Maybe you’ve heard a pastor give a warning before serving communion, advising against anyone taking part in an unworthy manner. It comes from the Bible:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. -1 Corinthians 11:27
If you have a sensitive soul, perhaps you’ve wondered, “am I doing this in a worthy manner?”
Then, when the pastor goes on:
That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. -1 Corinthians 11:30
Nobody wants that. In fact, my daughter asked me about this, genuinely concerned. And while most agree that it pertains to taking communion in a frivolous, carefree manner … it goes deeper.
To understand Paul’s letter, a bit of history is helpful. The people of Corinth were very pagan. Paganism = the world’s system. The world values the wealthy, powerful, physically attractive, strong …etc. It allows for the spiritual realm–to an extent–but insists that we can harness that power (through knowing the star’s alignment, incantations, karma, or doing good deeds or pleasing a priest). Granted, the supernatural is often permitted with a wink and a nudge. Just like today, most people think spiritual things are a bunch of hooey. But they’ll knock on wood. Just in case.
It turns out, Corinthians were not too different from Americans. They had dance clubs with loud music, food and alcohol … along with the sensual activity that resulted from the carousing. Of course, in Corinth, they referred to them as temples and the dancing was worship and so on. Fun fact: America holds music festivals that will erect pagan gods, symbols and the participants perform rituals that would fit right in with these ancient pagan temples.
Corinth was a wealthy city run by the Roman Empire with plenty of trade routes in and out. Because of this wealth, it boasted a magnificent temple to the Greek god Aphrodite (where we get the term aphrodisiac, a substance that makes you more inclined to physical intimacy–so, can you guess what might go on around there?).
Another important thing to remember is that when we talk about the ‘church’ at Corinth, we shouldn’t think of some steepled building with the brick-trimmed lighted sign that says “First Baptist Church of Corinth” with some witty phrase and service times.
No, nothing like that. This group, which Paul had helped bring together, met in homes. They sat on normal furniture and someone would teach them.
But in chapter 11, Paul addresses the “love feasts” in which each eats whenever they want, taking food with gleeful gluttony. Some even got drunk! Instead of the Lord’s Supper, they were sitting at the devil’s table! (1 Cor. 10:21).
Basically, they were treating Communion with Christ as they had the pagan festivals. It became about their pleasure, not remembering Christ’s sacrifice and proclaiming His death until He returns (1 Cor. 11:26).
Paul warns them in chapter 10 that they could be like the Israelites who died in the wilderness because they were idolaters–they looked for ceremony that appealed to their flesh. They demanded to have a god of their own making (the golden calf) and then had a feast. After eating, they rose up to dance and committed sexual immorality (1 Cor. 10:7-8).
But wait a minute … weren’t the Corinthians Christians? Surely, this must apply to born-again believers! And if that’s the case, then Paul is just trying to get their behavior under control. Correct their ‘backsliding.’
Not so fast.
The Israelites were “baptized” through the Red Sea, ate the spiritual food of the manna, drank the water from the Rock (Christ). Yet, they perished because of their idolatry (stemming from their unbelief). They regarded God as distant, unloving, uncaring, harsh and stingy. No matter what God did for them, they spurned Him and ran after the idols of their day. They believed the lie of Satan which tells us that God hasn’t, or won’t give us all we need, or deserve (and that Satan will).
Paul’s warning in chapter 10 is obvious–you Corinthians professed salvation (rescued from Egypt), were baptized (the Red Sea), received teaching (manna) and claim to have received the Holy Spirit (water from the rock) … yet you commit idolatry like the pagans.
This speaks to the ‘fruit’ of the person’s life! The love that flows from them. Is there evidence that they have repented from their sinful flesh and accepted the loving Lordship of Christ over them?
While many commentators attempt to make Paul’s warning about taking communion in an unworthy manner apply to born-again believers … that’s not the case.
He so much as says this in chapter 10 when he says that communion with the cup and the bread means all believers are one body in Christ. No division. We don’t mix the world’s idolatry with our worship of the Lord. We don’t indulge the flesh while claiming to honor Christ. Rather, we don’t seek our own good, but the good of our neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24).
Flipping back to chapter 11, note that Paul says that the person who takes part in the communion of our Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
The only people who would be guilty of His body and blood are those who are not in a covenant with Him.
Both Peter and Judas denied Christ after sitting with Him at the Last Supper. Yet, Peter repented and was reconciled. Judas regretted his betrayal, but never repented and was never reconciled. Peter’s sins were paid for by Christ. And while one can debate whether Judas’ sins were also paid for (yet he rejected that payment like he rejected Jesus’ call to him as ‘friend’), the fact remains, that he sat with the Lord in an unworthy manner as the betrayer (and was guilty of the body and blood, one might say).
There may be times true believers take light of communion (it’s routine!). But, those believers will see Paul’s warning and will repent, as Peter did. The unrepentant might regret the indiscretion, but never back up and make things right.
This is why Paul urges each one to examine himself/herself. We are to examine to make sure we are actually in the body! We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phillipians 2:12). We need to verify that we’ve repented, made Christ Lord, with nothing held back. We should scan our hearts to make sure we don’t think that we’re contributing any action that would add to or complete Christ’s redemptive work.
Then we should examine the work of the Spirit. Are we progressing in our likeness to Christ? Do we have fits of rage? We need to confess and repent of that. Do we fill our conversations with gossip and envy? We need to turn from that sin by the power of Christ. Do we carry a load of bitterness and pride? Drop that burden at the Cross and leave it there.
Finally, are we obedient to His word? And do we want to be obedient?
This is the examination, like a regular physical where every system is checked, blood is taken for tests, etc. Are we truly in Christ?
By His grace we find that we are, and we should respond in endless thanksgiving, adoring His nature of Justice, Grace and Love!
So, what does it mean to take communion in a worthy manner? There can be no doubt that one who would sooner betray the Lord than to surrender his life makes a mockery of the ordinance of remembering Christ’s payment for our sins.