In this episode Phylicia breaks down the Old and New Testament history of wine, its symbolism in Jewish literature, and the contrast of being filled with alcohol versus being filled with the Spirit.
Welcome to Verity. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher. This podcast will help you embrace the history and depth of the Christian faith. Ask questions, seek answers, and devote yourself to becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to settle for watered-down Christian teaching. And if you’re ready to go deeper, God is just as ready to take you there. This is Verity, where every woman is a theologian.
Well, Hello, friends. Welcome back to Verity Podcast, and today we are talking about a topic that I am asked every single Monday in Ask Anything Monday on Instagram. It is a question about alcohol. Is it a sin for Christians to drink alcohol and if not, how do we engage with it in a healthy way? How do we walk with our brothers and sisters, who maybe come from families with a history of alcoholism or have a history of alcoholism themselves? Lots of great questions affiliated with this topic and we’re just going to do a pretty high-level look at what Scripture says about it with a little dip of our toes into church history and Jewish history on the topic of alcohol, specifically wine, which is what we see most often described in the scriptural narrative.
We’re going to start by looking at the symbolism of wine in Scripture. Wine is a symbol of rejoicing, especially in Jewish literature, so that would be the whole Old Testament for us, is a symbol of rejoicing. In Ecclesiastes 9:7, it says, “Go, eat your food with gladness, drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.” Such a beautiful verse, and it affiliates that rejoicing and that joyful heart with wine. In other place, we see this is in Psalm 104:14-15, which says, “He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate, bringing forth food from the earth. Wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts.” There’s this association between wine and the gladdening of the heart.
Then, I actually want to read for you a Jewish blessing that describes this concept of wine and rejoicing. This is an ancient Jewish benediction. It’s preserved from the Cairo Genizah. This has been expanded from a shorter blessing that was given by rabbis before wine was drunk. Here’s what it says. “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe who created sweet wine, good must from grapevines, that is pleasing to a person and good for man, that gladdens the heart and makes the face shine. It is consolation to mourners, and those of bitter spirit forget their misery. It is medicine to all who drink it. (to him who drinks it sensibly). It is heart’s joy, gladness, and great delight to its drinkers. He, our God, created it of old for pleasure, among the works established from the beginning, so that all who drink it shall bless God, and praise the Author of understanding, who prepared the delicacies of the world, and formed the sweet things of the earth.”
This is just a beautiful blessing over the wine, but it does contain some really interesting facts and truths that we can look to, to guide our own understanding of what it is. From the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906, we have this quote that describes the function of wine. “In metaphorical usage, wine represents the essence of goodness. The Torah, Jerusalem, Israel, the Messiah, the righteous all are compared to wine. The wicked are likened to vinegar, and the good man who turns to wickedness is compared to sour wine. The wine which is kept for the righteous, and the world to come has been preserved in the grape ever since the six days of creation.” Again, this is connecting with the goodness of wine, the rejoicing of wine as it is used in Scripture. But in order to understand this and translate it to today, we want to know what kind of wine we’re dealing with in the Bible and if it is indeed the same as the alcohol that’s being consumed today.
Remember, if you’ve listened to me talk about Bible study at all, I pull from the scholarship of Scott Duvall, who teaches something called The Theological Bridge, where you take the context of the text you’re dealing with the historical context, you take that principle, you build a bridge to modern day, and then you take the principle and apply it to the modern context. We don’t just take one verse and immediately apply it to today. We try to glean the context and a theological principle first, so that we apply it accurately. To do that, we need to understand what wine was like back in Jesus’ day and in the Old Testament days. If I’m not mistaken, a typical glass of wine, at least that I’ve seen on menus, when I’ve gone out to eat is anywhere between 9% and 13% alcohol. Sometimes, you can get something a little bit lower. So, what was it like in Old Testament times in the ancient world? Was wine that alcoholic or was it a little bit less?
