Vinegar and Gall

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit. (JOH 19:29, 30)

  1. We love to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection and victory over death on Easter morning, but the sad fact is that He could not have conquered death unless He had first been murdered by His own people.
    1. This is not the aspect of Easter that we like to dwell upon in the New Church.
      1. We acknowledge that in every temptation there must be suffering and doubt concerning the eventual outcome;
      2. we know that we are in our greatest freedom during temptation, for we are then deliberately acting according to spiritual truths against our evil desires;
      3. and we know that the state of the Jewish Church was such that it could not help but express itself in this way;
      4. but still, it hurts to think of the Lord’s pain, and we would much rather focus our attention on His victory, His Glorification, and His ascension into His heavenly kingdom.
    2. However, the gospels treat so fully of the events leading up to and including the crucifixion that we cannot ignore them: they have been given to us in this form, and in this degree of detail for some reason, some spiritual purpose.
  2. Our focus for today is on the two kinds of wine that were offered to the Lord while He was on the cross, and His response to these offers, for in these simple gestures and actions, so carefully recorded in the gospels, a great deal is said about the states of the church at that time, the church to come, and temptations that face everyone who seeks to become a church.
    1. The gospel of Matthew tells us that when they had come to a place called Golgotha, that is to say, Place of a Skull, they gave Him sour wine mingled with gall to drink. But when He had tasted it, He would not drink. (MAT 27:33,34)
      1. Immediately after that, they crucified Him. Perhaps the most likely natural reason for them to offer Jesus a drink of vinegar mixed with gall was that, although it was terribly bitter and foul tasting, it provided a certain analgesic or tranquilizing effect to ease the horror of what was to come.
      2. Whatever the natural reasons for the offer, there were deep spiritual reasons behind His refusal.
        1. In general, wine represents the Divine truth, as can be seen from its use in the Holy Supper. Just as there are degrees of truth, so there are degrees of wine, and wine that has gone sour and turned to vinegar represents the lowest degree of truth, truth that has very little of genuine truth remaining but is instead mostly appearances and half-truths. In itself, sour wine or vinegar is acceptable to the Lord, as we shall see in a moment, but when gall was mixed in, it was unacceptable, and He could not drink it because gall, from its bitterness, represents truth mixed with the falsity of evil. (See AE 519:2)
      3. Each and every thing in the Gospels respecting the Lord’s passion, signifies the state of the church at that time in relation to the Lord and the Word; for the Lord was the Word because He was Divine truth; and as the Jews had treated the Word, or Divine truth, so they treated the Lord.
        1. Their giving to the Lord “vinegar mixed with gall,” (MAT 27:34) which was also called “wine mingled with myrrh,” (MAR 15:23) signified the quality of the Divine truth from the Word with the Jewish nation, namely, that it was mingled with the falsity of evil, and thus altogether falsified and adulterated, therefore He would not drink it. (AE 519:2)
        2. The Lord had come to the Jewish Church to bring it new truth to revive it, but that Church rejected Him in favor of those customs and traditions that favored the loves of self and the world, and so, because they had refused Him, He turned away from them and established a new Church.
          1. The nature of that new church is revealed when the Lord was offered a drink of sour wine (or vinegar) for a second time.
  3. A study of the internal sense of these passages reveals that the Lord’s acceptance of the vinegar contains two major representations.
    1. The first is that the vinegar given on a hyssop reed signified the kind of falsity that existed among the gentiles, a falsity that was from ignorance of the truth, in which there was yet something good and useful.
      1. The gentiles were not living strictly according to the Ten Commandments, but there were some who were living a moral life based on those truths they did know, and these, because in their hearts they wanted to do what was right, and in spite of their ignorance, tried to live well, and were those with whom the Lord could establish the Christian Church in conjunction with a small remnant from the Jewish Church.
      2. What made this drink acceptable, was the fact that it was given to Him on a hyssop reed, for a hyssop reed signifies the purification of falsity. This tells us that it was not all gentiles who were acceptable, and among whom the Christian Church would be established, but rather just those who were “upright,” or good in heart, and who, when given the opportunity, would purify their lives of any evils they could see. (See AR 410)
    2. The second major representation of the Lord’s acceptance of the vinegar is a prediction that the new Church which He was establishing to replace the Jewish Church, would not be pure but that in the coming church there would be no genuine truth, but truth mixed with falsities, such as there is with those who separate faith from charity or truth from good (AE 386); for this is what “vinegar” signifies.
      1. Clearly, these passages from the Word are telling us about the kinds of behavior that are and are not acceptable in the sight of the Lord.
    3. Those of us who wish to enter His kingdom upon the completion of our allotted years in this world should pay careful attention to His teachings on the matter.
      1. We know that if we are sincere, and trying to do what is right and helpful, even if we do what is wrong by accident, the Lord looks into our hearts, sees the good intention there, and accepts us.
        1. Sour wine is better than no wine at all.
  4. But what is not acceptable to Him is the bitterness of gall.
    1. Gall is introduced into the wine of our life through the deliberate falsification of the truth:
      1. for example, through mocking or making fun of the truths taught in the Word;
      2. for twisting the truth of the Word around so that it appears to justify what we know to be wrong, but that we wish to do anyhow;
      3. by using fragments of truth from the Word to condemn, to vilify, and harm others;
      4. by deriding anything that disagrees with our own loves or our own particular understanding of the Word,
      5. by holding to the belief that there can only be one possible way to understand any issue, and that is our own way.
    2. What we do to the truth reveals the true state of our internals in the same way that crucifixion of the Lord represented the attitude of the Pharisees and elders of the Jewish Church towards the Word.
      1. In this context, it is useful for us to reflect on the course of our own lives, and ask ourselves where we would have stood on that Friday when the crowd refused to accept Pilate’s judgment that Jesus was innocent, and responded by shouting “Crucify Him!” all the louder.
      2. The thought of where we ourselves might have stood may be uncomfortable, but it is useful if it will lead us to remove the bitterness of gall, the falsity of evil, from our spiritual lives.
  5. There is a bright spot in all this. The Lord’s highest love is the salvation of the human race, and even the passion of the cross could not make Him forget His love for us, could not distract Him from His purpose of bringing us the message of hope and forgiveness.
    1. Just before the death of His body, He said, I thirst (JOH 19:28). The Writings tell us that this means that He came into the world for the purpose of saving mankind, and from His Divine love He willed and desired the salvation of the human race, and so He drank the vinegar, signifying His acceptance of all those who sought to do what was right in spite of their ignorance of the truth. (See AE 519:2)
    2. While we yet live, there is hope that we can change, that we can see the evil and falsity in our lives and remove them, with the Lord’s help. The hyssop, on which the Lord received the vinegar, represents the purification that we must go through if we are to shun evils and falsities and be prepared for heaven.
      1. Hyssop represents the function of external truths, like those found in the sense of the letter of the Word, the Lord’s Prayer and especially the Ten Commandments, as a means of purification.
        1. External truths are used in this way because it is only by means of external truths that we see and recognize evils within ourselves. When we find ourselves daydreaming about something that is not ours, it takes the simple, direct, and powerful external truth, “Thou shalt not steal” to break that sphere and return us back to a state of order.
        2. This works in a way that nothing else does because it is the Lord Himself who reminds us of these simple, basic, truths at critical moments in our lives, and it is He who insinuates a horror for the evil at the same time.
        3. The effect of this is that when the same kind of thought comes again, the feeling of horror returns with it, and so we are able to refrain from the evil more easily because we feel an aversion for it (See AC 7918).
  6. Even as the Lord was suffering on the cross, His thoughts were on us, on how we could be saved from the evils which afflict our lives.
    1. We need to remember that the purpose of Easter was not the sacrifice itself, but the effect that the sacrifice would have on our eternal, spiritual lives, the fact that after making the sacrifice, He rose from the dead by His own power to become the King of Heaven.
    2. As we reflect on the Lord’s sacrifice for the sake of our spiritual lives, we should also think of what we can do to return His selfless love, to be loyal citizens of His Heavenly Kingdom.
      1. Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. {2} And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. {3} His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. {4} And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. {5} But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. {6} “He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. {7} “And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.” (Mat 28:1-7) AMEN.


