Bible Wine and the Communion Cup
By Les Potter, Mt. Carmel, Israel.
The subject of wine in the Bible is sometimes confusing. In fact, if you view all references to it, it can appear almost self-contradictory. Not surprisingly, there are therefore strong, absolute dogmas among the brethren in regard to it. As often as not, dogmas are comprised of elements other than the precise examination of the words of Scripture. Furthermore, it is a trait of human nature that once a “position” is taken, further evidence to the contrary is generally not welcomed. Nevertheless, for the sake of any who have not yet closed the books on this case, please allow me to present a few things for consideration.
Over the years, I have met some Baptist brethren that believe the cup of the Lord’s supper must be fermented wine. There are even some who almost consider it a litmus test of fellowship. Some have even contended that “The Bible says WINE, not grape juice.” It is understood by most on both sides of this issue, however, that “the cup” of the Lord’s supper is never called either. The synoptic gospels record the Lord referring to its content as “the fruit of the vine.” There are those however, who insist that all fruit of the vine is “wine,” by today’s definition of the word. It is to that position that I would like to address.
The first mention: Proponents of the idea that wine is always alcohol will sometimes refer to the first mention of wine in the Bible. We see in that first mention that when Noah drank it, he was drunken. The principle of first mention can indeed be a useful tool in understanding Bible terms. But the first mention of a word is not the absolute definition without regard to further mention. As in every other Biblical term, the first mention is compared with further usages throughout the entire Bible to determine its meaning. As we examine further evidence, we learn from Biblical context that there are three different connotations to the word “wine” in the Bible. This is not a problem at all in light of the fact there are various connotations to other Biblical words. Words that have alternate definitions are usually instinctively understood by their context. Take, for example, the word “kill.” When we read the first mention of killing, it is a murderous act. Furthermore, God said “thou shalt not kill” but then later commands “to kill” the sacrifice and even “to kill” transgressors of the law. By observing the way the word is used, we understand there is no contradiction. Rather, there are different connotations within that word that can denote murdering a human or killing an animal or lawfully executing criminals. It is all clearly understood by context, yet it is the same identical word. Likewise, we all know how the word “love” has at least three different applications. There is the kind of love we have for the brethren, another kind we have for our children, and another kind we have for our spouse. Yet any one of these different meanings is expressed and understood with the same identical word. We could go on with numerous examples, but suffice it to illustrate that a consistent, literal understanding of Scripture does not allow for us to force every word into one chosen definition for every use apart from context.
Further observance reveals that some terms do not always mean the same thing today that they did when our language was at its peak in the 1600’s. The word “apparel” for example means any article of clothing in today’s language. But when Paul used it in 1Tim 2:9, it was far more defining. It was a particular word denoting a “loose, long, flowing outer garment.” Sure, the word “wine” always means alcohol today, as contrasted to grape juice, which is non-alcoholic. But if we must insist on forcing modern definitions to Biblical terminology, then our understanding “gay clothing” in James 2:3 takes on a new dimension. The old English term for wine was as generic as “yine” was in Biblical Hebrew. It could denote it as either fermented or unfermented. But as bottling techniques were invented which purposefully produce controlled alcohol content, we began making a distinction between “wine” and “juice”. The difference is according to its intentional alcohol content; or absence thereof. In Biblical Hebrew there are places where the freshly squeezed, unfermented new wine is called “Tirosh”. Modern Hebrew generally makes the distinction today calling the alcoholic variety “yine,” and juice “meetz.”
In the Bible, the word “wine” is used generically and can be understood three different ways. Sometimes, we are given the added description of “Old Wine” or “New Wine.” Please bear in mind that in Bible times, they did not have the bottling methods we have today. Wine was kept in skins or containers, but they had no way of sealing them from bacteria. Furthermore, the juice from grapes rapidly turns to vinegar when exposed to temperatures above 70 degrees. There is a narrow corridor of temperature in which wine can ferment without turning to vinegar. The grape harvest in Israel is in August and September, which is the hottest time of the year. Temperatures usually soar above 100 degrees at that time. If you were living in the time before modern bottling methods and refrigeration, you would have limited options to preserve your new wine from becoming vinegar. If you wanted it to ferment, you must carefully keep it cool in a deep cave or a well. The common method of preserving it in Bible times was to boil the fresh squeezed juice into a jam and store it in skins. This method could easily preserve the wine for the entire year in any temperature. It was simply reconstituted with water when they were ready to drink it. This was called “Old Wine” in the Bible. Boiling the wine killed the bacteria which would otherwise cause the vinegaration and fermentation process. Thus “old wine” was never alcoholic.
