Chapter 5


Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

Many well-meaning Christians find the fundamental justification for their moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages in the teachings and example of Jesus. For example, in his book The Christian and Alcoholic Beverages, Kenneth L. Gentry appeals first of all to Christ’s example to defend a moderate partaking of alcoholic beverages: “First, we must again be reminded that the Lord and his apostles partook of [fermented] wine despite the fact that sinful men indulged in it to their own hurt and degradation.”1

It is alleged that Christ not only partook of fermented wine but also produced it in abundant quantity at the wedding of Cana and gave it to His disciples at the Last Supper. Norman L. Geisler, for example, explicitly states in his article “A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking” that “it is false to say that Jesus made unfermented wine. As a matter of fact, He made wine that tasted so good the people at the wedding feast in Cana said it was better than the wine they had just drunk. Surely they would not have said this if it had tasted flat to them. In fact in John 2:9-10 it is called ‘wine’ (oinos) and ‘good wine’ (kalon oinon). These are the same words used for fermented wine elsewhere in the New Testament.”2

The popular belief that “Jesus was not a teetotaler,” but a moderate drinker of fermented wine who even “miraculously ‘manufactured’ a high-quality (alcoholic) wine at Cana”3 and instituted the Last Supper with alcoholic wine,4 has no doubt influenced the drinking habits of millions of Christians around the world more than anything else that the Bible says about drinking. The reason is simple. The example and teachings of Christ are normative for Christian belief and practice. If Christ made, commended and used fermented wine, then there can hardly be anything intrinsically wrong with a moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages! Simply stated, “If wine was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me!”

Objective and Procedure

In view of the fundamental importance and far-reaching consequences of Christ’s example and teachings on drinking, we will closely examine in this chapter what the Gospels tell us about Jesus and wine. Our primary objective is to ascertain whether indeed Christ by His teachings and example sanctioned the use of fermented wine.

The chapter is divided into the following five wine-related stories or sayings:

(1) The Wedding at Cana: John 2:1-11.

(2) New Wine in New Wineskins: Luke 5:37-38; Mark 2:22.

(3) Is Old Wine is Better? Luke 5:39.

(4) Was Jesus a Glutton and a Drunkard? Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34.

(5) The Communion Wine: Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23. 


Importance of the Miracle

Moderationists view Christ’s miraculous transformation of water into wine at the wedding of Cana as primary evidence of Jesus’ sanctioning the use of alcoholic beverages. They argue that if Jesus produced between 120 and 160 gallons of high-quality alcoholic wine for the wedding party and guests at Cana, it is evident that He approved of its use in moderation.

The belief that the wine Christ provided in Cana was alcoholic rests on five major assumptions. First, it is assumed that the word oinos “wine” indicates only “fermented-quality grape drink, i.e. wine.”5 Second, it is assumed that since the word oinos “wine” is used in reference both to the wine which ran out and the wine that Christ made, both wines must have been alcoholic. Third, it is assumed that the Jews did not know how to prevent the fermentation of grape juice; and since, as argued by William Hendriksen, the season of the wedding was just before Spring Passover (cf. John 2:13), that is, six months after the grape harvest, the wine used at Cana had ample time to ferment.6 Fourth, it is assumed that the description given by the master of the banquet to the wine provided by Christ as “the good wine” means a high-quality alcoholic wine.7 Fifth, it is assumed that the expression “well drunk” (John 2:10) used by the master of the banquet indicates that the guests were intoxicated because they had been drinking fermented wine. Consequently, the wine Jesus made must also have been fermented.8 In view of the importance these assumptions play in determining the nature of the wine provided by Christ, we shall examine each of them briefly in the order given.

The Meaning of Oinos

The popular assumption that both in secular and Biblical Greek the word oinos meant fermented grape juice exclusively was examined at great length in Chapter 2. We submitted numerous examples from both pagan and Christian authors who used the Greek word oinos referring both to fermented and unfermented grape juice. We also noticed that oinos is used at least 33 times in the Septuagint to translate tirosh, the Hebrew word for grape juice.

