Eating and Drinking in an Unworthy Manner
Have you ever wondered about Apostle Paul's warning about eating the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11:27)?
Several years ago, a dear brother asked me my interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s warning about eating the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11:27). Have you ever wondered the same? Perhaps it troubles you on Sunday mornings, as it has me.
In this article, we will explore Paul’s warning and its practical application. The solution to this heart-searching caution is contained in the very context of 1 Corinthians 11 but may be clouded by our familiarity with the account of the Lord’s Supper. The solution is also a remedy to division and spiritual sickness in our personal lives, our ecclesias and Christ’s worldwide body.
The Bread and Wine
To understand Paul’s warning, we must first understand the simple meaning of the Bread and Wine. He recounts the Lord’s Supper and the shared emblems in 1 Cor 11:24-25. They form the foundation to Paul’s caution:
He repeats this caution several verses later when he observes “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Cor 11:29).
What do these symbols mean?
Jesus explains the bread when he says, “This is my body, which is given for you.” (Luke 22:19). When we share the bread, this simple symbol reminds us that the Lord walked this earth in a physical body given to us for three and a half years.
In that body, he gave himself to teach, to heal the sick, and to rebuke the proud and hypocritical in Jerusalem. His body was given as an example, in word and deed, of God’s principles, parables, morals, and thoughts. A body that was given for you and me, was beaten with stripes, hung on a cross, buried in a grave and was raised again. That is quite a body to be inspired by and to live after!
When we reflect on Christ’s body on Sunday morning it reminds us of every ounce of Jesus’ time, energy and emotion completely given, dedicated and offered in service and obedience to God.
Jesus explains the cup of wine when he says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20). When we share the cup and its wine, this symbol is a metaphor of a life shed, or given for us.
It reminds us of his life, which was given up to persecution and rejection and ended in giving his blood. His body was scourged with whips and punctured with a crown of thorns causing him to give up his own blood. His arms and legs were pierced by nails and a spear pierced his side bringing forth blood and water.
He endured mocking, rejection, loss, grief, false accusations, and great anxiety, whereby his “sweat became like great drops of blood.” (Luke 22:44). The giving of Christ’s blood is something to be inspired by and to live after!
Leviticus 17:11 declares, “The life of the flesh is in the blood.” This reference helps us realize that Jesus gave everything for us, including his very life. When we reflect on Christ’s blood on Sunday morning, it reminds us of the most incredible sacrifice ever given and one that offers us life also.
From Paul’s cautions, I think we can all agree that to partake of the emblems we share on Sunday morning in an unworthy manner is very serious, and the consequences are severe. At the very least, do we understand what they mean and pause to reflect on how the emblems symbolize Christ’s life? More importantly, do they inspire us to live as he did and to offer thanks for the covering of our sins made possible through his sacrifice?
Divisions, Self-Centeredness and Self-Righteousness
However, eating and drinking in an unworthy manner involves more than just misunderstanding the bread and the wine. The context of 1 Corinthians 11 provides us with some clues. In verses 17-19, Paul observes of the Corinthian ecclesia, “When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” (v. 17).
The NIV translates this bluntly: “Your meetings do more harm than good.” What was so harmful about them? Paul explains in the next verses: “I hear that there are divisions [and] …factions among you.” (vv.18-19) Rather than coming together as one tightly-knit group of brethren and sisters in both form and substance, they were a jumbled and disjointed mess of believers.
If that was not enough, Paul observes, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else.” (1 Cor 11:20-21 NIV). The phrase “goes ahead without waiting,” means to rush in or to overtake.
Believers were coming to the memorial service, and instead of sharing the Lord’s Supper as an intimate communal meal and as a unified group, they focused on devouring their personal meal. Some were without food and went hungry, while others were drunken (v. 21).
The Corinthians were more concerned with taking care of themselves first than sharing the Lord’s Supper or ensuring that others were included. Imagine that! Brothers and Sisters were out for themselves on Sunday morning. An attitude of taking, taking, taking, and “me first” pervaded the memorials.
