Sunday, 22 March 2020

A Closer Look at the Elements of the Lord’s Supper

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).1 The biblical elements of the Lord’s Supper are generally understood to be “unleavened bread,” representing the crucified body of Jesus, and “the fruit of the vine,” symbolizing his shed blood (Matt. 26:17, 28-29; Mark 14:12, 25; Luke 22:18). To properly observe this sacred memorial, is it necessary to know what the bread is made of and what exactly is the fruit of the vine?

The Bread

Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in the setting of the Jewish Passover meal, where “unleavened bread” is specified (Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12). Leaven or yeast, metaphorically applicable to pervasive and corrupting influences (Matt. 16:6; 1 Cor. 5:6-8), was prohibited in all grain offerings to God (Lev. 2:11; 6:14-17) and the Passover bread (Deut. 16:3). Seeing that communion bread represents the Lord’s crucified body (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22), and Jesus lived his entire earthly life without sin (Heb. 4:15; 9:28), we can appreciate the significance of no leaven or yeast. 

The Bible emphasizes what is to be left out of the bread but does not detail specific ingredients to make the bread. We do read about flour and oil (Lev. 2:4, 5; 6:21; 24:5; 1 Kgs. 17:8-16), the kneading and baking of the dough (1 Sam. 28:24; 2 Sam. 13:8), and even salt was used in sacrificial offerings (Lev. 2:13; Ezek. 43:24). The bottom line is, whatever ingredients are necessary to make bread,2 as long as it is void of leavening agents, biblical guidelines are observed.

The Fruit of the Vine

In the NT the word “wine” (Greek oinos) is never used with reference to the Lord’s Supper, notwithstanding some modern English paraphrastic versions.3 Rather, the terminology used by the Lord is simply “cup” (Matt. 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:17, 20), and “fruit of the vine” (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18).

Referring to the communion drink as the “cup” employs a literary device known as metonymy, whereby the container stands for what it contains. One does not drink the cup itself, neither does the container symbolize Christ’s blood, nor does the word “cup” indicate what is in it. More information is supplied by the context and by the corresponding expression, “the fruit of the vine.” 

The background and original setting was the Jewish Passover. According to the Mishnah (an ancient record of Jewish traditions), during the Passover feast celebrants were provided four cups to drink, the contents of which was yayin, made from grapes (Pesaḥim 10.1-2). To avoid intoxication the yayin was “mixed,” diluted with water.4 In Talmudic times (post-70 to 5th century AD) it was considered uncultured to drink undiluted yayin, so it was almost always diluted with one part yayin to three parts water (Pesaḥim 108b), or even boiled down to a concentrate before mixing with water.5 On the question of using unfermented grape juice for the cup of blessing, Rabbi Rava affirms: “One can squeeze a cluster of grapes and say Kiddush over [the juice]” (Talmud, Bava Batra 97b). Nevertheless, the paschal tradition of four cups of yayin was introduced after the time of Christ,6 so we must turn to the Lord’s own words and historical-cultural setting for more definitive answers.

Vineyards were commonplace in the ancient Near East (Matt. 20:1-8; 21:28, 33-41; Mark 12:1-11; Luke 20:9-16; 1 Cor. 9:7), and the Greek term ámpelos (“vine”) particularly refers to the grapevine. The expression “fruit of the vine” would have been universally understood by Jesus, his immediate disciples, and all others in the ancient Mediterranean world as the product of the grapevine (cf. Gen. 40:9-11; Lev. 25:5; Jas. 3:12; Rev. 14:18).

Modern-day Questions

Some have wondered if other fruits that grow on vines (melons, berries, kiwifruit, cucumbers, tomatoes) would be acceptable for communion. After all, the Bible just says “fruit of the vine” but doesn’t explicitly identify which fruit. It is important to remember, however, that everything in scripture is written in a particular context. The expression “fruit of the vine” occurs only three times in the NT, all in reference to the Lord’s Supper. As noted above, according to common usage in the historical-cultural setting of these passages, grapes are understood.

Does it matter whether the communion juice is fermented or unfermented? Since so many people use the word “wine” to describe it, would fermentation be required? As noted above, the Greek word oinos (often rendered “wine”) does not occur in any of the scriptures that address the Lord’s Supper. In fact, it is the same species of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) that converts carbohydrates to carbon dioxide in bread (causing it to rise) and to alcohol in grape juice (causing it to ferment). Seeing that yeast (leaven) was prohibited in the Passover meal (Ex. 13:7; Deut. 16:3-4), it follows that it would be absent from the cup of the fruit of the vine and thus non-alcoholic (later tradition notwithstanding).7

What if no unleavened bread or grape juice is available? We obviously can’t do what we are incapable of doing. But let’s not be so ready to give up or compromise. When traveling where there is no church, think ahead, be prepared, and take the provisions needed. Otherwise, search the local grocery stores, restaurants, salad bars, and markets for bread without yeast or ingredients to make it, grape juice or grapes that can be squeezed, or even raisins (dried grapes) that can be soaked or boiled. Wine can be boiled to remove its alcohol content. While wheat or other bread-making grains and/or grapes are not grown in every geographical location worldwide, if we can supply people around the globe with food, clothes, medicine, clean water, the gospel, Bibles, and other resources necessary to live and to be right with God, surely we can do the same with communion needs. 

Be aware that some companies that sell pre-packaged communion supplies use black current juice (or other substitutes) instead of grape juice. If we are homebound because of sickness, immobility, or a global pandemic, let’s have what we need at home (purchased or homemade) to worship according to biblical directives. If unable, allow other Christians to help. While communion is something the church does together (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:17-34), sometimes circumstances dictate otherwise.


Although some may consider this study (or parts of it) somewhat narrow and nitpicky, hopefully we all sincerely desire to understand what the Lord has revealed in his word and to be as faithful as we know how to be. “Therefore we are also eager, whether at home or away, to be well-pleasing to him” (2 Cor. 5:9). 

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 Recipes are available online; here is a sample.
     3 Common English Bible, Contemporary English Version, Easy-to-Read Version, Good News Translation, God’s Word, The Message, New Living Translation, J. B. Phillips, The Living Bible.
     4 Joshua Kulp, Mishnah Yomit: English Explanation of Mishnah Pesachim, USCJ Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem (accessed 21 March 2020), <Link>.
     5 Thinking Gemara Series: Arba’ah Kosot, “The Four Cups of Wine of the Passover Seder Pesachim 108b: Teacher’s Guide,” NLE Resources 17-22, 29 (accessed 21 March 2020), <Link>.
     6 David Instone-Brewer, The Jesus Scandals (Oxford; Grand Rapids: Monarch, 2012): 56; see also Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald, eds., The New Testament World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013): 4.
     7 For an alternative view, see Wayne Jackson, Was the Fruit of the Vine Fermented?Christian Courier (2000), <Link>.

Related Articles & Videos: Julie Johnson, DIY Lord's Supper 

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