What is wrong with drinking, so long as it is done in moderation?


What's wrong with drinking, so long as it is done in moderation? After all

  1. Jesus turned water into wine in John 2.
  2. The disciples were accused of being drunk in Acts 2, so alcohol must have been in use.
  3. Older women were only told not to be given to much wine in Titus 2:3
  4. Paul told Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach's sake in I Timothy 5:23.


The use of alcoholic beverages has been popular for so long, few people stop to consider whether the Bible actually supports its use or not. Let us look at each example given above to see if it really supports moderate or social drinking.

Jesus turned water into wine.

"On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine." Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it." Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water." And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, "Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast." And they took it. When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, "Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!" This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him." (John 2:1-11)

The Greek word being used for the word "wine" is oinos, a generic word that applies to any beverage derived from grapes whether alcoholic or not. To understand whether alcohol was involved or not, we must examine the context.

A wedding feast was in progress and part way through the celebration, the wine that was purchased had run out. Weddings were big things in ancient days. A wedding feast lasted about a week and to run out of provisions before the end would have been an embarrassment to the new couple and their families. Mary asked Jesus to handle the problem. Jesus had six waterpots filled. These held twenty to thirty gallons apiece, which means when the water was changed to wine, Jesus had made between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. If this wine was alcoholic, then there was more than sufficient quantities available to get the guests well drunk -- especially when you consider that everyone had drunk the original supplies. Yet we know that the Bible condemns drunkenness, such as in Romans 13:13 or I Corinthians 6:9-10. Since Jesus did not sin, we know He would not have been the cause of other men's sins (Romans 1:32).

Some point out that the governor of the feast tasted Jesus' wine and declared it to be good -- better than the wine served earlier. The problem with the argument is that one must assume that the higher the alcoholic content of the wine, the better it tastes. Such is definitely not the case. In fact, in a society that lacked refrigerators in every home, fresh juice was prized over juice that had become vinegary or alcoholic from storage. The governor's declaration does not prove the wine contained alcohol.

Another argument is that the governor mentioned that everyone was already drunk. The Greek word methuo is used much like the English word "drunk." It literally means "filled to the full." It can be used to refer to a person who has had enough to drink to satisfy them; or if it is referring to an alcoholic beverage, it can refer to a person who has had to much to drink. If the guests at this wedding party were drunk with alcohol, then the governor of the feast had failed in his duties. You see the Jews considered drunkenness such a sin, they had people assigned the task of making sure it didn't happen. This is one of the reasons he was offered the first taste of the new wine brought in. If he thought it might cause drunkenness, he would have ordered it to be watered down. The governor's presence at this feast and his praise of Jesus's wine without an order to water it down is a strong indication that the wine was not alcoholic.

Finally, this feast is taking place in Israel where the Old Testament laws were enforced. The Old Testament forbade the use of alcoholic beverages (see Old Testament Beverages for more details). Hence, we must conclude that Jesus did not serve alcoholic beverages.

The result is that the wedding feast does not prove that alcoholic beverages were in use. Instead, there are strong hints that non-alcoholic beverages were available and used.

The disciples were accused of being drunk, so alcohol must have been in use.

"When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, "Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs -- we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God." So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "Whatever could this mean?" Others mocking said, "They are full of new wine." But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words. For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day." (Acts 2:1-15)

The charge is that the apostles were full of new wine. The Greek word is gluekos, which literally means "sweet wine." It is a word that refers to unfermented juice. If you recall that the charge came from those mocking the disciples, it makes perfectly good sense. Luke records that there were people present from fifteen different regions of the world and as the apostles spoke, they were all hearing them speak in their native language. But even if I knew one of the languages, there were fourteen others being spoken that I could not comprehend. It would have sounded to those running to the scene as chaos. People couldn't understand what was going on. Others taunted and said, "Oh, they're just drunk on grape juice!" In other words, they are so unable to handle their liquor that grape juice makes them drunk. Peter adroitly uses this as an opening to his sermon. He notes that since it is only nine o'clock in the morning, it is too early for people to be drinking. Yes, even in those days, people who were looking to get drunk generally did it at night (I Thessalonians 5:7).

Once again, this verse does not prove alcoholic beverages were in use. In fact, the crowd was charging the apostles with getting drunk on grape juice. The charge was deliberately facetious because those making the charge were mocking the disciples.

