Studies in First Corinthians
by Bob Burridge ©2017
Lesson #27: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (ESV)
Partaking of a New Passover
The Lord’s Supper is an extremely
important part of a believer’s life.
It’s not just an object lesson. It’s not a magical ritual. It’s a practice instituted for the church by Jesus Christ himself. It promises blessings to God’s covenant people when they celebrate it obediently.
Far too often the power of this sacrament is missed. It’s not that people don’t know what the elements stand for. It’s because they fail to rightly lay hold of the promises God attaches to it.
It was instituted by Jesus when he celebrated the Passover with his Apostles. As they sat in a borrowed room in Jerusalem, he gave new meaning to an ancient feast. It was the last night he would spend with them before his death on the cross. It’s vital that we appreciate what would have been going through their minds that night.
They were aware of the meaning of the Passover meal.
It started over a thousand years before, when Israel was delivered from Egypt by Moses. God’s people had been in captivity for many generations. They were held in cruel slavery. Their children were being killed by Egypt to control the Hebrew population. Humanly speaking, there was no hope of deliverance from this powerful and oppressive nation. But God assured them that they would be set free and brought back to the promised land.
After a cascade of horrible plagues, the Egypt’s Pharaoh still wouldn’t let them go. So one final judgment was about to come: death would spread over the land taking the life of the first born son in every home.
God provided a substitute for the sons of those who trusted in him. They would slay a lamb, put the blood around the doors of their homes, and stay inside eating a meal from the cooked lamb. That night death didn’t touch the homes of those who obeyed God and sacrificed the lambs. That’s what the word Passover means. Pesakh (פֶּסַח) is to leap over something passing it by. The lamb took the place of the first born and those families didn’t suffer death.
We can hardly imagine the terror that night as death struck the oldest son in homes all over Egypt. We can imagine the seriousness of that night as parents, brothers, and sisters hugged the oldest son trusting that God would spare him. Certainly there were many thankful prayers in those Jewish homes where their sons were spared by grace.
The next day, Israel was finally set free. Not by any act of man, but by the provision of God. The feast of Passover was instituted by God to remember that deliverance. But there was much more to it than just a symbol of freedom from Egypt. God attached his promise to it, that Messiah would come to die in place of his people’s sins. He would die so they could live.
Jesus and his followers were eating that meal together on the night before he was killed. The ancient Feast of Passover was about to be transformed. The Messiah it represented had come and was there in the room with the Disciples. As the true Lamb of God he would fulfill what all the sacrifices pointed to and represented. The reality was about to replace the shadows.
The Corinthian church was filled with abuses. They had perverted the Lord’s Supper into a drunken party. They excluded some because of their social or economic status. But Paul didn’t just scold them. He taught them how to make it right.
In the first part of chapter 11 Paul urged them to be united in Christ and to overcome their prejudices.
In this next section from verses 23 to 26
he told how the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated.
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,
To replace the abuses that were upsetting the church, Paul explained how Jesus wanted the Sacrament to be administered. It’s important that every person partaking understands the true meaning of it, and that those administering it follow God’s prescribed order.
Paul knew what the Lord taught the disciples, because he’d spent time with them. Galatians 1:18 tells us that he spent 15 days with Peter in Jerusalem. He probably learned from some of the others too.
But this form that Paul gives here is more than just a report of his own findings. He tells us that this is what he received directly from the Lord himself. The Lord’s Supper is neither a man contrived tradition, nor the personal opinion of Paul. This was given to him by God’s special revelation and guidance.
What he received from Jesus directly, he now passes on to the church. This is how we ought to celebrate the continuing sacrament of Communion.
Paul took them back to when Jesus Christ
personally instituted the Covenant Meal.
23. … that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,
Paul didn’t have to go back over the details of that night. The Corinthians had become familiar with the life of Jesus and the last supper he had with his disciples.
It’s interesting that of all the things Paul could have mentioned to identify that night, he chose the betrayal. He didn’t say it was the night before Jesus was arrested, beaten, or crucified.
