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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 11

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) Be ye followers of me.—See concluding Note on 1 Corinthians 10:0.

Verse 2

(2) Now I praise you.—A new subject is here introduced, and occupies to 1 Corinthians 11:16. The exhortation of the previous verse probably recalled to the Apostle’s mind that to a certain extent the Corinthians did follow his teaching and example; and had possibly in their letter, to which he was now replying, boasted of their obedience. The rebuke which he is about to administer is, with characteristic courtesy, introduced with words of commendation. While there is a likeness in form in the original in the words “imitators” and “remember,” the latter is weaker in its significance. He exhorts them to be “imitators.” He praises them only for bearing him in mind in all things to the extent of obeying certain practical directions which he had given them. The word “ordinances,” or traditions, here refers to matters of Christian discipline (as in Acts 16:4; 2 Thessalonians 3:6).

Verse 3

(3) But I would have you know.—After the general commendation in the previous verse, the reproof for neglecting, or desiring to neglect, his precepts in one particular case, is thus introduced. The subject treated of, viz., the uncovering of their heads by women in assemblies for worship, was of ephemeral moment, and as we all now would regard it, of trivial importance. Every circumstance, however, which could in the least degree cause the principles of Christianity to be perverted or misunderstood by the heathen world was of vital importance in those early days of the Church, and hence we find the Apostle, who most fearlessly taught the principles of Christian liberty, condemning most earnestly every application of those principles which might be detrimental to the best interests of the Christian faith. To feel bound to assert your liberty in every detail of social and political life is to cease to be free—the very liberty becomes a bondage.

The head of every man is Christ.—The Apostle does not merely treat of the outward practice on which his advice has been sought, but proceeds to lay down the principles which are opposed to the principle of that absolute and essential equality, which, found its expression and assertion in the practice of women uncovering their heads in public assemblies.

The allusion here is not to Christ as the Head of the whole human race and of all things (as in Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:16; Colossians 2:10), but as the Head of “the Body,” the Christian Church: and this thought introduces the general argument regarding the practical subordination of woman, by reminding the Corinthians that though there is in the Church a perfect spiritual equality (as taught in Galatians 3:28), yet that it is an equality which is of order and not of disorder—that it is an equality which can only be preserved by remembering that each is not an isolated irresponsible atom, but a part of an organic whole. There is a Head to the Church, therefore it is not a machine composed of various parts, but a body consisting of various members. As there is a subordination of the whole body to Christ, so there is in that body a subordination of woman to man. The last clause, “the Head of Christ is God,” gives (as is St. Paul’s custom, see 1 Corinthians 3:23; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 15:25) completeness to the thought. As the Head of the Church—i.e., as the man Christ Jesus—Christ is subordinate to the Father, and, indeed, perhaps the idea is carried farther into the mystery of the divine nature itself, as consisting of three Persons co-eternal and co-equal, yet being designated with an unvarying sequence as “first,” and “second,” and “third.”

Verse 4

(4) Every man praying or prophesying.—The reference here is to public prayer and teaching (the word “prophesying” is used in its less restricted sense). The Apostle probably does not allude to any case in Corinth where a man had actually taken part in a religious meeting with covered head. The Greek practice was for men to have their heads uncovered when joining in religious ceremonies (Grotius in loc.). To this practice St. Paul would incline, as being the national custom of the country, and as also being typical of the distinction between the sexes which he has just laid down. The Apostle’s teaching on this subject is a remarkable illustration of how completely he had overcome his old Jewish prejudice, and how the whole of his nature had become leavened with the freedom of the gospel—for it was the custom amongst the Jews for the man to pray with covered head, and the face veiled with the Tallith, as an expression of his unworthiness to speak face to face with God. It was a profound insight into human nature which enabled the Apostle to realise how an external symbol would infallibly tend to modify doctrine, and how thus the perpetuating of such a custom in the Christian Church might have hindered the full recognition of the great truth of the personal and direct communication of every individual soul with the Father.

Dishonoureth his head.—He dishonours his own head inasmuch as it is the part of his body from which Christ has taken His title as “Head of the Body,” the Church—and thus he dishonours his Spiritual Head. even Christ.

Verse 5

(5) But every woman that prayeth . . . From the hypothetical case of the man praying or preaching with covered head (which was mentioned first for the sake of introducing the antithesis), the Apostle comes now to the actual case of which he has to treat, viz., the woman uncovering her head. At first sight the permission here implied for a woman to pray and teach in public may seem at variance with the teaching in 1 Corinthians 14:34, where she is commanded to observe silence, and the injunction in 1 Timothy 2:12, that women should not “teach.” In these passages, however, it is the public meeting of the whole Church that is spoken of, and in such the women were to be silent—but the meetings spoken of here, though public as distinguished from the private devotions of individuals, were probably only smaller gatherings such as are indicated in Romans 14:5; Colossians 4:5; Philemon 1:2. It has been suggested by some writers that the command in 1 Corinthians 14:34, does forbid the practice which is here assumed to be allowable only for the sake of argument; but surely St. Paul would not have occupied himself and his readers here with the elaborate, and merely forensic discussion of the conditions under which certain functions were to be performed which he was about subsequently to condemn, as not allowable under any restriction whatever?

