Most commonly, evangelical churches today do not use wine; rather, they use grape juice as a representation of “the fruit of the vine.” In the gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper, the word for “wine” is not actually used. Instead, you will find simply, “the cup,” or “the fruit of the vine” (See Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-23). To conclude from this use of language that the element must have been grape juice instead of wine would be something like concluding from Paul’s use of the term “saints” (instead of Christians) that he must be referring to Mormons. But, of course, he wasn’t. He was speaking of Christians, and no one thought anything else. Neither have Christians thought that the wine was anything other than wine until about the time of Prohibition in America (1919-1933). As late as 1894, Edward Hiscox, in his Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches, notes that Baptist churches used wine for the Lord’s Supper. Bread and wine were the elements used by Baptists in the 19th Century.
The truth of the matter is, the terms “cup” and “fruit of the vine” refer to the wine in its various symbolic functions. The “cup” is a double entendre, meaning that it functions with two important meanings. First, it functions as the cup of God’s wrath which Christ drank for us (Luke 22:42). Christ is the Passover Lamb sacrificed for the salvation of God’s people. As such, His blood is spilled and covers them from the angel who executes God’s wrath. The “cup” of the covenant in Christ’s blood is a reference to the symbolic function of the wine to remind us of the Lord’s sacrificial death for us which is the basis of our salvation (just as the blood on the doorposts saved Israel’s firstborn from the death angel in Egypt). Christ, of course, drank the cup when he spilled his blood for us. Those outside of Christ do not have such a cup of the covenant. Rather, they must drink the cup of God’s wrath alone, and the cup of God’s wrath is also—not coincidentally—a cup of wine:
“If anyone worships the beast and his image , and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (Revelation 14:9, NASB).
The cup of the covenant (which is filled with wine) is a sobering reminder to us of the wrath of God which Christ drank for us. No wonder there is a little bitterness to the cup of wine we drink. We are supposed to remember the awful death Christ died for us in our drinking of it.
And yet, it is precisely here that the second—sweeter—function of the wine appears. The “fruit of the vine” is a term of thanksgiving. It is a sign of abundant blessing. Wine is mentioned in the Scriptures as an offering of thanks to the Lord (Exodus 29:38-41); as a tithe of the firstfruits of harvest (Nehemiah 10:36-39); as a blessing from God that “gladdens the heart of man” (Psalm 104:15); as a gift from God that signifies His abundant blessings (Deuteronomy 7:13). As a blessing to us, the cup of the covenant filled with the fruit of the vine reminds us that Christ has swallowed the wrath of God against us—a great blessing indeed!
And more, the fruit of the vine in the cup of the covenant is the wine of God’s favor toward us, His people. It is the wine promised by the prophet Amos, who said a day would come when the people of God would find the mountains dripping with sweet wine (Amos 9:13), and the hearts of God’s people would be glad because of it (Zechariah 10:7). The fruit of the vine we drink at the Lord’s Supper is not the wine of God’s wrath, it is, instead, the wine of His favor.
In fact, the wine we celebrate at the Lord’s Supper is the wine of the bride of Christ. It is a cup of blessing indeed which serves to remind us of our past deliverance from sin and death and our future reservation at the King’s table with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and believers from every nation, tribe and tongue (Matthew 8:11). We who are in Christ (that is, His Bride) will definitely be at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-9), and we will be drinking with great rejoicing the finest aged wine when we get there (Isaiah 25:6). The fruit of the vine in the cup of the covenant reminds us of the sweetness of our future at the table of Christ. No wonder there is also a sweetness to the cup of wine we drink.
Wine has long been a celebratory substance at wedding feasts, which is why the folks were distraught in John 2 at the wedding in Cana whenever the wine ran out prematurely. Mary told Jesus to do something, to which He replied, “My time has not yet come.” The time for Jesus to pour out the finest wine was a time yet future. He was already pointing to His own wedding feast in future glory when he changed the water in Cana of Galilee to a very nice wine.