For the next two weeks we are going to spend our time taking a look at 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. This entire section of Paul’s letter to the brothers and sisters in Corinth has to do with Communion, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at the Lord’s Table. It is such an important section of Paul’s letter and there is much for us to learn if we are willing to learn, and then apply what we learn, over the next two weeks. 

You might wonder, “Why would we need to spend two weeks learning about the Lord’s Supper when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week here at Britton Christian Church?” It is true that every single week we come together for worship we take time, right in the middle of our service, to come to the Lord’s Table. Because you attend BCC you might think that all churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week just like we do, but that’s not the case. Some churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper once a month, others celebrate the Lord’s Supper on a quarterly basis, and still others do so only on special occasions. I have a pastor friend who once told me that his leaders believe that the Lord’s Supper is special so they only have it once a quarter. He asked me, “Don’t you think that by having the Lord’s Supper every week that it can lose its meaning and become routine for your people?” Let me ask all of you this morning, “Can the Lord’s Supper lose its significance, meaning, and power? Can something as powerful as having the opportunity to reenact Jesus’ final meal with His disciples and the remember the sacrifice He made for us simply become routine?” Well, our Scripture for this morning will answer that question for us. Let’s read together from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for 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. 22 Don’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! 23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27 So 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. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. 33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions. (1 Corinthians 11:17-34 NIV)

I’m sure that when this letter was read to the church in Corinth they were shocked to hear that their “coming together” was doing more harm than good. The Greek verb, “sunerchomai,” translated as “come together” is a keyword in this section of Paul’s letter. It is used in verse 17, 18, 20, 23, 33, and verse 34. In the first three of these instances their “coming together” proved to be detrimental. Let me share them with you. 

  • Verse 17: “…your meetings do more harm than good.”
  • Verse 18: “…when you come together…there are divisions among you.”
  • Verse 20: “…when you come together…it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.” 

Is it possible for the coming together of brothers and sisters in Christ, for the purpose of sharing the Lord’s Supper, to really be detrimental to the spiritual health of those who have gathered? You better believe it. Let me explain to you why Paul would be so blunt with these believers. 

Just like last week, it is so important for us not to read this Scripture through the lens of the stained glass window at Britton Christian Church in 2021, but to go back in time and understand what was going on in the city of Corinth at the time Paul wrote this letter. There are two things that are vitally important for us to understand. 

First, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was very different from what you experienced just a few minutes ago. We stop in the middle of our worship service to eat the bread and drink from the cup as we remember the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf so that we might be reconciled to God, but in the early church it was much more. 

In the early church they shared what they called the “agape feast” which would have been a lot like the potluck dinners we used to have before Covid came to town. Remember, the Greek word, “agape,” means “love” and that is exactly what their coming together was supposed to enhance and accentuate. Everyone would bring food and drink and share with one another in a sweet evening of fellowship until, at some point in the evening the leader would get everyone’s attention. He would take some bread which had been held back for that special moment. He would hold it up for everyone to see and say, “This is Christ’s body broken for you.” And all of the brothers and sisters in Christ who were there for the agape feast would take a piece of bread, as the gathered Body of Christ, and remember Jesus. Then the leader would take a glass of wine, hold it up for everyone to see, and say, “This is the cup of the new covenant. Christ’s blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” And the gathered Body of Christ would take their own cups, together as the family of faith, and remember Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf. Afterwards they would share testimonies of how the Lord was working in their lives, they would share prayer requests and actually pray for one another, and they would sing songs of praise as they ended the evening worshiping the Lord together. 

This past week as I was learning about the agape feasts I closed my eyes and imagined it taking place…and it gave me chills. Those evenings, those gatherings of God’s people, must have been the highlight of their week. I told you, their celebration of the Lord’s Supper was far different than the celebration of the Lord’s Supper that takes place in our day, in our churches. 

The second thing we need to know is this: Just like last week, there was the surrounding culture and just like in our day, the pervading culture of the city surrounding the church, infiltrated the church. Craig Keener, in his commentary on this Scripture, writes,

The churches in Corinth met in well-to-do patrons’ homes (see comment on Acts 18:6–7). In Greco-Roman society, patrons often seated members of their own high social class in the special triclinium (the best room), while others were served, in plain view of this room, in the atrium (the couches in which might seat as many as forty persons). The guests in the larger room, the atrium, were served inferior food and inferior wine, and often complained about the situation. This societal problem spilled over into the church. The background for the meal itself is the Jewish Passover, a sacred meal and celebration. But the Corinthians seem to have lost sight of this background; they treat the meal as a festal banquet such as they knew from Greek festivals or meetings of Greek religious associations. (Keener, Craig. IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament)

In Corinth, class distinctions were vitally important, they were ingrained into the very fabric of society. Those who were wealthy would invite their wealthy friends to their dinner parties. Craig Keener points out that even among the wealthy, aristocratic elites of Corinth there were the elite-of-the-elite and the not-so-elite and that caused problems at social gatherings because of the seating arrangements that made some feel more special than others. 

