Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ

Adapted from a sermon preached on the Sabbath of 3 June 2001

"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread" (1 Corinthians 10:16–17).

a. The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians has two main parts. In the first part of the letter, the apostle addresses some problems in the Corinthian church which have been brought to his attention by some visitors he had as well as some reports concerning the church which have been circulating around the churches. This first part covers 6 chapters and deals with a number of issues including schism in the church, immorality, church discipline and lawsuits between believers. The second part of the letter, however, was written by the apostle Paul in response to a series of questions which were posed to him by the church. Here he addresses issues pertaining to marriage, to food offered to idols, to public worship and tongue speaking, and to the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ.

b. The verses in our consideration this morning falls under this second section. The Corinthian Christians were facing a somewhat difficult situation confronting their faith. The City of Corinth was an idolatrous city. Many people worshipped Aphrodite, the idol of love. And many of the official functions in the city involved participating in feasts related to idol worship. To refuse to attend these feasts was often regarded as not socially acceptable. What should the Christians do? Some of them rationalised that since there is only one living and true God, idols are nothing and so there is really nothing wrong to participate in the feast. Well, Paul refutes their excuses and urges them to "flee from idolatry" (v. 14). Rather than thinking how near they could go to idolatry, they should be thinking about how far they could fly from it. No temptation to sin can possibly be so great that there is no way of escape (v. 13).

c. It was in this context that the apostle Paul writes the verses which we are considering. These words are intended to lend weight to his argument that believers ought not to participate in any feast of idols no matter how tempting it may be to do so. But these words have a tremendous implication for the Christian church, for in them is contained some very important truths concerning the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.

In this article, we will not do a full exegesis of what Paul is saying. Instead, we will highlight two points for our consideration.

1. The Lord’s Supper is a Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ

We must remember that the context of this verse has to do with the question of whether it is permissible for Christians to participate in feasts of idols. But up to this point in the letter, Paul has not mentioned anything about feasts of idols yet. So what he is saying is in fact an introductory thought to what he is about to tell them in the following verses.

Remember that the reason why some of the Corinthians Christians had been tempted to participate in feasts of idols was that they had thought that since idols are nothing, the feasts of idols are nothing. In order to persuade them to flee from the feasts of idols, Paul had to impress upon their minds that all religious feasts have real spiritual significance. Yes, idols are nothing, so there is no difference between food that have been sacrificed to idols and food that have not been sacrificed to idols. So if you buy any food that has been,—without your knowledge, offered to idols,—you may just eat it without any guilt at all. Paul refers to this fact in verse 25. However, eating at a religious feast is quite different, and what Paul needs to impress upon their mind is that every religious feast carries real spiritual significance. Or to put it in another way, Paul wants them to know that attendance at every religious feast does not only fill the stomach but affects the soul. If it fills only the stomach, it is not that bad to attend these meals—even though you would be a bad testimony to the weaker brethren. But the fact is that there is more to it. This is the point Paul was trying to drive at.

And the way in which he goes about to remind them of this fact is to point to the Lord’s Supper—which is, as it were, the religious feast of the New Testament Church.

So he says:

16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?

a. The first thing that we must notice about this statement is that it is a rhetoric question. Paul expects the Corinthians to know the answer, and the answer is "Yes." The cup of blessing is indeed the communion of the blood of Christ and the bread is indeed the communion of the body of Christ.

The "cup of blessing" is the cup in the Lord’s Supper. It is said to be the cup "we bless" because it is consecrated or set-apart for the Lord’s use in the Lord’s Supper.

The word rendered "communion" (koinwniva, koinônia) has many different shades of meaning including fellowship, partnership, participation, sharing, association, and communication. This word is closely related to the word translated ‘partaker’ (koinwnov", koinônos) in verse 18: "Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?" So in the context, Paul’s question could be rephrased:

16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the [partaking] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the [partaking] of the body of Christ?

