Concerning Alcohol

I’m reproducing material that is freely available by Dr. Bob Utley, whose website you can access here. In his commentary on Luke, when discussing the Lord’s Supper, he provides a succinct treatment of the issue of alcohol that I found to be an excellent biblical summary. I’m posting this below:


I. Biblical Terms

A. Old Testament

1. Yayin – This is the general term for wine, which is used 141 times. The etymology is uncertain because it is not from a Hebrew root. It always means fermented fruit juice, usually grape. Some typical passages are Gen. 9:21; Exod. 29:40; Num. 15:5, 10.
2. Tirosh – This is “new wine.” Because of climatic conditions of the Near East, fermentation started as soon as six hours after extracting the juice. This term refers to wine in the process of fermenting. For some typical passages, see Deut. 12:17; 18:4; Isa. 62:8–9; Hos. 4:11.
3. Asis – This is obviously alcoholic beverages (Joel 1:5; Isa. 49:26).
4. Sekar – This is the term “strong drink.” The Hebrew root is used in the term “drunk” or “drunkard.” It had something added to it to make it more intoxicating. It is parallel to yayin (cf. Prov. 20:1; 31:6; Isa. 28:7).

B. New Testament

1. Oinos – the Greek equivalent of yayiNeos oinos (new wine) – the Greek equivalent of tirosh (cf. Mark 2:22).
2. Gleuchos vinos (sweet wine) – wine in the early stages of fermentation (cf. Acts 2:13).

II. Biblical Usage

A. Old Testament

1. Wine is a gift of God (Gen. 27:28; Ps. 104:14–15; Eccl. 9:7; Hos. 2:8–9; Joel 2:19, 24; Amos 9:13; Zech. 10:7).
2. Wine is a part of a sacrificial offering (Exod. 29:40; Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:7, 10; 28:14; Deut. 14:26; Judg. 9:13).
3. Wine is used as medicine (2 Sam. 16:2; Prov. 31:6–7).
4. Wine can be a real problem (Noah- Gen. 9:21; Lot- Gen. 19:33, 35; Samson- Judg. 16:19; Nabal- 1 Sam. 25:36; Uriah- 2 Sam. 11:13; Ammon- 2 Sam. 13:28; Elah- 1 Kin. 16:9; Benhadad- 1 Kin. 20:12; Rulers- Amos 6:6; and Ladies- Amos 4).
5. Wine can be abused (Prov. 20:1; 23:29–35; 31:4–5; Isa. 5:11, 22; 19:14; 28:7–8; Hosea 4:11).
6. Wine was prohibited to certain groups (Priests on duty, Lev. 10:9; Ezek. 44:21; Nazarites, Num. 6; and Rulers, Prov. 31:4–5; Isa. 56:11–12; Hosea 7:5).
7. Wine is used in an eschatological setting (Amos 9:13; Joel 3:18; Zech. 9:17).

B. Interbiblical

1. Wine in moderation is very helpful (Ecclesiasticus 31:27–30).
2. The rabbis say, “Wine is the greatest of all medicine, where wine is lacking, then drugs are needed.” (BB 58b).

C. New Testament

1. Jesus changed a large quantity of water into wine (John 2:1–11).
2. Jesus drank wine (Matt. 11:18–19; Luke 7:33–34; 22:17ff).
3. Peter was accused of drunkenness on “new wine” at Pentecost (Acts 2:13).
4. Wine can be used as medicine (Mark 15:23; Luke 10:34; 1 Tim. 5:23).
5. Leaders are not to be abusers. This does not mean total abstainers (1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7; 2:3; 1 Pet. 4:3).
6. Wine used in eschatological settings (Matt. 22:1ff; Rev. 19:9).
7. Drunkenness is deplored (Matt. 24:49; Luke 11:45; 21:34; 1 Cor. 5:11–13; 6:10; Gal. 5:21; 1 Pet. 4:3; Rom. 13:13–14).

III. Theological Insight

A. Dialectical tension

1. Wine is a gift from God.
2. Drunkenness is a major problem.
3. Believers in some cultures must limit their freedoms for the sake of the gospel (Matt. 15:1–20; Mark 7:1–23; 1 Cor. 8–10; Rom. 14:1–15:13).

B. Tendency to go beyond given bounds

1. God is the source of all good things (creation is “very good,” Gen. 1:31).
2. Fallen mankind has abused all of God’s gifts by taking them beyond God-given bounds.
C. Abuse is in us, not in things. There is nothing evil in the physical creation (cf. Mark 7:18–23; Rom. 14:14, 20; 1 Cor. 10:25–26; 1 Tim. 4:4; Titus 1:15).

IV. First Century Jewish Culture and Fermentation

A. Fermentation begins very soon, approximately 6 hours after the grape is crushed, especially in hot climates with non-hygienic conditions.
B. Jewish tradition says that when a slight foam appeared on the surface (sign of fermentation), it is liable to the wine-tithe (Ma aseroth 1:7). It was called “new wine” or “sweet wine.”
C. The primary violent fermentation was complete after one week.
D. The secondary fermentation took about 40 days. At this state it is considered “aged wine” and could be offered on the altar (Edhuyyoth 6:1).
E. Wine that had rested on its lees (old wine) was considered good, but it had to be strained well before use.
F. Wine was considered to be properly aged usually after one year of fermentation. Three years was the longest period of time that wine could be safely stored. It was called “old wine” and had to be diluted with water.
G. Only in the last 100 years with a sterile environment and chemical additives has fermentation been postponed. The ancient world could not stop the natural process of fermentation.

V. Closing Statements

A. Be sure your experience, theology, and biblical interpretation do not depreciate Jesus and first century Jewish and/or Christian culture! They were obviously not total abstainers.
B. I am not advocating the social use of alcohol. However, many have overstated the Bible’s position on this subject and now claim superior righteousness based on a cultural/denominational bias.
C. For me, Romans 14:1–15:13 and 1 Corinthians 8–10 have provided insight and guidelines based on love and respect for fellow believers and the spread of the gospel in every culture, not personal freedom or judgmental criticism. If the Bible is the only source for faith and practice, then maybe we must all rethink this issue.
D. If we push total abstinence as God’s will, what do we imply about Jesus, as well as believers in modern cultures that regularly use wine (e.g. Europe, Israel, Argentina)?

Utley, R. J. (2004). The Gospel according to Luke (Vol. Volume 3A). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.

© 2013, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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