Revising the Practice of the Lord’s Supper at Faith Presbyterian Church No. 2: Wine, No. 1


Last week we reviewed the changes to our worship that have been put into effect one by one over the years as a way of putting into context some further changes that are now in mind. We also pointed out that our way of taking the Lord’s Supper was “traditional.” That is, in many ways, it cannot be expressly derived from the teaching of Holy Scripture. That, in itself, is not a problem as everyone’s practice is traditional in many ways. We are never told precisely how a church in the apostolic era celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Christians have done it differently through the ages and do it differently today. But, many of our practices being traditional, it is wise to subject them now and again to review and reconsideration, as it is always possible that there is a better way to do things. We do not want to perpetuate our practices of worship simply because they are our practices and we are familiar with them and comfortable using them. That is what happened with kneeling for prayer in Reformed churches. A biblical custom was lost because the result of a long ago controversy about kneeling to receive the elements in communion was perpetuated by the force of habit.

We are not, by any means, the only church, even in our own Presbyterian Church in America, that is thinking again about the Lord’s Supper. As I said last week, the more frequently the Lord’s Supper has been taken in our churches – infrequent communion was another Presbyterian tradition that needed to be reconsidered and when it was it was abandoned very quickly – the more people have thought about our traditional practice. That thinking has resulted in many changes around our church.

Two changes, in particular, have been widely introduced in recent years. One is the return to wine and the other is a move away from pew communion, the receiving of the elements while seated in the pew. These are the matters we are going to be speaking about in coming Lord’s Days, though we will touch on other things as we go.

But, we begin this evening with wine and whether wine rather than grape juice ought to be used in the Lord’s Supper.

Wine in the Bible

Now, as I said last week, I want us to pay careful attention to the argument that has been made against the use of wine in communion. Many folk in our own circles feel very strongly that it is improper to use wine in communion and, broadly, their arguments have carried the day for three or four generations in our Reformed and Presbyterian circles. It is these arguments that explain our practice of using grape juice for communion, which has been the practice of this church since its organization in the early 1950s and of the charter members of the church for long before that. Those arguments have seemed persuasive to many earnest Christians through the years and we want to hear them fairly and carefully.

As I told you last week, the way I propose to do that is to offer to you the arguments against drinking wine given by John MacArthur, the Southern California pastor, whose pulpit ministry we respect and whose work in recent years in reasserting the Reformation doctrine of sanctification has been so helpful to many (The Gospel according to Jesus.)

I have listened to three tapes of lengthy morning messages preached by Pastor MacArthur at his Grace Community Church and then subsequently rebroadcast on his radio program. The first sermon was on the sin of drunkenness. I am going to pay attention to that subject later in this series, but, of course, we will have no disagreement with his stern condemnation of drunkenness. The Bible and the entire tradition of the Christian ministry has been pitiless in its condemnation of the sin of drunkenness.

But in the second and third tapes Mr. MacArthur argues against the Christian’s use of wine. To be sure, he does not condemn any and all drinking of alcoholic beverages. How could he? The Bible even praises wine in a number of places. It was given to God as an offering in OT worship. It is an image of the day of salvation, and so on. “The Bible does not forbid the drinking of wine,” he says clearly.

However, he then goes on to make eight points about wine drinking that, taken together, amount to an argument that Christians today should not drink wine. I’m going to deal with the first of these eight points tonight. It is the one he spends by far the most time discussing and, clearly, it is the one on which is suspended his entire case against Christians’ use of wine.

Here is his argument. If one is going today to take the freedom to drink wine from the biblical texts that show godly men and women drinking wine then he or she must be sure that today’s wine is the same thing as it was in the ancient world. And, says Pastor MacArthur, it is not. In fact, the wine of the Bible had a much smaller alcoholic content than today’s wine. Indeed, much of it was what we would recognize as simply concentrated grape juice.

He spent a great deal of time in that lecture describing the process in which wine was made in the ancient world and how much of it was made from a syrupy paste that had itself been made from the pressing of the grapes and which was virtually non-alcoholic. Wine was then created from the paste by the addition of water. This created a drink that was not intoxicating. Much of what is called wine in the Bible was this concentrated grape juice.

However some wine was made from the liquid pressed from the grapes and placed in containers where it fermented. But this drink was always diluted, from 3 parts water to one part wine to 20 parts water to one part wine.

His conclusion, and I give it to you in his own words, is “They drank either what was totally unintoxicating or was so mixed that its intoxicating power was minimal.” In fact, he offers some numerical values to show that ancient wine, assuming a 3 parts water to 1 part wine mixture, would not be classified as an alcoholic drink by standards that are used to determine such things today.

What then of drunkenness? Well, says Mr. MacArthur, in the ancient world a person had to set out to get drunk. The alcoholic content of the wine was so low that you had to drink a very large amount to become inebriated. In fact, in one rather humorous section of the message, he speaks about how someone would have had to overcome the limitations of his bladder in order to get drunk on the wine of Bible times.

