Alcohol and Drugs
(What does the Bible say?)

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What about alcohol? Did Jesus drink fermented drinks? Is drinking wrong? What about other drugs? All are common and related questions. While some would say that drugs are a completely different topic than alcohol, we believe it to be an intertwined subject requiring at least a brief consideration in this same article. While there are strong emotional responses to the subject of alcoholic beverages, please consider the entirety of this article and especially the Scripture passages before passing judgement.

Drinking of alcoholic beverages has been a very divisive issue in the church over the past century or so. Church groups were often the leading factor in events that led up to prohibition in the United States. During and following that era, many churches added a line similar to "we shall abstain from the use and sale of alcohol as a beverage" to their church covenants. A number of them still recite those lines today. Many more would unequivocally cite that drinking (of alcohol) is sin. This makes it very important that all of scripture be examined to find if there is sound Biblical basis for these claims or if they, perhaps, fall into the categories of traditions of men (Mark 7:9) or legalism.

    Colossians 2:20-23 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Wine is spoken of in both the Old and New Testaments. In Hebrew (Old Testament) two different words are often used, one that refers definitely to fermented wine (yayin 3196) and the other to new wine (tiyrowsh or tiyrosh 8492). While some would say that this new wine is only grape juice, the word can include newly fermented wine as shown in Hosea 4:11 where both words are used in the same sentence in reference to them having the same effect.

The effects of the misuse of fermented wine are seen from Noah (Genesis 9:21,24) and Lot (Genesis 19:35) onward. Yet there was obviously good use being made of fermented wine as well, including the fact that it was used as an offering to the Lord (see Numbers chapter 15).

Samson's mother and Samson himself were instructed to not drink fermented wine or any strong drink. Before considering the special circumstances with Samson, it should be noted that another Hebrew word (shekar 7941) was used for intensely fermented drinks, often worded "strong drink."

Samson was a unique case in that he was to be raised under a Nazirite vow from before birth - by God's choice not Sampson's; who wasn't even born yet [much like John the Baptist years later. See Luke 1:15.]. Normally the Nazirite vow was temporary and voluntary. Its conditions were for a set period only. Not everybody from Nazareth was under a Nazirite vow, as Jesus is often portrayed. This means that Jesus could have cut his hair and have drunk alcohol, even as he obviously drank from the fruit of the vine. Notice, in the following passages that set out the conditions of the Nazirite vow that no grape juice, fermented or otherwise, was to be consumed.

    Numbers 6:1-4 The LORD said to Moses, 2 "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the LORD as a Nazirite, 3 he must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or from other fermented drink. He must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. 4 As long as he is a Nazirite, he must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins.

    Numbers 6:18-20 "'Then at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the Nazirite must shave off the hair that he dedicated. He is to take the hair and put it in the fire that is under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering. 19 "'After the Nazirite has shaved off the hair of his dedication, the priest is to place in his hands a boiled shoulder of the ram, and a cake and a wafer from the basket, both made without yeast. 20 The priest shall then wave them before the LORD as a wave offering; they are holy and belong to the priest, together with the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. After that, the Nazirite may drink wine. [The 'wine' here is the word for the definitely fermented variety]

The word translated "other fermented drink" (shekar 7937) in Numbers 6:3 brings us to another area. Fermented drinks in Biblical times were not restricted to wine. Additional varieties included grain-based drinks (similar to beers).

An amazing passage, almost always overlooked today, speaks of the original use of the Biblical tithe in the law. Notice that the tithe was for the consumption of the giver in fellowship (and for benevolence as the continuing passage, not shown here, also points out).

    Deuteronomy 14:22-26 Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. 23 Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always. 24 But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), 25 then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. 26 Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice.

The permitted use (v26) included fermented wine and other fermented drinks, while on worship pilgrimage to Jerusalem! This ancient accepted practice would have continued to Jesus' time. Obviously the Bible does not ban, or condemn as sin, all consumption of alcoholic beverages. For this reason alone we should never go beyond God's word and call sin something that God has not. To do so is legalism, attempting to be Holier than God. Doing this sets a person up for a fall by creating a standard that God never intended.