Paul is saying to the Corinthians: "I am sure you know when you partake of the Lord’s Supper that it is no ordinary meal. There are real spiritual significance. When you partake of the Lord’s Supper, you,—not only,—identify yourself with Christ who sacrificed himself for you, but you partake of his body and blood.

b. But what does Paul mean by partaking of the body and blood of Christ? How do we eat the body and blood of Christ? Traditionally in the Christian church, there have been 4 different views concerning what Paul meant.

i. Roman Catholicism teaches what is known as transubstantiation which insists that the bread and wine become the actual flesh and blood of Christ. But this cannot be the case. It does not make sense! How could the body and blood of Christ be found in a thousand places at the same time? And besides, would it not be equivalent to cannibalism if the communicants actually ingest and digest the actual flesh and blood of Christ? The idea is repugnant.

ii. Lutheranism teaches a compromise position known as consubstantiation in which they affirm that the flesh and blood of Christ is found in, under and around the substance of the bread and wine when they have been consecrated. But the objection to consubstantiation would be the same as that for transubstantiation.

iii. Now, there were those who react strongly to both of these views and insist that the Lord’s Supper is purely symbolic. The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli apparently held to this view, and so this view is often known as the Zwinglian view. But this view does not hold up when we compare scripture with scripture. In our text Paul already suggests that the Lord’s Supper is not only a memorial, but also a communion or a partaking of the body and blood of Christ. In fact, Paul’s reference to the Lord’s Supper in this context only makes sense when we realise that he is using the Corinthian’s understanding that the Lord’s Supper is not purely symbolic in order to show feasts of idols do also have real spiritual significance.

Then in 1 Corinthians 11:27ff, Paul insists that those who partake of the Lord’s Supper unworthily partake damnation to themselves, and some have even fallen ill or died in the church for this reason. If the Lord’s Supper was purely symbolic, then it would be very strange indeed that Paul should equate the sicknesses and deaths in the church with unworthy partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

iv. For this reason, most Reformed churches whether Presbyterian or Baptist or otherwise, reject the memorial view of Zwingli and adopt what is known as Calvin’s view. Calvin teaches us that when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we do really partake of the body and blood of Christ, though in a spiritual manner. Thus the WSC Q. 96 teaches us that:

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving andreceiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is shewed forth; and the worthy receivers are,—not after a corporal and carnal manner,—but by faith, made partakers of hisbody and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.

This view agrees well with the words of our Lord which shocked many of his followers that many of them followed him no more, for he said: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you" (Jn 6:53). Now, of course, the Lord was not teaching cannibalism which perhaps, some of those who departed took him to mean. He was speaking rather of the partaking of his body and blood in a spiritual way and by faith. This became clear when he instituted the Lord’s Supper with the words: "This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me" and "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you" (Lk 22:19-20).

When we understand this doctrine, we begin to understand the significance of the Lord’s Supper and why the apostle Paul urges us to examine ourselves carefully before partaking of it. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we are the guests and friends of Christ at his table, and as a token of our friendship, he gives unto us a portion of the sacrifice he has offered as the Passover Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world for our sin. Though physically we eat bread and wine, by faith and in our spirit, we partake of the body and blood of Christ.

But we must note, secondly, that the Lord’s Supper is a corporate meal and must never be regarded only as a private or individual affair.

2. Partakers of the Lord’s Supper are One Bread

a. Paul Says:

17 For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.

That is: Though there be many members in the church, we become,—as it were, — one loaf or one body because we all partake of the same bread. Or to put it in another way: by partaking of the bread in the Lord’s Supper, which is the emblem of the Lord’s body broken for us, we become one with the Lord and with one another.

This is a remarkable statement. Note what Paul is saying. He is saying that the real unity of the church is based, not immediately on our unity with each other, but on our individual unity with Christ. He does not simply tell us that we are one. He tells us that we are one loaf because we partake of the same bread. This bread, of course, is an emblem of Christ and his work in the Covenant of Grace.

