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Wine in the Bible

The word “wine” appears about 220 times in every major English version of the Bible.

So, to truly understand the Bible, we must understand what it says about wine. This is especially true when we want to understand the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. What place does wine, and wine consumption, have in the Bible? What place did it have in the culture in which Jesus lived and ministered? What did wine, and the drinking of wine, mean, to Jesus and His disciples? Such questions as these will help us to understand the place wine occupied, if any, in the original institution of the Lord’s Supper.

A complete study of wine in the Bible is beyond the scope of this website. Many volumes have been written about the subjects of wine, wine consumption, winepresses, vines, vineyards, grapes, wineskins, new wine, beer, strong drink, and drunkenness. No attempt to be exhaustive will be made here. However, a few things need to be said, so that we can understand the Lord’s Supper and the communion cup.

How Was Wine Used?

The Old Testament has two main Hebrew words for wine. The first of these is yayin, which is commonly translated as “wine.” The second is tirosh, which is sometimes translated as “new wine.” A few other Hebrew words, such as shekar, usually translated as “strong drink” or “beer,” appear far less frequently. The New Testament normally uses the Greek word oinos. The Greek word gleukos appears only in Acts 2:13, and is usually translated as “new wine.”

“New wine,” contrary to popular opinion, was not unfermented grape juice, because the ancient Israelites lacked the technology to preserve grape juice in an unfermented state. “The term ‘new wine’ does not indicate wine which has not fermented, for in fact the process of fermentation sets in very rapidly, and unfermented wine could not be available many months after the harvest…” (F.S. Fitzsimmonds, “Wine and Strong Drink,” New Bible Dictionary, Second Edition, Tyndale, 1982). “But unfermented grape juice is a very difficult thing to keep without the aid of modern antiseptic precautions, and its preservation in the warm and not overly clean conditions of ancient Pal[estine] was impossible” (B.S. Easton, “Wine, Wine Press,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume V, page 3086). “There was no non-alcoholic wine in the Last Supper. Ancient vintners could not, even if they wanted, produce non-alcoholic beverage” (Magen Broshi, email September 18, 2005). Even in America, not until Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch perfected his pasteurization techniques in 1869, was unfermented grape juice widely available for use in the sacrament. At the time of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, for all practical purposes, unfermented grape juice simply did not exist. That “new wine” was alcoholic is further evidenced by another observation: Hosea 4:11 tells us “wine and new wine enslave the heart.” “New wine” was probably simply the product of the most recent grape harvest, as opposed to older wine from previous grape harvests. It’s “newness” consisted simply in this: It had been newly produced.

The inability of first century vintners to prevent fermentation—which began almost immediately and was complete in a few days—is of special significance when we consider the contents of the communion cup. Why? Because the grape harvest was in the fall, and the Passover meal (and hence, the institution of the Lord’s Supper) took place in the spring. Unfermented grape juice at the time Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper was a physical impossibility. This fact is of crucial importance when we seek to determine the contents of the communion cup.

Wine had a number of uses, according to the Bible. We should examine these. In order of importance, they are:

  1. Wine was used as a drink or beverage, often as part of a meal. Wine was an ordinary part of the diet. Wine is itself a food, in the broadest sense, because it contains important nutrients. For this reason, it sometimes appears alongside other foods (E.g. Genesis 14:18, Genesis 27:37, I Samuel 1:24, I Samuel 25:18). This use of wine was so common that its absence from the diet of John the Baptist was unusual and remarkable in this respect; for he “came neither eating bread nor drinking wine” (Luke 7:33). On the other hand, Jesus came both “eating and drinking.”
  2. Wine was sometimes used to enhance mood (Psalm 104:15, Judges 9:13); thus, it was welcomed as a benefit and a blessing (Genesis 27:28, 37; Proverbs 3:10). The loss of wine was a judgment of God on His people for their sins (Hosea 2:9). Because wine was a benefit, it could be compared to other benefits, whether of a material or a spiritual nature (Song of Solomon 1:2, 4; 7:9; Proverbs 9:5, Isaiah 55:1). Of course, these aspects could, and sometimes did, tempt people to drink it excessively, and so a few passages in the Bible warn against drunkenness and its effects (Ephesians 5:17, Proverbs 20:1, Proverbs 23:29-35).
  3. Wine was used to promote health, either by being consumed internally, as in I Timothy 5:23, or by being applied externally, as in Luke 10:34. See also Proverbs 31:6.
  4. As an element within the Old Testament worship, Numbers 15:5-10.
  5. As a metaphor, wine could be used to denote the banquet that the people of God will enjoy with God at the end of history. Amos 9:13-14 promises, “’Behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘When the plowman will overtake the reaper, And the treader of grapes him who sows seed; When the mountains will drip sweet wine, And all the hills will be dissolved. Also I will restore the captivity of My people Israel, And they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them; They will also plant vineyards and drink their wine, And make gardens and eat their fruit.’”
  6. As a metaphor for the wrath of God. This follows naturally from the fact that wine, when used to excess, can make one sick or deprive one of his abilities. Important examples of such passages are Matthew 26:39 (where the wine is not explicit, but implied), Hosea 4:11, Hosea 7:5, and Zechariah 12:2.

