The Lord's Supper -- Two or Three Symbols?

by Jefferson David Tant

From time to time, brethren have discussions about the Lord’s Supper with respect to the “one cup” view as opposed to the practice of serving the fruit of the vine in multiple cups. I have had discussions with those of the “one cup” view through the years, and have studied the matter to the following conclusions.

One of the arguments proposed by those who maintain the whole congregation must use only one cup, one container, for the fruit of the vine, is that Christ actually taught there were three elements in the Lord’s Supper, i.e., the bread (Christ’s body), the fruit of the vine (Christ’s blood), and the cup or container (the new covenant). Therefore, there can be only one container, since there is only one covenant. This argument, though made with all sincerity, is made with a lack of understanding of common grammar. I do not say one needs a Ph.D. in English before one can understand the Bible, but God’s word is written in a language, and it does employ correct grammatical constructions, whether in the original Greek or in subsequent translations. Thus in teaching a Baptist the truth on Mark 16:16 or Acts 2:38, we rightly stress the fact that “and” is a coordinate conjunction which couples words of equal rank.

Our “one cup” brethren, I believe, misunderstand or misapply the scriptures because the various accounts of the Lord’s Supper are not word-for-word the same. This is not a problem to them with respect to the varying accounts of the inscriptions on the cross, but it does present a problem when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. Note Matthew and Mark compared with Lukeand Paul:

  • (Matthew and Mark) “this is My blood of the covenant
  • (Luke and Paul) “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” — “This      cup is the new covenant in My blood

It is the contention of the “one cup” brethren that these readings are not the same, for the passages give three symbols, not two. In other words, they believe that Matthew says, “this (contents of the cup) is my blood…,” while Luke is saying “this cup (literally container) is the new covenant…” (Matthew 26:28 and Luke 22:20).

The Use of Metonomy

We need to consider what metonymy is. Webster says: “metonymy—use of one word for another that it suggests, as…the container for the things contained…” For example, I may commend my wife’s cooking by saying, “This dish is delicious.” What is delicious? The china? No, the contents — the Italian spaghetti. When one says, “The radiator is boiling,” is the car’s radiator literally boiling? No, but by metonymy the container represents the water contained. “Noah prepared an ark to the saving of his house” (Hebrews 11:7). Did he actually put his dwelling on the ark? No, for “house” stands for “family.” His dwelling is not even in consideration. And so with “cup” in our texts and in other places.

For thus says the LORD, "Behold, those who were not sentenced to drink the cup will certainly drink it…” (Jeremiah 49:12). Here is the cup of bitterness with respect to impending judgment. “Thus says the Lord GOD, 'You will drink your sister's cup, which is deep and wide. You will be laughed at and held in derision; it contains much. You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, the cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria. You will drink it and drain it. Then you will gnaw its fragments and tear your breasts; for I have spoken,' declares the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 23:32-34).

In these two passages, the “cup” is used to stand for the contents — bitterness, pain and sorrow. In the figurative language Ezekiel uses, after “drinking the cup’s contents,” they would be in so much distress that they would then begin to gnaw at the drinking vessel itself. In these texts, “cup” stands for the thing contained, bitterness and sorrow, and the container itself is not included in the symbolism, it is not the literal cup that was drunk, but rather bitterness and sorrow was what was drunk.

When metonymy is employed, it can have only one symbol. The figure and that for which it stands cannot both be a part of the meaning. In “This dish is delicious,” either the china or the food must be under consideration, not both. One stands for the other, not along with. Thus “cup” in our texts is either the literal crockery, or it is the contents—the fruit of the vine. The same word in the same position in the text cannot refer to both.

A Parallel

Now, let us examine the statements of Matthew and Luke to see if there really is a difference in “this is my blood of the covenant” and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Matthew says “this is…” What is “this?” The antecedent of the pronoun is “cup.” There is no violence done in substituting the noun for the pronoun, since the pronoun stands in the place of the noun. Therefore, the two passages can read thusly: “this (cup) is my blood…” (Matthew), and This cup is the new covenant…” (Luke).

Let me give a parallel. Suppose we have a man who has been convicted of some misdemeanor. In lieu of going to jail, the judge suggests the man give a pint of blood to the Red Cross. After giving the blood, the man holds the jar in his hand and remarks, “This is my blood of freedom.” A few moments later, he repeats to another person, “This jar is freedom in my blood.” Has he said the same thing? Certainly so. In the first sentence, he said, “This (the jar in his hand) is my blood of freedom.” The literal jar is not the object, but its contents, and its contents represent his freedom, as it is the means by which his freedom is secured. Note that the literal container had nothing to do with his freedom. It was what the container held. In the second sentence, he has simply said the same thing in another construction. The “jar” is not his freedom, but by metonymy, its contents represent his freedom. Is there any problem in understanding that? How many symbols are used in his statements—one or two? Are the container and the contents both used to represent two different things? No. “Jar” is used by metonymy for “blood”—which blood is the means by which his freedom is obtained.

Now let us apply this simple parallel:

  • “This is my blood of freedom” (prisoner)
  • “This is my blood of the covenant” (Mark)

and

  • “This jar is freedom in my blood” (prisoner)
  • “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke)

What is the difference? There is none! Jesus said, by one account, “This (cup-contents) is my blood of the covenant.” The fruit of the vine represents his blood which was the means of ratifying the covenant (which, by the way, secured our freedom). By the other account, Jesus is saying, “This cup (contents) is the new covenant in my blood.” The cup is not the literal covenant, but its contents represent what Christ had in mind. In order for the “one cup” view, that there are two symbols, to be true, the text would have to read, “This cup is the new covenant and my blood.” In that figure, there are two cups—the container (covenant) and the contents (blood). Brethren, that figure just isn’t there.

Other Considerations

In Luke 22:17, it is suggested that the fruit of the vine was divided among the disciples before they drank of it in the supper: "And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, ‘Take this and share it among yourselves" (Luke 22:17).  “Share” is from the Greek “diamerizo,” and is defined:   “to partition thoroughly (literally in distribution, figuratively in dissension):--cloven, divide, part.” Various translations use either “share” or “divide.”

Consider: "And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, "Take this and share it among yourselves” (Luke 22:17). (Evidently they “shared,” “divided,” or “partitioned” the fruit of the vine), then they partook of the bread: "And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me"" (Luke 22:19) and then they drank the fruit of the vine: "And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood”" (Luke 22:20).

What does the context suggest?

  1. Christ took a vessel containing fruit of the vine, and told the disciples to share or divide it among themselves.
  2. He gave thanks for the bread.
  3. He divided the bread and gave each a portion.
  4. Then they drank the fruit of the vine.

Think about it. They divided the fruit of the vine before they ate the bread. But if the “one cup” idea is true, they drank the fruit of the vine before they ate the bread! That’s because Christ told them to share or divide it among themselves before they took the bread. The only logical interpretation of the passage is that Christ told them to each pour a portion of the fruit of the vine into their own containers, so that each could partake after the bread was eaten. One would logically assume that each would have his own drinking vessel when they sat down together to eat the Passover meal.

Consider also, if the cup is literal, when they were told to “divide” or “partition” it among themselves, that would mean that each disciple broke off a piece of the crockery as it came to him. And of course we know that’s not what happened. But that’s the logical conclusion if we say the “cup” was literal, and it was to be divided among themselves.

Then we must look at I Corinthians 11:25-26: "In the same way He took the cup also 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."

There is a problem with this passage. If the “one cup” idea is true, then we have a literal cup in I Corinthians 11:25, but a figurative cup in I Coirnthians 11:26. That is an inconsistent interpretation. There is no rule of interpretation that would allow this change of meaning from one verse to the other while in the same context.

These thoughts are presented for the careful consideration of our readers.