I’m reading to you from an article on Masada in the world of the New Testament, specifically on wine and what wine was like in the ancient world. I’m going to read you a quote from this scholar on the types of wine in the biblical era. “In the ancient world, varieties of wine were made from prunes, raisins, cherries, dates, apples, and pomegranates, but the wines of Palestine were almost entirely made from fermented grape juice. Once the grapes were pressed, the juice would begin to ferment within six to twelve hours. The quantity of alcohol in the wine is uncertain, but scholars explain “the amount of alcoholic content which could be achieved by fermentation was not high when compared with what can be attained through modern methods of distillation, unknown in the ancient world.” Wines that were a year old were still considered new wine, and tradition held that a man could not drink old wine while giving his Jewish slaves new wine because of its inferiority. Although wine improved over time, wines were generally consumed within three or four years. Modern pasteurization or containers that would allow longer storage periods were not available.”
Definitely a difference there. Not only is modern distillation not available, but likely to alcohol content is lower, partially due to storage methods in just how the process worked. Another thing to note is that, wine was regularly drunk with meals, but it was drunk in a diluted form. It was sometimes one to two parts wine to water or some rabbinic commentary say it’s one to three parts. Very diluted. This was because the water back then could not be purified effectively, so the wine helped to purify the water and they would drink this mixture of wine and water together. Now, this doesn’t mean they only drank diluted wine. They did drink wine in its pure form as well and it was served at circumcisions, engagements, weddings, and Sabbath’s. We’re seeing this theme of wine and it’s rejoicing all throughout the Bible. It’s a regular character on the scene. Jesus turns the water into wine as His very first miracle. This isn’t just Jesus saying, “Hey, y’all, I like to drink.” [giggles] This is Jesus beginning to give us a picture of the New Covenant in His blood.
The new wine of the Spirit, which we’re going to talk about in a little bit, the new wine represents the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, His very first miracle is to turn water into wine. Pretty powerful stuff. One fun little fact I found during my research for this episode is that, some rabbinic traditions believe that the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden was a great wine. Now, I’ve heard some people try to argue with me that what was in the Garden of Eden was actually just straight alcohol. They’re just a liquor store sitting in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Not the case, the rabbinic traditions have tossed around the idea of the grapevine being the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and then there’s also a theory that the tree Noah planted after the flood came from the Garden of Eden, and was a grapevine also. That’s how he began his vineyard, which if you’ve followed the story of Genesis or if you’re reading chronologically this year, you know that planting the vineyard ended up being a little bit of a dastardly event for Noah. If you don’t believe me, you can read Genesis 8-10.
This presence of the grapevine and some of the stuff that happens with wine in Scripture has caused some church traditions to be extremely anti-alcohol to say there’s no circumstances under which alcohol is okay. Even saying examples of someone like Noah, who gets drunk using that example and saying, “Well, this is obviously Noah’s sin that drunkenness was a sin, and therefore, all alcohol is a sin.” But really, when we look at Scripture and how wine is presented, that can’t be argued. In the fact that it was drunk both in pure form and in diluted form, we have to take that into account as well. It’s very interesting the rabbinic idea of the tree of knowledge being a grapevine. Now, one thing I do want to mention on the tree of knowledge of good and evil and I’m going to do a separate episode about this. So, just log it away. It wasn’t that Adam and Eve did not know what good and evil were. It’s not that God said, “Hey, you completely have no knowledge of right and wrong. By the way, trick to you. Here’s a tree and don’t touch it, that’s wrong.” [laughs] That’s not what God is doing. That phrase knowledge of good and evil means that they did not have the sovereignty to decide what was good and evil, the sovereignty to decide or determine. When they took the fruit, they were deciding that they would determine what was good and what was evil they’re going to play God. So, that’s what happened in the garden.
if it was a grapevine, that would be very interesting to the interplay between me taking on God’s sovereignty and consuming this forbidden fruit, if you will. There’s always been that interesting tension of the goodness of wine presented in Scripture, and then hey, maybe this interesting theme of the foolish fearlessness that comes with too much wine. Let’s move from the Old Testament to the New. Wine represents the New Covenant touched on this already. It also represents the Holy Spirit, new wine. Jesus talks about this with his disciples in Mark 2, where he says, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, and a worse tear will result. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. Instead, new wine is poured into new wineskins.” What he’s talking about here is the new nature given through Christ, and how we can’t pour this new nature in him, this new thing that he’s doing into the old system, the old person that we are the old community. It’s new, and it needs a new community, a new system. He’s creating the church and anyone, who calls upon the name of the Lord can be a part of that. So, wine represents the New Covenant.
