What many Christians do not know about alcohol

Probably not one in a thousand Christians knows what the Bible actually says about fermented grape juice, or ‘wine’. One reason is because in the Old Testament there are two main Hebrew words translated ‘wine.’ One means either fermented or unfermented grape juice, the other only means unfermented juice. This will be explained in detail below.

Another point that most Christians never seem to notice is that the actual word ‘wine’ is never used in any of the narratives about the Lord’s Supper! Of course we know that ‘wine’ was used, but what sort of wine was it? And could we guess why the Holy Spirit who inspired the words of Scripture, never used the Greek word oinos, translated ‘wine,’ in the Lord’s Table narratives? This point is also discussed below.

Should a Christian drink alcohol? For Christians living in Muslim countries the answer is clear. Alcohol is forbidden in those lands. A superficial reading of the Bible may seem not to give a clear answer. But deeper study throws more light upon the subject, and 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 fermented wine and a form of beer, though there was also unfermented wine. 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, drugs. The possibilities of becoming seriously inebriated are very much greater.

Second, 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. This is also why airline pilots are forbidden to drink while on duty, and are we not glad to know that? The modern situation is therefore much more complicated.

Third, 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. It is now classified as a drug, and affects the brain and bodily functions in a variety of ways.

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 would not always be safe, hence Paul’s advice to Timothy, who was having stomach trouble, in 1 Timothy 5:23. But what kind of wine was Paul recommending? Many people just do not give consideration to this matter. So we have the careless and inaccurate statement that ‘red wine is good for the heart.’ But it is not the alcohol that is of benefit, but an element in the redness of the grapes. So red grape juice has exactly the same benefit. Some people might remark that the juice of grapes begins quite quickly to ferment. So it does.

When I was at Bible college some of us students, in order to supplement the rather limited diet, made a fruit salad, put plenty of sugar on it and left it in a spare bedroom overnight for consumption the next day. When we went in the next day a distinctive aroma alerted us to the fact that it had begun to ferment!

Therefore it is very important to remember that throughout history, and (for our purpose in this article) in Bible times, several ways of preventing grape juice from fermenting were known (see Columella, On Agriculture, 12.29; cf. Cato, On Agriculture; and Pliny, Natural History, 14.11.83). 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.

  1. Old Testament.

There are mainly two Hebrew words translated ‘wine’ in the Old Testament, and another translated ‘strong drink’ or ‘beer’. There are two or three other words used once or twice with various meanings that do not affect our discussion.

(1) The most common word is yayin. This is a generic term 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. On the other hand the same word is used for the sweet unfermented juice of the grape. It is even used of the juice as it is pressed from the grape, as for example in Isaiah 16:10 and Jeremiah 48:33. In fact Jeremiah even 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] (Sanh. 70a).” The Encyclopedia Judaica (1971) states that the term yayin was used to refer to the juice of the grape in various stages including “the newly pressed wine prior to fermentation.”

(2) The other Hebrew word translated “wine” is tirosh, a word meaning “new wine” or “harvest wine”. Tirosh occurs 38 times in the OT. It never refers to fermented wine, but always to the unfermented juice of the grape, such as the juice that is still in the grape cluster (Isaiah 65:8) or sweet juice from newly harvested grapes (Deut. 11:14; Prov. 3:10; Joel 2:24). Brown, Driver, Briggs (A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament) states that tirosh means “must, fresh or new wine”. 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 for 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. 1Samuel 1:15) 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.

  1. New Testament

The main 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 generic 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 Timothy 5:23) 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! Nowhere! 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.  Could we surmise why the Holy Spirit did not use the word ‘wine’?  May it be because people would automatically assume that it was fermented?  The words used are ‘fruit of the vine’ and the Lord says he will drink it ‘new’ in the kingdom. However, there are other considerations.

It has been suggested that since in I Corinthians 11:21 some of the Corinthians got drunk, they must have become inebriated on communion wine! But that is a gratuitous assumption. For verse 20 plainly says that “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…” {emphasis added]. Did their supper consist of unleavened bread? Were their stomach’s filled with communion bread? I think not. Neither should we assume that what they drank was communion wine. It was their “own supper.” There is no proof that the wine they drank was communion wine, nor that the food they ate was unleavened bread. In any case, since when have the Corinthians been our example and pattern of behaviour? Our Lord’s example in the context of the Passover meal is the benchmark for our observance of the Lord’s Supper.

