Paul and the Lord’s Supper

Paul and the Lord’s Supper

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a gifted Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas.

This is Dr. Johnson’s fourth and final study in his instructive and edifying series on the Lord’s Supper,

Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34


We have said often that the Lord Jesus left the church two ordinances to observe until He comes again. He left the church the ordinance of baptism, which emphasizes one’s initiation into the church, the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13). And He left the church the Lord’s Supper, which emphasizes one’s continuation, or one’s life, in the body.

There is a clear parallel between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover. In the Passover we have a memorial of physical deliverance from the thraldom of Pharoah and Egypt through the blood sacrifice of the lamb. In the Lord’s Supper we have a memorial of spiritual deliverance from the power of sin and Satan by means of the blood sacrifice of the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. In the former service we have that which was to be done until He should come in His first coming, while in the latter service we have that which was to be done until He shall come in His second coming. In both, then, there is an anticipation of the future.

The Lord’s Supper, we have also said, is to be the highlight of the corporate worship of the church. In our day that place belongs ordinarily to the sermon in evangelical churches. In Troas, when the Apostle. Paul was there, pride of place seems to have belonged to the Lord’s Supper. Luke describes the meeting in this way, “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow, and continued his speech until midnight” (Acts 20:7). The sermon is important on this occasion, for Paul preached to them for a lengthy time, but the purpose of the meeting is expressed as “to break bread.” One gets the impression that it was primarily for this purpose that they came together in the meeting. In confirmation of this is the fact that the Lord’s Supper is the only act of worship for which the Lord gave special direction.

We have in this series looked at the first and last Passover, and the first Lord’s Supper. In this study we turn to consider the contribution of the Apostle Paul to the subject. That contribution is found preeminently in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

The Indignation of Paul

In the opening paragraph of the section the apostle expresses his indignation at the disorderly things that have taken place at the Corinthians’ observance of the Lord’s Supper in their church meetings. Evidently there were two distinct groups in the church, the rich and the poor and, further, the rich were sharing only some of their food with the poor in their love feasts (cf. . v. 21). In those days it was the custom to meet in homes and have a common meal together, after which they observed the Lord’s Supper as is described in 1 Corinthians fourteen. Since it is likely that there was a distinction in the quality of the food, the rich developed the habit of eating before the poor members arrived. The result was that they were well-fed and often drunk with too much wine, the common table beverage, while the poorer brethren were hungry and thirsty. It was, of course, a clear case of lovelessness for their brethren.

The apostle reproaches the disorderly ones with these words, “What? Have ye not houses to eat and drink in? Or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I praise you not” (cf. v. 22).

The Review of Past Instruction

The ceremony of the bread (1 Cor. 11:22-24). The “for” of verse twenty-three justifies his rebuke. In other words, the Apostle says, you must have forgotten what I told you about the Lord’s Supper. It was the Lord who gave me instruction concerning the proper observance of that feast. You must have forgotten His Words, for your present action is contrary to them.

Paul then refers to the occasion of the first Lord’s Supper, which was the night in which He was betrayed. The word translated “betrayed” in the Authorized Version is a word that means literally to hand over. The reference here is probably to the work of Judas in the betrayal of the Lord. What is striking about the Word is that it is also used of the action of the Son and of the Father in the death of Christ. For example, it is said that the Lord Jesus gave Himself over to death in Galatians 2:20. That text, of course, illustrates the fact that the death of the Lord Jesus was a voluntary death. He handed Himself over to death in submission to the Father’s will. And, further, it is also said in Scripture that the Father handed Him over. For example, in Isaiah 53:10 we read, “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him.” And in Psalm twenty-two David speaks typically of Him in the words, “Thou hast brought me into the dust of death” (v. 15). The Father is the ultimate actor in the death of Christ, just as Peter says in Act 2:23, “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” In that text we have the proper wedding of the divine foreordination and foreknowledge and human responsibility.

We often in our meetings sing a stanza that lays stress on the Father’s ultimate relation to the death of Christ:

“Jehovah lifted up His rod —
O Christ, it fell on Thee!
Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God;
There’s not one stroke for me.
Thy blood beneath that rod has flowed:
Thy bruising healeth me.”

The death of Christ was the key event in the working out of the eternal plan of the Father for the glorification of His Name in redemption.

Paul says that He “took bread” in the night in which He was betrayed. The bread was distributed first since it emphasized the incarnation, the taking by our Lord of human nature for the performance of the will of God.

The wine emphasized the death which He died for the ratification of the New Covenant.

The breaking of the bread was designed to point on to the death that He would die.

The words, “this is my body,” are words over which a great deal of disagreement has raged. It is, of course, not possible in such a short paper as this is to deal with that adequately, but I would like to simply set out the various views that have been expressed most widely.

(1) First, there is the Roman Catholic view of the real presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine, which is called transubstantiation. According to Roman dogma, when the priest says, hoc est corpus meum, the substance of the bread and wine is converted into the substance of the very flesh and blood of Christ. The appearances, or accidents, of the bread and wine remain (the shape, size, color, taste, etc.), but the substance is transformed, and the senses are to be denied. As Cyril of Jerusalem put it, “Judge not by the taste, but by the faith.” The Council of Trent pronounced a curse upon all who do not receive this teaching.

