Wine in the Word
Wine in the Word: A Biblical Use of Alcoholic Beverages
Wet History: The Abuse of Wine and Modernity
The problem of alcohol abuse has been with us since Noah inadvertently discovered the potent effects. Since then we have also known many emphatic warnings against excess (Eph 5:18, 1Tim. 3:8, Titus. 1:7). The proverbial word of wisdom is clear in Proverbs 20:1: “Wine is a mocker, Strong drink is a brawler, And whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”
Less known to Protestant Christians, the Apocryphal book of Sirach provides an interesting proverbial comment on wine from within the framework of the Biblical culture.
Do not try to prove your strength by wine-drinking, for wine has destroyed many. As the furnace tests the work of the smith, so wine tests hearts when the insolent quarrel. Wine is very life to human beings if taken in moderation. What is life to one who is without wine? It has been created to make people happy. Wine drunk at the proper time and in moderation is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul. Wine drunk to excess leads to bitterness of spirit, to quarrels and stumbling. Drunkenness increases the anger of a fool to his own hurt, reducing his strength and adding wounds. Do not reprove your neighbor at a banquet of wine, and do not despise him in his merrymaking...(31:26-31)
Good use and wicked abuse are there. Recognizing that abusing wine has the potential for devastating consequences, many Christians today see the solution in prohibition — there is no good use of beverage alcohol.
Surveying Christian history, it appears the view that wine or other forms of alcoholic beverages are inherently sinful to drink and enjoy is a distinctly modernist problem. Within the general Protestant view we note that Luther said, “Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object that is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we prohibit and abolish women? The sun, moon, and stars have been worshiped. Shall we pluck them out of the sky?” Calvin wrote in his Genevan Catechism: “But why is the body of our Lord figured by bread and His blood by wine? A. . . . by wine the hearts of men are gladdened, their strength recruited, and the whole man strengthened, so by the blood of our Lord the same benefits are received by our souls.”
In our American religious culture and history, despite a sharp turn in the last century, there is a surprising approval of beverage alcohol in the earliest days of the colonies. It might even be asserted with some historical basis that those on the Mayflower settled where they did because of the lack of beer. One Mayflower passenger recorded that on December 19, 1620, “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.” It has become well known that “New Amsterdam” (New York) and Philadelphia became brewing centers of the New Colonies in the late 17th century. Also, many founding fathers owned breweries, such as William Penn, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison, George Washington, and of course, Samuel Adams. Representative of American Puritans, Increase Mather wrote, “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the drunkard is from the Devil” (Woe to Drunkards, 1673).
Nevertheless, since the days of the Temperance movement in the late 19th century, Bible believing Christians have been characterized as against the use of alcoholic beverages. It is important to note the relation of this movement to the Church. The Anti-Saloon League collected 5,000,000 pledges of abstinence “mainly through church Sunday Schools.” This kind of activity led eventually to the Eighteenth Amendment, or as it is more commonly known, “Prohibition.” In 1933 Prohibition was repealed, but it has ever been in effect in most evangelical churches. It appears that evangelical modernity’s answer to abuse is disuse and full prohibition.
This is so not only in the culture of evangelicalism, but also in the sacramental use of wine. The use of wine in communion is an alleged stumbling block for many. But once again this seems to be a distinctively modernist outlook. As Jeffrey Meyers notes, “No one ever even dreamed of using grape juice in the church’s communion until the late 19th century in America. Wine has been used in the Lord’s Supper by all orthodox Christians (Eastern and Western) until the 19th and 20th century temperance movement influenced many churches in America to change.”
The Dry Church: The Church’s Views on Alcohol
Three main positions have emerged in the (evangelical) Church on the use of alcoholic beverages. These have been labeled, the Prohibitionist (there is no acceptable beverage use of alcohol), Abstentionist (a person abstains without condemning other lawful uses), and the Moderationist (beverage use of alcohol and a prohibition of drunkenness).
Since the Church (evangelical) in view here confesses a high view of Scripture, these views center on the dispute about the nature of wine in Scripture. One of the critical questions is whether the substance ordinarily referred to and consumed as a common beverage was similar to what we know today as wine. Many noted scholars such as William Reynolds, Norman Geisler, Samuel Bacchiocchi (and a whole host of evangelical scholars) deny that the beverage of the godly in Scriptural times is similar in alcoholic content to wine today. And the most strident articulation of this is what one writer, representative of many says, “All the alcohols are poisons.” This leads to the assertions that Jesus could never commend poison or make poison, etc.
