The Lord’s Supper: Examine Yourself

1 Corinthians  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Believers dare not come to the table except with a repentant heart. “Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner,” as Paul puts it, “drinks judgment to himself.” That should be a sobering warning, especially when the apostle adds that because of this offense many have fallen ill or died. Any pastor who takes the Word of God seriously should never administer Communion without adequately warning partakers. Those who are unrepentant should flee the table rather than trivialize the sacred.
And God does not view this sacred act lightly. Pat Novak, pastor in a nonsacramental denomination, discovered this when he was serving as a hospital chaplain intern just outside of Boston several years ago.
Pat was making his rounds one summer morning when he was called to visit a patient admitted with an undiagnosed ailment. John, a man in his sixties, had not responded to any treatment; medical tests showed nothing; psychological tests were inconclusive. Yet he was wasting away; he had not even been able to swallow for two weeks. The nurses tried everything. Finally they called the chaplain’s office.
When Pat walked into the room, John was sitting limply in his bed, strung with IV tubes, staring listlessly at the wall. He was a tall, grandfatherly man, balding a little, but his sallow skin hung loosely on his face, neck, and arms where the weight had dropped from his frame. His eyes were hollow.
Pat was terrified; he had no idea what to do. But John seemed to brighten a bit as soon as he saw Pat’s chaplain badge and invited him to sit down.
As they talked, Pat sensed that God was urging him to do something specific: He knew he was to ask John if he wanted to take Communion. Chaplain interns were not encouraged to ask this type of thing in this public hospital, but Pat did.
At that John broke down. “I can’t!” he cried. “I’ve sinned and can’t be forgiven.”
Pat paused a moment, knowing he was about to break policy again. Then he told John about 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul’s admonition that whoever takes Communion in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself. And he asked John if he wanted to confess his sin. John nodded gratefully.
To this day Pat can’t remember the particular sin John confessed, nor would he say if he did, but he recalls that it did not strike him as particularly egregious. Yet it had been draining the life from this man. John wept as he confessed, and Pat laid hands on him, hugged him, and told John his sins were forgiven.
Then Pat got the second urging from the Holy Spirit: Ask him if he wants to take Communion. He did.
Pat gave John a Bible and told him he would be back later. Already John was sitting up straighter, with a flicker of light in his eyes.
Pat visited a few more patients and then ate some lunch in the hospital cafeteria. When he left he wrapped an extra piece of bread in a napkin and borrowed a coffee cup from the cafeteria. He ran out to a shop a few blocks away and bought a container of grape juice.
Then he returned to John’s room with the elements and celebrated Communion with him, again reciting 1 Corinthians 11. John took the bread and chewed it slowly. It was the first time in weeks he had been able to take solid food in his mouth. He took the cup and swallowed. He had been set free.
Within three days John walked out of that hospital. The nurses were so amazed they called the newspaper, which later featured the story of John and Pat, appropriately, in its “LIFE” section.[1]
What a story! It may be worth noting that I don’t think communion should be offered outside the context of the gathered church body, but nonetheless, the story offers us a modern day example of what appeared to be happening to the Corinthian church. The church had gathered and celebrated the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner and as a result many of them had been sick and some had even died. This is no archaic anecdote. This potential danger is not lost to the modern advanced era. We still have the dangerous potential to draw God’s discipline due to the mishandling of the Lord’s Supper.
Purpose Statement. Proper observance of the Lord’s Supper protects the church from judgment. This passage offers for us a problem, the consequences, and a solution to that problem. The problem was that they had come in an unworthy manner. The consequences were that they had been guilty of the body and blood of Christ and as a result had drank judgment onto themselves. The solution was, and continues to be, that they were to first examine themselves and then discern the body.

