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Q: #225. Should wine or grape juice be used for Communion/The Lord's Supper?

     A: A majority of scholars believe that wine alone should be used in Communion services. In fact, some get rather heated in saying this must be the case. On the other hand, a few believe that the Bible points to grape juice rather than wine, and they do make some interesting points. Let’s look at both views.

     First off, I believe it would be helpful to understand the difference between wine and grape juice. When you crush grapes, the juice that comes out is grape juice. This juice is “unfermented” and non-alcoholic. This juice becomes “fermented” and turns into wine (alcohol) when yeast is added to it and it begins to break down the sugars that are present in the juice, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. However, grape juice does contain small amounts of naturally occurring yeast, and can ferment naturally over time. Usually though, specialized yeast, and sometimes sugar, is added for better results.

     The use of wine is found throughout the Bible. Its first mention, is abuse of it when Noah became drunk on it (Gen 9:21,24). The Bible later gives many warnings against this abuse of wine (becoming drunk on it) (Eph 5:18)(Prov 23:20-21,29-32)(Isa 5:11-12) sometimes called “winebibbers” (Prov 23:20)(Mt 11:19)(Lk 7:34). However, wine had a significant and important role in the Bible. It was an important agricultural product (Gen 27:28)(2 Kin 18:32)(Jer 31:12), was used for trade (2 Chr 2:10,15)(Ezek 27:18), to pay fines (Amos 2:8), in offerings to the Lord (Ex 29:40)(Num 28:7)(Lev 23:13), and as medicine (1 Tim 5:23)(Prov 31:6)(Lk 10:34)(Mk 15:23).

     Drinking wine was a part of the culture of that day and done regularly (Gen 14:18)(Gen 27:25)(1 Chr 12:40)(2 Sam 16:1-2)(1 Sam 25:18)(Job 1:13,18). There wasn’t much else to drink in those days, and there was very little access to clean, drinkable water, so drinking wine was considered a normal thing to do. Wine was also used to purify water sometimes.

     Interestingly though, from my studies, that wine was used by Jesus during the “Last Supper” is based on conjecture and not necessarily fact. Now I am not saying that wine wasn’t used, as it was often used in gatherings like that, but the Bible doesn’t say that “wine” was used. This is where the grape juice crowd comes in 🙂 .

     When speaking of the drink at the Last Supper, the words “fruit of the vine” (Mt 26:29)(Lk 22:18) and “cup” (1 Cor 10:16,21) are used. Several points are argued regarding this. First, the Greek word “oinos” is used for wine in the New Testament. So, why wasn’t this word used regarding the drink at the Last Supper? It is also interesting to note that when the Old Testament speaks of wine, it seems to make a distinction between “alcoholic” and “non-alcoholic” wine. The Hebrew word “yayin” is used for fermented wine and “tirosh” for unfermented wine. Strong’s describes “tirosh” as “must (grape juice) or fresh grape-juice (as just squeezed out).” Tirosh is said to be found in clusters (Isa 65:8) and is sometimes called “new wine” (Gen 27:37)(Neh 10:39)(Neh 13:9)(Isa 24:7). A clear distinction is made between new wine and wine in (Hos 4:11). (Prov 3:10) tells us that “presses shall burst out with new wine tirosh.” This would seem to indicate that “new wine” is the result of freshly crushed grapes.

     This “new wine” (tirosh) was to be given as a tithe to the Levites (Neh 13:5,12), and was the “firstfruit” that should be offered (2 Chr 31:4-5) (Deut 18:4)(Neh 10:35-37)(Num 18:12). (This correlates with Jesus being called the “firstfruit” [1 Cor 15:20,23].) When Jesus was saying that the cup He was drinking was “the fruit of the vine,” doesn’t fresh, unfermented, non-alcoholic, new wine, grape juice seem to fit better with “the fruit of the vine” than wine which is a byproduct of grapes, is not straight from the vine, was not fresh, aged over time, AND LEAVEN was used to ferment it which was forbidden to be used in bread at the Passover meal (Ex 12:14-15,19-20). Hmmmm?

     The argument is made by those who believe wine was used, that in Bible times, the people did not know how to prevent grape juice from fermenting, therefore, it would automatically become wine. This has been proven false. First off, fermentation took several days to several weeks, so grape juice could be drank for a period of time before becoming (alcoholic) wine. In addition, several means of preserving grape juice were used and well known in those days. Heating it to 150-180 degrees would result in a syrup which could be diluted with water, then drank as unfermented grape juice. Also, keeping it in temperatures below 40 degrees would prevent fermentation (they would seal it in a container and sink it in a cold body of water).

     In addition, those who believe wine was used point to history and say that wine has been historically used for hundreds of years. This may be true, but it does not mean that wine was used at the Last Supper. However, we do know that Jesus drank wine that was fermented (Greek = “oinos“). He admitted this in (Lk 7:33-34)(Mt 11:18-19). He created wine at the wedding feast in Cana (Jn 2:1-10). He may also have drank wine at the Last Supper too, we just don’t know for certain is my point.

     I should also add that those who point to wine being used historically, say that this was the pattern until recent times, when several things happened. First, the Second Great Awakening, which was a huge revival in the early 1800’s occurred. Part of this movement included reducing the amount of alcohol that was consumed, and this included wine drinking. Enter Thomas Bramwell Welch in 1869. He was a minister and Communion steward at his church. He objected to alcoholic wine being used in Communion, so in 1869 he “successfully pasteurizes Concord grape juice to produce an “unfermented sacramental wine”” (from the Welch’s Grape Juice website). Apparently, some other churches followed his lead, replacing alcoholic wine with grape juice. This movement gained a lot of momentum when Prohibition (the 18th Amendment), outlawing alcohol, began in 1920. When it was later repealed in 1933 (the 21st Amendment), many churches never went back to wine.

     Two more arguments to consider from the pro-grape juice crowd are:

#1. Wine might not be a good choice to drink for recovering alcoholics.
#2. In the past, there were no laws against minors drinking an alcoholic beverage. Today there are, and we should obey the law. If we want to obey the law, and yet allow minors to participate, we should offer grape juice.

     I can honestly understand the viewpoint of each side regarding this issue. From my point of view, I am not sure that the Lord is so concerned with whether wine or grape juice is used, but rather, He is concerned with our heart attitude as we take it, and remembering that it represents His shed blood for us.

Copyright: © Steve Shirley

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Stephen Hedges

One thing that you missed is that, in the Old Testament, it was not permitted to drink of the juice of the grape from the time that it was crushed, in the autumn, until after the offering of the First Fruits at the celebration of Shavuoth (Pentecost). So, the juice had sat for at least 9 months from the time of the crushing until it was permitted to be drunk.… Read more »