1 Corinthians 11:17-12:26
First Corinthians 11-14 deals with problems in the services of worship at the church of Corinth. Verses 2-16 of chapters 11 addressed the question of women covering their heads while praying and prophesying in the service of worship. Problems with the Lord's Supper are treated in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Paul then moves on to the question of spiritual gifts and the exercise of prophecy, tongues, and interpretation.
Instructions on the Lord's Supper - 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Paul had introduced the subject of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 10:16-22. There he appealed to the meaning of the cup and the loaf as koinonia or shared commitment to and with Christ. After concluding his treatment of meat offered to idols and the problem of women not covering their heads in worship he returns to the subject of the communion meal. However, his treatment now addresses a problem in the way the Corinthians observed the Lord's Supper. Paul's response unfolds in three sections. Verses 17-22 describe the wrong practices. Verses 23-26 reviews the way Jesus began the communion practice. Verses 27-34 turns to the question of what becomes unworthy participation in the Eucharist meal.
Verse 17 stands in obvious contrast to 1 Corinthians 11:2. In verse 2 Paul declared that he praised the Corinthians with regard to their observance of the traditions he had taught them. Presumably he had the question of covering men's and women's heads while worshipping. Though there were a few exceptions - the object of Paul's teaching in verses 3-16 - most of the Corinthians deserved a compliment for how they followed the apostle's instructions on head coverings. With regard to his teachings about the Lord's Supper Paul was not able to praise the Corinthians.
The key word in verses 17-22 is "come together" or "assemble together" (the Greek expression is a single word). The Corinthians come together for worship but Paul describes it was being for the worse rather than for the better. Verses 18-19 repeat the idea of 1 Corinthians 1:10-11 but intensify the accusation. Verses 1:10-11 had spoken of divisions (schismata) and quarrels among the Corinthians. Verses 18-19 speak of divisions (schismata) and factions (haireseis) among them.
The word "faction" (hairesis) would even come to be the root word for "heresy." In New Testament usage it described those who destroyed the unity of the group to maintain their own separate identity. (It is interesting that the early church considered heresy anything upon which the church could not come to agreement.) The divisions described here in chapter 11 are not the same as the groups mentioned in chapter 1 ("I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas"). The problem - not mentioned specifically until verses 20-22 - is most clear at the Lord's Supper.
Verse 19 is another of the very difficult verses to interpret in 1 Corinthians. Chapters 1-4 had forcefully argued against divisions in the church. Now verse 19 not only seems to accept division but almost approves of it. The expression "there have to be" in the NRSV and NIV translates a Greek word meaning, "It is necessary." The word was often used by biblical writers of necessity caused by God. One can even paraphrase the Greek text of verse 19 to mean, "It is the will of God that there be factions. . . "
There are several explanations that scholars offer for such confusing words. The first and easiest is simply that Paul was being sarcastic. Given the contentious nature of the Corinthian church some believe Paul was saying, "What else is new? Of course Corinthians have to fight about the Lord's Supper, too!"
Most recent scholars, however, do not consider Paul's words in verse 19 to be sarcastic. Most refer to the teaching of Jesus found in Matthew 10:34-37 and one of the so-called "unknown sayings of Jesus." The writings of Justin Martyr, an early Christian philosopher who died about A.D. 165, and two more obscure early Christian works quote a saying of Jesus not found in the gospels. According to these three sources Jesus taught, "There shall be divisions (schismata) and factions (haireseis)." The fact that the exact same Greek words for the divisions and factions are used has caused several prominent New Testament scholars to believe that Paul was aware of this saying of Jesus that was not included in the gospels and was applying it to the Corinthians in verse 19.
The final part of verse 19 is also important to understand Paul's point. The divisions are necessary so it will become clear who among you are genuine." The apostle seems to be thinking in terms of the final testing process by which God will separate those who are approved and those who are rejected. Paul's point is that the divisions at Corinth are evidence that God has already begun the sifting of people that is part of the end of time. This interpretation is consistent with Paul's teaching in chapter 7 that people should not get married because of the nearness of the second coming of Christ.