Knowing what we know now and seeing just how wine is a symbol of rejoicing, when not used to access, that wine is a symbol of New Covenant of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, we have to ask the question. Well, then, is it wrong for a Christian to drink? The short answer is, Scripture does not condemn drinking alcohol, but it does condemn drunkenness. It condemns drunkenness repeatedly throughout the Bible, both Old Testament and New. This is also from the Jewish Encyclopedia that I referenced earlier. It says, “Wine is called Yayin because it brings lamentation and wailing into the world, and Tirosh because one that drinks it habitually is certain to become poor.” Rabbi Kahane said that, “The latter term is written sometimes in Hebrew, a specific way to mean if drunk in moderation, it gives leadership. If wine is drunk in moderation, it gives leadership, but if drunk in excess, it leads to poverty.” This is consistent with what we see throughout Scripture when it talks about alcohol.
In 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, Paul writes to the Corinthian church, who had a significant problem with alcohol because drunkenness was a big part of Greek worship. Paul says this. “I have the right to do anything you say, but not everything is beneficial. I have the right to do anything, but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” He’s teaching them that just because you have a freedom, it doesn’t mean that you can use that freedom in a way that could hurt other people or damage your own witness. In Galatians 5, Paul says, “The acts of the flesh are obvious, sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
When people hear that phrase, their first thought goes to their own actions. Well, if I did those things, does that mean I’m not going to inherit the kingdom of God? The question I would encourage you to ask is, if you have indeed inherited the kingdom of God through Christ, why would you want to do those things? You’re a new person and that’s why drunkenness is so antithetical to the Christian life. You are filled with the Spirit of the Living God, you have strength, you have power, you have awareness, you have the exciting life in Him. So, why would you go backwards into a life where you have to rely on a substance to enjoy it, to rely on a substance to have conversation or community? That’s not true community, that’s not true conversation. Unfortunately, drunkenness goes hand in hand with almost every other thing in the list in Galatians 5.
The other thing is, Paul makes a very clear contrast, because he follows this list with the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 6. In Romans 14, we see a pretty clear example of why walking in holiness when it comes to alcohol is so important. It’s not just about us, it’s also about other people. This is what Paul says. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food or drink. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”
Not too long. In the past, we had a dear friend who was a part of our small group. She very kindly told us at one point in our small group that she was prone to alcoholism. It was something I never would have expected or known if she hadn’t been vulnerable with us and shared. Well, what if in my freedom, I had decided to provide alcohol at an event without ever asking or trying to be aware. This is what happens so often in Christian context, at least in America. We normalize alcohol and drunkenness so much, because it’s a “freedom” that we fail to even consider the needs or weaknesses of our brothers. If you translate that to a different situation such as pornography, we would all be so offended. Why would we bring pornography in front of someone who struggles with it? That would be terrible, right? You’re putting a stumbling block in front of them. But because alcohol is such a normative part of American culture, at least, I can’t speak for every other culture, it’s something that Christians in a reaction against legalism have endorsed more and more.
