Question: What elements were used in the Bible for the Lord's Supper?
Answer: Having looked at various NT passages and various studies, these are some findings.
See the Gospel accounts (Mt., Mk., Lk.) regarding the Lord's Supper and 1 Cor. 11. Mark's account is especially important.
Wine & the 'Fruit of the Vine'
In the Gospel accounts, the Lord refers to the "fruit of the vine" (tou' genhvmato" th'" ajmpevlou — Mt. 26:29; Mk. 14:25; Lk. 22:18). The Gospels do not refer to wine in the Lord's Supper. What then does the "fruit of the vine" mean? First of all, "fruit of the vine" was drunk out of a cup (Mt. 26:27). It was therefore liquid, and related to the fruit of the vine, a liquid from the fruit of the vine. Also, "fruit of the vine" must mean something more specific; it is not a vague, nondescript reference. But what exactly was the fruit of the vine?
In fact, a study in Jewish culture & practice reveals that "fruit of the vine" actually was a common way of referring to wine. For example, in the Berakhot 6:1 it says, "And sages say, 'Both over natural thick wine and over diluted wine they say, 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, creator of the fruit of the vine.' And they may wash their hands with it." The rabbis were debating over what they may do with the wine after they blessed it. They thanked God for the wine by referring to it as "the fruit of the vine." Previously they instructed the people to bless the wine in this way: "… for over wine he say, 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe,' creator of the fruit of the vine." Similarly, Rabbi Huna speaks of the same thing emphasizing "Creator of the fruit of the vine" which one recites 'over wine' (6:2). They also debated if one should recite the blessing after the meal and appetizer while drinking wine (6:5). In 6:6, there is further debate over the order of dinner wherein they recite the blessing over wine again. References to wine (and mixed wine) as being the fruit of the vine are abundant throughout.
The important reason for citing these Jewish references is that this, or something similar to this, was the context in which Jesus was and more importantly, this is about the only place where the phrase "fruit of the vine" is explained. References to the blessing over the wine were very common and these blessings referred to the wine as the "fruit of the vine." This seems to be the most reasonable explanation of the text while not doing any violence to any of the plain reading of it.
One thing is clear. Some form of WINE was used and not grape juice. More importantly, because the Corinthian Christians got drunk during the Lord's Supper (11:21), and the references to the "fruit of the vine" could only mean wine, we must conclude that it was certainly wine that was used in the New Testament.
A standard biblical encyclopedia (Kurtz in ISBE, the older version) argues that it was wine. Wine, Kurtz argues, was either fermented wine or wine mixed with water. Ronald Wallace also notes that it was wine that was used (in the new ISBE). This is similarly argued for in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (not noted for its conservative evangelical outlook). I have not read one respectable scholar who argued that it was anything but wine. Though this does not prove anything, it does indicate that among biblical scholars there is no debate over this.
Bread & the Passover
In Ex. 12:19-20, it is clear that unleavened bread was to be eaten during the Passover. [PASSOVER TEXT: Ex. 12:19-20 For seven days no yeast is to be found in your houses. And whoever eats anything with yeast in it must be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is an alien or native-born. Eat nothing made with yeast. Wherever you live, you must eat unleavened bread. ] But there is debate as to exactly what day the Lord's Supper was celebrated on. The older ISBE argues that it was after the Passover. Some (cf. the new ISBE) have argued that it was a kiddush, a simple meal of preparation before the Passover. This can explain the ordinary bread and some of the events surrounding the last supper. At that time (kiddush), wine was blessed and drunk, a benediction was pronounced over the bread and the wine (cf. Berakhot 6:1 cited above). This would explain why there were no references to the eating of the lamb.
An author in the Anchor Bible Dictionary argues that it was near the Passover meal though many would argue that it was during the Passover. Because the word bread (a[rto") is used during the Last Supper and not unleavened bread (a[zumo"), many would argue that it had to be near (before/after) the Passover and not the Passover itself.
