Paul, when admonishing the Corinthians to be orderly and proper at the Lord’s Supper, said, “For what I received from the Lord that I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). In other words, the institution is a tradition that is passed hand to hand and generation to generation. Starting with Jesus, He passed it to Paul, and Paul to the church. Proper practice is the practice that came from Christ to Paul to the church, and that includes drinking what the Lord offered the disciples in the cup. At the Last Supper, Jesus said of the cup, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Whatever that cup contained is what we should be using. Wine was in the cup, and wine is the proper element to be consumed from the cup at the Lord’s Supper.
The only reference to the substance of the drink in the Gospels is the phrase, τοῦ γενήματος τῆς ἀμπέλου (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). It is accurately translated “produce of the vine” or “fruit of the vine.” Some might argue that that phrase could also mean “grape juice,” because grape juice, like wine, is also produce of the vine. We must discern what the original audience understood by the phrase. They would not have understood “grape juice.” It is an expression borrowed from Judaism and used in the Talmud for wine. “It is obvious, however, that according to custom Jesus was proffering wine in the cup over which He pronounced the blessing; this may be seen especially from the solemn τοῦ γενήματος τῆς ἀμπέλου (Mk. 14:25 and par.) which was borrowed from Judaism.”1 The first century reader, especially the first century Jewish reader, would have understood the term to mean wine, and the gospel writers intended to communicate wine.
One might argue that first century Jews had not mastered the production of grape juice, which necessitated that all “fruit of the vine” be fermented. Innovations in refrigeration and pasteurization opened the possibility for the production and consumption of grape juice, where once wine was the only option. In this case the absence of a term to describe non-fermented fruit of the vine might have meant that “fruit of the vine” is a broader category which should include grape juice. That is an anachronistic insertion into the text, while also a step removed from historical-grammatical exegesis.
For the sake of argument, let’s be anachronistic and step away from the historical-grammatical method to investigate this further. There are at least three Greek words that could describe the liquid that comes from crushed grapes. The first is οἶνος, a beverage made from fermented juice of the grape vine. It is used in Luke 7:33, and it is most definitely wine. The second is γλεῦκος, which is nearer to grape juice, and it could be translated as “sweet new wine”.2 The people who spoke in tongues in Acts 3 were accused of being drunk on γλεῦκος: “But others mocking, said, ‘They are filled with new wine (γλεῦκος)’” (Acts 3:13). Perhaps the alcoholic content was less, but γλεῦκος still had enough alcohol to intoxicate. Fermenting wine in the open air for a few days before bottling was standard practice, so it is unlikely that any bottled fruit of the vine was alcohol free.3 The third word is τρύξ, the Greek term for the must of the grape – that liquid unfermented grape juice that immediately proceeds from crushed grapes.4 It is not found in the New Testament. My point in noting τρύξ is that there was at least one word for the product freshly pressed from grapes, but it is not the word the Gospel writers or Paul used in reference to the contents of the cup. Instead, they chose a phrase that the first century Jews understood as wine. Anachronistic and a step removed from the historical-grammatical exegetical method, the argument that there was no word for non-fermented grape juice is simply not true. There was, and that word is found nowhere in the New Testament.
Beyond the word used in the Gospels, the alcoholic content of the cup is self-evident in 1 Corinthians. The Corinthian church had many problems that Paul addressed, and one of their problems was drunkenness at the Lord’s Table. So bad was the drunkenness that Paul argued that it was not the Lord’s Supper they celebrated (1 Corinthians 11:20), although they thought it was. Their drunken gluttony was such a disgrace that, despite them assuming it was Communion, Paul asserted that it was not Communion. They were not eating and drinking in a worthy manner, but instead it had become occasion for sin, especially drunkenness. “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21). The drunkenness at what they claimed was the Lord’s Supper reveals the potency of the beverages served: it was not alcohol-free grape juice. Paul spends the rest of the chapter instructing them on decorum when serving the Supper, and his instructions fail to include any mention of switching beverages. From Matthew we learn that Jesus instructed us to drink the fruit of the vine at the Lord’s Supper. From 1 Corinthians we learn that the beverage of choice was potent enough to intoxicate. Paul insists that he received the tradition from Christ which he passed on to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23), so we can safely conclude that both Paul and Christ used the same element in the cup. It was not a watered-down wine or a grape juice that couldn’t intoxicate, but rather it was the “fruit of the vine,” which was potent enough to bring about drunkenness when abused in Corinth. From Paul’s corrective admonition we learn that he did not instruct them to change the beverage, but rather to live in light of the second birth by being moderate and orderly.
