“Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

Isaiah 55:1b

Tenth Presbyterian is re-introducing wine in communion along with the choice of grape juice. The article below attempts to set out the Bible’s view of wine as a good gift, the reason wine in the sacrament of communion is appropriate, and to provide some responses to questions that members and attenders of Tenth may have about this change in practice. The author and Session of Tenth Presbyterian would encourage your prayerful consideration of the teaching below, and welcome questions or concerns that you might have after reading it. 

Wine is Good

The well-known text from Psalm 104:14-15 where wine is received as a provision from God for a good purpose and God is glorified in response:

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
    and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
     and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
   and bread to strengthen man’s heart.

Psalm 104:14-15, emphasis added

But this is not the only way in which the word of God commends wine as a positive blessing when used properly. God promises wine in abundance as a blessing people will receive when they are obedient to him (Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; Proverbs 3:9-10).

God commands his people in Deuteronomy to rejoice as an act of religious worship before him when they bring their tithes and wine is commended as a thing to enjoy in this situation. 

And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire–oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves.

And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.

Deuteronomy 14:22-27, emphasis added

Many other texts express a positive view of wine. Some of them are referenced below: 

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.”

Ecclesiastes 9:7

“When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him”.

John 2:9-11

Texts that portray the joy of the future messianic age are in terms of the abundance of alcoholic wine: Isaiah 25:6; 55:1; Jeremiah 31:12; Hosea 2:22; Joel 2:19, 24; 3:18; Amos 9:13-15; Zechariah 9:15, 17; 10:7

Texts where God’s people rebel against him, and God withdraws the blessing of wine: Deuteronomy 28:39; Isaiah 1:22; 62:8; Jeremiah 48:33; Hosea 9:2, 4; Joel 1:10; Amos 5:11; Zephaniah 1:13; Haggai 1:11

Wine is Alcoholic

While nineteenth century interpreters who called for total abstinence were insistent in their reinterpretation of biblical texts with positive references to wine that the drink in question is not alcoholic, or that there is evidence that common wine used in the Greco-Roman world was almost completely non-alcoholic, this is certainly not actually the case. Biblical texts that warn against the abuse of wine use the same term as that for wine when it is commended, and it’s just not so that non-alcoholic grape juice was any kind of common beverage.  When Paul writes to the Corinthians, some were getting drunk when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, which indicates the alcoholic nature of the drink in question. Paul does not tell them to change the substance they drink, but to drink in “a worthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:17-34).

Abuse Is Not a Reason Against Proper Use

“Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object that is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we prohibit and abolish women? The sun, moon, and stars have been worshiped. Shall we pluck them out of the sky?”

Martin Luther

Abuse of alcoholic beverages is a constant problem the church faces in all ages, including today. Thus, it is important when instructing about Scripture’s commending wine as a blessing from God that abuses of the good gift are explicitly warned against. However, the abuse of a thing does not mean that there is to be no proper use.

Thus, though biblical texts and lived experience of the danger of alcohol are important and should always be held forth and considered, we should not overlook or undercut the positive outlook on wine in the Bible, and prevent the use of the symbol of wine in the Supper as a communication of its “proper use.” 

Even true doctrine–if taught carelessly or without the proper guardrails and situational awareness–can harm and distress. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), remarking on the doctrine of predestination, insists “The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care.”

When we teach the proper and correct use of wine as the element of the cup in the Supper, it would be possible to do so in an abusive, counterproductive, or harmful way. Some ways in which that might happen:

  1. A mocking or derisive expression towards those who have scruples about alcohol consumption
  2. Engendering a lax attitude toward drinking to excess
  3. Approaching this change in a way that is unconcerned for the unity of the fellowship at Tenth Church. 

Wine at the Table of the Lord

The question of Jesus’ use of wine at the Supper is sometimes resolved, when challenged, with a simple statement that grape juice would not have been used for Passover at that time. This is, at one level, amenable to the claim that therefore, to continue the Supper as ordained by Jesus we simply use wine as he did, as we use bread, and break it as he did, eat it as he did, etcetera. Jesus authorizes and institutes the Lord’s Supper and his words and example determine the structure and elements of the sacrament. As Presbyterians who hold to a regulative principle of worship, we are not free to innovate or substantially change elements of worship (WCF XXI.1).             

However, more can be said than simply “this is what Jesus used.” Understanding the significance of Jesus’ institution of wine helps ground the effective symbolism of wine as a theological marker of the New Covenant, and highlights what is missed when this element is substituted.

