The Gospel is Like Wine
Booze, white lightning, firewater, grog, joy juice, moonshine, hooch, rot-gut, amber brew and a thousand other names have been used to describe the many beverages which contain ethanol. Ethanol is a natural substance formed when certain species of yeast metabolize sugar. Its largest use today is as a fuel. It has been used since ancient times as a natural preservative.
In Matthew 9:17 the gospel is compared to this fermentation process wherein ethanol is produced. New wine or fresh squeezed grape juice in the early stages of fermentation was placed in a sack formed from animal skin where it fermented into wine. During that process, the skin stretched and was thus only able to be safely used once.
If an old animal skin was used, there was the great danger that it had already reached its elastic limit, and would burst during fermentation, losing both the wine and the skin bag. The new wine being prepared pictures the freshness of the gospel, represented by Jesus. The old wineskins represent the old restrictive religion with its regulations about touch not and taste not, which cannot contain the gospel.
Some Christians believe that abstinence from all alcohol is taught in the Bible, whereas others believe that the Bible encourages moderation. Others even proudly announce as a measure of their righteousness, that they have never had a drop of alcohol in their lives.
Certain well-meaning Christians treat the topic with a degree of hysteria or even methyphobia (a fear of alcohol). A few will have a wine, but never a beer or liqueur. Virtually no Christian believes that drunkenness is right. This is a brief introduction to the main causes of division regarding how and if alcohol may be used by Christians.
Almost every Bible commentary and almost every theologian agrees that the terms for "wine" in the Bible’s original languages refer to fermented, that is alcoholic grape juice. There is no indication otherwise, except for those who wish to read their prejudice into the Bible.
Until 1869 when Thomas Welch discovered how to pasteurize grape juice and his son Charles Welch found it profitable to market, the common method of preserving grape juice was allowing it to ferment. Alcohol is a natural preservative created by God. It is not evil. Certainly, alcoholism and drunkenness are evils. It was also a problem in ancient times. The Bible contains a number of warnings against the abuse of alcohol.
The Word Temperance
Some Christians believe that the word temperance means abstinence from alcohol. It does not. Let’s look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23 where some Bible translations use the word temperance. The temperance movement which bans even moderate alcohol use takes its name from this word.
Because of this confusion, dictionaries now define the English word temperance as either moderation or abstinence. But languages change and total abstinence from alcohol is not what the Bible demands at all. That is why a modern translation of the Bible will use the word self-control in Galatians 5, because that's what the original Greek meant, self-control not abstinence.
Wine or Grape Juice
Some people believe that the “fruit of the vine” described in the Bible was unfermented grape juice. But this is a misunderstanding of history and science. Until pasteurization and refrigeration, fresh squeezed grape juice always fermented within a very few days. Certainly "new wine" placed in wineskins is almost totally unfermented. However, this differs from today’s processed grape juice. It has not been killed by pasteurization, and within a short time takes on that characteristic tang of alcohol production. You may have tasted that same zest when you sugared sliced peaches and left them in the refrigerator a day or so. Fresh apple cider will also begin to get tangy or “hard” within a few days.
The idea that some have of ancient peoples keeping bunches of grapes for six months from the autumn harvest to the spring Passover festival so that they could squeeze out grape juice is naïve. Not only is it a preposterous misrepresentation of ancient culture, but grapes would surely have rotted or turned to raisins by that time.
Jesus’ First Miracle
Jesus’ first recorded miracle was at a wedding in Cana (John 2), where he turned water into wine. It was wine and not grape juice. In accordance with Jewish custom, they were drinking real wine. It was a joyful wedding with probably several hundred people attending, so Jesus helped when the wine supply became prematurely exhausted. If he had given them mere grape juice instead of the finest wine, there would have been complaints rather than compliments.
We are told in the Bible that a feast is made for laughter, and wine makes merry (Ecclesiastes 10:19). The wedding at Cana in Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine, was a feast. There is absolutely no logical reason, no indication in Scripture or historical context demonstrating that this was grape juice.
