Wine as a Symbol
The Wine is a Symbol
We must always remember that wine in the Lord’s Supper is a symbol. The wine directs our attention to something else. What does the wine symbolize?
The Blood of Jesus and its Benefits
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, He gave the cup to His disciples, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Obviously, Jesus was speaking symbolically, and not literally, when He said, about the contents of the cup, “This is my blood.” The cup did not contain Jesus’s literal blood, but only symbolized His blood.
In fact, we may go even further and say that the content of the cup did not merely refer to the blood of Jesus itself, but also to the benefits and the saving effects of that blood, which was poured out for our salvation at the cross. The very words Jesus used demonstrate this; for He did not merely say, “This is my blood,” but also that it was “of the covenant” and “for the forgiveness of sins.” In this connection, it is important for us to realize that the Lord’s Supper is about the application of redemption, and not simply the accomplishment of redemption. The bread and the cup are given to us, and the bread and the cup are received by us, just as salvation is given to us, and received by us. As Jesus said, the sacrament is “for you.” When we observe the Lord’s Supper, we are told not only what Jesus did, but also the significance of what He did for us.
As wonderful as it is to contemplate these truths, we are taught others in the sacrament, just as wonderful. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” and the Apostle Paul taught us that “as often as you do this, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again.” The most important facts in the universe are being taught to us and communicated to us in the sacrament. For this reason, we should carefully consider how and what the objects in the sacrament—the bread and the cup—communicate to us.
The Symbol is Like the Thing it Symbolizes
The best symbols are the ones that bear some similarity to the thing they symbolize. For example, the door leading to a men’s restroom might have the figure of a man on it, because only men should walk beyond that door; similarly, the door to the women’s restroom has the figure of a woman on it. The picture of a gun inside a black circle, with a bold black line from upper left to lower right across the gun, teaches us that guns are prohibited here. This way of communicating is so effective that mere children, or even people who don’t understand English words, can understand it. On the other hand, symbols that bear no similarity to what they symbolize—a triangle in place of the gun, for example, or a straight line for the man—would not be effective ways to communicate. We see this principle in action in the sacrament of the baptism, because nothing in all the universe is more suited than water to teach us that God, by the blood of Christ, cleanses sinners from the guilt and power of sin.
What then do the bread and the cup teach us? Since the Lord chose symbols, not words, it may not be possible to express this in words. Still, we surely approach an answer to this question, if we remember that the best symbols are similar to the realities they symbolize. The bread symbolizes the body of Christ, and our receiving of it symbolizes the nourishment and sustenance we get from the broken body of Christ. Likewise, the wine of the communion cup symbolizes the blood of Christ, and our receiving of it symbolizes the abundance of joy and revival we get from the shed blood of Christ.
John Calvin wrote, “And so as we previously stated, from the physical things set forth in the Sacrament we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things. Thus, when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden. For if we sufficiently consider what value we have received from the giving of that most holy body and the shedding of that blood, we shall clearly perceive that those qualities of bread and wine are, according to such an analogy, excellently adapted to express those things when they are communicated to us.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4, 17, 3)
In other words, wine is the symbol God has chosen for teaching us what God intends for us to know: that we must receive our salvation with joy and gladness.
“Right” vs. “Almost Right”
Choosing the right symbol is not always easy. People whose chief occupation is communicating know how difficult it is to choose a symbol or a word (words being themselves a kind of symbol) to represent a reality they want their readers or hearers to understand. Such symbols or words must be adapted not only to the thing they symbolize, but even to the capacity of the readers or hearers. For example, would it better for the preacher to say “tithe” or “ten percent”? Would it be better for the translator of Romans 3:25 to write that Jesus was “a sacrifice of atonement” or “a propitiation”? Would it be better to pray “Hallowed be thy name” or “Your name is holy”? Does the school teacher educate “pupils” or “students”? Some people might think that to ask such questions is to quibble about trivial matters; but Mark Twain was undoubtedly correct when he said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.” The right word (or symbol) is much, much better than the almost right word or symbol. The former communicates the fullness of the reality; the latter can obscure or even distort it. Remembering this helps us to understand the objects used in the Lord’s Supper, for God chose the right symbols. God did not choose symbols that are almost right.
Modern Attitudes about Wine Hinder the Message
Sadly, modern attitudes about wine prevent us from receiving the message conveyed by this symbol. For modern man, living after the stupendous cultural changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, wine is more a curse than a blessing. We hear of drunk drivers, and cirrhosis of the liver, and we cringe. Little wonder, then, that grape juice is often considered as a more than adequate substitute. But it was not always so, and it need not be so in the future. For the Bible, while in no way minimizing the danger of drunkenness, teaches us that the wine is a blessing, a constituent part of a happy communal meal with family and friends, an instrument of joy (Psalm 104:15), an anticipation of the eschatological meal with Christ (Isaiah 25, Amos 9), and yes, a reminder that the cup of God’s wrath is bitter. This is what God said about wine, and this is what we must consider when we think of wine as a symbol in the Lord’s Supper. That we fail to discern these truths—even at the very moment we ought to remember them most—is not to be put to wine’s account, nor to God’s.
We Need the Right Symbol
We can, and should, try to describe and explain our glorious salvation, both to our fellow Christians and to the unbelieving world around us. We should use whatever words (or symbols) God has permitted us, in His wise providence, for us to use. But in the end, we know that our words cannot do full justice to the reality. Our understanding is too feeble, and our words are too inadequate. We take comfort in this: God has condescended to communicate the heavenly realities to us, in a way suited to both the truths of our salvation and our limited capacity, by giving us bread and wine. We can be sure that every property or characteristic of both the bread and the wine are appropriate for this purpose, because God so designed them. The sight, the feel, and the taste of the bread teach us. Likewise, the sight, the smell, the feel, and the taste of the wine teach us. It may not be possible for us to express in human language how they do so, or precisely what meaning these things convey; if they could have been expressed in words, presumably God Himself would have so expressed them. But God specifically chose wine and bread, because bread and wine alone will serve His purpose. None of the aspects of bread and wine can be absent, lest we be impoverished. We can no more neglect them than we can neglect the Lord’s Supper itself. Everything about bread and wine is necessary and essential to help us learn what God will teach us through them. Just as we ought not to allow words to be taken from our Bibles, or water taken from our baptisms, so we ought not to allow the symbols of bread and wine to be taken from the sacrament.
It is sometimes argued that, while Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper using wine, unfermented grape juice is an acceptable facsimile. In the light of what we have said already, we see that this argument fails. Grape juice cannot serve as an adequate symbol, because it is not similar to what it symbolizes, and so fails to properly communicate. If we use unfermented grape juice instead of wine, God’s communication to us, and our understanding of that communication from Him, is hindered or stymied. As a result, our own concepts of what Jesus did for us can be truncated, and our Christian experience is diminished or retarded. These are consequences no Christian should tolerate.
Nothing less than the symbols God chose for us will do. Nothing less can serve God’s glory and our need. The symbols He has chosen are the lightening for our souls; anything else is a mere lightening bug.