Self Examination, Discernment, and the Whole Lot of It!

In answer to an Ask the Pastor on our sidebar:

Can we say that receiving communion in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11:27, 29) is simply failure to discern the real presence of Christ’s body and blood (1 Cor 11:29)? If it is that alone, what is the examination of self (1 Cor. 11:28) that should precede or coincide with receiving communion? Does the saying, “let a man examine himself” mean simply to slow down, stop, and see whether I am discerning the real presence of Christ’s body and blood?

The short answer to this Ask the Pastor is a simple “no”. If you like short answers, then there you have it and you may go on to the next topic. My guess is, though, that this question of self examination is on the hearts and thoughts of many of us. It is a question, seemingly, of the Law (a “thou shalt”) and so our law-oriented DNA forces us to ponder whether we have kept this law or have transgressed it. To this we admit that surely at one point or another we have transgressed it, but that we are quite sure that we normally and usually keep it if for no other reason that we know that it is good to keep the law and we generally think of ourselves as good. We desire to know the height, depth, and width of this law so that we may in confidence say that we have indeed kept the law; we have examined ourselves as we ought.

This is how we approach all law questions. It is the question of the rich young man who asked the Lord, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” (Mark 10:17) and the question of the scribe who asked the same (Luke 10:25). Whenever the Law presents itself we ask, “How do we keep it?” At first it is not a question of hopelessness. We do not first ask – as the rich young man and scribe did not – wringing our hands and shouting into the heavens at this impossible task. We first ask how we might keep the law by thinking – as did the rich young man and the scribe – that we have all things in order and are only needing verification or modification. It is when we realize that we cannot keep the law that we despair and either beg for mercy or turn from the lawgiver (James 4:12) in despair and hopelessness.

But that is not to say that asking such questions is bad. It’s not. It’s good, in fact. It is good because it allows the law to do its work. By asking questions of fulfilling the law we are, in fact, examining ourselves. It is good because by continuing to peer into the law is to continually be told why we need a Savior. The demands of the law cause us to beg mercy. It is only when we think that there will be an end to the examination, a final destination of the questioning that we begin to leave off examining and become confident and sure that we are doing as the law requires. Then we are not seeking to be right with God but rather to be right with the Law, which is to make the Law our God.

Okay. So what of St. Paul’s words about a person examining himself? Do they refer only to making sure we believe that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine, or is there more? Again with a short answer: there is always more.

Consider to whom the apostle is speaking. The Corinthian congregation was a congregation in turmoil, to say the least. Lots of gossiping, back stabbing, private meetings, vying for power, immorality, idolatry, and everything that goes with being a congregation of sinners pretending to be saints. It is a real wonder that St. Paul’s letter isn’t twice or even thrice as long as it is. But for our purposes we will zero in on chapter 11. St. Paul is writing to a congregation that is divided on worship. Can you believe it!? A congregation divided on worship! Unbelievable. At any rate, chapter 11 opens with the apostle commending the Corinthian congregation (finally, a commendation!) because they maintain the traditions as he had delivered them. (As a side, though not unimportant note, the physicality of worship must be considered as much our adherence to Scripture as our Sunday school lessons.) But in the instructions concerning the Lord’s Supper, the apostle refuses to commend them. They are asunder.

So what is the big divide concerning the Lord’s Supper? The apostle makes it clear what he sees is the abuse and desecration of this sacred meal: when the congregation comes together there are divisions (v. 18). But they are not the divisions of the first several chapters, the divisions of supremacy, what they can and cannot eat, rules with respect marriage, and so forth. The division is singular: some among them despise the church of God (v. 22).

The division is spelled out in verses 21-22: some refuse to share what they have and go on with their own meal, eating all the food and drinking all the wine so that they become drunk, while others who do not have (presumably the working class and poorer Christians) have nothing to eat or drink. This division, the rich hording what they have at the expense of the poor, Paul says is despising the church of God (v. 22). Those who eat and drink without sharing humiliate and despise their brothers and sisters who have nothing. St. Paul says that such divisions are necessary so that those who are genuine may be proved true. Those who are genuine share with those who have nothing, or they are those who have nothing who wait upon and depend upon their brothers who have to share with them. One is reminded of the Lord’s comment concerning the rich young ruler’s dejection at have to sell all he had and give to the poor: “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).

The great sin that brought condemnation and rebuke to the Corinthians’ in regard to the Lord’s Supper is that they separated themselves according to who they were. The rich were the rich and the poor were the poor. Surely this is the scenario that St. James has in mind when he warns the congregations saying, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4)

St. Matthew wrote Jesus’ words that “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” St. Luke sharpened it by leaving of the qualifier “in spirit”. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).

So great and wicked is this division of the brothers that the apostle even says the unthinkable. He shockingly tells the Corinthians that it is not even the Lord’s Supper that they eat (v. 20)! This division of the saints is so great an evil that it bars them from the blessings of the very meal for which they gathered. Some will say that St. Paul most likely says this because the Corinthians had ceased to use the Verba, the Words of our Lord spoken over the bread and wine, and that this is why the apostle repeats the words of institution (the Verba) for the Corinthians. And maybe they had stopped using the words of our Lord. But the apostle doesn’t say that he will not commend the Corinthians because they don’t say the words of our Lord anymore, but because “in eating, each one goes ahead with his own mean. One goes hungry, another gets drunk … Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not” (1 Corinthians 11:21-22).

