Feb 19 2016
The Holy Spirit was present. People were receiving prayer all over the auditorium. I watched in wonder as numerous people shook with God’s power. Suddenly there was a squeaking noise behind me. I turned to see a large roll up door at the back of the hall being opened. And there behind it was a counter with a barman. One by one as people finished receiving prayer they gathered around the bar to enjoy beer, wine, soda, or whatever they fancied …
Now some people reading this will say “Yeah, and then what happened, whats your point?” Others will say “What! That’s crazy! You can’t mix the Holy Spirit and alcohol!”
This incident happened at a charismatic evangelical church conference in the UK. I was somewhat amazed watching it all because I knew this could never happen where I pastored in Africa. There most churches are against drinking, and even though some believers do take a drink you will never see alcohol at a Christian event.
Now let me make a statement that may surprise many. Jesus not only drank alcohol but he also shared it with his disciples while teaching and prophesying. As an example, think of the Passover meal where they shared the traditional four cups of wine together, and Jesus held up one of the four cups and said “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22: 17-20). But of course there are other examples like when Jesus provided 600 liters of miracle wine for a wedding in Cana. And of course you don’t provide the stuff and then refuse to drink it yourself. No, Jesus, his mother and his disciples were all there to celebrate (John 2: 1-11).
In this post I want to look at a number of scriptures in the Old and New Testament and present a balanced view of what the Bible says about drinking.
First we have to understand that Israel was an alcohol producing nation. While their vineyards produced raisins and vinegar, they were mainly for producing wine. And when the harvest was big and the wine was abundant it was regarded as the blessing of the Lord. As an example look at this prophecy in Amos and the Psalm that follows –
‘“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills, and I will bring my people Israel back from exile. “They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them. They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them,” says the Lord your God.’
‘Many, Lord, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?” Let the light of your face shine on us. Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound.’
But of course in any culture that alcohol is produced in such abundance it can also be abused, and so we find numerous verses all over the Bible that warn us against alcohol abuse. Let me quote a few –
‘Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. Your eyes will see strange sights, and your mind will imagine confusing things. You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging. “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt! They beat me, but I don’t feel it! When will I wake up so I can find another drink?”’
We may laugh at some of these descriptions but anyone who has suffered from a partner or a family member that abused alcohol will know just how destructive it can be – both for the abuser and those who love them. Alcohol can make a complete mockery of your life –
‘Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.’
The New Testament is also full of verses that warn against alcohol abuse. Since many Christians can quote these verses from memory I’ll just quote one –
‘Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.’
Having looked at all these verses that warn against alcohol abuse, it may come as a surprise to you to know that nearly every man and woman of God in the Bible drank wine. I did a little research on this and the only people I could find who did not drink wine were John the Baptist, a clan called the Rakabites, Samson’s mother, and possibly Samson himself. The vast majority of prophets, priests and God worshiping kings all drank alcohol.
But Jesus is the supreme example for all Christians, so lets focus on him.
There is no way to escape the fact that Jesus drank alcohol. Not only is it obvious from numerous incidents in the gospels as mentioned above, but he actually says it in the following verses –
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: “’We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
Jesus could not have been clearer. In these verses he compares himself with John the Baptist who did not drink and says he did the exact opposite – ‘The Son of Man came … drinking.’ And because he describes himself as doing the opposite of what John did we can understand that he drank whatever John did not drink. So what did John not drink? Well, Luke tells us –
‘He (John) is never to take wine or other fermented drink.’
Its interesting that this verse mentions other fermented drink besides wine. There were other alcoholic drinks (like beer – Prov 20:1) in Bible times, which John was not permitted to drink, but clearly Jesus (being the opposite comparison) could drink them if he wanted. I only mention this because some Christians have this crazy notion that its ok to drink wine, but not beer. Scripture does not support this idea. Jesus was allowed to drink any fermented drink.
Now some people may choose to follow the example of John the Baptist and not drink any fermented drink. But in that case it may be a good idea to know why John did not drink.
Firstly, it was a command of the Lord that was specifically given to John. It was not a general command for all believers. And the reason the Lord required John to never drink was because he was calling him to be a life-long Nazarite. Let’s look at what being a Nazarite is all about –
‘The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow , a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. “’During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long. “’Throughout the period of their dedication to the Lord, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. Even if their own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head. Throughout the period of their dedication, they are consecrated to the Lord.’
Notice that a person became a Nazarite for a limited period of time, then they returned to their normal life. It was a period of dedication, a bit like a fast where you give up certain pleasures as an act of worship. Samson was one of the few people called to be a life-long Nazarite like John, but he was often disobedient and sometimes broke the fast. Against God’s wishes he got involved with Philistine women. The Philistine, Delilah eventually cut the long hair that symbolized his Nazarite dedication and thats when he lost his divine strength.
