The Bible, the Christian and Alcohol
What Yahweh Expects of You
A question that many new Christians ask themselves is whether or not it is permissible to drink alcohol? Bible interpreters fall into two main schools of thought: (1) That alcohol consumption is permissible in moderation, and (2) Alcohol consumption is utterly forbidden. What actually does the Bible teach?
The Old Testament
Among a considerable number of synonyms used in the Old Testament the most common are yayin (usually translated "wine") and shekar (usually translated "strong drink"). These terms are frequently used together, and they are employed irrespective of whether the writer is commending wine and strong drink as desirable or warning against its dangers. A third word, tirosh, sometimes translated "new" or "sweet wine", has often been regarded as unfermented and therefore unintoxicating wine, but such an example as Hosea 4:11, together with the usage of the Talmud, makes clear that it is capable of being used in a bad sense equally with the others. Furthermore, while there are examples of the grapes being pressed into a cup and presumably used at once (Genesis 40:11), it is significant that the term "wine" is never applied to the resultant juice.
The term "new wine" does not indicate wine which has not fermented, for in fact the process of fermentation sets in very rapidly, and unfermented wine could not be available after the harvest (Acts 2:13). It represents rather wine made from the first drippings of the juice before the winepress was trodden. As such it would be particularly potent and would come immediately to mind as a probable explanation of what seemed to be a drunken state. Modern custom in Palestine, among a people who are traditionally conservative as far as religious feasts are concerned, also suggests that the wine used was fermented. It may be said, therefore, that the Bible in employing various synonyms makes no consistent distinction between them.
Naturally in a land and climate particularly suited to the cultivation of the vine, we find that wine was often associated with corn, and together they stand for a full and adequate supply of food and of the good gifts of life. They can be promised therefore as the tokens of the blessing of God (Genesis 27:28), and they are acceptable to Him when offered back upon the altar (Exodus 24:40).
One must realise, however, that this was the dispensation of the Law of Moses which was an altogether inferior law to that of Christ. It is very clear, though, that those engaging in priestly service are not to partake of alcohol (Leviticus 10:9). The same was true of a Nazirite entering a vow (Numbers 6:3). Inasmuch as these were spiritual offices, it is very clear that spirituality is directly associated with abstinence from alcohol. There is even a non-priestly example of the House of Rechab which refused to partake of alcohol (Jeremiah 35:7). The prophet Jeremiah, offended because the Rechabites would not drink alcohol, was strictly rebuked by the Lord who set Rechab and his descendants out as being especially favoured, saying to Recab's son: "You have obeyed the command of your forefather Jonadab and have followed all his instructions, and have done everything he ordered...". As a result, "...Jonadab son of Rechab shall never fail to have a man to serve me" (Jeremiah 25:18-19, NIV). There can be little doubt, then, that to abstain from alcohol is, as far as the Lord is concerned, a mark of spirituality and of sound character.
Scriptures warning of the dangers of strong drink do, however, greatly outweigh in number those that say it is permissive for the ordinary man. The warnings of the Book of Proverbs are clear, and in the time of Isaiah, the priests had fallen into the snare of alcohol. This was a time of major national apostacy.
Finally, we must see the use of alcohol, and God's allowance of its use by those not in priestly service, in the social context of the times. Life was hard for the ordinary man and thus the use of alcoholic wine was permissive so that it might "gladden the heart of man" (Psalm 104:15). Equally, though given the licence to partake, the ordinary man is strictly warned of the consequences of this freedom since alcohol causes the mind to err (Isaiah 28:7). The evil consequences of alcohol are everywhere underlined, its being the cause of anger (Isaiah 5:11) or of dishonouring a man (Genesis 9:21).
Wine, then, has a duel meaning in the Old Testament. For the ordinary man, it may represent that which God has prepared (Proverbs 9:5), and which He offers to as many as will receive it from His hand (Isaiah 55:1); yet, on the other hand, it may equally well represent the intoxicating influence of Babylonian supremacy which brings ruin. For the spiritual man it is clear, though, that wine is forbidden.
