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Christians and Drinking Alcoholic Beverages

What is God's will concerning Christians and drinking alcoholic beverages? Can Christians drink wine or strong drink? If so, what are the definitions and limitations? The Scriptures definitively answer these debatable questions which seem to be capable of different answers. The correct answer is the difference between life and death, blessedness and accursedness. What does the Bible say about God's people and drinking? Only by a thorough examination can we arrive at the correct answer.

 All of these questions really must be settled through an initial two-part answer. The question about the limitations of alcoholic consumption is only an issue if drinking alcoholic beverages is first allowed on any level. The total abstinence interpretation of the Scriptures settles the issue once for all in maintaining that any consumption of alcoholic beverages is forbidden. Can this hold up under the scrutiny of the Word? The answer is no. While both the Old and New Covenant Scriptures abundantly condemn the state of drunkenness, both allow and even approve of the proper use of wine and strong drink. In the Law of Moses, the use of both wine and strong drink are specifically named among other agricultural blessings from God as things to be personally consumed in the yearly celebration and reverence of the Name of the Lord in Jerusalem. In Deuteronomy Moses wrote:

“You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. You shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God, at the place where He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. If the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the place where the Lord your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when the Lord your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the money in your hand and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”

Using the transliterations of the words in question will help to clarify the issues at hand. The first word above translated “new wine” comes from the word tirosh which means “must, new or sweet wine, that is, fresh or newly squeezed sweet grape juice”. This is non-alcoholic grape juice. This is the meaning of this word in almost every instance that it appears in the Old Covenant Scriptures. There are two clear exceptions and one probable exception. The first clear exception is here. This is understood by the analogous repetition immediately restated by Moses where he substituted yayin for tirosh in the second word translated “wine” above. Yayin always means fermented (alcoholic) wine, that is, wine that can and often does produce intoxication. The second clear instance where tirosh means fermented wine is in the Prophet Hosea, where he condemns Israel and their priests for their sins listed as “prostitution, wine (yayin), and new wine (tirosh) [which all] take away the understanding”. In both of these exceptions tirosh is directly inked with yayin as both able to produce (Moses) and actually producing (Hosea) the same sin of drunkenness. In these exceptions tirosh means new wine which can or does intoxicate due to the fact that it is alcoholic wine in the initial stages of fermentation. While it is not as potent as yayin, tirosh, which is in this stage, is still intoxicating due to the fact that it also contains alcohol. Furthermore, in the passage above from Moses, tirosh is directly linked with “strong drink” which translates the word shekar. Shekar always means intensely alcoholic drink, whether that drink is derived from fermented grain or fruit. In both of these cases in which tirosh, which normally means grape-juice, is rendered as alcoholic wine it is always linked to either yayin or shekar. What is to be understood through the Mosaic passage cited is that ancient Israel was to both celebrate and fear the Lord on an annual basis in Jerusalem with feasting which included fermented wine and alcoholic beer or malt. This was not simply a custom, but was a commandment of the Lord. These acts celebrated His complete agricultural provision and blessing of Israel.

That this particular commandment was understood and practiced in Israel is reflected in a New Covenant episode in which the followers of Jesus were wrongly accused of being drunk. Acts records that in keeping with the annual festival commandments, devout emigrant Jews of the Dispersion who lived in Jerusalem had gathered to celebrate. What those Jews did not know was that this particular instance would mark the fulfillment of the Feast of Pentecost in God's eternal purposes in the very same way that the Passover that preceded this Pentecost was eternally fulfilled. When the day had fully arrived, God poured out His Spirit upon the faithful followers of Jesus. One of the signs that God had done this was that the believers began to praise God in the very foreign languages of the emigrants. These speakers were Jews of the homeland, of the region of Galilee, who were blessing God in the languages of the birthplaces of the emigrants. This, of course, was a miracle because the speaking Jews did not know those foreign languages. While the devout Jews were amazed as to this meaning, others who were there mockingly and falsely charged the disciples of Jesus as being drunk because their overall speaking sounded like gibberish. They said, “They are full of sweet wine.” “Sweet wine” translates the word gleukos which is used only here in the New Covenant Scriptures. Here gleukos means wine that can be highly intoxicating due to its very high sugar content. The word “full” translates the word mestoo which means to refill with. This, also, is its only occurrence in the New Covenant Scriptures. The mocking Jews said, “These men are intoxicated on sweet wine.” Peter immediately refuted the charge by first saying, “these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is the third hour of the day”. Here a number of translations supply “it is only the third hour of the day” with the weight on only. This is in keeping with the Scriptural maxim, “they who get drunk get drunk at night”. However, there is no word to translate as “only” in the text. This is not what Peter said nor meant and otherwise diminishes the force of his declaration. What the mocking Jews should have known and the devout Jews would have known was that the oral law forbad any Jew to partake of food or drink at the festivals unit well after the morning sacrifice which was performed at the third hour of the day. According to this law, some allowed food and drink at the fifth hour while others allowed it at the sixth hour. Peter's retort declared that the speakers possessed the same devoutness that the emigrants possessed. The question arises whether the Jews were allowed to get drunk at the festivals at the allowed hours. Absolutely not. The mocking statement does not condone or even acknowledge such a practice. It was simply a false charge. The charge only had any occasion of being made because the provision of sweet wine was available for proper celebration. Drunkenness would only occur if the partakers abused the provision of celebration. The charge was thoroughly false. They did not abuse the time of the morning sacrifice, nor did they abuse the sweet wine which was available for later use.

