by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, November 19, 2010 at 12:53pm

QUESTION: Is it “necessary,” or is it just “tradition,” to use grape juice (or wine) for communion? Is “fruit of the vine” (Matt. 26:29) limited to the grape vine, or is any juice allowed? Someone told me they went to a church that used cranberry juice, because they got a deal on it at the store! What do you think?

ANSWER: Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper [LS] during the yearly Passover feast (Matt. 26:17ff.), which God established for Israel on the night of the tenth plague upon Egypt (Exod. 12). Only three things are specified to be consumed in this feast: a roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs (12:8). Special emphasis is placed on the lamb’s being “without blemish” (12:5; see Lev. 22:17-25), and on the complete absence of leaven (12:14-20). The use of wine or grape juice is neither commanded nor prohibited.

The Passover feast eaten by Jesus and his apostles had at least two elements not mentioned in Exodus: (1) something like gravy in which to dip the bread (Mark 14:24; John 13:26), and (2) “the fruit of the vine” (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:18).

Several questions may be raised about our own practice of the LS. First, what kind of “fruit” was “the fruit of the vine”? Was it grapes? Second, if “the fruit of the vine” was a grape product, was it fermented? Third, how meticulous should we be in imitating the details of the final Supper and incorporating them into our LS practice today?

Regarding the first question, there is little doubt that “the fruit of the vine” refers to something related to grapes. The Greek word for “vine” is ampelos, which refers not to some generic fruit-bearing plant but to one that bears a specific kind of fruit, i.e., grapes. See James 3:12 (ESV): “Can … a grapevine [ampelos] produce figs?” Of course not! See also Rev. 14:18, where the vine (ampelos) is specifically said to produce grapes. The related word, ampelōn, is almost always taken to mean “vineyard.”

Regarding the second question, was the juice of the grape fermented or not? Fermented grape juice of course is wine. It should be noted that the common Greek word for wine is oinos; it is used nearly three dozen times in the NT. However, this was NOT the word used by Jesus when he referred to the beverage used at the Last Supper. Instead of saying, “I will not drink wine again etc.,” he said, “I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine etc.” (Matt. 26:29). This phrase is used in no other context in the NT. Jesus seems to deliberately use “fruit of the vine” in place of “wine.”

To me, this strongly suggests that the cup at the Last Supper contained unfermented grape juice, not fermented wine. This is consistent with the strong ban on leaven (an agent of fermentation) in connection with the Passover and the seven days of celebration that followed. Wine is simply fermented or “leavened” grape juice, a liquid counterpart to leavened bread.

The purpose of excluding leaven from the Passover celebration is not specifically explained, but it is probably parallel to the requirement that the Passover lamb be “without blemish.” Apart from the practical implications for the Israelite worshipers, the unblemished lamb was ultimately the type or forerunner of the sinless Savior, our true Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). The absence of blemish and the absence of leaven represent the moral perfection of Christ and the absence of physical corruption in his body (Acts 2:27). Thus the rationale for the use of grape juice instead of wine is ultimately Christological.

Some argue that it would be impossible to preserve unfermented “fruit of the vine” from the grape harvest (late summer, early fall) until the Passover (early spring). This does not seem to be the case, however. “Means for preserving grape-juice were well known: Cato, de Agri Cultura CXX has this recipe: ‘If you wish to have must (grape-juice) all year, put grape-juice in an amphora and seal the cork with pitch; sink it in a fishpond. After 30 days take it out. It will be grape-juice for a whole year” (The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, ed. Merrill C. Tenney, p. 895). Also, reconstituted grape juice can be produced by soaking raisins in boiling water.

This leads us to the third question, namely, how closely must our present practice of the LS conform to our best understanding of the original Supper? Here I believe we must distinguish between matters of form and matters of content (i.e., between the circumstances and the essence of the Supper). Formal matters include physical factors such as place (upper room), posture (reclining around a low table), and utensils (one cup). Such things are not part of the essence of the Supper and do not have to be duplicated.

The real essence of the LS lies in the emblems as such and in what we do with them. We “eat the bread” and we “drink from the cup.” What we eat and what we drink lie at the heart of it all. Thus I believe we should do our best to come as close to the original elements as possible. This is why many make a special effort to use only unleavened bread to represent Christ’s body, and why (I believe) we should make such an effort to use plain grape juice to represent Christ’s blood.

This is similar to how we follow apostolic precedent in other matters of our public worship, as I explained in a recent note. I.e., if there is a precedent set in the Bible in the area of practice (worship practices, especially), we should follow that if at all possible. In the present case, we are honoring Christological precedent. The Apostle Paul reminds us that it is the Lord’s table (1 Cor. 10:21) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20). It is not our table, nor our supper, to redesign and reinvent according to our own judgment or whim.

Thus my conclusion is that it is conditionally necessary to use grape juice in the LS, i.e., on the condition that nothing else is available. Sometimes we may not have a choice as to the elements, in which case a substitution of something like cranberry juice for grape juice, or a substitution of soda crackers for unleavened bread, is acceptable as better than no elements at all. Though I would certainly not make it a test of fellowship, I would strongly urge all believers to use unleavened bread and unfermented grape juice regularly in the LS. To use pizza and cola because that is standard kids’ fare, or to use whatever can be purchased most cheaply at the grocery story, is something I would never consider. Such a casual approach ignores the deep theological meaning of the LS as such and of the elements themselves in their original setting.

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  1. I do understand whet you are saying, but for my own conscience’s sake, permit me ask a question. In my Country, grapes are EXTREMELY expensive (I live in Central Africa) and painfully rare. it is basically imported from the West and only the upper upper class can afford it and even then it will not be a regular fruit at home.
    I am Baptist and we have the Supper once a month. Here is my question. Seeing grape juice is out of the question, there is a company that processes and sells Grape Juice; they say it is naturally sweetened and inorganic (though I doubt that0 as it is so light)it is called FRUSTAS – you can look that up on the internet. That too is expensive, but close to what you recommend be used- I think.

    Do you think it will be okay for my church to use this hence? I wished to supply it to them as my monthly offering and was wondering if this would be acceptable/ proper.

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