The New Testament
In the New Testament the common word is the Greek oinos (cf. Hebrew yayin). Once we find sikera, "strong drink" (Luke 1:15), a loan word from Semitic (cf. Hebrew shekar), and once gleukos, "new wine" (Acts 2:13). This last word literally means "sweet wine"; the vintage of the current year had not come round, but there were means of keeping wine sweet all the year round.
The references in the New Testament are very much fewer in number, but once more the good and the bad aspects are equally apparent, and many of the points which were noted in the Old Testament have their counterpart in the New. John the Baptist, who held the Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood, abstained from wine (Luke 1:15).
Many suggest that Jesus countenanced the use of wine, for He was not only present at the weddding in Cana, but when the wine fails, He replenishes the supply in extraordinarily ample measure, and later His readiness to eat and drink with publicans and sinners draws forth the accusation that He is gluttenous and a wine-bibber. Such people also point out that Jesus's refusal to drink wine offered to Him at His crucifixion (Mark 15:23) was not based on an objection to wine, but was due to a determination to die with an unclouded mind. Later He accepted the wine (vinegar) which was the ordinary drink of labourers in the field and of the lower class of soldiers.
These observations are reasonable but here one must be careful. We must first remember under what dispensation Jesus' ministry took place, for it was the dispensation of the Law of Moses which He scrupulously observed. Jesus also mingled with the ordinary man in the street. Every Christian knows that He was neither a "glutton" nor a "wine-bibber" and that this was simply a false accusation by His enemies. It is quite likely that He partook of ordinary wine though this would have been in moderation, though we have no way of knowing this for sure.
But Jesus' conduct at this stage in His ministry is not a licence for ordinary Christians of our day to indulge in wine drinking. It is at this point that we must turn to the incident at the cross. There was a reason why Jesus refused wine while He was on the Cross, and it was because as the High Priest of Israel, He was entering into the Holy of Holies of the spiritual Temple to be offered as the infinite, atoning sacrifice. He was serving in the capacity as a priest and could not partake of alcohol according to the Mosaic ban. Before the Cross he had not attempted to officate in the Temple for He was not a Levite; He was, however, an ordained Rabbi. Though He was the High Priest, He did not exercise this Priesthood until He was on the Cross, and then only in an inner sense. Though He had the right to offer sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, this He never did, never claiming outer Priesthood. For His Priesthood was of an altogether High Order, after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7).
As regards Jesus partaking of wine-vinegar on the Cross, please note two things: (1) He had completed His atoning work -- He had entered the Holy of Holies in Heaven and offered a sacrifice for sins. Jesus knew that "all was now completed" (John 19:28). His work was finished on earth. What happened thereafter was unimportant...except for one thing, (2) A SCRIPTURE HAD TO BE FULFILLED in Psalm 69:21, which says: "They put gall into My food and gave Me vinegar for My thirst". The scripture continues: "MAY THEIR EYES BE DARKNED SO THAT THEY CANNOT SEE, AND THEIR BACKS BE BENT FOR EVER" (Psalm 69:23). It is evident that He was given this to be mocked, as the Gospels clearly indicate (Mark 15:36; Luke 23:36). Jesus did not ask for wine -- He simply said that He was thirsty. And it also worth noting that this cheap wine was the thing that finally killed Him (John 19:30).
With the death of Christ the dispensation of the Law of Moses came to an end. Jesus, by His sacrificial death, opened the Holy of Holies -- previously only accessible once a year by the High Priest -- to all believers. Thus Peter speaks of all Christians as being a "royal priesthood", "a chosen generation", "a holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9) JUST LIKE THE PRIESTS WHO MINISTERED IN THE TABERNACLE. The Levites, as we have seen, we not allowed to partake of wine, though the ordinary people were. But with the fulfillment of the Law of Moses, everyone who professed Christ is inwardly -- in his spirit -- a member of that priesthood. Moreover, the people of God -- Christians -- are serving in the temple always. And what is that temple? It is the body of flesh and blood that houses our spirits! (1 Corithians 3:16) Paul said: "If any man defiles the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, WHICH TEMPLE YOU ARE" (1 Corithians 3:17; also see 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21). Wine was never consumed in the Temple of the Lord even though it was sacrificed on altars by being poured thereon.
