getting drunk at communion. No, they were suffering the effects of sin because they did not properly value what Christ had done on their behalf at Calvary. Because they were not judging themselves in light of the finished work of the cross (forgiven, accepted, blessed, healed), they were still experiencing the punishing effects of sin (rejection, sickness, condemnation). Because they weren’t attributing to Christ the full worth of His sacrifice, they were still suffering – in the language of King James – the effects of damnation.
At the Last Supper Jesus took the cup and announced a new covenant based on His blood:
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:28)
In fear of eating and drinking in an unworthy manner, many Christians treat communion as a time of somber reflection. But proclaiming the Lord’s death should be an occasion of great joy and celebration! Was there ever a better reason to party than this? Think about it: We who were once defiled by sin have been washed white as snow (Is 1:18). Our guilty consciences have been cleansed and our forgiveness has been eternally secured by the precious blood of Jesus (He 10:22, 1 Pe 1:19). This is the good news in a cup!
I will provide a line-by-line paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 11:26-32 in my next post, but Paul’s message to the Corinthians can be summed up like this: Judge yourself in light of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. Because of His body and blood, you are forgiven and healed. Learn to discriminate what is from God (e.g., healing) and what is part of sin’s curse (e.g., sickness). Understand that anything that is not God’s will in heaven (there is no sickness in heaven) is not His will here on earth. When you learn to distinguish what is from God and what is not you are chastened or disciplined (paideauo, literally, trained up or instructed) of the Lord and escape the adverse effects of sin that the rest of the world suffers.
Communion = good news for the sick and unworthy
Are you battling sickness, condemnation and guilt? Then prepare a communion table in the presence of these your enemies and proclaim the Lord’s death! Don’t look at communion as merely a churchy-ritual; make it a bold declaration of faith! As you take the bread, behold the Lord’s body that was broken so yours could be whole. As you take the cup, discern the Lord’s blood that was shed one time for all your sins (He 10:12). Remind your enemies that they were thoroughly defeated at the cross (Co 2:15). Because Jesus has triumphed we can reign in this life (Rms 5:17). There is no grief or sorrow He did not carry; there is no curse He did not redeem you from (Is 54:4). Judge yourself as God judges you – perfectly righteous, eternally forgiven, and completely whole!