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.
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:
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 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.
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.]
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.]
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.”]
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.]
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.]
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.]
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.
Wine is a mocker, Strong drink is a brawler, And whoever is led astray by it is not wise.
He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; He who loves wine and oil will not become rich.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
© 2020 Wine in the Lord's Supper, by Jeff Yelton