Discerning The Lord’s Body

After outlining the institution of the Lord’s Supper as he had received from the Lord, the Apostle Paul issued a solemn admonition to all who come to participate in the Supper. He warns:

"Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep" (1Cor 11:27-30).

Several questions immediately come to mind when we consider this startling warning of Paul: (1) What does it mean to partake the Lord’s Supper ‘unworthily’? Or, in Paul’s other words, what does it mean by "not discerning the Lord’s body"? (2) What does it mean to be "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord"? Or in other words, what does it mean to eat and drink ‘damnation’ to oneself? (3) What does Paul’s suggestion of temporal chastisement mean to us today?

Firstly, the word translated ‘unworthily’ (Grk. anaxiôs), can also be rendered ‘carelessly.’ Thus, Paul is simply saying that we must not partake of the Lord’s Supper as a matter of routine as an ordinary meal or simply as an outward ritual without considering its significance. To do so is to fail to discern the Lord’s body. The word ‘discerning’ (v. 29) comes from the Geek diakrinô which means "to separate, to differentiate, to distinguish or to judge." Thus, anyone who partakes of the Lord’s Supper must fully appreciate that when they are partaking the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine that they are partaking are to be distinguished from ordinary bread and wine which they may take at their ordinary meals. Ordinary bread and wine are for the body. Sacramental bread and wine are for the soul. This is not to say that the bread and wine become anything other than ordinary bread and wine by physical transformation. No, the bread and wine during the Supper are sacramentally united to the body and blood of Christ (see WCF 29.5). Although the bread and wine are more than merely symbolic of the flesh and blood of Christ, we must not forget that they do signify Christ crucified (cf. 1Cor 11:24-26). When you partake of the Lord’s Supper, you must therefore warmly believe in your heart that Christ suffered and died for you personally, and then recognise that the bread represents His body broken for you and the wine His blood shed for you, in order that you may spiritually receive and feed upon Christ crucified and all benefits of His death (WCF 29.6).

Secondly, the word translated ‘guilty’ (Grk. enochos) speaks of liability and answerability. Anyone who partakes of the Lord’s Supper unworthily is answerable to the Lord for sinning against the body and blood of Christ, which essentially means sinning against Christ Himself. Such a person shall bring ‘damnation’ (or ‘judgement,’ Grk. krima as in 1Pet 4:17) upon himself. But why does Paul use such strong language of condemnation here? To answer this question, we must remember that the bread and wine that we partake at the Lord’s Supper are no mere ordinary bread and wine, but are sacramental representatives of the Lord’s body and blood. So intimately are the signs related to Christ crucified that the Lord says "This is my body …" (1 Cor 11:24; cf. Matt 26:26-28), and Paul speaks of "discerning the Lord’s body" rather than "discerning the meaning of the bread." Thus, one who eats and drinks unworthily despises the meaning of the bread and wine and therefore despises the Person of Christ and the work of Christ in His suffering and death. Let me illustrate. As I was writing this article, in London, BBC News reported that President Clinton was in Gaza to try to help push forward the Middle-East peace process. The Palestinians were so grateful for his efforts that many of them were seen waving the American flags happily as he disembarked from his helicopter. This was quite a strange sight in Palestine because, whenever American flags had been seen in Palestine, before this, they were being burnt in protest! Now, the question we want to ask is why do the Palestinians not wave and burn American-made-curtains instead? The answer is obvious. The flag represents America and all that is American, including the President. The curtain represents nothing. So then, ordinary bread and wine represent nothing. You can eat them in any way. But sacramental bread and wine represent Christ and His work, eating and drinking unworthily is rebellion against Christ.

Thirdly, Paul adds that the judgement against unworthy partakers of the Lord’s Supper has resulted in many in the Corinthian church being weak and sickly, and many others dying—‘sleep’ being an obvious euphemism for ‘die.’ What has this to do with us? Now, though we are to understand that sicknesses came into the world as a result of sin, we must not ever be tempted to say that any particular illness that someone experience is due to a particular sin committed by him. Indeed, we should not even say that any illness that a person is experiencing is due to sin in that person’s life (unless we have clear evidence, such as when a person contracts AIDS as a result of abominable sexual activities). When the Lord was asked if the blindness of the man born blind was the result of his sin or his parent’s sin (Jn 9:4), His reply was "Neither," adding that it was rather that "the works of God should be made manifest in him" (Jn 9:4). Similarly, the Lord taught the disciples that Lazarus’ illness was "for the glory of God" (Jn 11:4). However, we must not dismiss the possibility that illnesses and premature deaths occurring in a community may be due to public sins in the community. The Jews under Moses were warned that they would be cursed for covenantal disobedience. Among the curses listed were diseases and illnesses (Deut 28:21-22). Is it not surprising, therefore, that the Corinthian church should experience an escalation of illnesses and deaths as a result of their sin of despising the mediator of the covenant by unworthily participating in the Lord’s Supper,— which is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. This temporal chastisement, Paul tells us, is really for the sake of the church that she may be awakened out of her complacency and be not eventually condemned with the rest of the world (1Cor 11:32). So then, let us as a church ensure that the Lord’s Supper is properly kept and that …Cont. p. 5 individuals are admonished regularly to keep the Lord’s Supper worthily. Let us also ensure that none who show no credible profession of faith in life and testimony be allowed at the Lord’s Table. And yes, should it ever happen that we suddenly experience a spade of illnesses and untimely deaths in the church, may we be awakened to re-examine ourselves to see if our laxity in the Lord’s Supper or in any other area may be the reason for the fatherly chastisement (Heb 12:5-11), and then let us repent with fasting and prayer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let us conclude with a note on how we are to partake of the Lord’s Supper individually so that we may not only not incur the Lord’s fatherly displeasure, but derive spiritual benefits from the Supper. Firstly, a worthy participation in the Lord’s Supper involves our daily Christian life. Discerning the Lord’s body surely includes believing in what Christ has done for us, and if we have a genuine, heartfelt belief, we will surely echo the words of Paul: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20). Anyone who regularly lives a scandalous and unchristian life six days of the week and then comes to the Lord’s table claiming to have repented is surely making a mockery of the sacrament and incurring judgement on himself. Secondly, heart preparation before partaking the sacrament is indispensable. How should we prepare ourselves? Let the Westminster Divines answer in the Larger Catechism, question 171, as we conclude: "They that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer."

(dated 26 Sep 1999)