Next, consider another episode like this one in Acts that talks about people getting drunk without supporting the fact that the particular disciples of Jesus who were present were, indeed, also drunk. The occasion was the first miracle of Jesus recorded by John in his gospel. It was when Jesus turned water into wine at a marriage celebration. This is one of a few places where some people believe that getting drunk (at least in its initial stage) is shown to be permissible by God. A proper examination will show that this is simply not so. It is a far stretch to arrive at such a conclusion. To come to the point being considered, when the bridegroom ran out of wine, Mary asked Jesus to help. He made provisions and turned water into wine. Furthermore, He told the servants to take some of the wine to the ruler of the feast. The word “wine” translates the word oinos and is used in all places in the New Covenant Scriptures where wine and its compounds occur except in the passage from Acts that was examined above. Oinos is the New Covenant counterpart of the Old Covenant word for wine, yayin, that is, fermented wine. When the ruler of the feast tasted the wine he summoned the bridegroom and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the guests are drunk, then he serves the inferior, but you have kept the good wine until now.” Many interpreters try to lessen the force of the word “drunk”, with its supposed implications here, by substituting “filled (satisfied) with drink”. This maneuver is akin to the scribal glosses of old wherein scribes sought to protect or safeguard God's Word from what they thought were inferior, wrong, and/or damaging translations or renditions of the Scriptures. The need to “protect” the saying of the ruler of the feast arises from a false understanding of what he meant. The ruler of the feast, also known as a director of banquet or ceremony, was a professional (or privileged appointee) who rendered his service of overseeing and coordinating feasts, banquets, entertainments, and ceremonies. His statement only meant that usually what happened at feasts or parties was that the higher quality wine was served first and later, when the guests became dull of taste through inebriation, the host would serve up the cheaper wine of inferior quality. He did not say that everyone in attendance at that wedding ceremony was drunk, only that substituting inferior wine for quality wine was what generally happened at those events after the attendees got drunk. His whole emphasis was on the higher quality of the wine that the bridegroom (he wrongly thought) had kept in reserve unit later in the celebration – an unusual event. This evaluation of the extent of attendee drunkenness is in keeping with the same setting in modern times. I am sure that many readers of this page have attended wedding receptions where alcohol was served. Some attendees, of what usually is a large and diverse group, got drunk to one degree or another. This does not say or even imply that all attendees at those receptions got drunk or even approved of drunkenness occurring at those events. In fact, it is usually presupposed that everyone who attends wedding receptions does not get drunk, even when that is the case with some attendees. To say from this event in John's gospel that Mary and Jesus and His disciples got drunk along with others who were there is an unwarranted and false interpretation of these recorded words. To say that any drunkenness at events like this one is approved by God is also an unwarranted and false interpretation of John's gospel.