Jesus grew up in a town called Nazareth, but he was not a Nazarite. So he could drink wine, cut his hair when required and go near dead bodies. An obedient Nazarite like John the Baptist could not socialize properly due to the restrictions on his diet. Matthew 3:4 tells us that in addition to his abstinence from alcohol he also restricted himself to simple food like locusts and wild honey. But Jesus ate the usual social food and drank the usual social drink – that’s why he said ‘John came neither eating nor drinking … The Son of Man came eating and drinking.’ In the process of eating and drinking whatever was put before him he was accused of being a glutton and drunkard (Mt 11:19). A glutton is not someone who just eats, but someone who eats too much, and a drunkard is not someone who just drinks, but someone who drinks too much. But since scripture is clear that Jesus never sinned (Heb 4:15), we know that he always ate and drank in moderation. And that is the teaching of scripture – not that we should abstain from drink, but that we should drink in moderation. Inspect every scripture that speaks negatively about drinking (some of them are above) and you will note that they are always speaking of drinking too much. Drinking is not wrong, drunkenness is.
It was legalistic Pharisees that accused Jesus of drunkardness, and its something that religious bigots, who cannot discern the difference between moderation and excess, still do today. Jesus had strong words for these critics. He said they were like children in the market place saying ‘We played the pipe but you did not dance.’ In other words they had their little tradition of what was considered right, and they wanted Jesus to dance to their religious tune. But as you know, he never did, and I don’t think we should either.
The fact that Jesus was seen drinking in public and called a drunkard raises an interesting question. Did Jesus cause believers to stumble when he drank? This is important because of what Paul said –
‘It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.’
Did Jesus not consider the fact that his drinking might cause a weak believer to stumble? What do you think? I’m pretty sure he did consider it, but then why did he continue to drink? Well here is something he must have thought about that we also need to think about. You cannot cater for every person’s weakness. Must we stop eating pork to cater for those who have coverted from Islam? Must we stop eating beef to cater for those who have coverted from Hinduism? Must a woman avoid wearing a bikini in case it causes a man to lust? Must she also not wear short dresses? What if eye shadow makes him lust? Should a married man never offer a lift to a stranded woman in case people think he is committing adultery? Should a believer not drink coffee because some people always need a caffeine fix? As you can see, catering for every person’s weakness is simply not possible.
When Paul says we should not cause a brother or sister to stumble he is not talking of catering for everyone on the planet. He is talking of being sensitive to those who you know have a problem. So if you are having dinner with an ex alcoholic, don’t drink in front of him. If you are eating with an ex musIim, don’t put pork on the table. This is logical, but if you try to cater for every weakness in the community you will live such a restricted life that no one will want to be like you; and you will actually be a bad witness for Christ.
So yes, I think Jesus considered the weak in all he did, but he did not let other people’s weaknesses turn his life into an unappealing blank space. In fact Jesus did the opposite, he challenged the legalists of his day. He worked healing on the Sabbath, he ate with ceremonially unwashed hands, he allowed a sinful woman to touch him, and as you will see below he drank wine with a crowd of notorious con men. In all these things Jesus ran the risk of being misunderstood, and he was; his good intentions were interpreted as bad ones.
Now, having been accused of being a glutton and a drunkard Jesus said something that for me sums up the issue. He said ‘Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.’ In other words; we do not prove what is right and good by keeping to rules, we prove what is right and good by the fruits our actions bear. Jesus produced good fruit when he healed on the Sabbath, he produced good fruit when he allowed the sinful woman to touch him, he produced good fruit when he ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners.
Lets have a closer look at that last example –
‘After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”’
Tax collectors were notorious con men in those days. Jesus called one of them (Levi also know as Matthew) to be one of his disciples. Levi was so moved by Jesus that he held a banquet to honor him. Jesus went to the banquet where he could reach out to even more tax collectors. The Pharisees could not help these people because they would not socialize with them.
Nothing has changed, modern day Pharisees cannot reach those who have the biggest need because they won’t go into the bars and clubs where they collect, let alone have a drink with them like Jesus did.
The Christian that gets drunk is obviously a bad witness, but the one who drinks in moderation like Jesus will find many openings to share the gospel.
A few years ago I went to pray for a man who was at home recovering from a car accident. The man allowed me to pray for him because he believed in God, but he was quite open about the fact that he was not a Christian. When I asked him why he had not made a committment to Christ he said he could never be a Christian as that would affect a number of things in his life that were important to him. He then explained how he was an architect that belonged to an architect support group. The group met for drinks at a local bar on Fridays. He said that if he became a Christian he would have to stop drinking and seeing his architect friends.
I was very quick to explain that this was not true; that a Christian could drink and go to bars as long as he drank in moderation as Jesus did. The man was both surprised and relieved. It showed in his face. After a few more questions he said “You have to go and speak to my friends, they will listen to you.” Suddenly I had another opening to share the gospel.