The Problem: Coming in an unworthy manner

The unworthy manner for the Corinthians. That which was a symbol of unity and was intended to produce unity was in fact producing disunity within the Corinthian church. The Corinthians, affected by the Roman culture in which they lived, apparently were practicing the normal dinner hierarchy. The wealthy and elite were dining on the best food and getting drunk on the best wine. The lower classes looked on with less. The poor with nothing. The death of Christ, symbolized in the bread and wine, forced everyone to stand on equal footing as redeemed sinners. Yet, in Corinth, not so much. There was elitism and disunity. Paul goes so far as to tell them, “it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” (1 Cor 11:20).
Note the corporate nature of the Corinthians unworthy manner. As a church, they were approaching the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner.
BRIAN VICKERS. The examining that Paul speaks of, the eating in an unworthy manner, and being guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, is immediately directed to the community and not just to each person as a private entity.[2]
A discussion on unworthiness must not be limited to a corporate dimension. If so, it would very well result in a lack of personal repentance and confession. While the emphasis may be on the corporate failure in the church in Corinth, this ought not lessen the personal examination. Paul does exhort them “let a person examine himself” (1 Cor 11:28).

The Consequences: Judgment

Guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord (vs. 27). However one interprets this statement, it is weighty. The verse is worded awkwardly for us. The NIV offers a translation that helps a little but still leaves it with some uncertainty as to the meaning. “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27 NIV). The question remains. What does it mean to sin against the body and blood of Christ?
Would you be offended if someone disregarded or treated disrespectfully the symbol of something you hold precious? For instance, I can’t imagine if Linda threw her ring down. Why? It’s just metal. No, it’s much more than that. It is a symbol or her commitment to me and her love for me. To disregard the symbol is to as well disregard what it stands for. Consider another illustration. How do you feel when someone burns the flag? Does that bother you? Why? It’s just material. But no, it’s more than that isn’t it? It is a symbol of something you cherish.
In a similar vein, it is an affront to Christ and his death on the cross when we take lightly or disrespect the symbols of his death, those being the bread and wine received at the Lord’s Supper. When we come in an unworthy manner, in a disrespectful manner, with no repentance, and causing division, we sin against Christ. “It’s just bread and wine!” No, it’s much more than that. It is a symbol and sign of something that we are to hold precious.
Drinks judgment on himself (vs. 29). This is why some are sick and have died. Some have taken these terms to refer to spiritual sickness. Maybe this is motivated by a desire to avoid concluding that our sin results in any type of physical harm. Regardless the motivation, there is nothing in the context to indicate that this is anything other than what it appears. Because the Corinthians were taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, some of them had become physically sick and others had even died.
This sickness and death refer to physical and earthly consequences. The consequences in no way extend to eternal judgment. The Corinthians were not in danger of losing their salvation but the warning is still quite dire. Participating in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner was dangerous for them. Is it dangerous for us in the same way? There is no reason to think otherwise. If we were to participate in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, we should take heed to the caution offered in this passage. There is no reason to think otherwise.

The Solution: Examine and Discern

HEIDELBERG CATECHISM QUESTION 81. Who are to come unto the table of the Lord? Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.[3]

Examine yourself (vs. 28).

