In this post I move from consideration of weekly communion to the use of wine in the Lord’s supper. While both wine and grape juice may be permissible in communion, I believe that wine is preferable for a number of reasons. Herein I take it for granted that in the Bible wine is wine, strong drink is beer, both of these are gifts from God to be received with gratitude (which, like all gifts, can be abused), and that the use of grape juice in communion is a very modern and largely American development whose widespread practice is made possible only by the introduction of pasteurization by Welch almost 150 years ago. While it’s not my intention to establish these assumptions here, you can refer to Jeff Meyers’ essays on wine and beer (part 1, part 2) for some helpful considerations.
First we will consider some biblical-theological and typological reasons why the use of wine is most fitting in the supper. Then we will consider some practical considerations and precautions related to changing the church’s practice.
Do this. The New Testament uses the words “blood” and “fruit of the vine” rather than “wine” to refer to what we drink in the “cup” of the Lord’s supper. From this statement alone it is certain that Jesus is drinking wine. Genesis 49:11 and Deut. 32:14 strengthen this conclusion by establishing a Biblical imagery that specifically identifies wine as the blood of grapes. We will find further support as we look at the covenant meals that underlie the Lord’s supper, but for now we can say that using bread and wine are ways that we can more fully obey Jesus’s command to “do this.”
Passover. The Lord’s supper is strongly connected to Passover. It is interesting that only lamb and bread are directly prescribed for this feast. However, the Passover is a kind of peace offering; we see this in a couple of ways: first, that the ritual of the Passover matches that for the thanksgiving form of the peace offering. The peace offerings were the only offerings that worshippers could eat together with God. Like the Passover, the thanksgiving peace offering was an offering of an animal together with unleavened bread, and could not be eaten the following day. Second, Passover is described as a sacrifice (Deut. 16, Ex. 12, 34); of all the offerings, the peace offering is the only specific offering described as a sacrifice. Realizing this, we can now establish the connection between Passover and wine; as the people of Israel came to the promised land, God added a drink offering of wine to the ritual of the peace offering (Num. 15). We see additionally that other drink offerings were prescribed for Passover, although they seem to be connected to the ascension offering rather than the peace offering (Num. 28). Thus, wine is prescribed for Passover and therefore is also most appropriate for the Lord’s supper as its antitype.
Tribute offering. While the Lord’s supper is most closely connected to Passover, it is also connected to the tribute, or “grain” offering. We see this in that Jesus describes the supper as a remembrance (or memorial). Of all of the offerings, the tribute offering is the only specific offering described as a memorial. The tribute offering itself consisted of bread (Leviticus 2), oil, and frankincense (symbolizing the prayers of the saints), together with wine (Ex. 29). This offering was made twice daily by the priests. Since wine is prescribed for the daily tribute offering, it is also most fitting for the Lord’s supper as its antitype.
Tithes and offerings. Wine is also connected with the bringing of tithes and offerings. We see that when Abraham brought his tithe to Melchizedek, they shared a meal of bread and wine provided by the priest-king (Gen. 14). When Israel brought their tithe periodically to Jerusalem, God commanded them to feast on “whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves” (Deut. 14). The giving of our tithes is partly to ensure that there is “food in my house” (Mal. 3); God wants to show forth his prodigal generosity to his people, and his serving an overflowing cup of wine to us at his table (Ps. 23) is part of this. Furthermore, the firstfruits offerings were distributed to the priests and Levites, and in particular “the best of the wine and of the grain” belonged to them (Num. 18, also Deut. 18). As a kingdom of priests, it is right for us to enjoy good bread and wine from God’s hand at his table.
Worship. We see further examples of this in Nehemiah 8, where the people are commanded to drink wine rather than mourn on God’s holy days, and in Ecclesiastes 9, where joyful consumption of bread and wine is commended to us. Certainly Ecclesiastes applies to all spheres of life, but it applies in a heightened way to worship and the eating of covenant meals at God’s house; with Asaph in Ps. 73 we recognize that the only way to unravel the mysteries set forth in Ecclesiastes is by faith, and especially as we worship God and eat together with him at his house.