Shedding light on the contents of the cup, 1 Corinthians further helps with those who fear that wine at the Table will lead to drunkenness. Often people object to wine at the Lord’s Table out of sincere concern that it will tempt some to inebriation. If we follow the apostolic example, we won’t change the substance of the cup to deal with darkened hearts of drunkards, but instead we will demand that the tradition be properly practiced, which includes using wine and also refraining from drunkenness all at once.
As convincing as the simple exegesis is, there is also a theological observation to be made. I’ll explain. Wine is the drink that represents the love between Christ and His church, not grape juice. It is the drink of choice, Scripturally, for weddings, and its consumption, because of its potency and affects, is compared to sex between a husband and his bride.5 In Song of Solomon, the bride tells her groom, “For your love is better than wine” (Song of Solomon 1:2). The wedding guests rejoice in the marital love “more than wine” (Song of Solomon 1:4). The groom, admiring his bride’s beauty, exclaims, “How much better is your love than wine” (Song of Solomon 4:10), and he compares his delight in her with drinking wine (Song of Solomon 5:1). Her mouth, to him, is “like the best wine” (Song of Solomon 7:9), and she, offering herself to him, metaphorically says she is giving him “spiced wine to drink” (Song of Solomon 8:2). Wine is the beverage of weddings, and it symbolizes the intimacy of marital lovemaking. Unlike grape juice, wine has an intoxicating affect that gladdens the heart (Psalm 105:15). In the same way, marital lovemaking is also described as intoxicating (Proverbs 5:19).
Because Jesus is the greater Solomon (Matthew 12:42) and His church is described as His bride (Ephesians 5:32), we should see that the Song of Solomon points to something even beyond immediate marital delights. It points to the love between Christ and His bride, the church, as well as the consummation of that relationship at the Second Coming. The love between Jesus and His bride, then, could be described as a potent love, a love so potent that it affects our mental state. In fact, if the love between Christ and His church is even stronger than the love between Solomon and his bride, it follows that the potency of the love is also stronger. Like wine, the love between a bride and groom is potent, so much so that it has the physiological affect of intoxication (Proverbs 5:19). Grape juice might leave a sugar-high and boost insulin levels, but it won’t gladden hearts nor can it intoxicate. It’s a sugary impotent drink. The Bible emphatically compares wine to marriage and especially marital lovemaking. Wine is rich with intoxicating properties that bring gladness to the heart, and the analogy with covenantally guarded lovemaking should go without further explanation.
The Lord’s Supper is more than merely a memorial of the death of Christ. Among other things it is a foretaste of the wedding between Christ and his church as well as the consummation when Christ finally receives His bride (Revelation 19:6-10; Revelation 21:3). We end our Lord’s Suppers with “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26), in anticipation that Christ will one day bodily come to be present with us at the Table. After the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29), also anticipating eating and drinking with us at the final wedding feast. One day our Bridegroom will return to consummate the relationship between Him and His bride, the church, and, on that day, we will drink what He drank with the disciples at the Last Supper. Every time we drink wine at the Lord’s Supper, Christ offers a foretaste of that future wedding and the love it will capture. To properly foretaste the Second Coming in the Lord’s Supper, we should be consuming the substance that our Lord offered His disciples which is also the substance that we will drink again at the final wedding feast – a substance the Bible metaphorically uses to describe marital love and is the biblical drink of choice for weddings. To foretaste the wedding and consummation between Christ and His bride, we should be tasting wine at the Table.
While the exegetical evidence points to the use of wine at the Lord’s Table, the theological meaning of the Lord’s Table indicates that wine should be the element of choice. Wine possesses intoxicating properties, much like marital love, and like marital love it must be protected by the boundaries of covenant. The words used to describe the contents of the cup and the context of those words indicate that the element is wine. That the Supper points to a future wedding feast between Christ and His church, as well as pointing to the marital love that Christ will share with His bride, indicates that the elements of the Supper are a forestate of what’s to come. If wine is the biblical drink of weddings and a biblical emblem of marital love, then wine should be used at the Table – with each Lord’s Supper offering forestates of the final wedding and the eternal act of marital love between Christ and His bride.
Not until the late 19th century did churches begin using grape juice instead of wine. A few combined factors led to the change. Coming out of the Civil War, rampant drunkenness had fostered negligent and abusive husbands in the United States. The temperance movement, a nascent feminism, found expression in organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which championed the prohibition of alcohol. In 1869, Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch, a dentist and a Methodist minister, produced the first pasteurized grape juice in New Jersey. The temperance movement latched on to his innovation and demanded that churches change their Communion practices by replacing wine with Welch’s novel product. Thomas Welch’s son, Charles, ascended the ranks of Methodism and led the Methodist denomination to authorize the substitution of his father’s Welch’s Grape Juice for wine at the Lord’s Supper 6 The Welch’s Grape Juice empire was born.