1st Lesson:  PSA 22:1-18
My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning? {2} O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent. {3} But You are holy, Enthroned in the praises of Israel. {4} Our fathers trusted in You; They trusted, and You delivered them. {5} They cried to You, and were delivered; They trusted in You, and were not ashamed. {6} But I am a worm, and no man; A reproach of men, and despised by the people. {7} All those who see Me ridicule Me; They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, {8} “He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him; Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!” {9} But You are He who took Me out of the womb; You made Me trust while on My mother’s breasts. {10} I was cast upon You from birth. From My mother’s womb You have been My God. {11} Be not far from Me, For trouble is near; For there is none to help. {12} Many bulls have surrounded Me; Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me. {13} They gape at Me with their mouths, Like a raging and roaring lion. {14} I am poured out like water, And all My bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It has melted within Me. {15} My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death. {16} For dogs have surrounded Me; The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; {17} I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. {18} They divide My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots.  Amen.

2nd Lesson:  John 19:17-30

And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, {18} where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center. {19} Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. {20} Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. {21} Therefore the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘He said, “I am the King of the Jews.”‘ ” {22} Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” {23} Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. {24} They said therefore among themselves, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,” that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: “They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots.” Therefore the soldiers did these things. {25} Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. {26} When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” {27} Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. {28} After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst!” {29} Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. {30} So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.  Amen.

3rd Lesson:  AE 627:15

[We read] in the Gospels :-
They placed a reed in the Lord’s right hand, and afterwards they took the reed and smote His head with it (MAT xxvii. 29, 30; Mark xv. 19);
They put a sponge upon a reed and gave Him vinegar to drink (MAT xxvii. 48; Mark xv. 36).
Those who do not know the spiritual sense of the Word may believe that these and the many other things related of the Lord’s passion involve nothing more than common modes of mockery; as that “they set a crown of thorns upon His head;” that “they parted His garments among them, but not the tunic;” that “they bent the knee before Him” for the sake of mocking Him; and also here, that “they placed a reed in His right hand, and afterwards smote His head with it;” and again, that “they filled a sponge with vinegar, or myrrhed wine, and set it upon a reed, and gave Him to drink.”
But let it be known that all things that are related of the Lord’s passion signify the mocking at Divine truth, and thus the falsification and adulteration of the Word; since the Lord, when He was in the world, was the Divine truth itself, which in the church is the Word; and because the Lord was then the Divine truth, He permitted the Jews to treat Him altogether as they were treating the Divine truth or the Word by falsifying and adulterating it. For they applied all things of the Word to their own loves, and derided every truth that disagreed with their loves, as they did the Messiah Himself, because He did not, according to their explanation and religion, become king over the whole world, and exalt them into glory above all peoples and nations.  Amen.

Copyright General Church of the New Jerusalem, 1982 – 2008
Author, Rev. James P. Cooper, M. Div.
Page last modified October 21, 2008

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