The Bible Defines the Cup
The Bible specifically mentions the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in five passages. They are Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-21, I Corinthians 10:16-17, and I Corinthians 11:17-34. Other passages of the Bible may refer to the sacrament indirectly, but we will not attempt to study those passages here. Indeed, even the five passages that specifically mention the sacrament will not be studied in detail, but only so far as they touch on the subject of the contents of the communion cup.
None of the five passages uses the word “wine.” Instead, other terms describe the communion cup and its contents. The first is “the fruit of the vine,” which is found in Mark 14:25 and Luke 22:18. The second, and more specific term, is “this fruit of the vine” and is found in Matthew 26:29. The third is “the cup of blessing, which we bless,” and is found in I Corinthians 10:16. The remaining references are found in I Corinthians 11, where the communion cup is “this cup,” or “the cup,” or “the cup of the Lord.”
What do such terms mean? What do they tell us about the contents of the communion cup? To answer such questions, we must interpret them in accordance with sound principles of biblical interpretation. We must study the words themselves, as well as their historical and cultural background, while resisting any temptation to import into the texts our own biases or prejudices.
The Background: The Passover Meal
When we read the relevant Bible passages in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we are immediately struck with the fact that the Last Supper, and thus the institution of the Lord’s Supper, took place within the context of the Passover meal. Understanding this context is crucial to understanding the contents of the communion cup.
We begin by citing the relevant passages. Matthew 26:17-29 mentions the Passover meal four times. “Now on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying to Him, ‘Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?’ And He said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, “The Teacher says, ‘My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at your house with My disciples.'”” “So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover.”
Similarly, Mark 14:12, 14, 16 says, “Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they killed the Passover lamb, His disciples said to Him, ‘Where do You want us to go and prepare, that You may eat the Passover?’…Wherever he goes in, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?”’ So His disciples went out, and came into the city, and found it just as He had said to them; and they prepared the Passover.”
Luke 22:7-20 says, “Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. And He sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat.’ So they said to Him, ‘Where do You want us to prepare?’ And He said to them, ‘Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters. Then you shall say to the master of the house, “The Teacher says to you, ‘Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?’ ” Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready.’ So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover. When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. Then He said to them, ‘With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.'”
The inspired authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke use the word “Passover” no fewer than a total of thirteen times to help us understand what Jesus said and did on the night He instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. This fact is noteworthy of itself. But to fully grasp the direct connection of the Passover meal to the words and events of that night, we ought to remember another prominent fact: Jesus Christ, “our Passover” lamb (I Corinthians 5:7) and the “lamb of God” (John 1:29), was about to be sacrificed for us.
The implication of these facts is inescapable: We must carefully study the Passover meal; otherwise, we will never understand what Jesus said and did when He instituted the Lord’s Supper.
Changes in the Passover Meal
The first mention of the Passover meal is found in Exodus 12. In this passage, the Passover is purposefully designed to remind the Israelites of an unique historical event, namely, the Exodus from Egypt.
However, the Passover meal changed over time. When Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples, about 1,400 years had passed.
J.B. Segal wrote,
Most important, we find here [in Jubilees 49, circa 150 B.C.] the first allusion to the wine which became so prominent a feature of the Jewish Pesah [passover] meal…It is more likely that the introduction of wine at the Pesah meal was the effect of a radical change that was now taking place in the character of the Passover. It was to be no longer a solemn annual mustering of male adults; it was to become the occasion for family festivity, in which the drinking of wine found a natural place.The Hebrew Passover: From the Earliest Times to 70 A.D.
The religious and cultural context in which Jesus lived and ministered is partially described by the Mishnah. The Mishnah is “a principal component of Judaism…The Mishnah was represented, soon after it was compiled, as the part of the ‘whole Torah of Moses, our rabbi,’ which had been formulated and transmitted orally, so it bore the status of divine revelation right alongside the Pentateuch.” (Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation, page xiv)
The Passover Wine
The Mishnah is divided into sections; the Mishnah Peshaim is that part of the Mishnah which dealt with the Passover. A full description of the Mishnah Peshaim is beyond the scope of this web site, but certain features are especially relevant to our discussion, so a lengthy quote is justified.
- 10: 1 A. On the eve of the Passover from just before the afternoon’s daily whole offering, a person should not eat, until it gets dark. B. And even the poorest Israelite should not eat until he reclines at his table. C. And they should provide him with no fewer than four cups of wine, D. and even if the funds come from public charity.