Since some try and say that Jesus never drank fermented wine, or that the water turned into wine at Cana (John 2:1-10) would not have been alcoholic [something that Jewish scholars consider to be an absurd thought for a wedding!], a look at one New Testament passage shows otherwise.

    Luke 7:33-34 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."'

The clear sense of this passage shows that Jesus drank fermented wine. If He only drank grape juice their claims and contrast to John the Baptist would make absolutely no sense.

So am I saying that everyone should go out and drink alcoholic beverages, even to excess? Never. As I already mentioned, the Bible also shows that the excesses of alcohol caused problems from Genesis on. The key word here is "excesses!" It's clearly the misuse or excessive use of alcohol that is the focus of Biblical admonition.

    Proverbs 20:1 Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.

The key to this passage, in Proverbs, is being "led astray" by the alcoholic drinks. If keeping from all alcoholic beverages is necessary to keep yourself from being led astray, from being caught up in excess and drunkenness, then that is what you need to do. It may be different for someone else. The freedom we (believers) have been given in Christ gives us great liberty, but not to sin. If drinking is for the purpose of drunkenness Paul clearly states that it is the flesh that is being gratified...

    Galatians 5:13-15, 19, 21 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." ... 19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: ... drunkenness...

Generally, I choose not to drink because I don't want to risk drunkenness. For me, that's the line I've set up personally. Others can go further without sinning or falling into drunkenness. Each believer is accountable to God for his or her own actions. [Some people choose not to drink for totally different reasons. Daniel chose not to drink the king's wine in Babylon because it, as with the meat, would have been offered to idols. See Daniel 1:8-16.]. Believers living out "love your neighbor as yourself" have to consider the effects of their actions on others, especially if they have less faith.

    Romans 14:19-23 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. 22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

Some have tried to take verse 21 above to say that it means you should stop eating or drinking everything that offends any believer. Which would likely leave a whole lot less to eat because there are people who are offended with various corporations for unbiblical stands, or ownership by cults like the Mormons. These Christians call for boycotts of all those company's food products. Still others claim all carbonated drinks to be harmful, others all or some meat products. [I like the principle of 1 Corinthians 10:25-33 here!] The list could go on and on and we haven't even got to alcoholic beverages yet. Verse 22, that follows right after, helps to clarify the concept of verse 21. If I have freedom to eat or drink any of these items in faith, that is between myself and God. I must never use that freedom in such a way as to harm a weaker brother or sister. For example, if I in my Christian liberty am able to have a drink of wine with my evening meal, serving it while having a brother over who struggles with alcoholism (or drunkenness) would be completely wrong.

    Psalms 104:14-15 He [God] makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate-- bringing forth food from the earth: 15 wine [fermented] that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.

Numerous studies of late have shown that there is benefit to very moderate drinking of especially wine. This appears to be pointed to in some passages of Scriptures as well, but never in a way that says "everyone needs to drink." For some people the potential for harm (drunkenness) outweighs any potential benefit. It's man's tendency toward excesses that I believe caused God to record far more warnings against a potential abuse...

    Isaiah 5:11 Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine.

    Proverbs 21:17 He who loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich.

    Proverbs 23:20-21 Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, 21 for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.

Consider that last passage in Proverbs where drunkenness and gluttony are uttered in the same breath. No one suggests giving up food as a solution to gluttony, rather the issue is one of self-control (or should I say, "God-control!" See Galatians 5:22-23.). It's all about love. Who do you serve out of love, pleasures or God?

God always wanted His people to be of sound mind in making decisions and especially when leading or judging the people (Leviticus 19:15). Because of the possibility of fermented drink clouding one's judgement, since each person is affected in different ways, God strictly enforced times when drinking was not acceptable.

    Leviticus 10:8-11 Then the LORD said to Aaron, 9 "You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. 10 You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, 11 and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses." (See also Ezekiel 44:21)

Needless to say the Biblical principle still applies, drinking before anything requiring sound judgement (including driving) has to be wrong. Even in our state of moral decay, society today would never accept a judge being drunk. One great warning about this very thing comes from Isaiah's day. Note the tie between the miscarriage of justice and drunkenness...

