Jesus ate a last supper with his disciples before he was arrested, convicted, and crucified. At that meal, he gave the disciples bread to eat and a cup to share. What was in the cup? Jesus spoke about it as the fruit of the vine: in other words, wine (Matthew 26:29, Mark 14:25, Luke 22:18). That’s not surprising. The last supper was clearly a Passover meal, and in Jesus’s time, wine was always drunk at the Passover Supper.
Some have argued that the wine that was used was unfermented grape juice. I’m not concerned with that discussion here (though I have touched on it in a previous article in ET). When I use the word ‘wine’ in this article, I’m not arguing either that it means fermented or that it means unfermented grape juice.
The question I want to explore here is this. Why did Jesus want his disciples to drink wine – fermented or unfermented – at this special meal? Why did he emphasise that the disciples were drinking the ‘fruit of the vine’? What was in his mind when he used that phrase?
Rest and rejoicing
Throughout the Bible, vines and all that is derived from them are used as a symbol of rest and rejoicing in a completed task. When Noah had brought his family and all the beasts in the ark through the flood, he planted a vineyard and drank of the wine it produced (Genesis 9:20-21). He had completed the great task that God had given him, and now it was time to rest and rejoice.
When Abraham had completed the task of defeating the four kings who had captured Lot, Melchizedek brought out bread and wine for him (Genesis 14:17-18).
The Israelites travelling through the wilderness drank no wine (Deuteronomy 29:6). But the token that one day the Lord would give them rest in a land of extraordinary bounty was that the spies brought ‘a branch with a single cluster of grapes… they carried it on a pole between two of them’ (Numbers 13:23).
When David had at last captured Jerusalem, the last stronghold of the Canaanites, and brought in the ark of the covenant, he ‘distributed among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins to each one’ (2 Samuel 6:19). The conquest of the land was complete, David’s kingdom was established, the Lord was reigning among his people from his throne on Mount Zion. So each member of the nation was invited to rest, to rejoice with their king, and to enjoy the fruit of the vine.
A Nazirite was a man or woman who had made a vow to complete a particular task for the Lord. Until it was done, he or she must ‘separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not eat any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins’ (Numbers 6:2-4). But when the Nazirite’s task was finished and the vow fulfilled, he could again enjoy the products of the vine.
I’m sure you can think of other examples. All through the Bible, we see God’s people enjoying the products of the vine when – and only when – the time had come for rest and rejoicing.
The banquet of the kingdom
Whatever joy the Israelites experienced in Old Testament times was partial. And whatever rest they enjoyed was temporary. But the prophets spoke of an age to come when Messiah would bring a permanent rest and total joy to the whole of God’s creation and to all his people. And they pictured that age as a time when wine would flow like water. ‘Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it’ (Amos 9:13). ‘And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine and the hills shall flow with milk’ (Joel 3:18).
It was prophesied of Messiah himself that, ‘binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes’ (Genesis 49:11). The Messianic king would mount an unridden donkey, defeat all his enemies, and gain the obedience of the peoples. And then, his warfare complete, he would tether his mount to a vine: no longer a fragile plant, but strong enough to secure a donkey, and producing wine without limit.
The joys of the Messianic age can be portrayed as a great banquet at which God’s people will drink the finest of wine as they celebrate the coming of God’s kingdom, the defeat of evil, and the abolition of death: ‘The Lord of hosts reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and his glory will be before his elders… On this mountain [Zion] the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces’ (Isaiah 24:23, 25:6-8).
Israel: the vine that failed
But where would the grapes come from that would provide the wine for the banquet of God’s kingdom? In various passages, Israel is described as a vine or a vineyard. ‘Israel is a luxurious vine’ (Hosea 10:1). ‘You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land’ (Psalm 80:8-9).
Isaiah developed the picture in an intricate parable describing in detail the vineyard that the Lord planted (Isaiah 5:1-7). Isaiah explains: ‘The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.’ And what was the fruit that the Lord looked to gather from his vineyard? ‘He looked for justice… for righteousness.’ These were the grapes without which there could be no end-time banquet, no rest and rejoicing.
But tragically, Isaiah records, neither the house of Israel nor the men of Judah produced the fruit that the Lord looked for. Isaiah ends the parable with these terrible words: ‘Why did it yield wild grapes?… He looked for justice, but behold bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!’ The only fruit that grew from the twin vines of Israel and Judah were violence and oppression.
Jeremiah records a similar verdict. ‘I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?’ (Jeremiah 2:21).
In both Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s prophecies, the Lord speaks with a note of bewilderment. He asks plaintively, ‘How could this have happened?’ The book of Deuteronomy had already supplied the answer. Moses declared about the Israelites: ‘Their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of poison; their clusters are bitter; their wine is the poison of serpents and the cruel venom of asps’ (32:32-33). The vine of Israel was an offshoot of the vine of Sodom. The Lord planted it in the best of soil, but the hearts of its people were unregenerate – no different from the hearts of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah. Old covenant Israel could never produce the fruit of justice and righteousness. So how could the great banquet ever begin?
