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Warfield on the Fundamental Meaning of the Lord’s Supper

According to some Pauline scholars, 1 Corinthians 10:14–22 “has been remarkably underused in most churches’ theology and liturgy of the Lord’s Supper.”[1] Theologians and liturgiologists tend to focus on what Paul says about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11 rather than on what he says about the sacrament in 1 Cor. 10.

To some extent, this asymmetrical analysis of Paul’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is warranted by the text itself. In 1 Cor. 11, Paul is directly addressing the practice of the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Cor. 10, he is not. Rather, he’s addressing the issue of eating food offered to idols. What he says about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 10 is incidental to the main point of the text.

However, Paul’s sayings regarding the sacrament in 1 Cor. 10, despite the fact that they are purely circumstantial, are, nonetheless, profound. It is unfortunate that this text has been underused in eucharistic theology.

Several years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that B. B. Warfield had preached a sermon on this text one Sunday afternoon to a group of students at Princeton Seminary. Warfield’s exposition clearly illustrates the importance of 1 Cor. 10 for a Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

In Warfield’s analysis of this remarkable passage of scripture, he seeks to explain the fundamental meaning of the Lord’s Supper according to the apostle Paul.


1 Cor. 10:16,17:—“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ? Seeing that we, who are many, are one bread, one body: for we all partake of the one bread.”

There are few injunctions as to methods of interpretation more necessary or more fruitful than the simple one, Interpret historically. That is to say, read your text in the light of the historical circumstances in which it was written, and not according to the surroundings in which, after say two thousand years, you may find yourself. And there is no better illustration of the importance of this injunction than the interpretations which have been put on the passages in the New Testament which speak of the Lord’s Supper. Little will be hazarded in saying that each expositor brings his own point of view to the interpretation of these passages, and seems incapable of putting himself in the point of sight of the New Testament writers themselves.

He who reads the several comments of the chief commentators, for instance, on our present passage, quickly feels himself in atmospheres of very varied compositions, which have nothing in common except their absolute dissimilarity to that which Paul’s own passage breathes. If we are ever to understand what the Lord’s Supper was intended by the founder of Christianity to be, we must manage somehow to escape from the commentators back to Paul and Paul’s Master. Here then is a specially pressing necessity for interpreting according to the historical circumstances.

The allusion to the Lord’s Supper in our present passage, it will be noted, is purely incidental. The Apostle is reasoning with the Corinthians on a totally different matter; on a question of casuistry which affected their every-day life. Immersed in a heathen society, intertwined with every act of the life of which was some heathen ordinance, the early Christian was exposed at every step to the danger of participating in idolatrous worship.

One of the places at which he was thus menaced with what we may call constructive apostacy was in the very provision for meeting his need of daily food. The victims offered in sacrifice to heathen divinities provided the common meat-supply of the community. If one were invited to a social meal with a friend, it was to an idol’s feast that he was bidden. If he even bought meat in the markets, it was a portion of the idol sacrifice alone that he could purchase. How, in such circumstances, was he to avoid idolatry?

The Apostle devotes a number of paragraphs in the first Epistle to the Corinthians to solving this pressing question. The wisdom and moderation with which he deals with it are striking. His fundamental proposition is that an idol is nothing in the world, and meats offered to idols are nothing after all but meats, good or bad as the case may be, and are to be used simply as such, on the principle that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. But, side by side with this, he lays a second proposition, that any involvement in idol worship is idolatry and must be shunned by all who would be servants of the One True God and His Son.

Whether any special act of partaking of meats offered to idols involves sharing an idol worship or not, will depend mainly on the subjective state of the participant; and his freedom with respect to it is conditioned only by his debt of love to his fellow Christians, who may or may not be as enlightened as he is. The Corinthians appear to have been a heady set and the Apostle evidently feels it to be the more pressing need to restrain them from hasty and unguarded use of their new-found freedom. He does not urge them to treat the idols as nothing. He urges them to avoid entanglement with idolatrous acts. And our passage is a part of his argument to secure their avoidance of such idolatrous acts.

The argument here turns on a matter of fact which would be entirely lucid to the readers for whom it was first intended, but can be fathomed by us only by placing ourselves in their historical position. Its whole force depends on the readers’ ready understanding of the nature and significance of a sacrificial feast. This was essentially the same under all sacrificial systems. The eating of the victim offered whether by the Israelite in obedience to the Divine ordinances of the Old Covenant, or by the heathen in Corinth, meant essentially the same thing to the participant. Therefore the Apostle begins the passage by appealing to the intelligence of his former heathen readers and submitting the matter to their natural judgment. He asks them themselves to judge whether it is consistent to partake in the sacrificial feasts of both heathen and Christian. This is the gist of the whole passage.

Participation in a sacrificial feast bore such a meaning, stood in such a relation to the act of sacrifice itself, that it was obvious to the meanest intelligence that no one could properly partake both of the victims offered to idols and of that One Victim offered at Calvary to God. To feel this as the Corinthians were expected to feel it, we must put ourselves in their historical position. They were heathen, lived in a sacrificial system, and knew by nature what participation in the victim offered in sacrifice meant. We may put ourselves most readily in their place by attending to what Paul says here of the Jewish sacrificial feasts, which he adduces as altogether parallel, so far, with the significance of the same act on heathen ground.

