Posted by: chuckbumgardner | July 29, 2007

Jesus and Beverages with Alcoholic Content

Some believers affirm that drinking beverages with any alcoholic content is never legitimate for any believer. (A discussion of properly framing this affirmation is found here.) In discussions of this affirmation, a key question naturally arises: Did Jesus drink beverages with alcoholic content? Clearly, if he did, the affirmation is demonstrably false (unless one wishes to argue that drinking beverages with alcoholic content was acceptable for Jesus, but unacceptable for any of his followers to do).

Although I do not know that it can be definitively proven from Scripture, I am of the opinion that Jesus did drink beverages with alcoholic content. I hasten to point out the distinction between common alcoholic drinks of the present time and those of antiquity.  (For an accessible standard treatment of this point, see Robert H. Stein, “Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times,” Christianity Today [June 20, 1975], 9-11.) Still, even considering the diluted alcoholic content of common beverages of antiquity, the affirmation presented for consideration above demands no alcoholic content whatsoever, and a diluted alcoholic content is still alcoholic content.

I believe that Jesus’ words in Luke 7:33-34 suggest that he did drink wine with some alcoholic content. Here is the text:

Luke 7:33-34 (ESV) 
    For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 

Clearly, Jesus is contrasting his normal practice of eating and drinking with that of John the Baptist. John abstained from eating the typical food of the day (Matt 3:4), and on Gabriel’s instructions, abstained from wine and strong drink (oinos and sikera, Luke 1:15). His abstinence from wine and strong drink was consistent with instructions for the Nazarite in Numbers 6; the same terms (oinos and sikera) are used in the Septuagint of Num 6:3.

On the other hand, Jesus says, he himself came “eating and drinking.” The contextual contrast with the practice of John demands that we supply “bread” and “wine.”

That the sort of wine which Jesus drank had some alcoholic content is suggested by the calumnies made by the Pharisees and lawyers. On the one hand, John’s abstinence caused them to claim (wrongly, of course) that he had a demon. On the other hand, Jesus’ partaking caused them to accuse him (wrongly, of course) of being a glutton (fagos) and a drunk (oinopoths). A glutton is one who eats to excess, and a drunk is correspondingly one who drinks to excess. But for a person to become drunk, he must drink alcoholic beverages to excess; grape juice will not do.

This passage also suggests that it is a fallacy to claim that since certain groups of people dedicated to God, such as priests (Lev 10:9) and Nazarites (Num 6:3), were to abstain from drinking beverages with alcoholic content, that such a practice ought always to be normative for the believer. John may or may not have been a Nazarite, strictly speaking, but his abstinence from oinos clearly paralleled that of the Nazarite. Jesus is unquestionably constrasting his own practice to that of John. Those who say that the abstinence of the Nazarite necessitates a corresponding abstinence on the part of the believer must reckon with the contrast Jesus here sets forth.

(As an addition to this post two and a half years after I posted, I note this related link: http://drtimwhite.com/2009/01/12/jesus-was-not-a-teetotaler-but-i-am/)

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Responses

  1. Well done–I must admit that I have a revulsion not for a glass of wine, but rather for the culture that too often surrounds liquor–drunkenness and fornication.

  2. When dealing with people on the issue of believers and “social drinking,” I usually say that it is permissible but unwise. The only ban on drinking in the NT is given to pastors (with a restriction on deacons – if you see that distinction exegetically in 1 Tim 3). Sure, a believer can drink, but that is not the best decision that he can make.

  3. Hi, Chris,

    Thanks for your comment. “Unwise” in this context makes me think immediately of Eph 5:17-18, where the adjective is paralleled with being “drunk with wine.”

    Two questions came up for me as I read your comment, and I wonder if you could expand a bit on it.

    1) One of the reasons for the original post is that many of the arguments for total abstinence from alcoholic beverages become questionable in light of Jesus’ practice. I don’t know that you are necessarily equating Jesus’ practice with “social drinking” as we know it, but (assuming you agree that Jesus did drink beverages with some alcoholic content) would you say that Jesus’ practice regarding alcoholic beverages was “permissible but unwise”? If not (and I doubt you would label any of Jesus’ actions “unwise”!), why not?

