A Theology of Wine
Wine needs to hire a new PR agency to help with its image in evangelical churches, as it is often ignored or rejected by many American Christians today. I don't have the time or interest in unpacking why it is that wine fell on hard times among many bible-believing churches, but I am interested in helping to paint a more biblical faithful picture of wine with the hope that I can encourage my brothers and sisters to understand wine as a gift, an image used in Scripture to teach truth about God, and as an element of our Christian faith and practice.
What is Wine?
What is wine? Wine is the fermented juice of crushed grapes; an alcoholic beverage that can lead to intoxication if consumed in excess. Most of us know what wine is, though some teachers have attempted to explain that the wine in Scripture is sometimes wine, and sometimes grape juice. The plain truth is the best biblical scholars argue consistently and clearly, that not only is the "wine" of the Bible alcoholic, maintaining unfermented grape juice would be a virtual impossibility. D.F. Watson states it plainly in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels in his article, Wine, when he says, "All wine mentioned in the Bible is fermented grape juice with an alcohol content. No non-fermented drink was called wine."
Who Drank Wine in the Bible?
Who drank wine in the Bible? Almost everyone. Drinking wine was normative for all Jews, (Gen 14:18; Judges 19:19; 1 Sam. 16:20), though the Levitical priests in service at the temple (Lv 10:8, 9), the Nazirites (Num. 6:3), and the Rechabites (Jer 35:1–3) abstained from wine. In the New Testament John The Baptist also abstained.
Despite what some today claim, Jesus himself drank wine (Lk. 22:18; Matt. 11:18-19; 26:27-29), and was charged with drinking too much by his accusers.
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, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
How is Wine Depicted in Scripture?
Wine was the common drink of the Jews, enjoyed with meals and shared with friends (Gen. 14:18; Jn. 2:3). It was also an essential part in the worship of the people of God in both Testaments.
The “drink offering” consisted of wine (Ex 29:40; Lev. 23:13) and the people of God brought wine when offering sacrifices (1 Sm 1:24). The Jews even kept wine in the temple (1 Chr 9:29). In Isaiah 62:9 the people are blessed by the Lord in such a way as is depicted in drinking wine in the sanctuary before the presence of God. In Deuteronomy 14 we read,
You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 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. And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
Wine was used in celebrating the Passover and is used in celebrating The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament (Lk. 22:7-23; 1 Cor. 11:17-32). For more information read my blogpost, Wine or Welch's?
It was also used medicinally, to help the weak and the sick (2 Sm 16:2; Prov 31:6; 1 Tim. 5:23).
It isn't a stretch to say that God likes wine. It was associated with life, God’s blessing, and God’s Kingdom. In Judges 9:13 we read that wine is that “which cheers God and men.” Psalm 104:15 portrays wine similarly, saying that wine “makes man’s heart glad” (Ecc. 10:19; Is. 55:1, 2; Zech. 10:7). (See Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible). Even the future fulfillment of the Kingdom of God will be characterized by the abundance of wine (Is. 25:6-8; Amos 9:13).
Of course, not every reference to wine in the Bible is positive. Drunkenness is condemned, and God's people are warned against the danger of intoxication (Is. 28:1-7; Eph 5:18; Is. 5:11; Titus 2:3).
In his book, What Would Jesus Drink, Brad Whittington breaks down the biblical references of alcohol into three types. In all, there are 247 references to alcohol in Scripture. 40 are negative (warnings about drunkenness, potential dangers of alcohol, etc.), 145 are positive (sign of God's blessing, use in worship, etc.), and 62 are neutral (people falsely accused of being drunk, vows of abstinence, etc.) The Bible is anything but silent on the issue of wine. It, like all alcohol, must be treated carefully, seen as a blessing, and received with thanksgiving among those who drink it. It must not be abused.
Was Wine in the Bible Cut with Water?
According to F. S. Fitzsimmonds in his article, “Wine and Strong Drink,” in the New Bible Dictionary, the answer is "no". At least, not in the Old Testament. In the New Testament wine was probably cut with 2 parts water to 1 part wine. Some who oppose the use of wine as a beverage argue that the wine in Scripture was so diluted that it was difficult to become drunk. Scripture itself shows that this is not the case. It appears that the wine in the New Testament, if cut, would have the same alcoholic content as today's beer. (See also, the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible)
What Should the Christian's Attitude Be Toward Wine?
It's important for Christians to understand the whole picture. Wine is seen as the blessing of God, and as a potential means by which people bring destruction upon themselves.
These two aspects of wine, its use and its abuse, its benefits and its curse, its acceptance in God’s sight and its abhorrence, are interwoven into the fabric of the OT so that it may gladden the heart of man (Ps. 104:15) or cause his mind to err (Is. 28:7), it can be associated with merriment (Ec. 10:19) or with anger (Is. 5:11), it can be used to uncover the shame of Noah (Gn. 9:21) or in the hands of Melchizedek to honour Abraham (Gn. 14:18).
- F. S. Fitzsimmonds, "Wine and Strong Drink" in the New Bible Dictionary
Christians should exercise caution with wine and strong drink, practicing moderation and self-control. And toward one another it is important that we allow for liberty without passing judgement for either drinking or abstaining. One can drink to the glory of God, while another can abstain for the glory of God.
What is Wine?
Wine is the gift of God. In it we see the love of God in providing life and joy for all people. But we also see a deeper meaning. In wine we see the love of God in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which removes our guilt, satisfies God's wrath, and saves all who believe.