Tryst. We have many images for what happens in corporate worship; one such is that it is a tryst between Jesus and his bride. Jesus is present with us in a special way above and beyond his presence day to day. We see an example of this with Ahasuerus and Esther (Esther 5, 7), and we see Jesus ensuring that a wedding has not only enough wine, but also the best wine (John 2). It is not lady Folly but lady Wisdom who sets her table with wine (Prov. 9). It is true that wine is a symbol of lovers offering themselves, and is contrast with love and blessings that exceed wine (Song of Solomon; Psalm 4; Isaiah 55). But this is precisely why it is a most fitting symbol for the Supper.
Blessing. We can go on to count more blessings that wine conveys. We see wine bringing kingly rest at the end of labors (Gen. 5 and the play on “nacham” and “Noach,” taken together with Gen. 9). Wine is said to cheer both God and man (Judges 9, Eccl. 2), to gladden man’s heart (Ps. 104) and life (Eccl. 10). Wine is used for health and healing (Luke 10, 1 Tim 5). All these points make wine a fitting picture of God’s goodness to us which serves to enrich its meaning in the supper. By settling for less than wine we cheapen the picture of God’s prodigality that Jesus intends for us to experience in the “cup of blessing.”
Priests and kings. While priests enjoyed the wine that was brought to God’s house, they were not allowed to enjoy it in God’s house at his own table (Lev. 10, Ezek. 44), nor did they even sit in God’s house (Heb. 10). Jesus, the king of kings, did enjoy a perpetual service of wine and beer in his own house, like earthly kings throughout history; consider Melchizedek the priest-king, Joseph the greater cupbearer to Pharaoh, wine a symbol for kingly Judah (Gen. 49), Nehemiah the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, Ahasuerus repeatedly drinking and serving wine, the cup in God’s hand throughout the Psalms and prophets, and the cups that Jesus pours out in Revelation. In the new covenant, we not only have the privilege of all being priests in God’s house, but have the greater privilege of being seated with Jesus as fellow sons and kings (Luke 22:30; Eph. 2). Thus, one of the great changes from the old covenant to the new is that Jesus seats and serves us at his table in his house, like so many Mephibosheths. We see the Corinthians taking this great new privilege to excess in their excitement, but to refuse the privilege of drinking wine with God in his house is in some sense to deny the newness and betterness of the new covenant, to be content with more distant fellowship with Jesus when he is willing to give us more.
Nazirite. This progression from covenant to covenant is related to the restrictions placed on the Nazirite, which included prohibition not only of wine but of all products of the grape (Num. 6; Judges 13; Luke 1, 7). What we can say about this is that it seems that the Nazirite underwent a temporary deprivation of the blessings of the promised land, reverting to a sort of wilderness estate in order to conduct a holy war campaign. This helps us to understand why Jesus refused wine on the cross (Matt. 26:29, 27:34; Mark 14:25, 15:23; Luke 22:18), as he was both acting as our high priest according to the law, and also acting as a Nazirite holy warrior. This culminated with the drinking of wine when he had finished his work (John 19:30), so that we can say that Jesus, having finished his work and sat down, is himself no longer under a prohibition of wine. Indeed, he shares it with us week to week as he serves us his supper at his table.
We admit that the appearance of Naziritehood twice in Acts (18, 21) is a strange occurrence. A plausible explanation is that it is a unique historical situation prior to the total destruction of the entire old-covenant system in AD 70; much like the “to the Jew first” practice of church planting, which we also no longer practice today. In any case, we hold that the law of the Nazirite has no relevance today and no bearing on the lawfulness of using wine in the supper.
