Jesus and Alcohol

Since we are looking at the first sign in John’s gospel this Wednesday (the wedding at Cana – John 2:1-11), I know the topic of Christians and alcohol is going to come up.

Christians who abstain from alcohol have often tried to insist that total abstention was the practice of Jesus and the disciples. Obviously the miracle at Cana poses a bit of a problem-after all, would Jesus have turned water into wine if he thought it was wrong to drink it? Add to that the fact that no one at a wedding in those days would have drunk anything except wine, so we must assume Jesus himself drank, (not to mention the elements at the Last Supper).

In the past some teetotalers came up with the “two-wine theory,” claiming that some of the biblical words translated “wine” in fact referred to non-fermented grape juice. It is an interesting idea, but not a true one. In ancient times, with no refrigeration, grape juice had a way of turning into wine rather quickly, and when the Bible says “wine,” it really does refer to alcoholic wine.

The Bible does have some harsh words to say about drunkenness, notably in Proverbs, but then again Proverbs also advises, “Give strong drink to him that is ready to perish, and wine to those that are of heavy hearts” (Proverbs 31:6-7). In the age before pain relievers and anesthetics, alcoholic beverages really did have medicinal value. Wine was also the only real disinfectant available for cleansing wounds, as we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It is worth noting, however, that people in ancient times, not only Jews but the Greeks and Romans as well-generally drank their wine diluted with water, so ordinary table wine was about half the strength of wines today. Even the pleasure-loving Romans mocked heavy drinkers who insisted on having their wine undiluted.

Today there is also a distillation process that is different from natural fermentation. I discovered that in fermentation, you’re allowing the natural processes of living things (like yeasts) to produce alcohol. There’s a limit on how high a concentration you can produce this way. Alcohol is a metabolic poison, so increasing concentration tends to kill off the micro-organisms producing it. I read that you can’t get much more that 15 proof (7.5%) from natural fermentation.

In distillation, you’re using heat to increase the concentration of alcohol by driving out the water. I am not aware of any alcohol limit on that method, except patience. Even if there is a limit, it must be higher than the limit on fermentation. So, distillation can produce a more potent wine.

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Paul and His Vow

I love that game Trivial Pursuit; you know the one that has players bursting forth with tidbits of random and otherwise useless information. The writer of Acts, Dr. Luke, throws in one item of what seems to be useless trivia, that when Paul left Corinth, he had his hair cut off because of a vow (Acts 18:18). I wonder why Luke thought that bit of information needed to be included in the narrative? Know for sure that the point is not that Paul needed a haircut, but the reason for the haircut.

Paul was deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and coming to Christ did not make him forget that heritage. Luke was referring to the Nazirite Vow (Numbers 6:1-8). Note the purpose as revealed best in the NIV: “If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the LORD as a Nazirite” (Numbers 6:2).

  1. Using the word wants: it was voluntary
  2. Using the word special: not only was it voluntary but it was for men and women.
  3. Using the word separation: it was a vow of consecration to the Lord, to be distinguished from all others.

If you know the writings to the Corinthians, this church was in the midst of terrible depravity in a sexually explicit society. The most extreme pagan practice involved the cult of Aphrodite, full of lust and sexual immorality as a part of their worship.

The haircut is not the beginning of the vow but the end of it (Number 6:5). Practically speaking, Paul entered this wicked city with the intention of setting himself apart, to remain pure in the midst of impurity, committing himself to the only One who could ensure victory (2 Corinthians 2:14).

The vow involved abstinence (Number 6:3) from wine and strong drink. I abstain from alcohol not for biblical reasons but for social reasons. I see what alcohol does to our society and choose not to support that industry (drunk driving, road deaths, broken families, ruined marriages, abused children). I know alcohol is not forbidden in the Bible, but for me it is a distraction. It is a voluntary decision I have made. I do not believe that I personally can consume alcohol and be a truly devoted follower of Christ. I’m sure that Satan would use it as a trap for me, so I have made a vow of separation.

A visible sign of someone taking this vow of separation was uncut hair (Acts 18:18). If someone forgot about the vow they made, they could easily look into a mirror and be reminded of their commitment. Once Paul no longer needed this sign of extreme devotion to God, he cut his hair leaving Corinth. I am impressed with Paul’s example.

Paul had insecurities, weaknesses and temptations like all of us, but he dealt with them with wisdom. Jesus told us to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Had Paul not taken precautions, he could have gotten into serious trouble.

He took another precaution, he purposely did not take any money from the Corinthians; he got a job. A Macedonian church sent him money so he could preach freely without being a burden to the Corinthians (Acts 18:5, 2 Corinthians 8:1-2, 3-4). He also found a couple new friends, Aquila and Priscilla, who were also tent makers (Acts 18:3).

Application: Men, it is time to consider taking the vow… it’s not about letting your hair grow, but separating yourself from the world and consecrating yourself to the Lord. How do you keep yourself pure in a society that elevates sensuality, drunkenness, impurity and promiscuity? Do you go out into the world unprotected or worse, with a belief that you would never fall to any of these more grievous vices? Hear the words of 1 Corinthians 10:12, “let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” In short, that is what we call accountability. We can stand better together.