Others scholars and evangelical leaders, while not coming to the strictest prohibitionist position, argue in light of the times, that even moderate consumption of alcohol by a Christian is unwise, if not sinful. The argument is usually developed from Romans 14:21 — the weaker brother passage. This form of argument maintains that the choice of fermented beverage was limited and by modern standards fairly weak. In Biblical times, no distilled liquors existed (so it is said), this being a contribution of the medieval Arabs. Wine was purposely diluted to prevent drunkenness, could only be rarely consumed, only available to the rich, and so forth. In short, there was minimal drink and minimal alcohol, except for “strong drink” which they say is flatly condemned everywhere in Scripture. In contrast, it is argued, today there is relatively easy access to beer, wine, etc. Given the increased alcohol by volume and the widespread availability, the net effect of the argument is to prohibit all use of beverage alcohol.
While most prohibitionist arguments against beverage alcohol are grounded lexically or ethically (Rom. 14), at least one writer has something of a theological position:
The Christian people are a Royal Priesthood and it has been a standing law that Priesthood abstain from alcohol. Abstinence is a sign of spirituality. Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet, knew this when she refused to partake of alcohol so that she might receive the spirit of God’s servant (1 Samuel 1:11,15). The words of the prophet Habakkuk still apply: “Woe unto him who gives drink to his neighbours...!” (Habakkuk 2:15).
The Abstentionist position most often builds a case that the individual must needs abstain, even if others may partake. Often the Romans 14 principles of weaker brethren are employed to make the argument extend beyond an individual choice. The Abstentionist position is most often taken by those who have stumbled in abuse in the past, especially those who take on the dubious or at least debatable label, “alcoholic.” Virtually every treatment center which recognizes such a label, advocates complete abstention for “alcoholics,” if not for everyone. The argument moves in this direction: since there are such devastating consequences from alcohol abuse, then even the moderate use is unwise.
Wet or Dry? The Bible
The sheer abundance of the use of the idea of wine, as well as other intoxicating beverages, forces Christians to consider it. There are a variety of words used for the English term, wine. Wine’ occurs 236 times in the NASB, 214 times in the NIV, and 230 times in the NRSV, The common Hebrew word for wine is yayin, from a root meaning “to boil up,” “to be in a ferment.” Others derive it from a root meaning “to tread out,” and hence the juice of the grape trodden out. The most common Greek word for wine is oinos, and the Latin vinun. In (Act 2:13 ) the word gleukos, is used and often translated, “new wine,” or “sweet wine.” But given the context, it was also intoxicating. Peter was accused of being drunk on this substance.
“Strong drink” (Heb., shekar) is also referred to often (Jud. 13:4, Lk. 1:15, Is. 5:11, Mic. 2:11). It was distilled from corn, honey, or dates. The effects of the use of strong drink are referred to in (Ps. 107:27, Is. 24:20, 49:26, 51:17-22). Its use is often said to be prohibited, citing e.g., Prov. 20:1. But consider this text from Deuteronomy 14:
And you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the first-born of your herd and your flock, in order that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24 “And if the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you, 25 then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. 26 “And you may spend the money for whatever your heart desires, for oxen, or sheep, or wine (yayin), or strong drink (shekar), or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.
Looking at the text, it is clear that in this passage, no form of intoxicating beverage is off limits, even in the festival celebrations “in the presence of the Lord.”
Yes, but that was the Old Testament – so it is sometimes said. There is still the argument that the truly righteous should abstain. Sometimes this is even held as a new covenant change, a dispensational change: “New Covenant Christians are not to drink alcoholic beverages.” The example often cited is John the Baptist. Luke 1:15 says of him, “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.” The example of John is cited as a demonstration that those following him should likewise by dry. But John’s case is exceptional and follows the purpose of the Nazirite vow. The word nazir means separation to a particular task. In many cases it is the prosecution of holy war. Thus, as Peter Leithart notes,
the Nazirite was a temporary priest consecrated to carry on holy war. The Nazirite's uncut hair points to his special consecration to the Lord (Num. 6:5). The Nazirite's abstinence from alcohol should also be seen in this context. Wine has a sabbatical-eschatological character; the Nazirite was forbidden to drink wine, to rest from his labors and to enjoy their fruits, until his task was complete, until the holy war was won.
It is important to see John’s distinctive calling in this way. In Acts 13:23-25, Paul explains that John’s purpose was directed to a specific audience and he had specific mission. He was “finishing his course.” In these distinctive aspects of his calling we need not follow him. We are not called in the fullness of the new covenant to live in the desert and eat locusts or dress like John, neither should we take on his abstentions for the accomplishment of his mission.