Dishonoureth her head.—Both among Jews and Greeks the long tresses of a woman were her glory. Only in times of mourning (Deuteronomy 21:12), or when convicted of shameful sin, was a woman to have her hair cut short.

Here, again, the word “head” must be taken in its double significance. A woman with uncovered head dishonours that head itself by making it thus in the sight of others the type of a shame which is really not hers, and as her head typically is her husband, so she dishonours him also.

Verse 6

(6) Let her also be shorn.—The force of this argument depends on the fact that a woman’s head being uncovered would be regarded by others as implying the same shame as was indicated by a woman’s hair being cut short (i.e., shorn), or altogether removed (i.e., shaven). It is as if the Apostle said—If a woman insists on her right to pray and speak in an assembly with uncovered head, let her carry out this principle to its logical result; let her insist on her right to have her hair cut short, so as to show her equality with man—and what would be thought of her then! No woman with a spark of shame in her would think of doing that. Accordingly you admit that this principle of sexual equality does not apply in all such matters; and it is illogical to argue in favour of any general principle as if it were of universal obligation, when you yourselves admit that it is not applicable in some cases.

Verse 7

(7) For a man indeed.—In 1 Corinthians 11:4-7 the argument against the woman’s head being uncovered was based upon (a) the woman’s relation to man, and (b) the man’s relation to Christ in the Church. In the three following verses, 1 Corinthians 11:7-9, the ground of the argument is changed, and the same conclusion is arrived at from a review of (a) the woman’s relation to man, and (b) man’s relation to God in the physical Creation. The external form of this argument is the same as that adopted previously. The Apostle first states what the man must not do, and then conversely what the woman must do. The Apostle here takes up the order of creation mentioned in Genesis 1:2, and the argument runs thus:—Man was made in the image of God, and is the glory of God; but woman is the glory of the man (for woman was made out of man, and also man was not created for woman, but woman for—i.e., as a help-meet for—man). Therefore man, as a created being, according to the accepted order of creation, is the direct representative of God, and woman the direct representative of man (and only indirectly and through him of God). The spiritual equality of man and wife does not upset this relationship, and therefore an attempt to destroy the outward expression of it is to be condemned, as it would soon lead to an obliteration of the fact itself.

It is to be remembered all through this passage (and it gives a further emphasis to the allusion to Adam and Eve) that St. Paul is only speaking of married women—it is most unlikely that any case had occurred of an unmarried woman attempting such an outrage upon social feeling and national custom. The Greek women when in public (except those of avowedly bad character) either wore a veil or drew the peplum, or shawl, over their heads.

Verse 10

(10) For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head.—The two clauses which compose this verse are, perhaps, the two most difficult passages in the New Testament, and, accordingly, have given rise to an almost endless variety of interpretation. What is meant, first, by the woman having “power on her head?”

1. There have been many—some of them most fanciful—suggestions that the word for power (exousia) may have crept in instead of some other word by the mistake of some copyist; or that the word used by St. Paul may have been exiousa—“When she goes out in public;” or two words (ex ousias)—“in accordance with her nature.” All explanations, however, which require an alteration in the Greek text of the passage must be set aside, for (1) there is no MS. evidence whatever to support any other reading than the ordinary one, exousian; and (2) any alteration of a difficult or unusual word would have been naturally into a word that would simplify the passage—whereas here, if alteration has taken place, it has been to insert a word which has increased the obscurity of a difficult passage.

2. It has been maintained that the word exousia here means the sign of power, i.e., a veil, which is the symbol of the husband’s power over the wife. The fatal objection to this view, however, is that exousia expresses our own power, and not the power exercised by another over us. It is a word frequently used by St. Paul in this sense. (See 1 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Corinthians 9:4-5; 1 Corinthians 9:12; 1 Corinthians 9:18.) Whatever interpretation, therefore, we put upon this passage, it must be consistent with this word being interpreted as meaning some “power” which the woman herself has, and not some power exercised over her by her husband.

Most commentators have quoted a passage from Diodorus Sic. i. 47, in which the Greek word “kingdom” (basileia) is used to signify “crown,” as an illustration of the use of the word indicating the thing symbolised for the symbol itself. The parallelism between that use of the word kingdom, and the use here of the word “power,” has been very positively denied (Stanley and others), on the ground that the “use of the name of the thing signified for the symbol, though natural when the power spoken of belongs to the person, would be unnatural when applied to the power exercised over that person by some one else.” But the parallelism will hold good if we can refer the “power” here to some symbol of a power which belongs to the woman herself.