A better acquaintance with the use of the word “wine,” not only in the Greek language, but also in old English, Latin and Hebrew, would have saved scholars from falling into the mistaken conclusion that oinos means only fermented wine. The truth of the matter is, as we have shown, that oinos is a generic term, including all kinds of wine, unfermented and fermented, like yayin in Hebrew and vinum in Latin. Thus the fact that the wine made by Christ at Cana is called oinos, offers no ground for concluding that it was fermented wine. Its nature must be determined by internal evidence and moral likelihood. The record of the evangelist, as we shall see, affords information for determining this question.

Is Oinos Always Alcoholic?

The second assumption, that both the wine that ran out and the wine Jesus made were alcoholic, depends largely upon the first assumption, namely, that the word oinos means exclusively alcoholic wine. As stated by Kenneth L. Gentry, “The word oinos is used in reference to both wines in question. It has been shown that this word indicates fermented-quality grape drink, i.e. wine.”9

This assumption is discredited by two facts. First, as mentioned earlier, the word oinos is a generic term referring either to fermented or to unfermented wine. Thus the fact that the same word oinos is used for both wines in question does not necessitate that both wines be alcoholic. In his booklet Christ, the Apostles and Wine, Ernest Gordon responds in a similar vein to the same assumption, saying: “To the objection that the word oinos, wine, is used both for the intoxicating wine of the feast and the wine Christ made, and hence that both must have been intoxicating, one can quote Abbott, Dictionary of Religious Knowledge, ‘It is tolerably clear that the word wine does not necessarily imply fermented liquor. It signifies only a production of the vine.’ The eminent Hellenist, Sir Richard Jebb, former Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge, declared oinos “a general term which might include all kinds of beverages.”10

Second, the wine provided by Christ is differentiated from the other by being characterized as ton kalon, “the good” wine. This suggests that the two wines were not identical. The nature of the difference between the two wines will be discussed below.

Preservation of Grape Juice

The third assumption, that it would have been impossible to supply unfermented grape juice for a Spring time wedding about six months after vintage, rests on the assumption that the technology for preserving grape juice unfermented was unknown at the time.

The latter assumption is clearly discredited by numerous testimonies from the Roman world of New Testament times describing various methods for preserving grape juice. We have seen in Chapter 4 that the preservation of grape juice was in some ways a simpler process than the preservation of fermented wine. Thus, the possibility existed at the wedding of Cana to supply unfermented grape juice near the Passover season, since such a beverage could be kept unfermented throughout the year.

“High-Quality Alcoholic Wine.”

The fourth assumption is that the wine Jesus provided was pronounced “the good wine” (John 2:10) by the master of the banquet, because it was high in alcoholic content. Such an assumption is based on twentieth-century tastes.

Albert Barnes, a well-known New Testament scholar and commentator, warns in his comment on John 2:10 not to “be deceived by the phrase ‘good wine.’” The reason, he explains, is that “We use the phrase to denote that it is good in proportion to its strength, and its power to intoxicate. But no such sense is to be attached to the word here.”11

We noted in Chapter 4 that in the Roman world of New Testament times, the best wines were those whose alcoholic potency had been removed by boiling or filtration. Pliny, for example, says that “wines are most beneficial (utilissimum) when all their potency has been removed by the strainer.”12 Similarly, Plutarch points out that wine is “much more pleasant to drink” when it “neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind or passions”13 because its strength has been removed through frequent filtering.