The Last Supper
When Jesus took an early Passover the night he was betrayed, he passed a cup of wine to his disciples. It is not logical to claim that this was merely grape juice. Passover is in the northern hemisphere's spring, six months after the end of the grape harvest, which concluded in the autumn, around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. There was no way to preserve grape juice. When wine reaches an alcohol content of around 10-12% it is naturally preserved. Even the skins of hanging grapes will ferment or create alcohol within a short period of time.
Have you ever been involved in the preparation of communion at a church that uses grape juice instead of wine? Even with refrigeration, once the bottle is opened, the grape juice will go off after a few short weeks. Perhaps you too have wondered at the uselessness of this bias against a God-ordained method of preservation.
There was no refrigeration, and pasteurization had not yet been invented. Granted there are methods to keep moldy old grapes around for six months and squeeze out fresh grape juice, and perhaps some ancients had even thought of making a kind of grape powder to add water later. However, the most logical explanation is that the wine Jesus used for the Lord’s Supper at the Passover season was fermented wine. Jewish historians agree. It may have been mixed with a little water as was an ancient custom, but that does not make it grape juice either.
The expression "fruit of the vine" was "employed by the Jews from time immemorial for the wine partaken of on sacred occasions, as at the Passover and on the evening of the Sabbath” (The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible). That wine was fermented. Granted, God was well aware that with the passing of time, the meaning of the expression "fruit of the vine" would change from the common Jewish meaning of fermented Passover or Sabbath wine, and I'm sure that he even knew that over 1800 years later, someone would invent pasteurization and that the term could be applied by some also to grape juice. So, perhaps God is not really concerned either way. Perhaps the whole division over this issue is just more crap.
A Blessing in Measure
The real reason that some ban alcohol for all Christians today is not the result of good theology, a thorough study of ancient history or even linguistic analysis of biblical Greek and Hebrew. It arose around 1830 during the temperance movement in Britain, which at first encouraged abstinence from distilled spirits but not beer, because whisky and other spirits caused a greater problem with drunkenness. Later on the temperance movement banned all alcohol. The temperance movement began in northern Europe where consumption of strong drink was more common. In southern Europe, where the consumption of wine was more common, the temperance movement did not make much headway.
If used moderately, wine was designed by God to be a blessing in the body of a normally healthy person. It cheers God and men (Judges 9:13), gladdens the heart (Psalms 104:15), gladdens life (Exodus 10:19), makes the heart rejoice (Zechariah 10:7), cheers up those who are depressed (Proverbs 31:6). Wine is to be imbibed with a cheerful heart (Ecclesiastes 9:7). It makes life merry (Ecclesiastes 10:19).
A Curse if Abused
Yet, like most things in life, alcohol can be abused. The Bible does not condemn moderate consumption of alcohol, but does strongly warn against drunkenness (Proverbs 20:1). Those who linger too long or keep mixing their drinks are inviting grief (Proverbs 23:29-32), as are those who drink all day and night (Isaiah 5:11).
Sometimes it may be good to avoid eating certain foods or drinking certain drinks, especially when it may cause someone to stumble (Romans 14:21). We could apply this principle to friends who may be alcoholics, drink excessive volumes of coffee or soft drinks, teetotalers, overeaters, vegetarians or people on a diet. Some apply this only to alcohol and not to foods, and so avoid drinking alcohol at all, or only in public, which is inconsistent because the verse also speaks about foods. It is a judgment call, not a rule. The choice is ours.
There is also another principle here which we must consider. Christ is the final word on any topic, not the writer of Romans. If we look at Christ's example, he did not avoid alcohol in order not to offend those at a wedding party. In fact he turned water into wine for all to enjoy, whether or not some of them may have been problem drinkers. He also drank wine at the Passover season, six months after the wine harvest, in order to introduce the well-known Christian ceremony of the bread and the wine.