    2) My understanding of the ministry qualifications in 1 Tim 3 and Tit 1 is that they are not mandates to be laid upon someone already in a church office, but characteristics already present in someone who is being considered for a church office (cf. 1 Tim 3:1; Tit 1:5). If that is the case, it would seem that the qualification of mh paroinon (1 Tim 3:3; Tit 1:7) is not so much a “ban on drinking” for someone who becomes an overseer, as it is something that already characterizes a man who is aspiring to or selected for the office. Is it your understanding of that qualification (mh paroinon) that only teetotalers were to be considered for pastoral (and/or diaconal) leadership?

    Thanks in advance for your response.

  4. Very thoughtful post. Something else to consider in the whole “did He or didn’t He” is the fact that grape harvest was in August and September and Passover was in March/April. I don’t think anyone can seriously put forth that “grape juice” could last that long without preservatives and refrigeration without fermenting.

  5. Concerning your first question:

    I suppose that now would be a poor time to throw in the argument of culture. The typical “cultural” answer is that certain water would be unsafe to drink, and therefore it would be added to dilluted alchoholic wine for the purpose of purification. Christ drank wine because wine was the drink du jour. It is not the same thing which we drink today, and I can probably guarantee you that He did not take part in any of the bacchalian feasts and parties of the Romans. And our Lord was never unwise.

    Concerning your second point – I do agree that the qualifications are those which are to be found in a man who is desiring (or considering) the pastorate. However, if certain characteristics would show up in a man who was a pastor which was contrary to these qualifications – then has the pastor disqualified himself? For instance – a few years ago, there was a famous pastor living to the East of here who was arrested for drunk driving. The pastor repented and lost his pastorate over the issue. Was he disqualified for his actions? I would say that he was (at least on two accounts – 1. failure to be “without reproach” and 2. “mh paroinon”).

  6. Chris,

    First point:

    I agree wholeheartedly that our Lord was never unwise. As well, I agree that Christ didn’t engage in drunkenness in any context in his day.

    As to the “typical ‘cultural’ answer” (and I am unclear as to whether you agree with that answer), I disagree that it was strictly necessary to drink wine mixed with water in order to purify the water. If such a practice were strictly necessary, it would have been impossible to sustain a Nazarite vow for any length of time, nor would the Rechabites (Jer 35) have lasted very long at all. I am not saying that the alcohol in wine does not provide a purifying effect, but that purifying one’s water could not have been strictly necessary. It will not do to say that drinking alcoholic beverages is sinful today, but was not in NT times because alcohol acted as a water purifier in NT times.

    You mention that Christ drank wine because wine was the drink du jour. Does that mean that if we had commonly-drunk alcoholic beverages with the same alcoholic content as those which Christ drank, it would be acceptable for believers to imbibe such drinks today based on Christ’s example?

    Second point:

    I agree that those in the pastorate who cease to maintain the qualifications of an elder are disqualified for the office. In the case to which you refer, loss of pastoral office was the proper course.

    My point, however, is that in the context of the Pastorals, the qualifications given must be present in a particular man before he enters the office. If you believe that mh paroinon indicates a complete abstinence from beverage alcohol — and that is the point which I hesitate to affirm — then such an abstinence would need to have marked a man before he became an elder. Is it likely in the Greco-Roman culture that there would be people who would have met that qualification?

    Addendum:

    I should mention that my purpose in this post and ensuing discussion is not to encourage believers to “fall off the wagon,” but to make us think about the reasons that are given (and perhaps held by us) for teetotalism.

  7. Brad,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m no expert in ancient winemaking, but reading I’ve done suggests that the ancients often boiled fresh grape juice, thus reducing it to a non-fermenting syrup of thick consistency which could be stored indefinitely.

  8. Chuck,

    I have heard of stories of good missionaries in Europe staying away from the beer commonly served at the church picnics.