Referring to some of the same ancient authors, Barnes says: “Pliny, Plutarch and Horace describe wine as good, or mention that as the best wine which was harmless or innocent—poculis vini innocentis. The most useful wine—utilissimum vinum—was that which had little strength; and the most wholesome wine—saluberrimum vinum—was that which had not been adulterated by ‘the addition of anything to the must or juice.’ Pliny expressly says that a ‘good wine’ was one that was destitute of spirit. Lib iv. c.13. It should not be assumed, therefore, that the ‘good wine’ was stronger than the other. It is rather to be presumed that it was milder. That would be the best wine certainly. The wine referred to here was doubtless such as was commonly drunk in Palestine. That was the pure juice of the grape. It was not brandied wine; nor drugged wine; nor wine compounded of various substances such as we drink in this land. The common wine drunk in Palestine was that which was the simple juice of the grape.”14

The wine Christ made was of high quality, not because of its alcohol content, but because, as Henry Morris explains, it was “new wine, freshly created! It was not old, decayed wine, as it would have to be if it were intoxicating. There was no time for the fermentation process to break down the structure of its energy-giving sugars into disintegrative alcohols. It thus was a fitting representation of His glory and was appropriate to serve as the very first of His great miracles (John 2:11).”15

Rabbinical Witness

The rabbinical witness on the nature of wine is not unanimous. Rabbi Isidore Koplowitz points out in his introduction to his collection of rabbinical statements on wine and strong drink that “it is true that some Talmudic doctors have sanctioned, aye, even recommended the moderate use of wine. But it is equally true that many Talmudic Rabbins have in vigorous words condemned the drinking of wine and strong drinks. Some Rabbins have even ascribed the downfall of Israel to wine.”16 An example of disapproval is the statement, often repeated with minor variations by different rabbis, which says: “When wine enters into the system of a person, out goes sense, wherever there is wine there is no understanding.”17

This awareness of the harmful effect of alcoholic wine explains why some rabbis recommended the use of boiled wine. Speaking of the latter, the Mishna says: “Rabbi Yehuda permits it [boiled wine as heave-offering], because it improves it [its quality].”18 “Such a wine,” notes Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, “was esteemed [among the Jews] the richest and best wine.”19 Elsewhere the Talmud indicates that drinking was forbidden to the accompaniment of musical instruments in festive occasions such as wedding (Sotah 48a; also Mishna Sotah 9,11). The latter is confirmed by later testimonies of rabbis quoted later in this chapter in the discussion of the Passover wine. In the light of these testimonies and considerations we would conclude that the wine provided by Christ was described as “the good wine” because it was not intoxicating.

Moral Implications

Another reason leading us to reject the assumption that “the good wine” produced by Christ was high in alcoholic content is the negative reflection such an assumption casts upon the wisdom of the Son of God. If, in addition to the considerable quantity of alleged alcoholic wine already consumed, Christ miraculously produced between 120 and 160 gallons of intoxicating wine for the use of men, women and children gathered together at the wedding feast, then He must be held morally responsible for prolonging and increasing their intoxication. His miracle would only serve to sanction the excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages. If this conclusion is true, it destroys the sinless ness of Christ’s nature and teachings.

Joseph P. Free rightly observes that the large amount of wine miraculously produced by Christ toward the end of a wedding feast proves either: “1. Excessive [alcoholic] drinking was allowable, or 2. The oinos in this case was grape juice. In the light of the whole Old Testament condemnation of wine, it certainly would appear that the beverage was grape juice.”20

It is against the principle of Scriptural and moral analogy to suppose that Christ, the Creator of good things (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25; Col 1:16), would exert His supernatural energy to bring into existence an intoxicating wine which Scripture condemns as “a mocker” and “a brawler” (Prov 20:1) and which the Holy Spirit has chosen as the symbol of divine wrath.

Scriptural and moral consistency require that “the good wine” produced by Christ was fresh, unfermented grape juice. The very adjective used to describe the wine supports this conclusion. “It must be observed,” notes Leon C. Field, “that the adjective used to describe the wine made by Christ is not agathos, good, simply, but kalos, that which is morally excellent or befitting. The term is suggestive of Theophrastus’ characterization of unintoxicating wine as moral (ethikos) wine.”21

Referring to the nature of the wine produced by Christ, Ellen White says: “The wine which Christ provided for the feast, and that which He gave to the disciples as a symbol of His own blood, was the pure juice of the grape. To this the prophet Isaiah refers when he speaks of the new wine ‘in the cluster,’ and says, ‘Destroy it not: for a blessing is in it’. . . The unfermented wine which He provided for the wedding guests was a wholesome and refreshing drink. Its effect was to bring the taste into harmony with a healthful appetite.”22

“Well Drunk.”