- 10:2 I A. When they have mixed the first cup of wine— B. The House of Shammai say, “He says a blessing over the day, and afterward he says a blessing over the wine.” C. And the House of Hillel say, “He says a blessing over the wine, and afterward he says a blessing over the day.”
- 10:4 II A. They mixed for him a second cup of wine. B. And here the son asks his father [questions].
- 10:7 III A. They mixed the third cup for him. B. He says a blessing for his food. IV C. [And at] the fourth, he completes the Hallel and says after it the grace of song. D. Between these several cups of wine, if he wants to drink, he may drink wine. E. But between the third and fourth cup of wine, if he wants to drink, he may not drink. [Emphasis added]
The Mishnah Peshaim helps us to understand several aspects of the Passover meal, and, consequently, the Lord’s Supper. First, four cups of wine were used. Second, the words “cup” and “wine” are used interchangeably. In this context, the word “cup,” is simply a figure of speech for “wine.”
“The Fruit of the Vine” and the Cup
In another passage, the Mishnah elucidates these terms even further, because the Mishnah uses the term “the fruit of the vine” as a synonym for “wine” in Mishnah Berakhoth 6:1. In its entirety, Mishnah Berakhoth 6:1 says,
- A. What blessing does one recite over produce?
- B. Over fruit of a tree he says, [“Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe] Creator of the fruit of the tree,”
- C. except for wine.
- D. For over wine he says, “Creator of the fruit of the vine.”
- E. And over produce of the earth [vegetables] he says, “Creator of the fruit of the ground,”
- F. except for loaves [of bread].
- G. For over the loaf he says, “Who brings forth bread from the earth,”
- H. And over greens he says, “Creator of the fruit of the ground.”
- I. R. Judah says, “Creator of kinds of herbs.” [Emphasis added]
Later, the Talmud contributed to the Jewish understanding of the Passover. The Babylonian Talmud described the Passover wine: “R. Judah said: It must possess the taste and appearance of wine. Said Raba, What is R. Judah’s reason? Because it is written, Look not upon the wine when it is red.”
According to this passage, the Passover must not only use wine—it must be red wine. The reason given is strange to modern ears, perhaps—the wine must conform to the description in Proverbs 23:31. Nevertheless, this passage from the Talmud is helpful, because it tells us that the wine must not only have the appearance, but also the taste, of the clearly alcoholic wine of Proverbs 23:31.
Only a few words later, the Babylonian Talmud explains the rationale for using wine in the Passover meal: “Our Rabbis taught: A man is in duty bound to make his children rejoice and his household rejoice on a Festival, for it is said, And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, [thou and thy son, and thy daughter, etc.] Wherewith does he make them rejoice? With wine. R. Judah b. Betera says, “…Now that the house of the sanctuary is no longer standing, the sole valid form of rejoicing is drinking wine: ‘And wine gladdens the heart of man’ (Ps. 104:5)”
On at least one occasion, the nature of this wine, combined with a regrettable abuse, produced a rather lamentable consequence: R. Judah bar Ilai drank four cups on Passover and had a hangover until Tabernacles. According to the Talmud, the wine of the Passover was diluted with water. As Mishnah Peshaim 10 shows, the wine was “mixed,” again, probably with water. “The wine of the Last Supper, accordingly, may be described in modern terms as a sweet, red, fermented wine, rather highly diluted” (B.S. Easton, “Wine, Wine Press,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume V, page 3087).
Summarizing the evidence, Gustaf Dalman, in his Jesus-Jeshua, added further details about the wine used in the Passover,
- Four cups of wine were in later times the minimum for the Passover meal. This was allegorically interpreted in different ways; e.g. four kinds of punishment to the heathen—to Israel four kinds of consolations. The fact is, however, that this amount was connected with a peculiar method of calculation. A ‘cup of blessing’ had to contain ‘a quarter of a quarter of a log’ of pure wine. Thus, four such cups contained a quarter of a log, i.e. one-eighth litre of pure wine, about the measure of a large modern wine-glass. The drinking of such a quarter of a log of wine was considered enough to make priests and judges temporarily unfit for their office. A whole log (= one-half litre), it says, caused intoxication, for, when Gamaliel II had drunk a quarter of a log of Italic wine he felt unable to undertake a case of dissolving a vow until he had ridden for three miles to let the intoxication pass off. Thus, the amount of wine drunk at a Passover meal was just enough to promote high spirits; that it would not lead to actual intoxication was taken for granted, as experience taught that wine caused intoxication only when drunk after, but not when drunk during, a meal. (Naturally, the effect of wine on those who were used to drink much was also known. One who was used to drink daily twelve xests (more than 6 litres) did not fall asleep if he only drank eleven.) Moreover, the avoidance of intoxication was also due to the fact that it was drunk at intervals. ‘The drunkard drinks in one draught, the decent man in two, the proud man in three.’ And yet some Rabbis spoke of the physical after-effects of the four Passover cups upon them: Rabbi Jonah felt his until Pentecost had come around; Juda ben Ilay until the Feast of Tabernacles.
