There have been some articles recently discussing the elements used communion. Mainly they have focused primarily on whether or not wine or grape juice is most appropriate. One did also briefly address the issue of using unleavened or yeast bread. I appreciate both of these articles for their thoughtful consideration of the debate and also for their gentleness towards those who disagree. As believers, and especially as Reformed believers, we should want to be faithful to Scripture in all we do and also careful not to bind the consciences of others.
While I have no formal theological training, and I have not done a great deal of research into the various schools of thought on what should be used in communion, I want to lay out three basic types of arguments based on what I’ve read or heard on the topic. I hope that this will be useful to those who are thinking through what they believe regarding the elements.
First, I think it’s important to consider what Scripture says regarding the Last Supper and the institution of communion. From Matthew (Mark and Luke are very similar):
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26-29 ESV)
And from 1 Corinthians:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 ESV)
What do the words from Scripture say as to what should be used? The words here are “bread,” “cup,” and “fruit of the vine.” Apparently, the Greek word translated as “bread” just means “bread.” It can be leavened or unleavened, based simply on the word. The Greek word translated “cup” means a drinking vessel. It doesn’t speak to the contents. “Fruit of the vine” appears exactly three times in the New Testament: in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as quoted above. Given the context it would be a drink made from grapes.
So far, based on the words from Scripture, it would seem that bread and a cup filled with a drink made from grapes are commanded to be used. The issue of leavening or fermentation doesn’t appear to be addressed specifically in the word choices. Given the limited use of “fruit of the vine” it is hard to say exactly what is intended, based only on the words themselves.
The second consideration should be the context, both historical and literary. The passages in Matthew, Mark, and Luke start by saying:
Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” (Matthew 26:17 ESV)
We know from this passage and also from the institution of Passover in Exodus 12 that Passover was celebrated with unleavened bread. To commemorate the exodus from Egypt the Israelites were commanded to eat only unleavened bread for the week of Passover.
Also, given the historical context, we can reasonably assume that the cup mentioned was filled with wine. Grape juice ferments quickly (after a few days) and no one had the technology necessary to prevent fermentation from happening.
So, most likely at the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples ate unleavened bread and drank wine.
The third consideration is a little more difficult: exegetical concerns. Are there reasons that one might choose wine/grape juice or unleavened/yeast bread because of a symbolic meaning?
I’ve read arguments for using wine because wine as a symbol of the resurrection. Grape juice “dies” and is “resurrected” as wine. This is an interesting thought and one worth considering. I do believe that symbols are useful as sermon illustrations and as teaching tools. A good example from Scripture would be the color of red wine (or grape juice for that matter) as a picture of Jesus’s blood being poured out for our sins. But I also think we should be careful not to look for symbolism that isn’t necessarily there, to impose our own thoughts or desires in order to make a particular argument seem stronger.
Another example from Scripture is the use of leavening as a symbol of sin. From the Old Testament, the Israelites are warned at particular times to get rid of all leavening. Most commonly this is associated with Passover, but it’s also part of other commandments for the sacrificial system as well. The warnings also appear in the New Testament:
In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. (Luke 12:1 ESV)
Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:12 ESV)
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV)
Obviously the leavening here is not actual yeast but rather a symbol of sin. As believers we have been set free from the power and dominion of sin and death. We have nothing to fear from yeast. We are under no law that requires us to rid our homes of leavening. Although we are reminded that a “little” sin can influence a whole lot in our lives, in our homes, in our families, in our churches, and in our society.
So, there might be exegetical reasons to prefer wine over grape juice or unleavened bread over leavened. But I think it should be worth pointing out that it would be preferences at that point and not commandments. It is similarly a preference issue to decide that wine and a loaf of bread are more aesthetically pleasing or that crackers and thimbles full of grape juice are less.
I’m sure there are other aspects of this discussion that I’ve overlooked here. This isn’t meant as a definitive treatise on communion elements. These are simply my thoughts on what I’ve read and heard. I hope that in our desire to be faithful to the Scriptures that we are careful to be kind to believers who disagree with us. I’ll close with a quote from John Calvin on this subject. As a side note, I’ll add that Calvin also lived before the advent of grape juice as a viable option. Who knows what he would have said about our modern debate.
In regard to the external form of the ordinance, whether or not believers are to take into their hands and divide among themselves, or each is to eat what is given to him: whether they are to return the cup to the deacon or hand it to their neighbour; whether the bread is to be leavened or unleavened, and the wine to be red or white, is of no consequence. These things are indifferent, and left free to the Church, though it is certain that it was the custom of the ancient Church for all to receive into their hand. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 4.17.43