What does it mean to examine? “put to the proof, test, discern, verify, examine before giving approval”[4] Let me begin to answer that by saying what it is not. Examining yourself is not determining whether or not you are worthy. You’re not. It’s not about you being worthy; it’s about coming in a worthy manner. No one is worthy. That is the point. If we were worthy, we wouldn’t need to come.
CALVIN. The best and only worthiness which we can bring to God, is to offer him our own vileness, and, if I may so speak, unworthiness, that his mercy may make us worthy . . . to humble ourselves, that we may be elevated by him; to accuse ourselves, that we may be justified by him . . .
Calvin goes on to say, and I summarize, that it would be ridiculous to require of those coming to the Lord’s Supper a perfection that would render the observance itself pointless and empty. It was not “instituted for the perfect, but for the infirm and weak, to stir up, excite, stimulate.”
If you struggled this week, you need the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a visible reminder of the forgiveness of sins. Therefore the only prerequisite for a believer, in coming to the Lord’s Supper, is an attitude of repentance. Consider. If you are unwilling to participate in the Lord’s Supper, you are in essence refusing the visible representation of Christ’s gracious work. The only time we should refuse to participate in the Lord’s Supper is when we refuse to repent of our sin. If we are unwilling to repent, the primary concern is not whether or not you are taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner but instead whether or not you are a believer.
Are you trusting in Christ alone for your salvation? Have you repented of your sin and continue to repent of your sin? If so, we are welcome at the Lord’s Supper.
When are we to examine ourselves? Let me take a moment to offer a pastoral exhortation specific to our church family. About a month and a half ago, we observed the Lord’s Supper in the fellowship hall prior to a shared dinner. I received quite a bit of feedback from that day. The setting was different. Music was different. Kids were active. It just wasn’t normal. One of the comments that I heard was that some people missed the formal time of examination that we typically have in the auditorium during the Lord’s Supper. A particular question has stuck with me since that day. When exactly are we to examine ourselves? Now, I don’t think we can draw some hard and fast conclusion, especially from the passage. Of course the passage ties the examination in the general context of the Lord’s Supper, but are we to have a formal time of examination during our observance or should it be sometime prior? Should you come to the service having already examined yourself? We have a time of confession at the beginning of each service. Could this be the appropriate time of examination?
You may wonder my conclusion. I don’t know that it necessarily matters. I would like to encourage you to be purposeful in preparing yourself for the Lord’s Supper (and even each church service) prior to coming. We do provide opportunities as well within the service to acknowledge and repent of sin in your life. My point, while we will likely keep a time of self-examination during the actual moments of the Lord’s Supper, we don’t necessarily need to. We should have already prepared ourselves by the time we get there.

Realize what you are doing: discern the body (vs. 29).

There are three possibilities. (1) Failing to discern between the sacramental presence of Christ in the bread and wine and the other ordinary elements. This would be the perspective of the Catholic Church and therefore would be a view we would reject based on the arguments given in last week’s discussion. (2) Failing to recognize the church as the body of Christ. This is more likely than the first. The passage does emphasize the importance of the church being aware of its members. As well, the fact that Paul writes, “discerning the body” and doesn’t include the blood could indicate that he is referring to the body of Christ. This view has much in its favor but it is probably not the likely interpretation. It doesn’t seem to best fit the context and meaning of “discerning.” Discernment carries the idea of “evaluating the difference between things discern, distinguish, differentiate.”[5] Is Paul admonishing them for not discerning the difference between the body of Christ and the elements of bread and wine? Unlikely. The third option is most likely the correct. (3) Failing to acknowledge or embrace the significance of that which the bread and wine signify, that being the death of Christ. They were coming together and partying. They failed to discern between their lavish meal and the serious and weighty observation of the Lord’s Supper. These two important elements, symbolizing the body and blood of Christ were getting lost in their selfish and extravagant party.
It is important that we recognize what we are doing when we come to the Lord’s Supper. This is no trivial matter. It’s not something we just tack on to the end of a service to meet up to some religious expectation or obligation. We are to come with a proper attitude of reverence and repentance.

Think of others: wait for one another (vs. 33).

Paul writes, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Cor 11:33). This verse is not really about waiting for one another but instead receiving one another. The context seems to indicate that they were present together, but were eating while the others were present and unable to eat. It’s not that they needed to wait for them to arrive, but instead graciously receive them when they were together.

