Wine Symbolism in the Bible

“I Am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. . . Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.” —John 15:1, 4

It was the last week of the Savior’s mortal ministry, the week of Jewish passover. Jesus had gathered his disciples together in an upper room for his final instruction and blessing as the mortal messiah. They had experienced much together; however, what was coming next, he must endure alone.

Written by Mark Amacher, author of Savior's Symbols: Seven Affirmations from the Life of the Master.

Jesus knew “that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father” (John 13:1). These loyal men would bear the burden of the Church and kingdom on earth after he ascended to his Father. They would preach his gospel to the gentiles and bear apostolic testimonies of Jesus Christ, the Son of god. he would miss them. he loved them as only he could. now his time was short, and he must teach them a few last lessons on service and sacrifice, completing his mortal instruction to them. he was preparing them, even as he prepared himself, for what was soon to come.

As they were eating, Jesus took bread and wine as testaments of his pending sacrifice and blessed and passed them to his chosen friends. “And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:27–28).

No matter how these events may have been interpreted or represented to you in the past, a clear understanding of what the symbolism evokes contrasts significantly with Hollywood’s common portrayal of Jesus as a type of detached, mystical savant. John’s gospel evidences an engaging, dynamic, even social personality who was keenly aware and personally interested in everyone around him.

As with all teaching, his greatest lessons were taught by example. His many miracles—such as physical healings and restorations from death—were all administered to individuals. This style of personal ministering illustrates the great work of redemption in all dispensations where faith, repentance, baptism, and other saving ordinances of salvation are received as individuals. Thus, as he administered the first sacrament to each of his disciples, he explained, “I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29). After so much time together, this was a sobering declaration.

The wine he blessed and passed was a common commodity used for drink and for medicinal purposes. It was also deeply symbolic. It represented fertility, prosperity, abundance, celebration, and blessings. As we shall see, Jesus had previously used wine as a symbol of the qualitative results of his works while also using the wine production process as representative and illuminative of his Atonement. To use wine as a symbolic emblem of his blood and to say that he would never partake of wine again in this life was to make a powerful statement about himself and about his Apostles’ changing relationship with him. Things were never to be “as they were” before this last supper together.

Jesus Turns Water Into Wine

Early in his mortal ministry, Jesus had attended a marriage in Cana where he had turned water into wine. Interestingly, many biblical scholars identify this occurrence as the first recorded miracle of Christ’s mortal ministry. Many Jewish families refer to a wedding event by saying that they “made a wedding,” a clear reference to the understanding belief in a creative act.

A wedding in Israel was always a big social event, especially in a small village like Cana of Galilee. Family and close friends had probably come from the neighboring villages of Magdala, Nazareth, Capernaum, Gennesaret, or Tabgha. Jewish weddings were usually held on a Tuesday, “on the third day of the week” (St, John 2:1). This tradition was observed because the lord had pronounced a “double blessing” on the third day of creation by stating that it was “good” twice (Gen. 1:9–13). As a result, it was widely believed that a marriage union would be doubly blessed if it were performed on the third day of the week, a tradition still observed today in more orthodox Jewish communities.

Water into Wine Verse: John 2:1-11

Weddings were major celebrations lasting from several days to as long as two weeks. In rural Galilee, a wedding could easily unite the limited number of local families into extended relationships of rich association and family friendships. each marriage event, as well as the major feasts and observances of the year, were celebrated together as part of a family’s history and tradition. This wedding at Cana was such an occasion. It was cause for much joy and celebration. From the scriptural text recorded in the gospel of John, we recognize that the family of Jesus had a close and personal interest in this wedding. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was responsible in some way for the comfort and hospitality of the guests. When the supply of local wine ran out, the servers looked to Mary for direction. Since Jesus and his brethren were there, it was to become a memorable occasion—not just because of the wedding celebration, but also for the rich lessons, precious insights, and gospel symbolism taught by the Savor early in his ministry.

Jesus had recently been baptized. He had then called and organized his disciples. he had also begun teaching them and preparing them for future leadership, but as yet he had not performed any public miracles. The record indicates that the time had not yet come to begin his public demonstrations or declarations. In this circumstance, we see him joining the wedding celebration and interacting with family and friends. he was social, engaging, supportive, and willing to assist. It was in this attitude that “Jesus said unto her [his mother], Woman, what wilt thou have me to do for thee? that will I do; for mine hour is not yet come. his mother said unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, see that ye do it” (JSt, John 2:4–5).

The law of Moses prescribed detailed observances regarding diet and cleanliness. Some were practical while others were ceremonial; all were symbolic. to observe and keep the law, the Jews would wash as prescribed by the requirements of the law. At this house in Cana, there stood six stone water pots, reservoirs of water for the purpose of ceremonial washings “after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece” (John 2:6).

A firkin was approximately 9.5 US gallons, so these six pots yielded a conservative total volume of 135–150 gallons! The large quantity of water symbolized the commitment and desire of the household, the tradition if you will, to be clean and to observe the law. It might also have been seen as a polite gesture to provide a convenient place to perform the rituals of ceremonial washing (as it is today in modern Israel).

