On the Sometimes Touchy Subject of Drinking Wine

Wherein (as a Puritan of yore might have put it) the divine goodness in providing man with that which gladdens the heart is displayed and vindicated, and sundry warnings concerning the misuse of God’s good gifts are given, together with a few recommendations for the lawful enjoying of the same

One of the things we ought to admire most in God is his habit of taking what man intends for evil and using it instead for good (Gen. 45:5-8; 50:20; Rom. 8:28). On the other hand, one of the things we should most lament in man is his habit of doing just the opposite—taking what God intends for good and using it for evil (Ezek. 16:17-21; Hos. 2:8). Examples abound, but I will limit myself to three.

“He satisfies your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17)

If anyone wishes to have proof of God’s goodness, let him look no further than his own taste buds. Seriously. God has made us in such a way that we must eat in order to maintain our health and strength. This might have been a rather burdensome thing had it not been for the fact that he created us to delight in it. How much of the enjoyment we find in life is derived from eating! Who doesn’t look forward to meal time? And all the more so when what is slated for the table is particularly fine dining. 

The Scriptures teach us to rejoice in God and give thanks to him for our food (Ps. 104:14-15; 1 Tim. 4:3). However, to consistently overindulge by eating more than is needful for our health—in other words, to be a glutton—is to abuse God’s otherwise good gift of food (Prov. 23:20-21; 28:7; Tit. 1:12). What then? Shall we refuse God’s gift because others abuse it? Shall we give ourselves to perpetual fastings so as to distance ourselves from the gourmands among us? Why not rather simply enjoy God’s good gift of food without abusing it?

“Your sleep will be sweet” (Prov. 3:24)

Sleep is also a wonderful, divine gift, for which we should be thankful. “He gives to his beloved sleep.” (Ps. 127:2) After a full day’s work, a good night’s rest is sweetly refreshing (Eccles. 5:12). But as with an overindulgence in food, so an overindulgence in sleep is both sinful and foolish.

How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
                When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
                a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
                and want like an armed man. (Prov. 6:9-11; cf. 10:5; 19:15; 20:13)

What should we do? Deprive ourselves of a well-earned rest because others are sluggards and layabouts? Should their laziness deter us from seeking a good night’s sleep?

“Rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18)

And what shall we say about the pleasures of the marriage bed? Delightful, yes? The Lord is not the prude that some make him out to be (Prov. 5:15-19). The Song of Solomon is proof enough of that. However, to seek the pleasures of marriage outside of marriage­ is an abuse of God’s gift,[1] and like all such abuses, is both sinful and foolish. Again, we must ask, should the abuses of fornicators and adulterers and whoremongers cause us to foreswear marriage and join a monastery or convent? Not if we exercise a modicum of common sense or pay any attention at all to the teaching of Scripture (Gen. 1:28; 2:24; 1 Tim. 4:3).

“Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life” (Eccles. 10:19)

The Drunkard
Charles de Groux
I trust that you, my dear and intelligent reader, can see where this is headed. Wine is a good gift, given by our divine Benefactor (Ps. 104:14-15). Sinners and fools will abuse this gift because they are, well… sinners and fools. Scripture, of course, prohibits and condemns this abuse in no uncertain terms (Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:18). That drunkenness is incapacitating and therefore foolish is pointed out in several passages (Prov. 23:33-35; Isa. 28:7; Hos. 4:11; and Prov. 20:1; 23:20-21; 23:29-32). In fact, in a number of passages the effects of God’s judgment are vividly portrayed under the image of a drunken stupor (Isa. 19:14; Jer. 25:27; 51:7).

These things, however, do not negate the goodness of God’s gift. Scripture repeatedly asserts that wine is a blessing come from God as clearly as it asserts that drunkenness is a sin (Gen. 27:28; Deut. 7:13; 11:14; 33:27-29; Ps. 104:14-15; Prov. 3:9-10; Eccles. 9:7; 10:19; Jer. 31:12; Hos. 2:8; Joel 2:19, 24; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13-14; Zech. 9:17; 10:7). That it is a divinely bestowed blessing is also apparent from the fact that one of the things God threatens to do to chasten his people is to cut off the flow of wine (Deut. 28:39, 51; Isa. 16:10; 24:5-11; Lam. 3:11-12; Hos. 2:9; Zeph. 1:13).