Verses 20-22 define the problem. When the Corinthians gather to worship it is not really to eat the Lord's Supper. This is the only time the exact expression, "the Lord's Supper," appears in the New Testament. On the basis of the writings immediately after the writing of the New Testament scholars assume that every Christian worship service culminated in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
Thus, verse 20 does not mean that the Corinthians gathered for worship without participating in the Lord's Supper. Rather, the problem was that what they were doing could not be called the Lord's Supper. Verse 21 states that at the time of eating each one at Corinth was going ahead with his or her own supper. The result was that some were hungry and others were drunk. Verse 22 then accuses the Corinthians of humiliating those who have nothing. Paul's wording is not completely clear, but recent studies of social customs in the Roman world have led the most recent commentaries toward a new twist to the traditional understanding of the problem of the Lord's Supper here.
Scholars have long been convinced that originally the earliest Christians celebrated the Lord's Supper as the climax of a church meal. It was thought that the problem at Corinth was that the rich brought far more and better food for the church fellowship meal and some of the poor may not have been able to bring any. The rich then insisted on eating their own food and the poor had nothing; a pretty sorry excuse for a church fellowship meal.
Recent studies in social customs have helped us understand why this strange division along lines of rich and poor might have happened at Corinth. Since this was long before church buildings were built the Corinthians would have been meeting in the houses of the members. Even in the larger homes of that time the dining area would not have accommodated more than 15-20 people and the Corinthian church was larger than that number. It was the normal custom of first century Roman banquets to rank the guests by their social standing and seat the highest-ranking people in the dining room. People of lower rank were scattered throughout the rest of the house. Roman literature shows that it was not at all unusual for the highly regarded guests in the dining room to receive much nicer food than those in the other rooms.
Also, at the banquets the guests in the dining room were treated to ample servings of the finest wine while others were given a lower grade. Paul's complaint is that communion is not a private party held in the host's home. It is the Lord's Supper. Christ is the host and his customs must prevail not the social customs of Corinth. At the Lord's Supper everyone is treated alike because Christ does away with all the social distinctions that divided people of the first century (see Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11).
Some people have interpreted Paul's question in verse 22, "Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?" to argue against church kitchens, fellowship halls, and church dinners. However, there was no church building in Paul's time. His point is that they can host banquets or private meals in their own homes when the church is not meeting there. To treat the church like a private party is to despise or show contempt for the church and to humiliate the poor for whom Christ died. If the Corinthians think Paul will commend them on this issue they are wrong. He does not praise them.
Verses 23-26 provide us with the earliest written record of the Last Supper which began (instituted) the Lord's Supper. First Corinthians was written at least 10 years earlier than the date most scholars believe to be the date of the first gospel written. Furthermore, Paul states that he delivered to the Corinthians what he had received. The Greek words that he uses for "received" and "delivered" were technical terms for the reception of and passing on of oral traditions. But Paul states that he received this tradition from the Lord. The construction of the original language implies that Jesus was the ultimate source of the events described, but that others had passed the information on from Christ eventually to Paul.
Thus 1 Corinthians 11:23 describes the process by which the story and words of Jesus' last supper with his disciples were carefully told and re-told in the life of the church. Paul received this oral "package" of words and events and passed it on to the Corinthians. The time and place where this story was passed on was the communion portion of the worship service of the early Christians.
The context of the last supper was probably Jesus' final Passover celebration with his disciples. The portion of that Passover meal that has always been remembered by Christians is the time when Jesus took a loaf of bread, blessed it, broke it, and distributed it to his disciples. The natural meaning of the Aramaic expression for "this is my body," would be, "This signifies or represents my body." The breaking and distribution of the bread represent the breaking of Jesus' body in death. It is also a promise of the distribution of Christ's presence into the lives of every follower who partakes of the Supper. The words, "which is for you," echo Isaiah 53:12 which states that the Suffering Servant bore the sins for many.
