The Lord’s Supper: Its Nature, Meaning, and Participants

Communion, or the Lord's Supper

For much of my Christian upbringing, I viewed the Lord’s Supper as just a simple memorial ceremony—a repetitive object lesson the church pulled out every quarter. It was awkward, I thought. I remember spending many communion services feeling inadequate because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing. Honestly, it caused me a lot of anxiety. There was so much confusion as to what my role was in the Supper. Yet, at the same time, there was so much emphasis placed on those who do it unworthily. It felt more like standing under the weight of Mt. Sinai than the grace of Zion.

In recent years, by God’s grace, I have come to see the Supper as so much more than a memorial ceremony. This shift in thinking has transformed my experience of the event. Instead of a sacrament I fear with anxiety, it has become a sweet occasion I anticipate with joy. This shift occurred for me in three main areas. I address them in this article.

The nature of the Lord’s Supper   

In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul asks the Corinthians two rhetorical questions: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” He assumes they already know the answers. He is reminding them that the cup and the bread constitute a sharing in the body and blood of Christ. The word “sharing”—or “participation” (ESV), or even “communion” (KJV)—renders, of course, the commonly known Greek word koinonia. It typically describes the fellowship and communion that the saints have with one another. However, it does not always refer to the horizontal communion of the saints. We have to look at the context to see who this koinonia is with.

Paul says that our fellowship is “in the blood of Christ” and “in the body of Christ.” Then, in verse 17, “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” The primary fellowship that is happening here is our vertical fellowship with Christ himself. At the Lord’s Supper, you and I are directly fellowshipping with the Lord himself. Therefore, we are also fellowshipping with one another. This is more than just a memorial service. First Corinthians 10 teaches us that Christ has a real, spiritual presence in the Supper. In the Supper, we fellowship directly with him.

Two different feasts

How are we to think about this real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper? Consider verses 18–22. Paul draws a comparison between the Lord’s Supper and the idol feasts of the pagans in Corinth. Paul has been very careful to deal with this subject of idol feasts in Corinth. One of the greatest problems in the Corinthian Church was that there was no distinction between the church and the pagan world. In fact, the church had been infiltrated with all kinds of pagan practices. One of the ways this manifested itself was that the Christians in Corinth were attending and actively taking part in pagan feasts. The Corinthians were crossing the line into idolatrous practices, and Paul needed to warn them against this sin. He uses a portion of Christian worship they already understand, the Lord’s Supper, to illustrate what is going on at these pagan feasts.

Paul says that the idols in pagans worship are lifeless artifacts. And the sacrifices people make are nothing more than food or drink—like any other meal. So what is the big deal? It’s not the item or the substance itself that’s the problem, but what is active behind that item and its use. So, Paul goes on in verses 20–21 to tell the Corinthians that there is a pronounced and very real presence of demonic forces at these pagan feasts. Not only that, but taking part in these pagan feasts brings them into communion with demons (1 Cor 10:21). Interestingly, Paul uses the koinos root to refer to this “communion” as well. Just as the pagan feast brings one into fellowship with demons, so the Lord’s Supper brings Christians into fellowship with the Lord.

We know Jesus is always with us as his people. But there is a special, pronounced, intimate, and very real spiritual presence of Christ with us in the Lord’s Supper. We can confidently say that Jesus our Lord stands among us and by taking this supper we are entering into greater degrees of communion with him.

The Supper is so much more than just a memorial. It is a means of grace allowing us to experience real fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Next time you participate in the Lord’s Supper, come to fellowship with your Lord and to share in that fellowship with his people.

Logos 10: Take Your Study Deeper, Faster

The meaning of the Lord’s Supper

We have considered the nature of the Lord’s Supper. We now turn to its meaning. In order to do so, we will begin by looking at the context which Paul sets up in 1 Corinthians 11:17–22.

A backwards practice

The Corinthian Christians had a practice of gathering for what is elsewhere called in the NT (Jude 12) a “love feast,” a big fellowship meal. After the meal, they would take the Lord’s Supper. We have already noted that the Corinthians were not separating themselves from the world. Here we see the evidence once more.

In the secular culture of Corinth, the wealthy typically hosted household meals. The host along with his rich and influential guests would gather in their own separate room. They would eat and drink first. Then, the guests from the poorer classes would gather in a different and less favorable room. Whatever food and drink was left over would be brought to them. Built into this cultural practice was a clear declaration: “We are more important than you. We are worthy of this and you are not.” As Calvin states in his commentary,

This was one evil in the case, that while the rich indulged themselves sumptuously, they appeared, in a manner, to reproach the poor for their poverty. … Thus the poor were exposed to the derision of the rich, or at least they were exposed to shame.1

The Corinthian Church was conducting their feasts and the Supper in the same way. The influential and wealthy gorged themselves with food and drink. Then there was nothing left for the rest. Some were too bloated and drunk to have any idea what was going on during the Lord’s Supper. Others had no supper to take. Consequently, their Lord’s Supper gatherings looked no different than the pagan feasts.