If we bear in mind the Apostle’s constant use of words with a double significance, or rather with both an obvious and a subtly implied meaning, and if we also recall the reference made to a woman’s abundance of hair in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6, and the further reference to a woman’s long hair in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, where the hair of the woman, given her by nature, and the wearing of a veil are used as almost identical thoughts, we may, I think, conclude that the “power” here spoken of is that long hair which is called in 1 Corinthians 11:15 her “glory.” It is remarkable that Callistratus twice uses this word exousia in connection with hair to express its abundance. To the Jews the recollection of Samson’s history would have given the word “power,” when applied to hair, a remarkable significance. To thus turn aside abruptly in the middle of a long passage in which woman’s subordination is enforced, and speak suddenly and vividly of her “power,” would be eminently Pauline. In the Apostle’s writings the thought of inferiority and superiority, of ruler and server, are frequently and almost paradoxically regarded and enforced as identical. To serve because you rule; to be weak because you are in another sense strong, are thoughts strikingly combined again and again in the Epistles of St. Paul. Thus I would imagine him here to suddenly turn aside and say, I have been speaking of your bondage and subordination, you are, because of this, to have a covering (a veil or long hair) on your head as a sign, and yet that very thing which is the symbol of your subjection to man is the sign of your beauty and “power” as a woman.

Because of the angels.—Why should a woman have her head covered (either with her natural veil of hair, or with an artificial veil shrouding her face) because of the angels? The same objections which have been already stated to any alteration of the usual Greek text of the earlier clause of this verse apply equally here. The MS. evidence is unanimous in favour of the word “angels,” nor can we accept any of the figurative meanings attached to the word angel as “the president” (see Revelation 2:1), or “messenger,” sent by enemies to see what took place contrary to general custom in those assemblies. We must take the word “angel” in its ordinary and general sense.

That the angels were present in assemblies for worship was an idea prevalent among the Jews (Psalms 138:1, in the LXX.), and regarded as they were by the Christian as “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14), no doubt their presence would be realised in the meetings of Christians.

We have already seen that the Apostle in his argument upon the relation of the sexes to each other (1 Corinthians 11:7-9), refers to the first three chapters of Genesis as illustrating and enforcing that relationship. What more natural than that his thoughts should have gone on to 1 Corinthians 6:0 of the same book, where is the record of the angels (in the LXX. the word translated “sons of God” is “the angels”—angeloi) having been enamoured by the beauty of women, and so having fallen from their high estate. This account of “the fall of the angels” is referred to more than once elsewhere in the New Testament (see Jude 1 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Peter 2:4), and through Rabbinical interpretations would have been familiar to St. Paul’s converts. Without at all necessarily expressing his belief in the historic accuracy of this legendary view of the fall of the angels, St. Paul might use it as an argument with those who did believe it (as in the case of the Rock. see 1 Corinthians 10:4, and Note there). You believe—would be St. Paul’s appeal to these women—that once, through seeing the beauty of the daughters of men, the holy angels themselves fell—even that thought ought to make you feel that it is not seemly for you to be without a veil (of which your “power on your head,” i.e., your hair, is the type) in those assemblies where the angels are present as God’s ministering spirits.

It has been urged (by Meyer and others) that the word “angels,” in the New Testament, always signifies good angels, and it is in that sense I would regard it here, for the thought surely is, that they are good angels, and should not, therefore, be tempted. I presume the idea was also that the fallen angels were “good” before their fall.

Verse 11

(11) Nevertheless . . .—Here follow words of caution, lest the previous express declaration of the subordination of woman to man might be exaggerated or perverted. This very subordination of one sex to the other implies a mutual connection, and not an isolation of each sex. The woman is not independent of, but dependent on the man “in the Lord,” i.e., in the Christian economy.

Verse 12

(12) For as the woman is of the man.—An appeal to the original act of creation proves the truth of the previous statement of the interdependence of the sexes. If already (1 Corinthians 11:7) the fact of woman’s having been taken out of man was used as an argument to prove her subordination, there is now coupled with that fact of the origin of woman that other fact of the perpetual birth of man from woman, to show that there is a mutual relation. The first woman was made out of man; therefore woman is dependent on man. Every man has been born of a woman; therefore man is not independent of woman. In the Greek the word rendered “of” represents a finite act—the word rendered “by” a continued process.

But all things of God.—Thus, as usual, St. Paul completes the thought by tracing all up to God. The mediate processes of their origin may differ, but the source of their being is common—they, and all beings, and all things, and the sequence of all things come of God. (See 1 Corinthians 8:6; Romans 11:36; 2 Corinthians 5:18.)

Verse 13

(13) Judge in yourselves.—In this and the two following verses the Apostle reasons with them—appeals to their own common sense, and to the indications of Nature, as to the evident truth of what he has taught them on this question. Surely you would not think it seemly for a woman (setting aside the question of men and angels altogether) to speak face to face with God in prayer?

Verse 14

(14) Nature itself.—This may mean, either “the native inborn sense of what is seemly” as contrasted with revelation; or it may signify the ordinary and evident arrangement of things in creation. Probably the former is the true meaning of the passage which refers to the fact that the heathen who had no direct revelation did (by regarding long hair as a woman’s glory) “by nature” the things contained in the Law (Romans 11:14).