The principle support to which Romanism appeals is the use of the copula, “is,” and it is taken in the sense of identity of substances (cf. Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). The verb to be, however, often means signifies, as any lexicon will indicate, and that is its meaning here. Illustrations of this usage are found in such passages as John 8:12, 10:9, Revelation 1:20, and Matthew 13:38. Further, in the very next verse, the verb is found in the clause, “This cup is the new testament in my blood,” and the “is” here is not that of identity, as good exegetical judgment indicates. And, in addition, how can our Lord with His body hold the bread and call that His body? That would indicate that there were two bodies of the Lord there at the same time. And, finally, the Lord still calls the substance “bread” after the words of institution (cf. vv. 26-28). No, “this is my body” cannot be taken as an instance of transubstantiation.

Not all Romanists have understood the Supper as the Council of Trent. The Spanish priest Maldonado said, “Do not prepare your teeth and your belly for it, but believe in Him, and you have eaten Him” (italics mine). He understood the words in a symbolic fashion.

Rome, of course, is inconsistent in forbidding the wine to the laity in the light of their views of John 6:53, but they meet this with their doctrine of concomitance, namely, that the body and the blood are knit together. Thus, if one eats the bread, he also drinks the wine. In this way they correct and improve upon our Lord’s teaching, although He expressly said that “all” were to drink of the wine (cf. Matt. 26:27). That statement seems almost providentially made to forestall the very interpretation that Rome has put upon the drinking of the wine.

(2) Second, Lutherans have contended that the true body and blood of Christ are present in, with, and under the bread and wine. Their view has been called consubstantiation. Christ’s human nature was considered to be ubiquitous, and He was considered to be present with the bread and wine. The advantage of the view is that it is harmonious with the literal view of the bread and wine, but does not make necessary a change in the substance through words of institution. It, however, rests upon doctrine that is unbiblical, for our Lord’s human nature is not ubiquitous, and the word “is” can hardly mean to accompany, which the view seems to require.

Third, one brand of the Reformed have held that Christ was spiritually present, in His entire person, both body and blood, in the Supper. A life-giving and edifying influence is communicated to the partaker, who partakes in faith of the elements. There is probably an element of truth in this view, although the memorial aspect of the Supper is not stressed sufficiently, it seems to me.

Fourth, finally, another branch of the Reformed, together with others with evangelical faith, have maintained that the Supper is a memorial of the saving work of Christ. Christ is present in the Supper to the faith of the believer, and the word “is” means simply signifies. This view does more justice to the text, providing it does not stress the human side of the ceremony so much that the divine initiative in redemption is lost sight of. We must remember that the elements are pledges of the divine saving initiative in our salvation, and all of our remembrance is simply a remembrance of what He has done for us and not of what we have done. He gives always; we only receive. Our reflection in the Supper is always of that.

The two elements are a twofold parable of the saving work, and they say most emphatically, “I must die sacrificially,” is you are to have life.

The words, “broken for you” (cf. v. 24), are literally simply for you, although some of the manuscripts do read broken for you. The words broken for you would be sacrificial in sense, the breaking being that of death, not of broken bones (cf. Exod. 12:46; John 19:31-37).

The words, “this do,” are in the present tense and refer to that which is to be done constantly, or frequently. They speak of the compulsory nature of our participation, and of the fact that the Supper is to be frequently observed by the body of Christ (cf. Acts 2:42, 46). Yet there is no legalistic expression of our obligation. It is not said that it is a sin to miss the observance of the Lord’s Supper upon occasion. It should be frequently observed as an expression of gratitude and devotion to Him who loved us and gave Himself for us (cf. Jer. 2:32; Isa. 49:14; Acts 2:46, “gladness”).

The words, “in remembrance of me,” may be an allusion to Moses at the Passover. They are to forget him, but from now on remember the Lord Jesus Christ. The “Me” is a reference to Him in His character as the One who died for us (cf. v. 26).

The ceremony of the wine (1 Cor. 11:25-26). In the ceremony of the cup some of the same ideas of the divine initiative in our salvation are found. For example, we read, “After the same manner also he took the cup.” While the verb “took” is not found in the original text, it clearly is to be supplied from the preceding verse, and it connotes the same emphasis as there. The taking of the cup by the Lord suggests the voluntary action in His death.

“This cup is the new testament in my blood” is a most important statement. William Barclay paraphrases it in this way, “This cup is the new covenant and it cost my blood.”1 The words take the reader back to the promises of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 with their great stress on grace. In contrast to the Mosaic Covenant with its “thou shalt,” this covenant is filled with the “I wills” of the Lord God. One covenant is to be written on stones, but the other on the fleshy tablets of the heart. The promises of the latter covenant are grounded in the promise of the forgiveness of sins, which makes them all possible.