    I have somewhat obfuscated my position until this point. This shall cease. Personally, I do not drink. I would not necessarily call it a sin to drink. The sin is when the drink takes control of the person (or when the person loses control). However, for believers in this day and age, drinking is not the best option. I have personally been invited to teh resturaunts and bars on Friday night after work to partake in the “adult beverages” (as my manager calls them). I believe that it would be an afront to the gospel if I went and partook. It would be the unwise choice if I were to drink in that situation. Let us take a hypothetical. Suppose I were to make the choice to drink just once – and only have one drink. Suppose (for some strange reason) that I don’t metabolize the alchohol well and within one drink I lose control. The unwise act was not in the fact that I lost control. The unwise act was that I decided to drink in the first place.

    Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. I would agree and affirm that Christ did partake of alchoholic beverages. Perhaps we need to answer the “why” question at hand. Why would he drink those beverages and is that reason still the same as today?

  9. PS – I that most people that I know who drink (unsaved) alchoholic beverages drink them for alchoholic beverage’s sake.

  10. I’m enjoying our conversation, Chris. Thanks for taking the time to interact.

    I’m not aware of Scriptures that would directly address the question you are asking above (“Why would Jesus drink alcoholic beverages?”). Perhaps framing the question in a slightly different way would help us along: Why, in Scripture, might a believer abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages?

  11. My thoughts:

    Wine, unlike boiled grape juice, would contain a good amount of Vitamin C, which might have been a decent reason for people back then to enjoy a glass with dinner. C is destroyed by heat.

    The effects of alcohol are not linear with consumption; there is little observable effect until a person has had a full drink or two. I don’t know that you can suggest that a person whose BAC is .02 is “25% drunk”, really. So Jesus could have, IMO, have had some alcohol without risking drunkenness.

    One thing I notice about European drinking is that it generally doesn’t have the inducement to promiscuity and drunkenness, like American drinking does. This might have something to do with the fact that most European liquors are drinkable; back in the days when I would drink, I noticed that men who were used to “Bug Light” wouldn’t touch the more heavily hopped (= bitter) beers I favored. The overall effect was like introducing a Minnesotan to Tabasco sauce, really.

  12. I live in MN, and I’m from Az. I can’t stand Tabasco sauce…:)

    Chuck,

    I agree with your question. Why should we abstain? I have an opinion on how to apply Scripture to 21st century America, but I won’t attempt to hijack your blog.

  13. Chris,

    I won’t consider it hijacking — have at it.

  14. Thank you so much. I had just asked that question in my biblicak class and no one seemed to know the answer. So now I know that I can have a glass of of wine without any guilt.

  15. Masuzgo N Alade,

    Your comment raises the discussion to a different level. The question with which the original post concerned itself was this: Did Jesus Christ drink alcoholic beverages while he was on earth?

    Your (implied) question is whether it is right for a Christian (specifically, you) to drink (at least certain) alcoholic beverages today. Or, to approach it from a different direction: “Does the (likely) fact that Jesus drank alcoholic beverages in his day mean that it is automatically always right for a follower of Jesus to drink alcoholic beverages in the present day?” Or, even more broadly, “Does the fact that Jesus engaged in a practice mean that it is necessarily right for a follower of Jesus to engage in the same practice?”

    In your comment, you may very well be drawing an unwarranted conclusion (“I can have a glass of wine without any guilt”) from the premise of the post (“Jesus likely drank beverages with some alcoholic content”).

    Here are some items that I believe ought to inform your decision on the more specific question you have been examining:

    1) It is well-documented that the wine commonly drunk in Jesus’ day was sub-alcoholic by our present standards. At the very least, that fact ought to give us pause to consider whether comparing Jesus’ partaking with partaking of twenty-first century alcoholic beverages is comparing two like categories. I grant, however, that there are beverages in our day which have an alcoholic content comparable to what Jesus drank.

    2) Unquestionably, if a person considers the drinking of alcoholic beverages to be a sin, they should not partake on the basis of Romans 14:22-23.

    3) Likewise, if one’s partaking of alcoholic beverages would cause a Christian brother or sister to “stumble,” that is, to go astray in living the life of faith, believers ought to refrain. This principle is set forth in Romans 14 as well, and notably, drinking wine is specifically mentioned in 14:21 as an item which might cause a brother to stumble.

