by Pastor Jack Lash
I am not personally much of a wine drinker. Until 1986 when our church began to serve wine in the Lord’s Supper, I didn’t drink at all. I know that ever since Gen.9 when Noah got drunk after the flood (and probably before that), wine has been a stumbling block to man. I know that Scripture contains many warnings about its use (e.g. Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35; 31:4-5; Deut.21:18-21; Luke 21:34; Rom.13:13; 1Cor.6:9-10; Eph.5:18). And yet, contrary to the habit of most Presbyterian churches in our country, Gainesville Presbyterian Church serves wine in the Lord’s Supper.
Actually the use of grape juice in communion is a relatively recent practice. It has been the historical practice of all the branches of the Christian church to use wine for communion. However, out of a growing concern over drunkenness during the latter part of the nineteenth century, many protestant churches in America began changing to grape juice. Because grape juice has now become so prevalent, there are some who perceive our practice as odd (even though historically-speaking the use of grape juice is what deserves the label “odd”). Others believe that the use of wine is actually sinful (for this reason we make grape juice available for those whose consciences are violated by the use of wine). Perhaps it is wise to reflect on some of the reasons we decided in 1986 to serve wine in the Lord’s Supper.
Wine in the Bible
The first thing to say is that, contrary to the teaching of some, the Bible does not condemn moderate use of wine. All three Hebrew words for wine (which each clearly refer to real, fermented wine -- see Prov.23:31; Hos.4:11; Is.49:26) are used at times in the Old Testament (OT) to refer to the positive use of wine:
Psalm 104:15 He [God] causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes man’s heart glad, so that he may make his face glisten with oil, and food which sustains man’s heart.
Deuteronomy 14:23 You shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.
Joel 3:18 And in that day the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk, and all the brooks of Judah will flow with water; and a spring will go out from the house of the Lord to water the valley of Shittim.
All three Hebrew words are used interchangeably in the OT and all are translated into the Greek in the New Testament (NT) by one word, OINOS. Ephesians 5:18 confirms that this word OINOS refers to real fermented wine:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.
Jesus Himself sanctified the use of wine when He in His first miracle He turned water into wine (OINOS: same word as Eph.5:18) at the wedding at Cana. If Jesus was not ashamed to serve wine at a wedding, why do we think He would be afraid to serve wine to us at the Lord’s Supper, which is itself a foreshadowing of the wedding feast of the Lamb (where we know from Luke 22:18 that wine will be served)? “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.” (Is.25:6)
Wine at the Last Supper
The next thing to say is that it seems clear that Jesus served His disciples wine at the original Lord’s Supper, which took place at the Last Supper. The gospels portray the Last Supper as a Passover meal. Wine was the drink used in the Passover feast. When Jesus picked up the Passover cup, it was a cup of wine. (The unleavened bread was also a part of the Passover feast, and was used by Jesus in the institution of the Lord’s Supper.) After the first communion Jesus said, “from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom comes” (Luke 22:18), indicating that wine was the drink he had just used in the institution of it. It seems suitable to use the same elements in the Lord’s Supper that Jesus used in the origination of it.
Wine as a Symbol of Fellowship and Celebration
As the traditional table drink at the time, wine was a symbol of fellowship, which is part of what the Lord’s Supper represents for us. Wine is also a symbol of celebration, as in Deuteronomy 14:23 and Joel 3:18 above. Specifically the wine of Passover was a celebration of God’s deliverance from Egypt. At the Last Supper Jesus said, “from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom comes” (Luke 22:18), indicating that wine will be part of the celebration of our salvation in the kingdom of heaven. How appropriate then that wine is likewise a symbol of the Christian celebration of the victory of Christ won at the cross.
Wine as a Symbol of the Judgment of God
In addition to this, the case for the proper use of wine in communion can be made from an examination of drunkenness as a symbol of the judgment of God in the Bible. This symbolism can be seen in many passages. Here is a sampling:
Psalm 75:8 In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.
Is.19:14 The Lord has poured into them a spirit of dizziness; they make Egypt stagger in all that she does, as a drunkard staggers around in his vomit.
Is.51:17 Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger.
Is.51:21-22 Therefore hear this, you afflicted one, made drunk, but not with wine. This is what your Sovereign Lord says, your God, who defends his people: "See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger; from that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again.
Is.63:6 “I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk.”