Afterwards I thought, ‘Why do we make it so hard for sinners to come to Jesus? Why do we require people to give up drinking when Jesus did not require it of himself on his followers. How many are dying without Jesus because of Christian legalism?’ It is actually the people who require everyone to stop drinking that are the ones being the stumbling block. Repentance is needed.
Having accepted that drinking in moderation is biblical, we need to ask an important question. How do we know when we are going beyond moderate drinking and moving into drunkenness? How many beers or glasses of wine can we have?
There is no easy answer to this because we all have different bodies and they respond differently to alcohol. If the disciple called Peter was big and the one called John was small, then Peter would be able to drink more than John. And as is natural, the disciples would have noticed that it’s better to eat before taking a second cup. Its the same for you and I today. The disciplined drinker is always listening to his body and making sure he keeps it is under control.
With this in mind I would like to say something that is pretty obvious but not often thought about. Did you know that Jesus was affected by the alcohol he drank? Well he had to have been; even a very small drop of alcohol in your system affects you to some degree. But small amounts do not affect you in bad ways. In fact small amounts can affect you in good ways. The men who God inspired to write the Bible understood this. Look at what the Psalmist wrote –
‘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.’
Ancient Israelites thought it was good when wine gladdened the heart. They did not see this as drunkeness, but rather the positive affect of small amounts of alcohol. For them wine was a good social drink because it relaxed people and made them open and talkative. Now if you are from an evangelical or Pentecostal background (like me) and are used to a ban on all alcohol, you may struggle with this, but there it is in scripture. The Bible is positive about moderate drinking. All the disciples would have noticed that Jesus was gladdened by the wine he drank, but they never saw that as sin because it was not drunkenness.
If we want to understand what drunkenness is we need to take a look at the things that the Bible associates with it. According to scripture drunkenness causes sexual promiscuity, jealousy, arguments, violence, bloodshot eyes, illusions, addiction and sorrow. All these things are life-destroying and are very different to a gladdened heart. We destroy our lives when we drink in excess.
It is easier to tell people to abstain from all drink than to teach them to drink in moderation. When a person abstains and sticks to his decision there is no danger of excess. But when you are teaching someone to drink in moderation they do not learn it overnight and it may take time to get the balance right. So discipleship in this area can be messy. But learning to drink in moderation is definitely what Jesus modeled and so I am personally committed to that approach.
Of course we will sometimes come across people who intend to drink in moderation but consistently fail. If people cannot control their drinking I always advise them to abstain from alcohol altogether.
Its a bit like learning to drive a car correctly. If someone is a very dangerous driver and after getting a lot of instruction still cannot drive correctly, you take their license away. You say, ‘That’s enough, no more cars for you.’ But if they have only had a few mishaps here and there, there is still hope that they will learn to drive properly. So you don’t tell them to abstain from driving, you come alongside them and say ‘Okay lets learn to do this together.’ Jesus did not ban any of his disciples from drinking, he came alongside them and drank with them. He mentored them in all they did together.
I would like to finish by pointing out that there are a number of scriptures that tell us to rely on the infilling of the Holy Spirit rather than alcohol –
‘Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.’
‘Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “’In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.’
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”
Scripture often draws comparisons between the affects of wine and the affects of the Holy Spirit. This is because people who are filled with the Holy Spirit act a lot like people who have had a few glasses of wine. It’s funny but its true. People who are filled with the Holy Spirit are inoculated against pain, they laugh a lot, they speak boldly, they see more than the natural, and they sometimes stagger and fall down. If you have seen an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on a crowd you will know what I mean.
But notice how the three verses above point people away from dependence on wine and towards dependence on the Holy Spirit. Although there are times when we could do with a glass of wine to gladden the heart, it is the Holy Spirit that we must be depend on in general.
If someone comes to my house after a hard day at the office and they want to share their problems, I might say “Hey, relax, have a glass of wine and lets talk.” But I would never suggest that they should always take wine when they are down. The way to stay on top of our problems in a permanent way is to be filled with the Holy Spirit regularly as we draw close to God in worship, contemplation and prayer.
So let me finish by repeating what I said at the beginning. Jesus did drink wine, and he even did it while ministering to his disciples. The balance of teaching in scripture does not point to abstinence but to moderation. Its important that we be true to what scripture actually says.
PS 1 – Some preachers have tried to claim that Jesus turned water into grape juice. This is nonsense. The master of the banquet said “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now” (John 2:10). The statement ‘too much to drink’ indicates that they were drinking wine that contained alcohol, and there is no way they would have considered grape juice to be a better type of wine. Often the best wines in Roman times were strong on alcohol. Falernian was probably Romes best and it contained 15% alcohol.
“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter! For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”(1 Corinthians 11:17-26).
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