I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church. That is enough to tell you what I was taught about alcohol. Wine, beer, and liquor of any kind was forbidden. Following college and after reading a lot of Martin Luther, I became more interested in the Biblical argument against alcohol. After some study, I came to the conclusion that alcohol in moderation is not only allowed by Scripture but in many ways it is promoted by the Bible. Wine, beer, and whiskey are good things and God wants us to drink them.
A friend of mine recently asked what I thought of the argument that the word used for “wine” in the New Testament means unfermented grape juice. This idea or something like it has been batted around the anti-alcohol circles for some time. The premise is that our wine is different from the wine in the Bible and therefore we cannot justify modern drinking of alcohol by using the Scriptures. They used grape juice. We use wine.
Let’s look at this argument. Below is one positive and one negative use of wine from each of the major sections of the Old Testament. These examples could be multiplied many times over. In every case below the Hebrew word used for wine is “yayin” and the Greek word used in the LXX, the Greek version of the Old Testament, is “oinos.” The word “yayin” occurs around 141 times in the Old Testament. “Oinos” is always the Greek word used for it in the LXX.
Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father (Gen 19:32).
And for the drink offering you shall offer a third of a hin of wine, a pleasing aroma to the LORD. (Num 15:7)
And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you” (1Sa 1:14).
And they were there with David for three days, eating and drinking, for their brothers had made preparation for them. And also their relatives, from as far as Issachar and Zebulun and Naphtali, came bringing food on donkeys and on camels and on mules and on oxen, abundant provisions of flour, cakes of figs, clusters of raisins, and wine and oil, oxen and sheep, for there was joy in Israel (1Ch 12:39-40).
Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise
And wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart (Psa 104:15).
Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them (Isaiah 5:11).
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price (Isa 55:1).
Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth (Joe 1:5). [This verse is interesting because the Hebrew has two words “yayin/wine” and “asis/new wine.” But the Greek version (LXX) uses “wine/oinos” for both words.]
Then Ephraim shall become like a mighty warrior, and their hearts shall be glad as with wine. Their children shall see it and be glad; their hearts shall rejoice in the LORD (Zec 10:7).
There are many more verses I could use to prove my point. Wine in the Old Testament referred to a drink that could get you drunk, but was also a good thing that could be used in moderation, was part of the worship of God and of God’s blessing on his people. Like most things in this world it is not forbidden, but we are commanded to use it with self-control.
The second most common word for wine in the Old Testament is “tirosh.” It is used around 38 times. Tirosh was grape juice at an early stage of fermentation. In the ancient world keeping grape juice from fermenting was difficult, if not impossible. “Tirosh” was not as intoxicating as “yayin.” However, it could still intoxicate. This is clear from Hosea 4:10-11
They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the LORD to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding (Hos 4:10-11).
“New wine/tirosh” can “take away the understanding” just as regular wine can.
Let’s look at one other word. The word “shekar” is typically translated “strong drink” in the Old Testament. It is used 22 times in the Old Testament and in all but one case it is coupled with wine (For example see: Lev. 10:9, Numbers 6:3, Prov. 31:6, Isaiah 24:9) As far as we know there was no liquor in the ancient world. Shekar was possibly a strong barley beer. It was an intoxicating drink. Here is the key passage on the enjoyment of alcoholic beverages by Christians and it includes the word “shekar.”
And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household (Deu 14:24-26).
In this passage both words “yayin/oinos” and “shekar” are used. God tells his people to buy wine and strong drink, to drink it before Him as a household, and to do so with joy. These verses are a stamp of approval on the Christian’s freedom to enjoy alcohol.
What about the New Testament? The teaching is the same as it was in the Old Testament. We are told to not get drunk on wine (Ephesians 5:18), but Timothy is told to drink wine (I Timothy 5:18). Elders (I Timothy 3:8) and older women (Titus 2:3) are told to not be addicted to much wine. Jesus turned seven large pots of water into good wine (John 2:10) and was known for drinking wine (Luke 7:31-35). All of these verses use the Greek word “oinos.” And while I Corinthians 11:21 does not use the word wine, it is clear that there was enough wine at the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper for people to get drunk. Paul did not tell them stop drinking. He told them to wait on one another. In the New Testament alcohol is treated the same as it was in the Old Testament. It is a good thing that can be abused.
This does not answer all questions, but the Biblical teaching is clear. A Christian has freedom to drink alcohol but may not get drunk.