    Isaiah 5:22-23 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, 23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. (See also Isaiah 28:7)

The New Testament continues the same theme, to be wise and not unwise. Part of the wisdom of not getting drunk is the sin it can lead to. As believers we should be controlled by the Holy Spirit and not by anything of this world. We've been set free from the control of sin (Romans 6:22)!

    Ephesians 5:15-18 Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

The Bible in numerous places shows that living a life of example, especially in church leadership, requires moderation in regards to drinking.

    Titus 2:3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good.

    1 Timothy 3:8 Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain.

One question that arises from this topic, especially talking about leaders in the church, concerns the Lord's Supper. Some claim that this ordinance should never use fermented wine (especially those who claim drinking any alcoholic beverage is sin). In fact, the Passover cup that Jesus used would have. It was the abuse of drinking the wine that was the focus of the following passage in Corinthians.

    1 Corinthians 11:18-22 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, 21 for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22 Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

These believers had turned the Lord's Supper into something that it was never intended to be, where large quantities of wine could be consumed, and nothing like the ceremonial drink (very much in moderation) that the original Passover ordinance would have been (Luke 22:15-20). The Lord's Supper was a continuation of an element of this Passover celebration with a new focus, namely the fulfillment as found in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When a person tries to legalistically ban all alcohol it creates a standard that can't be upheld. Merely eating many ripe fruits contain some alcohol, as do other much used items including cough syrup. In fact, the medicinal use of alcohol is often conceded too by those who would ban it in all other areas. The following passage becomes the proof verse...

    1 Timothy 5:23 Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.

This passage actually goes further than mere medicinal use of wine as a cure, rather even as a preventative measure. Even today, wine is safer to drink in many areas were the water is highly contaminated. As always, the issue is still moderation.

For those that say all recreational drug use is wrong (lumping alcohol in with everything from Heroin to Cocaine), they generally seem to have no problem with other recreational drugs including caffeine. The issue with all drugs comes down to these questions...

  • Can they be used in moderation?

  • Are they harmful (physically or mentally, the principle of 1 Corinthians 3:16-17)?

  • Do they impair sound judgement?

Caffeine, like alcohol, appears to be safe in moderation. So is chocolate, which acts on the same receptors in the brain as THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Marijuana, on the other hand, has been shown to be harmful from effects ranging from rapid impairment to cancer causing elements even more intense than that of cigarette smoke. Other drugs like cocaine and heroin also create rapid impairment and physical harm, again ruling them out completely. The spice curry, which recent studies have shown to have mild addictive properties like drugs, could be placed in the same category as caffeine. In moderation it's not going to be physically harmful and certainly it doesn't cloud judgment. So while the Bible doesn't explicitly ban drugs by name, it does certainly provide sound principles for evaluating them.

Another factor has to be considered in evaluating the use of any drug, including alcohol, namely the issue of lawful authority. If any lawful authority - be it a parent (Ephesians 6:1, Colossians 3:20) or government (Romans 13:1-5, Titus 3:1) - says that a drug cannot be used by any person, that authority is to be honoured. As one person said, "I chose at an early age not to drink for reasons of health... my mother would have killed me." A very clear indication that for that individual there was only one God honouring choice, to abstain from all alcohol in obedience to his parent. [Check out Jeremiah 35:6-10 for an example of following parental instruction for generations!] The same would go for underage individuals that the government has banned from drinking. And, of course, for all illegal drug use!

The whole of the matter is summed up in the word "moderation." In regards to fermented beverages, the warning to stay away from excess will be reinforced with this final Bible passage that clearly speaks of abuse and alcoholism...

    Proverbs 23:29-35 Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? 30 Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. 31 Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! 32 In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. 33 Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things. 34 You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging. 35 "They hit me," you will say, "but I'm not hurt! They beat me, but I don't feel it! When will I wake up so I can find another drink?"

Written by Brent MacDonald of Lion Tracks Ministries. (c) 2003.
Duplication permitted as long as the source is cited.