Should the Lord’s Supper Be Observed as a Meal?

In his highly thought-provoking, reproduction of lectures on the Lord’s Supper (Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper), theologian Markus Barth made this insightful comment:

A language has been fabricated for describing the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, a language that is certainly learned, deep, mysterious, but hardly clear and persuasive.  The Bible itself does not speak of sacrament, transsubstantiation, consubstantiation, transfunctionalization, transsignification, or symbol (a sign that shows what it effects and effects what it shows)…The Supper has been wrapped in a smokescreen of very difficult language.

The cumbersome language has to do with the strange and curious questions that have been asked about the Lord’s Supper.  One who asks a wrong question is most likely to get a wrong answer.

This last quoted sentence is pregnant with meaning.  I have been on a quest to ask some very basic questions concerning the Lord’s Supper.  The most basic question is this: is the Lord’s Supper a meal or not?  Scholar I. Howard Marshall asserted the following: “The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament is a meal. The appropriate setting for the sacrament is a table…To describe the central piece of furniture as an altar is completely unjustified in terms of the New Testament understanding of the meal.”

I have come to the same conclusion as Marshall.  However, the central challenge to this conclusion from the perspective of many is the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.  Matthew Henry’s view is typical: “They [the Corinthian assembly] were to eat for hunger and pleasure only at home, and not to change the holy supper to a common feast.”

So, what do you think?  Is the Lord’s Supper to be maintained as a meal?  Or is it best to see it in the established manner (a sole liturgical function with bread and cup alone)?

For those who are interested, here is a brief verse-by-verse commentary on this passage.

1Cor. 11:17 Now in giving the following instruction I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.   When the church comes together, Paul does not commend them and says that it is actually to their detriment. 

1Cor. 11:18 For in the first place, when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. The principal criticism that Paul has for the Corinthians is that factions are developing in the church. 

1Cor. 11:19 For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident. However, Paul admits that it is useful and necessary for the divisions in the church to come to light. 

1Cor. 11:20 Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper.  Although the intent of the saints is to partake of the Lord’s Supper in their congregating, they are not fulfilling the spirit with which the meal was instituted. 

1Cor. 11:21 For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. The believers, presumably those who are “well-to-do”, proceed to eat their own food at supper time, not mindful of those who have nothing to eat.  Moreover, there is excess to the point of inebriation.  Thus, a faction has developed between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

1Cor. 11:22 Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I will not praise you for this!  Paul lashes out at these rich believers.  Since fulfilling their carnal appetites, rather than sharing with those who are needy, is obviously their priority, Paul sarcastically asks why they can’t satiate themselves in their own homes.  Their behavior is obviously not worthy of commendation.

1Cor. 11:23-26 ¶ For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.    To call the church back to the original intent of the meal, Paul cites the prophetic words from Jesus that institute the Supper.  Note that Paul is not giving an independent doctrinal treatise concerning the purpose of the meal; he is giving doctrinal instruction to combat the poor behavior going on during the Supper.  Rather than a merely common meal to fill the stomach, the Lord’s Supper is a meal with a holy function of proclaiming the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sinners.  Because of this intent, how inappropriate it is to focus on the self, rather than others, during its observance! Moreover, the act of eating the bread and drinking the cup themselves non-verbally proclaim the death of Christ.  The proclaimers are thus those participating in the Supper.  The recipients of the proclamation are harder to ascertain.  The verb for “proclaim” is used 18 times in the New Testament and carries with it the general idea of announcing news in public, for general dissemination.  This usage conveys the idea of a Supper that is not purposefully sealed off from view or a secret meeting for only the select few.  The church participates in full view of one another, with proclamation being communicated, one to another.  There is also the very real possibility of an evangelistic intent to the Supper, in which unbelievers who are present have the gospel message proclaimed to them through the signs of the bread and cup.  The terminus of the Supper (at least in its present form) is the physical return of Jesus.