Covenant sanctions. God provides wine to his people as part of his blessing for their faithfulness (Deut. 7, 11; Prov. 3) and as a benefit of their redemption and regeneration (Jer. 31). At the same time, God also promises to remove his blessing of wine as a consequence of discipline and judgment (Deut. 28; also many of the prophets). To serve wine to God’s church is therefore to show forth God’s blessing and favor; to withhold it is to show forth his displeasure and judgment.
Inspection. Wine is a symbolic double-edged sword in scripture. It is not just the case that believers are warned against excess and drunkenness (Prov. 20, 21, 23, 31; Eph. 5; 1 Tim. 3; Tit. 2). More than that, wine is actually a symbol of God’s judgment upon the wicked, so that we can speak of a sort of “wrathwine” (Ps. 75, throughout the prophets and Revelation). It is even as a symbol of the suffering of God’s people (Ps. 60) and of Jesus’s propitiatory suffering for us (Ps. 69). Drunkenness is therefore not only a sin but also a judgment for sin. Thus, just as baptism is a double-edged sword of judgment and salvation (you are either drowned like the Egyptians or saved like Israel), so wine has a discriminating effect (you are either made merry or made to reel and stagger). This is not inconsistent with the imagery of the Lord’s supper, in that Paul makes it out to be a discriminator between those who eat with Jesus and demons (1 Cor. 10), and between those who eat in unity and disunity (1 Cor. 10-11; Gal. 2). This makes the bread and wine of the supper a sort of “jealousy inspection” (as in Num. 5, which included a tribute-grain offering so that it had both bread and wine) whereby God inspects the faithfulness and unity of his bride. Thus, the use of wine is most fitting as we allow God to do his potent work of inspection and winnowing. It is not a question of whether you will drink wine; it is only a question of whether it will prove a blessing or a curse.
History. The church has consistently used wine throughout history in the supper, and it is likely still the majority practice worldwide today. While we do not regard historical practice as absolutely normative, we do take it into serious consideration as an indication of how the Holy Spirit has led the church to understand how we are to apply scripture.
Practicals and precautions
For a church that offers grape juice today, I suggest that wine be offered as an additional option for those who are interested in taking it, so that both wine and grape juice are available and no one’s conscience is bound either way. For churches that pass out communion cups in trays, it would be possible to distinguish between the two either by the tint of the cups, by markings on the tray slots themselves (the inner rows are of one kind, the outer rows of another), or by passing several trays.
Certainly it must be a guiding principle for the church that “it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Rom. 14:21). There are several kinds of stumbling to consider:
- A brother who is prone to drunkenness may be tempted by the use of wine in the supper. This is a legitimate concern. For this brother it would be quite possible to continue to offer grape juice. However, it is also worth noting that this option has not been available throughout much of church history. It seems good to hope that many brothers in this position could be helped by being trained over time to drink wine rightly, connected with joy and fellowship rather than isolation and escape.
- A believer who is unaccustomed to the thought that Christians may lawfully drink wine, or that it is possible to drink wine without becoming drunk, may be severely distracted by the serving of wine. For churches in this situation, it would be pastorally necessary to provide education and time to reflect upon these ideas as a part of changing the church’s practice.
- However, a believer who remains prone to judge other believers who drink wine is not in view in Paul’s warning here. Such a believer is neither tempted to idolatry nor tempted to sin himself, but is rather passing judgment “on the servant of another” (Rom. 14) and is not walking “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2). It is a kind of legalism or Judaizing to be confidently settled in our own practice and have scruples about how other believers behave, especially if it causes us to disdain, judge or withdraw from one another at the table (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 10-11; Gal. 2). The introduction of wine in communion could actually provide a beneficial opportunity to a church to discuss how believers are to walk through disagreements over matters of practice, by highlighting the necessity not to pass judgment or to bind others’ consciences. This is always timely, because such issues are constantly cropping up in the church in diverse areas (education, nutrition, parenting, vaccination, entertainment, courtship, technology, etc.).
