Alcohol – What the Bible Really Says
Many religious people believe that God has forbidden any use of alcoholic beverages — that any use of alcohol is wrong and sinful. They claim that the Bible supports this prohibition.
Jesus turning water into wine: one artist's illustration
Wine and other alcoholic drinks are frequently mentioned in the Bible. If something sinful or beneficial exists about these beverages, then the Bible will show it. What does the Bible really say about wine and alcohol?
One of the first mentions of wine in Scripture is by Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God at Salem (Jerusalem) during the time of Abram, whose name was later changed to Abraham. Melchizedek “brought forth bread and wine” for Abram and his companions (Genesis 14:18). The Hebrew word translated wine in Genesis 14:18 is yayin. This word is used over 130 times in the Hebrew Bible to mean fermented wine, not grape juice.
This same beverage, when used excessively, causes drunkenness. Genesis 9:21 says that Noah drank too much yayin and became drunk. Lot also became drunk on this beverage (Genesis 19:30-36), and so did Nabal (1 Samuel 25:36). Nevertheless, God told his people to enjoy yayin at the yearly festivals (Deuteronomy 14:26). In addition to using wine as a beverage, God also commanded the Levitical priests to include in the sacrifices a portion of wine (yayin) as a drink offering (Exodus 29:40). These scriptures make it clear that there can be a right and a wrong use of wine.
Naturally fermented wine is between 10 percent and 14 percent alcohol. Higher alcoholic wines are fortified wines. On special occasions God even allowed use of what is translated as “strong drink.” This term comes from a different Hebrew word — shekar — which is used 22 times in the Old Testament, and refers to alcoholic drinks made from dates and other fruit.
The high alcoholic drinks called hard liquor today (40 percent to 50 percent alcohol, or 80 to 100 proof) did not exist in Bible times. They are produced by distilling grain-based mash or material from other sources. They did not come into widespread use until the Middle Ages. The danger of these high alcoholic drinks is that, unless one dilutes them, they easily lend themselves to abuse, drunkenness and alcoholism. (Liqueurs, flavored and sweetened distilled liquors, are somewhat different in that they are usually served in small amounts and sipped slowly.)
The Bible says that God gave wine to make men glad (Psalm 104:15). Why have some people turned this blessing of God into a curse? The answer is that many people do not follow God’s instructions.
A blessing of wine was prophesied as a heritage to the chosen people in Genesis 27:28: “May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness — an abundance of grain and new wine [tirosh].” The Hebrew word tirosh, meaning “new wine,” is used in 38 places in the Old Testament. People sometimes conclude that this word means grape juice, or fresh-pressed juice of the vine. However, Hosea 4:11 states: “Old wine [yayin] and new wine [tirosh] take away their understanding.” Grape juice could not have this effect. Tirosh is an intoxicating wine if used in excess.
New Testament instruction
John the Baptist did not drink wine (oinos in the Greek) or any other form of alcohol because it was prophesied that he wouldn’t (Luke 1:15). However, Jesus Christ did drink oinos (wine) (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Jesus did not preach against the use of wine; instead he did like most other Jews of his day. He drank wine in moderation. In ancient times it was normally diluted with water for drinking, and was one of the principal beverages at that time — as it is today.
Jesus’ first miracle was to change water into wine (oinos). Some people who preach total abstinence claim that this miracle was to turn water into grape juice. Imagine if you can a Jewish wedding banquet where everyone drank only grape juice! (The ancients did not have refrigeration or any other method of preventing grape juice from fermenting.) On this occasion, Christ turned six jars of 20 or 30 gallons each into wine (oinos). This was no small miracle. This wine was of the finest quality — “You have saved the best till now” (John 2:10). At wedding feasts, the hosts normally started with the best wine, and they would bring out lesser-quality wines later.
Jesus gave a parable involving the fermenting process of oinos in Matthew 9:17. At that time, instead of having metal or glass bottles to enclose wine, the skins of animals were used. The fermentation of the wine could burst an old skin, but it would not break a new stretchable skin.
Another proof that oinos is fermented wine is the fact that the apostle Paul said, “Do not get drunk on wine [oinos]” (Ephesians 5:18). Paul did not mean to avoid getting drunk on grape juice! Paul instructed Timothy, “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine [oinos] because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). He said to use only a little wine, not a whole lot. The purpose of this wine was Timothy’s frequent stomach ailments; small amounts of wine can help some stomach problems.
Some of the Corinthians Christians were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:21). They were using fermented wine, probably following the example that Paul had set for them. Paul did not tell them that they were using the wrong kind of wine. He simply told them to eat and drink at home, and to participate in the Lord’s Supper in a respectful way. In Romans 14:21, Paul says that it is good not to drink wine or eat meat if it offends a weak brother. He is referring to fermented wine; grape juice wouldn’t offend anyone. The implication is that there’s nothing wrong with the wine in itself, only if it offends a weak brother.
Abuse, drunkenness condemned
Both the Old and New Testaments contain many examples and commands against excessive use of alcohol and drunkenness. Drunkenness is listed as one of the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:21). That means it is the result of the undisciplined, indiscriminate use of alcohol. Jesus warned his followers not to be drunk (Luke 21:34).
The apostle Paul told the Corinthian church to “you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but cannot control his or her drinking (1 Corinthians 5:11-13). This refers to people who will not face up to or won’t even try to overcome drinking problems, not people who are working on and overcoming their problems. The Bible says that drunkards will not enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:21). No one who abuses alcohol should be ordained in the ministry of Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 3:3, 8, Titus 1:7). If a minister drinks, it should be in moderation.
Throughout the Bible, God criticizes those who are “heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks” (Isaiah 5:22). Excessive drinkers are committing an evil (Proverbs 23:20-21, Isa. 28:1-8). When used improperly, wine is a mocker and deceiver (Proverbs 20:1). Those who “linger over wine” and spend a great deal of time in drinking will find all kinds of woe, sorrow and trouble (Proverbs 23:29-30).
Prohibitionists focus on the verses that condemn or show the results of wrong alcohol use, but neglect those verses that show there can be a proper moderate use.
Another use of wine that has been recognized for millennia is the antiseptic qualities of wine. The germ-killing qualities of wine are greater than the same proportion of alcohol in water – and a good natural wine is not as damaging to the flesh as some strong antiseptics are.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written in 1991 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
Jesus showed he knew the benefits of wine as an antiseptic when he gave the parable of the good Samaritan. In this case a man had been injured and had a severe wound. The good Samaritan “bandaged his wounds, pouring on [olive] oil and wine [oinos]” (Luke 10:34). The oil softened the flesh; the wine helped kill bacteria.
Use this knowledge
Some people reject this truth from the Bible about alcohol. They have made up their minds that the use of wine is always wrong. The Bible shows we are not to judge or condemn those who honestly hold such beliefs (1 Corinthians 10:23-33).
Alcohol is not a necessity of life. In God’s eyes, one does not have to drink to show maturity, virility or sociability. And because of the enormous destruction caused by alcohol abuse today, many people have decided that it is better to abstain even if the Bible does not require us to (see for example Howard H. Charles, Alcohol and the Bible, published by Herald Press in 1981). That is a more respectable position than trying to argue that the Bible itself forbids the use of alcoholic beverages.
Alcoholics, or anyone who reacts adversely to alcohol for any reason, should not drink alcohol privately or socially at all. Nor should a person use alcohol in the presence of a recovering alcoholic (and often one does not know who that might be). There are many nonalcoholic drinks a person can enjoy instead.