The breaking of the bread is to be done "for a remembrance" of Christ. Within Greek culture a memorial was often given in honor of a dead person. In Hebrew thought remembrance made the deceased present and real again in the lives of those who remembered. The Lord's Supper does not memorialize a dead hero. It makes the presence and memory of Christ alive and real in our midst every time we celebrate the Eucharist.
Verse 25 describes the cup as taking place after the supper. This supports the common (and I believe correct) view that the last supper was part of a Passover meal. The blessing and breaking of the bread preceded the main meal. The third cup of blessing followed the main meal. Jesus interpreted the cup as signifying the new covenant accomplished by his blood. The reference to the new covenant portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34. This means that Jesus specifically saw himself as instituting a renewed community of faith. Paul's language regarding the blood is very general. It simply means that the new covenant is brought into being by Christ's death. The reality of the new covenant community arises from the death of Christ which is brought into a living presence by the observation of the Lord's Supper.
Verse 26 makes the significant point that the Lord's Supper proclaims Christ's death until he comes. Protestants have historically opposed frequent observation of communion for fear it would diminish the centrality of preaching. After 465 years of reacting against medieval Roman Catholic practice it is time for Protestants to acknowledge that Scripture itself describes the Lord's Supper as proclamation of the gospel.
Verses 27-34 have often been used for the purpose of "fencing" the table of the Lord. These verses speak of judgment and raise the question of unworthy participation in the Lord's Supper.
Taken out of context churches and ministers have been able to define unworthy participation however they wished and successfully bar the Lord's Table to any they did not want participating. In this way church membership or a certain lifestyle became the criterion by which one was allowed to take communion. In some instances the community or minister determined who was eligible. In others people were responsible to determine their own worthiness through self-examination. Highly sensitive Christians feared to go the table regardless of their Christian commitment. Others, impervious to guilt feeling would partake in spite of glaring spiritual deficiencies in their lives. Though this use of the passage has had some advantages (and disadvantages) it does not represent the meaning Paul had in the context of 1 Corinthians.
Verse 27 names the problem as eating and drinking in an unworthy manner. The KJV translated it as participating "unworthily." The frequent misunderstanding was that the question of worthiness applied to the person partaking. If worthiness were required no one could ever partake and the Lord's Supper could not be a means of grace. The context makes it clear that Paul regarded the Corinthian pattern of social discrimination against the poor as partaking unworthily.
Verse 29 describes the problem as eating and drinking without "discerning the body." The common understanding of "body" has been the physical body of Jesus, broken in the crucifixion and represented by the bread. However, the larger context also speaks of the "body" meaning the body of Christ, the church. This meaning fits Paul's flow of argument much better. Eating and drinking in social cliques and humiliating the poor was the Corinthian failure to discern the body of Christ. Paul had described that failure in verse 22 as "despising the church."
Paul offers the idea that considerable sickness and even some deaths within the church at Corinth can be attributed to their unworthy partaking of the Lord's table. There is no indication that Paul had particular people in mind that he thought God was punishing. Rather, a church that divides people according to their income and social status is not a church God will or can bless. It is not the kind of church that will pray intercessory prayers that free God to heal the sick. In fact, Paul states in verse 31, if we would stop excusing ourselves and acknowledge the conviction that should be present then God would not have to bring judgment upon us. God's judgment is not intended for our destruction but for our discipline so that when the final judgment comes we can be vindicated.
Paul's final instruction regarding the divisive cliques surrounding the Lord's Supper is for the Corinthians to "wait for each other." This is the most common translation of a Greek word that was used in Paul's time with a variety of nuances. The most likely meaning is that the Corinthians (and we) should welcome and receive one another at the Lord's Table with no distinctions based on income or status. Witherington (p. 252) points out that the Lord's Supper is not to satisfy hunger. It proclaims the central reality of the Christian faith - Christ's death. Christ died to serve and to become a ransom for the many (Mark 10:45). It would be the ultimate contradiction to observe that sacrificial death in a spirit contrary to servanthood.