We may say that the Lord Jesus Christ is what binds the members of the church together. Or to put it in another way: It is because of our being attached and related to Christ that we are attached and related to one another. Or in other words, he is the Vine we are the branches. The branches on the grape vine are only united to each other in so far as they are united with the vine. If they were cut off from the vine, they would no longer be united with the other branches.

b. But how are we united with Christ? The scripture speaks about our union with him in two ways.

First, it speaks of the Christian union with Christ based on their act of the will such as receiving him, believing in him, trusting in him and living in him. The apostle John is referring to this aspect of our union with Christ when he says:

"That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:3)

The apostle Paul in our text is also referring to the act of the will when he indicates our union with Christ on account of our partaking of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

But secondly, the Scripture also speaks of believers being united with Christ in that they are partakers of all the benefits which he procured in the Covenant of Grace. This is what the apostle John informs us when he says: "And of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace" (Jn 1:16). This truth is illustrated everywhere in the New Testament.

Consider the fact that we share in the sonship of Christ for the Lord Jesus tells us that his Father is our Father (Jn 20:17; Rom 8:14-16).

Consider the fact that on account of Christ, we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17).

Consider the fact that the glory of Christ is our glory and his inheritance is our inheritance, for the Lord says in his high priestly prayer: "And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one" (Jn 17:22).

Consider the fact that we have the Spirit of Christ. Paul tells us: "But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (Rom 8:9).

But on the other hand, the Scripture also reminds us that on account of our union with Christ, Christ took on our infirmity and guilt of sin upon himself.

Consider the fact that Christ emptied himself of his heavenly glory by becoming a partaker of the same flesh and blood with us (Phil 2:7; Heb 2:14) so that though he is in very essence God, he is not ashamed to call us his brethren (Heb 2:11).

Consider the fact that Christ took our sin and chastisement upon himself and reconciled us to God by satisfying divine justice on our behalf. "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor 5:21; cf. Rom 5:10).

In his high priestly prayer, the Lord Jesus Christ says concerning his relationship with His Father: "And all Mine are Thine, and Thine are Mine" (Jn 17:10). Now, on account of our union with Christ, we may say to him: "All that is mine is Thine, and all that is Thine is mine." Only, I hope you notice that it is enormously, or should we say an infinitely unfair exchange. Never in the history of the world has there been or will ever be such an ‘unfair’ exchange between two parties.

Every marriage between man and woman occurs because there is perception by both parties that mutual benefits will be derived from union with each other. But in the union between Christ and his church, there is no mutual benefit. The bride receives all the benefits, for which the groom so willingly gives her out of his unconditional love for her.

c. Now, all these are very theoretical and some of us may find it difficult to grasp the significance of what the Scripture is asserting everywhere. This is one of the reasons the Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper, for in the Lord’s Supper there is a dramatic portrayal of the interest that each member in the church has in Christ as well as the fact that each member of the church is united to each other because of our union with Christ.

You see, in the Lord’s Supper there is a loaf of bread representing the body of Christ. This loaf of bread is broken in the sight of the congregation to symbolise the breaking of the body of Christ for the church. Then each one of us takes a fragment of the bread that is broken and eats it. When we do so, we are symbolically affirming two things.

Firstly, we are affirming our union with Christ and our interest in him. And such as partake in faith partake spiritual nourishment for his soul.

But secondly, we are also affirming that since we all ate from the same loaf of bread that we are one loaf, one body, one in Christ! Do you now see the fact that the Lord’s Supper is not just an individual exercise, but a corporate exercise of the church?

Conclusion & Application

We have seen two facts in our study: First, we saw that the Lord’s Supper is a communion in the body and blood of Christ. It is not merely a symbolic exercise. Secondly, we saw that the Lord’s Supper is not an individual meal, but a corporate meal of the church which is very rich in symbolism. We saw that the meal points to our union with Christ as our common head and with one another as members of his body. What are the implications of these two doctrines?

a. Firstly, it is important for us to have a clear understanding of what the Lord’s Supper involves. The Lord’s Supper is not merely a symbolic meal, but involves the partaking of the body and blood of Christ by worthy receivers, and in some sense as Calvin says: partaking of poison for the soul by unworthy receivers. But this is a fact that is hardly taught today, and the result is that many believers are either too lax in their attitude towards the Lord’s Supper, or else too superstitious about it.

