1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “not to associate with sexually immoral persons” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.
The problem with which he is dealing in this passage is the improper observance of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-22). The Corinthian Christians were guilty of observing the Lord’s Supper as if it were only an ordinary meal. Paul earlier addressed the problem of divisions within the church (1:10-17; 3:1-23), and now notes that those divisions are present even when they observe the Lord’s Supper (11:18-19).
Apparently, these Corinthian Christians were observing the Lord’s Supper in the context of an ordinary meal. Each person or family would bring food to this observance and each would eat the food they brought without sharing it pot-luck style. Or, possibly, they shared, but those who could come early had plenty and those who came later (poorer people with less leisure time) got little. This resulted in some people (the poor) going hungry while others (the wealthy) had more than enough to eat and drink—in fact, Paul mentions that some were even getting drunk (11:21). He says, “What, don’t you have houses to eat and to drink in? Or do you despise God’s assembly, and put them to shame who don’t have?” (v. 22a).
The problem was exacerbated by the fact that there were no dedicated church buildings at that time. The church met in the homes of members, and only well-to-do Christians had homes large enough to host the church for the observance of the Lord’s Supper. This could have been a good thing, because the host family could have provided enough food to insure that everyone had enough—but that isn’t how it worked in Corinth.
Those who received little or no food at these meals would naturally feel excluded, and this contributed to the divisions that elicited Paul’s concern in 1:10-17 and 3:1-19.
What follows, then, is Paul’s counsel to help these Corinthian Christians to appreciate the true meaning and significance of the Lord’s Supper so that they can observe it in a more appropriate manner. Paul wants two things. He wants them to observe this supper as a sacred rite, and he wants them to be considerate of each other’s needs.
1 CORINTHIANS 11:23a. FOR I RECEIVED FROM THE LORD
23a For I received from the Lord that which also I delivered (Greek: paredoka—from paradidomi) to you
With these few words, Paul establishes two things:
• First, he received his understanding of the Lord’s Supper from the Lord. There is no record of this transaction in the New Testament, so some scholars think that Paul means that the Lord established this tradition which the church passed on to Paul. However, there is no reason to believe that the Lord did not pass on this tradition privately to Paul.
• Second, while serving as the founding pastor of the Corinthian church, Paul passed this tradition on to these people. They therefore have no excuse for failing to understand the sacred nature of the Lord’s Supper—and they also have no excuse for the inconsiderate way they have been treating each other in the context of worship.
1 CORINTHIANS 11:23b-25. ON THE NIGHT IN WHICH HE WAS BETRAYED
23b that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed (Greek: paredideto—from paradidomi) took bread (arton). 24When he had given thanks (eucharistesas—from eucharisteo), he broke it, and said, “Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me.” 25In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me.”
“that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed (paredideto—from paradidomi) took bread” (arton—the words “a loaf of” (NRSV) are not present in the Greek) (v. 23b).
Note that the Greek word paradidomi appears both in 23a, where Paul handed on (paredoka—from paradidomi) to the Corinthians what he had received from the Lord—and in 23b, where the Lord Jesus was betrayed (paredideto—from paradidomi). The word paradidomi has the sense of “delivered up” or “given over.” It took on the sense of betrayal in the New Testament, because Judas’ handing over Jesus to the Roman soldiers constituted a betrayal.
“When he had given thanks (eucharistesas—from eucharisteo), he broke it” (v. 24a). It would be usual for the host at a Passover meal to bless the bread and break it before distributing it.
The word Eucharist is derived from the Greek word, eucharisteo, which means “to give thanks.” While the word Eucharist is often used today to refer to the Lord’s Supper, it is not used in the New Testament as a name for this rite—nor is the word Communion so used in the New Testament. Paul refers to this rite as “the Lord’s supper” in his introduction to this passage (11:20).
“Take, eat. This is my body” (v. 24b). This phrase has occasioned significant divisions within the church (ironic, since Paul was concerned about divisions in the Corinthian church).
• Roman Catholics believe in Transubstantiation, which means that the substance of the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus, even though we continue to perceive them as bread and wine.
• Some (but not all) Lutherans and Orthodox Christians believe in Consubstantiation, which means that the body and blood of Jesus are present alongside the bread and wine.
• Most Protestants believe that “This is my body” is a Semitic expression meaning, “This symbolizes my body.” Some clergy go so far as to use the words, “This symbolizes my body” as the words of institution. While I believe in the symbolic nature of these words, I would never use “symbolizes” in the words of institution, because that goes beyond the Biblical text.