From here it is very advantageous and necessary to look at other Scriptures that people interpret as allowing intoxication on some acceptable level. In fact, this interpretation maintains that it is God's will to bless His people this way for their enjoyment and satisfaction. Such interpretations heavily emphasize and rely on the following statement and others that seem to be like it. The 104th Psalm states, “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes man’s heart merry.” This last phrase can rightly be translated as “fermented wine which makes man's heart merry”. These words can also properly be used in place of merry because they are correct translations of the same Hebrew word samach: glad, joyful, cheered, or gleeful. It is an indisputable fact that the initial stage of inebriation produces these very characteristics. The question then arises, is this the intended meaning of this verse? The true examination of this verse and those related to it reveals a completely different and opposite meaning than that which teaches gladness produced by intoxication on some blessed level. Furthermore, the false interpretation of Psalm 104 has spiritually lethal consequences in its application and practice. In order to bring out the true meaning of “wine which makes man's heart merry” consider this synonymous declaration from Proverbs 27, “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, So a man’s counsel is sweet to his friend.” The same Hebrew word is used in Psalm 104 (translated as merry) that is used in Proverbs 27 (translated as glad). In both places it is the heart of man, his thoughts, his inner man that is gladdened. The Proverb is crystal clear. Just as fragrant ointments and perfumes enliven the thoughts and lift the emotions so does sweet and enlivening counsel to a friend.” The very same words are used in Proverbs that are used in Psalms and there is obviously no application whatsoever in Proverbs to drinking oil and perfume to intoxication. Consider another synonymous declaration from Judges. Here Jotham arises to tell a fable for reproof and admonition. His subjects were trees and plants of the Land of Israel. It is not my purpose here to tell the meaning of the fable in its historical setting. (This is not relevant to our purpose.) Rather, for our purposes I will simply quote from the conversation of the subjects of the fable. “Once the trees went forth to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my fatness with which God and men are honored, and go to wave over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come, reign over us!’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to wave over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come, reign over us!’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my new wine, which cheers God and men, and go to wave over the trees?’” Notice that unlike the fig tree, both the olive tree and the vine have a function toward God and man. The olive tree honored God and man while the vine cheered God and man. This word translated as cheered is the same Hebrew word samach examined above. However, the word translated as wine is from the word tirosh, which almost always means grape-juice. It might mean grape-juice here, but, as referred to earlier as the third alternate use, it probably means fermented wine. This is because of its function toward God related to in this verse. Like oil that honored God, the way that wine cheered God was in its use in the Mosaic sacrificial system. The wine that was used in those sacrifices was fermented. Did God get inebriated on the wine and become cheered? Perish the thought! Rather, God was well-pleased, He was gladdened, He was delighted that He was honored through His people's obedient sacrificial use of His specified provisions. It is in the very same way that the word “glad” and its many proper translations must be seen when applied to man. The reason why wine gladdens the heart of man is precisely because wine is put forward as a representative and functioning symbol of the recurring, complete annual agricultural blessings from God and harvest and productivity of man. It, accordingly, makes man's heart cheered in the very same way that oil and perfume make his heart glad. Its very presence and use reveal that man is blessed and uplifted. Intoxication in any degree is not involved at all!

Finally, other usages from the Old and New Covenant Scriptures must be considered in order to avoid the wrong interpretation and arrive at the true meaning of the use of alcoholic beverages by God's chosen people. In the Old Covenant writings, there are many instances of the use of fermented wine and strong drink. Some of those involved God's people getting drunk. In none of those is drunkenness approved. It is stated as a fact only. It is stating such a fact in the same way that revealing that God's people lied or had certain sexual relations is stated as a fact. Approval is not the issue and is definitely not established by those events. Two examples are when Noah got drunk and when Joseph and his brothers got drunk together. In all other instances when alcoholic drink was used, approved drunkenness on the part of God's people was not named or even implied. Drunkenness is used symbolically as representing judgment against sinning peoples on the one hand and as representing righteous ferocity in battle on the other. When used for judgment, it signifies wrath, destitution, and misery. When used regarding ferocity in battle, it signifies victory. This last use did not endorse any state of drunkenness in itself. It was only used in this sense - like drunken and bloodthirsty men they ran victoriously into battle. Only the ferocity of battle is being emphasized, not that the states of drunkenness and blood-lust are approved in themselves. In fact, this symbolic use of a drunken aggressive warrior was applied to the Lord Himself when He arose in fierce anger to rout His foes.

In every New Covenant occurrence of drunk or drunkenness, it is named with explicit or implied disapproval. All translations are from the noun forms of methe and methusos which mean “intoxication” and “drunk” respectively, or from the verbal forms of methuo and methusko which mean “to be or get drunk” and “intoxicated” respectively. In the one symbolic occurrence in Revelation, it is used concerning the objects of God's wrath.

Two final considerations in the New Covenant writings nail closed the false and damning interpretation that God allows, wills, and blesses His people to even get slightly inebriated through the use of His provision of fermented wine and/or strong drink. I have reserved these for last in order to define the limit and sum up the teaching.