The Emotion: Somber or Celebratory

What emotion do you feel when you come to the Lord’s Supper? Is your observance of the Lord’s Supper characterized by somber reflection and emotional weight, maybe even guilt and sadness? One author referred to it as a “Protestant version of medieval self-flagellation.”[6] And another. “If ever the tragedy of Calvary should engross the thoughts of the Christian to the exclusion of every other topic, it is when he sits at the table of the Lord. Then the death of his Lord should monopolize all the power of memory.”[7]
“The tragedy of Calvary.” The tragedy? Is it the tragedy of Calvary that we proclaim until the Lord returns (1 Cor 11:26)? If so, yes, this ought to be a somber time with a certain level of guilt and shame inherent within. But instead consider, what is being proclaimed in other places in the New Testament when the death of Christ is in view?
RAY VAN NESTE. It is not tragedy but hope! It is the fact that the death of Christ has made possible the forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, transference from being enemies of God to being children of God! What is proclaimed is good news, the gospel. We do wrong when our participation in Communion is a self-flagellating focus on tragedy. We do not gather merely to tell God we’re sorry He had to go through this. We are reminded of our sin and how far God in His love went to reach us, but the focus is on celebrating and giving thanks for God’s amazing grace.[8]
“The focus is on celebrating!” We even refer to this event as “the celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” yet it often falls quite short of any other type of celebration we experience.
We established that the purpose of this message was to better understand that the “proper observance of the Lord’s Supper protects the church from judgment.” Therefore, we will always come to this celebration in a very serious and examining tone, but once we have examined ourselves and discerned the significance of the event, celebrate the redemption and salvation accomplished in the event that this table symbolizes.

Additional Quotes

SPROUL. Because of this teaching, one of the strong principles that came out of the Protestant Reformation in reference to the Lord’s Supper is what we refer to as “the fencing of the table.” In some churches, before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the minister will warn people who are not members in good standing of an evangelical church that they should not participate in the sacrament. He will remind the congregation that the Lord’s Supper is only for Christian people who are truly penitent. There are even some churches that won’t allow you to participate in the Lord’s Supper unless you are a member of that particular congregation. If you’re a visitor you’re discouraged from participating even if you are a Christian.[9]
RAY VAN NESTE. The warning in v. 11 is against partaking in an unworthy manner, referring to the unrepentant self-centeredness of the Corinthians who were ignoring other members of the body. The warning does not apply to those who are struggling with sin but are looking to the cross in repentance, hating their sin and yearning to be pleasing to God.[10]
TABLETALK. Paul’s warning, then, should not be misconstrued to mean that really bad sinners are somehow unworthy to come to the Lord’s Table. Those are the only kind of people who are legitimate candidates. Worthiness is not to be found in some kind of supposed level of personal righteousness in the communicant. Rather, a sinner comes to the table “worthily” when he soberly remembers his sin and the great cost that Christ paid to redeem him from it.[11]
THISELTON. The syntax therefore implies not a sacrilege against the elements of the Lord’s Supper but answerability or being held accountable for the sin against Christ of claiming identification with him while using the celebration of the meal as an occasion for social enjoyment or status enhancement without regard to what sharing in what the Lord’s Supper proclaims.[12]
[1] Charles W. Colson and Ellen Santilli Vaughn, Being the Body (Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 116–17.
[2] Crawford and Schreiner, The Lord’s Supper., 322. [This chapter was written by Brian Vickers.]
[3] Heidelberg Catechism, Revised Edition (Cleveland, OH: Central Publishing House, 1907), 88–89.
[4] Spicq and Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (3 Vols.), 353.
[5] Timothy Friberg, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 110.
[6] Crawford and Schreiner, The Lord’s Supper., 362. [This chapter was written by Ray Van Neste.]
[7] J. M. Pendleton, Church Manual: Designed for the Use of Baptist Churches, Kindle Edition (Walking Through the Word, 2013), Kindle Locations 1003-1005.
[8] Crawford and Schreiner, The Lord’s Supper., 362–63.
[9] Sproul, What Is the Lord’s Supper?, 61.
[10] Crawford and Schreiner, The Lord’s Supper., 381.
[11] Tabletalk Magazine, November 2006: The Lord’s Supper (Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2006), 17.
[12] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 890.
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