The issue of alcohol and the Christian is an incredibly volatile subject causing great division and stern judgments on both sides. I have been deeply affected by this issue myself, as I have many friends and family members who are controlled by alcohol. I am not a teetotaler, but I rarely drink. I don’t like wine. Some beers are pretty good. I like tequila. But if the consumption of alcohol were made illegal, I would not even really notice.
There are so many different positions out there with regard to this issue. Let me try to name a few:
- Those who abstain from alcohol and believe that this is the biblical position for everyone.
- Those who abstain from alcohol but don’t believe this is a biblical mandate to enforce on others.
- Those who drink alcohol only for “celebratory” purposes (i.e., Lord’s table), but don’t get drunk.
- Those who casually drink wine or beer, but abstain from “hard liquor” and don’t get drunk.
- Those who casually drink alcohol in order to feel “merry” or “tipsy” but don’t get drunk.
- Those who drink alcohol and get drunk occasionally but are not “drunkards” (i.e. addicted).
Outside of this, all Christians would (or should) agree that being addicted to alcohol is expressly forbidden in Scripture, as it relinquishes control of our faculties to alcohol rather than to the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). Paul warns Timothy about such abuses with regard to the qualifications of a deacon (1 Tim. 3:8) and elders (1 Tim. 3:3).
I am not going to discuss here which of the above positions is correct. However, I do want to discuss one passage of Scripture that infuses the debate over alcohol with great passion. It is the subject of Christ and his relation to alcohol while here on earth. Most specifically, I want to ask the question of whether Christ, during the miracle at the Wedding of Cana in John 2, turned the water into wine, unfermented grape juice, or something else. Here is the text:
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 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 10 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.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
This question raised by this passage does indeed contribute a great deal to the overall debate. For if Christ turned the water into an alcoholic beverage, then his participation in the issue certainly does not bode well for those who preach that the biblical position requires Christians to abstain from alcohol altogether. He would have been serving as a bartender, if you will, at a celebration where abuse of alcohol certainly may have taken place. More than that, there is no reason to doubt that he himself would have drunk this wine.
Yet some maintain that the wine Jesus produced was a non-fermented type of wine called “new wine” (kainos neos). In this case, it would be like grape juice. Others believe that the wine Jesus created was watered down so much that one would have to suffer a severe bladder problem in order to get drunk. However, neither of these interpretations are supported by the best textual scholarship, and seem to be driven by a desire to maintain a rigid teetotaler position.
New Wine is Unfermented Wine?
R. A. Torrey does a good job of representing the position that the wine Christ provided was unfermented “new wine.”
“[Jesus] provided wine, but there is not a hint that the wine He made was intoxicating. It was fresh-made wine. New-made wine is never intoxicating. It is not intoxicating until some time after the process of fermentation has set in. Fermentation is a process of decay. There is not a hint that our Lord produced alcohol, which is a product of decay or death. He produced a living wine uncontaminated by fermentation. It is true it was better wine than they had been drinking, but that does not show for a moment that it was more fermented than that which they had before been drinking” (Difficulties in the Bible).
However, there are significant problems with this argument. New wine was fermented. Its ability to cause intoxication is well represented in the Scriptures (Is 49:26; Hos 4:11; cf. Judg 9:13; see “Wine” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 1992 [J. B. Green, S. McKnight & I. H. Marshall, Ed.], 870, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
The happenings in Acts 2 represent this well. Having received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles are speaking in tongues and sharing the Gospel with the people. Some people are amazed, but others accuse the Apostles of being intoxicated.
“But others, mocking, said, ‘They are filled with new wine’.”
How could the Apostles be accused of being intoxicated from a drink that is not fermented? There is no indication, either in the culture of the day or in the Bible, that there was such a thing as unfermented wine. Wine is wine because it is fermented.