Just as sin infiltrated the group of Apostles, there was sin in Corinth. It was sin and betrayal that made the sacrifice of our Lord necessary. When we approach the Lord’s Table it should be in humility, aware of what we’re delivered from. We need to appreciate the captivity to sin and its condemnation from which we are delivered before we can appreciate the solemnity and awesome mercy of the Lord’s Table.
Paul wanted them to come thinking about what it meant. So he reminded them by reviewing the way the elements should be received in worship.
The first element Jesus gave was the bread.
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,
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.”
The bread they would have had at the table that night was unleavened bread. God required that when the Passover was celebrated, that was the only kind that was served. The law about the Passover season in Deuteronomy 16:3 says, You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction–for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste–that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.
There was no time in Egypt that night to wait for dough to rise so the bread they made had no leavening. It was more like the Matzos used in Jewish feasts today.
It came to be that the bread was eaten before and after the Passover Lamb was served. The prayer for the bread served as a prayer of thanks for all the food they ate. The word for bread is “lekhem” (לֶחֶם) in Hebrew. It’s sometimes used as a general word for food in prayers.
Then Jesus gave thanks: The prayer he probably prayed at that time is called the motzi.
[Beruq atah, Adonai Elohaenu, meleq ha olam, hamotsi lekhem min haeretz]
It’s translated, “Blessed are you, O LORD our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
It’s not that we put a blessing on the food. That’s a misunderstanding of what the Bible says. That comes from a mystical medieval idea that blessed food takes on a magical quality. The blessing is directed toward God the giver of the food. We say that he is the most blessed, meaning he is the most sacred and holy one. Our prayers before meals are to thank God for our food, not to attach some magical quality to it.
Then Jesus broke the bread: This was the common way bread was always distributed at every meal. There is nothing in the breaking that was unusual.
But what made it special was what Jesus explained about it: This bread represented his body which would soon be given for them.
Some translations add that his body was “broken” for his people. A few of the very oldest manuscripts of the Bible leave the word “broken” out. But the vast majority of our ancient texts have the word in them. Either way it doesn’t change what Jesus was saying about what the bread stood for.
When we leave it in, it doesn’t mean that his bones were broken. The Bible rules that out. But certainly his body was greatly broken and damaged in his suffering. And the grammar of the sentence most likely means that this bread which represents his body is broken for them. It may have been that some who didn’t understand this took the word out to avoid the meaning that his bones were broken, which it really doesn’t mean at all.
Whichever text we use doesn’t change what Jesus meant. He was giving himself for them as the Passover Lamb. He would become a substitution in his death for all they deserved at God’s hands. Paul called Jesus “our Passover” back in 5:7 of this letter. And John the baptist called him “the Lamb of God” in John 1:29.
He didn’t mean that the bread he held in his hand physically became his body. There’s a real presence of Christ in the elements, but it’s not a physical presence. By virtue of God’s promise we partake of Christ’s body and blood spiritually, receiving the benefits of his covenantal presence when those rightly qualified partake obediently and in faith, trusting in God’s assurance that blessing will accompany this means of grace.
Those who teach that the bread is transformed into the flesh of Jesus, or that his flesh is somehow added to the bread, miss this point entirely.
The receiving of the bread was sacramental. It was an action God chose to represent something about his work of redemption. The special nature of a sacrament isn’t magical, it’s covenantal. The promise isn’t embedded in the bread or the wine. It’s in the assurance of God that he will bless its right reception and curse its abuse.
Then Jesus told them to remember him as they ate it. He didn’t mean only to remember him as a person after he left them. He meant that in eating it they should remember his work of atonement, and his promise.
The other element Jesus sanctified was the cup of wine.
25. 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.”
This took place after they finished the supper. When the meal was over there was the last Kiddush (קידוש), the blessing of God for the wine. The prayer he probably prayed at that time goes this way:
[berukh atah, Adonai Elohaenu, Meleq haolam, borae peri hagaphen]
Translated it means: “Blessed are you, O LORD our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”
The cup was traditionally lifted up while the prayer was prayed. Jesus explained the importance of this particular cup. He said it was the new covenant in his blood.