At least some of these uses, perhaps even all, would have informed the minds of Jesus and His disciples when Jesus gave the communion cup to His disciples.

Is Wine Sinful?

Is the act of drinking wine a sin? It is important to answer this question, for if drinking wine is a sin, wine has no place in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

On the other hand, if drinking wine is not a sin, then the only important objection to the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper is null and void.

All Christians agree that drunkenness is a sin. This is clear from passages such as Ephesians 5:17, which commands us, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.”

But what of the moderate (as opposed to the excessive) consumption of wine? Is even the moderate consumption of wine a sin?

A careful study of such passages as Numbers 6:20c, Numbers 15:5, Deuteronomy 14:23-26, Psalm 104:14-15, Luke 7:33-34, John 2:3-11, Romans 14:21 and I Timothy 5:23 should be sufficient to answer this question. All eight are quoted below, and a few comments are appended to each.

Numbers 6:20c
After that the Nazirite may drink wine (Hebrew: yayin).
[Comment: Numbers 6:1-21, of which the words “After that the Nazirite may drink wine” are a part, contains the requirements for the Nazirites. Nazirites could be either men or women. During the time of their vow, every Nazirite was required to “separate himself from wine and similar drink.” However, this requirement was only in force as long as the time for the Nazirite vow continued. Ordinarily, sooner or later, the period of consecration for the Nazirite would someday be over, and then he or she would simply be another member of the community, like everyone else. At that point, what may he or she do? “After that the Nazirite may drink wine.” God explicitly permitted former Nazirites to drink wine. What God permits, we cannot forbid. It is not a sin to drink wine.]

Numbers 15:5
and one-fourth of a hin of wine (Hebrew: yayin) as a drink offering you shall prepare with the burnt offering or the sacrifice, for each lamb.
[Comment: By the time of Numbers 15, wine had become an ordinary part of the worship of God. Numbers 28:14 is a similar passage.]

Deuteronomy 14:24-26
But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses. And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine (Hebrew: yayin) or similar drink (Hebrew: shekar; King James Version, English Standard Version: strong drink; New International Version: other fermented drink), for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.
[Comment: As in Numbers 15, wine is an important part of the worship of God. Here, however, the wine could be consumed by the worshipper. “Strong drink” was also intended to be consumed, if the worshipper so chose. Either the wine or the strong drink was a means of rejoicing. Keil and Delitzsch comment that the Israelites were to “hold a joyous meal.”]

Psalm 104:14-15
He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the service of man, That he may bring forth food from the earth, And wine (Hebrew: yayin) that makes glad the heart of man, Oil to make his face shine, And bread which strengthens man’s heart.
[Comment: By His bounty, God demonstrates His goodness to man, not only by providing for man’s bare necessities, but also for man’s pleasures and luxuries. Man’s response is not one of scorn or rejection, but rather cheerfulness. In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin said, “In these words we are taught, that God not only provides for men’s necessity, and bestows upon them as much as is sufficient for the ordinary purposes of life, but that in his goodness he deals still more bountifully with them by cheering their hearts with wine and oil. Nature would certainly be satisfied with water to drink; and therefore the addition of wine is owing to God’s superabundant liberality.” Calvin alluded to Psalm 104:15 and wine’s “gladdening” features in his catechism’s answer about the Lord’s Supper, saying, “As by wine the hearts of men are gladdened, their strength recruited, and the whole man strengthened, so by the blood of our Lord the same benefits are received by our souls.” The contents of the communion cup should remind us that God has abundantly provided for our salvation, even far beyond what is necessary, thus gladdening our hearts.]