Some scholars have attempted to contrast the two Hebrew terms for wine in the Old Testament to make a case that one was unfermented grape juice. However, the evidence does not support such a conclusion. Leaning heavily on C. Seltman, Wine in the Ancient World, the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible draws this conclusion about the term that is purported to refer to grape juice:
(1) The Hebrew word is found in primarily neutral contexts; (2) often that particular word is found in contexts definitely including a fermented beverage (e.g., Gn 27:28; Hos 4:11; Mi 6:15); (3) the Ugaritic parallel to the term in question refers with certainty to a fermented wine (4) the Septuagint equivalents refer to fermented wine; (5) fermentation in the ancient Near East, unlike Greece, took only about three days, and (6) the Mishna provides no such evidence of the practice of having unfermented wine. There seems to have been no attempts to preserve wine in an unfermented state; it may have been a near impossible task.
It would seem that, for the Hebrews, there is no way to use the term “grape juice” as a substitute for wine. The article concludes: “A careful examination of all the Hebrew words (as well as their Semitic cognates) and the Greek words for wine demonstrates that the ancients knew little, if anything, about unfermented wine.
Watered Down Wine?
Some make the case that the wine used in the New Testament was so watered down that it was nearly impossible to cause one to get drunk. Norman Geisler make such a case:
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. (“A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking” Bibliotheca Sacra, Issue 553, 1982).
However, this does not seem to be the case. Geisler is assuming a mixture evidenced by some ancient Greeks. Homer writes about a water to wine ratio of 20 to 1 (Homer, Odyssey 10. 208f). However, this may be because the wine was so strong! The Mishna, which represents a better accounting of the Hebrew usage of wine, assumes a ratio of two parts of water to one part wine. The Talmudic sources speak of three to one. Wine often would contain 15% alcohol. Even if it were mixed with three parts of water, this would put it at 5% alcohol. This is a higher percentage than much beer today! Pliny, the Roman Senator writing in the first century, spoke about wine that could hold a flame. For this to happen, it would had to have been in excess of 30% alcohol! No wonder some speak of adding twenty parts water.
Not only this, but wine diluted with water was symbolic of spiritual adulteration. Isaiah 1:22, speaking to the infidelity of the nation of Israel, says, “Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water.” Just before this, God gives this rebuke: “How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers.” The nation had gone astray. It is not seen as a good thing to have diluted wine.
Further (and most importantly) the story of Jesus at the wedding does not support a conclusion that the wine Jesus made was either excessively watered down or grape juice. After the head waiter had tasted the wine Jesus made, he went to the bridegroom and said this: “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.” What Jesus created was “good wine.” According to the waiter, the custom was to serve the “good wine” first; then, when the people had “drunk” much of the wine, they served the cheaper wine. This word for “drunk” is methusko, which means “to become intoxicated.” It is the same word used in Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk [methusko] with wine…” (see also Luke 12:45; 1 Thes 5:7; Rev. 17:12). The only testimony we have about the state of the wine Christ created is the headwaiter’s review of it, and he suggests that it is the type that can intoxicate (i.e., it was fermented). It is very difficult to draw any other conclusion.
Added to this, there is no reason to believe that Christ himself did not drink this fermented wine. It is evident that He drank wine at the passover (Mark 14:23). In fact, Christ seemed to have made a habit of drinking wine. According to his own testimony, he drank wine that others abstained from.
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 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!” (Luke 7:33-34).
John the Baptist took a Nazirite vow and abstained from alcohol. But Christ did not. He explicitly says that he came “eating and drinking.” Because of this, others accused him of being a drunkard.
The implications for all of this are important in the discussion about alcohol and the Christian. Christ, in celebration of the Kingdom, produced an alcoholic beverage that could intoxicate. Christ was a bartender! This certainly does not solve any of the problems associated with alcohol. The problems are tremendous. But to be controlled by alcohol is not a modern problem. This problem has been around since ancient times. However, this does not mean that God forbids things that have the potential to be destructive. We must be careful that we don’t legislate God. It is not unlike issues of gun control, sugar consumption, or tobacco. All of these have potential to hurt people, all of these have a history of hurting people, all of these have people who attempt to force moderation or abstinence, but none of them are forbidden by God. We must be careful in what we attempt to forbid, even if the legislation is for a good purpose. The solution for problems associated with alcohol is not a mandate for abstinence, but education concerning its dangers.