That wine should be considered a blessing, and nothing to be shunned as sinful in itself, is obvious from the fact that God commanded wine to be brought to him as a drink offering with every sacrifice offered on the altar (Ex. 29:40; Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:1-11; 28:14). Strong drink—that is, beer and other fermented drinks—was also given to the Lord as a drink offering (Num. 28:7). Let me repeat:  God commanded this. And we know that God would neither require nor accept anything unholy or sinful as an offering (Deut. 23:18), but only that which is good and pleasing to him.

Furthermore, the Lord approved the use of wine and strong drink in the sacred festivals of Israel’s calendar and even told them to use their tithe money to purchase it. Consider carefully what we are told in Deuteronomy 14:22-27. The Israelites were commanded to bring their tithes to the tabernacle (later the temple) in kind, i.e., a tenth of their grain, wine, and oil, and the firstborn of their herds and flocks. A portion of these tithes were to be consumed in their religious festivities.[2] A special provision was made for those who lived far away from the sanctuary, making the transport of tithes in kind a somewhat difficult undertaking.

If the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money [i.e., sell it for its market value] and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. (Deut. 14:24-26)

I emphasize that (1) it was tithe money (money that belonged to God) that was to be used for the purchase of the things necessary for the feast, including wine and strong drink; and (2) the celebration was specifically a religious feast, held in honor of the Lord. It was something not unlike a church fellowship dinner on a special and festive occasion.

It should be no surprise, then, that the blessings of redemption are sometimes described in terms of a rich feast, supplied with the finest food and wine.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
                a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
                of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well-refined. (Isa. 25:6; cf. 55:1)

Note well:  this is wine, not grape juice. More on this anon.

“The Son of Man has Come Eating and Drinking” (Luke 7:34)

What was the attitude of our Lord Jesus Christ toward drinking wine? Was he averse to it? Not at all. His first recorded miracle took place at a wedding feast. The unfortunate host found himself in a pinch when the wine gave out (Jn. 2:1-11). Our ever thoughtful Savior helped him out by turning water into wine…and in no meager portions! He made about 150 gallons. And it was no cheap boxed wine, either.

When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (Jn. 2:9-10)

Just like Jesus, isn’t it? When he heals, he heals completely. When he saves, he saves thoroughly. When he makes wine, he makes the best! The incident is a further proof that “He doeth all things well” (Mk. 7:37, KJV).

That Jesus was no teetotaler is clear from Luke.

John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Lk. 7:33-34)

John was an ascetic. He wore a garment of camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. He abstained from fine foods and all wine and strong drink. His harsh manner of life was a symbol of the nature of his ministry in calling people to repentance. On the other hand, Jesus attended feasts and banquets and freely drank wine.[3] His manner of life symbolized the joy of salvation which is to be found in him.

If Jesus had been opposed to drinking wine—if he had thought it sinful and required his people to abstain from it—would he have used wine as an emblem of his sacred blood when he instituted the Lord’s Supper?[4]

Some have argued (as I confess I used to do) that whenever wine is put into a positive light in Scripture it is not really wine but grape juice. The evidence, however, does not bear this out. The most common Hebrew word for wine in the Old Testament is yayin, which occurs 141 times. All of the various Hebrew lexicons and Old Testament dictionaries and encyclopedias agree that yayin is a fermented drink. It is wine, not simply grape juice.[5] Furthermore, all English translations of the Bible render the word as wine. When grape juice is meant, it is specifically mentioned as such (Num. 6:1-4).

The Greek word which is used in the New Testament for wine is the word oinos, which is used as the equivalent of the Hebrew yayin. The standard New Testament Greek lexicon defines oinos as “a beverage made from fermented juice of the grape, wine.” It continues, “the word for ‘must’, or unfermented grape juice, is tru>x” (trux).[6] Incidentally, the word trux is not used in the New Testament. Therefore, whenever the word “wine” appears, the underlying word is oinos, a fermented drink.