The church in Corinth wasn’t just made up of the elite, there were people from all walks of life. What kind of people made up the church in Corinth? Well, we don’t have to guess. Paul tells us plainly in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, when he reminded them. 

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things– and the things that are not– to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God– that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 NIV)

The church was made up of people from all walks of life. There were some who were wise by human standards, some who were influential, and a few who were of noble birth. There were people like Crispus, the synagogue leader whose whole household came to believe in Jesus (Acts 18:8), but there were also those who were not members of the Mensa Society, influential, or of noble birth. There were the notable and the nobodies in the same church. That’s the church of Jesus. It is diverse, it is made up of all kinds of people, and from every walk of life–they are all Jesus’ people. This world divides us up into classes, ethnic groups, and the like, but in Christ we are one. Paul told the people in Colossae,

11 In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:11 NLT)

In the early church, the church was the one place where those who were cast out were brought in, where those who were looked down upon were seen as a brother or sister, and where those who had no standing in society found a place where they belonged. And yet, in Corinth, the leaders of the church had allowed the model of the Corinthian dinner party to infiltrate, invade, and ruin the agape feasts. Paul writes,

18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. (1 Corinthians 11:18 NIV)

Paul heard that there were divisions among the brothers and sisters when they came together for their agape feasts where they would celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We’ve already learned that there were divisions in the church, way back in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, where the members of the church were divided over Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and a fourth group who said they followed Jesus alone. Here, in 1 Corinthians 11, they weren’t divided over their leaders or some theological matter, they were divided along socioeconomic lines. 

The Greek word translated, “divided,” is “schismata,” and it is the word from which we get our English word, “schism.” Literally, it means, “tearing or cutting” and that is exactly what they were doing to the Body of Christ in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 1 they were tearing the church apart over arguing about their leaders. In 1 Corinthians 11, they were tearing the church apart by marginalizing “those who have nothing” as Paul described them in verse 22. I’m so glad the modern-day church has overcome this problem aren’t you? 

It has long been said that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in America. It was December 18, 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words at Western Michigan University. Dr. King had a specific kind of segregation in mind when he spoke those words, but from what I’ve experienced the modern-day American church is more than racially segregated. Today in America you’ll find churches whose pews are filled on Sunday morning with people who fall into the same socioeconomic category, churches made up of people who fall into the same educational category, the same ethnic category, those who vote along the same political lines, churches made up of people who fall into the same age demographic, etc. They say, “Birds of a feather flock together” but not in Jesus’ church! The commonality that we all share at Britton Christian Church is not our race, our age, our level of education, or financial bracket, but what binds us together, what brought you here this morning is your hunger for Jesus. He is the Savior of anyone and everyone who will come to Him. What a blessing!   

We must move on or we’ll never get to the end of our study for today. I want you to look at verse 19 with me for a moment. It’s a strange verse considering how Paul has just blasted the Corinthians for the divisions they had created among the rich and the poor. Let’s read verses 19-21 together. Paul writes,

19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for 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. (1 Corinthians 11:19-21 NIV)

“There have to be differences…?” Really? Now, Paul never encourages, condones, or fails to address dissension and division when it raises its ugly head in any of the churches, but Paul is also a realist. Paul knows that it is human nature to divide, to choose sides, to play “us and them,” and to create our own little cliques. Surely I won’t have to work too hard to convince you of this truth this morning. What the Corinthians practiced, we have perfected! 

At the same time, Paul is able to see how God can use something evil, and that is what it is, for His good purpose. Paul says those who choose the way of Jesus instead of the sectarian spirit of division and dissension will stand out like the true men and women of God. John MacArthur writes,

The worldliness and fleshly disobedience of those who caused the divisions would expose and highlight the love, harmony, and spirituality of those who are approved. Approved (dokimos) refers to that which has passed a test. The term was used of precious metals tried in the fire and proved to be pure.  Church division, ungodly and sinful as it is, nevertheless is used by the Lord to prove the worth of His faithful saints…Evil helps manifest good. Trouble in the church creates a situation in which true spiritual strength, wisdom, and leadership can be manifested. (MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians. pg. 269)

If you want to learn who the true spiritual leaders of a church are, then let something happen like that which took place in Corinth. Those with titles will go along to get along or worse yet, make sure they are seated at the head table, but those who are truly God’s men and women will stand up and correct the situation. They might say something like, “I know why we have come together and it’s not to get drunk and hoard all of the food for ourselves. We are here to remember Jesus and the sacrifice He made for us so we could be reconciled to the Father and unified as brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to rethink the way we are holding our feasts so that everyone knows they belong.” True spiritual leaders will do the same thing today whenever ungodly practices begin to take root in a church.