What It Means to be Spiritual - 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40
The inappropriateness of women leading worship without a head covering and social exclusion of the poor at the Lord's Supper were the problems treated in chapter 11. Chapters 12-14 are devoted to another problem at Corinth that was especially manifested in the corporate worship of the church. The problem has been defined in several ways: confusion over spiritual gifts, abuse of the gift of tongues, disorderly worship, and the meaning of being spiritual people. Chapters 12 and 13 provide the ground Paul prepares before directly addressing the problem in chapter 14. Each section represents a building block in the argument that the apostle builds.
Spiritual Gifts and the Lordship of Jesus - 1 Corinthians 12:1-3
Paul begins the section with an acknowledgment that the Corinthians had written him about this problem. "Now concerning spiritual gifts" introduces another subject from their letter along the pattern of 1 Corinthians 7:1, 25; and 8:1. Verse 2 reminds the Corinthians that before their conversion they had been enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Paul's point is not at all clear to us. In light of the subject that will unfold it is probable that he is reminding them of their previous (and pagan) experience with "inspired speech" or "ecstatic utterances."
It is not well known today, but the pagan Greek religions made significant use of ecstatic utterances in a way very similar to the use in the "tongues" churches (whether of Corinth or of today). Thus Paul's opening warning is this. Since idols that cannot speak and who have a demon (1 Corinthians 10:20) were worshipped with ecstatic utterances, do not make such utterances the evidence of the work of God.
Verse 3 makes the same point with a specific example. Paul first states that no one speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can curse Jesus. This seems so obvious that it should not need to be said. The fact that it is stated has sent scholars in search of an explanation. Some suggest that Paul is simply creating a hypothetical example to show that content, not ecstasy is the real measure of the Spirit. In support of that view is the rather casual manner in which Paul introduces the cursing of Jesus, a concept we would not expect him to take lightly.
Against this view is the difficulty of explaining why Paul would create such a "blasphemous" illustration. Others have suggested these very words had been and were known by Paul to have been uttered in an ecstatic utterance spoken in a pagan temple. This view has the advantage of illustrating the warning of verse 2 that ecstasy is not a sign of the Holy Spirit. The difficulty of this view is that the Greek word for "cursed," (anathema) is used in a very Jewish way. Why would a Greek pagan speaking ecstatically in a Greek temple use a Jewish pattern of terms?
Others have argued that Corinthian believers "speaking in tongues" in church had actually uttered these words. This view fits the context well, but it hard to imagine Paul responding so casually if that had been the case. Regardless of the explanation one adopts the connection with verse 2 should not be lost. Ecstatic speech is not a reliable sign of the Holy Spirit.
The final half of verse 3 is also a bit difficult for modern people to understand. Paul declares that no one can say, "Jesus is Lord" except through the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit. Superficially this seems quite wrong. Anyone can pronounce the words. But Paul's point is the content of the words, not just their sound. If sounds are all that matter then "Jesus is Lord" on the lips of a believer is no different from "Jesus be cursed" on the lips of an unbeliever. Only the Holy Spirit can change a life so that Jesus really becomes the Lord of all for that person.
"Jesus is Lord" was probably the earliest Christian confession of faith. Only the Holy Spirit can enable a person to confess faith in Christ when that confession could easily lead to persecution and death. Thus Paul's point is that the content of a truly Christian life, not ecstasy is the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus any evidence of being spiritual or of spiritual gifts will need to proceed through the content of a person's life.
Diversity in Spiritual Gifts - 1 Corinthians 12:4-11
Verse 3 addressed the question of ecstatic utterances as evidence of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Verses 4-11 introduce the gifts of the Spirit. The key word for Paul is "diversity." No single gift of the Spirit is THE evidence of THE Spirit. Verses 4-6 root diversity in God himself. Verse 7-11 affirm similar diversity in the spiritual gifts.