The final assumption to be examined relates to the expression “well drunk” (John 2:10) used by the banquet master. The full statement reads: “Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse; but thou hast kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10, KJV). The assumption is that since the Greek word methusthosin “well drunk” indicates drunkenness and since drunkenness is caused, according to the statement of the banquet master, by the “good wine” customarily served first, then “the good wine” provided by Christ must also have been intoxicating, because it is compared with the good wine usually served at the beginning of a feast.

Some view this meaning of the Greek verb methusko “to intoxicate” as an incontestable proof of the alcoholic nature of the wine produced by Christ. For example, in a scholarly review of John Ellis’ book, The Wine Question in the Light of the New Dispensation, the reviewers say: “There is another incontestable proof [of the alcoholic nature of the wine produced by Christ] contained in the passage itself; the word methusko in Greek signifies ‘to make drunk, to intoxicate’; in the passive ‘to be drunk’; now this term is never used for designating the effects from any other than intoxicating drinks.”23

This reasoning misinterprets and misapplies the comment of the master of the banquet, and overlooks the broader usage of the verb. The comment in question was not made in reference to that particular party, but to the general practice among those who hold feasts: “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine . . .” (John 2:10, RSV). This remark, as many commentators recognize, forms parts of the stock in trade of a hired banquet master, rather than an actual description of the state of intoxication at a particular party.24

Another important consideration is the fact that the Greek verb methusko can mean “to drink freely” without any implication of intoxication. In his article on this verb in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Herbert Preisker observes that “methuo and methuskomai are mostly used literally in the NT for ‘to be drunk’ and ‘to get drunk.’ Methuskomai is used with no ethical or religious judgment in John 2:10 in connection with the rule that the poorer wine is served only when the guests have drunk well.”25

The Parkhurst Greek lexicon cites the Septuagint usage of the methuo word group in Old Testament passages as illustrative of the meaning “to drink freely”: “Methuo . . . denotes in general to drink wine or strong drink more freely than usual, and that whether to drunkenness or not. Pass[ively] to drink freely and to cheerfulness, though not to drunkenness . . . John 2:10. And in this sense the verb is plainly used by the LXX (i.e. Septuagint), Gen 43:34; Cant 5:1; and also, I think, in Gen 9:21.”26 The latter meaning is respected by the Revised Standard Version which renders it more accurately “when men have drunk freely.”

The verb methusko in John 2:10 is used in the sense of satiation. It refers simply to the large quantity of wine generally consumed at a feast, without any reference to intoxicating effects. Those who wish to insist that the wine used at the feast was alcoholic and that Jesus also provided alcoholic wine, though of a better quality, are driven to the conclusion that Jesus provided a large additional quantity of intoxicating wine so that the wedding party could continue its reckless indulgence. Such a conclusion destroys the moral integrity of Christ’s character.

The Object of the Miracle

The stated object of the miracle was for Christ to manifest His glory so that His disciples might believe in Him. This objective was accomplished: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). Christ’s presence at a marriage feast was intended to show divine approval of the marriage institution and of the innocent enjoyments of social life. Yet all of these considerations were subservient to the manifestation of Christ’s glory in fulfillment of His Messianic mission. The glory of God is revealed especially in His act of creation (Ps 19:1-2). Likewise, Christ’s “eternal power and deity” (Rom 1:20) were manifested at the beginning of His miracles through an act of creation: “He . . . made the water wine” (John 4:46).

