Are Multiple “Containers” Prohibited in the Distribution of the Lord’s Supper?

By Wayne Jackson

“Does Matthew 26:26-29 teach that the church must use only one cup (container) when the communion supper is served in the worship service of each local congregation on the Lord’s day? I am searching for the truth.”

We appreciate all who are “searching” for the truth. The sacred text referenced above reads as follows:

“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it; and he gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took a cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, All of you drink 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.”

Drink this Cup

Some Christians allege that only one container may be used in the distribution of the fruit of the vine during the observance of the Lord’s supper. Advocates of this position contend that there is great significance in the fact that Jesus took “a cup,” when he instituted the fruit of the vine. This solitary drinking container, it is claimed, sets a precedent for all time. Supposedly, it was emblematic of the New Testament itself – the one covenant bound by God today.

At the root of this doctrine is a lack of recognition that the container actually had no spiritual significance whatever; rather, the use of the word “cup” in this connection is a form of a figure of speech known as metonymy, i.e., “when one thing is put for another.” An extensive discussion of this symbol is found in D.R. Dungan’s work on sacred “hermeneutics,” which relates to the science of Bible interpretation (see Hermeneutics, Cincinnati, Standard, n.d., p. 270ff).

One form of metonymy is when a “container is made to stand for its contents.” We commonly employ this figure when we use such expressions as: “Did he enjoy his tea? Yes, he drank the whole cup.” Or, “the kettle is boiling.” When Moses declared that “the earth was corrupt” in the days of Noah (Gen. 6:11), he did not allude to this orb of dirt, but to the people that inhabited it. Similarly, when John wrote that “God so loved the world” (Jn. 3:16), he was not referring to the globe, but to its population. The “container” represents the “contents.”

That Christ was not placing emphasis upon the material container ought to be obvious from the following facts:

  1. The same language is used with reference to both the “bread” and the “cup.” One was to be eaten, the other drunk. Since the bread (not a platter) was the emphasis relative to the first element, similarly, the “fruit of the vine” (not a container) was the focus of the second element. Note that in 1 Corinthians 10:21 there is a reference to the “cup” and the “table.” One is not to be pressed as literal any more than the other.
  2. The disciples were instructed initially to “drink of the cup,” which expression means “of the supply out of (from) which a thing is taken, given, received, eaten, drunk, etc. – Mt. 26:29” (J.H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, p. 191; Note also that poterion (cup) is used in Luke 22:20, where Thayer observes that “cup” represents its contents — p. 533). The reference is to the substance drunk, not the container.
  3. The “cup” was “poured out” (Lk. 22:20), “divided” (Lk. 22:17), and “drunk” (Mt. 26:27). All of these terms refer to the liquid, not a solid container.
  4. The logical consequence of the “one cup” doctrine reveals the fallacy of the theory. If the use of the term “cup” demands that a church be restricted to one “container” in its practice of the communion, and yet that “cup” represents the New Testament, then each church would be restricted to one copy of the New Testament in its teaching program. This conclusion, of course, no one accepts. The fact of the matter is, the “cup” represented the Savior’s “blood,” not the new covenant. The new covenant is mentioned simply because it was by Christ’s blood that the covenant was made operative (Heb. 9:15ff). A careful reading of v. 28 corrects the fallacious “one covenant/one cup” theory.

It is a source of great consternation that the body of Christ has been divided over such a frivolous issue, and a failure on the part of conscientious people to understand the use of a simple figure of speech.

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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.