It is quite striking that on the matter of drinking, people will follow John the Baptist but not Jesus.
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' 34 "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' 35 "But wisdom is justified by all her children." (Luke 7:33-35)
In this text the parallel is amazing and makes perfectly clear that Jesus drank intoxicating beverages: John ate no bread and drank no wine; Jesus comes eating (bread) and drinking (wine). So much so, they said Jesus was a “glutton and a winebibber (drunkard).” Of course the accusations of sinful abuse were wrong and wicked. But it is Christ himself who says he “has come eating and drinking.”
This is at the root of it, What Would Jesus Drink? Some Christians therefore claim higher standards than the Scriptures command, in which case they are not “higher” at all. Jesus actions example the standard of righteousness and His law forms the Standard.
Therefore, surveying all the Biblical information several assertions are unquestionable:
While Biblical words are used variously, no distinction between alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine is made. The substance of what we consider as alcoholic beverages is manifestly present in Biblical cultures and widely available. It was not considered inherently sinful for consumption, but was used as a sacrifice (Ex. 29:38, 40; Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:5, 7, 10; 28:7) and every believer was required by God to offer wine as a necessary part of the sacrificial system.
Wine is commended by God and used in moderation by the people of God in the OT is not “grape juice,” but alcoholic wine and beer (Gen. 9:21; Ps. 104:14-15; Eccl. 9:7). God even promises to reward obedience with the blessing of the abundance of wine (Dt. 7:13; 11:14; Prov. 3:10; the abundance of “grain and wine” (Dt. 11:14; 2 Ki. 18:32).
The use of drink is to be with giving thanks to God and without abusing God’s good gift (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-5). The three examples of abstinence in the Old Testament (kings, priests, and Nazirites) were temporary restrictions.
The new covenant transformation of OT practice moves wine from the outside of God’s special presence in the tabernacle and temple to the most holy representation of Christ’s saving blood. While no Israelite laymen ever drank wine in the special presence of God, everyone in the priesthood of believers is required to do so today in the Eucharist (Matt. 26:29; 1Cor. 11:20). And it is clear that the substance used in the Eucharist is in fact alcoholic. Wine is the meaning of “fruit of the vine” (Matt. 26:29, Luke 22:18) in the Last Supper. Even more, 1 Corinthians 11:21 makes this clear. “For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.”
The Biblical theology is strong: Bread and wine are typological of the definitive New Covenant meal (Abraham and the King of Salem, Gen. 14:18, etc.). These require what God provides and the maturation of time. The making of water to wine by our Lord is representative of the new covenant fermentation of the OT shadows into a fine quality wine (John 2, Mark 2:22). This is a fitting symbol for the maturation of God’s kingdom from Old to New Covenant. The New is but a transformed or fermented Old. What the Old Covenant believers patiently waited for has now arrived and we are to joyfully partake of the finished product (Heb. 11:40).
Cultural Observations on Abuse and Use
Truly, the cause of prohibition and “temperance” in America is a cure worse than the disease. This has been confirmed by cross-cultural research. In an article on “The Antidote to Alcohol Abuse: Sensible Drinking Messages,” Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky of Harvard Medical School write:
Cross-cultural research (medical as well as behavioral) shows that a no-misuse message about alcohol has sustained advantages over a no-use (abstinence) message. Cultures that accept responsible social drinking as a normal part of life have less alcohol abuse than cultures that fear and condemn alcohol. Moreover, moderate-drinking cultures benefit more from the well-documented cardioprotective effects of alcohol. Positive socialization of children begins with parental models of responsible drinking, but such modeling is often undermined by prohibitionist messages in school. Indeed, alcohol phobia in the US is so extreme that physicians are afraid to advise patients about safe levels of drinking.
In this article, the writers document several features of dry cultures. The comparison is between countries that have accepted a strong “temperance message” - e.g. prohibitionist or abstentionist views which turn out to be Norway, Sweden, U.S., U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Iceland vs “non-temperance nations” — Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Netherlands. Several surprising facts arise from these studies.
Temperance countries drink more distilled spirits; nontemperance countries drink more wine. Wine lends itself to mild, regular consumption with meals, whereas "hard liquor" is often consumed more intensively, drunk on weekends and in bars.
Temperance countries have six to seven times as many Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) groups per capita as nontemperance countries. Temperance countries, despite having much lower overall alcohol consumption, have more people who feel they have lost control of their drinking. There are often phenomenal differences in A.A. membership which are exactly opposed to the amount of drinking in a country.