Unfortunately, if you don’t know the line between healthy consumption of alcohol and drunkenness, you’re in danger of causing your brother to stumble and being a bad witness yourself. Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” There’s that contrast, again. We have a choice. We can consume alcohol in a healthy way, which I’m not advising for everyone. I think if you have a history of alcoholism in your family, you’re probably going to need to engage with this with much more caution. Maybe not at all, maybe refrain. But even if you do engage with it in a healthy way, you need to be aware of the boundaries, and even aware of who’s with you, and where you are, and your witness. There’s a lot to be aware of. If you feel that’s a lot of work, welcome to the Christian life. The Christian life is about ministering to others and keeping in mind that “Yes, we follow Christ and we are so free. We don’t do this because we have to. We do it because we can. Because He’s given us new life in the Spirit.”
There’s a contrast here. You can either be drunk on wine or you can be filled with the Holy Spirit. You can either depend on this substance for a “good time” or you can be filled with the joy and the excitement of life in Christ. This is why a theology of the Holy Spirit is so important, because so many people don’t have a rich theology of the Holy Spirit. They don’t even know what an exciting life in Christ is like. They think it’s just, “You know, I believe in Jesus, and I memorize the Bible, and then I just try to do what the Bible says.” Oh, what a sad loss? Because that’s not what the Christian life is. This is why Paul can make this correlation between life in the Spirit of Christ and life with alcohol, because one is giving this cheap alternative that gives you this adventure and excitement for a time, and one gives you adventure, and richness, and excitement in community for a lifetime. That’s why he can make that contrast.
I want to wrap up this episode by reading this quote from David Grabbe. I found this little quote online in an article, I’ll link it in the show notes, and I just thought it was so well said and expressed this so powerfully that I couldn’t say it better. So, I’m going to read it to you. “When we link the new wine with Jesus being taken away, it coincides with the Passover cup representing Christ’s blood and the New Covenant. When we add the fact that the Holy Spirit could not be given until Jesus had gone away, then the new wine entails more than just forgiveness, but also suggests God’s Spirit, His love, power, and sound mindedness,” 2 Timothy 1:7.
In the example, “The new wine is expansive. The fermentation process produces a great deal of pressure, and old and brittle wineskin will not be able to withstand the increasing stress and it will burst. The wineskin is a type of vessel. Throughout Scripture, vessels are symbols for people. For Christians, there is an old man and a new man. The old man represents the life we had before conversion, and the new man, the new vessel is the life that comes because of conversion. But if we take the expansive and dynamic new wine of the Holy Spirit and we attempt to put that into the old life, we can be sure that we will have a disaster on our hands. Our old lives, our old ways are entirely incompatible with the new wine. The new wine requires change, expansion, and steady improvement. Well, in the old life, there is no real desire or ability to change. Remember, the new wine is tied to the blood of the Passover, the New Covenant, the receipt of God’s Spirit, and the spiritual result that will be produced by those powerful factors trying to cram all that into a person, who’s unwilling to change will invariably result in his coming apart at the seams. The precious new wine is spilled on the ground and dreadfully wasted.”
I know this episode is about alcohol, but I think it really points to a much bigger theological theme. So many people are asking, “Is this person a Christian?” They say they’re a Christian, but their life doesn’t look like it. To be honest, my friends, I think we’re asking the wrong question. I think we need to ask, “Why does someone who claims to be a Christian, not desire to live as if they are?” That is the question we should be asking with alcohol. It’s the question we can ask when people don’t bear the fruit of the new wine that should be within them. People, who have the Holy Spirit will live in the power of the Holy Spirit. If they’re not changing and they’re not trying to change, you have to really come away with the conclusion that they do not have the Holy Spirit at all, because he truly is someone who transforms you, who inspires you, who convicts you, and who leads you to a life of transforming power, a life that is exciting and is fulfilling even as we face trials and difficulties.
Can a Christian drink alcohol? Yes, they can. But the question is, is it beneficial to your brothers in the circumstance in which you’re in, is it good for your witness, and is it something that allows you to continue to walk in the Holy Spirit? If you can answer those questions, you’ll have your answer on alcohol.
Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Verity. You can connect with fellow listeners by following me on Instagram @phyliciamasonheimer or on our Facebook page by the same name. Also, visit phyliciamasonheimer.com for links to each episode and the show notes.