The height of their irreverence was the separation of the worthy and the unworthy. Many of these Corinthians were declaring through their actions—and culturally it would have been seen this way—that because of their status, they deserved the Supper more than others. This makes it all the more interesting that Paul says in 11:19, “For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.” Paul makes it clear that their irreverent practice of the Lord’s Supper would be used by God to purify his church and separate the wheat from the chaff.

A return to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper

Understanding the faulty practice in the Corinthian Church is essential to understanding what Paul will say in the rest of his letter. Paul develops his argument one piece at a time. That is why the next section starts with the connecting word “for.” Paul told them they were doing it all wrong. Now he contrasts their wrong practice with the right approach. Look at verse 23: 

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread. (1 Cor 11:23 NASB) 

Pay attention to the setting in which Jesus served the first Supper. He chose the “night in which he was betrayed.” Certainly, the Lord’s Supper occurred at this time in order to correlate with the Passover meal. We would even say, theologically speaking, that is the biggest reason for the timing. Intriguingly, that is not what Paul chooses to draw attention to. For the purpose of his argument, he uses the active betrayal of Christ as the setting.

The betrayal was in progress as the Lord’s Supper was given. Mark 14:50–52 describes the scene at the arrest of Jesus:

And they all left him and fled. A young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked. (Mark 14:50–52 NASB)

All the disciples fled from him and betrayed him. There was even a man among them who was so desperate to avoid association with him that he abandoned his clothes. Matthew paints an even clearer picture. Immediately after serving the Passover Meal to his disciples, Jesus tells them, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (Matt 26:31 NASB). Jesus served the first Lord’s Supper to his disciples while fully knowing the sin that was already actively brewing in their hearts. So, how does this help us understand the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? We see it in the following verses: 

And when he had given thanks, he broke [the bread] and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11:24–25 NASB) 

On that night, knowing their hearts were already in the progress of betraying him, Jesus told his disciples, “This bread is my body broken for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Another way to communicate what was happening is this: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NASB). Having instituted the Supper in this way, and directing them to continue it, it is as if he was saying to them, “You will continue, as my disciples, to sin, falter, and fail. Even so, the benefits of my death are for you.”

Concerning the cup, he said that it is the “new covenant in my blood.” In doing so, Jesus was referring to the new covenant that God promised in Jeremiah. 

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, “declares the Lord, “I will put my law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer 31:31–34 NASB)

This is the new covenant that Christ is referring to. In the Mosaic covenant, favor was granted by God to his chosen people. However, it could be lost based on their failure to live up to its obligations according to the Law. The Old Testament presents us with a people who can never live up to the standard of God’s holiness. It is a people who find themselves always standing at the base of Mt. Sinai, a mountain they can never climb. Jeremiah reveals that in the new covenant the position of God’s people will not be contingent on their obedience to its obligations. Jesus has secured their position and now graciously produces obedience in them. It is no longer a covenant that is kept in outward obedience, but one that is freely given, kept, and sealed in something else. And Jesus tells us what that something else is: his blood. This is the shift. God is going to move his people from the base of Mt. Sinai to the peak of Mt. Zion. It was, and is, the Lord Jesus who ascended that hill for us, and now carries us there according to his merit on our behalf.

The Lord’s Supper does not picture what we should do for God. That is the Law. That is Mt. Sinai. It pictures what Christ has done for us. It pictures God’s chosen people, in the midst of all their weaknesses and sins, receiving the grace that Christ lavishes on them through his atoning sacrifice. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, it is Mt. Zion we are coming to, not Mt. Sinai. We come as unworthy sinners to receive mercy, not as those who must earn their keep. And it is Christ, in his manifest presence, who is extending that promise of mercy to us.

This is what Jesus does in the Supper. What is our role? Look at what Paul says in verse 26:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor 11:26 NASB) 

Paul’s statement is straightforward. However often you do this, you testify to the Lord’s death. You not only testify to the fact that he died or the way in which he died, but to all that his death means for you and all the people of God. All that we have just said about the new covenant, we proclaim to belong to us through Christ. And not only that, but we proclaim it “until he comes.” This means that the church should practice the Lord’s Supper until he returns. It also means that when we do, we are not only looking backwards to the cross. We are also opening our arms to receive the benefits of it now. And further, we are looking to the final result that the cross accomplishes, which is our participation in the final supper, the marriage supper of the Lamb. All of these things come to us by the hand of our Lord. By eating the bread and drinking the cup, we are giving our “amen” to all of these realities. This is what Jesus meant by doing this in remembrance of him. Our minds are called to these realities. We respond with our “amen.”