In verse 22, their behavior led Paul to conclude that they “despise” and “humiliate” the ecclesia of God. The Greek words mean they were looking down on others and disgracing them. Their treatment of each other was shocking and similar to the problems Paul identified in chapter one, where it seems some had divided themselves based on a “holier than thou” attitude (1 Cor 1:10-12) and possibly wealth, education and race (vv. 19-24).
In this context of division, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness, Paul refocuses the minds of the ecclesia on the contrasting behavior of Christ, as symbolized in the bread and wine. While the ecclesia was dividing and taking, Jesus’s example was one of bringing together and humbly giving of self. After sharing these emblems with his disciples, Jesus demonstrated their practical application. He took a towel, wrapped it around his waist and washed his disciple’s feet (John 13:5). He brought them together, gave himself as a servant and demonstrated that behavior for us to imitate among each other.
In this context, Paul cautions about eating and drinking unworthily. To cause division, to focus on self, or to elevate self during the memorials, let alone outside the memorials, is to eat and drink in an unworthy manner. This behavior is diametrically opposed to the significance of the Bread and Wine we share and to the servant example of Christ, who we come to remember and be inspired by!
The Brothers and Sisters in Corinth were not very considerate of each other. Surely, it left many feeling devalued and sidelined at the Lord’s Supper. It is worth asking ourselves whether our lives coincide with Corinth’s or Christ’s.
Is ecclesial life or the memorial service all about us? Are we sidelining others? Are we absorbed in our rules, our quirks, our interpretations, our hymns, or our own status? Do we view ourselves as holier than others in the ecclesia or the community and disesteem them? Would we refuse to share the emblems with other believers because we are focused on preserving ourselves? If we are, then perhaps we need to consider whether we are eating and drinking in an unworthy manner.
In 1 Cor 11:24, Paul approaches eating and drinking unworthily from a different angle. He captures a short phrase from the Lord Jesus when he recounts, “This is my body, which is [given] for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He repeats this phrase in verse 25 when he says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
What does the phrase “do this” mean? By familiarity, we may interpret it to mean chew bread and sip wine to remember Jesus. However, it can’t possibly have this meaning. Otherwise, Jesus’ words should read as follows, “Drink the wine as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Obviously, this does not make sense, and Christ means more by this phrase.
Instead, Jesus is encouraging us to do the actions that are symbolized in the Bread and Wine, as a way of honoring and following him every week. In other words, he encourages us to give up our bodies to do the same things that he did. We are to pour out the blood of our lives in service to him and our fellow believers—even to death if necessary. He urges us not to just eat the Bread and drink the Wine. “Go and do what I did. Put these symbols into practical application.”
Jesus reinforces this instruction in the upper room where he teaches the disciples,
Jesus leaves us with no doubt that doing this means giving our lives to our Brothers, Sisters, and God. These actions are far more meaningful than ritually chewing bread and sipping wine on Sunday morning.
The overriding message of Paul, and Christ, is that the emblems are only a means to an end, much like sacrifices under the Law. They are not the end. They are the beginning. When we share bread and wine, we are encouraged to put them into action and do them. If we are not doing this, perhaps we are eating and drinking unworthily.
Not Discerning the Lord’s Body
Concisely, what does Paul mean when he warns about eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner? He means that we eat and drink these symbols and then fail to let the bread and wine have any practical impact on our lives, particularly in our relations with each other. Have you ever done that? Have you ever eaten and drunk without giving a thought to what it really means in your life? I know I have, many times. Moreover, I suspect we all have.
Paul shares a further example in 1 Corinthians 11 to illustrate this warning. In verse 29 he says, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the [Lord’s] body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Paul’s point is that we judge ourselves or “bring damnation on ourselves” (KJV) if we fail to recognize or evaluate the Lord’s body.
