Revising the Practice of the Lord’s Supper at Faith Presbyterian Church No. 5: Wine, No. 4


These past several Lord’s Day evenings we have been considering the arguments against the drinking of wine by Christians that led in the middle 19th century to the widespread practice in American evangelical Christianity of substituting grape juice for wine in the Lord’s Supper. It may surprise some of you to learn that Welch’s Grape Juice was invented precisely for the purpose of providing a substitute for alcoholic wine in the Lord’s Supper. Dr. Thomas Welch was a New Jersey dentist and a communion steward at his local Methodist church. He was a committed advocate of temperance and wondered if the new theories of Louis Pasteur, that had already by 1869 been applied to the pasteurization of milk, might be also applied to the juice of grapes. One day, with his wife and 17 year old son, he picked about 40 pounds of concord grapes from his family’s yard. They cooked the grapes for a few minutes, then squeezed the juice through cloth bags. They filtered the juice, poured it into quart bottles, sealed the bottles with cork and wax, and then lowered them into boiling water long enough to kill the yeast organisms in the juice and prevent fermentation. For weeks the family waited listening for the explosion that would signify failure, but none came. When the bottles were opened Dr. Welch found he had produced a sweet, unfermented grape juice. He convinced his pastor to try it in the Supper, began processing small amounts of the juice and providing it to other churches in Southern New Jersey, and, unbeknownst to Mr. Welch at the time the American fruit juice industry was born. In 1890 the name of the product was changed from “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” to “Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice.” Under the influence of temperance convictions, grape juice came to be widely used as a substitute for wine in the Lord’s Supper practice of American churches.

It may be hard for some of you to appreciate the strength of conviction that animated the temperance movement of the 19th century, especially in its evangelical Christian form. It is interesting that this was one thing concerning which liberals and conservatives in the great Protestant churches were in general agreement. Prohibition was, largely, the fruit of the Protestant Christian temperance movement. I have a photocopy of a page from a hymnal published by David C. Cook in 1881. The gospel song is entitled “We will not Sip Wine or Beer” and ran this way: “We will never sip, sip wine or beer, tempt us not, tempt us not; We will ever fight this foe we fear, tempt us, tempt us not. Drink that hurts us, new or old, From our lips we will withhold; Hour by hour, and day by day, When we work and when we play.” And two more verses like that. It was a powerful movement that gripped American Christianity and shaped piety and even worship. It changed the Lord’s Supper in a way it had not been changed since the days of the Apostles.

We have spent several Sunday evenings dealing with the arguments by which that shift away from drinking wine was and is still today justified. And we concluded that those arguments, while perhaps giving an appearance of wisdom, are not, in fact, biblical. Wine, which is to say, fermented grape juice, a drink that has the power to inebriate, was used in the OT feasts and the NT Lord’s Supper.

Tonight, I want to give a summary of the Bible’s teaching about wine and conclude with the evidence of its use in the Lord’s Supper as that Supper was instituted for us by the Lord Jesus and practiced by his apostles.

Now, as with every other subject the Bible considers, wine and the drinking of wine is presented in its polarities, its extremes, or, as we have learned to say, the Bible’s teaching is dialectical. Increase Mather, the New England Puritan father, put it this way:

“Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the drunkard is from the Devil.” [Wo to Drunkards (1673)]

And that is precisely what we find throughout the Bible. Strongly celebratory and positive statements about wine, descriptions of its being given by God to his people as a gift, encouragements to use it with thanksgiving on the one hand and unqualified, uncompromising condemnations of the abuse of wine and drunkenness on the other. In other words, the Bible speaks of wine as it speaks about money, about physical beauty, about food, about sex, about the sacrifices, the temple, about every good gift of God that can be abused and turned into an instrument of sin.

Now, to be sure, clear, cold water is also a blessing from God and an image of the goodness of life in the Bible. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters.” But there is a special sense in which wine in the Bible is God’s gift and a sign of his blessing.

“He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of a man, oil to make his face shine (a reference not to spreading oil on the face, but by the savor it added to food), and bread that sustains his heart.” Ps. 104:13-15

Here, clearly, the Bible regards wine a pleasure both for its taste and its effect on the body. There is no mistaking the fact that one of the virtues of wine is its effect, that is, it is not prized only for its taste. For example, in Prov. 31:6-7 its use as a palliative, as something that reduces one’s pain or sorrow, is actually commended.

