It’s widely known among Christians that communion should be taken seriously. But sometimes I wonder if God’s people feel an unhealthy amount of angst when coming to the Lord’s table.
One of the primary passages about the Lord’s Supper derives from 1 Corinthians. The church at Corinth is infamous for many issues: sexual misconduct, claims of spiritual superiority, going to court and suing one another, divisions over church leaders, serious misunderstandings of marriage and singleness, eating food offered to idols, misunderstanding of proper dress, not having an appreciation for certain spiritual gifts. And on and on we go.
Add another to the list: the misuse of communion.
It’s been customary for Christians to eat together since the days of the early church. At Corinth, Christians held events called “The Love Feast” in which the church gathered to eat a meal together, then participate in the Lord’s Supper afterward. But many Christians at Corinth did not take the Lord’s Supper correctly. When it was time for communion, dysfunction ensued. Some got drunk from the wine. Some did not receive the elements. Still, some ate before others arrived. It was so bad that Paul says their corporate worship gatherings were for the worse, not for the better (1 Cor. 11:17), and it was so bad that Paul said it wasn’t even the Lord’s Supper they were taking (1 Cor. 11:20).
This is the context. And this background information dictates Paul’s sobering words about communion. Understanding the particular circumstances at Corinth helps God’s people to understand why Paul commands his readers not to take communion in an unworthy manner, and why the people of God today should examine themselves before taking communion.
The Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians
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. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (1 Cor. 11:27-30).
What does it mean to examine yourself before taking communion?
Before I say what it means, let me say what it doesn’t mean:
1. It doesn’t mean you have to be perfect to take communion. Paul does not say, “Only perfect Christians are allowed to take communion.” If only perfect Christians took communion, nobody would ever take it. The warning is not for perfection, but to avoid the mistakes some of the Corinthians were making.
2. It doesn’t mean you have to examine yourself toward the point of unhealthy introspection. For some of you, the moment before taking communion, you consider all the shortcomings of your week:
Monday: I skipped my quiet time.
Tuesday: I went 12 over the speed limit.
Wednesday: I said something I shouldn’t to my spouse.
Thursday: I thought a mean thought toward my co-worker.
And on and on you go in excessive, agonizing, introspection. I don’t think that’s what Paul means when he says to examine yourself.
When Paul says don’t take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, he’s speaking of all the issues going on at Corinth: eating alone, getting drunk on the wine, etc. But more context is needed. See, at Corinth, the successful Christians were looking down on the less successful ones. This spirit followed them at the Lord’s table, and it led some to take the elements in a way in which they felt snobbish toward others. To partake of the Lord’s Supper while looking down on those for whom Christ died is to misunderstand what the Lord’s Supper means, and thus to take communion in an unworthy manner.
But our question still remains: When Paul says to examine yourself before taking communion, what does he mean?
What Does it Mean to Examine Yourself Before Taking Communion?
I think the answer is more simple than most realize. I hope these words are liberating for those of you who struggle with inordinate anxiety before taking communion.
First, examining yourself means only taking communion if you’re a Christian. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul says: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” The context of this verse is to determine whether or not some of the Corinthians are saved. In light of the dysfunction at Corinth, it is reasonable to assume that some who took the elements weren’t Christians. We can imply, then, that the exhortation to examine yourself is a call to examine to see whether or not you are in the faith. Communion is for Christians only and should be received in a Christian way, and that is displayed through proper behavior.
Examine yourself: Are you saved? Then you are a proper candidate for communion.
Second, examining yourself means making sure you know how communion points to Jesus and taking the elements in a proper way. You don’t have to know all the theological debates associated with the Lord’s Supper, but you do need to know why we take communion and how it points to Jesus. The bread represents Christ’s broken body on the cross, and the juice or wine represents his blood shed for God’s people. We take communion to remember Jesus’ death, but also because it is a means that God has ordained to strengthen our faith. As a result, it should be received reverently.
Examine yourself: Do you understand how the bread and juice point to Christ? Do you understand how precious of a reality this is? Are you ready to take communion in a respectful and thoughtful way? Then you are a proper candidate for communion.
Third, examining yourself means considering your heart before God and those in your church. If you are living in secret, ongoing, unrepentant sin, you shouldn’t take communion. If you have hate in your heart toward the person behind you at church, you shouldn’t take communion.
Examine yourself: Is your heart right with God? Although you are not perfect, does your private life match your public confession? Is their love in your heart for the marginalized in your church? Then you are a proper candidate for communion.
This is my understanding of what it means to examine yourself before taking communion.
Last time I checked, communion is for sinners. It’s for Christians only. Take it seriously. Consume with reverence. Know how it points to Jesus, and don’t make the same tragic mistakes as those at Corinth. Pursue humility by confessing your sin to God, and rid yourself of all snobbery toward your brothers and sisters at church. But after you do, take the elements in faith, knowing God will use it to spiritually strengthen you.