This Sunday (May 1) we will be adding wine to the tray for the Lord’s Supper so that wine and grape juice are both available. As we prepare to make the change, it’s important to talk about why.
The simplest and best answer is because that is what was in the cup at the first Lord’s Supper in the upper room. (Grapes naturally ferment into wine. You wouldn’t find grape juice in the markets in antiquity. You found wine.) This was a meal related to the annual celebration of the Passover when the angel of death “passed over” all the households of Israel that painted a sacrificed lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their houses. Israel was to celebrate this feast every year to remember, and wine was in the cup. This is still the practice of Jews as they celebrate the Passover.
It is possible to drink grape juice before it ferments, but this was not the case in the Lord’s Supper. Paul makes this clear when he reprimands the Corinthian church in their abuse of the supper. “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.” (1 Co 11:20-21) It would hardly be possible for some to get drunk if it were unfermented grape juice. Paul was not condemning the elements in the supper, but the manner in which they were taking the elements.
Why grape juice?
This is a better question. According Keith Mathison (professor of systematic theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla.), the use of wine in the supper has historically been the consistent and universal practice of the entire church including Roman Catholic, Protestant denominations (even Baptists), and Eastern Orthodox. It isn’t until the “militant and legalistic” temperance movement in 19th century America that this practice was altered.1 In his review of Robert Letham’s book, The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread, Mathison writes “Letham2 observes that, in the United States, a large segment of the Church allowed the unscriptural aversion to wine that was being preached by the temperance movement to intrude into the Church and introduce an unheard of novelty into a central element of her worship.”
That’s a pretty sharp critique of the use of grape juice, and one that I think moves toward a needed corrective. Nevertheless, moving from grape juice to wine can be a startling shift, especially for those who have negative associations with alcohol. Primarily for that reason grape juice is still an option. Because it is still fruit of the vine, there is room for discretion and use of it.
Theology of wine – wrath and merriment
There is good reason theologically that wine is in the cup. Wine is associated with both the wrath of God and that which will gladden the heart. Psalm 75:8 says, “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” Try reading that verse substituting “grape juice” for “wine.” It loses its sting, don’t you think? There are many other passages that talk about this wine in God’s cup of wrath given to those unfaithful to God (see also Jeremiah 25:15; Isaiah 51:17, Revelation 14). This was the cup from which Jesus drank on behalf of His Church, the thought of which overwhelmed him in the garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
It is precisely because he drinks this cup that we enjoy fellowship, i.e. communion, with God himself. When we drink from the cup we remember Jesus’ suffering and death. We remember that Jesus drank from the wine of God’s wrath. But we also enjoy the communion with God that it purchased for us. So there is a sense in which we enjoy the wine that “gladdens the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15) to be served at the wedding feast of the lamb in Revelation 19:6-9 made by Jesus himself, just has he did in his first recorded miracle in John 2:1-11. (Wine was a common part of covenant feasts such as those found in Genesis 14:18 and Exodus 24:11.)
1 Mathison, K. (2016) The lord’s supper: Eternal word in broken bread. Available at: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/lords-supper-eternal-word-broken-bread/ (Accessed: 23 February 2016)
2 Robert Letham is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at the Union School of Theology (formerly Wales Evangelical School of Theology), and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.