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A biblical perspective on alcohol
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Separate scripture from opinion?

For a Christian this must never be! Recently a local pastor suggested that we should have “clear separation between Holy Scripture and personal opinion.” But this statement contradicts the very words of scripture.  We are not to separate our opinion from scripture, but we are to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians10:5), we are commanded to renew our minds (Romans 12:2), and to let the word of Christ richly dwell in us (Colossians 3:16).  

Why? So that we can think biblically. Biblical thinking should be a priority of any Christian church’s core values.  We must value accurate interpretation and meaningful application of the scriptures in order to build biblical based opinion. It is debating without the truths of God’s word that yields error. Biblical thinking is the way a believer changes his/her behavior from sinful reaction to biblical response in life’s issues, challenges and temptations.  

The following, I believe, is a more thoughtful biblical response of a believer to the issue of selling or drinking alcoholic beverages. Now I recognize that followers of Christ may disagree on this issue, but apart from seeking to align our opinion with scripture we will forever increase error and disunity among the body of Christ. If believers have different opinions, let it not be because they neglected scripture.

Now with regard to the issue at hand, there are fewer issues in the history of church that have drawn more debate and disagreement than the subject of alcoholic beverages. The debate does not make those for alcoholic beverages evil and those opposed to such good. We must be clear that drinking or not drinking is not in itself a mark, and certainly not a measure of spirituality. Spirituality is determined by what we are on the inside. What we do on the outside is but a manifestation.

Many reasons are given for drinking; one of the most common is to be happy. This world is sometimes extremely difficult to deal with. Some people believe that alcoholic beverages provide them with moments of escape or happiness in a sometimes sad world. The problem with drinking in order to be happy is not the motive but the means. It brings only artificial happiness at best that is temporary and is counter productive to the filling of the Holy Spirit that brings real happiness that is eternal.  Intoxication is never a remedy for the cares of life, but it has few rivals in its ability to multiply them.  

Both the Old and New Testaments unequivocally condemn drunkenness. The Book of Proverbs has many warnings about drinking. “Listen my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way (of wisdom).  Do not be a heavy drinker of wine…”  (Proverbs 23:19, 20) “Do not look on wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper.  Your eyes will see strange things and your mind will utter perverse things.”  (Proverbs 23:31-33) “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise.” (Proverbs 20:1) “Woe to those…who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them.” (Isaiah 5:11) Drunkenness is mentioned as one of the sinful deeds of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). Paul commands us not to be drunk. (Ephesians 5:18) There should be little debate among Christians who want to follow the truth of God’s Word with regard to drunkenness. Drunkenness is first of all a sin. It may develop into a sickness that ravages the mind and body, but drunkenness is first and foremost seen biblically as a sin. It must therefore be confessed and dealt with as sin.  

Despite its many warnings about the dangers of wine, the Scriptures do not totally forbid its use. In fact, sometimes it is even commanded. Paul advises Timothy, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach, and for frequent ailments.” (I Timothy 5:23)  Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. (John 2:6-10)

In light of the fact that the Scripture gives many warnings but does not forbid it how can a believer know what to do? If a believer, looking for truth will honestly answer the following three questions they will come to a scripturally based decision.  

Is the wine today the same as that in Bible times?    

We must first determine exactly what kind of wine is referred to in the Bible. If the kind of wine then is different from that used today, then application of the biblical teaching concerning wine will also be different. One kind of wine called “sikera” in the Greek and “shekar” in the Hebrew is usually translated as strong drink or liquor.  All wines were naturally fermented. In the times of the Bible, artificially fortifying alcohol content by distilling was not available. The maximum alcohol content by natural fermentation was from nine to 11 percent. This naturally fermented wine with no more than 11 percent alcohol is what the Bible refers to as strong drink.  Strong drink is never approved in Scripture. (Isaiah 28:7; Proverbs 20:1) unless one is perishing with physical pain. (Proverbs 31:6) Wine that was not diluted (mixed with water) was considered strong drink.  Strong drink appears only once in the New Testament. (Luke 1:15)  Here it was not approved for the Apostle John.

The second kind of wine is called “tirush” in the Hebrew. This was the use of juice from freshly squeezed grapes.  It was quite sweet but rarely fermented and thereby did not produce the danger of intoxication. This wine is mentioned several times in the Old Testament, but its counterpart in the Greek, “gleukos,” is mentioned only once in the New Testament (Acts 2:13).  Here the fresh juice with its high sugar content was believed to have fermented. The assumption was based on the behavior of the disciples who were filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

The third kind of wine and most common in both Old and New Testaments is called “yayin” in the Hebrew and “oinos” in the Greek. The Hebrew name comes from the process of boiling the fresh juice to reduce it to a heavy syrup or paste that made it suitable for storage without spoiling. Because boiling removes the water and kills all the bacteria, the concentrated state of the juice does not  ferment. Even when the reconstituted mixture was allowed to ferment, its alcohol content was quite low. Oinos referred specifically to mixed wine. Ancient Greeks kept their unboiled, unmixed and therefore highly alcoholic wine (remember no more than 9 to 11 percent) in large jugs called amphorare. Before drinking they would pour it into smaller vessels called Kraters and dilute it with water as much as 20 to 1. This is the wine translated in Scripture as new wine and specifically refers to mixed wine. Even among non-Christians, when strong wine was mixed half and half (so that it contained about 5 percent alcohol), it was seen as madness and considered stupid and barbaric. The strongest wine normally drank by the civilized world was mixed at least with three parts water and one part wine. Even this drink containing approximately 2.5 percent alcohol was below the 3.2 percent that today is necessary to classify a beverage as alcoholic.

The answer to the first question is clearly no. The wine of Bible times was not the same as the unmixed wine of our own day.  Even the more civilized pagans of Bible times would have considered the drinking of modern wines to be barbaric and irresponsible, not to mention the pouring of liquors that we are about to vote on.

Other questions believers should consider in making a decision about the use of wine are:
Will it offend other Christians?  (I Corinthians 8:4-11; Romans 14:15)
Will it harm my testimony?  (I Corinthians 10:27-29;  I Thessalonians 5:22)

There are obviously many other considerations, particularly alcohol’s proven destructiveness to family and society.  That alone would make me vote no on the coming referendum. But if a believer will honestly work through the above three questions, they should be able to derive a personal and biblical answer to the much debated issue of alcoholic beverages.

Wesley Corbitt
Pastor, Grace Community Church