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What is the “Fruit of the Vine”?

by  Kyle Butt, M.Div.

In the 21st century, scientific names and designations of certain fruits and vegetables often disagree with commonly accepted notions of the produce. For example, is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? What about a cucumber? Although most people see these two foods as vegetables, technically they are viewed in scientific circles as fruit. Furthermore, both cucumbers and tomatoes grow on vines, which would, in the strictest sense of the word, classify them as “fruits of the vine.” Other fruits that grow on vines include melons, such as watermelon and cantaloupe, as well as grapes.

In light of the fact that there are many different “fruits of the vine,” how are we to understand the New Testament phrase, “the fruit of the vine,” that Jesus used during the Last Supper just before His death. Is it possible to identify which “fruit of the vine” was used to produce the drink of the last Supper? And if so, how does the identification of that specific fruit affect the observation of the Lord’s Supper today?

The phrase “the fruit of the vine” is used in only three places in the New Testament:

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 of sins. 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 26:27-29).

Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And He said to them, “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many. Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:23-25).

Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:17-18).

In order to identify the specific “fruit of the vine” referred to by Jesus, we must analyze the words of the phrase in light of how the first-century audience would have understood them. The Greek word translated “vine” in these three instances is ampelos. Arndt, et al., define the term as “vine, or grapevine” (1979, p. 46). In virtually every instance in the Bible when the term is used, it refers to a grapevine. For instance, in James 3:12 several Bible translations render the word ampelos as “grapevine.” The New King James version reads: “Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?”. In Revelation 14:18, we read: “And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, ‘Thrust in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for her grapes are fully ripe.’” Notice that the term “vine” is used, then modified by the phrase “for her grapes...,” obviously referring to a grapevine.

Another Greek term relevant to this discussion is ampelōn, deriving from the same word as ampelos. Arndt, et al., give as its almost universal meaning, “vineyard” (p. 47). References in the New Testament using the term to denote a vineyard filled with grapes include Matthew 21:33-41, Mark 12:1-11, and Luke 20:9-16. In fact, the only reference in the New Testament where the term might mean anything other than a vineyard of grapes is Luke 13:6, where the term could possibly mean “orchard” (Arndt, et al., p. 47), specifically an orchard of figs. Since figs, however, are never referred to as the “fruit of the vine,” nor would a fig tree be classified as a vine, then this possible exception to the term “vineyard” has no bearing on the definition of the “fruit of the vine.”

Indeed, the terms “vine” and “vineyard” are so universally associated with grapes and wine made from grapes, that William Smith, under the entry for the word “vine,” wrote: “The vines of Palestine were celebrated both for luxuriant growth and for the immense clusters of grapes which they produced” (1870, 4:3446, emp. added). In Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, W.E. Vine included the following statement with his definition of “wine”: “In instituting the Lord’s Supper He [Jesus—KB] speaks of the contents of the cup as the ‘fruit of the vine.’ So Mark 14:25” (1997, p. 1232). In The Expositor’s Greek Testament, A.B. Bruce summarized Jesus’ statement in Matthew 26:29 in the following words: “It is the last time I shall drink paschal...wine with you. I am to die at this Passover” (2002, 1:312).

It is an absolutely established fact that Jesus’ disciples, as well as the broader first-century readership of the gospel accounts, understood Jesus’ phrase “fruit of the vine” to refer to juice from grapes [NOTE: There is ongoing debate as to whether the grape juice was fermented or unfermented. For a brief, but trenchant discussion of this debate, see Jackson, 2000).

If Christians today want to follow the example that Jesus set during the Lord’s Supper, and the apostles followed throughout their ministry, then they will drink juice from grapes during their observance of the communion. Although we today might technically view products such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons as “fruits of the vine,” they were not referred to as such by Christ, the New Testament writers, or the greater Greek-speaking community at large during the time of Christ.

REFERENCES

Arndt, William, F.W. Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker (1979), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), second edition revised.

Bruce, A.B. (2002 reprint), The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).

Jackson, Wayne (2000), “Was the ‘Fruit of the Vine’ Fermented?,” Christian Courier, [On-line], URL: http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/224-was-the-fruit-of-the- vine-fermented.

Smith, William (1870), Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. H.B. Hackett and Ezra Abbot (New York: Hurd & Houghton).

Vine, W.E. (1997), Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).





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