Passover: Wine or Grape Juice?

At the Passover Jesus observed the night before He died, He introduced a new ceremony using bread and wine. Was the wine He used fermented? Does it matter?

The Bible tells us Jesus Christ kept the Passover service with His disciples on the same night He was later betrayed by Judas (Matthew 26:17-56). What happened that evening?

Instituting the New Testament Passover

As Jesus and His disciples were finishing this last meal together, He instituted the New Testament Passover service, including a special ceremony of eating unleavened bread and drinking wine. These two actions carried great significance, considering what would occur within the next 24 hours.

We read, “Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body’” (Matthew 26:26). The disciples were accustomed to eating unleavened bread at this annual service (Exodus 12:8), but now Jesus Christ showed them what the eating of this bread truly symbolized: His body given, or broken, for mankind (1 Corinthians 11:23-24).

What about what they drank? “Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission [forgiveness] of sins’” (Matthew 26:27-28).

The apostle Paul later explained to the Corinthians that both the eating of the bread and the drinking of the cup were done to remember Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and that, by engaging in these actions, they were proclaiming Jesus Christ’s death until His return (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

What was in the cup?

What liquid was in the cup from which they all drank? Does it really matter?

To answer this, we must consider what type of drink would have accompanied the Passover. We know that the drink came from grapes because Matthew’s account tells us that specifically: “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).

The description of abuses of the Passover service in Corinth strongly suggests that the fruit of the vine used at the service was, in fact, wine—not grape juice—because Paul corrected them for their drunkenness, followed immediately by his explanations of the proper procedure for the Passover.

“Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you” (1 Corinthians 11:20-22).

In the very next verse, Paul immediately launched into the accepted way to observe the Passover: “For I received of the Lord that which I also delivered to you” (verse 23).

The Corinthians’ intoxication was obviously caused by drinking wine. Was this directly connected to abuses at the Passover service? The context implies that was the case by tying the two together—the correction, followed by instruction on the right way to keep the Passover. Paul did not discuss exchanging the wine that made some of them drunk in favor of grape juice. He focused on their wrong conduct.

What does the Bible mean by wine and new wine?

Some try to claim that Christ’s statement “until that day when I drink it new with you,” coupled with His first recorded miracle of changing water to wine (Greek oinos) at a wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11), would argue for “new wine” (which some claim would not have begun the fermentation process yet and would, therefore, be alcohol-free).

This is simply speculation for which there is no biblical proof. The circumstances at the wedding in Cana would, in fact, suggest wine, not grape juice, since the master of the wedding feast notes the superior quality of the miraculous wine (verse 10).

The Bible nowhere forbids the use of alcohol in moderation (1 Timothy 5:23); it most certainly does forbid drunkenness (Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:21). (For more about the balance the Bible teaches, see the articles “Is Drinking Alcohol a Sin?” and “Alcohol Use and Abuse.”)

Regarding biblical references to wine (Hebrew yayin; Greek oinos), Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary states:

“There is no biblical evidence that wine ever consisted of unfermented grape juice. When such juice is mentioned (cf. Gen. 40:10-11) it is never called wine. Occasionally the Bible refers to ‘new wine’ (Heb. tiros; Mic. 6:15; KJV, Isa. 65:8; cf. Acts 2:13; Gk. gleukos), but this too was fermented and could intoxicate (Hos. 4:11; the LXX always translates tiros with Gk. oinos ‘wine’). New wine refers to the first drippings from the vat; it was purer, and because of its higher sugar content fermented into a more substantial drink. Wine could be graded in this manner (cf. the Cana wedding, where the steward is conscious of quality; John 2:10). …

If we believe the Bible is God’s Word, then we must conclude that God places great importance on how we worship Him.“At his final Passover supper with his followers Jesus makes this connection explicit: ‘This (wine) is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:24 par.)” (1989, p. 1058).

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Does it matter?

Still, the question must be asked: Does it matter what kind of bread we eat or what kind of liquid we drink at the Passover service, as long as we remember the body and blood of Jesus?

This question strikes at the core of a much larger question, in which many who profess to be Christians (followers of Christ) miss the mark. Some may say: “As long as I believe in Christ, it’s not important! What difference does it make if I drink grape juice or wine, as long as I believe in Him and know what it means?”

But this is human reasoning, not based on biblical teaching. God tells us that we should carefully obey His commands: “You shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32). If we believe the Bible is God’s Word, then we must conclude that God places great importance on how we worship Him (note examples such as Deuteronomy 5:28-33; 6:20-25; Joshua 1:5-9; Matthew 4:3-4; Luke 6:46; John 4:21-26; 14:21-24; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; and 1 John 2:2-6).

Christ’s disciples were instructed to drink a little wine at the Passover service to commemorate His shed blood (Matthew 26:27-29). The early New Testament Church was instructed to drink wine (but not to the point of drunkenness) to commemorate Christ’s shed blood (1 Corinthians 11:25). We, too, must be careful to obey the Bible’s teaching in this regard, as with all of God’s instructions to us in His Word.

We must strive to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)! Is that the challenge you face in your life? “Worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23). Does His search impact your life?

Read more about the meaning and importance of the New Testament Passover in the articles “Passover: What Did Jesus Do for You?” and “Why Jesus Had to Die.”

About the Author

Andy Burnett

Andy Burnett

Andy Burnett has served in the full-time ministry since 2002, presently pastoring two congregations of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in North Texas and directing an annual weeklong church summer camp for teens.

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