On the one hand, there are churches which do not even urge preparation for the Lord’s Supper, but on the other hand, there are those who take the Lord’s Supper as some form of magic potion which can cleanse them from their sin without their confessing and repenting of their sin. Then of course there is Rome which venerates the wafer as if the bread really becomes the flesh of Christ. Then there are churches which do not believe in transubstantiation, who will nevertheless adopt Romish practices such as kneeling at communion.

All these are wrong, be they sacrilegious or superstitious. But they have arisen out of wrong views of the Lord’s Supper. It is therefore important for us to know and understand what we believe so that we may not be toss to and fro by all sorts of worldly ideas and suggestions at how the Lord’s Supper should be kept.

b. Now, secondly, in view of the ignorance that is evident every where, it is necessary for us to be reminded to prepare ourselves by meditating on what Christ has done, by self-examination and repentance, and by new resolutions of love and service for the Lord. How can we come to the Lord’s Table, for example, if we have unrepented sin, or if we still bear grudges against a member of the church with whom we are going to share the Lord’s Supper with?

The Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 171 gives us some very excellent advice on how we should prepare ourselves and I would recommend that we should read and apply it each time before we come to the Lord’s Table.

c. Thirdly, in view of the fact that the Lord’s Supper is a corporate exercise of the church, it behoves the officers of the church not only to urge members to examine themselves, but also to make sure that any visitor wishing to participate in the communion understands the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and is able to identify himself as a fellow believer with the members of the church with whom he will be sharing the bread and wine. Anyone who does not believe that we serve the same Christ as him, cannot possibly participate in the Lord’s Supper with us without eating and drinking unworthily, for in the Lord’s Supper we are also affirming that we share the same Christ with the rest of the communicants in the church.

This is why we practise what is known historically as a restricted communion: meaning the Lord’s Supper is restricted to all who are members and visitors who have applied to participate at the Table and can credibly affirm and testify that they serve the same Lord, and to some degree indicate their consent with the church in terms of her doctrines and practices. This is why we have an interview for visitors wishing to partake of the Lord’s Supper with us. We sometimes find during the interview that there is a very weak understanding concerning the Lord’s Supper. This is understandable seeing that there have been little instructions on these matters in this land. And so we take the opportunity to instruct and to urge those who are partaking of the supper to prepare themselves by self-examination and repentance.

Now, for the same reason, individually, we must never participate in the Lord’s Supper in the worship with a cult group, or in a Roman Catholic Church, or a liberal church where Christ is not God, or in a Charismatic church where we are not sure if they serve the same Christ.

d. But finally, knowing the significance of the Lord’s Supper ought to fill our hearts with thanksgiving and gratitude as we sit, as it were, at the Lord’s Table. It is not without reason that the apostle Paul calls the Lord’s Supper, the "Lord’s Table" (1Cor 10:21); for the Lord’s Supper is a sacramental meal at which Christ is the host and we are the guests. And the Lord invites us to eat of what he has sacrificed for our reconciliation with the heavenly Father, namely his own flesh and blood.

As you sit at the Table remember that this is no ordinary meal. It is a meal of infinite cost. It is the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ, our elder brother, the God-Man, laid down his life for us. He suffered a most cruel death on the cross of Calvary and shed his blood to appease the wrath of God against us for our sin and rebellion against him. The sacrifice is complete, and thanks to God, it has been accepted and Christ rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God. And today, he invites us, unworthy sinners, to fellowship with him at the Table that we may eat of the sacrifice, that we may be identified with him, who is our Great High Priest and mediator with God, that we may remember what he has done for us because of his great and unspeakable love for us.

May the Lord grant as we partake of the bread and wine that our hearts will be filled with gratitude to the Lord Jesus Christ and our eyes filled with tears for our sin and ingratitude against him. Amen.

—JJ Lim