We can at least observe two things from, NT seems to link the Passover to the Lord's Supper (see Mk. 14:12-16) whereas Jn. 13:1-2, 19:14, 31, 36 does not link it directly (where the death of Christ is linked to the Passover). This means that it was certainly related to the Passover. Secondly, all the Gospel accounts refer to bread (a[rto") as opposed to unleavened bread (a[zumo") during the Last Supper. But, bread (a[rto") could be used as referring to "unleavened bread" (a[zumo") says one author (Anchor, 236). Nevertheless, "We simply cannot determine whether it was a Passover meal or not; however, a reasonable assumption is that it was celebrated in a Passover atmosphere" (Anchor, 240).
These are some of the reasons why the Lord's Supper might not have been during the Passover. Though Matthew seems to indicate that it was (26:17ff.) as well as Mark 14:12ff, John, on the other hand, seems to indicate that it was not, 13:1-4, "just before the Passover Feast;" 18:28; and 19:14. Also, since the paschal lamb is not mentioned, many have argued that it was the day before the Passover (apparently many Jews differed as to their calendar). This has gained considerable following. If this is accurate, then this interpretation would quickly remedy the apparent discrepancy with John. D.A. Carson on John 13 argues that it is the Passover. So, he consistently argues in his Matthew commentary that the bread in the Lord's Supper is unleavened (also, Alford). Still, we cannot with absolute certainty conclude what sort of bread was used in the Lord's Supper because we do not know if it was during the Passover or just before.
In the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, the writer admits that it is hard to put the accounts together. "…Jesus deliberately chose for his own special reasons to celebrate the Passover before the normal time. … However the differences between the Gospels may be explained, and whenever the gathering around the table took place, it is clear that the Last Supper had the significance of a Passover meal." In the New Bible Dictionary, R.P. Martin says, "Whether the date of the Supper will ever be conclusively determined is uncertain; but we may certainly believe that, whatever the exact nature of the meal, there were Passover ideas in the Lord's mind when he sat down with the disciples." Therefore, if it was during the actual Passover, then the bread our Lord used must have been unleavened (Jeremias). If, however, it was related to the Passover but not the actual event, then it does not need to be unleavened (Lietzmann).
Kurtz, therefore, has argued that Protestants have left the kind of bread (leavened or unleavened) to be a matter of adiaphora (a matter of indifference). But there is considerable debate. Which should we use?
We note that a reference to a "loaf" (NIV) is found in 1Cor. 10:17 (eJno" a[rto" one bread, it is legitimate to translate it as "loaf") which suggests that it might have been leavened bread. But this is not conclusive. One thing is for sure from history, "Leavened bread had long since replaced unleavened." Only the heretical Ebionites continued the Jewish unleavened bread. This only gives us information regarding church history and not the actual practice in the Corinthian church.
Although the Gospel accounts seem to suggest that it was unleavened bread, the practice in the NT after the Resurrection (the sole full account in 1Cor. 10 & 11; the accounts in Acts are not helpful to this issue) indicates that it was regular bread eaten in the context of a daily table fellowship of disciples (1Cor. 11:22, 34). There is nothing in 1Cor. 11 which suggests that it was unleavened bread. There are, however, three supporting reasons which indicate that it was leavened bread.
One, because the Lord's Supper was celebrated in the context of a meal, it would have been regular bread; only the Jews used unleavened bread and that was done only during the appointed holy days. The most natural reading is that the Corinthians used regular leavened bread during their meals and during (or after) that time, they celebrated the "Lord's Supper" (v. 20). Obviously, their celebration was something more like a whole meal since some did not leave hungry (vv. 21b, 34). Two, the word unleavened bread (a[zumo") is never used in chapters 10 & 11. Though this second point could not stand by itself, we are left to translate "bread" (a[rto") in the context of the whole chapter, namely, in the context of a fellowship meal where the Lord's Supper was also celebrated which suggests that it was regular leavened bread. Three, there is no Passover reference in this passage; it is generically universal. This third reason is important for the simple reason that if it was linked to the Passover, we would expect the use of unleavened bread. But the words of institution have a universal appeal; though they are not thoroughly ripped out of a Jewish context, it is highly universal nonetheless, and could appply to all Gentiles who might not have the slightest idea what the Passover was about or included. This reason might even support the view that Jesus did not institute the sacrament at Passover because the elements were only bread and wine and did not include the slain lamb (Ex. 12:1ff., esp. 4, 8, 21; Mk. 14:12) which normally was part of the Passover (though one can easily notice the theological reasons for this).