“Consider Israel after the flesh,” he says, “are not those that eat the sacrifices, communicants in the altar?” Here it is all in a nut-shell. All those who partake of the victim offered in sacrifice were by that act made sharers in the act of sacrifice itself. They—this body of participants—were technically the offerers of the sacrifice, to whose benefit it inured, and whose responsible act it was. Whether a Greek, sharing in the victim offered to Artemis or Aphrodite, or a Jew sharing in the victim offered to Jehovah, or a Christian sharing in that One Victim who offered Himself up without spot to God, the principle was the same; he who partook of the victim shared in the altar—in the sacrificial act, in its religious import and in its benefits. Is it not capable of being left to any man’s judgment in these premises, whether one who shared in the One Offering of Christ to God could innocently take part in the offerings which had been dedicated to Artemis?

The point of interest for us to-day in all this turns on the implication of this argument as to the nature of the Lord’s Supper in the view of Paul and of his readers in the infant Christian community at Corinth. Clearly to Paul and the Corinthians, the Lord’s Supper was just a sacrificial feast. As such—as the Christians’ sacrificial feast—it is put in comparison here with the sacrificial feasts of the Jews and the heathen. The whole pith of the argument is that it is a sacrificial feast.

And if we wish to know what the Lord’s Supper is, here is our proper starting point. It is the sacrificial feast of Christians, and bears the same relation to the sacrifice of Christ that the heathen sacrificial feasts did to their sacrifices and that the Jewish sacrificial feasts did to their sacrifices. It is a sacrificial feast, offering the victim, in symbols of bread and wine, to our participation, and signifying that all those who partake of the victim in these symbols, are sharers in the altar, are of those for whom the sacrifice was offered and to whose benefit it inures.

Are we then to ask, what is the nature of the Lord’s Supper? A Babel of voices may rise about us. One will say, It is the badge of a Christian man’s profession. Another, It is the bloodless sacrifice continuously offered up by the vested priest to God in behalf of the sins of men. History says, briefly and pointedly, it is the Christian passover. And, so saying, it will carry us back to that upper room where we shall see Jesus and His disciples gathered about the passover meal, the typical sacrificial feast. There lay the lamb before Him; the lamb which represented Himself who was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. And there was the company of those for whom this particular lamb was offered and who now, by partaking of its flesh, were to claim their part in the sacrifice. And there stood the Antitype, who had for centuries been represented year after year by lambs like this. And He is now about to offer Himself up in fulfilment of the type, for the sins of the world! No longer will it be possible to eat this typical sacrifice; typical sacrifices were now to cease, in their fulfilment in the Antitype. And so our Lord, in the presence of the last typical lamb, passes it by and taking a loaf, when He had given thanks, broke it and said, This—I hope the emphasis will not be missed that falls on this word, this—no longer the lamb but this loaf—is my body which is broken for you; this do in remembrance of me. And in like manner also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the New Covenant in my blood; this do in remembrance of me; for as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death, until He come.

How simple, how significant, the whole is, when once it is approached from the historical point of view. The Lord’s Supper is the continuation of the passover feast. The symbol only being changed, it is the passover feast. And the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine mean precisely what partaking of the lamb did then. It is communion in the altar. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; and we eat the passover whenever we eat this bread and drink this wine in remembrance of Him. In our communing thus in the body and the blood of Christ we partake of the altar, and are made beneficiaries of the sacrifice He wrought out upon it.

The primary lesson of our text to-day is, then, that in partaking of the Lord’s Supper we claim a share in the sacrifice which Christ wrought out on Calvary for the sins of men. This is the fundamental meaning of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrificial feast. The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper represent the body and blood of Christ; but they represent that body and blood not absolutely but as a sacrifice—as broken and outpoured for us. We are not to puzzle our minds and hearts by asking how His blood and body become ours; how they, having become ours, benefit us; and the like. We are to recognize from the beginning that they were broken and outpoured in sacrifice for us, and that we share in them only that, by the law of sacrificial feast, we may partake of the benefits obtained by the sacrifice. It is as a sacrifice and only so that we enter into this union.

A second lesson of our text to-day is, that in the Lord’s Supper we take our place in the body of Christ’s redeemed ones and exhibit the oneness of His people. The text lays special stress on this. The appeal of the Apostle is that by partaking of these symbols Christians mark themselves on the one hand off from the Jews and heathen, as a body apart, having their own altar and sacrifice, and, on the other hand, bind themselves together in internal unity, for “by all having a share out of the one loaf, we who are many are one body because there is (only) one loaf.”

The whole Christian world is a passover company gathered around the paschal lamb, and by their participation in it exhibiting their essential unity. When we bless the cup of blessing, it is a communion in the blood of Christ; when we break the loaf, it is a communion in the body of Christ; and because it is one loaf, however many we are, we are one body, as all sharing from one loaf. The Apostle very strongly emphasizes this idea of communion here; and it is accordingly no accident that we have so largely come to call the Lord’s Supper the “Communion.” It is the symbol of the oneness of Christians.

Another lesson which our text to-day brings us is that the root of our communion with one another as Christians lies in our common relation to our Lord. We are “many,” says the Apostle; that is what we are in ourselves. But we “all”—all of this “many”—are “one”—one body, because there is but one loaf and we all share from that one loaf. Christ is one and we come into relations of communion with one another only through our common relation to Him. The root of Christian union is, therefore, the uniqueness, the solity of Christ. There is but one salvation; but one Christian life; because there is but one Saviour and one source of life; and all those who share it must needs stand side by side to imbibe it from the one fountain.[2]


[1] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

[2] B. B. Warfield, Faith and Life (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990).


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