The Bible is a book about wine. Water and wine, to be more precise. Wine, the most versatile and refined alcohol, and water, the most salutary chaser. Called the “devil’s brew” by some, alcohol plays a substantial role in God’s redemptive plan. The first Christians were accused of being drunk—at 9am no less—when they began speaking in tongues at Pentecost. King David writes to God of a spiritual drunkenness: “Your chalice which inebriates, how excellent it is” (Psalm 22:5). Despite the negative connotations alcohol can have in Christian contexts, wine plays a substantial role throughout the Holy Scriptures. Furthermore, the combination of water and wine is an important symbol in the Bible, of God’s redemption of the whole world.
Wine has much to recommend it as a Christian symbol. The early Christians, chased underground by hostile neighbors and rulers, undoubtedly held their weekly services from time to time in the wine cellars of wealthy believers. Wine’s pressing and fermentation process suggests to believers, then and now, the decomposition of an old mode of life, and its rebirth into something fragrant and life-bringing.
Wine also plays an explicit role in God’s plan of salvation. In Isaiah 5:1, Israel is described as the “vineyard” of God. Then, over Jesus’ “last supper,” he declares to his disciples, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). Jesus is the fulfillment of the image of Israel as a vineyard—the true vine around whom all the grapes, the Israelites, are nourished.
In the Lord’s Supper that Jesus instituted just before His “true vine” comment, wine is a symbol for the life-giving blood of Jesus. At the cross, His blood atones for the sins of the world. Jesus speaks of the healing effects of His own blood, when he says, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). For the Christian the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper is the same body and blood from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. In Church tradition, the wine is not merely a symbol of Christ’s blood but takes on His “real presence.”
In the Lord’s Supper, the wine becomes Christ’s blood that was spilled for us at His crucifixion. As practiced through the history of the church however, the chalice in the Lord’s Supper is mixed with water.
Water has a connotation of cleansing. In the Flood in Genesis, God cleanses the earth of sin. Water takes this same meaning in the sacrament of baptism. We go under the waters, reenacting Christ’s death and descent into Hell. Then we are brought up again into new life.
However, water also has an alternate meaning elsewhere in the Bible, which complicates the symbolism of water in the Lord’s Supper. In the book of Revelation, waters represent many “peoples and multitudes and nations, and languages” (Revelation 17:15). That is, waters represent masses of people. In the language of the Old Testament, water represents the Gentiles—the many peoples of the earth.
Jesus begins His ministry with His first miracle at a wedding in Cana, where he transforms water into wine. Jesus prefigures how He will transform the Gentiles into Israelites, “children of Satan” into “children of Abraham,” through His atoning sacrifice on the cross.
So likewise, at the Lord’s Supper, the mixing of water and wine demonstrates how by Christ’s death, the Gentiles have been made people of God’s covenant. Cyprian of Carthage, in his treatise on wine’s role in Scripture writes, “When water is mixed with wine in the Chalice, the people are united to Christ, and the multitude of the believers is bound and joined to Him in whom they believe” (Epistle 63, 13).
The symbolism of water and wine makes a reappearance when water and blood flow from Jesus’ side while He languishes on the cross (John 19:34). In the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, God made a stone to gush with water to quench their thirst in the desert. Later, according to the prophesy in Isaiah, “They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and the water gushed out” (Isaiah 48:21).
This prophesy is fulfilled in Christ, the Rock of our salvation, when He is speared by a Roman soldier and His side gushes with water, mixed with blood. The blood that comes with that water shows that our thirst for eternal life has only been quenched at great cost. The wine of Christ’s sacrifice, if sweet to us, was bitter to Him.
As the smallest drop of wine, when added to a glass of water, alters the color of the entire vessel, so the Spirit transforms the sinful body and soul of each one of us, one bit at a time. And similarly, the small group of God’s faithful are called to transform the entire world with the powerful love of the Gospel. Jesus’ last commandment to His followers was the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). In our apostolate to those around us, we give the world the cleansing power of water in baptism that they may partake with us of the wine of Christ’s sacrifice.
Bryce McDonald is a senior in Leverett House studying Philosophy.