Resolving the issues raised by these words goes beyond this exegesis, so I recommend that you look to your own tradition to understand Jesus’ words.
“which is broken for you” (v. 24c). The event to which the Lord’s Supper points is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The phrase, “which is broken for you,” reminds us of the atonement for our sins that Christ made possible through his death on the cross.
“Do this in memory of me” (v. 24d). Matthew and Mark do not include these words in their accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-25). Luke does include them (Luke 22:19). This and similar differences (Luke and Paul add “which is broken for you” to the bread saying—and include “This cup is the new covenant”) cause scholars to link Matthew and Mark together as derived from one source—and Luke and Paul as derived from another.
Jesus clearly intended for the Lord’s Supper to serve as a rite that would bring to mind his death in behalf of the world. However, we, who tend to understand remembrance primarily as a mental activity, need to understand the significance of remembrance in Biblical times.
• God remembered his covenant with Israel, which led him save Noah and the other inhabitants of the ark (Genesis 8:1)—and to promise never again to destroy all flesh by floods (Genesis 9:15)—and to redeem his people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 2:24; 6:5)—and to show compassion (Psalm 106:45)—and to provide food (Psalm 111:5; see also Psalm 105:8ff.; 115:12).In other words, remembrance went beyond bringing something from the past to mind. Remembrance led to action—salvation action.
• God also called Israel to remember all that God had done for them, and promised to bless them if they did and to punish them if they didn’t (Deuteronomy 8:18-19). They were to enhance their remembrance by foregoing leavened bread during Passover (Exodus 13:3ff.) so that “the law of Yahweh may be in your mouth” (Exodus 13:9). They were to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” by foregoing work on the sabbath (Exodus 20:8ff.). They were to wear a fringe on their garments “that you may remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God” (Numbers 15:40). In other words, remembrance went beyond bringing something to mind. It led to action—to response.
So when Jesus invites us to remember him through the bread and wine that we share at the Lord’s Table, he is calling us to something more than bringing his death to mind. He is calling us to obedience—to true discipleship.
“In the same way he also took the cup, after supper“ (v. 25a). This suggests that Jesus distributed the bread before the meal and the wine after the meal. This was probably the pattern that the Corinthian Christians were following when some ate their fill while others went hungry.
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (v. 25b). As noted above, Luke’s version also has Jesus saying, “new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Mark’s account says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). Matthew’s account says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the remission of sins”(Matthew 26:28).
The phrase, “new covenant,” reminds us that God promised to “make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31).
The words, “covenant in my blood,” remind us of Moses’ words as he dashed the blood of a sacrifice on the people, saying, “Look, this is the blood of the covenant, which Yahweh has made with you concerning all these words” (Exodus 24:8).
“Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me” (v. 25c). These words remind us to keep the remembrance of Jesus in the forefront of our consciousness each time we observe the Lord’s Supper. As noted above (see the comments on v. 24d), Biblical remembrance involves action—obedience—faithfulness.
When Jesus says, “as often as you drink,” he leaves the frequency of observance indefinite. However, Luke reports, “On the first day of the week, when the disciples were gathered together to break bread…” (Acts 20:7)—suggesting that the central purpose of the church’s meeting together on the Lord’s Day was to observe the Lord’s Supper—which suggests that early Christians observed the Lord’s Supper every week.
1 CORINTHIANS 11:26. YOU PROCLAIM THE LORD’S DEATH UNTIL HE COMES
26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim (Greek: katangellete—from katangello) the Lord’s death until he comes.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death” (v. 26a). The little word, “for,” connects this verse with verse 25. Paul tells these Corinthian Christians that they are to observe the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Jesus, “for” when they do so they “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”—in other words, the observance of the Lord’s Supper becomes a proclamation—a preaching event.
The words of institution bring to mind the Lord’s death, but the bread and wine also have compelling power to bring to mind the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross.
It seems significant that the word katangello appears 17 times in the New Testament, and is translated “preach” 10 of those times (KJV).
“until he comes” (v. 26b). With these words, Paul reminds us that we are an eschatological people who are waiting for the great day when Christ will come again—when he will be “Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1)—and when he will set our crooked world straight on its axis once again.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
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Gaventa, Beverly R., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
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Copyright 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan