“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animated contest of freedom, go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen!” – Samuel Adams

Was Jesus a Teetotaler?


Several years ago a Christian group was on a tour of the Holy Lands and some sites in Asia Minor. In the Turkish city of Selçuk, near the ruins of ancient Ephesus they wanted to celebrate Holy Communion on a Sunday morning. They asked their guide to procure some grape juice for this purpose. The guide was confused but shortly returned with a bottle of local red wine. They explained that they did not imbibe alcohol in any fashion and desired a non-alcoholic grape juice for communion. Still confused the guide went forth to find unfermented grape juice. He returned empty-handed explaining that no such thing exists in the region. They ended up serving orange juice with communion.

The use of unfermented grape juice by some congregations is a modern convention that was borne of the temperance movement of the 19th century. Grapes naturally have the requisite yeast present on the skins at the time the grapes are picked and crushing them initiates the fermentation process that leads to the conversion of some of the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Refrigeration can impede this process and pasteurization can prevent it, but neither was available during Jesus’ time. In just a few days grape juice becomes wine and there was nothing the ancients could do to prevent it.

We know that Jesus consumed wine (Mark 14:23–25; Matthew 26:27–29; Luke 22:17–18). He even produced wine: When the alcohol supply dwindled at the wedding in Cana, a youthful Jesus turned six jars of water—holding 20 to 30 gallons each—into wine (John 2:1–11).

For centuries, Christians have commemorated the Last Supper by drinking wine during Holy Communion. The Catholic Church has always used wine during Eucharistic celebrations, as did all Protestant denominations until just over a century ago. Martin Luther along with John Calvin agreed that wine should be used in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Why then do several Protestant denominations in America, including Methodists and Southern Baptists insist on using only non-alcoholic drink in their communion service?

Louis Pasteur’s research, ironically financed in part by the European wine industry that sought a way to eliminate bacteria that spoiled wine turning it into vinegar, resulted in the process we call pasteurization. By heating wine to 140 degrees for 25 minutes bacteria (and yeast) can be destroyed preventing both spoiling and fermentation.

A Massachusetts dentist named Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch took note of Pasteur’s discoveries. Welch, a pious Methodist communion steward, was becoming increasingly troubled that many of his fellow congregants would not stop with just one drink at communion on Sundays. He set out to produce a preservable nonalcoholic grape juice (the origins of Welch’s Grape Juice). The American temperance movement was gaining in popularity following the Civil War and Welch was a member of the The American Temperance Society, formed in 1826. Gradually, religious communities began serving what they called “unfermented sacramental wine” at Sunday communions.

This is the state of affairs in many Christian churches today, including the Baptist church that I attend. My pastor is not dogmatic about his beliefs, but as a life-long Southern Baptist I doubt we’ll be using a nice little Pinot Noir in our Eucharistic services anytime soon.

Mr. Ellis has often alluded to his past abuse of alcohol and I am a recovering alcoholic, so I am not advocating heavy use of alcohol by anyone, especially Christians. The Bible warns us often of the sin of drunkenness (Ephesians 5:18; 1 Corinthians 6:12: Leviticus 10:9; Numbers 6:3; Deuteronomy 29:6; Judges 13:4, 7, 14; Proverbs 20:1; 31:4; Isaiah 5:11, 22; 24:9; 28:7; 29:9; 56:12) but the use of both wine and beer in moderation is frequently praised in both the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 24:9; Proverbs 31:6; Ecclesiastes 10:19) and the New Testament (1 Timothy 5:23).

Sin is very often the misuse or abuse of God’s gifts. This is true of alcohol, as it is for sex (fornication, adultery, sodomy), food (gluttony), leisure (sloth) and material comforts (greed).


Try us out at the new location: American Clarion!


30 Responses to “Was Jesus a Teetotaler?”

  1. Well said, Dr. Theo.  I know some churches make more of an issue of this than it needs to be. I have no doubts that Christ made alcoholic wine miraculously and drank the same, and I also have no doubts that unlike many of us today he didn’t drink to excess.  

    As a former drunk, I stay away from alcohol altogether. I don’t ever want to flirt with going back to where I was. But at the same time, I don’t think a tiny little cup of wine during a holy communion service is going to lead me back into that life again. Still, I’m glad my church uses Welch’s. :-)

  2. Wine was also considered simply the juice of the grape.  And what was “new wine” if it wasn’t wine that was not yet fermented?

    Would Jesus create an alcoholic beverage from water at a wedding feast where pregnant women were possibly present, causing danger to the developing fetus?  My opinion is that he did not.  That is why the host commented that the “best” wine was save for the last – the freshest wine.

  3. Excellent column, Dr. Theo!

    A little wine makes the heart glad.  But, don’t be drunk.  Yes, of course it’s fine to have a little alcohol, just don’t over-do it.

    The Scriptures are pretty clear about this.  Yes, the Lord did turn water into wine–excellent wine, in fact.  That’s why the host remarked about the quality of the wine.  Plain grape juice would not be remarked upon as the “best” wine.  Yes, it was fermented.

  4. It is not being hypocritical, Veldy–it’s being considerate. 

  5. WWJD — What would Jesus drink?

  6. Archaeological evidence from the study of residue on ancient wine jugs indicates that the wine of that era was somewhat sweeter, especially “new wine,” and had an alcohol content that was up to about 15% (compared to about 12% for most modern vintages).  It was usually consumed after being diluted with some water.  The Book of Maccabees recommends: “Just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone [!]…wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment” (2 Maccabees 15:39).

    Everyone drank wine during that time, oldspouse–men, women (even pregnant) and children.  It was a food that was part of their culture.  As for alcohol in the quantities that we a talking about being harmful to a developing baby–I am very skeptical.  Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs in women that are chronic alcohol abusers during their pregnancies.  It is only by extrapolation that doctors recommend abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy, driven in part by the litigious nature of our society.  If a doctor tells a woman that she can have a glass of wine occasionally after the first trimester and the child is then born with a club foot guess who gets blamed?  It is safer for us to insist that pregnant women drink NO alcohol during their pregnancy, even though there is little evidence that small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy is harmful.

  7. Oh yes, “new wine” was just that.  It was wine that was consumed fairly fresh.  Modern vintners can control the process today, but during that era wine was always contaminated by bacteria that convert ethanol to acetic acid (vinegar) so the older a wine got the more acetic acid it contained and the taste deteriorated rapidly. (It was old spoiled wine like this that was offered to Jesus on the cross. -John 19:29)

  8. Again, would Jesus create a substance that would be consumed in excess at a wedding to create debauchery and confirmed sin?  The host suggested that the guests were already drunk from the “cheaper” wine when the wine Jesus produced was served.  Would He really add sinful excess to excess?

  9. What would Jesus drink?  I’d say “living water.”

  10. I think you are making assumptions that are not warranted from what John tells us (ch. 2: 1-11).  I find no mention of drunkenness or debauchery at the wedding feast.  We don’t know how many people were there (apparently a lot) nor how much wine had already been served.  Remember, these were observant Pharisaical Jews that knew very well what the Scriptures had to say about drunkenness.  I think you are revealing some prejudice regarding use of alcohol that is not supported scripturally.
     
    You may have strong and well supported opinions about alcohol use and abuse, as do I, but we must be careful not to impose these on what we read in God’s Word.
     

  11. I think you are making assumptions that are not warranted from what John tells us (ch. 2: 1-11), oldspouse.  I find no mention of drunkenness or debauchery at the wedding feast.  We don’t know how many people were there (apparently a lot) nor how much wine had already been served.  Remember, these were observant Pharisaical Jews that knew very well what the Scriptures had to say about drunkenness.  I think you are revealing some prejudice regarding use of alcohol that is not supported scripturally.
     
    You may have strong and well supported opinions about alcohol use and abuse, as do I, but we must be careful not to impose these on what we read in God’s Word. 

  12. With respect, I reveal no more prejudice regarding the use of alcohol than those who support its consumption as biblically allowable.

    Feasts and celebrations were about drinking freely; undoubtedly more than one usually would.  It’s a FEAST, after all.  And in case you doubt this, let the scriptures speak:

    John 2:9-10 [NASB]:
    When the headwaiter tasted the water which
    had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants
    who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter *called the bridegroom, and *said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.”

    The “until now” in this reference is after the people have drunk freely.  So Jesus would encourage those who had already “drunk freely” to drink more freely of a substance of a substance he created that would further lead down the road to debauchery?  And “debauchery” is defined in Dictionary.com as “excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures; intemperance.”  I find that unconscionable.

  13. I respectfully disagree, brother. 

  14. That’s fine.  I just find the permissiveness of today’s Christians concerning alcohol disturbing, and rather Laodocean.  They can just as rationally extend this practice from wine to beer and hard liquor under the dispensation of “moderation.”  I don’t think Jesus was a moderate, but a radical – conservatively so.

  15. So be it.  Thankfully our salvation does not depend on which of us is right.

    Changing the subject slightly, what do you think is meant by “strong drink” in as much as the distilling of alcohol into brandy, rum and whiskey didn’t begin until the 12th century?

  16. That’s a good question Dr. Theo. I often think that there is a lot of lost knowledge that the early people knew that we don’t know they knew–if that makes sense–as well as things they knew that we still do not know today.

    It may be that they did have the knowledge of distillation of liquors, and the knowledge was somehow lost or not recorded until the 12th century.

    Regardless, I agree with your assessment of alcohol and the Bible.

    I like the quote that is attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” :-)

  17. That’s a good question Dr. Theo. I often think that there is a lot of lost knowledge that the early people knew that we don’t know they knew–if that makes sense–as well as things they knew that we still do not know today.

    It may be that they did have the knowledge of distillation of liquors, and the knowledge was somehow lost or not recorded until the 12th century.

    Regardless, I agree with your assessment of alcohol and the Bible.

    I like the quote that is attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” :-)

  18. I don’t know the answer with certainty, but I do know that opium, marijuana, ephedra, mycotoxins like psilocybin and nicotine were in use millenia before the time of Christ.  It was common practice to use these plant-derived psychoactive agents by steeping the plant material in wine and then imbibing the resultant libation.  I think that this is what is warned of throughout scripture.  “Strong drink” is the equivalent of illicit drug use today, arguably the closest thing to demon possession in the modern world.

    In Matthew 27:34 it is written that the soldiers “gave Him wine to drink mixed with gall; and after tasting it, He was
    unwilling to drink.”  Barnes Notes on the Bible states ““Gall” is properly a bitter secretion from the liver, but the word is also used
    to denote anything exceedingly “bitter,” as wormwood, etc. The drink, therefore,
    was vinegar or sour wine, rendered “bitter” by the infusion of wormwood or some
    other very bitter substance. The effect of this, it is said, was to stupefy the
    senses. It was often given to those who were crucified, to render them
    insensible to the pains of death. Our Lord, knowing this, when he bad tasted it
    refused to drink. He was unwilling to blunt the pains of dying. The “cup” which
    his “Father” gave him he rather chose to drink.

    The agony of crucifixion was so severe that the Romans coined a word for such pain: excruciatus/em> (excruciating), meaning “of the cross.”  This in part explains their uncharacteristic compassion in offering a victim a “strong drink” to partially numb the sufferer to the unimaginable agony of crucifixion..

  19. Thank you, Dr. Theo for that clarification!  I always thought it was the cruelest thing for them to have given the Lord vinegar when He was thirsty.  Your reporting makes perfect sense.  He was there to take our place, and he was not about to accept an “analgesic” to check out of his goal.

  20. Good comments all.  For those who find offense in the drinking of alcoholic beverages, then they should not imbibe, and others who do, should be considerate of those who find offense and not drink around them.

    There are those who’ve had trouble with the drink and can’t seem to stop once begun, and represent those who we would be wise to abstain when you are with them, so as not to encourage the abuse of it.

    Temperance doesn’t mean abstention, it means to be temperate, go the right distance with the thing and no further.  C.S. Lewis relates that people can be intemperate wih golf, or with their pets as well as drink, but you just don’t tend to fall down in the street, and the intemperance isn’t as obvious.

    And some make a good point that alcohol abuse has caused much damage in the lives of people, and we’d just be better off to leave it alone.

  21. Good comments all.  For those who find offense in the drinking of alcoholic beverages, then they should not imbibe, and others who do, should be considerate of those who find offense and not drink around them.

    There are those who’ve had trouble with the drink and can’t seem to stop once begun, and represent those who we would be wise to abstain when you are with them, so as not to encourage the abuse of it.

    Temperance doesn’t mean abstention, it means to be temperate, go the right distance with the thing and no further.  C.S. Lewis relates that people can be intemperate wih golf, or with their pets as well as drink, but you just don’t tend to fall down in the street, and the intemperance isn’t as obvious.

    And some make a good point that alcohol abuse has caused much damage in the lives of people, and we’d just be better off to leave it alone.

  22. Great column, great discussion. I am a fundamentalist baptist and I understand my bretheren’s position on abstinence…I can’t honestly say that I agree with it, but I’m not about to make a big deal out of it. I spent many years as a tee-totaller in a 12-step program and it did me good for a while, but it also became a type of idol for me. The Holy Spirit convicted me of this sin and I learned through scriptures that it was not what I put in my body that made me unclean, but it was what came out of my mouth that defiled me.

    I also read in Romans 14:21 that it was not good for me to drink or do anything that might cause my brethren to stumble, be offended, or made weak. I don’t judge another who is dry for Christ’s sake, but rather encourage them to study the scriptures, pray, and obey what God is telling them to do. It’s not my job to be the Holy Spirit…if a man doesn’t want to drink because the Lord transformed him from what he once was, then why should I encourage him to drink again because it’s allowed for me?

    Collosians 2:11-17 is also a good scripture to study and chew on for a while regarding this subject (and other types of legalism).

  23. Thanks, Daniel. As a former drunk myself, your thoughts on the subject sum up many of mine.

  24. And we should note that a person can lead a perfectly normal earthly life without the stuff

  25. Thanks, Steve, for your first point.  Unfortunately, drinking Christians are more apt to flaunt their “freedom” to imbibe without restraint, in my experience.  And I, being one of the few non-drinkers present, am always questioned as to why I don’t, as if there is something wrong with it!  Incredible presumption and ignorance on their part.  How far we’ve fallen.

    And I have very few observations of Christians drinking “in moderation.”  I guess that’s a personal judgement that no one else is allowed to “violate.”

  26. Medical research has shown that alcohol can kill brain cells.  I need all that I can get!!

  27. I and Mr. Ellis are also teetotalers, oldspouse, so we are in general agreement with your decision to avoid the use of alcohol entirely.  I know of what you speak about some Christians exceeding what I think is moderation and their insistence that Jesus used wine as well so all is OK.  This is a corruption of what we are told in scripture and such brothers should be rebuked and patiently instructed.

    I also know very sincere and mature Christians that enjoy a beer after mowing the yard or when watching a ball game.  I have been in the homes of Christians where a glass of wine is offered with meals.  I have never known these brothers and sisters to cross the line into drunkenness.  I do not think that such persons have violated any of God’s commandments.  To repeat what I have said previously, alcoholic drink has been with us practically from the beginning and is a gift from God.  Like so many other gifts, fallen man has misused and abused this gift to the point of sinfulness, but the use itself is not sinful.  Paul chose to be celibate and unmarried but he did not demand the same of all his disciples.