So, in conclusion, the Bible speaks of wine and drinking wine, but what it means by wine is something very different from what we mean by wine today, a drink with an alcoholic content of somewhere between 5 and 11%. The alcoholic content of the wine in the biblical era was negligible. Or, to put it in terms of the question as it bears on the Lord’s Supper, the grape juice we use now would be closer to biblical wine than wine as it might be purchased and used for the sacrament today.

Now what are we to make of this argument that the wine of the ancient near-eastern world was so much less potent than modern day wine as to be virtually a non-alcoholic drink. Mr. MacArthur is not the only one to make this argument, of course. It has been made many times by people who are opposed to wine-drinking and to its use in the sacrament.

I confess that it is perhaps more frustrating than it is difficult to respond to this argument. Mr. MacArthur no doubt believes very strongly that what he has told us is true and accurate information, that he has represented wine and wine-making in the ancient world as it really was. But, what his congregation never heard was that the only people who agree with his account of things are those who are adamant advocates of total-abstinence! Mr. MacArthur, in giving his account of wine-making and of the nature of wine in the ANE, takes a view that is nowhere to be found in linguistic or historical scholarship apart from this small pocket of evangelical teetotalers. Several times during his message Pastor MacArthur quoted from some scholar or scholarly work, but they were old, arcane works from a century or more ago. It would be hard even to find those works. But there are a great many works of reference that can be consulted today and none of them, none! provide support for the position he takes. What he did not tell his congregation was that his view required him to part company with virtually the entirety of modern scholarship, biblical and historical scholarship, including a very large number of experts on wine, on biblical languages, on Greco-Roman culture who have absolutely no axe to grind and never have given a thought to the contention in evangelical Christianity over drinking alcoholic beverages.

What, in fact, do we know about wine in the Bible and in the ANE.

1. Well, all the wine mentioned in the Bible is fermented grape juice with an alcohol content and the power to make a person inebriated. No non-fermented drink was called wine. There is a way of speaking of unfermented grape juice; it is found in Numbers 6:3 [literally, “to drink grapes”]. It is not a word ever used for wine. Indeed, in that place it is contrasted with wine. The person making a Nazirite vow could not drink wine for the duration of the vow or even grape juice or even eat a grape. In Gen. 40:11 we read of drinking the juice that had just been pressed from the grapes, but that juice is never called “wine” in the Bible. The same words used in the Hebrew OT and the Greek NT for wine or other strong drinks (beer especially) are used both when the biblical author is celebrating wine and commending its use and when he is warning against its dangers. The making of wine from grapes goes way back in human history. Viticulture is one of the oldest forms of agriculture. Already in Gen. 9:20 we read, “Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk…” The climate and soil of Palestine was excellently adapted to producing grapes and from the earliest times wine was a common beverage in the country. In a document dated c. 1780 B.C., so between the time of Abraham and Moses, an Egyptian man, Sinuhe, relates his adventures in Palestine. He writes, “There were figs there and wine grapes and more wine than water…. I had bread to eat every day and wine as an everyday drink.” [TDOT, vi, 60]

2. Every term used for wine in the Bible, both in the OT and the NT, is used many times in contexts that indicate wine’s capacity to inebriate. The church father, Jerome, one of the great early translators of the Bible, defined one of the general Hebrew terms for wine or strong drink as omne quod inebriare potest, anything that is able to inebriate. Indeed, that particular noun is related to a verb that means “to be or to become drunk.” Even “new wine,” wine that had not fermented for more than a few days, had the power to inebriate. Fermentation takes place quickly, all the more in the Near East. As we read in Hos. 4:11, both old wine and new can “take away the understanding of the people.” Or, contrarily, as some authorities suggest, the term “new wine” refers rather to wine made from the first drippings of the juice, before the winepress was trodden. This would then be a particularly potent wine and would explain why, for example in Acts 2:13, “new wine” or “sweet wine” may be especially connected in the mind of people with drunkenness. [NBD, 1331]

3. The Bible never makes a distinction between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, warning against the one and commending the other. The happy and holy use is commended and celebrated of that very same drink the abuse of which is so severely condemned. The very same drink can, as a gift of God, gladden the heart of a man (Ps. 104:15) or befuddle his mind (Isa. 28:7).