Jesus: the True Vine
When Jesus came, he declared that the Messianic kingdom was at hand – and he signalled that it would be the longed-for age of wine! What was the very first sign recorded in John’s Gospel? It was the turning of water into wine – vast quantities of wine! Six jars of water, each holding twenty or thirty gallons, intended for the Jewish rites of purification, became the best wine! Jesus’s miracle was the sign that the rituals of old covenant religion would give way to the new wine of the kingdom. The wedding feast at Cana became a foretaste of the end-time banquet that Isaiah spoke about (John 2:2-11).
Again, Jesus portrayed the joys of his kingdom as new wine that could not be contained in the old wineskins of Judaism (Matthew 9:15-17). The wine had already started to flow because the Bridegroom was present! The Bridegroom would have to leave for a time and his people would fast, but he promised that one day he would return and the eternal feast would begin.
National Israel had shown herself a corrupt and hopeless vine that would never produce the fruit from which the new wine would flow. A new Israel had to be established; a good vine had to become the source of the fruit that would yield the promised wine.
Jesus said, ‘I am the true vine’ (John 15:1). Jesus declared that he alone would produce the fruit that his Father desired and which national Israel had never produced: the fruit of obedience, righteousness, justice. From that fruit – from Jesus’s life of obedience – would come the wine of the kingdom which will be enjoyed by God and his people in the final banquet.
Where did he say those words, ‘I am the vine’? At the last supper. And at that same supper, he offered his disciples a cup filled with the ‘fruit of the vine’. He was offering them a foretaste of the final banquet. And he was making it clear that the wine they would drink at that eternal banquet would be the product of his fruit, his righteous obedience.
The blood of the grape
But how would the fruit that the Vine had produced yield the wine that his people would drink? Grapes only yield wine when they are crushed. If Jesus’s people were to enjoy the wine of the kingdom, Jesus’s life of obedience must end in a complete and terrifying crushing.
So Jesus went to the winepress of Calvary. And there the righteousness and justice with which he had delighted his Father for 33 years was rewarded not with praise, honour, and glory, but with horror, agony, and shame. The fruit of the Vine was crushed utterly as Jesus endured the wrath and judgment of the Father.
Wine is described in the Old Testament as the ‘blood of grapes’. When the grapes of obedience were crushed at Calvary, what flowed was blood – the blood of Jesus. Luke records that, in Gethsemane, the disciples could see Jesus sweating what seemed to be ‘great drops of blood’ (Luke 22:44). Already the fruit of the Vine was in the winepress. And John records the great spout of blood that came from the side of the crucified Jesus (John 19:34).
Jesus had foreseen it all. He told the disciples that he was the true Vine. He handed them a cup filled with the crushed fruit of the vine. For them it was wine – a token and foretaste of the eternal banquet. But Jesus saw in it his own blood. ‘He gave it to them, saying… “this is my blood of the covenant”’ (Matthew 26:27-28). When Jesus gave them that wine, he was giving them nothing less than his own blood.
How sad that Roman Catholic theologians could ever have imagined that Jesus was declaring that the wine had been miraculously turned into blood! The wine remained wine – and yet when the disciples drank that wine, they were drinking Jesus’s blood. Why? Because Jesus knew that the wine – the pledge to them of eternal rest and joy – would cost him his blood.
I am reminded of the words of David when his three mighty men brought him water from the well at Bethlehem. We’re told that they fought their way through the camp of the Philistines to get it. ‘[David] said, “Far be it from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their own lives?” Therefore he would not drink it’ (2 Samuel 23:17).
Was David suggesting that the water in the jar they brought had been miraculously transformed into blood? No, but it was still true that if he drank the water, he would have been drinking the blood of his own men. They had offered their blood freely in order to bring a cup of water to their king.
David would not drink the water that his men brought him. A true king must give his blood for their needs, not the other way round! And that is what King Jesus did. He gave his disciples the wine of the kingdom – wine that would cost him his blood.
Every time that believers drink the cup of wine at the Lord’s Supper, we truly drink Jesus’s blood.
The cup he drank
Jesus did not himself drink the wine at the Last Supper. Luke records that he told his disciples to divide the cupful among themselves, because he ‘would not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes’ (Luke 22:17-18). He had drunk wine with them before, but would not do so again (Matthew 26:2) until he and they drank together in the Father’s kingdom.
He wanted them to receive the token of rest and rejoicing. But for him there could be no rest until he had completed the work that the Father had given to him. There could be no joy until his obedience had reached its agonising culmination. As he hung on the cross his enemies urged him to drink wine mixed with myrrh. But he knew he must refuse (Mark 15:22). He could drink bitter vinegar (John 19:29), but not wine.