As you might guess, “new wine” was un-boiled wine. New wine could be either fermented, or unfermented, depending on its stage. The Bible refers to new wine in some places as a blessing (Isaiah 65:8; Joel 3:17; Zechariah 9:17) and in other places as a curse (Hosea 4:11; Joel 1:5; Isaiah 28:1&7). The difference between wine being a blessing or a curse is fermentation. In fact, Proverbs 23:31 says “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright.” This warning to avoid it while it is fermenting is a good indication of God’s view of alcohol. The Lord also said in Proverbs 20:1 “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” Yet the Lord Himself turned water into wine for a wedding in John chapter 2. Does the Lord contradict Himself? Not at all! The difficulty is in our modern frame of reference, though the answer can be demonstrated in a modern grocery store. Please allow me to illustrate.
Cider: A good comparison of new wine today would be apple cider. There is only one real difference between cider and apple juice. That is that apple juice is pasteurized (boiled) which kills the natural bacteria, thus preserving it from ‘turning’ in fermentation or to vinegar (in cooler temperature it ferments, in warmer temperature, it vinegarizes) Cider, on the other hand, is not boiled or pasteurized. It therefore can naturally ferment. When I was a boy, I loved cider, and I especially loved it as it began to turn “hard.” That tangy flavor came when it began to ferment. Apples are harvested in the fall, and October is a good climate to ferment cider. The term “cider” in itself does not define whether it is fermented. Likewise, the term “new wine” in the Bible does not whether it was fermented. There are many places in the Bible where the generic term “wine” is used, without the specification of whether it is old wine or new wine. Thus, it may refer to old wine (boiled, preserved and non-fermentable) or new wine (which may be freshly squeezed juice, or may be have been kept in conditions where it could ferment.) In most cases, it is readily understood by context. You will recall that the mockers at Pentecost accused the disciples of drinking“new wine” (Acts 2:13.) They were clearly accusing them of drinking alcohol.
What about a little wine for thy stomach’s sake? Some have cited Paul’s admonition in 1Timothy 5:23 as an occasion for alcoholic wine. The verse reads: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” While I would not deny the usefulness of alcohol for medicinal purposes such as topical cleansing, mouthwash, and even cough remedies, it is certainly not stomach medicine. In fact, the first thing a doctor will warn a patient suffering from stomach ailments (such as ulcers) is to avoid alcohol. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that the Holy Spirit would inspire Paul to prescribe a nip of booze for such an ailment. However, grape juice (old wine) has the opposite affect. Not only could it have nourishing qualities to soothe an upset stomach, it would have been the best alternative to the impure water conditions prevalent to that era. But if we force the definition of “wine” to abide strictly by modern definition, you have the Holy Spirit prescribing a remedy that would be very hurtful to Timothy’s condition. We discern the opposite, however, by way of understanding the different connotations involved in the Biblical use of this word “wine.”
The Lord himself spoke of the difference between old and new wine. He said that the old wine is better (Luke 5:39). Some today might imagine this to be speaking of “vintage.” But in the context of the biblical times, there was no such thing. Here again, as true Bible believers, we must seek to understand Biblical terminology rather than forcing Bible terms to fit our frame of reference. The Lord spake about what happens when you put new wine in old skins. The new wine swells and destroys old skins that cannot stretch with it. The reason new wine swells is because of the leavening effect of the bacteria in it. We put leaven in bread to purposely get this same expanding effect. We all know how that leaven is a type of sin in Scripture. The Passover bread was to be unleavened and pure. In the Lord’s supper, this Passover bread (matzah) was given as a type of the Lord’s pure body. He who was pure and holy, knowing no sin, gave his body to be broken for us. The Lord gave also the cup to represent his pure, sinless blood to pay for our sins. Does it seem reasonable that the Lord would use the leavened, fermented wine which he warned us not to look upon (Pr 23:31) to represent his pure unleavened blood? As for me, I think not.