Verses 4-6 are constructed in a similar pattern in the Greek text. Each verse begins with the word "diversities." Each verse follows with a noun referring to some activity of God. Each verse next has a Greek expression meaning "the same." Finally, each verse concludes with a reference to God, but each verse uses a different name for God reflecting the Trinity. Several conclusions follow. The emphasis on "the same" points to the unity of God. Whether one speaks of the Spirit, the Lord, or God, Paul's meaning is the same. There is one Spirit/Lord/God as Fee (p. 586) points out. These verses were written centuries before the Trinitarian debates in church history hammered out the meaning of God in "three persons."
Scholars do not agree on Paul's intention in mentioning the "gifts," "ministries," and "activities" or "effectiveness" in verses 4-6. Some argue that these three works are all ways of referring to one reality, the activity of God that Paul describes as "manifestations" in verse 7. Others see distinct meanings in the three words. Paul's point in verses 4-6 is that there is diversity in God himself even though he is one. The diversity within unity of God makes it clear that a diversity of spiritual gifts in the church must contribute toward the unity of the church and not become a point of division.
Verse 7 turns from the diversity within unity of God to the application of diversity in the life of the church. Each one in the church is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. The shift to the word "manifestation" is important. Spiritual gifts have no special character or value in themselves. They are only "spiritual" when they are actually expressions or manifestations of the Holy Spirit. The same activities could be expressions of demons or - in our culture - of humanitarian concerns. The character of the gift is dependent on the Spirit who gives and inspires it. The value of the gift is not inherent in the gift either. Its value is for the common good. Exercise of spiritual gifts for one's own benefit, advantage, or good feeling is a form of spiritual masturbation.
Verses 8-10 then list a series of spiritual gifts. The context suggests that Paul is not being exhaustive or prescriptive. That is, this list does not contain every single spiritual gift and one does not need to conclude that every item on this list is, in fact, a spiritual gift. Rather, the apostle's purpose is to illustrate the diversity of gifts. This can be seen by the fact that other gift lists in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30; 13:1-3; 14:6, 26; Romans 12:4-8; and Ephesians 4:11 are not identical to this list (nor to each other).
The first two listed here, the word of wisdom and the word of knowledge, clearly reflect concerns of the Corinthian church. We might suppose that the rest were also of considerable interest and discussion at Corinth. (Though it would not be unlike Paul to throw in at least one "wild card.") The two final gifts mentioned in this list are speaking in different kinds of tongues and the interpretation of tongues. Chapter 14 will show that these gifts to be Paul's real focal point.
Verse 11 concludes this section by affirming that each of these spiritual gifts is the product of the Holy Spirit. The Greek text can be almost transliterated to say that each gift is "energized" by the Spirit. The NRSV attempts to communicate that nuance when it translates, "All these are activated by the one and the same Spirit." Not only does the Spirit bring such gifts into reality, the Spirit also distributes or allots to each believer a gift or gifts as the Spirit chooses. Paul is continuing to emphasize diversity, but that diversity is not uncoordinated. Rather, the one and the same Spirit energizes and allots the gifts. One can only suppose that the Spirit has a goal to be accomplished by the end result of the distribution of gifts. Paul will develop that goal in chapters 13 and 14. For the present he shifts to another illustration of diversity in unity.
The Body Illustrates Diversity in Unity - 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
One of the most powerful illustrations of diversity in unity is the human body. The various body parts are quite diverse, but none is able to function apart from the body. Verse 12 introduces the comparison between the diverse yet one human body and the church. Paul describes the church as the body of Christ. Verse 13 mentions just a few of the diverse parts of Christ's body. Jews and Greeks as well as slaves and free are mentioned. Galatians 3:28 adds male and female to the diversity list. Colossians 3:11 adds barbarians and Scythians. As in the case of gifts in verses 8-10 the point is not to list every possibility but to give a general idea. The church is incredibly diverse. Yet Christian baptism joins our incredible diversity into one body. At the Lord's Supper we drink the cup from one Spirit.