Benefit of the New Covenant

Wine is one of the focused symbols of the New Covenant itself. Jesus teaches that a sign of the coming kingdom of God is wine, highlighting its transformative nature as fermented. The kingdom is likened to new wine that must be put into new wineskins for the reason that the fermentative power of the wine will burst old wineskins. Jesus teaches this “parable of the kingdom” in a particular context. Jesus is questioned about the lack of fasting of Jesus and his disciples (Luke 5:33-35) and the meaning of the wine-parable is itself “overflowing” when used to explain the newness and celebratory nature of the kingdom (Luke 5:36-39)

This kingdom symbol of wine and fermentation is still in scope when, instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus says that the cup is the New Covenant in his blood.

Wine used in regular worship is a specific blessing and advance brought by the New Covenant. In Leviticus 10:9 Aaron and his sons, the priests, were forbidden from drinking wine or strong drink in the presence of the Lord while they served in the tabernacle as priests.  In addition, priests never sat in the presence of God in the tabernacle. There were no chairs as they were considered “on duty”. They ate the holy bread of the presence, but only after it had sat on the table of showbread for a week (Leviticus 24:8-9). This is an important contextual consideration for the prohibition of alcohol to the priests and to kings in Proverbs 21:4-5. Kings enjoy feasts of wine properly, just not in the course of their official duties, or making judgments. 

Jesus, the Son of God, and divine presence among his people, invited his disciples to sit in his presence and provided them with a cup of wine and invited them to drink with him when he instituted the Supper. The pose of rest at a table for the “royal priesthood” represents a way in which the New Covenant brings a better situation that the Old Covenant was unable to provide. The Old Covenant permitted the people to drink wine at festivals, at a “distance” from the Lord’s dwelling among them in the tabernacle, but in the New Covenant, the Lord serves his people in his presence, and invites them to sit, as he in his finished priestly work sits as well (Hebrews 10:11-12).

That wine is alcoholic is part of the point for the good order of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a time of fellowship and communion with our Lord and with each other. We rejoice with our Lord; we rest with our Lord. The particular mood-altering power of wine (we might call this the “kick”) in inducing a relaxed and joyful state when consumed in moderation is, in the view of this committee, an intentional signifier of the cup of the Lord’s Supper, as much as is the nourishing powers of bread.

We fear to be in the presence of a holy God, but he invites us to drink the sign of his shed blood and we are at peace.

We might sorrow over our sins in the presence of a holy God (and we do when we confess our sins at the beginning of worship), but he invites us to drink the sign of his shed blood and we feel joy.

We might seek to prove our worthiness by the works of our hands before our Lord, but he provides to our empty hands the sign of his shed blood and we experience rest.

“Fruit of the Vine”

Can we be insistent on wine when the term used by Jesus at the institution of the Supper was something that seems less-than-certain as to the alcoholic nature of the beverage consumed? If “fruit of the vine” is all Jesus is willing to use to describe the substance in the cup, are we authorized to declare that this means wine when the text leaves things ambiguous? Since we are regulated in worship by the Word, do we have a “word” that specifies the element being claimed must be wine?

Two lines of argument can be put forward to address this:

One is the common use of “fruit of the vine” as a term within the practice of Judaism to refer to wine. A traditional blessing used by Jewish people over wine at meals is “Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.”

A second one notes that Jesus is beginning his particular ministry of atoning sacrifice. He will leave and go to the garden immediately after the Supper. Later he will refuse a sponge soaked in vinegar and gall (Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23). He refuses vinegar, a product of the vine. This may be an indication that Jesus is accounting himself as participating in a Nazirite vow for his work on the cross. (The Nazirite vow seems to have been particularly used when Israelites were taking on especially challenging or dangerous work such as military service). The Nazirite vow prohibited not only alcoholic wine, but all grape products, even juice or raisins.

“He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.”

Numbers 6:3-4

If this be the case, Jesus’ use of an expansive term “fruit of the vine” would not be seen as an ambiguous reference to a cup which might contain juice, but rather to signal his consideration of the broader Nazirite requirements. 

Additionally, the Reformed regulative principle of worship, which instructs us that worship needs to be carefully regulated by scripture, is not limited to only explicit commands about what elements of worship are authorized in public worship. There is a holistic understanding that encompasses explicit commands, approved examples, and good and necessary consequence. The New Testament is also not the only source for understanding New Covenant worship. The interpretive approach that would insist that we lack permission under the regulative principle to insist on wine must take a narrow lens on the term “fruit of the vine;” as if its surface-level open-endedness was central and bracket out the general teaching of the Scriptures on the goodness and blessed giftedness of wine, historical information about the use of wine in the Passover, and information about the change between Old Covenant and New Covenant. If “fruit of the vine” seems ambiguous, we can resolve it with texts that are more clear and more numerous that express the goodness of wine and its significance as a benefit of the blessing of God in the New Covenant. 

Adjustments and Our Situation

The Session of Tenth desires to serve wine when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Yet it is acknowledged that if we provided only wine in communion, it could have unintended bad effects. Some may have an issue of conscience: those who cannot drink alcoholic wine or have taken an oath not to drink wine. For this reason, we are following the common practice of churches that include wine in communion by providing an option of grape juice that individuals may choose to select when receiving the cup. 