Some translations use the English word testament instead of covenant. That’s not an accurate word to use. It’s misleading. The Greek word here is “diathaekae” (διαθήκη). It was used in the Gentile cultures for a last will and testament. But, in the Greek speaking world, the Jews used “diathaekae” (διαθήκη) to translate the Hebrew word for “covenant’, “berit” (בּרית). But they didn’t mean it as a last will and testament. They meant Covenant when they used that word.
These covenants were sovereignly administered bonds sealed with blood. Ancient covenants were not mutual agreements. They were merciful treaties made by kings with those he conquered. He promised not to destroy his enemies if they became faithful to him. He would protect them, and they would pay taxes to the king and serve his military if needed.
The covenants were ceremonially ratified by the shedding the blood of animals. It showed that the penalty of death was deserved by any covenant breakers.
In God’s covenant, he’s the King who sovereignly imposes the covenant upon undeserving sinners.
God’s covenant with Abraham was ratified by the cut up bodies of sacrificed animals. God passed between the severed bodies to show that he would one day take on the curse for his people.
In the time of Moses, God united Israel into a covenant nation and ratified it by the blood of the Passover Lamb. The slain lamb died in place of the first-born and its blood was applied to the homes. Again, God was shown taking the curse of his people’s sins upon himself.
At Mount Sinai, Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the people. By identifying them with the slain animal the covenant was sealed. The coming Savior was represented by the slain animal. Exodus 24:8, And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Jesus was explaining how he would ratify the covenant in a new way, by his own blood. He would be what all the other sacrifices only represented.
The blood of Jesus would unite his people as the continuing and expanding church of God. It would no longer be made up of just the people of Israel. It would now include the redeemed of all nations. He identified the cup with the blood he would shed the next day as the Lamb of God
The blood of the Old Testament animal sacrifices were efficacious because they represented Christ’s death. The book of Hebrews makes this clear in many places. For example it calls Jesus the Mediator of a better covenant in 8:6. It explains in 10:4 that the old sacrifices were only representative of the work of Christ. There is says, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
It was faith in God’s promise that saved people before Christ. It’s faith in his fulfilled promise that saves sinners now and it’s faith in those promises that makes the Lord’s Supper a blessing to believers.
There are important changes in the covenant meal
under its new form after Christ.
The Hebrew Passover was only celebrated once each year. There’s no command in Scripture about how frequently the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated. Some reformed churches do it every week on the Sabbath. Some once a month, some once each quarter, few less frequently than that. But whenever it’s celebrated, the same meanings and promises should be remembered. It’s to be a recurring event in the life of the church.
The Passover was celebrated in the home and administered by the head of the family. The covenant children all participated with no requirement that they understand it.
The Lord’s supper is only celebrated in the church as an element of public worship. It’s only to be administered only by the ordained Elders of the church. Covenant children may only participate when admitted by the church after showing that they understand it as a covenant meal of the gathered body of Christ. Some of these points will be more clear when we study the next part of this chapter.
The sacrament’s message is for this entire church age.
26. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
When we join in this covenant meal, we come as those united by the grace of God through the blood of our Savior who died in our place and paid our eternal debt. Until this Church age ends at our Lord’s final coming in judgment, we partake of these elements and rejoice together in their promise.
Our partaking declares our confidence in the sufficiency of our Savior’s death in our place. With the message of the gospel in our hearts, and a God-given trust in his promises, we gather before this table with expectant hope of an ever stronger spiritual life.
Every day we hear the ominous news about our depravity and immorality, about the rampant crime that plagues our cities, about the threats of terrorists and war, and the dangers of those so intimidated by threats that they will not stand for what’s good.
But when we leave the table of our Lord, having partaken of the spiritual presence of our Living Savior, and having been reminded of his unfailing promises, we go back to our daily lives strengthened with courage against all that’s against us, filled with hope, and certain of a good future with our Lord forever.
Dr. Charles Hodge wrote, “The reason why believers receive so little by their attendance on this ordinance is, that they expect so little. They expect to have their affections somewhat stirred, and their faith somewhat strengthened; but they perhaps rarely expect so to receive Christ as to be filled with all the fullness of God”
Don’t go away from the Lord’s Table empty and hungry. We should be strong in the Lord — because he’s strong in us.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)