Paul’s Tricky Use of “Body” in the Lord’s Supper

If you’ve ever studied the letters of Paul, you know how difficult they are to understand. Christians in the New Testament era and apparently even the apostle Peter found Paul’s letters “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16).

Perhaps, the most difficult letter of Paul is 1 Corinthians. I’ve been preaching through the letter for several months, and nearly every text is a challenge.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time studying what Paul says about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 10 and 11.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. — 1 Cor. 10:16–17.

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.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 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. — 1 Cor. 11:23–29.

These passages are rather difficult to interpret, partly because Paul’s use of the word “body” is ambiguous. He uses the word to refer to (1) the historical body of Christ that was sacrificed for our sins, (2) the sacramental sign of that body in the eucharistic bread, and (3) the ecclesiological body of Christ, namely, the church.

There seems to be a deliberate play on words when Paul abruptly shifts from using “body” in one sense to using it in another sense. For example, in 1 Cor. 10:16, “body” refers to the historical body of Jesus; in 10:17, it refers to the church. And the link between these two uses of the word “body” is the eucharistic bread (i.e. the sacramental body).

This play on words continues in 1 Cor. 11, and it creates some uncertainty (apparently by design) with regard to the meaning of the word “body.” Before eating the eucharistic bread, we must discern the “body,” says Paul, but what is the referent of the word “body” here? Is it the historical body of Christ given in the sacramental sign or is it his ecclesiological body, the church?

The context of the passage suggests that Paul has both ideas in view. One Reformed scholar has offered the following helpful summary of Paul’s use of the word “body” in 1 Cor. 10 and 11.

Dealing with the problem of food sacrificed to idols, Paul compares the idol feasts and the Lord’s Supper. If idols were real, eating sacrifices offered to an idol would result in κοινωνία [communion or participation] with these idols (10:19–20). Similarly, eating the bread and drinking the cup at the Lord’s Table is (somehow) a participation with Christ; more specifically, it is a κοινωνία [participation] in the blood and the body of Christ (10:16). In addition Paul relates the one bread with the ecclesiological community as one body (10:17).

Some exegetes have suggested an identification of the sacramental body of Christ and the ecclesiological body of Christ, implying that the church is literally the body of the resurrected Christ. I see no reasons to do so. The bread as κοινωνία τοῦ σώματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ [participation in the body of Christ] is primarily combined with the cup of thanksgiving as κοινωνία τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ [participation in the blood of Christ]. Consequently, Paul refers in 10:16 to the body as the historical body of Christ, given in the death for us. However, in 10:17 ‘body’ denotes the communion of the church. Note that Paul does not say that the church is the body of Christ, he only emphasizes their unity as ἓν σῶμα [one body].

Nevertheless, it is still remarkable that Paul, playing around with words, uses both the sacramental and the communal concept of body. At least he suggests a relationship between communion with Christ and his (historical) body and the communion of the church as one body. The corporate communion of the believers, participating in Christ, is connected with a moment of (Eucharistic) union with Christ. This suggests the importance of a concept of union to refer to this moment. The ecclesiological use of the body-metaphor however says more about the corporate nature of the church than about union with Christ, although this corporate nature results from union with Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul returns to the theme of the Lord’s Supper. It is used in an unworthy manner: some remain hungry while others get drunk. The Corinthians did not eat together and despised the church of God. The problem is clear: a malfunctioning community. Within this context referring to the Lord’s Supper, Paul emphasizes that we should διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα [discern the body] (11:29). In 11:23–28, Paul refers to eating the bread and drinking the cup. As a consequence, it is reasonable that διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα [discerning the body] refers to the bread in the preceding verses as sacramental body of Christ.

However, the logic of the entire passage 11:17–34 necessitates that διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα [discerning the body] refers also to the ecclesiological body. It is undeniable here that Paul again plays with words and uses διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα [discerning the body] deliberately in an ambiguous way, hence relating the historical or sacramental body of Christ with the ecclesiological body. He sticks these two concepts of the body of Christ together on purpose. Laying this semantic relation by deliberate wordplay, he makes clear that those having communion with Christ by eating his body form together at the same time the body of Christ. Again we find a moment of union with Christ. Now the corporate union of the church and the union with Christ are related more explicitly.

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