FIRST-PERSON: Concerning alcoholic beverages

Paige Patterson


References to wine are frequent in both the Old and New Testaments. The Masoretic text of the Old Testament employs the Hebrew word “yayin” in the vast majority of cases—141 times to be exact. A handful of other words are translated “wine” but not with enough frequency to matter. The Greek term “oinos” is used predominantly in the New Testament, and coming through Latin is transliterated into English as “wine.” The Greek term “gleukos” (literally, “sweet wine”) is sometimes used.

The wines varied in kind and strength. However, four basic varieties may be distinguished, all of which are described indiscriminately by “oinos”:

(1) Freshly pressed grape juice, which had been stomped out by the, hopefully, clean feet of a local family in their private wine vats, or else crushed in grape presses of stone. In the climate of Palestine, fermentation began within 24 hours, so pure unfermented grape juice was available only for a brief time.

(2) The initial, violent, foaming fermentation process lasted about one week. The wine was then transferred to new wineskins for 40 days of further fermentation. The heavier matter, “lees” or “dregs,” would settle to the bottom, and then the wine would be drawn off, providing the daily drink.

(3) Sometimes the wine would be left on the lees to ferment still further. This provided a real knock-out punch, one evidently imbibed by only a few since it often turned insipid and unbearable (Jeremiah 48:11).

(4) Wine frequently was diluted with water or herbs or both. On the cross, Jesus was offered such a concoction of cheap, low-grade wine, which He refused.

The attitude of Scripture

In strict fairness, one must acknowledge that the ancients, however noble, imbibed without reluctance. Evidently the prophets and the apostles did not view this as wrong, so long as it was a small glass of wine (see varieties Nos. 1, 2 or 4 mentioned above) taken with the noon or evening meal. These wines, of course, were locally produced.

At this point, however, a significant difference exists between what is permissible and what is best for the child of God. In addition to the constant clear identification of drunkenness as a highly disreputable and debilitating sort of sin, please note the following:

— The Nazarite (one who was especially separated unto God) was prohibited from the use of wine altogether (see Numbers 6:3; Judges 13:4-7, 13-14).

— In Jeremiah 35:1-10, the Rechabites are highly commended by God and by Jeremiah for their total abstinence.

— John the Baptist, touted by Jesus as “the greatest born among men,” was a total abstainer. He was evidently patterning his lifestyle after that of the Nazarite Law and thereby expressing God’s prescription for what is best for a godly man. In fact, the angelic announcement to Zacharias prohibited John the Baptist from using any wine (Luke 1:15). Here also is noted the first specific contrast between the fullness of the Spirit and the use of wine. This contrast occurs again at Pentecost in Acts 2 and again in Ephesians 5:18.

In the three instances outlined above, the very significant question “why?” must be broached. Apparently, of the three categories given—prohibition, acceptability and God’s ideal—the above situations fall under the ideal of complete abstinence and hence appear to be most acceptable to God.

To this evidence must be added Scripture’s numerous warnings against strong drink. Here are a few:

— Strong drink is deceitful.

“Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whosoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).

— Strong drink is prohibited for those in leadership.

“It is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes intoxicating drink” (Proverbs 31:4-5).

— Strong drink has a side-effect: weakness in judgment.

“But they also have erred through wine, and through intoxicating drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through intoxicating drink, they are swallowed up by wine, they are out of the way through intoxicating drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment” (Isaiah 28:7).

— Strong drink may dull the senses so that embarrassment comes—even indecent exposure.

“Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbor, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk, that you may look on his nakedness! You are filled with shame instead of glory, you also drink! And be exposed as uncircumcised! The cup of the Lord’s right hand will be turned against you, and utter shame will be on your glory” (Habakkuk 2:15-16).

— Another result of strong drink is overindulgence.

“Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may follow intoxicating drink; who continue until night, till wine inflames them!” (Isaiah 5:11).

Some texts to be explained by abstainers

In Jesus’ miracle at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11), one can neither affirm with certainty that Jesus turned the water into a non-intoxicating wine nor that He drank no wine Himself. But the following evidences cannot be easily bypassed:

— The text nowhere indicates that Jesus participated. Either way, the argument is from silence.

— The governor of the feast obviously was able to identify “good wine” by tasting it, indicating that there was no intoxication on his part. On the other hand, by the governor’s own testimony, by the last stages of such a feast, participants generally had their senses sufficiently dulled so that they could not differentiate between good and bad wine. Was this feast different? Is this why Jesus agreed to attend?

