Q&A: Discerning the Body

What is the referent of “body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 11:29?

“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

Is it the members of the Church, as Doug Wilson supposes?

A few years ago, when one of my grandsons first came to the table (he was one year old), he was beside himself. His parents had taught him a basic catechism with signs because he could not really talk. He answered the question “Are you baptized?” by patting his own head. I was administering the Supper, and he was sitting in the front row with his parents and grandmother. When he got his bread, he held it up to show me. Now all this could be dismissed simply as a grandkid doing a cute thing, not really understanding it. But he also turned and pattern his mother’s head and his grandmother’s head. We are all baptized. He was discerning the body. To the extent he understood the Supper, he was discerning the body. To the extent that he did not understand the Supper (as the rest of us do not either), he was learning, just as we are. [1]

Why do paedobaptists always play the “cute” card? Is it not obvious that the corollary to “We are all baptized” is that Christianity is tribal and/or hereditary? That discussion is for another day. I just thought this was a great quote to illustrate what is often understood by this verse. But then what is the meaning of the verse? Its Covenant structure might shed some light on it.

Creation/Initiation: Paul rebukes them for not following instructions concerning their gatherings (Sabbath/Ark/Genesis – Transcendence)
Division/Delegation: There are divisions and factions among them, that those who are genuine might be recognized (by their obedience) (Passover/Veil/Exodus – Hierarchy)
Ascension/Presentation: Some use the Lord’s Table for gluttony and self-exaltation, instead of humbling and self-examination, confusing the house of God with their own houses (Firstfruits/Altar & Table/Leviticus – Ethics given)
Testing/Purification: Paul recites the words of Christ concerning the bread (His body) and the cup (His Covenant) (Pentecost/Lampstand/Numbers – Ethics opened)
Maturity/Transformation: Paul repeats the curses for drinking unworthily (Trumpets/Incense/Deuteronomy – Ethics received)
Conquest/Vindication: We must judge ourselves that we may not be judged. We are disciplined that we may not be condemned along with the world. (Atonement/Mediators/Joshua – Sanctions/Oath)
Glorification/Representation: Our gatherings are to exalt Christ, not ourselves. The Lord’s table is not for those who are hungry, but for those who are hungry for righteousness. It is the Table of the Spirit. (Booths/Rest/Judges – Succession)

It should be clear from this structure that the Communion table, a place of the kind of self-examination which leads to repentance and faith, is not for infants. It is not intended for the training up of children, except by observation. The “bread” they require first is the hearing of the Gospel. But the main point here is that the context of “discerning the body” is not about figuring out who is in and who is out.

The Lord’s supper is a combination of Israel’s Levitical priesthood eating the sacrifices before God, and Israel vowing to keep the conditions of the Covenant. Before the Mosaic Covenant, all sacrifices were whole burnt offerings. God ate the lot, as a consuming fire. The Noahic priests did not eat with God. To do so required a greater ceremonial cleanliness, a blameless people with “Levitically spotless skin,” as living sacrifices.

Moreover, Israel’s priests only ate before God, they never drank with Him. Between the first Melchizedek bringing bread and wine to Abraham (to vindicate him as a priest-king) and the last Melchizedek bringing bread and wine to Abraham’s children (the disciples), the wine was always to be tipped out as an offering. [2] The symbolism of the cup is tied to the jealous inspection of the bride in Numbers 5. In the big picture, the true priest-king was Christ, the only one who could rightly drink wine before God as a qualified Adam, the true Son of God.

So the distinction here, the “discernment” of the body is not the gathered saints but the act of judging rightly between sacred food and common food, between the house of God and the homes we live in, between the priestly table and the kingly table. When we eat at home, our food is not the body of Christ, and our wine is not the blood of the New Covenant. This is only the case when the saints gather together for self-examination, worship and Covenant renewal.

He whose god is his belly does not discern the Table as the flesh and blood of Christ but merely as food and drink. His outflow is not sacrificial blood and a river of living water but the filth of the bowels of King Eglon of Sodom. Those who discern what the bread and the wine actually are in God’s eyes will rightly discern themselves. Those who see  the Son of God on the Table, judging Jesus as righteous and themselves as unrighteous will, by eating and drinking, humble themselves and exalt the Saviour. His pure words are intended for our hearts, not our bellies (Mark 7:19). For those who love this world, Jesus’ pure words are Ehud’s left-handed (priestly) blade.

For Israel, this discernment was related to the difference between Passover and Tabernacles. At Passover, Israel was set apart for purification. At Booths/Tabernacles, a purified Israel was called to minister to, to “feed” the other nations. [3] For the Christian, this is the difference between the Lord’s table and the love feast. We examine ourselves, eat with God, and will then eat with the unconverted with the right heart, ministering out of God’s abundance.

So much for the basic argument. As always, the identification of the Covenant structure gives us even more information.

It is helpful to note that divisions in the assembly are often instigated by God for the purpose of purifying the church, as painful as this may be. It is not always simple, but in this case, gluttony exposed the swine.

At the Levitical step, we have saints acting like the sons of Eli, who treated the house of the Lord as if it were their own house, and the food of God as their own food. They exalted themselves instead of humbling themselves as God’s butlers, His faithful servants.

At the centre of the passage, Jesus is under the curse of the Law, drinking the cup in the place of the adulterous Bride. Even now He was covering their disobedience through His own death, just as He was still covering the sin of the Jewish leaders who were yet celebrating Passover and building the Temple in kingly (“Cainite”) disobedience to the Gospel.

The “Sanctions” part of the passage reinforces the idea that the Lord’s Supper is for the regular public renewal of the public profession of faith made by each saint at his or her baptism. Baptism puts the saint into the resurrection body, as one who has been slain by the Gospel and now possesses new life by the Spirit. The Table is the place of self-discipline for God’s knights, who judge themselves that they may not be judged, something which is insane to expect from a one-year-old unless one has an erroneous tradition to protect.

Notice that those who will not discipline themselves are disciplined by the Lord. This is exactly what we see in the letters to the seven churches in Asia, as Jesus “passes over” them on His way to destroy Pharaoh/Herod. He comes to tend His garden, the children of God (spiritual, not physical children), to feed them with righteousness and holiness. Those whom He finally removes (as He threatens to do in Revelation 2 and 3), are judged that the church might be preserved from being entirely “snuffed out.”

The final section, like the first, mentions the gathering (Booths). The Table is the place where the saints sit as elohim, heavenly rulers, those who are purified and are now fit to sit enthroned with Christ in heavenly places as His elders, His court, His advisors, and judge the wicked and advocate for the helpless by their prayers. The Lord’s Table is for the maintenance of the two-edged sword of the Gospel in our lives. It is a place of death and life, where we eat and drink Jesus, the priest-king, and then become life-giving food for the world.

[1] Doug Wilson, in his foreword for The Case for Covenant Communion, edited by Gregg Strawbridge.
[2] See “The Forbidden Feast” in God’s Kitchen for more discussion and a diagram.
[3] See “Eat Local and Die” in God’s Kitchen for more discussion.

ART: The Death of Eglon via Sarah Louise 

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