The real objection to using wine in the Lord’s Supper is not that the Bible fails to speak of wine as the element used; rather, the real objection is that wine is an alcoholic beverage. The Bible never authorizes grape juice for the Lord’s Supper. It never hints that grape juice is the beverage the disciples used. Grape juice is mentioned briefly in Genesis 40:11, but it is not the common beverage known in the 1st Century.
In the Bible, there are about 7 ways wine is mentioned. (1) There are generic references to “wine” or “wines.” These are all references to fermented and alcoholic wine. (2) There is “red wine” mentioned in several passages. It, too, is alcoholic, and the color typically serves (as mentioned in part 3) as a reference to “blood,” as in the Lord’s Supper. (3) There is “new wine” mentioned. “New wine” refers to wine made from the most recent harvest. It was definitely alcoholic (Acts 2:13). (4) There is “sweet wine” mentioned in places like Song of Solomon 7:9. (5) There is sour wine (vinegar) mentioned with reference to the cheap, sometimes medicinal, wine that was no longer fit as a beverage. [Some of the folks on Sunday probably thought this was the kind of wine they had drunk… but it wasn’t!]. This wine vinegar was produced either by extending the fermentation period or by not sealing it properly, thus having it ruin. (6) There is also mention of mixed wine and spiced wine, which are simply early versions of wine coolers—wines that had been diluted or flavored to make them more appealing. This mixed wine was what most folks were drinking, and it was probably what Jesus and the disciples used. It was wine mixed with (perhaps) 3 parts of water. So, a 16 oz. skin of this “wine” would have 4 ounces of wine to 12 ounces of water. It was diluted, to be sure, but it was also a wine (very weak wine, but wine). Finally (7) there are a number of wines mentioned in Scripture by their locations: The Wine of Carmel, the Wine of Sharon, the Wine of Lebanon….
The point remains that when wine is spoken of in the Bible, it is spoken of as wine, not as grape juice. The real objection to using wine is that it is an alcoholic beverage. That’s the issue. I understand and sympathize with those who have a concern about drinking alcohol. I personally do not drink alcohol—by choice and by conviction. I have experienced firsthand the damage alcohol causes to relationships. So, with those of you who are uneasy about serving wine at the Lord’s Supper, I sympathize.
Personal feelings aside, however, we must walk by faith and not by sight. The Lord in His infinite wisdom chose to use wine in order to make known the Lord’s death until His return. Surely, the Lord knew the dangers. He had studied the wisdom literature and knew that “wine is a mocker and strong drink a brawler” (Proverbs 20:1.). He was not unaware of the fact that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of Heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9). Yet, He himself drank wine. As He admits,
“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her children” (Luke 7:33-35).
The Lord clearly came eating bread and drinking wine. He knew the dangers of wine and the sinfulness of drunkenness. Yet, He drank wine, and He prescribed wine as a central element in the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. He was accused of being a drunkard because he (unlike John the Baptist) drank wine. So, what are we to make of the fact that Jesus drank and expected His followers to drink wine?
I don’t think we are to take from this truth the thought that the Bible minimizes drunkenness. There is no license in Scripture to become drunk with wine or any intoxicating substance. Rather, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). Leaders especially cannot be tempted to drunkenness (1 Timothy 3:3, 8). Jesus drank wine, but He was never drunk. There is a pattern for His followers. He instituted the use of wine yet still forbids drunkenness.
This might feel like a perilous paradigm for us to follow, but it is the one which Christ Himself instituted. We must carefully and faithfully adhere to it. That is what it means to walk by faith and not by sight. Faith instead of sight will always have dangers on either side of its path, and the dangers are basically these two: legalism and liberalism.
The legalist wants a hard, fast rule to follow: No alcoholic beverage for anyone ever! This allows the legalist to establish his own righteousness and thereby equips him with all he needs to exalt himself and to condemn everyone else who fails to meet the legal standard. The legalist thinks that his abstaining from all alcohol is righteous, and he demands that everyone else do the same. If some do not abstain, he judges them as being unrighteous. Legalism has a way of instilling pride and feeding arrogance. The Lord will allow none of that from His sheep.
The danger on the opposite side of the street is the danger of liberalism (not the political kind). The liberals want no limits. They extol the notion of being free from the Law. They are free to enjoy a double scotch on the rocks or a martini slightly shaken, but not stirred. While it is true (as we have seen) that drinking a drink of alcohol is not inherently sinful, it is not the case that we can be licentious. We are not free to drink for the purpose of intoxicating effects: that is drunkenness. We must not be drunk, but, rather, we must be filled with the Holy Spirit. The liberal does not want any restraints because restraints threaten his righteousness. He will not have his righteousness questioned. He doesn’t like to think about righteousness, and he doesn’t want others to bring it up to him. His righteousness is beyond question. He will not have his own behavior bound by others (unlike the Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 8 – 9).
Jesus challenges both errors in His instructions. His instructions are designed to keep His followers on the narrow path that leads to life. He guides His followers away both from the high and rocky walls of legalism on the one side, and from the steep, deadly drop-offs of liberalism on the other. The Man crucified between two thieves still leads His followers down the via media that leads to life. He follows neither of the opposing perils pressuring Him for allegiance. He leads in the narrow way.
I think this middle way (the narrow way) of faith is indicative of Jesus’s preaching and teaching. When Jesus came, He brought the new wine of God’s favor to God’s people. But new wine doesn’t work in old wineskins. For us to drink up the favor of God, we must be willing to put on the new skin that is suitable for the new wine. We can’t hold to our rigid formulations of faith (whether our rigidity is of the legalistic or the liberal variety). Instead, we must be molded and shaped by the Word which Jesus has spoken to us. To be sure, because His wisdom is infinite, He will instruct us in ways we did not expect. Christ will challenge us always to rethink our motives and our actions. Christ expects us to listen to Him and follow faithfully where He leads, not where we are already comfortable or confident.