Temperance countries have a higher death rate from atherosclerotic heart disease among men in a high-risk age group. Cross-cultural comparisons of health outcomes must be interpreted with caution because of the many variables, environmental and genetic, that may influence any health measure. Nonetheless, the lower death rate from heart disease in nontemperance countries seems to be related to the "Mediterranean" diet and lifestyle, including wine consumed regularly and moderately.
The writers then point out that these conclusions have even been extended “by finding similar divergences in drinking-related attitudes and behavior worldwide, including Native American cultures.”
Given a review of Scriptural information, what the Bible reveals ethically, culturally, and even redemptively, there is no prohibitionist mentality in Scripture. Wine is a good gift and everywhere such gifts are commended both in their nature and their effect: “And wine that makes glad the heart of man, Oil to make his face shine, And bread which strengthens man's heart” (Ps. 104:15).
What then can the Bible say to a world today of abuse and prohibitionists? The Word is true though every man be a liar. Biblically speaking, absolute prohibition even for a Christian with past stumbling is not allowed. The Eucharist (weekly, 1 Cor. 11:20), given a fully Biblical view, requires the drinking of “the fruit of the vine” which is wine (1Cor. 11:21). Strictly speaking then, only unbelievers are to be “teetotalers.”
In dealing with abuse, there are several critical pastoral actions involved. First, we must recognize the devastating effects of an unbiblical prohibitionist mentality. This approach despises the good gifts of God and ironically produces provocation to excess and abuse. This became clear to me upon hearing a good “Bible believing Baptist” say that if he drank one beer he was sinning just as much as if he had funneled the whole case. As this example show, a person can imbibe something stronger than Budweiser — a false doctrine. Namely, what goes into a man that defiles him (Matt. 15:11).
The Church is to hold a drunkard accountable to repentance, while at the same time, not permitting “good to be spoken of as evil” (Rom. 14:16). This is a sharp contrast to the therapy given today, even under Christian auspices. So often the solution to the problem is blanket prohibition and crusades against the “evils of alcohol.” Alcohol is poison.
The Church need not stoop to Modernity’s Snake Oil for therapy, and must repent of doing so. A believer, having fallen into gross sin may be suspended from the Table for a time. But upon confession and repentance must be re-admitted to wine! Perhaps when needed in an extreme case, a person may limit his or her drinking to only the wine of communion. In other cases some degree of limitation may be imposed for a time until maturity is reached in that area. Hebrews 5:14 indicates the trajectory to maturity, as “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
In a world where abuse is rampant, we must also remember the covenantally-corporate aspects of the application of the Word. It may be true that one generation raised by prohibitionists may stumble over the Biblical truth, but faithfulness to all the teaching of Scripture transforms generations to come.
As is indicated by the research above, this can have large-scale effect on the nations and cultures in view. The covenantal mind which grasps the transformational power of righteousness sees the connection of Church practice upon the larger culture here, as elsewhere. The Church in America, at least, holds the keys to forgiveness and to righteousness, but has dropped them among the forgotten placards which read, “Christian Women’s Temperance Union” and “Anti-Saloon League.” We must grasp them once again.
APPENDIX: Important Passages Commending the Use of Beverage Alcohol.
Gen. 14:18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High.
Deut. 14:23-26 “And you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the first-born of your herd and your flock, in order that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. “And if the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the LORD your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the LORD your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. “And you may spend the money for whatever your heart desires, for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.
Lev. 23:3 ‘Its grain offering shall be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, an offering made by fire to the LORD, for a sweet aroma; and its drink offering shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin.
Ps. 104:14-15 He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the service of man, That he may bring forth food from the earth, And wine that makes glad (Hebrew word: samach) the heart of man, Oil to make his face shine, And bread which strengthens man’s heart.
Ecclesiastes 10:19 A feast is made for laughter, And wine makes merry (Hebrew word: samach); But money answers everything.
Esther 1:10 On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry (Hebrew word: tobe) with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus,
Ecclesiastes 9:7 Go, eat your bread with joy, And drink your wine with a merry (Hebrew word: tobe) heart; For God has already accepted your works.
1 Cor. 11:20-22 Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.
Luke 7:31-34 And the Lord said, “To what then shall I liken the men of this generation, and what are they like? “They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, saying: ‘We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not weep.’ “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
John 2:7-10 Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, “Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.” And they took it. When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, “Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!”
1 Tim. 4:1-3 Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.