The Lord’s Supper is one of the two ordinances given by Christ to the church. Since these ordinances are commands from Christ, the Lord of the church, they are not optional. As surely as all believers are commanded to be baptized, likewise all believers are commanded to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Unfortunately, some do not think this ordinance is as important as baptism. New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833) comments on the Lord’s Supper as the occassion “in which the members of the Church, by the sacred use of bread and wine, are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ; preceded always by solemn self-examination.” Similarly the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) declares: “The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.”
In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, the apostle Paul confronts an abuse of the Lord’s Supper at the church of Corinth. Since most Bible scholars believe that 1 Corinthians was written prior to any of the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper, this passage contains perhaps the earliest written account of Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper. The occasion of Paul’s writing of this account, however, is to correct abuses which were occurring in the administration of the Lord’s Supper at the church at Corinth.
Something about the way they were taking the Lord’s Supper is indicted by Paul as “unworthily” (v. 27). This was evidently serious business since Paul says that those who take the Lord’s Supper “unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). The answer to how they were taking the Lord’s Supper “unworthily” seems to be found earlier in vv. 20-22. There the Apostle rebukes the Corinthians for not waiting for one another. Some were pigging out while others had nothing to eat. This goes against an important part of the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper which shows the church as one body in Christ. We are to take from the common loaf and cup in recognition of the fact that we are one body. Furthermore, the Corinthians seem to be guilty of taking the Lord’s Supper as if it were just another meal. In other words, they did not acknowledge the symbolic meaning of the elements (see v. 29).
An important distinction must be made between the two words “unworthy” and “unworthily”. The Apostle Paul uses the adverb “unworthily” in this passage, not the adjective “unworthy”. The reason this is so important is that none of us are worthy to take the Lord’s Supper. That is not the issue. The issue is how we take the Lord’s Supper: in a worthy or unworthy manner. In fact, one key way that an individual can take the Lord’s Supper “unworthily” is by not recognizing that he/she is “unworthy” and needful of the sacrifice of Christ depicted in the ordinance.
Is there a way that we as Twenty-First Century believers can take the Lord’s Supper “unworthily” or in an unworthy manner? I believe we can in the same two broad areas in which the Corinthians did: by failing to prefer others before ourselves and by taking the Lord’s Supper as if it were just another meal, without recognizing and meditating upon the significance of it. In other words, to observe the Lord’s Supper worthily, we must remember that we observe the ordinance as a body and not as individuals, or rather as individuals within a body. Therefore, we must be in fellowship with one another when we take the Lord’s Supper. We also must prayerfully meditate upon what the symbols of the Lord’s Supper represent and take very seriously the meaning contained in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.
How then should we receive the Lord’s Supper? 1 Corinthians 11:26-28 gives an overview of four important looks that one should take before, during and after taking the Lord’s Supper:
- The first is a backward look to the cross. The Lord’s Supper’s primary message is about remembering the cross of Christ and what was accomplished there for our sins. Any celebration of the Lord’s Supper with acknowledging the cause of its celebration causes one to become “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). The purpose of the Lord’s Supper is, as v. 26 states, to “shew the Lord’s death till he come.”
- Secondly, one must also take an inward look to examine one’s own heart and motives (v. 28). Are you considering what this Supper represents? Are you right with God and your brother? These matters must be dealt with properly before receiving the Lord’s Supper.
- Thirdly, a forward look is needed. We must look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion to look forward to the day when we consummate this great feast with Jesus Christ Himself at the head of the table. “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (v. 26).
- Finally, a outward look to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ is needed. Although the Lord’s Supper is intensely personal, there is an important corporate element to this ordinance as well. Failure to care for the needs of our brothers and sisters results in the same condemnation received by the Corinthians. To come to the Lord’s table without the attitude and action of humble, serving love for one another is a failure to properly “discern the Lord’s body.” As we remember how the physical body of Christ was broken for us, it is also important that we remember that we are a part of the spiritual body of Christ. Therefore, it matters whether or not we are in fellowship with one another when partaking of the Lord’s Supper.
I hope this short explanation is helpful as we seek to obey Christ’s command to “remember his death til he come”!