- It was taken for granted that the wine should be diluted with water. The strong Italic wine was mixed with three parts of water; so a cup containing one-sixteenth of a log of pure wine had to be large enough to contain three-sixteenths of a log of water and allow a space of one-sixteenth of a log free at the brim for drinking. For the weaker Palestinian Saron wine, mixed only with twice its quantity of water, smaller cups would suffice. According to Eliezer, the mixing was to be done before the benediction over the wine. At the Passover meal this was not performed at one time in a great vessel for the purpose, but at each cup, in order that every cup should be an entity in itself.
Is “the Fruit of the Vine” a Generic Term?
Some people have suggested that “the fruit of the vine” is a generic term, and includes both wine and unfermented grape juice. Is this assertion supported by the biblical evidence?
At first glance, “the fruit of the vine” is, indeed, a generic term. After all, grapes are a fruit produced by vines; by extension, it could be argued, grape juice is also produced by vines. Indeed, it might appear that grape juice has an even greater claim to the title of “the fruit of the vine” than wine does, since grape juice is a more immediate product of a vine than wine is; after all, grape juice occurs before wine, and wine occurs only after the passing of time.
However, the phrase “the fruit of the vine” should not be interpreted according to our modern understanding of how grape juice and wine are produced. To do so is to violently wrest the term from its original context and to force it to mean what a modern speaker would mean if he used the same words. Sound principles of interpretation require us to ask, not, “In our experience, what fruits do vines produce?” but rather “How was the phrase ‘the fruit of the vine’ used and understood by Jesus and His hearers?” Only when we examine the phrase in its original context is a valid interpretation possible. The failure of some interpreters to give due consideration to the original context of “the fruit of the vine” has been the cause of much confusion and misunderstanding. Biblical interpretation would be an easy thing, if we were to ignore the original context, but it would also be mistaken.
Jesus and His disciples did not live outside of time and history, but in a particular time and place. That time and that place were not accidents, created by chance; rather, they had been prepared in advance by God’s wise providence, and so were a part of His divine plan. Indeed, we can be sure that God predestined this particular cultural setting as best suited for His purposes. Then, because Jesus and His disciples lived in first century Palestine, they inherited particular languages and a culture that had existed long before the Last Supper took place. The Jewish Passover rituals—including both set actions and liturgical formulae—were a long-established part of that culture. As a young man growing up in a pious Jewish family, Jesus had undoubtedly heard the words “the fruit of the vine,” and had seen and tasted the Passover wine, many times; the same can be said for His disciples. Later, throughout Jesus’s public ministry, Jesus and His disciples used the same languages and the same culture that they had inherited from their ancestors. When Jesus spoke, He spoke words that were understood by His disciples, and He utilized a culture that was familiar to them. Otherwise, communication (in the ordinary sense) would have been impossible. As a result of this shared culture and language, the disciples knew precisely what to do when Jesus said, “Prepare the Passover,” and Jesus could be sure they had done what He intended, because the Passover meal had been prepared by pious Jews in a particular manner for generations. Likewise, when Jesus said, “the fruit of the vine,” He was not inventing a new term, nor did His disciples hear a new term, because Jesus was using a term that had already existed, and had acquired a definite meaning, long before He uttered that term. The words “the fruit of the vine” were a term the Jews had used as a part of the blessing over wine, the fermented juice of grapes, long before Jesus was born.
