Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep (1Cor. 11.28-30 NIV).
The bible can be hard to understand sometimes. Even the Apostle Peter had difficulty understanding some of Paul’s writings (2Pet. 3.16). Also, most Christians can testify to the reality of a growth and change in personal understanding of scriptural truths. What they once believed or conceptualized about the Christian life derived from the bible they no longer hold. They now can say they possess a fuller understanding or appreciation of the majesty of God’s revelation to humanity.
Sometimes, even Christians can change their minds and arrive full-circle to their original position on an issue. What once sounded good to them and resulted in moving away from a position, with further examination, they realize that the original stance had more to commend for itself as the correct answer than the reason given to hold to the new understanding. This is similar to how a boy when he is still a child admires his father. During the teenage years this same son might often, in his mind, dismiss him. Later, however, the son will mature and recognize all the good qualities of him who raised him, and, therefore, the admiration is renewed.
1 Cor. 11.29 poses a dilemma for our understanding of what Paul is speaking about when He uses the phrase, “without discerning the body of Christ.” This is one of the most serious matters in the life of the gathering of Christians for worship, since some were sick, and even dying, because of the offence caused by them failing the command to “discern the body.” Therefore, it is crucial to come to a correct understanding of who or what Paul was speaking about.
Terms in the bible, it turns out, can be used in a variety of ways and do not always consistently refer to the same thing. Take, for example, the word “Jew” in the gospel of John and trace how it is used by the writer both positively and negatively. The context is the determinant factor in how to understand what the biblical author is speaking about.
“The body of Christ” can refer to either a group of Christians, such as later in this same letter (1Cor. 12.12-14, 27), or, I argue, from the context of 1 Cor. 11, refer to the elements used in The Lord’s Supper. Jesus used the term “my body” for the element of bread in Luke 22.19 as a metaphor to show symbolic representation of His work of a redemptive sacrifice in the breaking of His body on the cross. Therefore, from the scriptures, the body of Christ can refer to at least two separate ideas in the bible.
Paul, it is clear from the context of 1Cor. 11.17-34, is speaking of the elements used in observing the meal when he says that the Corinthians were not “discerning the body of Christ.” In 11.23, Paul says he received from the Lord the practice of this ordinance and passed it on to the Corinthians. In verse 24, Paul quotes Jesus as referring to the element of broken bread as “My body.” In verse 26, Paul says that in eating and drinking the elements the worshipper is “proclaiming the Lord’s death.” The participant in this meal is signifying that it was Christ’s death on the cross that they are trusting for their justification before God. Particularly, in verse 25, Jesus says the wine represents His blood of the New Covenant which the worshipper consumes or takes inside of themselves. This is some of the richest symbolism in the New Testament of Christ, in the Holy Spirit, dwelling inside of the believer (for instance, see Jn. 14.17). In the taking of the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the participant is vividly showing the New Covenant reality of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, dwelling inside them.
Yes, there were divisions in the Corinthian Church, which is the body of Christ, but this is not the reason for the judgment upon some of them. Rather, the division caused the observance of the Supper to be obscured. This was manifested in two ways: 1. Some were hungry (they neither partook of a dinner nor had any elements to perform the Lord’s Supper-1Cor. 11.21). 2. Some were drunk, having consumed all their food instead of sharing with the poor or slaves who could seemingly only arrive after performing the morning duties in their master’s house (see vs. 22).
Here was the real problem in the Corinthian Church: By the rich getting drunk, they were compromising their witness of proclaiming Christ in this ordinance. It would be as if they were telling an unbeliever the gospel and getting drunk at the same time.
To remedy the situation, Paul tells the rich who became famished and wanted to eat to do so before the service at home: So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment (1Cor. 11.33-34a NIV). From these two verses it is clear who were sick and dying: the rich who were getting drunk and performing the Lord’s Supper in that state. While the poor couldn’t perform the Supper because of not having the elements, Paul is silent about any judgment falling on them. Indeed, it seems that they couldn’t have been disciplined, according to Paul’s formula, since they cannot “be eating and drinking judgment upon themselves (vs. 29),” because they lack the very means to observe the ordinance.