The participants of the Lord’s Supper

Having dealt with the nature of the Lord’s Supper and its meaning, we have one final consideration. Who is worthy to participate and who is not? We can answer this question by considering the teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:27–32.

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. (1 Cor 11:27 NASB)

The first word in verse 27 is very important: “Therefore.” These verses are not written in a vacuum. If you rip this portion of Scripture out of its context, you will come up with a very different interpretation than what Paul intends. These words flow out of the verses we just covered in the previous post. 

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An unworthy manner

The first thing we need to understand is what Paul means by an “unworthy manner.” Without any context, that statement can be interpreted a thousand different ways. One of the more common modern interpretations is that we ought not come to the Lord’s Table unless we quickly confess all the sins we can think of and purify ourselves first. That is in direct contradiction to what Paul just said in verses 23–26. That approach leaves us with Moses at Sinai, not Christ at Zion. The Supper was served by Jesus to a room full of disciples with unconfessed sin rising in their hearts “in the night in which he was betrayed.” Paul declares it as a symbol of the covenant of grace, not law. It makes no sense to say, “Unless you first perfect yourself, you have no part in Christ’s body and blood,” then also say, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

We ought to look to the context to see what Scripture tells us this means. Gordon Fee is helpful in describing what has led to some of the confusion around this word,

Unfortunately, this adverb was translated “unworthily” in the KJV (unfortunately repeated in the NAB). Since that particular English adverb seems more applicable to the person doing the eating than to the manner in which it is being done, this word became a dire threat for generations of English-speaking Christians.2

Kistemaker comments,

Christians should confess their unworthiness because of sin but their worthiness because of Christ. Paul is not demanding perfection before believers are allowed to come to Communion.3

First, Paul already described the unworthy treatment of the Supper by the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:17–22). They came separating the worthy from the unworthy based on class, wealth, and prestige. Paul’s response was to remind them of the worthy treatment of the Supper, which is to recognize that no one is worthy and no one has a right to this Supper or the benefits it symbolizes. Just as Jesus fed the supper to a room of men with betrayal in their hearts, so he feeds it to us, all of whom have betrayed him and continue betraying him even still. It is not our pedigree, our morality, or our status among men that grants us participation in the covenant represented by this Supper. We all equally participate through one means, which is the atoning sacrifice of Christ on our behalf.

So, Paul has already described the worthy and unworthy manner in which we can come. He does not say “unworthy person,” but in an “unworthy manner.” We are all unworthy. Stephen Charnock commented, “The apostle doth not say, Whatsoever unworthy person eats and drinks of this cup, etc., for then he had excluded every man, himself too. For who is worthy enough for these things. … The apostle requires not here a meritoriousness. Merit belongs to Christ dying, worthiness to the believer receiving. He speaks not of the worthiness of the person, but a worthiness of the action.”4

It is those who come to the table in the spirit of the previous verse—giving their “amen” to the truth that Christ purchased for them a redemption they could never earn themselves—who come in a worthy manner.

Guilty of the body and the blood

This helps us to understand Paul’s next statement. He says those who partake in an unworthy manner “shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.” People who are guilty are liable; they have something to answer for. I acknowledge that my interpretation is in the minority on this point, but I do believe it arises out of a careful study of the Scripture. I believe Paul is saying, “Whoever partakes of the Supper thinking themselves worthy based on their own merit will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” In other words, by basing my fellowship with Christ on my own merits, I show that I consider his sacrifice to be without meaning. I declare that though he died to purchase my entrance, I believe I am worthy of it myself. It is a denial of the gospel.

Self-examination

We can now see Paul calling for self-examination (11:28) in a new light. This is not a call for deep, personal introspection. Nor is it a call for running an inventory of all our past and current sins. The purpose of the examination has already been pinpointed by Paul. We must consider whether we are approaching the Lord’s Table based on our own performance or based on the grace of our Lord. Are we coming in the worthy manner, knowing we do not deserve this fellowship with Christ, and that he has purchased it for us? The one who comes in the worthy manner is the one who comes knowing they are not worthy, but Christ is worthy for them. Consider the words of Thomas Watson, “Who doth Christ invite to the supper, but the poor, halt, and maimed? Luke 14:21. that is, such as see themselves unworthy, and fly to Christ for sanctuary.”5

Paul says that “in so doing” we should partake. That means every believer should take of the Lord’s Supper, and should base their participation solely upon the grace given them through Christ.