The Problem of Grape Juice and Symbolism

Without the use of actual wine in the cup at Tenth a curious symbolic distancing happens. We know that the element used by Jesus was wine, but we also know we are consuming “not-wine”. This has the potential for a distancing effect: we hear words referring to wine and we can readily see and agree with the theological point as it applies to the Supper’s benefits; but then we can be “taken out of the moment” by the reception of that which is not wine. 

One of the common understandings of the nature of the sacraments is that they are visible and tangible “words”. Verbal communication is to our minds and hearts, but participation in the sacraments is a non-verbal communication to our bodies in particular. The sacraments are a different channel for communicating the same truths of salvation and grace that speaks to our embodied nature. 

Verbal words and “tangible words” are analogous but consider how the analogy functions: using a non-verbal element that is an alternative to the one intended could be seen as impairing or “slurring” the “tangible word” used. What is communicated is communicated less precisely. We are choosing to communicate imperfectly or even confusedly. We do not want the “trumpet to give an uncertain sound” (1 Corinthians 14:8).

A second analogical aspect of the theology of sacraments as tangible words is that the “tangible words” are, like verbal words, replete with a multitude of connotations that contribute to their meaning. Nonverbal communication also admits a more compact communication of extended meaning. A single symbol can be replete with a multitude of intended associations and connotations.  

A single thing, like “water,” in the Bible, has associations of a life-giving necessity to quench thirst. It also has the association of a deadly flood and a threat. It is also a cleansing substance. The propensity of physical symbols to have these multiple symbolic bindings is how the one symbol is replete with many connotations all at once when used to communicate. 

This seems to be the case with the waters of baptism explicitly. The waters of baptism are a fitting symbol for the meaning of “cleansing”. The cleansing with water represents the cleansing from sin. But it also recalls the flood of Noah (1 Peter 3:20-21) and the waters that drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). When a person receives baptism, the water symbolizes both things simultaneously and these multiple symbolic bindings are themselves part of the power of the symbol. 

What happens when we use grape juice instead of wine? The symbol that is authorized has certain bindings of meaning that are removed by the substitution of the non-alcoholic element. The “kick” of alcoholic wine lies behind all the biblical texts that commend it as a heart -gladdening gift as well as the biblical texts that warn of its dangers.  It is a beverage that is consumed socially, in convivial situations, and a beverage that itself “relaxes” to a degree the person receiving it as a mood-altering substance. Those symbolic connotations and physical effects are removed and what we have is a sign (grape juice) that points to a reality (joy -producing wine) that points to another reality (the joyful reception of Jesus). Using wine as intended would avoid this distancing; the sign (heart-gladdening wine) and the reality (joyful reception of Jesus) takes the most direct route.

If the Use of Alcoholic Wine Is “Best,” Why Is It Not Absolutely Necessary?

All the above is written to persuade that wine is the element Jesus used in the Supper, that this is theologically significant, and that it is deleterious to substitute grape juice. Following the regulative principle indicates that wine is the authorized element of the Supper. If all this is true, one might wonder why we would serve grape juice at all as an option for people? If it violates the regulative principle to serve grape juice, can we actually do so and remain committed Presbyterians? Some considerations below:

The first is the weightier matters of the law. Jesus agreed that Pharisees were correct for tithing their mint, anise, and cumin. But he pronounced “woe” to them for neglecting mercy and faithfulness. Overzealousness in the rightness of the cause of introducing wine has the risk of injuring consciences, inadvertently promoting drunkenness, and needlessly driving people away, turning a sign of the unity of the Body of Christ into an occasion of disunity. This is a much weightier matter, ultimately, than whether we “tithe our mint.”

Another consideration is that a gradual course is wise when dealing with a less weighty matter that is still important for the Spiritual benefit of the Christian. This Session hopes that as we offer both wine and grape juice to the congregation and continue to teach and model the significance of wine in communion as instructors of our brothers and sisters that most — and more and more — of the congregation would select wine if they were able. 

We also consider the protection of those who have a physically harmful response to consuming wine to be very important. As we provide gluten-free bread which doesn’t contain wheat as a health-saving accommodation for those with celiac disease, it is likewise prudent to provide grape juice for those who might have their health injured by consuming alcohol. In extremis God provides for his people in ways that seemingly violate basic elements of worship. David’s band were not ordained as priests, but they were permitted to consume the holy bread of the presence for the needs of their life. Zipporah was not ordinarily the person who would circumcise a young boy, but when life was on the line she did so. Those who could not participate in Passover at the appointed time in the first month (because they were unclean or on a journey) were permitted to celebrate Passover in the following month. This “allowance” was directly authorized by the Lord but provides an example for us to reflect upon as we consider our situation.

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