The Lord chose this moment and this circumstance to manifest his first recorded public miracle while teaching symbolic lessons. What were his lessons and what effect did it have on his new disciples? The symbolism of wine and the teaching circumstances provide insight to his message, testimony, and mission.

The premortal messiah had commanded that the laws he gave to Moses be observed. Jesus, the messiah, was the lawgiver! he had provided the lesser law, the law of cardinal commandments, as a schoolmaster to instruct and to point Israel to himself as the mortal messiah who would come in the meridian of time. now was that time. he had come to fulfill his own law. The miracle of the marriage wine would symbolize his fulfillment of the law while foreshadowing and symbolically presenting how it would be accomplished.

“Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim” (John 2:7). Jesus first physically and metaphorically filled the pots with cleansing and purifying water, thus ensuring that the lesser law was observed. The full water pots also suggest a “fulness” of blessings that results from obeying the law of the lord. he then transformed the full containers of water to wine, one of the future emblems of the sacrament.

The symbolism clearly referenced his Atonement as the manner in which he would fulfill the law, satisfy the demands of justice, extend divine mercy, and bless all his creations. not only was new wine produced by or through him, but the water was also done away, fulfilled in him. The law of Moses, the law of sacrifice, was replaced with the higher law of Christ through his last great, infinite, and eternal sacrifice.

The water was “added upon” just as the law of Moses was added upon through Christ’s law. It became more complete, full, and complex—a more fruitful liquid. It now had greater ability to satisfy; it was more enjoyable, more bountiful, and much more abundant. It was worthy to be presented at this wedding banquet even as he will be worthily presented at a final marriage banquet—the marriage supper of the Bridegroom where wine may be served in infinite abundance.

The miracle of the marriage wine clearly symbolized Christ’s Atonement and represents his blood sacrifice (Heb. 9:14–15). But there are also other more subtle messages layered in the wine’s characteristics and attributes. They speak to us about the quality and quantity of his work: “And he saith unto them, draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, . . . [he] called the bridegroom, and saith unto him, every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now” (John 2:8–10).

The reaction by the governor of the marriage suggests that the wine Jesus provided was the best wine, of the finest quality, and it was provided in abundance. The quantity of wine provided—upwards of 150 gallons for a group who had already been drinking freely—would have been more than sufficient to satisfy the needs of this small gathering. The lord’s Atonement required the best and most precious blood of all ages, the best offering possible, both in quality and in quantity.

"For it is expedient that an atonement should be made . . . a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice. . . . And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law [of Moses], every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of god, yea, infinite and eternal."(Alma 34: 9–10, 14)

So another testimony provided by the wine miracle is that the Atonement, in its quality and quantity, is more than sufficient to satisfy the demands of justice and to balance the personal accounts of all who come unto Christ. The lord himself declared, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10; emphasis added). This miracle was a powerful first demonstration of his power to provide abundant blessings through his life and Atonement.

The context of the wine miracle also offers instructive symbolism through its association with the wedding feast. The lord used the imagery of a wedding feast, and especially of the Bridegroom at the last day, as an occasion to symbolically gather the faithful in to supper with him. All who are sufficiently prepared to meet him—those who have accepted him and have fully repented of their sins; those who have their lamps filled with oil, their wicks trimmed, and extra oil avail- able (see chapter 5); those who are prepared in all things— they will be admitted into the presence of the lord. There they will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. There, he who has overcome all things will provide bread and wine in abundance (see chapter 3). This last great banquet will be real, the promises sure, and the host—the holy one of Israel.

The scripture record affirms that the lord accomplished significant objectives in this “first” miracle. For example, he was able to tenderly assist and help his mother while instruct- ing and building faith in his disciples: “This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and the faith of his disciples was strengthened in him” (JSt, John 2:11).

Grapes Symbolism 

Grapes grow in great abundance in the holy land. The soil is fertile and the climate perfect for grape vineyards at moderate altitudes. The ancient process for wine production commenced at harvest time. The grapes were gathered and brought to a winepress. The “press” was made of stone and had a lower and an upper basins or vat into which the grapes were placed. A group of men, an ox, or some other beast of burden was employed to tread on or “step out” the grapes in the upper vat. This was called “pressing.” linen cloth was wrapped around the person’s or animal’s legs to protect them from the sticks and vines that could cut, scrape, and tear the flesh while laboring.

The process was exhausting and could take many hours to complete. All the contents in the wine vat must be worked by pressing to reclaim the wine. The grape juice pressed out from the upper vat was drawn out and collected in the lower chamber, leaving the upper vat with a mash of matted vine, twigs, crushed grape skins, and seeds. The flow of wine started out quite rap- idly at first but slowed to a trickle as the last of the grapes were squeezed out. The labor was not complete until the flow stopped and all the wine that would be claimed had been drawn.

When the pressing was complete, the linen cloth employed to protect the flesh was stained a vibrant red wine color. The stain was a symbol of the harvest and a token of the effort required to produce wine. The pressing labor was so exhaust- ing and taxing that several men usually assisted each other by taking turns so that each worker had a chance to rest and recover somewhat from the effort. even animals were rested and rotated in this way; otherwise, it was difficult to maintain balance in the wine vat and not fall from the physical effort to press out wine in this ancient way.