We are left with these conclusions. It is not absolutely certain that the Gospel accounts indicate that Jesus used the unleavened bread (though it is more plausible). The practice in Corinth suggests that it was regular bread and it makes no reference to the Passover. If we assume that it was leavened bread (in the Gospel accounts), then Paul does not in any way deny the use of the two elements (regular leavened bread and alcoholic wine) in Corinth but rather, in view of the usage, he gives strong admonishments to celebrate the Lord's Supper with reverence. Their abuse was not in the use of the particular elements (leavened bread and alcoholic wine) but it was rather their carnal selfishness. Even if the type of bread might not be conclusively known, there is no debate as to the cup, namely, it was filled with wine.
Bible, Culture & Wine
We must note that the elements were chosen to represent Christ's own body and work. Christ saw fit to institute it with the wine and bread. As bread represented the plenty and meat of the earth, a staple, so wine represented all the richness and joys of life. Wine was a sign of God's blessing (Gen. 27:28; Deut. 7:13; Amos 9:14) and a great abundance of wine was the harbinger of the Messianic Age (Amos 9:13; Joel 3:18; Zech. 9:17). Its gladdening effect was welcomed in Scripture (Ps. 104:15; Eccl. 9:7, 10:19; Zech. 9:15, 10:7; also cf. 2Sam. 13:28; Esther 1:10). It is with this sort of background that our Lord instituted the Supper. Christ's unwillingness to taste of the plenty and joy of wine until we enjoy it with Him anew is a self imposed abstinence to show His supreme sacrifice and commitment to His own.
In other words, wine is both good and a sign of goodness. Our Lord was not called a wine-bibber (KJV) or drunkard (NIV, NASB; Mt. 11:19; Lk. 17:34) because He drank grape juice. Of course drunkeness is prohibited. But so is gluttony (again, Jesus was called a glutton)! Extreme abuse can occur. Christians, however, have the grace of the Spirit to constrain them. We are to receive wine with thanks because it is good (1 Tim. 4:4-5 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer). Created things are not bad; the abuse of them is.
Whereas our culture might not appreciate nor understand this import, we are not at liberty to alter the elements precisely because Christ Himself instituted them and because He alone can legislate them. For example, to argue that it is culturally offensive or irrelevant is not a satisfactory response. It is also not culturally relevant to baptize with water; its symbolic meaning and significance have little or no cultural value. However, its symbolic and theological import must come from the Scriptures and for that reason we cannot abandon nor alter the practice or its required elements. Our people need to be informed by Scripture and alter their perceptions and emotional abhorence. If God has considered it good, then we cannot be wiser than God and call it evil. If God is the Lord of our consciences, then we cannot dictate certain things to be evil when in fact the Bible has made it abundantly clear that it is good.
An interesting historical development gives us a very clear picture of the dangers of calling drinking wine sin. Initially, the temperance movement fought against 'ardent spirits' or very strong drink. They thought moderate use of wine and beer were both good for you and appropriate. Later on, the movement changed the phrase from prohibiting "ardent spirits" to "all intoxicating beverages" which would include wine and beer. As they advanced in this crusade, they were taken aback by moderate users of alcohol because their practice did not slink down into drunkenness, as they had argued. So, this was their penetrating reason and cause in 1835. They argued that the wine of the Bible was not the same as ours. One pastor went "to great lengths to point out differences in soil and climate that made American wines much more harmful that the 'mild, non-harmful' wines that were available in Palestine during the times of Jesus." In other words, simply state that the two worlds are different and that the Biblical culture and our modern context are absolutely unrelated. In so doing, we are no longer bound to honor nor obey its instruction, injunction, and benediction. Apparently, some in the Nineteenth Century might have gone so far as to eat grapes during the Lord's Supper instead of using wine. They also appealed to one more sort of reasoning. Drinking was "morally infectuous."