Older women were only told not to be given to much wine.

"But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things-- that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed." (Titus 2:1-5)

The Greek phrase under consideration is me oino pollo dedoulomenas, which literally means not enslaved to much wine. In contrast, they were to train the young women to be, among other things, discreet. The word translated "admonish" in the New King James Version, is from the Greek word sophronizosin that means "to train in self-control." The word "discreet" comes from the related Greek work sophronas, which means "self-controlled." The root word sophron literally means "safe mind." It refers to someone who is intellectually sound of mind or rational. The Jewish philosopher Philo defined the opposite of sophrosune, namely aphrosune, as a person who "inflamed by wine drowns the whole life in ceaseless and unending drunkenness." Paul is making the same point: older women are not to be drunkards enslaved by the overuse of wine but to teach younger women to live as they live -- sober.

In two passages, I Timothy 3:2 and Titus 2:2, the word "sober" (sophron) is joined in a list with the word "temperate" (nephaleous). As the commentator Adam Clarke explains, "He must be vigilant, nephaleos, from ne, not, and pino, to drink. Watchful; for as one who drinks is apt to sleep, so he who abstains from it is more likely to keep awake, and attend to his work and charge." Though temperate today refers to moderation, it wasn't all that long ago that temperate meant abstinence, as in the women's temperance movement which sought the banning of alcohol. Albert Barnes, another commentator says, "This word (nephalios) occurs only here [I Timothy 3:2] and in verse 11; Titus 2:2. It means, properly, sober, temperate, abstinent, especially in respect to wine; then, sober-minded, watchful, circumspect." Hence, elders and older men were charged with both being sober and not to drink. Now, are you prepared to say that older men are not to drink, but older woman may drink so long as it is not in excess?

A very similar phrase is found in I Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7 where men seeking to be elders are told to be "not addicted to wine." Actually, the literal translation of the phrase me paroninos is "not near to wine." Of this phrase, the commentators Lee and Burn say, "The ancient paroinos was a man accustomed to attend drinking parties, and, as a consequence, to become intimately associated with strong drink." Albert Barnes said, "The Greek word (paroinos) occurs in the New Testament only here [I Timothy 3:3] and in Titus 1:7. It means, properly, by wine; that is, spoken of what takes place by or over wine, as revelry, drinking-songs, etc. Then it denotes, as it does here, one who sits by win; that is, who is in the habit of drinking it ... It means that one who is in the habit of drinking wine, or who is accustomed to sitting with those who indulge in it, should not be admitted to the ministry. The way in which the apostle mentions the subject here would lead us fairly to suppose that he did not mean to commend its use in any sense; that he regarded it as dangerous and that he would wish the ministers of religion to avoid it altogether."

To tell a group of elderly ladies not to be enslaved by the overuse of wine is not necessarily an implication that moderate use in social settings is allowed. Other words within the same context show that Paul has in mind that people should not be using alcohol casually. Could wine (oinos) be used? Most certainly! In its non-alcoholic form, it makes a pleasant drink. In its vinegar form, it is used in cooking. In its alcoholic form, it can be used as medicine. None of these proper uses constitute an overuse of oinos. That is why you don't find a direct forbiddance of oinos. Its use had to be limited.

Paul told Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach's sake.

"No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach's sake and your frequent infirmities." (I Timothy 5:23)

Paul is not instructing Timothy to use oinos (wine) casually at dinner. Timothy had a stomach ailment and other problems for which Paul recommended that he use a little wine to treat the symptoms. Especially notice what is implied here. Timothy normally drank water exclusively. He was not in the habit of using any grape beverage at all. Paul had to encourage him to ease up on his total abstinence so as to use a little wine for it medicinal properties.

Wine was used in the New Testament days for medical purposes. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan, "So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him" (Luke 10:34). However, medical uses do not imply acceptance of casual use. Valium can be used to relax injured muscles, but valium can be abused when casually taken. I knew a man dying of cancer who needed a mild pain killer. He was instructed by his doctor to drink a glass of sherry before bedtime so he might sleep in more comfort. This is a proper use of alcoholic beverages.

Hence, once again we fail to find support for social drinking or moderate drinking. Instead, we find that at least one Christian strongly avoided all use of wine and had to be encouraged to take some when he needed it for his medical condition.

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