— From a standpoint of logic, the “oinos” that Jesus produced was more likely pure, rather than fermented, grape juice, since that which comes from the Creator’s hand is inevitably pure. Also, there was no time for fermentation to take place subsequent to the miracle. Furthermore, the ancients always acknowledged that the best “oinos” was the unfermented “oinos,” i.e., that which came from the initial mixing of the grapes.

— The accusation that Jesus, in contrast to John, was a socialite, a glutton, and a winebibber is manifestly void of foundation (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Because Jesus enjoyed social contacts and openly mingled with the people, some assumed that He had a propensity for food and drink. If Jesus had been a winebibber, He must have also been guilty of gluttony, which is clearly identified as a sin. In fact, Jesus was neither, and again there is no evidence that He drank “oinos” or anything other than the fresh, natural fruit of the vine.

Paul advised Timothy to imbibe a little wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Timothy 5:23). But note the following:

— The purpose here clearly is medicinal. Timothy was obviously not in full health. In the absence of more advanced medications, this command is certainly understandable. Furthermore, in the case of no superior medication, wine might be justified as medication, but only if taken as “a little wine.”

— Furthermore, the clear case of religious abstinence from wine, i.e., total abstinence, is often overlooked. Timothy is drinking only water. Then Paul says he needs the wine for medical purposes. What is to be said of the reason for Timothy’s abstinence to this point?

Some added observations

— In the accounts of the Lord’s Supper in the Gospels and in 1 Corinthians, the word “wine” (oinos) is mysteriously absent. The disciples took “the cup” and drank the “fruit of the vine.” The absence of the term “oinos” is curious, to say the least.

— Wine has one, unqualified, good use in Scripture, and that is as a metaphor for the wrath of God. This metaphor is utilized in both Old and New Testaments (see Revelation 19:15). The “oinos” of God’s wrath is unmixed or undiluted, fresh from the wine press, unhindered by fermentation of any kind. Hence, purity of judgment is emphasized.

— The bishop (pastor) is to be free from wine (1 Timothy 3:3). One would presume that this admonition, at least in part, is for an example. If so, here again the ideal would be total abstinence for all who make up the body of Christ, i.e., the church.

— For the believer to say, “Let me get as close to sin as I can without being guilty,” indicates a strange mentality indeed! The object should rather be to stay as far away as one can from even the appearance of evil, and as close to Christ as possible (1 Thessalonians 5:22).

The following conclusions may be safely drawn:

(1) Many of the most excruciating and debilitating events of history are associated with wine. The Bible has almost no good word about it and, in fact, usually associates tragedy and sin with the use of wine. For example, after a life of exemplary behavior, Noah became a stumbling block to his own children, necessitating a curse on his grandson, as a result of wine. This first mention of wine in Scripture is bad.

(2) To whatever extent wine was used by Jesus, clearly it was in small quantities and either at meals or for medicinal purposes. Certainly no tragic industry was supported by the selling and buying of wine. This latter point is crucial for the believer. A believer in no way can justify drinking if thereby he is contributing to the sustenance of an industry responsible for two-thirds of the violent deaths, two-fifths of all divorces, one-third of all crime, and untold millions of dollars in damage to private property. Such would violate all laws in the Bible and especially the Corinthian principles outlined below:

(a) The effect of your choices and actions on others.

“Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).

(b) The effect of your choices and actions on you.

“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful: all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23).

(c) The effect of your choices and actions on the Kingdom of God.

“Therefore, whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Let us return to the three categories—the prohibited, the acceptable and God’s ideal. God originally intended monogamy. For a while, He tolerated polygamy, even working mightily through such men as Solomon and Abraham despite their polygamous marriages. But with the final revelation of God in Christ, polygamy was once again clearly prohibited. The noticeable absence of any mention of wine prior to Noah might indicate that men, in their pristine state, were not drawn to wine. In any case, the fuller revelation in Christ, plus the development of superior medications and purer drinking substances, render the whole subject passé for the believer.

Even if a Christian wished to demur from the idea that to take a drink is sin, strict biblical evidence establishes that imbibing strong drink is not God’s ideal for the believer. The question then becomes: Can it be anything less than sin for a believer who is genuinely grateful for the atoning power of Christ in his life to pursue anything other than the highest—God’s ideal—the best that he can be for Christ?