In determining how important the use of wine ought to be, we should consider just what kind of thing the supper is. Is it at root a visible-edible word-idea that primarily engages us at a rational-intellectual level? Or is it at root a covenant renewal meal that we sit down to eat together with Jesus in his very presence? This has a lot of implications, but as it relates to wine: do we really believe that we are seated together to dine with an extravagant king who calls us his friends? What kind of table do we believe that Jesus would set for his bride, or his bride for him? Does our practice tend towards reflecting all these beliefs and convictions?
Provided it is pursued carefully and wisely, I believe that a church can reintroduce the use of wine in communion in such a way that the whole church grows and benefits. Wine most appropriately shows forth and allows us to experience what Jesus intends to convey in seating and serving us at his table: including the richness and goodness of his creation and covenant, and his joy, merriment and prodigality toward us.
How long are we to be mere lumps of flesh? How long are we to be stooping to the earth? Let everything be secondary with us to the provident care we should take of our children, and to our “bringing them up in the chastening and admonition of the Lord.” If from the very first he is taught to be a lover of true wisdom, then wealth greater than all wealth has he acquired and a more imposing name. (St. John Chrysostom)
Hat tip: Al Stout
Some random questions and reflections on reading John 4, in no particular order and without having taken time to integrate them:
- Why does Jesus leave the area after the Pharisees hear? Do they function as a kind of Saul here, with Jesus carrying out the Messianic secret? Or could the Pharisees in this case be representing the quarrels over wells that took place in Genesis, so that Jesus is here repeating the paths of Abraham and Isaac in being forced to find another well? The latter seems appealing.
- Why Sychar? It is related to the Hebrew for beer and could suggest drunkenness. There seem to be mixed opinions on whether Sychar is Shechem. Contemporary Bible dictionaries seem to reject the idea. However, the connection with Joseph’s field (Genesis 48:22, and especially Joshua 24:32) seems to establish that this is Shechem. This is typologically very appealing, for in this passage Jesus offers the covenant to a non-Jew but he is not like the faithless Levi and Simeon whose offer of the covenant is only a pretext for murder. Levi and Simeon kill the men of Shechem after two days, but Jesus teaches the people of Shechem for two days.
- The sixth hour does not appear to have a strong Old Testament connection. I wonder here if it is rather serving a chiastic purpose, linking this passage with the sixth hour in John 19:14. Here, Jesus is named the Messiah; there, he is crowned. Here, Jesus speaks of his Father; there, of his mother. Both here and there Jesus thirsts. Both here and there women are prominent (the Samaritan woman, Jesus’s mother, Mary’s sister, and the two other Marys). Here Jesus speaks of the water he provides; there water literally flows from Jesus’s inner parts. Spirit and truth appear in both places as well. This fits with the chiasm proposed by Hajime Murai.
- The woman at the well is clearly marital imagery, following on two suggestions already in John that Jesus is the bridegroom, and following in the steps of the many wells in Genesis. The Samaritan woman is a new Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Zipporah. She is likely a type of Jesus’s bride, his church.
- Most commentators suggest that this Samaritan woman is a woman of poor character. James Jordan suggests that we have misread this, that she has simply been mistreated, following in the footsteps of the wives of Malachi 2 and Matthew 5 and 19. She is clearly no Jezebel. The fact that she represents a kind of typological Eve here I think tends to confirm this, that at worst she has been deceived and the primary blame lies upon her husbands. The fact that she may represent the church as the bride is a little less clear, as there are many more dimensions there (faithless shepherds, deceived flock, remannt). But I certainly don’t think she stands in for the faithless shepherds of Israel. Jordan’s suggestion seems very plausible.