Everything in our Lord’s ministry led up to that which procured the forgiveness of sins set out in the New Covenant, a covenant ratified in His death on Calvary’s cross. The atonement accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ is no afterthought, but the well thought out plan drawn by the Trinity in the counsels of ages past. The cup of wine, suggestive of the bloodshedding of a violent sacrifice, is the visible token, the guarantee, the seal of “your sins and iniquities I will remember no more” (cf. Jer. 31:34). What a blessing to those whose cry is, “Woe is me, for I am undone,” to hear from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ, “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (cf. Isa. 6:5; Matt. 26:28). “Your sins and iniquities I will remember no more” comes to fruition in the sacrifice of God’s Lamb.

It is necessary to remind ourselves of the fact that Jesus did not partake of either the bread or the wine. In fact, according to Luke 22:17 He said, “divide it among yourselves.” All is in accordance with His deity: He needs no remedy for sins, since He had none.

It is sad to think that it is necessary to have Him ask us to do this in remembrance of Him, but it is necessary. We are so forgetful of the blessings we have received from our great Triune God. “Can a maid forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire?” Jehovah asks through Jeremiah, adding, “yet my people have forgotten me days without number” (2:32).

In the twenty-sixth verse reason is given for remembering Him in the Supper. As often as we eat the bread, and drink the cup, we proclaim His death till He comes. The Supper is, therefore, an acted sermon preached to all. The word translated “show,” in the Authorized Version is one that means to proclaim, or to preach. Thus, the Lord’s Supper is a preaching service.2

In the Supper there is truth that has past significance (cf. vv. 24-25), present significance (cf. v. 26), as well as future significance (cf. v. 26). In the Supper, then, we look back, and out, and forward!

The Application to the Corinthians

The “Wherefore” of verse twenty-seven introduces the application, a consequence of the instruction. The word “unworthily” does not refer to the person of the one partaking, but to the manner of his partaking. All are unworthy always. To a woman who was reluctant to accept the elements Rabbi Duncan, the famous Scottish preacher and professor said, “Tak’it, woman, tak’it. It’s for sinners.” To be irreverent toward the body and blood of Jesus is to eat and drink unworthily. Verse twenty-seven finds further explanation in verse twenty-nine, where “not discerning the body” is probably to be understood in the sense of “not discerning the body and blood,” and not in the sense of a reference to the church, the body of Christ.3

The proper alternative to the irreverence is self-judgment, and Paul refers to that in verse twenty-eight. Incidentally, the word “damnation” in the Authorized Version of verse twenty-nine is better rendered by judgment, as most of the modern versions do. The important point is the necessity of preparation before participation. The reflection upon our trust in Christ, our present life in Christ, and especially our view of the meaning and significance of the elements are aspects of our meditation around the communion table. We have title to the communion table by virtue of our conversion to Christ, but our enjoyment of our right is related to our spiritual life’s vitality.

Judgment had already come upon some of the believers in Corinth “for this cause,” that is, for abuse of the Lord’s Table. In fact, some had committed sin unto physical death and already slept in Christ (the verb koimao, “sleep,” when referring to death, always refers to the death of believers (cf. John 11:11, 12; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor. 15:16, 18, 20, 51, etc.).

In the final words of the chapter the apostle points out that the preventive is to judge ourselves rightly (cf. v. 31). Even God’s judgment, however, is not eternal; it is designed to be family discipline, a “chastening of the Lord,” to prevent being “condemned with the Lord” (cf. vv. 31-32). In this last statement the apostle uses the strong katakrino, which does mean to condemn in an eternal sense.

The concluding words are a practical appeal to the Corinthians to remember the unity of the body in their observance of the feast. And as for the rest of the injunctions he has in mind, Paul says he will attend to them when he visits them (what were they?).


May I close on the following notes. First, the Lord’s Supper is an observance with divine authentication, traced to an historical inauguration by the Lord, and followed by apostolic corroboration by Paul. In the light of our Lord’s moving, “do this in remembrance of Me,” who would not want to give primacy to the service in which we worship and commune with him over that in which we listen to man’s voices? As we sing,

“Here, O my Lord! I see Thee face to face;
Here would I touch and handle things unseen;
Here grasp with firmer hand th’ eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon Thee lean!”

And second, reflect upon the fact that He said, “take, eat,” and “drink ye all of this,” signifying that we are not only to remember, but to receive spiritual food from the communion as we meditate upon Him.

When her young relatives reached home after a communion service, an old Scotchwoman was wont to enquire of them: “Did you meet anyone in the service?” and, if on their part the attempt was made to lessen the directness of the appeal by the mention of various neighbours who had been met, she would repeat with gentle insistence, “Yes, I know about these, but did you meet anyone in particular in the service?” The aged Christian woman thought of the Lord’s Supper as a trysting-place for the soul and its Lord.4 How appropriate!

1 William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Philadelphia, 1956), p. 115.

2 I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids, 1980), p. 113.

3 Ibid., p. 114.

4 R. J. Smithson, The Feast of Remembrance, p. 27.