To repeat: We must interpret the words and actions of Jesus at the institution of the Lord’s Supper according to their original context. What was that context? As we demonstrated above, the original context was the Passover meal. The Jews of Jesus’s day drank four cups of wine during the Passover meal (Mishnah Peshaim 10:1). They pronounced a blessing over the Passover wine. Over wine they said, “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine” (Mishnah Berakhoth 6:1). We have here the language of worship and liturgy. In other words, “the fruit of the vine” is a technical and liturgical term, with a definite and specific meaning. Our concern is not, the fruit of the vine, considered as a product of the vines in a vineyard; but rather “the fruit of the vine,” considered as a part of the blessing the Jews said over wine. “The fruit of the vine” is not an agricultural or botanical term, and must not be interpreted today as if it were. The fact that “the fruit of the vine,” when taken out of context, may suggest a different meaning to modern speakers and hearers, ought not to hinder us from understanding this term correctly. Sound principles of biblical interpretation require us to consider the original meaning of the term, which was spoken in the context of the Jewish Passover meal. Only then can we understand the mind of Christ, when He said, “the fruit of the vine.”
The fact that “the fruit of the vine” is specific, not generic, becomes even clearer when we remember that Matthew 26:29 reports Jesus as saying, “this fruit of the vine.” Obviously, Jesus was not directing the attention of His hearers to an abstraction, or to a generality. Nor was He referring to something that did not exist six months after the grape harvest. Instead, Jesus was referring to a material that was physically and actually present on the table in front of Him. The word “this” (Greek: τούτου τοῦ) allows no other interpretation. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how Jesus could have chosen a more specific term.
And what was this physical and material object to which Jesus referred when He said, “this fruit of the vine”? We ought to remember that Jesus and His disciples were not standing in a vineyard, but in the upper room. The occasion was not the grape harvest, but the Passover. Before them was a table. What was on that table as Jesus spoke these words? It could only have been what had been placed there after “the disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover” (Matthew 26:19, cf. Mark 14:16). Jesus referred to Passover wine.
This understanding of Matthew 26:29 then informs our understanding of “the fruit of the vine” in Mark and Luke. “This fruit of the vine” is specific and concrete, not generic; and since Matthew 26:29 illuminates–and does not contradict–the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, we understand that “the fruit of the vine” in Mark and Luke are also specific, not generic.
Once we consider all this, we are compelled to conclude that “the fruit of the vine” is wine, the fermented juice of grapes. It is not a generic term.
What About the Yeast?
Some people object to the concept of alcoholic wine in the Passover meal, on the ground that the regulations concerning the Passover forbade the presence of leaven, or yeast, in the house.
To answer, we must study the process used in making wine, the Mishnah, and the biblical passages concerning leaven.
First, we must distinguish between the process of leavening, and the process of fermentation. These are very different things, and what is proper to say about the former, may be improper to say about the latter. Bread could be either leavened or unleavened, and the biblical passages that regulated the Passover meal, required that it be unleavened. Wine, on the other hand, was fermented, not leavened; and the biblical passages that require that unleavened bread be used at Passover say nothing at all about fermented wine, and do not forbid it. The Israelites would not have made the mistake of supposing that leavened bread is somehow similar to fermented wine, and that therefore a prohibition against one, is also a prohibition against the other. Nor should we.
Second, the yeast that was “not to be seen” among the Israelites evidently meant either the yeast in the bread (which had to be unleavened at the time of the Passover), or what may be called “loose” yeast, that yeast which had not entered anything. Nothing is said in the Mishnah Peshaim about removing wine from the home, though much is said about removing yeast. The search for yeast included a search around the wine vault, but it did not include a search of the wine itself.
Third, the prohibition against yeast on Passover may have involved only the five grains listed in Mishnah Pesahim 2:5. Since none of those are put into wine, there is no problem with the yeast that fermented the wine.
Fourth, we should also note that the process of fermentation, used to make wine, did not require the introduction of yeast by man. Rather, the naturally occurring yeast on the skins of the grapes and in the surrounding air was sufficient to begin the fermentation process. Then, since yeast cells multiply rapidly, this small (and usually undetectable) amount of yeast was enough to produce the alcoholic content of the wine.
Fifth, while the start of the process of fermentation required the presence of yeast, fermentation would have eventually killed the yeast in the wine. Yeast cannot survive in an environment rich in alcohol. Since the process of fermentation required only a few days to complete, no yeast would have been present in wine more than a few days old. Thus, a Passover meal using unleavened bread and wine contained no yeast.