The movement spread and made its way to England, where Baptist minister C.H. Spurgeon felt the need to oppose the changes in 1876. In his periodical, Sword and Trowel, he reviewed the book, Yanim; or, the Bible Wine Question: Testimony of Scripture, of the Rabbis, and of Bible Lands against recent Sacramental Innovations. The title explains itself. Addressing a volatile situation he said, “Those ministers whose churches are tormented by the unfermented wine question will here find much help in keeping the old paths.”7 With some characteristic humour, he continued:
The fact is – there is not, and there never was, and never can be such a thing as unfermented wine, though it suits some men to call their messes by that name. At the same time it should be observed that much which is called wine in this country is not worthy of the name, and it is a shame to remember our Lord’s death by drinking such vile decoctions. Let it be really wine, as pure and as good as can be had, and no communicant has then any Scriptural right to object 8
With a hint of sarcasm aimed at rebuking the teetotalers who fanatically divided churches, he offered encouragement to “those temperate temperance friends” who saw their task as subservient to the Gospel:
As the slightest word on this subject generally brings a flood of angry letters, we beg to intimate that our columns are not open to discussion, and that our own mind is made up. We are at one with those temperate temperance friends who forbear to divide churches, and mar the unity of the saints upon this point: to them we wish God speed, and we hope ever to co-operate with them. They have their own sphere of action, and a very important one it is; and when pursued in subservience to the gospel, for the noble object of preventing and curing the great and crying sin of drunkenness, their work is philanthropic in the highest degree; nay, more, it is Christlike, and tends to benefit the souls as well as the bodies of men. To make men sober is one thing, to make them quarrelsome is another: we are content with the former.9
So strong was the pressure upon churches to change their millennia old practice. Within seven years of Welch’s Grape Juice first being produced in New Jersey, C.H. Spurgeon of London, England, saw the need to defend the church’s ancient practice from the novel ideas making their way across the Atlantic from America – novel ideas that were becoming schismatic among Christians and churches. Spurgeon demanded that men be sober, but he also demanded that the Lord’s ordinance be preserved in its original form. Eventually, by the early 20th century, Baptists and Methodists together emerged as the heralds of temperance and prohibition.10 Many denominations – including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, many Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed groups, and even some Baptists – managed to maintain their practices, notwithstanding the social pressures they faced.
Of the Lord’s Supper, the Apostle Paul said, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Calvin paraphrased the text and followed with a quick explanation:
“I have not delivered to you an invent of my own: I had not, when I came to you, contrived a new kind of Supper, according to my own humour, but have Christ as my authority, from whom I received what I have delivered unto you.” Return, then, to the original source. Thus, bidding adieu to human laws, the authority of Christ will be maintained in its stability.11
The tradition finds its authoritative source in Christ, and Paul faithfully passed it on. Any movement away from that tradition is an invention. If the tradition included the consumption of wine, which it did, then that seamless transition was broken by 19th century innovation. To appease pressure from nascent feminists who zealously divided churches, with a push from a creative entrepreneur who stood to make a lot of money, churches substituted wine with grape juice. It was a pragmatic decision to counter a real problem. Excessive drinking was the real problem, and the complete prohibition of beverage alcohol was the pragmatic answer – an answer that, under Prohibition laws, could have rendered Christ a bootlegger for blessing the wedding at Cana of Galilee with good wine (John 2:1-11) and also could have had the Last Supper venue labelled a 1st century speak-easy. The Lord’s Supper is a tradition passed down from the Lord Himself, and to honour the Lord of the tradition we should recover the consumption of wine at the Lord’s Table, thus returning the ordinance to its original source. Learning from Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians, we don’t counter drunkenness by altering Christ’s ordinance, but, instead, we counter drunkenness with the work of Christ on the cross and the work of His Spirit in the second birth (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
- Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. V, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964-1976), 164.
- A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG), 3rd. ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 201.
- Joel McDurmon, What Would Jesus Drink?, (Dallas, GA: Devoted Books, 2019), 16.
- BDAG, 701.
- For this thought, I am indebted to Joel McDurmon for his chapter, “Wine, Women, and Song,” in What Would Jesus Drink?
- Daniel Okrent, The Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, (New York: Scribner, 2011) 191
- C.H. Spurgeon, The Sword & Trowel, vol. 4, 1876, p. 348.
- Last Call, 302.
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XX (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 373.