Fruit of the vine
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.