Archive for August, 2011

The Question of Alcohol

August 6, 2011

Should a minister or a missionary, or indeed a Christian, drink alcohol?  For missionaries to Muslim countries the answer perhaps is clear.  Alcohol is forbidden in those lands.  Nor does the Bible appear to give a definite answer at first glance.  But there are principles taught in the Bible which are meant to influence our behaviour.

However, before we examine the Scriptures let us take into account the modern situation, for it is very different from Bible times in several respects.

In the first place, as far as beverages containing alcohol are concerned, in Bible times there was basically just wine and a form of beer.  Today there are many alcoholic beverages including very strong spirits and for many young people a tempting step down to the abuse of other substances, in other words, stronger drugs.  The possibilities of becoming seriously inebriated are very much greater.

Secondly, modern civilization has produced many potentially dangerous situations, such as driving motor vehicles and planes, etc.  In Bible times if a man got drunk and mounted his donkey he would be unlikely to cause a serious accident, but a driver of any motorized vehicle today who is under the influence of alcohol can become guilty of manslaughter within seconds of starting to drive.  The modern situation is therefore much more complicated.

Thirdly, modern science has discovered much more about alcohol and the human body than could have been known in Bible times.  In a programme shown on BBC television doctors stated that alcohol can cause many diseases.[1]  It is now classified as a drug, and affects the brain and bodily functions in a variety of ways.  It is for these practical reasons as well as Bible teaching that should influence our decision in this matter.

Again, before we look at the Bible evidence, let us remember that in Bible times, apart from water, milk and freshly squeezed fruit juice, wine was about the only common beverage available.  Water, perhaps, would not always be safe or available, hence Paul’s advice to Timothy, who was having stomach trouble, in 1 Timothy5:23.  But it is very important to remember that several ways of preventing grape juice from fermenting were known.  The simplest and most common was simply to boil it.  This killed the yeast.  If the resulting thickened liquid was then stored in a new wineskin, i.e. one not tainted with yeast cells, it would remain unfermented for a long time.  To use it people would squeeze a portion into a cup and dilute it with water.

Now when we turn to the Bible we must consider the various words used.

Old Testament.

There are two Hebrew words used for wine in the Old Testament.  The most common word is yayin.  This word is used about 140 times to indicate both fermented and unfermented wine.  It is used of fermented wine in such

passages as Genesis 9:20-21; 19:32-33; 1 Samuel 25:36-37; Prov. 23:30-31.  The same word is used for the sweet unfermented juice of the grape.  It is also used of the juice as it is pressed from the grape, as for example in Isaiah 16:10 and Jeremiah 48:33.  Jeremiah  refers to juice still in the grape as yayin.

The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901) states: ‘Fresh wine before fermentation was called yayin-mi-gat [wine of the vat] (accessed via the internet). [2]

The other relevant Hebrew word is tirosh, a word meaning ‘new wine’ or ‘harvest wine.’  Brown, Driver, Briggs (A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, accessed via the internet) states that tirosh means ‘fresh or new wine, freshly pressed wine’.  Tirosh occurs 38 times in the OT.  It rarely refers to fermented wine (but cf. Hos. 4:11), but nearly always to the unfermented juice of the grape, such as the juice that is still in the grapes (Isaiah 65:8) or  juice from newly harvested grapes (Deut. 11:14; Prov. 3:10; Joel 2:24).   The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901) states that ‘‘tirosh’ includes all kinds of sweet juices and must, and does not include fermented wine.’

(3) In addition to these two words translated ‘wine’ there is another Hebrew word that occurs 23 times in the Old Testament.  This is the word shekar, usually translated as ‘beer’ (e.g. 1Samuel1:15) or ‘fermented drink (Numbers 6:3).  This word seems to refer most often to a fermented beverage perhaps made from palm juice, pomegranates, apples or dates.

 New Testament

The  Greek word for wine is oinos.  This can refer both to fermented and to unfermented grape juice.  The use of this word to refer to unfermented grape juice is testified to in various pre-Christian and early Christian writers.  But this fact can be seen within the Bible itself, because in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) oinos is used to translate both yayin (a term referring to both fermented and unfermented grape juice) and tirosh (unfermented juice).  The context normally indicates which is intended.  But this is not always the case.  So, for example, the oft quoted ‘use a little wine for your stomach’s sake’ (1 Timothy5:23) may refer to either.

What about the Lord’s Supper?  One fact that surprises many people who assume that fermented wine was used in the institution of the Lord’s Supper is that nowhere in the New Testament is the term ‘wine’ used in connection with the Lord’s Table!  Consistently, when the contents of the cup are referred to, the phrase ‘fruit of the vine’ is used.  Otherwise, the word ‘cup’ is employed.  That could leave the matter undetermined.  However, there are other considerations.