The wine of the miracle must have been identical to the wine found in the grape-clusters, because this is the only wine that God produces. “There is not a hint,” writes R. A. Torrey, “that the wine He [Christ] made was intoxicating. It was fresh-made wine. New-made wine is never intoxicating. It is not intoxicating until some time after the process of fermentation has set in. Fermentation is a process of decay. There is not a hint that our Lord produced alcohol, which is a product of decay and death. He produced a living wine uncontaminated by fermentation.”27

“I am satisfied,” states William Pettingill, “that there was little resemblance in it [wine made by Christ] to the thing described in the Scripture of God as biting like a serpent and stinging like an adder (Prov 23:29-32). Doubtless rather it was like the heavenly fruit of the vine that He will drink new with His own in His Father’s kingdom (Matt 26:29). No wonder the governor of the wedding feast at Cana pronounced it the best wine kept until the last. Never before had he tasted such wine, and never did he taste it again.”28

Christ’s miracles were always directed to benevolent ends. He “came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:56). If it were true that Christ miraculously manufactured an intoxicating wine, then that miracle would be a notable exception among His miracles. It would be a malevolent manifestation of His power. He would have manifested shame rather than glory.

Christ was aware of the powerful influence His example would have on contemporary and future generations. If, with all this knowledge He created an intoxicating wine, He would have revealed diabolic rather than divine power and glory. His disciples could hardly have believed in Him, if they had seen Him do a miracle to encourage drunkenness.

Leon C. Field aptly observes that Christ “was not Mohammed, holding out to men the allurement of sensual paradise, but a ‘man of sorrow,’ whose stern requirement of all who came after him was, that they should deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him (Matt 16:24). And it was by the personal embodiment and the practical encouragement of self-denial and abstinence, and not by the example or sanction of luxury and self-indulgence, that he won his followers and achieved his victories.”29


Importance of the Saying

Christ’s allusions to wine in Matthew 9:17 and Luke 5:39 are seen by Moderationists as an indication of His approval of the moderate use of alcoholic wine. While the miracle of the wine at the wedding of Cana allegedly proves that Jesus made alcoholic wine, the two sayings to be examined now supposedly show that Jesus commended the moderate use of alcoholic wine. The first saying occurs in the three parallel passages (Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37-38). The second is found only in Luke 5:39 as an additional statement not found in the narratives of either Matthew or Mark. Since Luke incorporates both sayings, we shall confine ourselves to the passage as found in Luke, which says: “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘the old is good’” (Luke 5:37-39).

“New Wine”: Fermented or Unfermented?

The phrase “new wine” (oinos neos) occurs in the New Testament only in this passage and those parallel to it. The question here is the nature of the “new wine.” Is it fermented or unfermented? A common view is that it denotes wine recently pressed, but already in a state of active fermentation. Such wine, it is said, could only be safely placed in new wineskins, because they alone were elastic enough to withstand the pressure of the gas-producing fermentation.

This view is expressed, for example, by Jimmy L. Albright in his dissertation on “Wine in the Biblical World.” He writes: “The biblical mention of bursting wineskins (Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37) shows that gas-producing fermentation took place in the wines produced in Israel, a chemical action that began within a few hours after the pressing of the grapes. The juice usually had begun to ferment as it stood in the lower pressing vats but was soon poured into jars or into skins. . . . Freshly made wine was put into new wineskins; old skins would burst under the pressure.”30

In a similar vein R. C. Lenski comments: “When it is fresh, the skin stretches to a degree, but when it is old it becomes stiff and bursts quickly under pressure. People therefore never put new wine, which still ferments and causes pressure, into old, dried-out skins.”31

This popular interpretation is very imaginative but not factual. Anyone familiar with the pressure caused by the gas-producing fermentation knows that no bottle, whether of skin or glass, can withstand such pressure. Job knew this when he said: “Behold, my heart is like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins, it is ready to burst” (Job 32:19). The Encyclopedia Biblica acknowledges this fact, saying: “It is impossible that the must could ever have been put into skins to undergo the whole process of fermentation, as is usually stated, the action of the gas given off in the early stages of the process being much too violent for any skins to withstand. Where a large quantity of grapes had to be trodden, it was necessary to relieve the wine vat by transferring the must immediately to earthenware jars, of which the Jews possessed a large variety.”32