Verse 15

(15) But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her.—We should follow the suggestions of Nature. If a woman has naturally long hair, which is given to her as a covering for her head, the covering of her head can be no shame to her; therefore let her wear a veil. “The will ought to correspond to Nature.”

Verse 16

(16) But if any man seem to be contentious.—The argument, and the appeal to their own good sense having been completed, the Apostle now adds that if, after all, some one continues to argue the matter captiously, and is not satisfied with the reason given, the answer to such a one must be simply—We, the Apostles and the churches of God, have no such custom as that women should pray and teach with uncovered head. It has been suggested that the word “custom” refers, not to the uncovering the head, but to the “contention” just mentioned. But the former interpretation seems more natural; and the Apostle’s object here is, not so much to merely censure the contentious spirit, as to show how such an objector must be dealt with. It is noticeable that the appeal is made to the practice of the churches (plural), not the Church. Thus it is not the authority of the Church as such that is quoted, but it is the uniformity of practice in the several Christian churches that is appealed to. The Church in Corinth has no right to become exceptional.

It may be well to make two general remarks on the scope and bearing of this remarkable passage.

1. As St. Paul taught regarding Slavery (1 Corinthians 7:21) that the object of Christianity was not to suddenly efface existing political arrangements, so he teaches here that Christianity did not seek to obliterate these social distinctions which were universally recognised. We know now how mighty an instrument Christ’s Religion has been in elevating the social condition of woman, but this has been accomplished by gradually leavening the world with Christian principle, and not by sudden external revolution. The arguments and illustrations which the Apostle here employs have a more abiding and a wider application than the particular case to which he applied them. They have been written “for our learning” as well as for the instruction of those to whom they were originally addressed. And the lesson which they teach us is, that Christianity did not come to unsex woman, but to raise, dignify, and ennoble her as woman—to abolish for ever her real wrongs, but not to yield to a revolutionary clamour for imaginary rights. Old and New Testament alike emphasise the truth that (as has been quaintly and truly said) “woman was not made from man’s head to be his ruler, nor from his feet to be his slave, but from his side to be his equal, and from beneath his strong arm to demand his protection.”

2. The influence of St. Paul’s instruction as to women not uncovering their heads in public worship has lasted long after the necessity for that particular expression of her relationship to man has passed away. While, in succeeding ages, again and again, some have forgotten the principles of the teaching, which are eternal, the particular application of them, which was only temporary, has been continuously and universally observed. Surely this is an illustration and evidence of the Divine Wisdom which withheld the apostolic writers from, as a rule, laying down minute directions for worship, or dogmatic formulas of faith. Men would, in a servile obedience to rules, have soon and completely forgotten the living principles on which they were based. To this day the universal custom in Christian places of worship, of women being covered and men uncovered, and the increasing revolt against the acknowledgment of the subordination of woman to man, of which that practice was originally the avowed symbol, is a striking proof of how the same spirit, which led Jews of old to be scrupulous in their observance of certain external ordinances, while forgetting the weighter matters of which they were to be the outward expression, was not merely a Jewish but a human weakness.

Verse 17

(17) Now in this that I declare unto you . . .—Better, Now I give you this command, while not praising you that you come together not for the better, but for the worse. These words lead from the subject which has gone before to another and different abuse of liberty in public assemblies, of which the Apostle is now about to speak. There were evidently three great abuses which had crept into the Church:—1. The discarding by the women of the covering for their heads. This only concerned one sex, and has been treated of in the earlier part of this chapter. The other two affect both sexes. 2. The disorders at the Lord’s Supper. 3. The misuse of spiritual gifts. The former of these occupies the remainder of this chapter, while the latter is discussed in 1 Corinthians 12:1-30. To render the Greek word “I declare,” as in the Authorised version, and so make it refer to what is about to follow, gives a more logical completeness to the passage, but it is scarcely allowable, as the Greek word elsewhere always means a distinct command (1 Corinthians 7:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:10; 2 Thessalonians 3:12, et al.). Others have suggested that St. Paul anticipates in thought the practical direction which occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:34, and alludes to it here in the words, “This I command you.” This view is open to the objections (1) that it completely isolates 1 Corinthians 11:17 from 1 Corinthians 11:16, while the Greek evidently intimates a connection between them; (2) that it is unnatural to separate the statement so far from the command to which it refers. It is better to regard these words as given above—forming a sort of intellectual isthmus connecting the two wide fields of thought which the earlier and later portions of the chapter embrace.

I praise you not.—This carries the thought back to 1 Corinthians 11:2, and shows that the commendation expressed there is still the writer’s starting-point, or rather the point of departure from which he proceeds to censure.

That ye come together.—Although in the English version the word “you” is inserted (“I praise you not”), it does not occur in the Greek. The passage is not, “I do not praise you because, &c.,” but, “I do not praise your coming together not for the better, but for the worse.” These words introduce the new topic which follows.