In addition, RPCNA minister William Slater answered the objection regarding yeast many years ago, and his words deserve careful consideration. “It is alleged that the wine used in the passover by the ancient Israelites, must have been unfermented, because there was to be no leaven in their houses at that time. Ans. 1st. We have no evidence that the Israelites in early times used wine in the passover at all. There is no mention of it in the original institution, so that all reasoning from the [original] passover is perfectly nugatory. 2nd There is no command against material leaven in the Lord’s Supper. 3d. At the same time that leaven was prohibited in the offerings of God, wine was commanded. In the holy place shalt thou cause the strong wine to be poured unto the Lord for a drink-offering. Num. xxviii. 7. What sad work was this! that wine, containing leaven and alcohol, and what not, should have been offered to God!”
Modern scholars have examined the evidence and have drawn the obvious conclusions.
In his book, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias wrote, “το γενημα της αμπελου (‘the fruit of the vine’) for ‘wine’ is in the Judaism of the time of Jesus a set liturgical formula at the blessing of the cup, both before and after the meal.” Therefore, “Jesus and his disciples drank red wine at the Last Supper.”
The Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod asserted that, “According to the Talmud the Passover cup contained a mixture of three parts water to one part wine (Peshaim 108b); this was to decrease its power of intoxication…Evidently our Lord partook of some kind of wine in the Passover observance” (“Study Committee on the Beverage Use of Alcohol Report.” Documents of Synod: Study Papers and Actions of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod—1965-1982).
“All four accounts of the Lord’s Supper speak of ‘the cup.’ The content of this cup was most definitely wine. The references in Matt. 26:29 and parallels to the ‘fruit of the vine’ would not have suggested anything else to Jesus’ listeners than the grape wine of the Jewish Passover ritual.” (Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper, 1983, The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod)
“In the accounts of the Last Supper the term οινος [the Greek word for wine] occurs neither in the Synoptists nor Paul. It is obvious, however, that according to custom Jesus was proffering wine in the cup over which He pronounced the blessing; this may be seen especially from the solemn γενημα της αμπελου (Mark. 14:25 and par.) which was borrowed from Judaism.” (Seesemann, “οινος,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume V, page 64. “γενημα της αμπελου” is translated as “fruit of the vine.”)
“Mark. 14:25 (Mt. 26:29; Lk. 22:18): γενημα της αμπελου, is to be equated with הֵגֶּפֶן פְּרִי, which occurs in the blessing of the paschal cup in Ber., 6, and T.Ber.,4,3…The expression of the Evangelists is particularly close, therefore, to contemporary Judaism.” (Friedrich Büchsel, “γενημα,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume I, page 685).
Commentator William Hendriksen, in his The Gospel of Matthew, says, “By speaking of ‘the fruit of the vine’ Jesus undoubtedly refers to wine. Note close relation between ‘vine’ and ‘wine’ in Isa. 24:7. See also Num. 6:4; Hab. 3:17. At this time of the year (April), and under conditions then prevailing in Judea, it is hard to think of anything but fermented grape juice, that is, wine, the kind of wine used at Passover; hence, diluted or paschal wine” (p. 911).
Likewise, the famous New Testament scholar D.A. Carson wrote, “The ‘fruit of the vine’ is a common Jewish way of referring in prayers to wine (cf. m Berakoth 6:1)” (Matthew-Mark, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, revised edition, Vol. 9, page 604).
Similarly, R.C.H. Lenski, in his commentary, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel said, “The efforts that are put forth to read wine out of this account are unavailing. Because oinos, the word for ‘wine,’ does not occur, the presence of wine is at least gravely questioned, which means practically denied. Luke’s ‘the fruit of the vine,’ pheri hagiphen, the lovely liturgical term for the wine that was used in the Passover ritual, which Matthew makes even more specific by writing ‘this fruit of the vine,’ the one that was regularly used in the Passover and was used at this Passover by Jesus, is misunderstood by these commentators, for they assert that grape juice fits this phrase better than does wine–although such a thing as grape juice was an impossibility in April in the Holy Land of Christ’s time. It could be had only when grapes were freshly pressed out, before the juice started to ferment in an hour or two.” (pages 1043-1044)
“The fruit of the vine” in the biblical accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper is wine, the fermented juice of grapes. That is what the term meant for Jesus and His disciples, and that is what it must mean for us. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, He used wine.