Sunday, December 6, 2009

Alcohol and the Bible

Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water"; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet."

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."
John 2:7-10

I grew up in a small Baptist church in the country. In this church, and many others like it, we were taught that we should abstain from alcohol. A close reading of the Bible reveals that this is not what the Bible teaches however.

Ironically, instead of prohibiting the consumption of alcohol, the Bible tells us that one of Jesus’ first public miracles was the conversion of water into wine. We also know from the comments of the master of the feast that this was not weak or cheap wine, but was of high quality. Indeed, it was even better than the expensive wine that the groom had bought for his guests originally.

Alcohol, in the form of wine, goes back to the early chapters of the Bible. It is first mentioned in Genesis 9:20-21 when Noah planted a vineyard and promptly got drunk. Numerous other references to drunkenness in the Bible show that wines of Biblical times were intoxicating drinks and not just juices (Isaiah 5:11).

Wine was a part of many aspects of life in ancient times. It was used in feasts and consumed for entertainment as mentioned in Esther 1 and 5, Isaiah 5:12, Daniel 5:1-4, and the wedding feast of John 2. Wine was even used in the worship of the Lord (Exodus 29:40, Numbers 15:5). Wine was also used for medicinal purposes (Luke 10:34, 1 Timothy 5:23).

The Bible refers to abundant wine as a reward for the Israelites (Hosea 2:22, Joel 2:19, 24, Zechariah 9:17). Conversely, when the Israelites were disobedient, among their punishments were droughts, which led to shortages of wine (Isaiah 24:7, 11, Hosea 2:9, Joel 1:10, Haggai 1:11, 2:16). Wine is even referred to as cheering “God and man” (Judges 9:13).

Wine is also used as an illustration in many Bible passages. It symbolized the blood of Christ in Matthew 26:27-29. It shows the Lord’s blessings in Isaiah 25:6. Conversely, numerous passages also present wine as an image of judgment and violence (Psalm 75:8, Jeremiah 25:15, Proverbs 4:17, Revelation 17:2).

The Bible clearly condones the practice of consuming alcohol. If consuming alcohol were a sin and alcohol itself an evil substance, it would not have been allowed to be used in sacrificial rituals because it would have rendered the altar unclean. Likewise, if the consumption of alcohol was wrong, Jesus would not have created it from jars of water.

On the other hand, the Bible does repeatedly warn about the dangers of wine and strong drink. Many, but not all of these passages are found in the book of Proverbs. A well-known passage in Proverbs 20:1 says “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” Proverbs 23:29-35 is another famous warning passage that warns that wine “bites like a serpent.”

Warnings against drunkenness are not limited to the legalism of the Old Testament. The New Testament also abounds with calls for sobriety. Jesus Himself warned against drunkenness on multiple occasions (Luke 12:45, 21:34). Additionally, Paul’s letters include drunkenness on a list of “works of the flesh” which are to be avoided (Galatians 5:21). Furthermore, Paul tells us to be sober (1 Thessalonians 5:8) and to be filled with the Spirit of God rather than wine (Ephesians 5:18).

A balanced picture of Biblical attitudes toward alcohol is that the Bible condones its consumption, even for purposes of entertainment. However the Bible is also clear that alcohol should be used in moderation and that drunkenness should be avoided.

Probably the most important lesson that the Bible can teach us about alcohol is that we should not allow our consumption of alcohol to cause others to stumble. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:23-31, “Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. 24Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others…. So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32Do not cause anyone to stumble….” While the Bible does not prohibit the use of alcohol (although as one pastor confided, “I wish it did”), our enjoyment of alcoholic beverages in moderation is not worth causing a crisis of faith for our friends and neighbors.

“Wine and Alcoholic Beverages in the Ancient World,” NIV Archaeological Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, pp. 2015.
New Topical Textbook, Bible Explorer 4, WORDsearch, 2006.
Nave’s Topics, Bible Explorer 4, WORDsearch, 2006.
December 6, 2009

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