Unfermented Grape Juice

“The difficulty connected with this parabolic word,” as Alexander B. Bruce rightly points out, “is not critical or exegetical, but scientific. The question has been raised: could even new, tough skins stand the process of fermentation?” The answer is obviously negative. Thus, Bruce himself suggests that “Jesus was not thinking at all of fermented, intoxicating wine, but of ‘must,’ a non-intoxicating beverage, which could be kept safely in new leather bottles, but not in old skins which had previously contained ordinary wine, because particles of albuminoid matter adhering to the skin would set up fermentation and develop gas with an enormous pressure.”33

Some argue that the “new wine” spoken of must have been “a new wine which had not fully fermented, but which had come so near the completion of that process that it could with safety be put into new skins, whose elasticity would be sufficient to resist the ‘after-fermentation’ which would ensue.”34 The weakness of this hypothesis is twofold. First, wine which was near the completion of the process of fermentation could have safely been stored in old wineskins as well, because the neck opening would have provided an adequate release for the remaining fermenting gas. Second, the fermentation process, when permitted, was carried on not in wineskins, but in large jars, known as habith in Hebrew and dolium to the Romans.35

The only “new wine” which could be stored safesly in new wineskins was unfermented must, after it had been filtered or boiled. The skin would be prepared like the amphora, by smearing it with honey or pitch, and after the must was poured in, it would be tightly closed and sealed. The reason that a new skin was required for new wine is that an old skin would almost inevitably have, as Lees and Burns explain, “some of the decayed albuminous matter adhering to their sides.”36 This would cause the new wine to ferment. On the other hand, if new wineskins were used to store unfermented new wine, no fermentation-causing agents would be present in the skins themselves. Thus, the wine would be preserved from fermentation and the wineskins from rupture.

A Pagan Testimony

It is significant to note in this regard that Columella, the renowned Roman agriculturist who was a contemporary of the apostles, emphasizes the need to use a new amphora to preserve fresh must unfermented: “That must may remain always sweet as though it were fresh, do as follows. Before the grape-skins are put under the press, take from the vat some of the freshest possible must and put it in a new wine-jar [amphoram novam], then daub it over and cover it carefully with pitch, that thus no water may be able to get in. Then sink the whole flagon in a pool of cold, fresh water so that no part of it is above the surface. Then after forty days take it out of the water. The must will then keep sweet for as much as a year.”37

A similar method was used with new wineskins, which were prepared, like the amphora, by being smeared with honey and pitch, and after being filled with must, were sealed and buried in the earth. Any of the processes described in the previous chapter, such as filtration, boiling, exclusion of air, sulphur fumigation, and reduction of the temperature below 40º F. (4º Celsius), would have been counted on to ensure the preservation of the new wine unfermented in new wineskins. Any two or all of these methods could be combined to ensure the prevention of fermentation.

The Meaning of the Saying

This interpretation is further confirmed by the symbolic meaning of Christ’s saying. The imagery of new wine in new wineskins is an object lesson in regeneration. As fittingly explained by Ernest Gordon, “The old wineskins, with their alcoholic lees, represented the Pharisees’ corrupt nature. The new wine of the Gospel could not be put into them. They would ferment it. ‘I came not to call the self-righteous but repentant sinners.’ The latter by their conversion become new vessels, able to retain the new wine without spoiling it (Mark 2:15-17, 22). So, by comparing intoxicating wine with degenerate Pharisaism, Christ clearly intimated what his opinion of intoxicating wine was.”38

“It is well to notice,” Ernest Gordon continues, “how in this casual illustration, he [Christ] identifies wine altogether with unfermented wine. Fermented wine is given no recognition. It could be put into any kind of wineskin, however sorry and corrupt. But new wine is like new cloth which is too good to be used in patching rags. It is a thing clean and wholesome, demanding a clean container. The natural way in which this illustration is used suggests at least a general, matter-of-fact understanding among his Jewish hearers that the real fruit of the vine, the good wine, was unfermented.”39


