Saturday, October 2, 2010

Fruit of the Vine: Part I

On the night before He died, Jesus gathered with His disciples and ate with them His final meal:

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom.’” (Matthew 26:26-29)


For nearly 2000 years Christians of every major denomination and sect have repeated this same ritual, following Jesus’ command: “Do this in remembrance of me!” The Bible gives few explicit details on how this memorial ought to be conducted. And so it is understandable that there will be variations among different Christian groups. For instance, the precise wording of Eucharistic prayers and the accompanying gestures may vary depending on historical, cultural, or theological developments. However, there are a few specific details about which the Bible is very explicit, and on these points there ought to be uniformity among Christians. We must remember that this ceremony is Christ’s final memorial – the last wish of a man who knew He was about to die. Above all Christians should honor the explicit actions of Christ as they are recorded in the Bible. In other words, when Scripture is clear on a matter, there should be no room for disagreement.

One such explicit detail recorded in Scripture is the use of wine as the drink blessed by Christ at this meal. Many Protestant churches use unfermented grape juice rather than wine although this is in clear contradiction to the Word of God. This may seem a minor detail, but the implications of such a substitution are weighty, as we shall see. The New Testament texts are very clear that Jesus used bread and wine. If Jesus’ actions are to be our guiding principle then we must stay true to the Biblical record. Any objection to the use of wine is based on faulty logic and runs contrary to centuries of Christian practice. Once we know the Biblical truth of the matter there is no reason to deviate from Jesus’ own example set at the Last Supper.

The Protestant switch to grape juice dates back only to the mid-to-late 1800s at the earliest. The abandonment of wine was a specifically American phenomenon that had its beginnings in the Temperance movement of the Nineteenth Century and culminated in the era of Prohibition (in the 1920s). Caught up in this anti-alcohol movement Protestants followed cultural trends rather than the Biblical truth that had informed 1800 years of Christian tradition. The actions of Jesus were thus trumped by political and social activists of the time.

Interestingly, all of the major Reformers – Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, etc. – advocated the use of wine for Communion. Changing to unfermented grape juice would never have entered the minds of any of these Protestant forbearers. Being strict followers of the Word of God, they would not have deviated from Christ’s own actions at the Last Supper. Along with bread, wine was the universally accepted element used at Communion because that is what Jesus used. If it is found in the Bible, then any good Protestant would stay true to the Word of God. Jesus’ own action speaks for itself.

In fact, it is abundantly clear from the Gospels that Jesus was no stranger to wine. He changed water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-11). According to this passage, Jesus ordered six stone jars to be filled with water…each holding twenty to thirty gallons! We have no way of knowing how many guests were in attendance, but Jesus provided these guests with more than 120 gallons of wine…and He did this after they had already consumed what had been supplied by the hosts! Obviously Jesus was not a Prohibitionist.

Some Christians will argue that the wine mentioned in such passages of the Bible is not the same as the wine we have today because the alcohol content was far lower. These Christians claim that this ancient wine wasn’t even strong enough to cause intoxication. Therefore grape juice is closer to what Jesus and His disciples used.

To the contrary, Christians in the First Century did get drunk on Communion wine, and we have the words of Paul to attest to it. Paul chastises the Corinthians with these words:

“When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!” (1 Corinthians 11:20-22)

If the early Christians really used mere grape juice or a low-alcohol beverage then the Corinthians could never have gotten “drunk” at communal gatherings. From this passage we can clearly see that the alcohol content of their wine was high enough for intoxication. Furthermore, Paul does not say that they should altogether stop using fermented wine at the Lord’s Supper. He simply tells them to portion it out equally so that everyone gets a fair share. Over time these portions became more standardized so that today we each receive only a morsel of bread and sip of wine.

Other Biblical figures (as early as Noah in Genesis 9:20-21) are mentioned as having overindulged in alcohol and it is this drunkenness that is specifically prohibited in Scripture. But wine and other strong drink was never completely banned. To suggest otherwise is to misconstrue God’s Word. In fact Scripture sometimes recommends the use of wine and alcohol in general:

"Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more." (Proverbs 31:6-7)

In the New Testament, Paul advises Timothy to drink wine for its medicinal value:

“Stop drinking water only. Take a little wine for the good of your stomach, and because of your frequent illnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:23).

Besides social and medicinal usages, wine was involved in Jewish worship. Even before God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled, wine was offered in worship to God:

"Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said: 'Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth...'" (Genesis 14:18-19)

Jesus is later identified with this same Melchizedek (in the Letter to the Hebrews), for Jesus too offered bread and wine as a sacrifice to God. When Christians use wine for Communion it is a continuation of centuries of traditional ceremonial use of wine – from Melchizedek to the Passover meal to the Last Supper. Jesus was conscious of this connection when he instituted His memorial.

[To be continued in Part II]

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