Just as it was in ancient times, alcohol consumption is a common part of our modern culture. Some Christian traditions today adhere to strict abstinence from all alcohol use, while others employ fermented wine in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Which way is right? Are Christians permitted to drink beer or wine? And if so, when is it permissible, and in what quantities?
Christians may drink beer and wine in moderation. The Bible does not prohibit the use of alcohol but does warn against intoxication. And so Christians should understand the parameters and limitations to alcohol use so that they do not get caught up in addiction or other destructive behaviors
Wine in Ancient Times
Before we can unpack what the Bible teaches about wine, drinking, and intoxication, we must first understand what wine was in Biblical times, and how it may be different from our present-day wine.
Like our modern wine, ancient wine was fermented grape juice. Grapes were readily abundant in the Mediterranean region and easy to process into juice or wine. So the wine and juice produced from them were the default alternative to water.
And since fermentation increases with time, some wines were naturally stronger than others. The most common wines in the ancient world likely contained less alcohol than modern wines, as the laws of supply and demand necessitated a short fermentation period for common consumption.
We should also note that water in ancient times was commonly contaminated with bacteria, so without a nearby spring to relatively pure water, the ancients often drank fruit juices as a safer alternative to water. While water was still consumed (John 4:7), wine was a viable, and in some cases preferable, alternative.
Wine and the Bible
The Bible’s human authors were familiar with the variety of wines available, and on several occasions draw attention to the strength or quality of wine. In John 2:10, the speaker notes that the wine being served was of a higher quality than expected. And Isaiah 25:6 describes a feast prepared by the Lord that consists of well-aged wine.
But for the purposes of understanding what the Bible permits, prohibits, encourages, and admonishes, we’ll examine a number of Biblical references to wine, drinking, and intoxication.
Biblical Depictions of Wine Use
When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” – John 2:3. John 2:1-11 records Jesus’ first public miracle, turning water to wine at a wedding feast in Cana.
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. – Mark 14:23. The sharing of the last supper is perhaps the best-known appearance of wine in the Bible. Here, Jesus drinks wine (which he calls ‘the fruit of the vine’ in verse 25) and offers it to his disciples as well.
From these examples, we can plainly see that Jesus was accustomed to being around wine and wine consumption, and even consumed wine himself. Nevertheless, the Bible also describes instances of wine consumption that were more problematic.
“Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.” – Genesis 19:32. In Genesis 19, we read the story of Lot and his daughters, who successfully devised a plan to intoxicate their father so that they could sleep with him and have his children.
When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing at all until daybreak. – 1 Samuel 25:32. Nabal was a wealthy man who had a reputation for being mean-spirited. When David sent men to offer greetings to Nabal, Nabal responded with insults, prompting David to prepare to go to war with him.
Nabal’s wife, Abigal, instead acted quickly to extend an offer of peace and reconciliation to David, which he accepted. But when Abigal went to inform Nabal of her success in brokering peace, he was too intoxicated to receive the news.
In these two examples, we see where drinking in excess, to the point of intoxication impairs memory and judgment, and leads to troublesome results.
Wine as a Teaching Tool
“Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.” – Matthew 9:17. Jesus used the illustration of new wine in old wineskins to teach that his arrival was ushering in a new and different kingdom, and not merely upgrading what was already established.
But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. – Philippians 2:17. Writing from prison, Paul describes his own suffering and affliction to wine being poured out as a drink offering. He repeats this phrase again in 2 Timothy 4:6
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth— for your love is more delightful than wine. – Song of Solomon 1:2. The opening line of Solomon’s love poem equates a romantic kiss with the pleasures of wine.
From these verses, we see that wine itself was understood by the writers of the Bible as a beneficial and useful commodity.
Wine Consumption Instructed
Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses. – 1 Timothy 5:23. Paul understood that wine was a safer alternative to water when dealing with certain ailments. And so he instructs Timothy in the moderated use of wine to ease his stomach pain.
Let beer be for those who are perishing, wine for those who are in anguish! – Proverbs 31:6. Likewise, Solomon understood the pain-relieving properties of alcohol and advised that it be provided to the dying to ease their suffering.
Warnings against Drunkenness
Even while the Bible acknowledges and appreciates the benefits and blessings of wine, it warns against the overconsumption of wine to the point of intoxication.
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, – Ephesians 5:18. Here, Paul warns specifically against intoxication. He similarly includes drunkenness in lists of enumerated sins elsewhere in his letters (Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. – Isaiah 5:11. Here, Isaiah pronounces woe on the person who engages in the addictive pursuit of drunkenness day and night.
The ancient Biblical writers understood the dangers of addiction and the effect that drunkenness can have on our judgment, our priorities, our work, and our relationships. The warnings and cautionary tales are spread across the pages of the Old and New Testaments alike.
Is Moderation Enough?
While scripture draws a clear line between drinking and drunkenness, it also places a responsibility on Christians to use our freedom wisely, for the sake of others. Paul stresses the importance of being mindful of those around us who may be more vulnerable to alcohol-related sins, whether because of an inclination to addiction or a past pagan lifestyle.
While encouraging behavior that results in mutual edification, Paul advises in Romans 14:21 to abstain from wine if drinking it will cause another to stumble. All things are lawful, He reminds us, but not all things are beneficial (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Though Christians are not prohibited from enjoying wine and beer, we must exercise caution to ensure that our consumption does not damage our bodies, our relationships, or our work. Our bodies are temples where Christ dwells, and we are ambassadors of his kingdom. So as with everything we do, we must approach alcohol in a manner that does not supplant Jesus’ rightful place as master in our lives, and does not distort our witness to his glory.