Verse 18

(18) For first of all.—We in vain look for the “secondly,” which, in a perfectly systematic treatise, should follow this “first.” Some writers maintain that 1 Corinthians 11:18-19 form the first point, and 1 Corinthians 11:20-34 the second. There is, however, no indication of a new subject being introduced with 1 Corinthians 11:20, but the repetition of the words “come together” carries the mind back at once to the “come together” in 1 Corinthians 11:18, and indicates the continuation of the subject there commenced, and from which the Apostle had, at the mention of the word “divisions,” for a moment parenthetically digressed.

It is better to consider the “first point” to be the abuse regarding the Lord’s Supper, which is more immediately treated of; and the “second point,” the abuse of spiritual gifts, commencing with 1 Corinthians 12:1. They are two branches of the one general subject, viz., “Irregularities in religious assemblies,” and although the latter is not connected with the former by a definite “secondly,” there is a sufficient verbal indication that a second topic is entered upon. It is well to remember in this and similar cases that this is not a treatise, but a letter, and not only a letter, but an answer to a letter, and that if we had a copy of the epistle to which this is a reply, many points of sequence and arrangement, which at present present difficulties, would be as clear to us as they were to those who originally received this Epistle.

When ye come together in the church.—The reference here is not to a locality, but to the character of the assembly, as we should say “in church,” or, “in parliament.” The spirit of faction, which has already, in the earlier part of this Epistle, been dealt with, as pervading Christian society, had invaded the Christian assemblies.

I partly believe it.—These words are full of the courtesy and charity so characteristic of the Apostle; and they suggest to us all a lesson regarding our belief of evil reports, even when reaching us on “the very best authority.” The general practice is to believe a little more than we are told. St. Paul believed a part only of what he was told.

Verse 19

(19) For there must be also heresies.—Better, For there must be also sects. There have been many attempts to explain where lies the difference between the “divisions” of the former verse and the “sects” of this verse. From all that we know of the Apostolic Church it is clear that neither of these words can mean sects separated from the Church, but “parties” in the Church. Christ had foretold (Matthew 18:7) that “stumbling-blocks,” or “scandals,” must arise in the Church, and it is possible that our Lord on some occasion spoke of these as “sects” (Justin Martyr attributes the use of this very word to our Lord); and St. Paul, possibly, uses the word here because it was the one traditionally reported as having been used by Christ in some of His unrecorded utterances. Christ has foretold that in the divine economy of permission such divisions will arise. They are allowed because this is a state of continual judgment; and the existence of such “offences” will be God’s means of manifesting those who are void of offence, and those who are not.

Verse 20

(20) When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper.—Better, Therefore, when you assemble in the same place, it is not to eat the supper dedicated to the Lord. Regarding 1 Corinthians 11:19 as a parenthesis, the word “therefore” connects this with 1 Corinthians 11:18. There being divisions among you, it is not possible for you when you assemble as a Church body (“in the same place” being equivalent to “in church” of 1 Corinthians 11:18) to partake of that supper which is dedicated to the Lord. The whole meal, or “charity-feast” (Jude 1:12), was distinguished from other meals by being united with the Lord’s Supper. To these charity-feasts the Christians brought contributions of food—the rich of their abundance, the poor whatever they could afford—and the food thus provided was partaken of in common by all. The Greek words in this verse for “Lord’s Supper” are more general (kuriakon deipnon) than those used in 1 Corinthians 11:27 and in 1 Corinthians 10:16; 1 Corinthians 10:21 (kuriou). The whole meal was dedicated to the Lord by virtue of its union with the sacramental Supper of the Lord.

Verse 21

(21) For.—Here follows a description of the conduct and mode of proceeding at this feast, which renders it impossible, as stated in 1 Corinthians 11:20, for it to be a Lord’s Supper. Every one greedily seizes (takes before distribution is made) what he has brought with him, and appropriates it to his own individual use, instead of making it a contribution to the general and common supply. Every one comes to eat his own supper, and not the Lord’s Supper. And the result is that while some poor man, who has not been able to bring enough for himself, remains unfed, some rich man, drinking the wine which he brought, and which he has not shared with others, is drunken. (See Note on 1 Corinthians 11:34.)

Verse 22

(22) What? have ye not houses . . .?—Better, Surely it is not that you have no houses to eat and drink in? This cannot be the explanation of their conduct, for they have houses in which they can enjoy their proper meals. Hunger and thirst, which can be satisfied at home, therefore, cannot be the explanation of their conduct at the charity-feasts. The only other alternative explanation, therefore, is that they despise an assembly which is the Church of God; and they put to shame those poor members, who, no doubt, were the majority, who have not houses in which to eat and drink, and have come together in this common assembly of Christians to share in the food which the wealthier members ought to contribute.

The shame which a poor man will feel when the rich come to these feasts bringing supplies for their own private use, and not for general distribution, will arise both from the striking contrast which will come out all the more vividly from his poverty being brought into such direct contact with the wealth of the rich, and from the evident dislike of the rich to partake of a common meal with the poor. Thus those assemblies will, through the misconduct of the wealthier Christians, have precisely the opposite result from that which they were intended to accomplish. It will be an assembly in one place, but not to partake of one supper—even that which is dedicated to the Lord. The Apostle asks indignantly whether such conduct can be included in the catalogue (see 1 Corinthians 11:17) of those things for which he can praise them, and then in the following verses shows how such conduct cannot be worthy of praise, inasmuch as it is entirely at variance with the solemn and sacred circumstances in which the Lord’s Supper originated.