It is also said by those who would vindicate the use of alcohol by Christians that Jesus served alcoholic wine at the Last Supper (Mark 14:12-25) and that therefore the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper of Eucharist should be served with alcoholic wine. The Last Supper or the First Communion of Jesus and His disciples was the last proper observance of the Jewish Passover, which commemorated the escape of their ancestors from Egypt and symbolised the coming sacrifice of the Lamb of God through which they were to escape the bondage of sin. The Law as given by Moses required that "no leaven", that is, nothing productive of or associated with fermentation or corruption, should remain in a Jewish home during Passover (Deuteronomy 16); therefore only unleavened bread and unfermented wine (grape juice) could be used at the Passover Supper. Since Jesus was strictly obedient to the Jewish law, we must believe that he and His disciples followed it closely in this supper. It should be noted that in Jesus' last words to His disciples he speaks of the "cup" and the "fruit of the vine" (Mark 12:23,25) but does not mention "wine". Indeed the word "wine" is not to be found in any passage relating to the Last Supper.
Yeast, which causes fermentation of grape juice into wine, is a fungus that destroys living cells. Thus the Law of Moses calls it "corruption". It is yeasts and various other bacteria which cause the dissolution of the human body at dead, giving that revolting smell. Thus yeast, and its by-product alcohol, are typically associated with death. Thus Jesus being offered wine vinegar on the Cross simply underscores the whole theme of death.
It is quite true, of course, that Jesus uses alcoholic wine to illustrate some of His parables as in Mark 2:22 when he points to the current practice of putting new wine into new wineskins and emphasises the impossibility of doing otherwise. Commentators differ regarding the interpretation of this parable. For, while the new wine clearly points to the lively and powerful working of Christ's new teaching, the skins which are broken may equally well refer to certain conventional forms of religion, or to the whole of Judaism, or to the human heart, all of which need to be recast in accordance with the challenge of the New Covenant which has arrived. Unfortunately the Pharisees were unwilling to face the changes which would have been involved, and obstinately clung to the system upon which their livelihood depended (Luke 5:39). But as with other passages, here we must be careful for this parable says nothing about whether alcoholic wine is to be consumed or not -- it is simply an illustration. And Jesus always used that which was communly known, at hand, or used, to illustrate parables with -- things a common man could understand.
Wine is therefore used metaphorically in the New Testament as it is in the Old in both a positive and a negative sense. The latter is found several times in the Book of Revelation, where the inhabitants of the earth are depicted as having been made drunk by the fornication of Babylon (Revelation 17:2) while she herself is drunk with their blood (Revelation 17:6). On the other hand, Paul exhorts his readers to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) in contrast with their being intoxicated with wine.
Next, we come to the passage in 1 Timothy 5:23 where Paul advises the young evangelist to "take a little wine (oinos) for (his) stomach's sake". This is one of the most popular references used by those who believe wine drinking is permissive in the Christian faith. Whether the wine Timothy was counselled to take was grape juice or the alcoholic variety is not important for the context is purely medicinal. We know that Timothy had been carefully trained by his godly mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5) and was evidently abstemious in his habits. The old missionary, worried about the frail health of his friend, advised him not to drink water only (which was not always pure) but to mix oinos (grape juice) with it. If it was alcoholic, then it must have been considerably diluted by being mixed with the water. We know that small traces of alcohol can be beneficial to the stomach and that alcohol is even produced by natural digestion. In a world where stomach infection and other diseases were common, wine did indeed have medicinal value. Whatever the interpretation, the emphasis is on health and not entertainment. Nowhere is Timothy, or any other Christian, to "make merry" on alcoholic wine. This is, moreoever, personal counsel to Timothy and is not of general application.