4. Both according to the Bible and to historical and archaeological evidence, wine was produced by the pressing of grapes in wine presses – either stone pits or holes in the ground that were then coated with plaster and pitch – often with two pits together, the one higher than the other, from which higher pit where the grapes were pressed the expressed juice ran through a channel into the lower, deeper, fermenting pit. The grape harvest was in August and September, the clusters of grapes were cut from the vine with knives and collected in baskets. Sometimes they were spread out in the sun, usually in the vineyard itself, for up to fourteen days in order to increase the sugar content of the fruit. Otherwise they were dumped immediately into the wine press. As today, so then, there were regions more famous for their wines. After several days the juice was drawn off and placed either in stone jars or tanned goat skins in which the openings where the legs and tail were had been sewn shut. Once the wine was placed in the skin the neck was tied off as well. As the wine fermented and released CO2, the skin expanded and stretched. Fermentation begun already in the press continued in the containers for some weeks or several months after that. Old wineskins could not be reused to store new wine because they had already been stretched out and the expansion required of another process of fermentation would burst them. The Lord refers to this commonplace of ANE viticulture in his famous illustration in Matthew 9:17. “Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do the skins will burst…” There are many references in the Bible to the pressing of grapes, their fermentation (e.g. “aged wine” is the best wine, Isa. 25:6), and the drinking of wine (as a drink at ordinary meals, as a special drink at feasts, even wine as a drug, such as was offered to the Lord on the cross. Sometimes the jugs were labeled with the kind of wine or place of origin. Wine’s medicinal uses were also celebrated. Remember Paul’s advice to Timothy to “take a little wine for his stomach” in 1 Tim. 5:23. Wine formed an important part of the diet of both rich and poor, but the rich drank better wine, of course, as they do today.

5. Wine was stored in cellars near the house. In Palestine it was probably a dark blue variety of grape that was grown from which a common red wine was made. To fortify wine or give it a more pleasing taste wine was sometimes mixed with pepper, wormwood, or incense. It was then called a spiced or mixed wine. Wine mixed with myrrh was used as a narcotic.

6. “Wine on the lees” is wine, often from a second pressing of the grapes, that had matured in the container in which it was first poured and thus was resting on the particles of foreign matter – “lees” is the sediment in the fermentation process – that then had to be strained out when the wine was ready to be drunk. This is the origin of the Lord’s homely remark about the Pharisees, that they “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” Wine was strained of its impurities, sediments, the insects that had fallen into the vat, etc. before it was drunk. This secondary wine, recovered from the first pressing, made a vinegar that was considered a good thirst quencher when mixed with water.

7. By the time of the NT, wine was traditionally mixed with water – sometimes with other things – and usually in a ration of three parts water to one of wine. It is not known that this was always done in Palestine. It was, apparently, a Greek custom imported into Judea. This was done both to reduce potency and to improve taste. As one study on the history of wine I read explained, the wines of the Greco-Roman world were stronger than ours – precisely the reverse of the claim made by John MacArthur – that, is, had a higher alcohol content than we are used to today. [In Celebration of Wine and Life, 28] However, it cannot be demonstrated that all wine was diluted, even in the NT era, and there is no evidence that wine was regularly diluted in the OT times. For example, dilution is disparaged as a way of ruining a fine wine in Isa. 1:22. “Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.” In any case, mixture notwithstanding, the drink was capable of rendering the person who drank too much of it inebriated and there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that one had really to devote himself to drinking wine in order to get drunk. [The above taken from a variety of sources including, D.F. Watson, “Wine,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 870-873; J. Meyers, “Concerning Wine and Beer,” Rite Reasons Nos. 48-49; K. Gentry, “Debate with Stephen Reynolds,” Antithesis, Vol. II, No. 2 (March/April 1991) 41-48; C. Brown, NIDNTT, vol. 3, 918-923; NBD, DCG, WBE ad locis; TDOT, vi, 59-64]

You need to know that there is nothing controversial about any of the above information except in the minds of those who are determined to maintain the impropriety of wine drinking. I hardly know how to respond to Mr. MacArthur. He has developed a view of ancient near-eastern wine that nobody else holds, that I cannot find in the literature of biblical or historical scholarship, and that clearly is not suggested by anything in the Bible itself and seems, in fact, to be not at all the impression left by the biblical evidence, of which there is a great deal!

At one point in his lecture, Pastor MacArthur may have given himself away. Speaking of the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana – by the way, he understands the significance of the large jugs filled with water at Cana as the Lord’s way of leaving no doubt throughout history that he had not created unmixed wine! That is a view I find extraordinary! The water was turned to wine, it was not mixed with wine! – he says, “I believe in my own heart that when the Lord Jesus Christ served wine he would not have served wine that had the potential of making people drunk.”

There, I think, is the problem. For Pastor MacArthur, drinking wine is wrong – for reasons that will become clear over the next several weeks – and so he comes to the biblical text convinced that it simply could not be recommending or even permitting the drinking of alcoholic beverages. And that conviction, deeply held as it is in his mind and heart, has made it much more difficult for him to face the facts. Wine is wine. It was largely the same drink then as it is today. It is a drink that the Bible celebrates in many ways, as we shall see, but it is a gift of God, like all of his gifts, that man can sinfully abuse. With the best will in the world, and with my respect for Mr. MacArthur’s ministry still very much intact, I tell you, his effort to distinguish between the largely unintoxicating wine of the ANE and Greco-Roman world and what is called wine today must be considered a failure. And, most teetotalers among Christian scholars accept that fact and argue for total abstinence on completely different grounds.

Here then is our first point. When we talk about the Bible and wine we are talking, for all intents and purposes, about the same drink that we call wine today. So we can argue directly from the Bible about the ethics of wine use today and the fact that wine was used in the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper, according to the Bible and early Christianity, is a matter with which we must reckon.