For Jesus, the only cup he could drink was the cup that the Father had assigned to him (Mark 14:36). That cup was full of wrath and misery. It was filled with wine squeezed not from the fruit of his obedience but from the fruit of our disobedience (Isaiah 51:17, 22; Jeremiah 25:15; Ezekiel 23:33). Jesus gave to his disciples and to us the cup that could have been his. And he drank down the cup that would have been ours. We drink the cup of blessing (1 Corinthians 10:16) only because he drank the cup of cursing.
When we drink the cup of wine at the Lord’s Supper, we remember that Jesus is the true Vine who alone has produced the fruit that the Father desires. We remember that the benefits of his justice and righteousness could only be given to us as his life of righteousness ended in the winepress of God’s wrath. We remember that his obedience and blood have bought for us a place at the eternal banquet; the Lord’s Supper becomes for us a foretaste of that feast.
Until he comes
But it tastes of solemn warning too. Earlier I quoted Moses’s words from Deuteronomy: ‘Their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah.’ The vine of Israel was just one growth from a larger vine – the vine of Sodom and Gomorrah, the vine of which all unregenerate human beings are branches. And that vine can produce nothing but ‘the grapes of poison; their clusters are bitter’ (Deuteronomy 32:33).
Isaiah declared that one day the same Messiah whose fruit was crushed in the winepress will return to crush the guilty nations in his winepress. ‘I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come’ (Isaiah 63:3-4). And John in his vision saw it happening: ‘The angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia’ (Revelation 14:19-20).
As we take the cup of wine at the Lord’s Supper, we remember that it is only ‘until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). And yes, he will come as the Bridegroom to begin the great banquet. Indeed, it is his own marriage supper (Revelation 19:7-8)!
But he will also come as the rider on the white horse who ‘judges and makes war… He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty’ (Revelation 19:11,15).
The cup of wine that we drink is a token to us that we will drink everlasting joy at the banquet of the kingdom. But it is also a reminder to us that the day of our joy will be a day of unutterable horror for those who are outside Christ, the true Vine. As we drink, we are made aware of all from which we have been saved by his obedience and blood.
I was eighteen before I tasted wine – alcoholic or non-alcoholic – in a communion service. The churches I knew back then would never have dreamed of serving an alcoholic wine, and unfermented grape-juice was not readily available. So the universal practice was to serve blackcurrant squash in place of wine at the Lord’s Supper.
In other matters, the leaders of those churches were very determined to ‘do things the New Testament way’. Indeed, in some of those churches, it was the practice to use unleavened bread at the Lord’s Supper ‘because that’s the way they did it at the Passover’. Yet when it came to the cup, it seemed that any red drink would do.
Did it matter? In one sense, no. Believers who came hungering and thirsting for Christ found they could feed on him by faith at his table, regardless of whether the bread was leavened or not, regardless of whether the cup was full of wine or blackcurrant squash. I can thank God for every breaking-of-bread service I attended where I heard and saw the Lord’s death proclaimed – regardless of what was in the cup.
If we were living in Siberia or somewhere else where grapes couldn’t be grown, I guess we’d have to find some substitute for the fruit of the vine. Yet I find it strange that any church in the UK would choose not to use wine or grape juice, and to opt for a substitute. And if you’ve read thus far, I think you’ll understand my puzzlement.
When Jesus handed his disciples that cup filled with the ‘fruit of the vine’ and said, ‘Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’, he was bringing together themes that are to be found from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus offered his disciples wine squeezed from the fruit of the vine, not arbitrarily, nor because that was the conveniently available drink, but because he was bringing to fulfilment so many themes and patterns of Scripture. Every time I sit at the Lord’s table, take the cup into my hands, and sip what’s in it, I’m made vividly aware that I am receiving ‘the fruit of the vine’ with all that it points to. I am being reminded of all that Scripture says about the vine, the fruit, the winepress, and the banquet of the kingdom. If we opt for some substitute, aren’t we missing out on that blessed reminder?
Christ in all the Scriptures
What’s the big lesson we need to learn? It’s surely this. Every detail of Scripture counts. The words that Jesus used – ‘the fruit of the vine’ – may seem unimportant; but when they are put into the context of the whole of Scripture, how huge their significance! Scripture is a single tapestry. If we want to see the full picture of Christ in all his glory, we must trace every thread and see its relation to every other thread. Son of God, Last Adam, Son of Man, Promised Seed, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Passover Lamb, Bread from Heaven, Prophet like Moses, Son of David, Anointed King, Priest in the order of Melchizedek, Chief Shepherd, Bridegroom, Immanuel, Servant of Yahweh, Cornerstone, Angel of the Covenant, Rider on the White Horse, and True Vine: these are a few of the threads that make up the great tapestry. Look for Christ and you will find him in all the Scriptures.
Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001This article first appeared in the monthly bulletin of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.