Luke 7:33-34
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
[Comment: John the Baptist was a remarkable figure for many reasons, but our present purpose requires us to confine our comments to his diet; he abstained from both bread and wine. Here, Jesus contrasts Himself with John the Baptist in this particular; from this we are compelled to conclude that Jesus ate bread and drank wine. It is sometimes said that Jesus (who never sinned) did not drink wine, because drinking wine is a sin. We should rather reason that, since Jesus drank wine, drinking wine is not a sin.]

John 2:3-11
And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, “Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast.” And they took it. When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, “Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!”
[Comment: Jesus miraculously turned water into wine; furthermore, Jesus obviously intended the wine to be consumed and enjoyed. At celebrations, wine is appropriate, because it elevates the mood of the celebrants, and enhances conviviality.]

Romans 14:21
It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.
[Comment: In a chapter about liberty of conscience, the Apostle Paul reminds us that drinking wine, like eating meat, can be an occasion of stumbling for weaker consciences. But the fact that Paul mentions the drinking of wine alongside the eating of meat proves that the drinking of wine is not a sin in itself. Just as the strong are ordinarily permitted to eat meat, even if it was devoted to idols (I Corinthians 8), so they are permitted to drink wine. Romans 14:21 also implies that this same wine is alcoholic, since the drinking of unfermented grape juice cannot be an occasion of stumbling for weaker consciences.]

I Timothy 5:23
No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities.
[Comment: The inspired Apostle Paul told Timothy to drink wine for the sake of his health. We may well wonder how drinking wine would have been conducive to Timothy’s health; a number of explanations are possible here; for example, the water in Timothy’s area may have contained sickening microbes, and the wine he mixed with his water may have killed these. However that may be, two things should be obvious: 1) the drinking of wine was, indeed, beneficial to Timothy’s health; and, 2) Paul would not have instructed Timothy to commit a sin, even if it had been beneficial to his health; therefore, drinking wine is not a sin.]

I Timothy 4:1-5
Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
[Comment: Unlike the previous passages, I Timothy 4:1-5 does not expressly mention wine. However, I Timothy 4:1-5 clearly applies to the subject of wine, because wine is a food. Indeed, it was commonly used as a food during the time of Jesus and His apostles. Furthermore, wine is also a “creature of God” and as such “is good” and to be “received with thanksgiving.”]

However, four passages in the Bible have often been adduced to prove that, in fact, the moderate consumption of wine is a sin. While a complete study of any of these passages is beyond the scope of this paper, all four deserve to be quoted in full, and all four passages warrant a few comments. To be sure, other passages are sometimes used, but an answer to assertions about these passages will surely suggest an answer to the others.

Proverbs 20:1
Wine is a mocker, Strong drink is a brawler, And whoever is led astray by it is not wise.

Proverbs 21:17
He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; He who loves wine and oil will not become rich.

Proverbs 23:20-31
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has contentions? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
Those who linger long over wine,
Those who go to taste mixed wine.
Do not look on the wine when it is red,
When it sparkles in the cup,
When it goes down smoothly;
At the last it bites like a serpent
And stings like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange things
And your mind will utter perverse things.
And you will be like one who lies down in the middle of the sea,
Or like one who lies down on the top of a mast.
“They struck me, but I did not become ill;
They beat me, but I did not know it.
When shall I awake?
I will seek another drink.”

Proverbs 31:2-7
What, O my son?
And what, O son of my womb?
And what, O son of my vows?
Do not give your strength to women,
Or your ways to that which destroys kings.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
It is not for kings to drink wine (Hebrew: yayin),
Or for rulers to desire strong drink,
For they will drink and forget what is decreed,
And pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink (Hebrew: shekar; New International Version: beer) to him who is perishing,
And wine (Hebrew: yayin) to him whose life is bitter.
Let him drink and forget his poverty
And remember his trouble no more.

As we examine these passages, we ought to remember four things.

