This is one of those very divisive issues in the church, with various positions passionately argued. My intention here is simply to look at the claims of some Christians that Scripture demands total abstinence of all alcohol for all believers.
It is of course quite clear that Scripture repeatedly warns about excessive alcohol use, resulting in drunkenness (see eg., Prov. 20:1; Eph. 5:18). And certain individuals or groups were told to abstain from alcohol (eg., the Nazarites – Num 6:1-3), or chose to avoid it (eg., Daniel and his friends while in captivity – Dan 1:8). But on other occasions the use of alcohol is given the Scriptural green light, as in Proverbs 31:6 and 1 Timothy 5:23.
Of course those promoting complete abstinence seek to argue that such verses do not refer to real wine, but to unfermented grape juice or radically watered down wine. How accurate are these claims? Who is right here? One need not examine every passage pertaining to alcohol to sort through these matters.
Simply looking in detail at one episode in the biblical narrative is sufficient here. The story of the wedding at Cana as recorded in John 2:1-12 is all about wine and its use, so a close inspection of the episode should suffice in sorting these matters out.
If one just took note of verses 9-10 that should make it clear that this was not water being changed into unfermented grape juice: “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’.”
Moreover, knowing a bit about first century culture and practice helps us greatly in ascertaining what is going on here. Craig Keener spends some time on this in his helpful two-volume commentary on John. He writes, “Wine was not merely unfermented ‘grape juice,’ as some popular modern North American apologists for abstinence have contended.
“Before hermetic sealing and refrigeration, it was difficult to prevent some fermentation, and impossible to do so over long periods of time. Nor was wine drunk only to purify the water, as some have also claimed. . . . Wine was a standard part of daily life in the ancient Mediterranean world, and Palestine was no exception.
“Seven or more Galilean cities and villages were heavily engaged in wine production, which constituted one of Galilee’s primary industries. Jewish texts assumed the importance (and necessity) of wine for festive occasions, including in the blessing for Sabbath meals and at weddings.”
Many teetotallers will try to appeal to the original terms here, especially in the New Testament. The trouble is, many of these folks know little or nothing about New Testament Greek – or about Hebrew and Aramaic in the Old Testament. Yet they will try to argue that the terms can refer to just grape juice, and so on.
Even respected Christian apologists like Norman Geisler try to claim that NT wine was extremely watered down wine, and you would need to drink heaps of it to feel any effect. These folks mean well, but we must remain true both to Scripture and what we know of Jewish culture and tradition.
D. F. Watson has penned a very important article on wine in the superlative Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. He begins with these words: “The main words for wine are the Hebrew yayin, the Aramaic h’mar, and the Greek oinos. . . . All wine mentioned in the Bible is fermented grape juice with an alcohol content. No non-fermented drink was called wine.”
He goes on in quite some detail, looking at old wine, new wine, strong drink, and so on. He continues, “Wine was consumed at daily meals (Gen 14:18; Judg 19:19; 1 Sam 16:20; 2 Chron 11:11; Is 55;1; Dan 1:5; Lk 7;33-34). . . . Wine used at the Last Supper was probably mixed three parts water to one part wine.”
He reminds us that in Scripture wine was associated with feasting and celebration (eg., Esther 1:7-9; Is 25:6; Dan 5:1), as well as weddings of course. And abundant wine was considered to be a sign of God’s blessing and favour (Gen 27:28, 37; Deut 7:13; Ps 104:15; Joel 2:24, etc). Conversely, a lack of wine was seen as God’s judgment (Deut 28:30; Is 16:10; Jer 48:33; Zeph 1:13).
He continues, “Jesus upheld the popular attitude toward wine. He drank wine (Mt 11:18-19; Lk 7:33-34; Mt 26:29) and permitted its use in festivities like the wedding of Cana. Jesus even used the imagery of wine to describe his teaching as ‘new wine’ (Mt 9:17; Mk 2:22; Lk 5:37-39).
Finally, as to the wedding at Cana, Watson says this: “It must be noted that both wine and its quantity are important symbols. In the Old Testament and Judaism abundant wine (and oil or milk) is a sign of the age of salvation (Jer 31:12; Joel 3 :18; Amos 9:13-14).
“The image of abundant wine is associated with the blessing to accompany the arrival of the Messiah of Judah (Gen 49:11-12). The image of a banquet describes the coming time of messianic blessing (Is 25:6-8; 65:13). In Jesus’ parables the kingdom of God is portrayed as a wedding feast (Mt 9:14-15 par. Mk 2:18-20 and Lk 5:33-35; Mt 22:1-14; Lk 14:15-24; Mt 25:1-13; cf. Lk 12:36; Jn 3:29-30; Rev 19:7-9) or simply a feast (Mt 8:11-12). Jesus himself portrays the disciples in his presence as guests at a wedding (Mt 9:15; Mk 2:19; Lk 5:34).
“John’s account of Jesus’ conversion of such a large quantity of water into wine at a wedding feast is one way of announcing that the kingdom of God, the eschatological time of salvation, had arrived in the presence of the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus shows himself to be the Son of God come down from heaven bringing the blessing of the eschatological age symbolized by abundant wine. The miracle of Cana allowed Jesus to manifest his glory to his disciples and evoke their belief (Jn 2:11; cf. 1:14).”
It can be said that the case for teetotalism is much like the case for pacifism: neither can find full biblical warrant, certainly not from the teachings and example of Jesus. In the case of pacifism, if Jesus were fully against the use of force and warfare, he could have easily told any seekers from the military that the first thing they must do to inherit the Kingdom would be to renounce life in the military. Jesus of course never did this.
It is the same here. If the use of alcohol was altogether taboo for Jesus, he would not have had anything to do with it, whether at the Passover (Mark 14:23) or here at the wedding feast. Indeed, he could have used these ideal occasions to denounce the use of alcohol. But he never did.
And of course had Jesus never drunk fermented wine, charges made by his detractors would have rung rather hollow. Consider what Jesus said himself in Luke 7:33-34: “For 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!’”
The truth is, much of Christian thinking on the issue is cultural in nature. For example, while alcohol use is extremely common in much of Europe, including by European Christians, it is less well accepted in certain American Christian circles.
And as is so often the case, finding the biblical balance is always crucial. There are two sets of extremes to avoid here. Generally speaking, license (doing anything and everything because we are under grace) is just as dangerous and wrong as legalism (creating man-made rules to keep people in bondage).
Specifically, we are to avoid the extremes of drunkenness, but we are also to avoid making up burdens to be placed on believers which Scripture does not place there. The believer has freedom in Christ, not to get drunk, but not to be placed under man-made regulations either (see 1 Cor 10:31 eg.).
Of course much more could be said about all this, with many more texts appealed to. For example, it would be quite strange for Paul to write what he did in 1 Corinthians 11:20-22 where he chews out those who were getting drunk during the Lord’s Supper, if this was simply unfermented grape juice, etc.
But by this point I may be experiencing on a smaller scale that which happened to Jesus (see John 6:66!). Indeed, now many will be assured that I am the antichrist, and must be burned at the stake for heresy. Well, so be it. As a biblical Christian, I cannot run with the traditions of men, but I must hold fast to what Scripture says – and does not say.
And respectfully, those who want to get into a knock-down, drag-out fight over all this will not get too much of a hearing from me. Life is busy, and those who want to send people to the wall over this, and push their own pet peeves ad infinitum, ad nauseum might be best advised to do so elsewhere thanks.