Verses 14-26 then apply the illustration in two directions. The first application is that over-emphasis on any single spiritual gift destroys the important diversity of the body. Diversity is necessary for the body to function in a healthy manner. To define the whole body as an eye or the ear is ridiculous. The Corinthians (and we) must avoid making one or another spiritual gift the defining essence of what it means to be a Christian. To define a true Christian as one who speaks in tongues is as ridiculous as defining a body as only an ear. To demand the gift of faith for every Christian is as unbalanced as seeing the body as only an eye. All of the gifts are necessary for the body to be whole and healthy.
Secondly, Paul uses the body metaphor to urge that no one be seen as less important than someone else. In the body every part is important. Verses 22-26 offer plenty of opportunity for confusion. However, the main message is quite clear. Some parts of the body that we regard as lacking honor are absolutely essential for our survival. The body parts that we cover for the sake of modesty are not disgusting; we cannot survive without them. The evaluation that we make of our body parts - under the influence of the surrounding culture - needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
From Paul the Jew this is not an argument for nudity. Rather it is a pointed reminder that devaluing brothers and sisters in Christ because they do not measure up to societal expectations is wrong. To put down another believer because of economics, style of dress, IQ, social graces, athletic ability, or any of a number of cultural values devastates the health of the body of Christ.
It is easy to put down the Corinthians for their failures in this area. It is more difficult for us to live out the body of Christ theology with integrity and consistency in our churches. American individualism has exaggerated our sinful nature's tendency to turn in on ourselves. Full salvation is not full if it does not lead us to profound concern and respect for each other in the body of Christ that we experience in our culture and in our local church.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.
First Day: Read the notes on 1 Corinthians 11:17-12:26. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant.
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application for your life. Describe how it applies to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you discern, appreciate, and live out the meaning of the body of Christ.
Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 12:1-31. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 12:27-31.
1. Compare the spiritual gifts lists here with the lists found in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; Romans 12:4-8; and Ephesians 4:11. What gifts (if any) are common to every list? What conclusions do you draw about gifts from these lists?
2. On the basis of these lists what gift(s) do you think you have? What contribution does your gift (and thus you) make to the whole body of Christ?
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you 1) identify your spiritual gift(s), 2) feel confident about them, and 3) use them for the upbuilding of the body of Christ.
Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.
1. What do the focus verses say about the importance of spiritual gifts? Paraphrase what Paul might have said to communicate the same truth with regard to your spiritual gift(s).
2. Paraphrase verses 1-2 using contemporary illustrations to reflect how you think these verses should be applied today.
3. What do each of verses 1-3 say about motivation? What are some false motivations that could lead a person to take the actions described in verse 3? How can we tell whether one's motivation is really love?
Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
1. Take the statements of verses 4 and 5 and describe how they would apply in one of the important relationships of your life.
2. Take the statements of verses 6 and 7 and describe how they would apply in one of the important relationships of your life.
3. Who has come the closest to living out these verses toward you personally? What factor(s) enabled that person to demonstrate such love for you? What changes do you need to experience to demonstrate this kind of love for others?
Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.
1. What is taught about eternity in verses 8-10? How does that help you apply 1 Corinthians 12:31 to your own life?
2. On the basis of verse 11 and your own experience, what role does maturity have in one's ability to love? Describe how mature love differs from childish love.
3. What does verse 12 teach you about Christian hope? What are some of the things you "see in a mirror dimly" now that you someday hope to see more clearly. Claim God's promise for that.
Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 Now focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.
1. Try to summarize 1 Corinthians 13 in your own words, using no more than 25 words.
2. How does 1 Corinthians 13 help you understand John 3:16? How does John 3:16 help you understand 1 Corinthians 13?
3. What is the most important truth of 1 Corinthians 13 for you? Why is it so important? What spiritual growth is the Holy Spirit calling for from you out of this chapter?