- I have wondered often what it means to worship “in Spirit.” Some believe this implies the need for spontaneous emotion in one’s worship (perhaps connecting this with the wind of John 3 in order to reach this conclusion), but I don’t think that is what Jesus is getting at. James Jordan suggests that it implies “in the corporate meeting” because that is the sphere of operation of the Spirit, binding us together and working through us to minister to one another. That is possible, especially if we consider that this is contrasted against worshipping in Jerusalem. But I think the implication may be broader. Looking at Romans, being in the Spirit is identified with simply having the Spirit in you (Rom. 8:9ff), which is a consequence of belonging to and being connected to Jesus. This connection to Jesus is sealed in our baptism (Rom. 6), which ties us in to both the Spirit and the new creation kingdom (Tit. 3:5). That fits well with the preceding context here in John, which has much to do with baptism. So, we could paraphrase “in Spirit” by saying either “baptized” or “in the new kingdom-creation.” There is certainly also a Trinitarian aspect here: Father, Spirit, and Word-truth.
What does James Michener’s novel Space have to do with software development?
I’ve posted some reflections on technical debt and organizational discipline on my other blog.
Related to my weekly communion jaunt, a friend asked whether I see communion as central to the liturgy, and what elements of the service ought to be present weekly.
As to which facet of corporate worship is central, I’m not sure we can identify that any more than we can identify which leg of a stool is central. I do see communion as the celebratory climax of the service, but no less important is Jesus himself speaking a word to his people through the mouths of his representative heralds (consider how it is that Jesus preaches peace to the Ephesians in 2:17).
The notion of worship as covenant renewal helps to answer the question of what is essential and even in what order these facets ought to appear. It is interesting that the New Testament portrays the church more as the new temple (2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:21) and the new Zion-Jerusalem-assembly (Heb. 12) than the new synagogue. New covenant worship is the explicit heir of the old covenant’s sacrificial worship (Rom. 12:1, Heb. 13:10–16). We ought to look closely at how models like Sinai (consecration, word, meal with God) and the sacrificial system (the order of which is always purification offering, ascension & tribute, peace offering meal) translate into the new covenant. Other obvious covenant renewals like Deuteronomy and Ezra-Nehemiah are useful here; so too are David’s liturgical reforms that overlay sacrifice with song; and Revelation, however obscure, nevertheless gives us a heavenly pattern for organized corporate worship. Kline and others have done work analyzing the structure of Biblical covenants that is helpful here. But even considering only Sinai and the sacrificial system it seems evident that we ought to have a minimal pattern of confession-absolution; followed by ascension in song to bring tribute and hear a word from our commander-king-husband; and closing with a meal. (It seems possible to link these three legs of the stool with the offices of Jesus, and also with the members of the Trinity.) In addition to these three, a good case can be made as well for a kind of call and commissioning as opposite book-ends of the service.
How do we integrate this order of worship with 1 Cor. 14, where everyone is to bring a hymn, lesson, revelation, tongue, or interpretation? These fit with the central “ascension” portion of the service: the song and tithe and word. Obviously that leaves unanswered questions of what these things look like in detail, and what their specific place and proportion is.
Returning to the question of what is central in worship: it is Jesus who stands behind both word and food; worship is an actual going–up to meet with him. If he has spiritual eyes, who does the worship leader see when he turns around on the Lord’s day? It is Jesus (Rev. 1:10ff). Who is the true worship leader? It is Jesus (Heb. 2:12).
Over the past seven months I have written a series of blog posts arguing for the practice of weekly communion in the church. Weekly communion is not something for which we have an explicit command in scripture, so at best it is possible to establish it as a “good and necessary consequence” of scriptural examples and commands. This makes it a question of fittingness, betterness, and wisdom rather than a matter of right and wrong that ought to bind everyone’s conscience equally. Still, we ought to pursue not only what is permissible but also what is best, and I hope that you will consider with me the merits and blessings of celebrating weekly communion in the church. What follows is a set of arguments primarily from biblical theology and biblical typology: what you might call a sort of typological logic. You may find a few of these arguments to be somewhat fanciful, but I hope that you will find them to be cumulatively persuasive.
- In everything, eucharist!
- Jesus knocks: will we open the door and have a meal with him?