The Full Life Study Bible contains these notes:

“(2) 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 seor (Ex 12:15), a word referring to yeast or any agent of fermentation. Seor in the ancient world was often obtained from the thick scum on top of fermenting wine. Furthermore, all hametz (i.e., anything that contained any type of fermentation) was forbidden (Ex 12:19; 13:7). God had given these laws because fermentation symbolized corruption and sin (cf. Mt 16:6,12; l Co 5:7-8). Jesus, the Son of God, fulfilled the law in every requirement (Mt 5:17). Thus, he would have followed God’s law for the Passover and not used fermented wine.

(4) Some Jewish sources affirm that the use of unfermented wine at the Passover was common in NT times. For example, “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 “Jesus,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904 edition, V.165).

(5) In the OT, fermented drink was never to be used in the house of God, nor were the priests allowed to draw near to God in worship while drinking intoxicating beverages (Lev 10:9-11). Jesus Christ was God’s high priest of the new covenant, drawing near to God for the sake of his people (Heb 3:1; 5:1-10).

(6) The value of a symbol is determined by its capacity to conceptualize the spiritual reality. Therefore, just as the bread represented Christ’s pure body and had to be unleavened (i.e., uncorrupted with fermentation), the fruit of the vine, representing the incorruptible blood of Christ, would have been best represented by juice that was unfermented (cf. 1Pe 1:18-19). Since Scripture states explicitly that the process of corruption was not allowed to work in either the body or blood of Christ (Ps 16:10; Ac 2:27; 13:37), both Christ’s body and blood are properly symbolized by that which is uncorrupted and unfermented.

(7) Paul instructed the Corinthians to put away spiritual yeast, i.e., the fermenting agent of “malice and wickedness,” because Christ is our Passover (l Cor. 5:6-8). It would be inconsistent with the goal and spiritual requirement of the Lord’s Supper to use something that was a symbol of evil, i.e., something with yeast.

(8) In Proverbs 23:29-35 God prohibited gazing at wine that has been fermented and makes one drunk. Christ would not sanction conduct that God had previously condemned. He came “to fulfill” the law (Mt 5:17).”

[Cited from The Full Life Study Bible, published by Life publishers International, Springfield, MO, copyright 1992]

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 chapter 9:21 he 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 (Numbers 6).

In Deuteronomy 21:20 rebellion 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 (Esther 1:10).

The book of Proverbs, a book of wisdom, has many warnings about drinking. In 4:17 it 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. Chapter 23:21 warns 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. Proverbs 31:4, 5 give a warning: “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” It may, however, be used as an anodyne for thse dying or suffering (verses 6, 7).

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 come 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 Romans 13:13 drunkenness 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 reads:

“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 continues the exhortation:

“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 warns:

“But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak.”

1 Cor. 8:11‑12 goes on to explain:

“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 I 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 I could become the ruin of someone else. For this reason alone I have been a life-long teetotaler.

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, because of the many warnings of Scripture, because of the importance of our example, because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, is to avoid it altogether. As stated above, perhaps not one Christian in a thousand knows these facts.

When I was a pastor in Bristol in the 1960s I came across a nursing sister who worked in Southmead hospital. At a hospital function a Hindu brain surgeon observed that she did not partake of the alcoholic drinks but only soft drinks. He asked her why? She gave her testimony and added that as her body was a temple of the Holy Spirit she did not want to defile it. Knowing the devastating effect alcohol has on the brain this doctor was intrigued, went to her church, was converted and, to cut a long story short, went back to India as a missionary and founded a hospital and a Christian medical work. The power of example!

Taken as a whole, the overwhelming evidence of the Bible is against drinking fermented wine, or indeed, any alcoholic beverages. The tragedy is that alcohol is addictive, and some people are so gripped by it that it destroys them. Some Christians defend their drinking of alcohol, not on any sure biblical grounds, but because they like it. In other words, they are mildly addicted to it.

When I was in my first pastorate, the elderly church secretary, had worked at the Fry’s chocolate factory, but had retired some time before. He told me that he had a discussion with a colleague at work who drank. The latter claimed that my friend was as addicted to tea as he was to alcohol. So my friend challenged him to abstain for a week and he would also from tea. But the alcohol drinker could not last the week out and had to admit that his addiction to alcohol was much stronger than my friends fondness for tea.

Let us aim for the highest level of commitment.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1, 2, ESV).

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One Response to “What many Christians do not know about alcohol”

  1. Bill Serjeant Says:

    Thank you Stanley for this outstanding article full of biblical facts related to the drinking of alcohol and the ‘sobering’ consequences of drinking it.

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