Try to imagine an old stone winepress in ancient Israel. how would it feel to press out grapes without any assistance? how difficult to tread the winepress alone? It might be easy at first, but as time progresses, your fatigue and heaviness increases as the flow of wine decreases. more pressure is needed to complete the job, more effort required. minutes stretch into hours. With exhausting fatigue, sweat, and toil your strength is drawn out as the remains of the pressing vat tear at your heavy, aching, burning legs. your breathing is heavy; your lungs burn.

The winepress is uneven, and it is difficult for you to maintain your balance. you stagger, stumble, and fall frequently in your fatigue. you appear to be drunk as you “reel to and fro” in the winepress. After hours of toil, if you complete the task, you are scratched, cut, bruised, and soaked through with sweat. With matted hair and red-stained garments, completely exhausted, you are hardly able to move or speak. The lord’s wine, symbolic of his atoning blood, was pressed out alone, under intense pressure, drop-by-drop, step-by-step, balancing eternal jus- tice with atoning mercy.

This is powerful imagery. The Savior’s revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith of his glorious Second Coming includes references to winepress symbolism:

Who is this that cometh down from god in heaven with dyed garments; yea, from the regions which are not known, clothed in his glorious apparel, traveling in the greatness of his strength? . . . And the lord shall be red in his apparel, and his garments like him that treadeth in the wine-vat. . . And his voice shall be heard: I have trodden the winepress alone, and have brought judgment upon all people; and none were with me. (d&C 133:46, 48, 50; see also Isa. 63:1–3)

Wine is also a fitting symbol of Christ because of its great worth. It is valued because it is not easily produced. Thus, the effort required to achieve wine’s unique characteristics makes it a fitting emblem for the sacrament. The words sacrament and sacrifice have the same latin root—sacer, meaning “holy” or “to make sacred.” They both point to the Savior and his Atonement as the means to make us sacred.

Since the time of Adam, the lord commanded his people to offer sacrifices in similitude of him. It pointed forward, looking ahead to his central act. Sacrifices were performed in a prescribed manner, teaching us of the Atonement and of the Atoning one. Sacrifices required the firstlings of the flock, without blemish and without spot, with no broken bones, with their blood shed and the life-giving blood sprinkled on the north side of the altar. All these and many other observances of the law of Moses (like the passover itself) pointed to Christ as the last great and terrible sacrifice.

Now as Jesus and his apostles celebrated the Feast of the passover, which itself was part of the ancient sacrificial system, a new ordinance was in the making. The paschal lambs were testifying for the last time that the lamb of god should be sacrificed for the sins of the world.

The hour had come for the great and last sacrifice, and once the Son of god had been lifted upon the altar of the cross there would be no further need for an ordinance looking forward to that day. . . . As sacrifice was thus to cease with the occurrence of the great event toward which it pointed, there must needs be a new ordinance to replace it, an ordinance which also would center the attention of the saints on the infinite and eternal atonement.

And so Jesus, celebrating [observing] the feast of the passover, thus dignifying and fulfilling the law to the full, initiated the sacrament of the lord’s Supper. Sacrifice stopped and sacrament started. It was the end of the old era and the beginning of the new.

This was the meridian of time. It was his time. This was the central act of all history—Christ’s prime meridian, his pinnacle of love. his new sacrament included bread and wine, symbols of his abundance, freely and abundantly given. These symbols were offered willingly, blessing all who seek and receive him. Through him, they make us sacred as he is sacred. his atoning blood and acts of grace can make us holy, as he is holy. “And he said unto them, This [wine] is in remembrance of my blood which is shed for many, and the new testament which I give unto you; for of me, ye shall bear record unto all the world. And as oft as ye do this ordinance, ye will remember me in this hour that I was with you, and drank with you of this cup, even the last time in my ministry” (JSt, mark 14:23–24).

At this last supper with his chosen Apostles, in an obscure chamber in the upper city of Jerusalem, Jesus had washed their feet and prayed to the Father for them. he had implemented the sacrament and taught them all that his Father had com- manded him. It was now time.

“And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of olives” (Matt. 26:30).

The Savior taught his followers using specific symbols. Men have selected a fish, a bleeding heart, or a cross to represent Him, but He chose for Himself familiar common symbols that inspire and instruct, symbols that open a pondering mind to rich insights and layered understandings.

In The Savior's Symbols, each story from the life of the Savior is framed by an explanation of what these symbols are and what they meant to those who hearthese teachings. Learn more about the imagery and intent behind symbols like wine, water, and lambs, and as you discover them, you are invited to ponder anew the life, ministry, and sacred mission of Jesus Christ.

This book provides such great insight to the Savior's teachings. Reading this will open up a new world of inspiration as you see Heavenly symbols all around you. Learn about the symbolism of Wine, Water, Bread, Stone, Oil, The Shepherd and the Lamb, and of course Alpha and Omega.

I highly suggest reading this in between your busy summer moments as it inspires reflection and the love our Savior has for us.