Verse 23

(23) For I have received of the Lord.—Better, For I received from the Lord. Do these words imply that St. Paul had a direct revelation from Christ of the words and facts which he now recalls, or merely that he knew from the accounts given him by others who had been present, what took place on that memorable and solemn occasion?

The whole structure of the passage seems to imply that what follows had been received by St. Paul directly from Christ, and that he is not appealing to a well-known tradition, in which case he would scarcely have used the singular, “I received,” nor to something which he had learnt from the other Apostles, in which case he would not have said “I” emphatically (the word being emphasised by expression in the Greek), nor “from the Lord,” for the other Apostles had not received their knowledge of these facts “from the Lord,” but from their own observation and hearing. How Christ thus communicated these truths to His new Apostle we are not told. The method of communication (whether in a trance, or state of ecstasy, or any other supernatural manner) does not appear to cause either doubt or difficulty to those to whom the Apostle conveyed the information thus miraculously bestowed upon him.

That which also I delivered unto you.—The Apostle was not now for the first time communicating these solemn facts to the Corinthians. He had told them all this before, and therefore they were sinning against knowledge when they degraded a feast which they knew to be so solemn to a purpose so unworthy.

There now follows an account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which, as compared with the accounts given in the Gospel narratives (see Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20), possesses some noteworthy features. The Evangelists (St. Matthew and St. Mark) wrote their accounts many years after the occurrence, and recorded what they remembered to have observed and heard. St. Paul writes here, within a very few years at all events of his having received it, an account of what had been directly communicated by the Lord. This was also most probably the first written record of what occurred on that solemn night.

The fact that St. Luke’s narrative agrees most closely with St. Paul’s, would imply, not as some rationalising critics insinuate, that St. Paul was indebted to St. Luke; but that St. Luke attached high value to an account which his companion had received directly from the glorified Christ. The only differences of any importance between St. Luke’s and St. Paul’s narrative are—(1) St. Luke writes “given for you;” St. Paul omits the word “given” (see Note on 1 Corinthians 11:24). (2) St. Luke omits the words “this do ye as oft as ye drink it,” after the giving of the cup; but he implies them by stating that the cup was given “in like manner” to the bread, in connection with which he records these words. The suggestion that St. Luke copied his account of the Last Supper from this Epistle is a mere speculation, and in the highest degree improbable. If that Evangelist had used this Epistle in writing his Gospel, is it likely that he would have been content with giving the somewhat scanty account of our Lord’s appearances after His resurrection, when he had at hand the much ampler record of the appearance to the 500 brethren and to James, which this Epistle contains? (1 Corinthians 15:0)

In all the narratives, however, the outlines of the scene are the same. There can be no mistake as to their all being truthful and (as the minor discrepancies prove) honestly independent records of an actual historical scene. It is worthy of remark that in the heated controversies which have raged around the Eucharistic Feast as to its spiritual significance, its evidential value has been frequently lost sight of. If the Betrayal and Crucifixion are not historical facts, how can we account for the existence of the Eucharistic Feast? Here is an Epistle whose authenticity the most searching and ruthless criticism has never disputed. We have evidence of the existence of this feast and its connection with events which occurred only twenty years before. If we bear in mind that the Apostles were Jews, and yet spoke of that wine which they drank as “blood”—that they were lovingly devoted to the person of Christ, and yet spake of that bread which they ate as His “flesh”—can the wildest imagination conceive of that practice having originated with themselves as their most solemn religious rite, and the profoundest expression of their love to their Lord? Could anything but the record given in the Gospel narrative possibly account for such a ceremony holding such a place in a sect composed of Christianised Jews? A dark conspiracy like that of Catiline might have selected the tasting of human blood as the symbol of the conspirators’ sanguinary hate of all human order and life; but such a band of men as the early Christians certainly could not of their own thought have made such a choice, and publicly proclaimed it. And if this be true—if Jesus, the night before an ignominious death, instituted this strange and solemn rite, which has been handed down century after century in unbroken continuity—can that foresight as to the future of His Church be assigned to one who was less than what Christendom claims her Lord to be? When Christ died His Apostles gave up all as lost, and went back sorrowfully to their old work as fishermen; Christendom was not an afterthought of the Apostles, but the forethought of the Lord.

The same night in which he was betrayed.—These words imply that the history of the Betrayal was familiar, and they also solemnly and touchingly remind the Corinthians of the strange contrast between the events of that night and the scenes in which they indulge now on the same night that they partake of that supper.