“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.” Eccl. 9:7

The Lord promised to reward his people’s faithfulness with wine.

“If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them…He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land – your grain, new wine, and oil… Deut. 7:12-13

Conversely, when Israel was unfaithful, God took wine away from her or forced her to drink poor wine.

“Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.” Isa 1:22

“You trample on the poor and force them to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.”

“No longer do they drink wine with a song; the beer is bitter to its drinkers.” Isa 24:9

The Promised Land is described as a land with an abundance of wine.

“…a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey…” 2 Kgs 18:32

Wine was part of the tithes and offerings that faithful Israelites were to offer to God.

“Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name…” But if the place were too distant from their homes, the law provided that they could exchange the tithe for money and with the money buy “whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God.” Deut. 14:22-26

Here and in many other places, wine and the drinking of wine are connected with rejoicing, with happiness, and with pleasure. Clearly, wine is important in large part for its role in making merry, in delighting a person. You young people know how much you look forward to eating certain kinds of food! Offer that food and you can always get a crowd! Well, they didn’t have the rich variety of food we enjoy, but wine was one of the great tastes of the ancient world and, as well, it has a pleasing effect in the body. Take, for example, Psalm 4:7: “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.”

Wine is also linked with erotic love in the Bible, as you remember from the Song of Songs.

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine.” 1:2

“I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk.” 5:1

The link between wine and love-making is well-attested in ANE love poetry, for both produce and are associated with joy and excitement.

What may be even more important, in thinking about the place of wine in the Lord’s Supper, is the use of fine wine and abundant wine as an image of the messianic kingdom, the blessing that the Messiah will bring to the earth and to his people especially.

“On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.” Isa 25:6

“Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, by and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” Isa 55:1

“In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water.” Joel 3:18

“I will bring back my exiled people Israel; they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit.” Amos 9:14

“The Ephraimites will become like mighty men, and their hearts will be glad as with wine.” Zech 10:7

In the case of all these various themes, I am giving you just a few representative texts of a great many that could be cited. All through the Bible, wine is associated with feasting, with the enjoyment of the best of food and drink. It was the drink of kings.

“So the king and Haman went to dine with Queen Esther, and as they were drinking wine on that second day, the king asked again…” 7:1 And so on…

In all of these ways wine is celebrated in the Bible as a particularly choice drink, a blessing that God has given to man, wonderful in taste and in effect, a drink for a feast, and, for that reason, an image of divine blessing. So, when David is fleeing from Absolom, and Ziba, the steward of Mephibosheth met him with a string of saddled donkeys on which were loaded loaves of bread, cakes of raisins and figs and a skin of wine, it is natural that in explaining the wine, Ziba said, “the wine is to refresh those who become exhausted in the desert.” (2 Sam 16:2) Water can slake thirst, but wine rises above water in the Hebrew mind in its power to refresh the body and the heart.

So, when it was used in the sacrificial feasts of the tabernacle and temple and then later in the Lord’s Supper, wine carried with it not only the associations of the normal beverage drunk at Hebrew and then Jewish dinner time, but also these more elaborate impressions of feasting and blessing. Indeed, I think that all the evidence taken together suggests that the two symbols do not serve precisely the same purpose. Bread stands for the Lord’s body and wine for his blood. In that sense they simply represent the Lord as the sacrificial victim. But bread also stands for nourishment, for that food that sustains us in life. Bread is the staple of life. But wine is not, I think, present in the Supper as a staple so much as it is an image of feasting and pleasure. Some have referred to these two foods as alpha food – the bread you eat at the beginning of the day to sustain your life of work – and omega food, the wine you eat at the end of the day to celebrate your rest and the work being done, the relaxation and pleasure that follows hard work. Grape juice, of course, as you see, could not sustain that complex and beautiful symbolism in the Lord’s Supper.

Now, alongside this very positive portrayal of wine in the Bible, you have from beginning to end a severe and unrelenting attack on drunkenness. It is a sin expressly and repeatedly condemned in the Bible and the debilitating effects of drunkenness are spelled out in gory detail.

“Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.” Prov. 20:1

“Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine… Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things… 23:29-33

Wine unmans, dehumanizes a person and leads to all manner of disastrous consequences. Over and again we are treated to the sad tale of terrible things happening because of drunkenness. Summing up the Bible’s attitude, we read in 1 Cor. 6:10 that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God. Just as wine is God’s blessing, drunkenness is his curse.

“This is what the Lord says: I am going to fill with drunkenness all who live in this land…I will smash them against one another…” Jer. 13:13

Let me say this as clearly as I can. Let no one make the stupid mistake of supposing that because the Bible has a positive view of wine, it has a lackadaisical view of drunkenness. It is pitiless in its condemnation of those who are guilty of over-indulgence in wine. The Bible has a very positive view of sex and money, but it is likewise unrelentingly severe in the condemnation of the abuse of those things. Drunkenness is a crime committed against the image of God in which human beings were made. In this way you deny your humanity and act more like a beast than a man or woman. You lose control over those very powers that God has given you to be the means of doing his will and walking with him in the world. You give yourself over to sin and Satan when you drink too much. Nobody here is ever going to wink or chuckle, like people in the world will, about the fact that you drank too much and got tipsy.

Nobody here is going to think that funny. No, faithful to the Bible, we will accept that you have lost your reputation among the godly, we will think you a weak and irresponsible fool – just what the Bible says you are if you drink too much – and we will begin to worry if you are a Christian at all. Read the statements of God’s Word on people who drink too much and then try to tell me that I have overstated the matter.

Most of us who are in the middle of life have seen all too clearly how destructive the abuse of alcohol can be. There is nothing funny about it. It destroys and corrupts as surely as does adultery or the worship of money.

There, in a nutshell, is the Bible’s teaching about wine.

Now that wine was the liquid in the cup at the Last Supper is not said explicitly in the Gospel accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, by which I mean that the word “wine” is not used. Instead the Gospel accounts have the Lord referring to the “fruit of the vine.” (Matt. 26:29; Mk 14:25; Lk 22:18) However it is clear enough that “fruit of the vine” is not only a reference to wine, it appears to be taken over from Jewish liturgy as a way to refer to wine in liturgical contexts.

For example, from broadly the same time as that of the Lord Jesus, we have this in the Tractate “Berakoth” of the Mishnah (6:1).

“What Benediction do they say over fruits? Over the fruit of trees a man says, ‘[Blessed art thou…] who createst the fruit of the tree’, except over wine, for over wine a man says ‘…who createst the fruit of the vine.'”

Further, we know from Jewish materials of the period that it was wine that was drunk at the Passover feast. The account of the liturgy given in the Mishnah begins (Pesahim 10:1):

“…they must not give them less than four cups of wine to drink…”

What is more, it is painfully obvious that the Corinthian Christians used wine in their Lord’s Supper feasts, because some of them were getting drunk at church (1 Cor. 11:21), for which Paul condemns them in no uncertain terms and warns them that the Lord has already given over some of them to death as punishment for this crime against the body of Christ.

The early church likewise used wine in its weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, wine mixed with water is also frequently mentioned in Gentile contexts. In most instances the use of wine clearly was utterly uncontroversial and regarded as a matter of following the pattern laid down by the Lord himself.

However, there was an early sect, known as the Encratites, Gnostic and ascetic in their theology, who condemned marriage, forbade the eating of meat or the drinking of wine, and, so, substituted water for wine in the Lord’s Supper. Cyprian, the 3rd century African bishop, wrote a celebrated letter (LXII) against the practice of substituting water for wine and argued that wine was required because the pattern established by the Lord was law for his people. This is the patristic or early Christian form of the rule Presbyterians would later call “the Regulative Principle,” viz. that our worship must be biblical, must conform to the teaching and the pattern established in Holy Scripture.

