Since the Corinthian Christians had gravely erred in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the Apostle Paul had to remind them of the purpose of the sacrament as a commemoration of the atonement and its significance. By quoting our Savior’s words of institution at the Last Supper, Paul calls attention to the death of Christ for us and for our salvation (1 Cor. 11:23–25; see Luke 22:14–20). This atoning death reconciles us to God and to one another; thus, divisions based on socioeconomic status and partiality to particular people must not occur in the church (Eph. 2:14–16; Col. 1:18–20; James 2:1–13). When we show partiality, particularly at the Lord’s Table, we have failed to grasp the significance of the Lord’s death. That was the problem at Corinth, but it is a problem that can occur in any church. Sadly, divisions between Christians on the basis of race, social class, and wealth have occurred in church history.
Understanding the Lord’s Supper rightly helps us avoid these issues. In today’s passage, the Apostle calls attention to the Lord’s Supper as a proclamation of “the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Although the actions of eating the bread and drinking the wine do visibly proclaim the Lord’s death, Paul does not mean that consuming the elements proclaims Christ’s atonement apart from the verbal explanation of the sacrament. If the Lord’s Supper were self-explanatory apart from verbal teaching, the Apostle would not have needed to quote Jesus’ words of institution in the preceding verses (vv. 23–25). As one commentator notes, the Greek verb translated as “proclaim” in the New Testament always refers to the verbal proclamation of the gospel, including here. The sacraments are visible signs of the gospel, but they are meaningless apart from the preaching of the gospel and explanation of their significance.
Today’s passage also highlights the past and future references found in the Lord’s Supper. It proclaims “the Lord’s death” (v. 26), looking back to the crucifixion and the work of reconciliation Christ accomplished on the cross. It makes this proclamation “until he comes,” looking forward to Jesus’ return to consummate His kingdom (v. 26). By celebrating the supper rightly in the present, not using it to show partiality or sow division, we experience the benefits of Jesus’ death in unifying us as one people where we fellowship across social divisions, and we get a taste of the perfect unity that will occur when our Lord brings the new heaven and earth.