Verse 24

(24) And when he had given thanks . . .—Better, and having given thanks, He brake it, and said,This is My body which is for you.” The insertion of the words, “take, eat,” and “broken” is not supported by MS. evidence. The former were probably inserted so as to produce a verbal identity with St. Matthew’s account, and the word “broken” possibly as explanatory. At the institution the act of breaking the bread explained sufficiently what was meant. The Master, while in the act of breaking it, said, “This is My body, which is for you.”

This do in remembrance of mei.e., all that was done then. Bless the bread, break it, distribute it, eat it. When I am no longer with you bodily, these acts will make memory grow into realisation of My presence in your midst. If the soft music of those words could reach us now, disentangled from the theological discords of intervening ages, surely they would come to us with some such significance. To those who first heard them they certainly must have implied not that a physical presence was about to be perpetuated, but rather that there was now something for them which would in after ages console them for a physical absence.

Verse 25

(25) After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped.—We have here an intimation not found in St. Matthew or St. Mark’s narrative, that the blessing of the cup took place “after supper,” which implies that the blessing of the bread took place earlier in the meal.

This cup is the new testament.—Better, This cup is the new covenant. The word “new” is peculiar to this and St. Luke’s narrative; it does not occur in the best MSS. of St. Matthew and St. Mark. The new covenant of grace between God and Humanity was ratified in the blood of Christ. The cup containing the symbol of that blood is therefore the pledge and witness of that covenant. This was a new covenant in blood (Romans 3:25) as contrasted with the old covenant in blood (Exodus 24:8).

As oft as ye drink.—This can scarcely be taken as a command to make all occasions of bodily refreshment virtually a eucharist, but must be regarded as referring definitely (as in the following verse) to this particular rite.

Verse 26

(26) For as often as ye . . .—The previous verse concluded the account of the institution as conveyed by Christ to St. Paul, and the Apostle himself now again speaks. All this being the true account of the origin of this Supper, as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup (as distinct from other bread and wine) you proclaim the Lord’s death until He come. The Greek word for “ye show” is that used for making a public oral proclamation. The passage does not imply, as some have suggested, that the Lord’s Supper “was a living sermon or an acted discourse,” but, as is still the custom, that when the bread and wine were consecrated to this sacred use, there was an oral declaration made (perhaps in the very words the Apostle here used, 1 Corinthians 11:22-25) of the facts of the original institution. The imperative form given in the margin of the Authorised version is quite inadmissible.

In the pathetic words “until He come” we may find an expression of the belief, perhaps largely due to the hope, that the Second Advent was not far distant.

Verse 27

(27) Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord . . .—Better, Wherefore, whosoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord. The entire weight of MS. evidence is in favour of the conjunction “or,” not “and,” which was probably retained in the English version lest the disjunctive “or” might seem to favour the practice of receiving in one kind only. It is, however, clear that if in these early days there was a considerable interval between the receiving the bread and the wine, it would have been quite possible for a partaker to have received one only unworthily, and the Apostle intimates that in either case he is guilty.

Sin was the cause of that body being broken and that blood shed, and therefore the one who unworthily uses the symbols of them becomes a participator in the very guilt of those who crucified that body and shed that blood.

Verse 28

(28) So let him eat.—This implies that a man should partake of this sacred feast only after he has carefully examined himself as to the spirit in which he was approaching such holy bread and wine.

Verses 28-32

(28-32) There are so many modifications required in these verses of the Greek text from which our translation is taken, so as to bring it into harmony with the best MSS., and so many changes needed in the translation itself, so as to convey more clearly the meaning of the original, that it will be best to give here a consecutive translation of the whole passage. It should read thus:—But let a man prove himself and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup, for he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh a judgment to himself if he does not discern the Body—(for this cause many among you are weak and sick, and some sleep)—but if we would discern ourselves we should not be judged; but being judged we are chastened by the Lord, in order that we may not be finally condemned with the world. There are several words in this sentence which call for remark.

Verse 29

(29) Unworthily.—This word is not in the best Greek MSS.

Damnation to himself.—The Greek word hero does not imply final condemnation. On the contrary, it only means such temporal judgments as the sickness and weakness subsequently mentioned, and which are to save the man from sharing the final damnation of the heathen.

Not discerning the Lord’s body.—The words “the Lord’s” are to be omitted, the weight of MS. evidence being altogether against their authenticity. 1 Corinthians 11:30 is a parenthesis, and 1 Corinthians 11:31 re-opens with this same verb. The force of the passage is, “He who eats and drinks without discerning the Body (i.e., the Church) in that assembly, eats and drinks a judgment to himself; for if we would discern ourselves we should not be judged.”