“Know then…that, in offering the cup, the tradition of the Lord must be observed, and that nothing must be done by us but what the Lord first did on our behalf, as that the cup which is offered in remembrance of him should be offered mingled with wine. For when Christ says, ‘I am the true vine,’ the blood of Christ is assuredly not water, but wine; neither can his blood by which we are redeemed and quickened appear to be in the cup, when in the cup there is no wine whereby the blood of Christ is shown forth, which is declared by the sacrament and testimony of all the Scriptures.” [2]

He then goes on to argue that the mixture of wine and water is a theological symbol, the water representing us, the people – through our baptism – and the wine the Lord Jesus himself, by his blood. So, when mingled, we have a symbol of the Lord and his people together. Almost certainly this had nothing to do with the original practice of drinking wine mixed with water. That seems to have simply been a common practice in the Greco-Roman world and then a common practice at liturgical feasts and was then carried over into the Lord’s Supper. Only later did people try to provide a theological explanation for the widespread custom.

But the principle that the church should take its cue from the Lord’s practice and do what he did, took root and continued to shape the practice of the Lord’s Supper in Protestant churches after the Reformation.

For example, the practice of early Presbyterian churches to take the Lord’s Supper around a large table was justified as an effort to imitate the first Lord’s Supper (though they didn’t recline!). Similarly a hymn came to be sung at the end of the Supper because the Lord had sung a hymn with his disciples after the first Lord’s Supper. [Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 216] For these very same reasons, wine was always used and was never controversial. It was what the Savior had used and had called the symbol of his blood, hence it is what the church must use as well.

You find this note sounded frequently in the era of the Reformation and after. The idea is to say what Christ said, do what Christ did, “changing nothing, adding nothing, omitting nothing.” Wine was invariably used in the Scottish communion service of the 17th century, usually claret, but sometimes other wines, and always mixed with water, according to the almost universal Christian usage. Later mixing with water was only sometimes the practice in Scotland. One scholar writes, “The quantity of wine consumed was large, even allowing for the large numbers attending; communicants were expected to do more than merely sip from the cup. [In one case] as much as five gallons were ordered at a time to be brought by carrier to Whitekirk from Edinburgh.” [W.D. Maxwell, A History of Worship in the Church of Scotland, 63, 64n, 143] You will notice that the common cup is assumed and that communion was celebrated quite infrequently. It was never the every Sunday worship that it had been in early Christianity, that the Lutherans had reinstituted at the Reformation, and that Calvin had wanted it to be for the Reformed church.

All of this is to say two things.

First, wine is the drink of sacred feasts in the Bible without exception and, in biblical context, carries with it connotations of divine blessing and the fullness of life. It is particularly an image of the kingdom of the Messiah and the new life of prosperity and joy that he will bring to the world. Wine, in particular, then, conveys the impression that the Lord’s Supper is a feast, a celebration.

Second, wine was the universal drink of the Christian Lord’s Supper until some Protestant churches moved to grape juice under the influence of the temperance movement in the 19th century. Wine is still the practice, as it always has been, of most Christian churches around the world. Throughout its history the Christian church has used wine in the Lord’s Supper, precisely because of the fact that it was the drink to which the Lord made specific mention and use in the institution of the Lord’s Supper.

All of this is important to me because it seems to me that we are duty bound to take the Supper in the manner appointed by our Savior and because the place of wine in the Bible clearly undergirds the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. It is not an accident of history that wine was used. It was the drink that should be used. In the same way, I think, bread is in the Supper because bread is the staple of life. Wine is in the Supper because it is the image of a feast, of joy and gladness. We need both elements in their biblical meaning to convey to us the character of the Lord’s Supper both as spiritual nourishment and as a feast, a celebration of joy and rest. That is clear, it seems to me. Wine, of course, makes much more of a statement than grape juice does because it has an important place in the Bible. It is a more powerful drink, of course as well, it commands one’s attention in the way grape juice does not. But, I think the important thing is to have in our own minds the Bible’s view of wine when we come to the Supper so that meaning is conveyed to our hearts, so that wine does its true work in reminding us of what the Supper is and how God blesses us in it.

Personally, I do not find it easy to enter into the full appreciation of the meaning of wine in the sacrament because I do not feast with wine as many people do. I do not associate it with the very best of food and drink. I must, as a non-drinker, apply what I know from the Bible to the use of wine in the Supper. But I can do that. In any case, I want us to do what our Savior did and I want us to be faithful to the universal tradition of Christianity and so link our worship with that of the generations before. And, I hope that I will also find in the use of wine something of that sense that is conveyed by it in the Bible.