Perhaps it should be further observed that the yeast that grows on the skin of the grape causes the juice to begin to ferment as soon as the grape is crushed. It is only a matter of days before it turns into an intoxicating drink.[7] Furthermore, when the Bible speaks of “new wine” it does not mean simple grape juice, but wine, which is capable of making people drunk if overused. In Hosea 4:11, overindulgence in new wine is said to “take away the understanding.” In Acts 2:13-14, those who mocked the disciples supposed that they were drunk on “new wine.”

Thou Shalt Not Drink?

There is no commandment anywhere in Scripture that serves as a general prohibition against drinking alcohol. We find a few instances of specific individuals being prohibited from drinking, but only under certain limited circumstances. For instance, the Lord told Aaron that neither he nor his sons were to drink “wine or strong drink” when they went into the tabernacle (Lev. 10:8-9). This commandment was given in connection with the incident involving Nadab and Abihu offering “unauthorized fire before the Lord,” a transgression for which they were severely punished (Lev. 10:1-3). The Lord was very particular about how things were to be done in the tabernacle. The priests were not to be innovators, but were to strictly follow the procedures for sacrifice and offering that the Lord himself had instituted. It could well be the case that Nadab and Abihu were drunk, and that in their drunkenness they did what they were not authorized to do while serving in the sanctuary, and so God struck them down and warned Aaron, “Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting.[8] The specific limitation as to time and place implies freedom to drink at other times and places. If they were never to drink at all, why did the Lord not simply say so?

Others who were forbidden to drink alcohol were those who took the vow of a Nazirite (Num. 6:1-21). It is said that such a one “shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.” (Num. 6:2-4). Neither were they allowed to cut their hair or come into contact with a dead body during the term of their vow. And when their term was completed, what then? We are told, “after that the Nazirite may drink wine.” (Num. 6:20) Several Nazirites are mentioned in Scripture (Judg. 13:2-7; 1 Sam. 1:11; Amos 2:11-12; Luke 1:13-15; Acts 18:18; Acts 21:23-24). If there had been a general prohibition against drinking wine, this aspect of a Nazirite vow would be meaningless. The man under the vow would hardly be “separating himself” by abstaining from alcohol if everyone was under the same prohibition.

Kings are advised to abstain from wine and strong drink in Proverbs 31:2-5, but the context suggests that the advice is concerned with the abuse, especially while fulfilling the duties of the royal office.

Summary and Conclusion

Scripture presents both wine and strong drink as gifts from God to be enjoyed with thanksgiving, but strictly warns against their abuse—and what gift of God is not subject to abuse?[9]  

“Men can go wrong with wine and women. 
Shall we then prohibit and abolish women?”
~ Martin Luther ~

Nowhere are we forbidden to laugh, or to be satisfied with food… 
or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.
~ John Calvin ~

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart,
for God has already approved what you do.”
~ Ecclesiastes 5:7 ~

[1] Sadly, it is necessary in our day to issue a reminder that marriage is a covenantal union between a man and a woman.
[2] The rest were to go to the Levites.
[3] It scarcely needs to be said, but lest I be misunderstood I’ll say it anyway. Jesus drank wine, but he never drank in excess. “He committed no sin” (1 Pet. 2:22); “In him there is no sin” (1 Jn. 3:5); etc.
[4] A question arises here. Are we free to alter the Supper that the Lord himself instituted by substituting grape juice for wine? Is it not an implicit claim to be wiser or holier than he?
[5] Kenneth Gentry, Jr., God Gave Wine: What the Bible Teaches About Alcohol (Lincoln, CA: Oakdown, 2001), p. 34
[6] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG), p. 701
[7] This fact is sufficient to demonstrate that the wine Jesus used when instituting his Supper was really wine and not grape juice. The grape harvest ended in September. Jesus instituted the Supper during Passover (mid-March to mid-April).
[8] Compare Ezekiel 44:21, “No priest shall drink wine when he enters the inner court.”
[9] Of course, there may be any one of a number of reasons why someone might wish to abstain from alcohol, ranging from simply not liking its taste to prior difficulty in exercising self-control. 


Casey Harbaugh said…
Thank you Pastor Doug a very astute article and scriptural accuracy is on target. Many lead the naive astray, twisting God's word about such things. How refreshing to hear from a true Bible student. Stating facts of His word in the context intended, Amen & Amen. . Your brother in Christ, Casey

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