- Worship is sacrificial, so as priests we too have a daily partaking of bread and wine
- Worship is a tryst, thus morsels and wine
- Worship is the gathering of the host, a dress review banquet
- Worship is spiritual warfare, and we must always find a table set in the presence of enemies
- Tithing is linked with bread and wine via Abraham and Melchizedek, and is to result in “food in my house”
- Worship is not only a tryst, but a jealousy inspection, a day of the Lord
- Bread is to be set out continually in God’s house
- There is nothing better than to eat, drink, and be joyful
- Joyful feasting is commanded on the day of the Lord
- Following Moses’s inspired application, Sabbath feasting is how we obey the fourth commandment
- The church’s week to week experience ought to be a taste of God’s blessing rather than his judgment and withdrawal
- Whether or not we eat communion, we are showing forth something about the kind of table Jesus sets for his people
- Worship is covenant renewal, and to renew covenant is to feast
- Worship is in fact the renewal of a marriage covenant, and is it even necessary to ask how often a husband and wife should get together?
- Now that we have a perpetual sacrifice and are made permanently holy, we are continually in a festal season
- Worship ought to be accessible to all, from the least to the greatest
- The worship service that the early church inherited from the apostles was a Eucharistic service
While Jesus may graciously overlook the fact that much of his church today does not practice weekly communion, we still ought to consider whether it is better for us not to practice weekly communion, and for this I think we have hardly any excuse. God could have chosen the ongoing renewal of his covenant to take many forms, and he chose to cast it as a meal, a covenant meal, a family meal, for very good reasons. It is a widely acknowledged truism even among unbelievers that families ought to to eat together as much as possible.
I hope you will find that this has not only brought to mind the merits of weekly communion, but also other applications. There are many additional worthwhile directions we could take our investigation, and perhaps your mind is already reaching towards some of them. For example, we could ask whether it is better to use wine or grape juice in communion; whether it is better to use bread or crackers; what is the most fitting portion size for communion celebration; whether communion should tend to a penitential or a celebratory tone (Deut. 14:26, Neh. 8:9-12); just what kind of self-examination the apostle Paul means for us to make; whether little children ought to have a place at Jesus’s table (Ex. 10:9-11); where communion ought to fall in the order of worship and whether it ought to carry the burden of confession and absolution; the appropriateness or impropriety of individuals’ withdrawing from the table; and what sort of passages might be appropriate for use in communion exhortation beyond the tried and true words of institution. Perhaps we will consider some of these in the future if time permits.
Thus far in our consideration of weekly communion we have contemplated the testimony of the Holy Spirit through the biblical theology presented in scripture. But the Holy Spirit also works through the church—teachers are a gift of the Spirit—and it is useful to consider how the Holy Spirit has worked through the church in history.
It is generally acknowledged that weekly, twice-weekly, or even daily communion were the common practice of the early church. There are some hints of this in the Bible itself which are suggestive of a high frequency of communion if not weekly communion (e.g., Acts 2:42, 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:18, 20, 25). What is particularly interesting is to consider the absence of any indication that the supper could possibly be severed from ordinary corporate worship. This is so far unusual that Wes Baker writes that:
I have been unable to find evidence that any professing Christian until the Zurich Reformation (16th century), ever thought that Christians could have their regular Sunday worship without the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. I am not saying that they rigidly insisted that it never be omitted. My point is simply that they would consider such worship irregular. . . .
It was Zwingli’s liturgy that first introduced the idea that regular worship is primarily a preaching service. Up until that point, no one that I have found, ever seems to have thought that way. (The Lord’s Supper and the Weekly Assembly, unpublished manuscript)
Even by the time of Augustine, weekly communion still seems to be the general practice. In fact, Augustine urges tolerance toward churches that celebrate the supper weekly rather than daily:
There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live. (Letter 54, Section 2)
We certainly would not wish to swallow everything from the early church fathers hook, line and sinker. But it is instructive to consider that the early church lived in an environment where the Lord’s Supper was frequently celebrated.
Thus, weekly communion: because we have every reason to believe that the worship service the early church inherited from the apostles was quite plainly a Eucharistic service.