Judging the body rightly

Now that Paul has discussed worthy participation, he continues with an obscure phrase that has occasioned great discussion:

For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. (1 Cor 11:29 NASB)

What does Paul mean by “judging the body rightly?” Paul has been talking about this body throughout this passage. There are two main possible interpretations of “the body.” One view holds that it refers to the body of Christ himself. The other proposes that it refers to the church. I contend that it is the body of Christ himself, not literally, but signified through the elements. Thiselton shares this interpretation: “the body (sōma) to which Paul has hitherto referred in these verses (vv. 17–28) is the body of Christ of the words of the Institution (vv. 23–26).”6

His argument thus far has been that we must take the Supper according to Christ’s worthiness, not our own, and that the unworthy manner is to come based on our own worth. So, to judge the body wrongly is to come without the right understanding of the broken body and shed blood of Christ on our behalf. One who does this “eats and drinks judgment to himself.” The right “amen” is given in verse 26, declaring amen to our purchased salvation through Christ’s atonement. We must always come to Christ as unworthy souls in need of his grace.

The judgment on the Corinthians

This passage about the Lord’s Supper concludes:

For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. (1 Cor 11:30–32 NASB)

Paul tells the Corinthian Church that because of their previously named failure, there is sickness and even death among them. This is a judgment that is specific to the Corinthians, and Paul is making an observation to them about it. There is no indication that Paul is saying that if anyone takes the Lord’s Supper with unconfessed sins they will get sick and die. Notice that it is a church-wide discipline, not an individualistic one. As seen in previous verses, this is a church-wide problem. So, the focus of the discipline is on the church as a whole, not necessarily on an individual person. That is why Paul shifts in verse 31 from a personal focus to a community focus. Before, it was “a man must examine himself” and “he who eats.” Now, it is “we.” Plummer and Robertson argue that the transition from singular to plural is given to soften the harshness of the message. “In using the first person, the Apostle softens the admonition by including himself.”7 I believe that is an easy, but not adequate, treatment.

Paul says that if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when judgment comes, it is judgment by the Lord—so that we will not be condemned. There is a clear separation of “judgment” and “condemnation.” The judgment here is apparently talking of the discipline of the Lord upon his church. The purpose of this discipline is so that his church will not face the final condemnation of the world. When you go back to Paul’s words to the Corinthians about their miscarriage of the Supper, this becomes clearer. Recall 11:19:

For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.

God is disciplining the church body as a whole in order to remove the chaff. He is using the Lord’s Supper along with other things to reveal those who are his. The church is being purified.

Conclusion

For many, it is thought one must “worthy” himself or herself first in order to partake of the Lord’s Supper. But the Scripture reveals that it is for those who come understanding their unworthiness and reaching out their hand to accept the grace offered through Christ. In the end, it is really only the unbeliever who should refrain from the Supper. But for my brothers and sisters in Christ, I say, “Take it. It is meant for sinners.”

Explore the Lord’s Supper with resources cited in this article

Calvin’s Commentaries (46 vols.)

Calvin’s Commentaries (46 vols.)

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The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Revised Edition (The New International Commentary on the New Testament | NICNT)

The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Revised Edition (The New International Commentary on the New Testament | NICNT)

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1 Corinthians (Hendriksen & Kistemaker New Testament Commentary | HK)

1 Corinthians (Hendriksen & Kistemaker New Testament Commentary | HK)

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The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock (5 vols.)

The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock (5 vols.)

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A Divine Cordial; The Saint’s Spiritual Delight; The Holy Eucharist; and Other Treatises

A Divine Cordial; The Saint’s Spiritual Delight; The Holy Eucharist; and Other Treatises

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1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary

1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary

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A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (ICC)

A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (ICC)

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Logos 10: Take Your Study Deeper, Faster
  1. John Calvin, 1 Corinthians, electronic ed., Calvin’s Commentaries (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998), 1 Co 11:21
  2. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse et al., New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 619.
  3. Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1993), 401.
  4. Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: James Nisbet and Co., 1865), 473.
  5. Thomas Watson, A Divine Cordial; The Saint’s Spiritual Delight; The Holy Eucharist; and Other Treatises, The Writings of the Doctrinal Puritans and Divines of the Seventeenth Century (London: Religious Tract Society, 1846), 39–40.
  6. Anthony C. Thiselton, First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 187.
  7. Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, International Critical Commentary (New York: T&T Clark, 1911), 254.
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Written by
Brad Creech

Brad Creech is the pastor of students at First Baptist Church in Fort Meade, Florida. He is the author of The Dark Night of the Soul and writer at The Verse Newsletter.

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