Do the Scriptures Authorize Multiple Cups?

By Wayne Jackson

“Why do so many churches use a plurality of ‘cups’ in administering the Lord’s supper, when the Scriptures appear to authorize just one, ‘a cup’?”

There are some Christians who firmly believe that the use of more than one container, in the observing of the communion supper, is a violation of divine law. Sincere though these folks are, their approach to the Scriptures in this regard is flawed.

When the New Testament speaks of the “cup,” in the observing of the communion, it is not the literal container that is under consideration; rather, it is the contents, i.e., the fruit of the vine, that is in view. This is evident from the following factors.

(1) There is a common figure of speech in the Bible called metonymy. The term means “a change in name.” This figure is employed when one thing stands for another. One form of metonymy is where the container is put for its contents. This means that even though the container is mentioned, only the contents are actually under consideration.

For example, the Scriptures affirm that Noah prepared an ark "to the saving of his “house” (Heb. 11:7). Here “house,” a container, stands for the “family” that dwelt therein. In another well-known passage, Jesus affirmed that God “so loved the world” that he gave his Son for it (Jn. 3:16). It is not this “world,” material globe, that is in view; rather, the people of the earth are the object of divine love.

This is metonymy. There is clear evidence that this is the sort of usage that is employed with reference to the communion “cup.”

Note the synonymous terms set forth in the following passage:

“And he took a cup, and gave thanks, and gave to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins. But I say unto you, I shall not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Mt. 26:27-29).

It is quite obvious that the “fruit of the vine” is the “this,” which is the “it,” which, in fact, is the “cup.” Underline these various terms and the connection between them will be quite apparent.

(2) That the “cup” is not the container is even more vividly depicted in Luke’s record. He states that Jesus “received a cup, and when he had given thanks, he said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves . . .” (Lk. 22:17). The Greek word for “divide” is diamerizo, which means to “divide up” or to “separate into parts” (cf. Mt. 27:35).

Were the disciples to divide a container? Of course not. They were to divide the fruit of the vine, which, incidentally, most likely was facilitated by multiple containers. Frederic Godet noted: “The distribution (diamerisate) may have taken place in two ways, either by each drinking from the common cup, or by their all emptying the wine of that cup into their own. The Greek term would suit better this second view” (A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1879, Vol. II, p. 289).

(3) That the term “cup” is not to be pressed as a container is evident from Paul’s use of the term in one of his epistles. During the apostle’s three and one-half year residence in Ephesus (Acts 19:1ff), he penned a letter to the saints in Corinth, across the Aegean Sea some 250 miles to the west. Therein he said: “The cup [singular] of blessing which we [plural] bless . . .” (1 Cor. 10:16).

Note the terms “cup” and “we.” It is obvious that “cup” cannot refer to a container, as evidenced by the fact that Paul in Ephesus, and his brethren at Corinth, were sharing (note the “we”) the same “cup,” i.e., a common substance (fruit of the vine), which reflects a spiritual idea, namely the blood of Christ, not a common container.

(4) Moreover, in the context just cited, just as Paul uses “cup” figuratively, so also does he employ the term “table” symbolically (1 Cor. 10:21). It is no more logical to press the idea that “cup,” i.e., container, has some mystical meaning, than it is to insist that “table” has a spiritual significance.

In conclusion, a reasonable interpretation of the scriptural data relative to the Lord’s supper would indicate that the use of multiple containers in the distribution of the fruit of the vine is an optional expediency which may be employed at the discretion of the worshippers. It accommodates the larger crowds of today’s church. It certainly facilitates disease control (the dangers of which were unknown in earlier times).

To create division within the body of Christ over the issue of how many containers are used in the distribution of the fruit of the vine is, therefore, an error of serious import.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.