A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking
by Norman Geisler
The Bible says several things about the use of wine.
Is Wine Today Like New Testament Wine?
Many wine-drinking [so-called] "Christians" today mistakenly assume that what the New Testament meant by wine is identical to wine used today. This, however, is false. In fact today's wine is by biblical definitions "strong drink," and hence is forbidden in the Bible! What the Bible frequently meant by wine was basically purified water.
Stein researched wine-drinking in the ancient world, in Jewish sources, and in the Bible.(7) He pointed out that wine in Homer's day was twenty parts water and one part wine (Odyssey 9.208-9). Pliny referred to wine as eight parts water and one part wine (Natural History 14.6-54). According to Aristophanes, it was stronger: three parts water and two parts wine. Other classical Greek writers spoke of other mixtures: Euenos -- three parts water, one part wine; Hesiod -- three to one, water to wine; Alexis -- four to one: Diocles and Anacreon -- two to one: and Ion -- three to one. The average was about three or four parts of water to one part of wine. Sometimes in the ancient world one part water would be mixed with one part wine; this was considered strong wine. And anyone who drank wine unmixed was looked on as a Scythian, a barbarian. That means the Greeks would say today, "You Americans are barbarians -- drinking straight wine." For example, Athenaeus quoted Mnesitheus of Athens as saying, "in daily intercourse, to those who drink it moderately it gives good cheer; but if you overstep the bounds it brings violence. Mix it half and half and you get madness; unmixed -- bodily collapse."(8) Here is a pagan saying, "Half and half is madness, and unmixed wine brings death."
Stein also observes that "in several instances in the Old Testament a distinction is made between 'wine' and 'strong drink'" (e.g., Lev. 10:8-9). Strong drink is one thing, wine is another thing. The same distinction is made in Deuteronomy 14:26; 29:6; Judges 13:4; and elsewhere. According to the Talmud the "wine" used in the Passover meal was three parts water and one part wine (cf. 2 Macc. 15:39).(9)
It may also be that the wine Jesus miraculously provided at the wedding in Cana (John 2: 1-11) was a similar drink, that is, wine mixed with water. The word oinos ("wine") refers sometimes to fermented grape juice (e.g., Eph. 5:18) and sometimes to fresh, not fully fermented grape juice (e.g., Rev. 19:15). Furthermore, in ancient times not many beverages were safe to drink. Stein indicates that in the ancient world water could be made safe in one of several ways. It could be boiled, but this was tedious and costly. Or it could be filtered, but this was not a safe method. Or some wine could be put in the water to kill the germs -- one part wine with three or four parts water.
Wine today has a much higher level of alcohol than wine in the New Testament. In fact in New Testament times one would need to drink twenty-two glasses of wine in order to consume the large amount of alcohol in two martinis today. Stein humorously notes, "In other words, it is possible to become intoxicated from wine mixed with three parts water, but one's drinking would probably affect the bladder long before the mind."(10)
Though fermented wine was drunk in Bible times and though the Bible approved of wine-drinking, one needs to remember that the alcoholic content was much less than that of wine today. What is used today is not the wine of the New Testament! Therefore Christians ought not drink wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverages for they are actually "strong drink" and are forbidden in Scripture. Even ancient pagans did not drink what some [so-called] "Christians" drink today! Thus it is wrong to argue that since people in Bible times drank wine, Christians today can do the same. Properly speaking, people then drank purified water. New Testament wine was basically a water-purification method. It was not an unsafe liquor; it was a safe liquid. But in America purifying water with wine is unnecessary, and plenty of nonaddictive beverages are available.
Drunkenness Is a Sin
Wine in the Bible was not to be used excessively, and one was not to become drunk with the fruit of the vine. In the Old Testament a drunkard was put to death (Deut. 21:20-21). Drunkenness was considered to be such an incorrigible sin that capital punishment was used for it as well as for murder, rape, blasphemy of parents, etc.
According to 1 Corinthians 5:11, Christians are to separate themselves from a person who claims to be a Christian but who is a drunkard.
Drunkards "shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-10), nor will homosexuals or other kinds of sinners. Practicing homosexuals and drunkards do not inherit the kingdom of God. Obviously God hates drunkenness. Paul also wrote in Ephesians 5:18, "be not drunk with wine." And drunkenness is listed in Galatians 5:19-21 among "the deeds of the flesh."
Strong Drink Is Deceptive and Sinful
The Bible says much about strong drink. For example, the priests were to avoid strong drink (Lev. 10:8-9). And Solomon wrote, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging:" (Prov. 20:1). God is opposed to someone using strong drink because it brings deception and turbulence into his life. Rulers should not take strong drink, for it distorts their ability to think clearly and to judge clearly. Strong drink is not for kings lest they pervert justice (Prov. 31:4-5). Isaiah wrote, "Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink" (Isa. 5:11). This writer had an uncle who was drunk every day before noon his entire adult life. At about age forty he died of liver disease. He experienced the truth of Isaiah 24:9, "strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it." It may seem sweet to begin with, but it will be bitter in the end. It was the false prophet who said, "I will prophesy unto thee of wine and of strong drink" (Mic. 2:11). God is opposed to using strong drink as a beverage.(1) The Hebrew word for "strong drink" is shekar. It is used 23 times and refers to an intoxicating drink made from barley, pomegranates, dates, apples, or honey. The more common Old Testament word for "wine" is yayin, used 141 times. The word tirosh on the other hand, occasionally translated "new wine," means the freshly pressed juice of the grape, that is, grape juice that has not yet fully fermented.(2) It is used 38 times (e.g., Gen. 27:28: Joel 2:24: Mic. 6:5).