The writer to the Romans was not making a religious rule about alcohol or even food, but teaching the importance of not offending. Yet at times Jesus purposely offended the Pharisees to wake them up. Curiously enough, usually those who are most offended by Christians drinking are other Christians. We naturally have the tendency to create lists of rules that are not Christian essentials. That was also a problem with a religious group 2,000 years ago, the Pharisees. We need to focus on the important ideas of Christianity, not picky rules.
May Leaders Drink?
Some Christians believe that Proverbs 31:4-5 to say that no one may drink. It is not for kings to drink lest their judgment be impaired, but read through to verse 7 and notice it is recommended for the heavyhearted. Are kings, prime ministers or national presidents never allowed drink wine? Jesus, King of Kings, drank wine at the Last Supper (Matthew 26). However, the Bible does advise national leaders that when they are about to make serious decisions that have far reaching affects, they ought to abstain from alcohol for the time being.
What about church leaders? Does Paul instruct Timothy that an elder should not be a drunkard (1st Timothy 3:3; 5:23)? Yes! It does not say he must be a teetotaler. By implication then this "allows moderate use of alcoholic beverages" for church leaders (Walter L. Liefeld, NIV Application Commentary, 1999, Zondervan, p. 120). Paul confirms this by encouraging Timothy to take "a little wine" (1st Timothy 5:23). Some church leaders have had the odd occasion when they were relaxing at home only to be called away on a crisis where they needed a clear head. As a result of similar experiences, some church leaders are careful not to drink much if any alcohol except when on vacation. That is still a personal choice made in wisdom and not a legalistic rule.
A Silly Argument
An old religious-sounding argument asks the question, "How many beers does it take for you to get drunk?" Suppose we guess six. The questioner then replies that with one beer, you are one sixth drunk. This kind of misleading logic totally misrepresents the Bible and its view on drunkenness. Biblically, drunkenness is excess not moderation.
We are by nature creatures of extremes. The one extreme of drunkenness is a sin, and the other abstinence is allowed but usually unnecessary. Moderation is the key. As Paul told Timothy, use a little wine. A little means not a lot. Paul also specified to the Ephesians not to be drunk with wine, wherein is excess (Ephesians 5:18).
Teetotalers must be honest in admitting that there is no direct Scriptural statement banning moderate consumption of alcohol and that taken collectively, the Scriptures allow either total abstinence from alcohol or moderation. Teetotalers must also admit that the Passover wine Jesus took at his Last Supper was not grape juice. It was 6 months after the grape harvest, and there was neither refrigeration nor pasteurization. Even a practice of hanging grape bunches allows their skins to ferment into alcohol.
Moderate drinkers must admit that their freedom can at times be a stumbling block to the weak and that because there is no clear line between moderation and excess, they ought to avoid an appearance of condoning overindulgence. Drunkards must admit that the Scriptures clearly define drunkenness as wrong (Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:21) and that no drunkard will inherit the kingdom of heaven (1 Corinthians 6:10).
Cleaning out the Divisive Crap
Dividing the Christian church over a matter that Jesus did not think was important enough to command his disciples is crap. What about the Christianity of its founder, Christ? Would Jesus avoid alcohol just in case he caused offense? What if his avoidance of it caused offense? We certainly do not see him flaunting the use of alcohol, but we do not see him denying his mother’s request when he turned water into an alcoholic beverage either, and far more significantly, we see him even introducing an alcoholic beverage as one of the important elements of communion.
The bigoted man-made rule that Christians must be teetotalers is crap and not Christianity at all. Jesus came to do away with a religion of touch-not, taste-not legalism. There is no biblical ground for bigotry against Christians who drink moderately or for health reasons. Jesus miraculously made wine for a wedding, drank wine at the Last Supper and died at the hands of people who loved Pharisaic lists of religious rules. Let's do away with our Christianized Talmud of do's and don'ts and make our only rules the ones that Jesus plainly taught.
It is not the Christianity of Christ, and therefore a non-essential whether Christians drink alcohol for health, socially in moderation or are teetotalers. That is a matter of personal choice. Either way it does not make someone a better or worse Christian than another. The only essentials here are that Christians avoid the sin of drunkenness and use wisdom if they do choose to drink a little alcohol.