One of the recurring questions I get is about the meaning of “body” in 1 Corinthians 11:28. The question is whether “discerning the body” in Paul’s narrative refers to “being cognizant of the congregation” or to Christ’s physical, actual body and blood, which, though ascended and at the right hand of the Father, are nevertheless communicated to believers, through the elements, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit.
It’s widely held now that “body” here has a sociological or horizontal reference rather than theological and/vertical reference, but the context, in my view, forces us to take it theologically, as a reference to the risen, glorified body of Christ.
It is understandable that folk are tempted to take “discerning the body” to refer to the congregation rather than to the risen, glorified, natural body of Christ. Starting in v. 18 Paul says:
For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not (ESV).
The passage begins with a stinging rebuke to the congregation. He has in view their gathering as the covenant assembly, as the visible, institutional church of Christ. When the ESV says, “recognized” in v.19 we can also translate that “approved.” The sense is that the behavior of some in the congregation demonstrates real spiritual differences among them. Those who take the sociological interpretation of the following verses appeal to Paul’s exhortation to them not to abuse the supper as a sort of debauched pagan feast. Certainly it’s true that was the issue. I don’t dispute that. The remedy is plain: Stop treating one another so badly—ironically, Christians, who ought to love their neighbors, are ignoring one another at the height of their fellowship!—and stop treating the Supper as if it were not the covenant renewal ritual. Go home to eat and drink. [I say “renewal” because whereas circumcision was a once-for-all event, Israel celebrated a feast everytime they gathered as the covenant people]
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 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.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (ESV).
Paul’s instruction continues as he begins to lay out the ground of his charges and exhortations. The behavior of the Corinthian congregation isn’t in question. What is in question is Paul’s understanding of the ground of his exhortation and the ground of his concern over their abuse of the Supper. For Paul, the nature of the Supper is established in the institution. The crucial (no pun intended) words are: “this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this…in remembrance of me.” To say the cup is the new covenant is to invoke the covenant-making language of Gen 15 and 17. To “remember,” in the covenantal sense is not to have a flashback or to feel sad (as at a funeral) but to “keep” or “obey,” as in the way Israel was charged to “remember” [Ex 20:8] the Sabbath. It too, according to the prophets, was a covenant between Israel and Yahweh.
In its nature, the Supper is Christ’s covenant with his people. It is a solemn ritual to be observed with the greatest awareness of the divine presence and holiness. As with all covenant signs and seals, its abuse is cause for divine displeasure and even sanctions on the covenant people of God.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.
… That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Note Paul’s “therefore.” To eat or drink the Supper “in an unworthy manner” or “unworthily” (it’s an adverb) is guilty of “profaning,” i.e., making common something that is to sacred and to be regarded as such. What is it that they are making “common” (in the British sense)? The “congregation” or the “risen, glorified, natural body” of Christ? To ask the question is to answer it.
In the institution, Christ said, “is.” The Supper “is” the new covenant. Just as in Gen 17, the sign/seal “is” the covenant. The sign/seal is to be regarded as so closely identified with the thing signified and sealed that we are to treat them as if they are identical. What is signified and sealed? Christ and his death for his people. Certainly the congregation is not signified and sealed in the Supper. What is being “profaned,” by their behavior? The congregation or the risen, glorified, natural body of Christ? Clearly the latter. To say it’s the “congregation” is to ignore the nature of the covenant of grace and Christ’s covenantal presence with his people.
28 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. …33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home- so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
The ground of Paul’s concern and exhortation make it clear that it is a theological matter with sociological or horizontal implications.
The call to discern the “body” (Soma) in v. 27 cannot be reduced to the sense: “recognize that there are other Christians present.” Remember, Paul isn’t now pressing the charge against the Corinthians. He is explaining the ground and gravity of their behavior at the Supper.
In context, “discerning the body” refers to discerning that Christ’s physical, actual body and blood are communicated through the elements.
If, in n v.24, “body” means “the risen, glorified, natural body of Christ,” then there is no reason for us to think that it now means “the congregation.” The meaning of “body” has already been established. This reading is strengthened by the reference to the “new covenant” in v. 25. Then, in v. 27, the case for a Christological or theological reference is only further strengthened when Paul warns about profaning the body and blood. These refer to Christ and not the congregation.
In this way it seems to me that the question of “discerning the body” in v. 29 is settled by context. When did Paul change the referent of body from the physical, natural, glorified body of Christ to a metaphor for the congregation? Certainly not in v. 28 when he enjoins the communicant to examine himself before coming to the table. I’m not saying that there is no concern for the behavior of the congregation, certainly there is, but Paul grounds his exhortation in theology not sociology!
The call to “discern the body” cannot be reduced to “recognize that there are other Christians present” as many seem to want to do today, sometimes in the interest of lowering the bar to the table. The Supper is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace and part of the promise of the covenant of grace is that Christ will be “with” his people (Matt 28:20) by his Spirit and he is. He communicates himself to us by his Spirit, through Word and Sacrament. These are sacred covenant rituals with actual Holy Spirit-ual signifance. For this reason, they are not to be shared by unbelievers. Those who were abusing the Supper in Corinth were showing (Paul used language of “manifesting” not “recognizing” as the ESV has it in v. 19) that they were not actually eligible for the Supper.
This meditation is not a call for believers not to come to the table. This is not a call to experience a second blessing before coming to the table. It is a call to repent and believe, to trust, to rest in and rely upon the finished work of Christ and, in that same trusting, resting, and relying, to unite one’s self to a true church and being so united, to come to the table of the Lord orderly and decently. This is also a call, however, to continue to fence the table from those who show themselves to be unbelievers and to recognize what transpires in the Supper and not to reduce the weight and reference of Paul’s language to mere sociology.