The Lord’s Supper was instituted when Jesus and his disciples were eating the Pass­over. The Passover law in Ex 12:14-20 prohibited, during Passover week, the presence and use of leaven or yeast (Ex12:15).  This is because leaven symbolized corruption and sin (cf. Mt 16:6, 12; l Cor. 5:7-8).  There is an interesting quotation in The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904 edition: ‘According to the Synoptic Gospels, it would appear that on the Thursday evening of the last week of his life Jesus with his disciples entered Jerusalem in order to eat the Passover meal with them in the sacred city; if so, the wafer and the wine of … the communion service then instituted by him as a memorial would be the unleavened bread and the unfermented wine of the Seder service’ (see article ‘Jesus of Nazareth: The Last Supper,’ in The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904 edition, accessed on the internet).

Having established that in the Bible the term ‘wine’ refers to both fermented and unfermented juice, and that only the context can (normally) tell the reader which is meant, we can now examine some of those passages which clearly refer to fermented drink.

In Genesis 6:9 Noah was noted as a righteous and blameless man, yet by chapter9:21he was drunk, incapable, and manifesting uninhibited behaviour.  Genesis 19:30-38 tells of the shameful incident in which Lot’s daughters got him drunk and then committed incest with him.

In Genesis 27:25 Jacob was able to deceive Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, and it seems that wine was involved to help in the deceit.  In Leviticus 10:9 priests were forbidden to drink when on duty and this was a perpetual statute for all generations.

The Nazirites were to abstain from wine and strong drink.  In Deuteronomy21:20rebellion is expressed in gluttony and drunkenness.  In preparation for the birth of her extraordinary son, Samson’s mother was commanded not to drink wine (Judges 13:4, 7, 14).

The first chapter of Esther tells how the king wanted to show off his queen to the assembled nobles.  He called for her to come and exhibit herself, but she refused, so he dismissed her.  He had been drinking for seven days (Esther1:10).

The book of Proverbs, a book of wisdom, has many warnings about drinking.  In4:17it is related to violence (don’t we know about that in our modern age!); in 20:1 it mocks and brawls and those who get intoxicated lack wisdom.  Chapter23:21warns that drinking leads to poverty.  Verses 29 to 35 of the same chapter are an extended warning about the sorrow, contentions, complaining, wounds, red eyes, unsteadiness caused by drinking fermented wine, adding that it harms all who drink and is addictive.

The prophets issue many warnings about strong drink.  Isaiah utters woes against those who pursue it (5:11), and against those who boast in their ability to drink (5:22).  The prophet warns those who, instead of repenting, are careless and dissolute, that judgment will be inevitable (22:12-14), and exclaims that ‘strong drink is bitter to those who drink it’ (24:9).  It produces reeling, staggering, confusion, false spirituality and vomit! (28:7).  Spiritual blindness, sleepiness, and lack of understanding comes on those who drink (56:10-12).  Daniel and his companions refused the king’s wine and drank water instead, and were blessed in their stand (Daniel 1:8-17).  Hosea warns that wine takes away the understanding (4:11), and produces sickness (7:5).  Joel links wine with injustice and immorality (Joel 3:3), while Amos links it with the oppression of the poor and needy (Amos 4:1) and lack of concern for God’s people (6:6).  Habakkuk declared that wine produces proud and haughty behaviour (Hab. 2:5).  There is no doubt at all that the consistent testimony of the Old Testament is that fermented wine is bad news.

In the New Testament, there are various warnings.  In Romans13:13drunkenness is linked with sexual immorality.  The whole of Romans 14 is very pertinent to this matter, but two verses may encapsulate what our attitude should be.  Romans 14:13

‘Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.’

Romans 14:21

‘It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby your brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak.’

Our example is important.  Putting this matter in the form of a question, we may ask, ‘Does drinking alcohol cause some to stumble or be made weak?’  It certainly does.  Also in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul warns against using our freedom in a way that causes others to stumble.

1 Cor. 8:9:     ‘But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.’

1 Cor. 8:11‑12:     ‘And through your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? [12] But when you sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.’

If a minister just took a tiny drink of wine at a wedding or at Christmas, young people, or others, observing would not say, ‘the pastor only drinks a tiny amount occasionally,’ but would simply conclude, ‘the pastor drinks’.  Thus he could become the ruin of someone else.  For this reason alone the present writer  has been a life-long teetotaller.

But there are other considerations.  Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  (1 Cor. 6:19, 20).  We should do our utmost to keep them pure, and that surely includes doing nothing that would ruin their health.  Alcohol is notorious for the many health problems it causes.  So the best plan, it seems to this writer, because of the many warnings of Scripture, because of the importance of our example, because of modern dangers, because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, is to avoid it altogether.


[1] ‘Alcohol: More Harm than Heroin’, Panorama, BBC 1, 12 October 1987.

[2]  ‘Wine’ in The Jewish Encyclopedia, at: