Drinking—It’s Ok, Right?
By Kyle Pope
The saying, “Time changes all things,” certainly describes
attitudes in religion. Once most religious people in America shunned alcohol.
Now even brethren may argue that social drinking is acceptable. What should a Christian’s attitude be
toward drinking alcohol? To answer this let’s consider a few questions:
1. What Does the
Bible Condemn? Many answer that drunkenness is all that’s condemned. If
that’s your answer I challenge you to look at 1 Peter 4:3 – “For we have spent
enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in
lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable
idolatries.” Although it’s not as apparent in English, the phrases
“drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties,” all refer to types of drinking. All
are condemned, but all do not involve drunkenness. This tells Christians to
reject the extreme of drunkenness, and other types of drinking which don’t
2. What Does the
Bible Command? Scripture commands elders (1 Tim. 3:2) and others (1 Tim.
3:11; Titus 2:2) to be “temperate.” This word translates the Greek nephaleos, meaning, “sober, temperate,
abstaining from wine” (Thayer). The Greeks used this of wineless offerings. The
Jews used it of abstinence from drink practiced by priest during their service
(Lev. 10:9-10). If elders are “examples” to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3), and
Christians are priests serving God at all times (1 Pet. 2:4-5), then Scripture
is commanding Christians to practice abstinence from intoxicating drink.
3. But, Didn’t Jesus
and the Disciples Drink? My wife’s grandfather used to talk about “cider.”
By this he meant: 1) freshly pressed “juice” (i. e. “apple cider”), 2) juice
that had fermented (i. e. “hard cider”), and even 3) apple cider vinegar. This
parallels scriptural references to “wine.” There were, “all sorts of wine”
(Neh. 5:18). There was “new wine” (Hos. 4:11), “sour wine” (Matt. 27:34), “red
wine” (Is. 27:2), “sweet wine” (Is. 49:26), wine mixed with milk (So. 5:1),
water (Is. 1:22), spices (So. 8:2), and myrrh (Mark 15:23). Words for wine
apply to juice in the cluster (Is. 65:8), in the press (Is. 16:10), during
fermentation (Prov. 23:31), and for medicinal use (1 Tim. 5:23). Bible “wine”
refers to liquid from grapes at all stages from grape juice to vinegar.
Fermentation of Grapes
fermentation work? Grapes produce sugars which ferment under the right
conditions. These sugars must have contact with yeast. Grapes have natural
“ambient yeast” inside and on the skin. This yeast turns sugar to alcohol. The
amount of sugar and yeast varies based on climate, rainfall, and temperature.
The lower the amount the lower the alcohol content. To regulate this, some
winemakers add yeast (and even sugar) to affect the taste and strength of wine.
Can Fermentation Be Prevented?
Today we go
to the store and purchase “grape juice” sold by Welch’s. Since 1869 with Thomas
Bramwell Welch’s discovery of methods to pasteurize grape juice, unfermented
grape “wine” is available in any grocery store. Heat pasteurization kills yeast
cultures, impeding fermentation. If ambient yeast in the air is withheld, the
juice remains unfermented. This doesn’t mean that juice could not be preserved
before 1869. Methods to impede fermentation or prevent intoxication have
existed for millennia. A few of these included:
freshly pressed grape juice is boiled, water evaporates leaving thick syrup
that doesn’t ferment as easily and can be diluted later. The Mishneh records debates among Jews about
whether boiled or unboiled wine was used in the heave-offering (Terumot 11:1).
Aristotle wrote about wines in Arcadia so thick they were scraped off the
wineskins to drink (Meterologica 388b,
6). Virgil described housewives boiling down “sweet must (i.e. freshly squeezed
grape juice)” (Georgics, 1.295).
ambient yeast is in the solid matter of grapes, part of what allows
fermentation is contact with the skin, stems, and seeds of grapes. If pressed
juice is filtered at an early stage, most yeast can be removed. One winemaking
forum online claims that a .45 micron filter removes most yeasts. Now
ancients didn’t have refined filters, but it’s clear that filtration was used.
Pliny the Elder wrote that the most suitable for all men was wine, “with
strength reduced by the filter,” even explaining the difference between “must”
and fermented wine (Natural History, 23.24).
Plutarch devotes an entire discussion to whether wine should be strained,
declaring wine “cleansed” by a strainer, has its “strike and madness taken
away” leaving one in a “mild and healthy state of mind” (Symposiacs, 693b 3-5). The Talmud records debates regarding whether
wine should be filtered on the Sabbath or not (Shabbat, 139b). Isaiah
25:6 probably describes filtered wine in its reference to a feast of “wines on
the lees well-refined.” The word for “well-refined” means, “to purify, distil,
strain, refine” (Gesenius). Boiled
or filtered wines could be sealed and stored in cellars for long periods of
common technique to guard against intoxication was diluting wine with water.
This was as much as 20/1 (Homer, Odyssey 9.208),
8/1 (Pliny Natural History 14.6), or
among the Jews 2 or 3/1 (Shabbat 77a;
Pesachim 108b). The apocryphal book
of 2 Maccabbes claims, “It is hurtful to drink wine or water alone… wine
mingled with water is pleasant” (15:39).
So what did Jesus and the disciples
drink? Let’s ask this—how would godly people, before the FDA, product labeling,
and modern chemistry determine what they drank? They went to the market or
winepress, and chose based on taste, smell, and appearance. If juice was fresh,
they drank it or preserved it by boiling or filtering. If it wasn’t, they would
purchase drink which would not impair their sobriety (and probably dilute it to
prevent any possible intoxicating effects). There is no question that the Bible
refers to “wine” that was alcoholic. However it is a grave mistake to see in
every reference to “wine” the alcoholic drink we find in modern liquor stores.
That is not what Jesus drank, nor would He approve of those who do today.