The first instance is from Jesus. It is the same saying recorded by Matthew and Luke, and it is the only occurrence of this saying in the New Covenant Scriptures. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” The word winebibber translates oinopotes, which also occurs only in this saying. Oinopotes is a compound word, which combines oinos (wine) and potes (a tippler, that is, an excessive [wine] drinker) for its meaning. Oinopotes can also be translated drunkard.

The second instance is from Paul. In Ephesians he gives a series of commandments regarding holiness and being filled with the Holy Spirit. As absolute and necessary he commands, “do not get drunk with wine, in which is excess”. Excess, which translates the word asotia, is the proper meaning of this word which appears here and in three other places in the New Covenant Scriptures. The classical Greek usage is too strong. It meant “profligate, wanton, riotous, dissolute, debauched”. Asotia is used by Paul, Peter, and Luke with the simple meaning of excess or excessive. In fact, when the classical meaning was intended, asotia was placed before another and separate word. Peter said that unbelievers blasphemed Christians because they would not run with them in the same asotia anachusis, that is, in the same excess (asotia) outpouring (anachusis). Anachusis can also be translated as overflow or flood. These two words together render the classical Greek meaning, not asotia standing alone.

From all that has been examined above it is without doubt that the use and enjoyment of alcoholic beverages is not only not forbidden, but is a blessing from God and to be enjoyed in His presence. The prime example is Jesus Himself who drank wine and was falsely accused of being a sinner in the categories of food and drink. For a winebibber is one who drinks wine to excess with the result being intoxication (which is unavoidable because alcohol is excessively consumed). This has its parallel with being falsely accused of being a glutton, one who eats food to excess (which is observable through its overindulgence, insatiability, and piggishness).

Having established through Jesus and Paul that the excessive use of wine is what produces drunkenness and is what is forbidden, that requires definitive answers to these questions. What constitutes excessive drinking? Is the limit, beyond which drunkenness occurs, defined by man or by God? Is it relative or absolute? Excessive drinking is defined by God and its limit is absolute! The very primary meaning of the word which means to become drunk or to be drunken settles the issue once for all and puts everyone in safe standing before God. Referring again to the episode when Joseph got intoxicated with his brothers, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew) uses the word methuo (to get drunk). The word methuo is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word shakar. Shakar is the outcome arrived at by the excessive consumption of fermented wine or strong drink. It is precisely here that the definition and primary limit is established. Like many Hebrew and Greek words, shakar is capable of a true range of meaning. While it does mean intoxication revealed by its stages of confusion, dizziness, staggering, reeling, vomiting, passing out, and things like these, its primary meaning is to be tipsy! Tipsy simply means “slightly inebriated or mildly drunk, that is, to be merry, gladdened, cheered, mirthful, (and in modern usage) buzzed”, and things like these. In fact, many translations state that Joseph's brothers drank and were merry with him. This is almost certainly the best translation since there is no sense in the text that they drank to a staggering state or to passing out, which last state is recorded regarding Noah's drunkenness. Drunkenness, therefore, as forbidden by God has a full range of meaning. It has a starting place, “slightly drunk”, “merry (through alcohol)” and an ending place, “staggering”, “passed out”. God forbids it all and not simply the strong progression and climax of the state of drunkenness. In fact, the guilt of initial inebriation is the same as that of full inebriation before God. The New Covenant Scriptures make this abundantly clear. According to Jesus, to lust in one's heart after the opposite sex is to commit adultery with that person. To hate your brother is to murder him. First degree and last degree are all the same before God regarding the defiling guilt of sin.

In conclusion, God has blessed us with the ability to produce alcoholic beverages from fruit and grain like He has given us the ability to produce loaves from grain in order in enjoy blessedness before Him. However, He forbids any abuse through excessive indulgence in these things according to His predetermined limits. These limits are clearly defined in His Word. They are not determined according to man. Remember, the same Scripture that declares that no fornicator or idolater shall enter the Kingdom of God also declares that no drunkard shall enter into it. Practicing fornication even to a small degree or practicing idolatry even to a small degree bar entrance into the Kingdom. Likewise, practicing inebriation even to a small degree is disqualifying.

Finally, remember the words of our brother Paul. When speaking about the issue of freedom and the free use of things for the believers in the areas of food and drink he said that he would master everything, but be mastered by nothing. Oh Christian, this is God's will in Christ Jesus that concerns you!

Hear Jesus!

 theodore@hearjesus.net

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