    (I should mention here that the reference to “wine” in 14:21 may very well be in light of its use in pagan libations to the gods — which would tie in well to the “meat offered to idols” in Paul’s day — but that Paul broadens the reference later in the verse: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (ESV).)

    4) There is also, of course, the question of one’s motive. Clearly, one can do something that would be considered morally neutral (say, drinking a glass of water) with motives which would make bring God’s condemnation and not approval (say, a child, in order to spite his parents, deliberately drinking a glass of water when he has just been told not to do so).

    Other considerations exist — and other readers are welcome to submit them — but at the least, the ones outlined above should give pause before we make too direct a connection between Jesus drinking beverages with some alcoholic content, and us doing the same.

  16. Good article, Chuck. Well stated and supported.

  17. Cwatson, you said that you were invited out to have a round with people from your office and that you would consider it an affront to the gospel if you went and partook. I consider it an affront to the gospel that you didn’t.

    What a perfect opportunity you missed to first of all demonstrate that a person can drink a good beer without any intention of getting drunk. Your excuse about not metabolizing the alcohol in the beer is frankly ridiculous. If you poured the alcoholic content of a single beer directly over your gray matter, I doubt it would have much effect.

    You also missed an opportunity to remove some stumbling blocks that have been placed in the path of your coworkers by Pharisaical teetotalers. It seems that lost people can smell the rat of extrabiblical commandments a mile away. What’s the most common critique of Christians by lost people? Hypocrit! Whose fault is that? Is it the fault of the Christian who smokes when his Baptist church has told people that smoking is a sin? No, it’s the church’s fault for adding a commandment to the Bible. Ditto with drinking.

    Here’s what I have found. People who dislike the taste of beer and wine naturally abstain from it. They have suspicions about any who would drink such vile stuff because they must be doing it for its effects. Another group that tends toward teetotalism are the former alcoholics. They horribly abused the stuff and then got off it. They now think that no one can use it responsibly because they blew it. Both of these groups, then, look at the Bible and find no agreement with their position, so they start trying to make some: “They watered down the wine” (poppycock!) “The stuff they drank was different” (lunacy!) “it was a water purifier” (do you realize the consequences of that thought?).

    The other side is this: people who love the taste of a real beer (not that light mess) and a good glass of wine, and who came to such a love late in life (in other words, they didn’t go on drunken binges at 15), tend not to be teetotalers. They look to the Bible and see a glorious encouragement to enjoy the good gifts God has given. Most of the Christians I know who drink are those who never tasted the stuff before going to seminary, discovered that all of the tripe we had been fed about teetotalism was completely unscriptural, and began to sample various beverages to enjoy God’s good gifts. And we found that it was indeed good!

    Isn’t it strange? I hate cell phones and tend to look down on people who I see using them. Some hate the taste of beer and thus look down on those who enjoy it. Paul’s point in Romans 14 is that we have to stop this looking down on each other and this passing judgment on each other.

    Check out my blog on this topic for some more.

  18. wow!
    sorry i missed out on this one…august was some time ago, but since my friends and i have been having this discussion for years (literally), i’m hard pressed not to revisit the issue (not that anyone cares or will read this except, you, o benevolent “O.K.”

    corey,
    i’m with you on this one…
    (except for the cell phone thing – how dare you judge me! jk).

    chuck,
    this passage floored me about a year ago, and was actually the one that finally convinced me that the teetotaler position is completely exegetically untenable. as always, i continue to appreciate your willingness to pursue the hard things in Scripture. our continued gracious dialogue is a constant encouragement to me that brothers in Christ (let alone “in-law”) can disagree charitably.

    in that vein…(again, not that you’re reading this)
    chris,
    it seems that most of your objections are inferential and hypothetical. i understand that we must apply scripture, but it becomes exceedingly difficult to do in such instances where the text is noticeably quiet (or in fact, weighted toward the minority position [participation]). of course, this would not be the minority in fundamentalism, but it certainly seems to be so in evangelical assemblies.

  19. I like the way you handled Luke 7:33-34. We don’t have go to first century culture to determine our interpretation, in this case, was Jesus drinking wine or grape juice. The context demands that the text is referring to wine. Thanks for linking to my post. Dr. Tim White


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