In this Series:
Recently, we introduced a somewhat familiar passage, at least in how often it’s quoted, from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. On a personal level, the motivation for this particular study, from the Apostle’s first letter to the ekklesia at Corinth, stems out of a desire to engage in meaningful discussions on ‘the the sufficiency of God’s Word, Sola Scriptura, and how the authority of God’s Word not only influences how we live, but likewise how we worship.’
In that previous post, we outlined this passage as follows:
- A Statement of the Problem (11:17-22)
- An Appeal to Christ’s Institution of the Lord’s Supper (11:23-26)
- A Rebuke (11:27-32)
- An Exhortation (11:33-34)
Having already looked at the Statement of the Problem in 11:17-22, we now turn our attention to an exposition of 11:23-26, with a goal to further unpack the passage by setting the context. In this passage, the Apostle recounts for us the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as it has become known (from 1 Cor. 11:20). This event is also recorded for us in Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-38. The setting for the Lord’s Supper may also be found in John’s gospel chapters 13-17.
Below is the passage from 1 Corinthians
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.” 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.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Working through this passage, we need to note that the Apostle is communicating to the Corinthians what he had himself received. It is difficult to determine whether he had received this from the Lord, by means of the apostles who had experienced this supper firsthand, or whether it was communicated directly to Paul from the Lord (Gal. 1:12). Regardless, it is clear that the source is directly attributed to our Lord Jesus Christ, not from human wisdom or preference, and that the Apostle is laying down the pattern as delivered from the Lord.
With this in mind we come to our first observation and the phrase on the night when he was betrayed. This oft-overlooked expression is how the Apostle introduces the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Here we need to ask, is this a throw away phrase? Is it simply inserted to call our minds to that night? Or is it significant for reestablishing the pattern? We’ll dig into this more in a subsequent post when we examine the heart of this institution, but for now we must simply observe that the initiation of the Lord’s Supper was on the night of Christ’s betrayal establishing for us a time context.
Turning to the Gospel accounts, we are informed of an additional time indicator, namely that the night of Christ’s betrayal was also the night that the Lord and His disciples celebrated Passover. So, here is the setting: The Lord’s Supper was instituted on the night of our Lord’s betrayal, in which He and His disciples were also celebrating the Old Covenant Feast of Passover.
Our second observation is the tiny phrase, as often, which is used twice in the passage cited above and only one other time in the entire New Testament (Rev. 11:6). The first occurrence in our passage, “as often as you drink it”, is included in the quotation from our Lord’s institution. The second usage is in the closing summary from the Apostle, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup….” Of our brief contextual observations that we’ll make in this post, this seems to be the one that has attracted all of the attention and usually causes the most disagreements. As often has been used as a license to observe the Lord’s Supper daily, weekly, monthly, even quarterly. Read into this tiny little phrase, used only 3 times in the New Testament, has been a wide range of Christian liberty. How can there be such wide discrepancies in the observance of this covenant meal? Why do some congregations celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, while others one a month, and still others less frequently?
Which brings us to an important question, what would have been the frequency of observance for the early congregations? Would they have understood what as often was referring to? Would they have recognized any inherent pattern from our Lord’s institution of this practice for them to follow? Or would as often had been left open to interpretation as it is now?
Our final observation, is another time reference, until he comes. Here we are given a time-frame for the continual observance of it, namely until Christ returns. When we look at the Gospel accounts of the inception of the Lord’s Supper, this ongoing time reference will be significant again. The occurrence of this covenant meal, which as we’ve seen was on the night our Lord was betrayed, coincided with the annual Passover observance, and was to be continued until the coming again of Christ.
As a side note, it’s important to remember that the date for the institution of the Lord’s Supper was either 30 or 33 A.D., depending on when the birth of our Lord is dated. The Apostle Paul visited Corinth, laboring to establish a community of believers around 51 A.D. It’s likely that he penned his letter to Corinth while he was in Ephesus, around 55 A.D. (possibly as early as 53 A.D.). If at best we assume that there were believers in Corinth who had been taught the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper, then we arrive at around 20 years for the correction to come at the pen of the Apostle. If we allow that they learned the observance of the supper originally from Paul, then we arrive at around 4 years, and as little as 2 years, for it to become a distortion worthy of Apostolic rebuke. May that be a stark warning to us who stand 2 millennia after Christ’s institution of this covenant meal!!
Let’s summarize the questions and conclusions that we have seen in this post concerning the context of the Lord’s Supper inception,
- When was the Lord’s supper instituted? On the night Jesus was betrayed. This coincided with His observance of the Passover meal.
- How frequent was this observance? As often as you drink it. Debate surrounds whether this means freedom for frequency or whether as often is connected to the night of the Passover.
- How long was this commemoration to continue? Until He comes. A reference to the second coming of Christ.
In our next post, we will look more closely at the details of the institution of the Lord’s Supper and draw more upon the significance and connection with Passover.