1st Corinthians 11:27 – 12:3
As I was preparing this post, I kept bumping into thoughts that seem to have their genesis earlier in the Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The first Greek phrase in verse 1 of chapter 12 is “Περὶ δὲ τῶν πνευματικῶν” which means roughly “About now this spiritual.” The challenge as you read the Greek is that the order of the words is not that important and they can have more than one meaning. “ὲ” for instance, can mean now, but, or and, depending on the context. It is a conjunction that is coordinating or continuative. So we have a conjunction that tells us that the ideas contained in chapter 12 are coordinating or continuative of what we just read in chapter 11. In our English bibles, especially with the chapter break coming right here, it looks as though Paul has changed course and is now going to address something completely different. I do not think that is the case, and we might profitably interpret that first phrase of chapter 12 to be, “And about these spiritual things I do not want you to be ignorant.” “These spiritual things” start with communion done properly then and move into what we call spiritual gifts. All of which means that for us to understand properly what Paul has written in chapter 12, we have to look back at chapter 11.
The eleventh chapter of 1st Corinthians presents many challenges. The interpretations of this chapter are many and varied, resulting in radically different doctrines and practices. This one passage could be a great case study in the ramifications of beliefs. In Reformed circles, there is a predominant interpretation of the passage that says that Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to examine their own sin to determine whether they are worthy of taking the Lord’s Supper. From this understanding has sprung the practice in some Reformed churches of having two levels of church membership: baptized members and worthy receivers or those who are sufficiently without unconfessed sin to take communion. I believe that those who feel they have reached this plateau present themselves to the elders who then judge whether this person truly is worthy to receive communion. This stems from a certain understanding of the words “examine himself” in verse 28 and “discerning the Lord’s body” in verse 29, which opens another whole can of worms.
The English words “discern the Lord’s body” are translated from the Greek words, διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα. Διακρίνων in the active voice means to perceive or to understand. Homer used the passive form to talk about pulling apart combatants in a battle, and σῶμα is simply the body. We use the word in English when we say that someone has a psychosomatic illness; their psyche causes a problem in their soma rather than a virus making their body sick. The word “Lord’s” may have been added by translators for clarity, and we assume that to be a good and necessary conclusion, but there is no indication in the text of this verse that the body referred to is the physical body of Jesus or his church body.
My thesis is that the wider context of chapters 11 and 12 makes it pretty clear that the body to which Paul refers is the church. He told the Corinthians in 6:15 that “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not!” Their individual bodies are members of Christ’s body and are therefore holy. In 10:17 he said, “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” So when he gets to chapter 11 and says that the Corinthians were getting sick and dying because they didn’t perceive the body, there is very good reason to believe that he meant the body of Christ as the church.
He describes what they have done as eating and drinking unworthily. The behavior that is condemned we can see in verses 21 and 33: they ate like pigs and got drunk without taking into account their poor brothers. In doing so, Paul told them that they were despising the church of God. In other words, they were attempting to worship God just as they had worshipped demons in the temples of the idols. Communion is all about the fellowship we enjoy with one another in Christ Jesus. We fellowship with one another in and through his broken body and shed blood, not because we are worthy of anything. Using communion as a reason to divide the congregation of the Lord Jesus seems to me to be among the worst possible actions we could take.
Just as importantly, it was not by not reverencing or worshipping the elements of the supper that the Corinthians got sick and died; it was because they were ignoring their brothers. It seems clear to me that there is no way we can reasonably deduce from 1st Corinthians to revere and worship the elements as holy in and of themselves. The Corinthians were ignoring their Christian brothers in communion, which did indeed have deadly results.
The 11th chapter of Corinthians is all about the unity that should be in the church, and two little Greek letters – delta and epsilon – tell us that unity is also the main idea in chapter 12. Paul sets out here to explain how God gives us spiritual gifts to promote and build up the unity of the church. The “spiritual things” include communion, done in the right way. He was warning them that there was a spiritual aspect to their communion. In our day, some understand that spiritual aspect to be either a sort of personal sinlessness or a Platonic way to have the actual blood and flesh somehow present in the bread and wine. There is indeed sinlessness in communion, but it is all of Jesus. There is flesh and blood present as well, but it is the flesh and blood of the brother sitting next to you. The spiritual link is one that attaches you to your brother and to Jesus in a way that God considers a life and death necessity.
Paul’s reference to the “Jesus is Lord” statement is meant to remind them of what he said back in chapter 10 when he was talking about their participation in ceremonies devoted to idols. Because they were joined to Christ, they could not go and join themselves to an idol through the communion service at the local temple of Diana. Participation in Christian communion is confessing that Jesus is Lord. Participation in idol worship – communing with devils – is calling Jesus accursed.
All of that brings me to say that Communion works spiritually in the same way that a word of knowledge or wisdom works. Breaking bread and drinking wine with one another is operating on the same principle as healing or prophecy. I say that because these things are functions of the Holy Spirit. They are ways in which he interacts with us in fellowship. The fellowship is not a tool or a means to some other end; it is his goal: his unity imposed on our diversity. Of course our problem with all of this is that the fellowship is unfortunately not our goal. I think that is one of the reasons we keep trying to make communion about something other than fellowship.
That is equally true with what we typically do with spiritual gifts. These gifts are explicitly given to us for the edification of those around us. Just as the food of the Lord is supposed to nourish the bodies of all believers in the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts are to feed them as well. What is our typical reaction? We get proud of what we are able to do. I am not just talking about the charismatic-type gifts, either. How many do we know that are given the gift of understanding doctrine, but they use that gift not as a tool to build up their brothers but as a club with which to beat them? The glorious truth of the scriptures becomes a good reason in our eyes to break the very fellowship that truth was given to build up.
God is calling us to true fellowship, true unity. Fellowship and unity based on the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ; fellowship and unity fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father.