It is the separation of the congregation that brings the rebuke from the apostle. It is their separation and division, their despising of one another that causes them to eat and drink in an unworthy manner, denying them the very thing for which they gather: the supper of the Lord. So St. Paul repeats the formula he had received from the Lord. He reinstitutes, as it were, the Lord’s Supper among the Corinthian congregation. His precision is masterly. The Lord’s words in the mouth of the apostle bring home the wickedness of those who had despised their brothers: “This is my body which is for you (plural). Do this in remembrance of me … This cup is the new testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” The Lord is speaking to His gathering.

There is no question. This sacred meal instituted by our blessed Lord is for all of us. To divide the congregation is to divide the “for you”. It is to keep the Supper from those for whom our Lord gives it. Not only so, but the Supper is a common confession of the Lord’s death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again (v. 26). It is to be shared by all gathered and not kept for some and not for others.

After all this, after the apostle strongly, emphatically rebukes the Corinthians for their divisions of the brothers concerning this blessed meal, after he reinstates the Supper for its intended purpose – to declare the death and coming again of the Lord and the magnificence that the Lord’s body and blood are given for us – then the apostle says to the congregation, “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. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

Let a man (person) examine himself and so discern the body. To not discern the body is to despise the church of God.

Some (perhaps many) of my brothers will take issue with me here, but I see significance in the fact that the apostle says “discern the body” and not “body and blood”. I understand this to mean the body of Christ, the congregation, the church. Whoever does not discern, that is, whoever does not recognize and confess the body, the oneness of the body in Christ, eats and drinks judgment on himself. St. Paul’s language supports this (in my opinion).

Consider the apostle’s words. I have italicized the parts when body and blood, eats and drinks, and bread and cup are used together to highlight the one time when body is singled out.

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. 28Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

No less than five times the two are used together. Only once does the apostle only mention the body; never only the cup. Some will say that the term “body” is synecdoche (a part mentioned for the whole) and includes discerning the blood, but why would the apostle do that here yet everywhere else go ahead and pen the words “drink,” “blood,” or “cup”? Why at this crucial point of discernment would he leave out that we must also discern the blood, i.e., the real presence? Or is the blood not as crucial to discern as the body? Of course not. Rather, it’s that the apostle is saying that a man must examine himself to see that he discerns that he is eating the body and drinking the cup of the Lord with the body.

In chapter 10 the apostle has already made clear that what we eat and drink is in fact the body and blood of Jesus when he writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). There’s your proof that “is” means is. Then, as precursor to what we’ve been discussing, he writes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.” (10:17). If we are one body because (not causality only but in confession as well) we eat of one bread, then the weight of chapter 11’s rebuke for the division of the body is all the more powerful. They have divided the very body of which they were made to be one by dividing themselves during the very meal that confesses and even creates their unity in the body!

Then, after chapter 11, when the apostle so powerfully and succinctly reminds and teaches that they are one body eating of one bread and drinking of the cup of the Lord, he says that their failure to discern the body is the reason many of them had fallen asleep (died) and were weak and ill. Division of the body causes harm to the body just like when your little toe hurts your whole body suffers. This sheds much light on the coming chapter (12) when the apostle compares the congregation, the body of Christ, to a physical body in which each part has a role and if one suffers all suffer.

Of all there disagreements, sins, defilements, misunderstandings, and misuses going on in Corinth, the thing that brings the sharpest condemnation and rebuke from the blessed apostle so that he says that it is not even the Lord’s Supper that they eat, is that they have divided the body of Christ with their greed and their hatred (11:22) of their brothers and sisters that make up the body. They have done the unthinkable, they have refused one another. If, though, they judged themselves, that is, if they discerned their error and repented, then they would not be judged by the Lord. But since they have not then the Lord has judged them and has disciplined them (11:32) so that they would not be damned along with the world.

The implications of this are staggering, to say the least. Far from simply discerning that, yes, this bread is the body of Jesus and this cup His blood, we are to know with whom we eat and drink: the body of Christ. When we come together we are to wait for one another (11:33). In the Corinthian context this simply means to wait for everyone to show up. If some are hungry, eat at home and be filled. You don’t come to eat for the body but to eat with the body for the unity of the body. As you might suspect, this has strong implications into our practices of closed communion and other communion practices. For now I would remind the reader that St. Paul is not writing to a congregation about visitors, but about itself. He nowhere suggests that the outsider be welcomed. And he already told them to expel the immoral. Closed communion is biblical, but it is more involved that just being a card carrying member of this or that denomination.

It is truly a great blessing that when we discern the body; when we see those for whom our Lord suffered and died and rose again. We see our brothers and sisters who share our faith, our burdens, and lean on us, coming with us to the table of the Lord, seeking His blessing, His forgiveness, His compassion, and His kingdom. Do not neglect to come together, but gather with the Lord who feeds His sheep. For where the body is, there the eagles will gather (to mix a few metaphors).

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