In addition, drinking results in a slowing of the thinking processes (Prov. 31:4-5; Isa. 28:7; Hos. 4:11); a stupor (Jer. 25:27; 51:39); sickness (Isa. 19:14; 28:7-8; Jer. 48:26); staggering (loss of balance and mental control) (Job 12:25; Isa. 28:7-8; 29:9); arrogance (Hab. 2:5); forgetfulness (Prov. 31:6-7); confusion and delirious dreams (Prov. 23:31, 33); sleepiness (Gen. 9:20-24; 19:33); lack of feeling (Prov. 23:31, 35); bloodshot eyes (Prov. 23:29-30); and poverty (Prov. 23:20-21).
Deciding About Wine-Drinking Today
How should one decide today whether or not to drink alcoholic beverages? Christians should carefully consider the following four questions.
I. What Are the Facts about Alcohol?
Before a person decides to drink or to continue drinking, he should be fully aware of the following facts about alcoholic beverages and their effects today.(11)
- An estimated ten million problem drinkers or alcoholics are in the United States adult population.
- Of adults who drink, 36 percent can be classed as problem drinkers.
- In addition, an estimated 3.3 million young people ages 14-17 are problem drinkers.
- Alcohol-related deaths may run as high as 200,000 per year. In two years' time there are as many alcoholic-related deaths as there were in the entire Vietnam War!
- Alcohol abuse and alcoholism cost the United States about $50 billion in 1975. That figure has risen considerably since then.
- Between 1966 and 1975 the percent of high school students who said they had been drunk increased from 19 percent to 45 percent.
- Alcohol is one cause of cancer.
- Fetal alcohol syndrome is the third greatest cause of birth defects.
- Evidence exists that social drinking impairs one's social and intellectual capacities. Rather than getting sharper, people who drink get duller.
- Half of all traffic fatalities and one-third of all traffic injuries are alcohol-related. Whereas a person has the legal right to drink, he does not have the right to endanger the lives of others on the highway by his drinking.
- A high percentage of child-abusing parents have drinking problems.
- A relatively high correlation exists between alcohol consumption and robbery, rape, assault, homicide; and more than one-third of suicides involve alcohol.
- Taxpayers pay $11 to offset each $1 paid in liquor revenue.(12)
II. Will Wine-Drinking Lead Anyone Else to Sin?
Christians are to be concerned not only about their own lives but also about others. Paul wrote in Philippians 2:4, "Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others." And Christians should seriously consider Romans 14:21: "It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth." A believer should ask himself, "Will my drinking cause anyone else to sin? Even if it would not be a problem to me, is it possible that it would cause someone else to stumble?" This writer knows of former alcoholics who have attended church communion services in which fermented wine has been served, and just the taste of a little bit of it drove them back into alcoholism.
III. Can Wine-Drinking Be Done to the Glory of God?
Paul wrote, "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Cor. 10:31). If a Christian cannot be praising God and glorifying Him while he is drinking, then it is not good for him, and it is not glorifying to God.
Several reasons may be offered as to why Christians ought to refrain from wine-drinking. First, people in the United States have plenty of wholesome, nonaddictive beverages. The situation today is unlike biblical times when there were not many wholesome beverages. People often did not have good water available; it was often polluted. Travelers today know that in many foreign countries pure drinking water is difficult to obtain. In many foreign places, travelers become sick from drinking the water. This is similar to biblical times.
Thus it is wrong to argue that since people in Bible times drank wine, Christians today can do the same.
Properly speaking, people then drank purified water. New Testament wine was basically a water-purification method. It was not an unsafe liquor; it was a safe liquid. But in America purifying water with wine is unnecessary, and plenty of nonaddictive beverages are available.
Second, America is an alcoholic culture, but the New Testament culture was not. Ten million Americans are alcoholics, with more than three million of them teenagers. In New Testament times, there were comparatively few drunks, and alcohol was not a problem in their culture to the extent it is in this nation.
Third, total abstinence is the safer policy. A person cannot abuse drinking if he does not drink. In Christianity Today a few years ago, a writer asked, "How many people would fly if they knew there was a chance of one in ten that the plane would crash?"(13) The chances of airplanes crashing are certainly not that high -- far from it; but if they were, undoubtedly many people would refuse ever to board another plane. And yet the chances of an occasional or moderate drinker becoming an alcoholic are in fact one in ten!
Fourth, total abstinence is the more consistent policy. A few years ago when the drug culture became so dominant and people became so concerned about young people's use of marijuana, heroin, and harder drugs, the government studied the problem of drug abuse. The results chagrined many adults: The number one problem in the United States is alcohol! It is not marijuana, nor heroin, nor LSD, but alcohol -- the "establishment" drug, the adults' drug, the legal drug. This in no way suggests that marijuana or other illegal drugs should be approved. But young people took at adults and say, "hypocrites! You approve of your drug, and it's the biggest one in the country, and you disapprove of our drugs." And therefore it is difficult to win young people from drugs; they see the sheer hypocrisy of many adults.
Since today's society is alcohol-polluted, this writer suggests that Christians take a strong stand against all alcoholic beverages. This writer would like to suggest that Christians, in a Nazaritelike vow, should protest the destructive effects of alcoholism and should voluntarily abstain from all alcohol consumption
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Posted on: 2009-03-07
Last Modified on: 2009-03-07
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