Jer. 25:15-29 This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: "Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them." So I took the cup from the Lord's hand and made all the nations to whom he sent me drink it: Jerusalem and the towns of Judah, its kings and officials, to make them a ruin and an object of horror and scorn and cursing, as they are today; Pharaoh king of Egypt, his attendants, his officials and all his people, and all the foreign people there; all the kings of Uz; all the kings of the Philistines (those of Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and the people left at Ashdod); Edom, Moab and Ammon; all the kings of Tyre and Sidon; the kings of the coastlands across the sea; Dedan, Tema, Buz and all who are in distant places; all the kings of Arabia and all the kings of the foreign people who live in the desert; all the kings of Zimri, Elam and Media; and all the kings of the north, near and far, one after the other--all the kingdoms on the face of the earth. And after all of them, the king of Sheshach will drink it too. "Then tell them, 'This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Drink, get drunk and vomit, and fall to rise no more because of the sword I will send among you.' But if they refuse to take the cup from your hand and drink, tell them, 'This is what the Lord Almighty says: You must drink it! See, I am beginning to bring disaster on the city that bears my Name, and will you indeed go unpunished? You will not go unpunished, for I am calling down a sword upon all who live on the earth, declares the Lord Almighty.' "Make her drunk, for she has defied the Lord. Let Moab wallow in her vomit; let her be an object of ridicule.”
Ezek. 23:31-34 You [Judah] have gone the way of your sister [Israel]; so I will put her cup [that is, the cup of God’s judgment she drank a century before] into your hand. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: "You will drink your sister's cup, a cup large and deep; it will bring scorn and derision, for it holds so much. You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, the cup of ruin and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria [i.e. Israel]. You will drink it and drain it dry.”
Rev. 16:19 God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.
Add to these the references to the seven bowls of wrath being poured out upon the earth in Rev.16:1-18, which must refer to bowls of wine.
(We might wonder why this image of drunkenness is used to symbolize the judgment of God. It is actually very fitting. Wine is one of the rich blessings God has given to man -- you can see that in Psalm 104:15 above. And yet man, instead of enjoying this gift with gratitude unto the Lord, abused the gift by using it for his own self-indulgence. The consequences of this self-indulgence are drunkenness, etc. So drunkenness comes to represent the divinely-ordained consequences of living for oneself instead of for Him.)
In light of this image of the cup of wine representing the wrath of God, it makes sense that when Jesus speaks of facing the wrath of God He uses this same imagery:
Matt. 20:22-23 "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."
Matt. 26:39, 42 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." ...He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." (Cf. Mark 14:36 and Luke 22:42)
John 18:11 Jesus commanded Peter, "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?"
When Jesus then uses the cup of wine at the Last Supper to represent His death, it is hard to imagine that He is not connecting it with the cup of wine (i.e. God’s wrath) He was going to drink in His death the next day. It is hard to imagine that the cup of His blood is not supposed to remind us of the cup of God’s wrath He drank down for us at Calvary. And that cup was definitely fermented, for that is an essential part of the imagery of the cup of the wine of God’s wrath.
It is hard to imagine that the cup in the Lord’s Supper is not supposed to symbolize both the celebrative aspect of Jesus’ conquering sin for us and the identificational aspect of His suffering for us. And even if we don’t understand all the reasons that real, fermented wine ought to be used in the Lord’s Supper, there are too many connections, too many aspects of the symbolism that are tied to the fermentation itself, too many patterns of Scripture that point in this direction to allow us to join with those who cast aside the historical practice of using wine in communion.
Wine in the PCA Constitution
The fact is that, although the denominations practice is generally not in line with their creed on this matter, the Presbyterian Church in America Book of Order (58-5) and the Westminster Confession of Faith, which summarize the doctrine and practice of our denomination, both require the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper:
“The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to Him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXIX, #6)
A Lesson about the Goodness of God’s Creation
In addition to this, the use of wine in communion gives us a chance to teach God’s people the important principle that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude” (1Tim.4:4). Wine is something good given to us by God, but like everything else, its abuse can have devastating effects. This is the same especially with God’s most pleasant creations: beauty, fun/games/play, sex, affirmation, etc. For this reason special warnings are given to us in Scripture about the abuse of alcohol (and other things). Drunkenness is repeatedly condemned, but nowhere is wine itself forbidden, and nowhere is drinking small amounts criticized. Though there are many dangers, it is inappropriate for us to condemn activities simply because their abuse is dangerous. This is itself condemned in Bible passages like Col.2:20-23 and 1Tim. 4:1-5.
So, it seems to us consistent with Scripture, denominational authority, and even with the historical practice of the church to serve wine in the Lord’s Supper.