We can observe two things from this historical development. The first is that once we begin to judge on our own accord what is good and what is bad (in contradiction to Scripture), the movement down to extreme asceticism and censoriousness is inevitable. To veer from God's path is to fall into a slippery road of legalism. The second observation is abundantly obvious. Once we move along the wrong path, we are forced to avoid, obfuscate, and simply deny what is plainly taught in Scripture. Simply put, our position will thrust us into absurdity (i.e. eating grapes) if we suppress God's truth.
Some Questions Answered
1. Isn't wine bad for you?
The medical merits and demerits of this have been argued for and against for several centuries. However, Scripture has declared that wine is good. The abuse of it is not tolerated nor condoned. We take our cue from Scripture and not from science. Its findings fluctuate according to research.
i>2. Doesn't a reference to 'fruit of the vine' suggest liberty of using grape juice, etc.?
It could if the reference was meant to be vague. The term itself was always used to refer to wine. As some have noted, the phrase 'fruit of the vine' is more pregnant with meaning than a direct reference to wine. It argues that God Himself created the vine and gave fruit from it. Therefore, this wine one blesses came from the hand of God.
Nonetheless, the phrase by itself might be open to any and all fruits of the vine and as Ken Gentry has pointed out: "If taken literally, the phrase would lead to an absurdity: it would teach that the cup was filled with whole grapes!" Again, the phrase was commonly used to refer to wine. But the decisive argument comes from 1Cor. 11 where we read that the Corinthians got drunk from the Lord's Supper.
i>3. Why not just stick with the grape juice and keep the peace?
Because our Lord has instituted wine and not grape juice. If peace at this juncture is more important than obedience to God's truth, then why baptize? There is so much debate over baptism that we should just quit baptizing to keep peace.
There is some truth to the question, however, if the question in view was a non-essential. But this issue is not a peripheral matter. It is only one of two sacraments instituted by our Lord.
i>4. What about people with medical needs? What if the doctors prescribed absolute abstinence because of one's medical condition?
This is a rare case and if such a condition existed, the Session could make allowances. A true medical need or condition is different from a doctrinal disagreement.
i>5. What about alcoholics?
Again, that assumes that Jesus was not aware of this 'problem.' Paul did not order that the church cease and desist drinking because some became drunk. Nonetheless, in view of all this, our Lord still instituted wine as one of the two elements in the Lord's Supper. The problem lies in the moral failure of the individual; we are not encouraging believers to get drunk but to remember the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus and His shed blood for the remission of our sins.
i>6. Would abstinence be wrong?
It all depends on the reason. If one concedes that the Scriptures teach that drinking is allowed and yet decides himself that he will not drink, then that is his choice. But he must not argue for it on biblical grounds (namely, no one should drink at all). For example, Ken Wendland (a good pastor friend of mine, PCA) does not drink but would be the first to argue that it is more than appropriate to drink.
Voluntary abstinence is allowed while mandatory abstinence is not. The first is only legitimate if the person does not believe that he is more "righteous" than the one who does. Abstinence does not make us holier. Actually, abstinence is very similar to the heretical Manichaeans. The Methodist Thomas Welch viewed his grape juice as a means of furthering the temperance movement (and also 'inadvertantly' capitalizing on the tremendous financial gain from the sale of his new invented grape juice). Most have failed to realize this manichaean tendency in the Methodist movement. Their preoccupation with 'holiness' (therefore, abstinence) was rooted not in their zeal for God's holiness but in their misunderstanding of justification. Their inaccurate and destructive view of justification by faith has forced them to emphasize sanctification (in an improper way). Seeing no consolation in God's justification, they sought to be right with God through their religious efforts (one being abstinence). This "perfectionist impulse" (to use Blocker's phrase) is misguided.
i>7. What about witnessing? Shouldn't we be good examples to unbelievers?
Our Lord and His disciples drank openly and were charged by the religious leaders as being drunkards (Lk. 7:33ff.). They were aware of the abuses but remained moderate. Moderate use and controlled intake could actually be a "good example" to the world.