Christians usually are advised to examine themselves in preparation for the communion based on the passage in 1 Corinthians 11, but most assuredly the passage they should base it on is Matthew 26 which recorded what is known as The Lord’s Supper, which in turn should be understood from the context of the Passover.
17On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 18He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’” 19So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover. 20When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. 21And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?” 23Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” 25Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.” 26While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:17-30)
This passage along with another passage in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 are regularly used to prepare the congregation prior to their receiving of the communion bread and wine. There are a few points of emphasis in these passages but perhaps the main focus is placed on “unworthy manner”, “self examination” and “judgement”:
27So 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. 28Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)
I had always thought this was the right way to prepare myself for communion for decades before I came to a full grasp of law and grace that encouraged me to take another look at it from the whole context. No wonder communion Sunday was for me such a mixture of a heavy heart and a longing for deliverance that was never realized.
We’d be all standing up while the Corinthians passage is read, then following its admonition we’d examine ourselves to see if we’re now worthy to receive the Lord’s body and blood. There is no need for any explanation, we each would summon our internal judge, our conscience, during this time of quiet reflection, to evaluate our worthiness before we receive the communion articles. It’s not clear what we’ve done during the week, perhaps for an average Christian we’ve done nothing out of the ordinary except getting up in the morning to prepare and then go through the challenges of the day in family and in the workplace. Just mundane and routine stuff. But if they feel these mundane and routine stuff is less than what they think is the Lord’s will for their lives, then guilt begins to take hold, which would explain how many feel before the communion: We’re unworthy. No matter which way you look at it, you end up feeling unworthy, but you receive the communion anyway while hoping this act of eating the bread and drinking the grape juice would provide a certain amount of relief for your sin-sicked soul.
But this is a wrong application of the Corinthians passage. Paul wrote this passage to address an issue of bad conducts of some folks who come to eat together without concern for others. Let’s read from the passage that just precedes the call for the communion receivers to examine themselves:
“20So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!” (1 Corinthians 11:20-22)
It’s easy to see that the self examination has nothing to do with anything other than the immediate act of the receiving of communion. But one may ask: What about sins during the days, or weeks, leading to communion Sunday? The answer will be that we must trust that the Lord will work with the individuals in His time and according to His way in His infinite wisdom, all we know is the issue with communion in this context is just what we read from the passage. As a matter of fact, this passage should not even be read during communion today as it’s unlikely that people will fight for the little chip and a little cup of grape juice to warrant such exhortation.
Now with the issue of self examination and worthiness concerning communion out of the way, we can focus on the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper with the hope that a proper understanding will gladdens our hearts as we’re wonderfully reminded of what great thing Christ has done for us.
The Lord’s Supper is in essence the Passover observance as we read in verse 18: “My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house. (Matthew 26:18)” However this Passover now has a different New Covenant meaning as we shall see.
God gave the Isrealites a commandment to remember the bondage they had when they were still in Egypt and how He delivered them and brought them to the promised land. In this Passover observance a lamb which must be unblemished must be specially chosen to be offered as a sacrifice, and it must be consumed following a strict guideline. The Passover must be observed on the 14th day of the month in the Jewish calendar which was based on the barley harvest and the day of the most recent full moon and was different from year to year. Anyone who missed this day must return to Jerusalem on the 14th day of the following month to observe the festival. This is a very important commandment that must be observed by everyone in Israel in Jerusalem or they will be cut off from the nation for the rest of their lives, and it must be observed only in Jerusalem.
There is much more that can be that can be said about the historical background and meaning of the Old Covenant Passover which would help us appreciate much more the meaning of the New Covenant version of it that is either known as the Lord’s Supper or the Communion that Christian churches observe periodically. However the main goal of this writing is to point out misinterpretations and misapplications of the Lord’s Supper that create much confusion and deprive the joy of salvation that should have been brought forth from the observance of this blessed event.