  1. These passages cannot and do not contradict the teaching of such passages as Deuteronomy 14:24-26 and John 2:1-10, since God—who cannot lie—is the author of all the Holy Scriptures.
  2. When faced with an apparent contradiction in the Holy Scriptures, the faithful interpreter should interpret the less clear passages in the light of the more clear passages.
  3. We should remember the special genre we find in Proverbs. Proverbs is a unique book, with unique characteristics, and the failure to note this fact is the cause of much mischief. As often happens in the book of Proverbs, what is described is the folly that results from the misuse or excessive use of a thing, not the mere use of a thing. Proverbs warns us against excessive sleep, work, food, and speaking; but it does not forbid the absolute use of sleep, work, food, and speaking.
  4. In each of these passages from Proverbs, we are warned against the effects of excessive consumption of alcohol, not its moderate use. We are warned—not against the wine itself—but rather the mocking and the loss of wisdom (Proverbs 20:1), the poverty (Proverbs 21:17), the sorrows, the illusions, the lack of understanding (Proverbs 23:20-31), and the lack of sound judgement (Proverbs 31:2-7) that characterize those who overindulge. While such warnings ought to be taken seriously by every Christian, they do not touch those who drink wine in moderation. For example, he who is “led astray” by wine or beer is not the same as he who merely consumes a small amount. As an another example, “he who loves wine and oil” (Proverbs 21:17) is surely not in the same category as he who merely uses wine and oil; or are we to believe that all use of—not only wine, but oil as well—is sinful?

The True Cause of Drunkenness

We must remember that drunkenness, like other sins, is the work of the human heart. For this very reason, it finds its place alongside such sins as envy and witchcraft in Galatians 5:21. Here, as always, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (Matthew 15:11). Sin does not inhere in material objects, for God created all things (Revelation 4:11). Recalling that wine is a kind of food, we must heed the instruction of I Timothy 4:1-4, which warns us against false teachers who will “command us to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”

We can only understand drunkenness when we understand the true character of sin, and we will find no rest from such sins as drunkenness until we learn that God’s answer to sin lies in the Gospel of Christ, and not more law.

Furthermore, candid students of the Holy Scriptures should note that we have no command from God to prevent the fermentation of grape juice. Indeed, no one in the Bible expresses even a desire to prevent such fermentation. Since the Holy Scriptures are our only infallible guide to faith and practice, this silence surely speaks volumes.

Two Wines?

Some proponents of total abstinence, aware that the Bible often speaks of wine in a positive light, have suggested what is sometimes called “the two wine” theory. They suggest that wine is a generic term, and includes both fermented and unfermented grape juice. When wine is spoken of in a positive light, it is unfermented; when it is spoken of in a negative light, it is fermented and alcoholic, they say.

How should the honest interpreter of the Holy Scriptures respond? We make the following observations:

  1. Surely the burden of proof lies with those who claim that the word “wine” (and its Hebrew and Greek equivalents) contains both fermented wine and unfermented grape juice. If someone were to assert that “wine” can mean wine, but also coffee or tea, would we not be right to observe the burden of proof lies with the one asserting such a thing, and require an uncontested example of such an use of the word? In the same way, it seems only fair to suggest that the burden of proof lies with those who say “wine” can mean unfermented grape juice. And surely we are correct to ask, Has this burden of proof been met? If so, where?
  2. The “two wine” theory would seem to require not only two meanings for the English word “wine,” but also two meanings, one alcoholic and the other non-alcoholic, for all the Greek and Hebrew words now interpreted as denoting alcoholic beverages in the Bible, if those words sometimes mean something positive. For example, the “two wine” theory must document two kinds of oinos, two kinds of tirosh, two kinds of yayin, two kinds of shekar, etc. This is an impossible burden.
  3. Even adopting a “two wine” theory does not solve the underlying problem. For it must still be proven that the fermented wine is actually evil, or at least necessarily evilly used. Grant the premise, that “wine” is a generic term; yet, the conclusion that the drinking of fermented wine is sinful does not follow.
  4. Experience has shown that proponents of the “two wine” theory begin with a bias or prejudice against wine. This bias then becomes a prism through which they view the biblical passages about wine, wine consumption, and the contents of the communion cup. To a degree, we can sympathize. For who does not come to the Holy Scriptures with bias? Still, we do them no harm to point out such bias and the danger it poses to sound interpretation. An interpreter who begins with the belief that even moderate consumption of wine is sinful will find confirmation of this belief everywhere he looks. If the “two wine” theory is grounded in such a faulty assumption, it should be rejected.
  5. The “two wine” theory appears to be based on a logical fallacy. This fallacy is sometimes known as the “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy. In the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, the advocate makes what could be called an appeal to purity as a way to dismiss relevant criticisms or flaws of his argument. To illustrate: Angus declares that Scotsmen do not put sugar on their porridge, to which Lachlan points out that he is a Scotsman and puts sugar on his porridge. In return, Angus yells that no true Scotsman sugars his porridge. ( Likewise, the “two wine” proponent says that no fermented wine brings about a good or positive result. If anyone suggests that Psalm 104: 15, John 2:3-10, Luke 7:33-34, and I Timothy 5:23 say otherwise, the “two wines” proponent simply retorts that these are not examples of true wine, but rather grape juice; herein lies the fallacy.
  6. The history of the nineteenth century temperance movements teaches us that the “two-wine theory” is a comparatively new way to interpret the Bible passages concerning wine. While this consideration, by itself, does not invalidate the “two wine” theory, we ought to ask ourselves whether the “two wine” theory is the result of a better understanding of God’s word, or simply the consequence of man-made efforts to support new and unbiblical views of wine, temperance, and drunkenness. If the “two wine” theory is a valid approach, why did it not occur to the church before the nineteenth century?
  7. Many things in the Bible have good effects at one time, but have bad effects another time. In such cases, responsible interpreters of the Bible do not posit two very different kinds of the same thing. For example, sleep has both good effects (Ecclesiastes 5:22, Jeremiah 31:26) and bad effects (Proverbs 6:9,10; 24:33). Yet, nobody thinks the Bible teaches a “two sleep” theory. Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness as an instrument for healing (Numbers 21), and as a foreshadowing of the cross of Christ (John 3:14), but it later became an instrument for idolatry (2 Kings 18); yet the bronze serpent was a single thing. David used a sword to cut off the head of one of God’s enemies, but swords were also used by the crowd that arrested Jesus. Manna nourished the Israelites forty years in the wilderness, but on another occasion it had spoiled and was infested with maggots, yet no one thinks manna is a generic term, containing within it both good and bad manna. The gospel is the aroma of life to those who are saved, but the aroma of death to those who are perishing; yet, we feel no compulsion to think of two different gospels. Perhaps the best example is honey, for we read “eat honey because it is good” (Proverbs 24:13), but it “is not good to eat much honey” (Proverbs 25:27); yet no one suggests a “two honey” theory. Differing effects of things do not imply that the things themselves differ. The same thing can have different effects, depending on the manner, time, place, or circumstances in which it is used.
  8. A much better explanation for the fact that wine sometimes has good effects, and sometimes has bad effects, is easy to find. Wine is a substance that is easily abused, usually by overindulgence. That is sin. The aftermath of the sin of drunkenness is as obvious in the Bible as it is in our everyday experience. But this does not support the “two wine” theory. Just as gluttony is the result of abuse of food, not the use of the wrong kind of food, so drunkenness is the result of the abuse of wine, not the use of the wrong kind of wine.

Wine and the Cultural Bias

Since the teaching of Holy Scripture about wine and wine drinking is so clear, how can we account for the wide-spread, and sometimes vehement, opposition to wine in our churches?

The historical record shows that attitudes about wine began to change around the time of the Industrial Revolution. The rise of the Temperance movement in the Nineteenth Century is evidence of this change. The reasons for this new and negative attitude about wine and wine consumption are beyond the scope of this website, but the fact that such changes occurred is beyond any dispute. Then, as often happens, the churches were influenced by the cultures in which they lived and ministered. Sadly, the temptation to conform to the broader culture was simply too strong for some churches and Christians to withstand, and new and unbiblical attitudes about wine were adopted. Subsequent generations of Christians simply accepted what they had been taught. As a result, it is almost impossible for modern Christians to see wine the same way Jesus and His disciples saw it. In our own day, Christians and churches have been either unwilling or unable to free themselves from a cultural bias against wine and wine drinking, to the detriment of the church’s life and witness. Even worse, modern attitudes have so permeated the churches that sound principles of biblical interpretation, ecclesiastical authority, and freedom of conscience have sometimes been either surrendered or compromised, simply for the sake of maintaining a discredited view of wine. All of these developments have hurt the church. Clearly, a complete reformation is needed.

We must conclude that the moderate drinking of wine is not a sin. No objection to the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper, if it is based on the notion that the drinking of wine is a sin, can be sustained.