In verse 20 Paul let them know they might think they are coming together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but they are wrong! And this is how he knows they are wrong: They are holding their own private suppers, one person gets drunk, and another goes home hungry. Let’s unpack that just for a moment. As I mentioned earlier, at the agape feasts there were people from all walks of life. Those who were wealthy and had more flexible schedules, more leisure time, were able to arrive at the feasts early. They brought the best foods and the best wine with them, but it was only for them and their closest friends. Others, who weren’t as flexible, would arrive later, and then last of all, the poor and the slaves would arrive when they got off work. The slaves and the poor didn’t have much, some came with maybe nothing more than some bread to share. Those who had plenty didn’t wait on the poorer members of the church to arrive, they dug in as soon as they got everything set up, and never thought about sharing with others. This is why Paul said, “…some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.” (1 Corinthians 11:21 NIV)

That’s not an agape feast. There’s no difference between what they were doing at the feasts at the pagan temples around town and what the brothers and sisters in Christ were doing at their get-together. Let’s take a look at one more verse before we leave here this morning. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11:22 and let’s read together.

22 Don’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 11:22 NIV)

There is no question who Paul had in mind when Paul asked the question, “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?” Paul is calling out the wealthy members of the church. The poor weren’t the ones gorging themselves on food and getting drunk on wine, they were going away from the agape feasts hungry and feeling left out. S.C. Barton also says that the poor in the ancient world didn’t have kitchens in their tiny apartment-like homes. They cooked outside on portable grills. 

Another clue that Paul is addressing the wealthy members of the church is what he writes in the second sentence of this verse: “Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” The word “despise” in your Bible is the compound Greek word, “kataphroneo.” “Kata” which means “down” and “phroneo” which means “to think.” Literally the word means, “to look down on someone or something with contempt. To attach little value because the person or thing is not worthy of one’s consideration.” Let me show you two other places where this word appears. Turn with me to Romans 2:4. 

4 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? (Romans 2:4 NLT)

How can a person receive of God’s glorious kindness, grace, and mercy and not be affected by it? Do you recognize how kind and patient the Lord has been with you? Evidently those in Rome knew these truths, had experienced God’s wonderful kindness and patience and yet it meant little to them. Now, turn with me to 1 Timothy 4:12 where Paul writes to the young preacher and says, 

12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12 NIV)

It’s the same word that is used in Romans 2:4 and the same word that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:22, except in 1 Corinthians 11:22 Paul uses the word for those who have no regard for God’s church. We need to be reminded that “God’s church” is not Britton Christian Church, First Presbyterian Church, LifeChurch, Crossings Community Church, or any other building around town. “God’s church” are the people of God. Keep that in mind as I share what Paul has written one more time: “Or do you despise the people of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” Can you hear it in Paul’s “voice?” He is more than upset, he is heartbroken for those in Corinth, many of whom he probably led to the Lord, who were poor, looked down on in society, and Paul told them they were so loved by God that He sent His Son to die for them. He taught them that they were more than society thought of them. Now, the very church Paul founded was marginalizing them, shaming them, humiliating them–and at an agape feast? 

Before we spend too much time pointing fingers at the folks in Corinth we need to stop and allow the Lord to search our own hearts. Who are we BCC? Are we truly a Lighthouse of Hope for all people? Are the poorest of the poor welcome with the same enthusiasm and love as the richest of the rich? Are those who are not like “you” whoever “you” are, whatever you are, treated as if they were Jesus Himself or do you show preferential treatment to the brothers and sisters who fit your profile of an acceptable Christian? Are the elderly welcomed with the same love and hospitality as the young families who come our way? These are questions we must constantly ask ourselves and pray fervently about on a regular basis. 

The way we treat others says much about whether or not we understand the magnitude of God’s grace and mercy poured out on us, individually and collectively as a church. The way we treat others says much about our relationship with the Lord. You want to increase your love for others, even those you find unlovely? Then you need to become more familiar with your own condition, your own sinful condition, and the fact that you would be utterly lost and hopeless if it were not for God’s grace and mercy. The more familiar we become with these truths, the more we will desire to respond to His grace by giving it to others, sharing it with others. The way we love or refuse to love others really does matter to God. Let me show you what I am talking about. Turn with me to Hebrews 6:10 and let’s read together.

10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. (Hebrews 6:10 NIV)

Did you notice? God will not forget your “work” and the love you have shown Him–as you have helped his people and continue to help them. You can substitute any number of words for “helped.” God will not forget the love you have shown Him as you have loved His people, accepted His people, shown His people grace, forgiven His people who have hurt you, reconciled with His people, served His people, and the list goes on and on and on. 

Next week when we come together we will take an in-depth look at the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. All of the dissention, the humiliation caused by division and class distinction in Corinth are still with us today. The only cure, the only corrective measure to be taken that will truly turn things around is a correct understanding of the Lord’s Table. When we come to realize that regardless of what you have or don’t have, the name you’ve made for yourself for better or worse, only lowly sinners can come to the Lord’s Table. It’s not our table. It’s His table. 

Mike Hays

Britton Christian Church

922 NW 91st

OKC, OK. 73114

August 28, 2021

Whose Table?
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
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