Under the Old Covenant
The name Passover describes the event surrounding the tenth plague after which the Egyptian Pharaoh capitulated and set his captives free. On the night of this tenth plague when the Lord would have unleashed his wrath upon Egypt to take away all their first born sons, the Israelites were instructed to apply lamb’s blood above every door that leads into their homes in which case the Lord would passover them and they would be spared. But for the Egyptians:
“About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.” (Exodus 11:4–6)
Under the New Covenant
Now the blood that sets us apart from the world is not one of ordinary lamb, but of the Lamb of God, and though it does not spare us of physical death, it gives us eternal life through the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:13-14)
What’s the difference?
Though the Old Covenant’s blood blessed the Israelites, or those who lived under the law, in the flesh by sparing them physical death, the New Covenant’s blood gives them life everlasting. The old only made them ceremonially and outwardly clean, the new actually made it possible for us to serve God. The shedding of the old blood must be continually repeated while the new blood is shed once for all for the sins of the whole world.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. (Hebrews 10:11)
But when this Priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:12)
Do you notice a critical difference between the Old and the New in how sins are taken away? No matter how earnest and sincere the worshipper is, any sacrifice whatsoever from him, be it a burnt sacrifice, or a confession of sin, or even an attempt to recompense for a bad deed, a huge amount of remorse, self flagellation, a composition or singing of a most beautiful song of praise, or whatever a sin wrecked soul can conjure up to make amends, none of these things can take away sins. Only Christ can. Of course you should do all those things listed above because they’re good for your well being, but keep in mind that they don’t take away your sins which stand between you and God.
Luke 22 had the same account of the Lord’s Supper with some additional important details.
14Now when the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table and the apostles joined him. 15And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves. 18For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:14-20)
In the Old Covenant Passover, the people were reminded year after year of the terrible sufferings they had while in Egypt, and the passing over of the Lord which was but a shadow of the true Passover accomplished for us in Christ. Moreover this is not a type of joyful remembrance as one had hoped for. All the strict rules governing the observance of this event, and what it reminds people of, makes it anything but joyful. The Hebrews verse below puts it so succinctly:
But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year. (Hebrews 10:3)
On the other hand, the Passover that Jesus conducted ushered in a new era of remembrances not of sins but of the Savior, not of unavoidable and repeated human failures but of perfect completion of the Christ who came to fulfill all requirements of the law. How could he do that? The Passover was such an important part of Jewish life, and now He’s telling them to forget it all but remember Him instead? Yes, that was exactly what He said: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
And contrary to the Old Passover when sacrifices must be offered repeatedly year after year, Christ observed it once and put an end to it when He went to the cross. One thing that remains to be revealed to us is when He said: “I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” There is much prophetic inference at what Jesus said here, if this is a special Passover that ends all Old Covenant Passovers, what will be the one when the kingdom of God comes? We’ll never know until then, but what we know is it will probably be like the welcoming party for the prodigal son.
I am worthy
We’ve seen so far that the New Covenant Passover, or the Lord’s Supper, or the Communion as we now know it, is not at all about us, but about the One who came to shed His blood for the sins of the world. Therefore the question that should be raised about the observance of the Lord Supper should be whether the participants understand what it means, whether they know that it’s no longer a ritual, a sacrament, or a religious duty, but a time of joyful reflection upon what a great salvation Christ has achieved for us, unencumbered by forms and strict guidelines.
Even in the context of 1 Corinthians 11, these folks may have behaved in a manner unworthy of communion participants, they were every bit worthy as anyone to receive the communion wine and bread, because Christ has paid it all for them as well. The erroneous interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 concerning communion worthiness has caused so many to stumble, instead of coming to the celebration with hearts full of joy in the remembrance of Christ act of redemtion, they dreaded that there might be sins in their lives that might cause the Lord to take them out and kill them. As a matter of fact, upon such reminder of self introspection no one can be certain that they are 100% certain of their worthiness before receiving the communion. This casts a long shadow on an otherwise a joyful event.
What will communion participants be reminded of when the worship leader ask them to examine their hearts? Will they be like the Israelites who still lived under the law who remember their sins and trespasses when they were still under slavery in Egypt? Absolutely not. Jesus asked them to “remember me.” On the one hand is the remembrance of sins, while on the other a remembrance of a deliverance from sins thanks to Christ. Are you still living under the Old Covenant, or are you now relating to God through the New Covenant?
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:13)
- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen
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