But what is “the body” (ESV) or the “Lord’s body” (KJV)? And how do we discern it? Is he talking about Christ’s physical body? Yes, in a certain sense, he is because Christ’s body is represented in the emblems. However, I believe there is greater depth to Paul’s words.
In its fullest sense, he encourages us to recognize or distinguish the whole body of Christ worldwide. In other words, he exhorts us to recognize, think about, and appreciate all the various parts that have been integrated into the Lord’s body, in addition to Christ, who is the head (1 Cor 12:12, 27; Eph 4:15, 16).
The body is a key theme in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 emphasize the body of Christ as a worldwide organism, made up of many parts, unified in diversity and glued together with love. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul explains that sharing bread and wine is not just participating in Christ’s personal body. It is also a communion with and recognition of his worldwide body:
Paul emphasizes that when we break Bread and drink Wine, we must recognize and consider Christ’s body of believers worldwide—not just his physical body, and not just the brother or sister beside us. Christ’s body extends well beyond our home ecclesia and those ecclesias we may align with on difficult topics. In its fullest sense, the body of Christ is everyone that God has called to be part of his body–a decision that is His, and not ours!
Paul’s warning should cause us to be introspective and evaluate whether we recognize, include and treat the whole body of Christ in the same way that our Lord did. We fail to discern the Lord’s body (worldwide) if we ignore or disesteem parts of Christ’s body that he has set in place as it pleased him (1 Cor 12:18). If we fail to grasp this, and put it into practice, then we may be eating and drinking in an unworthy manner.
Wait For One Another
Paul closes his reflections on the Lord’s Supper with a touching imperative: “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” (1 Cor 11:33).
What does Paul mean, “Wait for one another”? Does he mean standing around and chatting for a few minutes before heading home or ensuring everyone has enough to eat? Although both behaviors are up-building in our fellowship together, this word means much more. The Greek word is ekdechomai, and is composed of two parts. “Ek” means the point from which something emanates, while “dechomai” means to take into one’s arms or family and to embrace or hold.
Therefore, this word means to go up to our Brother or Sister, give them a hug, pull them into ourselves, or share love, care and concern for them from our hearts. This type of waiting should emanate from each of us as we discern and show care for the Lord’s body. In addition, this kind of waiting and giving keep a body glued together and healthy. In the context of Paul’s cautions, it is also the kind of waiting that helps us avoid eating and drinking in an unworthy manner.
Weak And Sick?
In 1 Corinthians 11:28, Paul encourages us to “examine ourselves” as we share the emblems on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, we may use this verse as a reason to dig up our past sins, guilt ourselves over our mistakes, demoralize our spirit, and even impede our ability to rise above our human weaknesses.
Certainly, it is important to evaluate the mistakes we have made so that we can correct them. However, neither Paul nor Christ instructed us to overwhelm ourselves with our sins while sharing the emblems. Surprisingly, there is no mention of sin anywhere in 1 Corinthians 11 or the Lord’s Supper.
Instead, Paul asks us to focus on Christ and his worldwide body by sharing the Bread and Wine together. We are to appreciate and be inspired by Christ’s life, death and resurrection. His remembrance should reinvigorate us to love, care for, and embrace individuals that Christ has called to be his brothers and sisters.
If we follow his example of obedience, and give selflessly, esteem others better than ourselves, discern the Lord’s body and wait for one another (in their fullest sense), we should have no need to worry whether we are eating and drinking in an unworthy manner.
Furthermore, we will avoid the tragic state of the members of the Corinthian Ecclesia, who were fractious, self-absorbed, and self-righteous. And, “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.” (1 Cor 11:30 NKJV).
Next Sunday, as we share the emblems worldwide, let us be inspired by the body and blood the Lord Jesus gave for us, and then proceed to do these emblems! When the meeting has ended, and after we have examined our love for Christ, let’s stand up, put the emblems into action, seek out our Brothers and Sisters, embrace them in our arms, and give to them as our Lord did to us.
Cambridge Ecclesia, ON