1Cor. 11:27 ¶ For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.  The logic of Paul here is that, because the Lord’s Supper concerns a remembrance and proclamation of the Lord’s death, participating in it “in a way morally out of keeping with the nature and design of the ordinance” (Meyer) is not to be done.  Thus, eating the bread and drinking the cup while neglecting to share with others violates the spirit of the meal with which the Lord has invested it.  The traditional teaching on this verse to which I have been exposed describes the unworthy manner out of keeping with the context of the passage.  For many years, I have thought you prepare yourself to be worthy prior to partaking it.  Moreover, you make yourself worthy by full confession of sin and approaching the meal with a proper focus on its true meaning.  But, in context, the unworthiness (better, unfittingness) is manifested in the manner in which you eat and drink, i.e. thinking of yourself before others.  That is, in this context, the unfittingness is shown on a horizontal level (the way you treat other people) rather than a vertical level (lack of confession and repentance before God).     

1Cor. 11:28 A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup.  The self-examination commended here is not an introspective, grave preparation for the supper, but an examination of your attitude about the meal and about the quality of your relationship with others in the body, especially those who are poor.  The key question to be asked of oneself is: am I manifesting the proper attitude toward the Supper – both to the Lord in focusing on him and his work, and to others, demonstrating the unity of the body of Christ.

1Cor. 11:29 For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.  An alternate translation of this passage replaces “careful regard for the body” with “discerning the body”.  The question concerns whether the “body” refers by synecdoche to the elements of bread and cup, or whether it refers to the church, “the body of Christ”, as identified in 1 Corinthians 10.17 earlier.  The latter interpretation is to be preferred because it fits with the context of Paul’s argument: judgment is due the one who has – by failing to wait and share his food – not shown due consideration for all the members of the body of Christ.

1Cor. 11:30 That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  A traditional impression of the intended tone of the Lord’s Supper  – and a reason why many do not think that a full meal is appropriate for its celebration – is that of a funereal, grave, and somber event.  Certainly, the impending death of Christ at the Last Supper contributed to a strong sense of gravity among Jesus and the disciples.  However, it is questionable whether this should be the predominant tone, especially given the reality of the resurrection.  In Acts, meals are seen as glad experiences.  In 2.46, as mentioned earlier, the saints broke bread with “gladness”.  Even in the perhaps non-Eucharistic account of Paul’s “breaking of bread” for the passengers on the ship with him, the people are reported to have “been of good cheer”, encouraged after having eaten.  Certainly, in the coming marriage supper of the Lamb with his people, we will be called upon “to be glad and rejoice” (Rev 19.7) that this banquet has come, a time prophetically when Death will have been “swallowed” up forever (Isa 25).  At the same time, in most churches today, elements are quietly distributed to believers in hushed reverence, certainly a positive attitude, yet one wonders if this approach is fully consonant with the biblical intent of the Supper.  Regardless of whether the judgment of weakness/sickness/death in verse 30 is physical or spiritual in nature,  the reality of judgment should lend seriousness to the role of the Supper as a holy meal to be observed with reverence, yet in a spirit of joy.  Certainly, one can see a progression of intensifying condemnation here: weakness leading to illness leading to death (Origen held to misuse of the sacrament resulting in a progressive departure from the faith). Again, however, following through with the logic of my argument, the judgment comes upon those who are selfishly disregarding the unity of the body of Christ in their observance of the Supper.  It is not a condemnation of those who have failed to adequately confess their sins or prepared themselves by achieving an adequate state of holiness prior to partaking.

1Cor. 11:31 But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged. Thus, prior examination of attitude toward the meal is what is needed to prevent judgment from the Lord.

1Cor. 11:32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world.  There is much that could be said about this verse.  Of paramount significance is that God often executes discipline to keep his saint in a state of holiness.  Without such intervention, apostasy can occur.  This is in accord with the teaching of the epistle to the Hebrews.

1Cor. 11:33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  Finally, after hearkening to Jesus’ institution of the Supper and then speaking of the judgment that misbehavior will bring, Paul concludes by giving a final exhortation, emphasizing the immediate main point: don’t treat the Supper as your own private party.  Wait for all to arrive before proceeding with the meal.

1Cor. 11:34 If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that when you assemble it does not lead to judgment. I will give directions about other matters when I come.  Up till now, it seems clear that Paul’s main contention is the way in which the meal is being partaken of, rather than the occurrence of the meal at all.  However, at this point, many who hold to the abolition of the Lord’s Supper as a full meal see their basis in Paul’s admonition for the hungry to stay at home.  Notice that the admonition is singular, directed to an individual.  It is not a corporate instruction to cease the meal.  What Paul seems to be saying is that if one is so focused on personal hunger to the point of inconsideration of others, then it is better not to participate to excess and thus incur judgment.



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