Finally, we come to the passages in 1 Timothy 3:3,8 and Titus 2:3. The latter is a warning to old women not to be "addicted to much wine" which possibly they took to excess to ease the burdens of old age pains. It was the only relief they possibly had from rheumatism and other problems. The former is a warning for pastors and deacons not to be "given to much wine" which one presumes can only refer to the alcoholic variety and would suggest that ministers were allowed to drink alcohol in moderation. But let us be careful and try to understand the way Paul approached his ministry. Speaking to the Corinthians he said:
Paul always spoke out of the perspective of grace because he had been a Pharisee zealous in the Law. His approach was always to get people to see things from the spiritual side so that they did not become bound down by codes and regulations to which he had been enslaved as a Jew. He knew only too well how rules and regulations could quench out the Spirit. Thus instead of making rules about abstinence from alcohol, or saying whether vegatarianism was right or wrong, he instead tried to warn of the dangers of excess in anything, and to teach people to live by revelation and common sense. He taught that if drunkenness is in general a sign of heedlessness in spiritual matters, and a disregard of the imminent return of Christ (Romans 13:13), how much more is it to be deplored at the Lord's table, where it reveals not only a spirit of complete indifference towards God but a spirit of utter thoughtlessness in regard to those who stand together within the Christian fellowship.
"Everything is permissible for me -- but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissable for me -- but I will not be mastered by anything" (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23).
The message of the epistles is that whilst wine is not condemned as being without usefulness, it brings in the hands of sinful men such dangers of being uncontrolled that even those who count themselves to be strong would be wise to abstain, if not for their own sake, yet for the sake of the weaker brethren (Romans 14:21). If it is argued that there are many other things which may be abused besides wine, the point may be immediately conceded, but wine has so often proved itself to be peculiarly fraught with danger that Paul names it specifically at the same time as he lays down the general principle. That this principle has application within the setting of modern life is beyond dispute among those who take their Christian responsibility seriously.
The Restoration of the Priesthood
Like so many areas the Bible -- and especially the New Testament -- the scriptures challenge a man to reason with his own mind and to forget himself for the sake of his brethren in the faith. There is no doubt that for many people wine is quite harmless in moderation but to others is poses great medical dangers. Under grace, all things are lawful provided we do not come into bondage to anything. But there is a higher law, and that in Christian parlance is called the law of self-sacrifice. In all things Jesus was the exemplar. He demonstrated by His attitude toward wine on the Cross that in sacred matters wine and religion do not -- and cannot -- mix. The Priests of ancient of Israel, of which He was the Great High Priest, abstained from alcohol, unlike the priests of the fallen religions who used it -- and still use it -- to induce mystical experiences that invariably lead to demon possession. All Christians are to be self-limiting (sober) for the sake of those who are weak, and that applies not only to drinking alcohol but in the indulgence of anything else that might lead someone into spiritual difficulties.
It could be argued that Paul and the apostles were not strict enough and should have made a ban on alcohol. But that is to miss the point entirely. Paul, in his letters, is addressing particular situations at particular periods in the Church's history. The New Testament is not a self-contained, 100% complete reference manual of discipleship but a semi-random collection of extant letters and gospels. It is well known that the apostles wrote much more than what appears in the New Testament, both in terms of letters as well as gospels. The New Testament was not assembled by God but by a Church council anxious to stamp our heresy from its own brand of Christianity (See our pamphlets, A Challenge to all Bible Believers and Logos: The Word, What is it?).