There are some important points to be borne in mind regarding this interpretation of the passage. (1) The Greek word, which we render “discerning,” “discern,” signifies to arrive at a right estimate of the character or quality of a thing. (2) The fault which St. Paul was condemning was the practice which the Corinthians had fallen into of regarding these gatherings as opportunities for individual indulgence, and not as Church assemblies. They did not rightly estimate such gatherings as being corporate meetings; they did not rightly estimate themselves as not now isolated individuals, but members of the common Body. They ought to discern in these meetings of the Church a body; they ought to discern in themselves parts of a body. Not only is this interpretation, I venture to think, the most accurate and literal interpretation of the Greek, but it is the only view which seems to me to make the passage bear intelligibly on the point which St. Paul is considering, and the real evil which he seeks to counteract. (3) To refer these words directly or indirectly to the question of a physical presence in the Lord’s Supper, is to divorce them violently from their surroundings, and to make them allude to some evil for which the explicit and practical remedy commended in 1 Corinthians 11:33-34 would be no remedy at all. Moreover. if the word “body” means the Lord’s physical body, surely the word “Lord’s” would have been added, and the words, “and the blood,” for the non-recognition of the blood would be just as great an offence. (4) St. Paul never uses the word “body” in reference to our Lord’s physical body, without some clear indication that such is meant. (See Romans 7:4; Philippians 3:21; Colossians 1:22.) On the other hand, the use of the word “Body,” or “Body of Christ,” meaning the Church, is frequent. We have had it but a few verses before, in reference to this very subject (1 Corinthians 10:16). It is also to be found in Romans 12:5; Ephesians 1:22; Ephesians 5:23; Ephesians 5:30. (In this last passage, “of His flesh and of His bones,” are not in the best MSS., and destroy the real force of the “Body,” which means “Church.”)

Verse 30

(30) For this causei.e., because you do not regard these feasts, to which the Lord’s Supper is joined as gatherings in a common body, but eat and drink to excess, and so gain no spiritual advantage, but actually physical evil, many are weak and sickly.

And many sleep.—Better, and some die. Even death sometimes resulted from their drunken orgies, either naturally, or by God’s direct visitation.

Verse 31

(31) For.—This joins 1 Corinthians 11:31 to 1 Corinthians 11:30, which see. The change to the first person, courteously identifying himself with them, is characteristic of St. Paul.

Verse 32

(32) But when we are judged.—This verse explicitly declares that the condemnation following an unworthy partaking was not final condemnation, but temporal suffering to save them from being condemned with the heathen.

Verses 33-34

(33, 34) Wherefore, my brethren.—To correct the abuses of which he has spoken, and to enable them to escape the judgments which were falling upon them, the Apostle gives them this practical advice. When you come together to this eucharistic feast, do not eagerly eat what you have brought; wait until all have arrived, and then partake in common of this Christian meal. If, however, any man is really hungry, then let him satisfy his hunger at home, and come to this Supper so that he may partake of it not to his judgment.

Verse 34

(34) The rest—or, literally, the remaining matters—doubtless refers to some other details connected with the charity-feasts.

From the foregoing we gather the following outline of the method of celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the Apostolic Church.
It was a common practice amongst the Greeks at this time to hold a feast called eranos, to which all contributed, and of which all partook. A similar arrangement soon sprang up in the Christian communities, and were called agapæ, or “charity-feasts.” At these gatherings was celebrated—probably at first daily, and afterwards weekly—the Lord’s Supper. It consisted of two parts—a loaf broken and distributed during the meal, and a cup partaken of by all present after it. This bread and this cup were distinguished from the meal itself by the solemn declaration over them of the fact of the institution (1 Corinthians 11:26). The entire feast, however, had a solemnity and sanctity imparted to it by the eucharistic acts which accompanied it; and while this bread and this wine constituted the “Supper of the Lord,” the entire “charity-feast” became consecrated by it as a “Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20), the phrase being similar to “Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10). To it the brethren came, not as individuals, but as members of the body of Christ. This gathering of the Church was His body now on earth; that sacramental bread and wine, the symbols of His body, which had been on earth, and which had been given for them. To the charity-feast the rich brought of their abundance, the poor of their poverty. But once assembled there everything was common. The party spirit which raged outside soon invaded these sacred scenes. The rich members ceased to discern in that gathering “the Body,” and to discern themselves as “members of that Body.” They regarded themselves as individuals, and the food which they brought as their own. The poor were put to shame; some of them arriving late would remain hungry, while the rich had eaten and drunk to excess. On those who acted thus there fell naturally God’s judgments of sickness and of death. To correct this terrible evil and grave scandal, St. Paul recalls to them the solemnity of the act of Holy Communion, what it meant, how it was instituted. He reminds them of how the whole feast was consecrated by having that eucharistic bread and wine united with it, and he commands those who wanted merely to satisfy their natural hunger to do so at home before coming to the “Lord’s Supper.” The two thoughts of communion with Christ and communion with one another, and of the bread and wine being the medium of the union with Him, and the source of the Christian unity, intersect and interlace each other, like the fine threads of some tapestry which are so skilfully interwoven that you cannot distinguish them while you look on the image or scene which they definitely produce. We may with theological subtlety dissever them; but if we do so we shall lose that loving image of the Holy Communion which the Apostle wrought out in his teaching, and on which he and the early Church gazed with tender adoration, and from which they drew the deepest draughts of spiritual life.

When I come.—There is no definite indication of an approaching visit in these words. They are quite general “whenever I come”

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-corinthians-11.html. 1905.
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