The Christian Church, or Church of God, was not restored all in one go, but evolved in an orderly way, "line upon line, precept upon precept" (Isaiah 28:10,13). There are many from various Restoration churches who believe that God restored His Church organisation while He was on the earth. But the Gospels reveal that very little by way of organisation took place at this time; by His death, the only officers on His fledgling Church were apostles and seventy hand-picked evangelists (Luke 10:1,17). It was not until after Penetecost that other officers were set apart (See our pamphlet, How Do I Become a New Covenant Christian?). There was very little by way of doctrine either for most of what Jesus taught was simply a refinement of the Law of Moses. It was only later that the Church, through experience and revelation, learned that circumcision, Jewish eating habits, and other ordinances were no longer required. The Church grew in wisdom degree by degree. It was not restored all at once but only as the people were prepared to receive it. Jesus Himself said that the bulk of God's Restoring work would be done by the Comforter, or Holy Spirit, after He had departed (John 14:26), and that was a reference not only to the early Christian dispensation but to ours also.
The first Christian congregations in Asia and Europe were very simply organised indeed and resembled what in the New Covenant we used to call "Restoration Christian Fellowships" (1986-88). There was no formal outer Priesthood structure as this had not yet been developed by the Holy Order which Jesus re-established with the apostle John as head. There were officers such as pastors, evangelists and deacons, but not much more. Only as the Church grew in size and as doctrinal questions arose did an outer Priesthood begin to crystalise, though this development tended to go in the wrong direction. Before the true structure could be completely established the Church of Christ was swept away by apostacy and new man-made forms of religion came into being.
Not until the late 20th century, with the establishment of the New Covenant Church of God, was a fully functioning Holy Order to be found which at first directed the formation of loose fellowhips (called Restoration Christian Fellowships, or RCF's) to then begin gradually restoring the Church of Christ in its outward form, with all the Priesthoods and grades, a process which took over ten years.
What significance does this have to the question of wine? The early Christian fellowships in Paul's time had no specific revelation on wine consumption beyond the common-sense guidelines given by Paul and the other apostles. Had the Church of Christ been given sufficient time to become established with a fully restored priesthood order the ban on alcohol would have been revealed. It was not until a revelation was received in 1988 did the Lord specifically command abstenance from alcoholic beverages (NC&C 9). This was again reaffirmed in subsequent revelations (NC&C 122:7-9; 236:9; 285:16-17). There is no doubt, then, that in our dispensation wine, or any other alcoholic beverage, is not to be taken by Christians of the New Covenant.
Alcohol and the Modern World
The 20th century, like all centuries before it, has been plagued by alcohol. In 1905, a ten year study conducted by the "Committee of Fifty" in the United States, reported that alcohol was responsible for 20% of divorces, 25% of insanity, 27% of poverty, 47% of child misery, and 50% of crime (The Bible and the Use of the Word Wine by Bertha Rachel Palmer). Today the figures are considerably worse. Even without a formal Priesthood, as obtained in the New Covenant Church of God, it should be obvious that any Christian drinking alcohol is putting a stumbling block before the vast majority of people who have alcohol-related problems (Isaiah 57:14). Jesus warned: "Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin" (Matthew 18:7). And without a shadow of a doubt alcohol is the cause of a tremendous amount of sin in the world. Every Christian, whether in the New Covenant or not, should remember what Jesus said when He warned: "But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matthew 18:6).
Alcohol is not needed by the Christian. Moreoever, it is dangerous. Human beings are more susciptible to disease than ever before and one alarming report printed recently shows that women who drink alcohol even in moderation have a high percentage chance of permanently damaging their unborn children even a few days after conception! So unless they know the day that they conceive alcohol can cripple their unborn. Conclusion: don't drink alcohol!
The Christian people are a Royal Priesthood and it has been a standing law that Priesthood abstain from alcohol. Abstinence is a sign of spirituality. Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet, knew this when she refused to partake of alcohol so that she might receive the spirit of God's servant (1 Samuel 1:11,15). The words of the prophet Habakkuk still apply: "Woe unto him who gives drink to his neighbours...!" (Habakkuk 2:15).
This page was created on 7 July 1998
Last updated on 7 July 1998
Copyright © 1987-2007 NCCG - All Rights Reserved