Importance of the Saying

In Luke Christ’s saying about new wine in fresh wineskins is followed by a similar and yet different statement: “And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:39). Though this statement is not found in the other Gospels, it forms an integral part of the narrative. Moderationists attach fundamental importance to this statement because it contains, in their view, Christ’s outspoken commendation of alcoholic wine. Kenneth L. Gentry, for example, speaks of “the well-nigh universal prevalence of men to prefer old (fermented) wine over new (pre- or unfermented) wine. The Lord himself makes reference to this assessment among men in Luke 5:39: ‘And no one, after drinking old wine, wishes for new; for he says, The old is good enough.’”40

Everett Tilson sees Luke 5:39 as one of the most challenging texts against those who favor abstinence. He writes: “This attempt to defend Jesus’ preference for the ‘new’ [unfermented] to the ‘old’ [fermented] wine falls victim to the passage in Luke 5:39, long one of the most difficult passages for biblical literalists who favor abstinence. Without a word of criticism, as if expressing a truism with which he himself agrees, Luke records Jesus as saying: ‘And no one after drinking old wine desires new.’ Why? ‘The old is good,’ he answers (5:39)—though far more likely to be both fermented and intoxicating!”41

Meaning of “New Wine.”

The first question to address in our study of this passage is whether the “new wine” here has the same meaning as in the two preceding verses. Some think it does not. They see the “new wine” of verse 38 as being wine not fully fermented and that of verse 39 as fully fermented wine but without the mellowness which comes with age. Lees and Burns, the authors of The Temperance Bible-Commentary, favor the view that the “new wine” of verse 38 is “identical in nature, and representative of the same Christian blessings, with the ‘old wine’ of verse 39—being the new preserved and improved by age.”42

The meaning of “new wine” in this passage cannot be determined by its general usage in Scripture because in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the phrase oinos neos—”new wine” is used to translate both fermented wine as in Job 32:19 and unfermented grape juice as in Isaiah 49:26. In the latter it translates the Hebrew asis which designates unfermented grape juice.

In the passage under consideration it is legitimate to infer that “new wine” has the same meaning in the whole passage, because it is used consecutively without any intimation of change of meaning. The metaphors in both sayings are used without confusion or contradiction. This means that if the “new wine” of verse 38 is, as shown earlier, unfermented grape juice, the same must be true of the “new wine” of verse 39.

Meaning of “Old Wine.”

Before discussing whether or not Christ expressed a judgment on the superior quality of “old wine” over “new wine,” it is important to determine whether the “old wine” spoken of is fermented or unfermented. From the viewpoint of quality, age “improves” the flavour not only of fermented wine but also of unfermented grape juice. Though no chemical change occurs, grape juice acquires a finer flavour by being kept, as its fine and subtle particles separate from the albuminous matter and other sedimentations. Thus, the “old wine” esteemed good could refer to grape juice preserved and improved by age.

The context, however, favors the meaning of fermented wine, since Christ uses the metaphor of the “old wine” to represent the old forms of religion and the “new wine” the new form of religious life He taught and inaugurated. In this context, fermented old wine better represents the corrupted forms of the old Pharisaic religion.

Is “Old Wine” Better?

In the light of this conclusion, it remains to be determined if Christ by this saying is expressing a value judgment on the superiority of “old [fermented] wine” over “new wine.” A careful reading of the text indicates that the one who says “The old is good” is not Christ but anyone who has been drinking “old wine.” In other words, Christ is not uttering His own opinion, but the opinion of those who have acquired a taste for the old wine. He says simply that anyone who has acquired a taste for old wine does not care for new. We know this to be the case. Drinking alcoholic beverages begets an appetite for stimulants and not for alcohol-free juices.

Christ’s saying does not represent His judgment regarding the superiority of old, fermented wine. Several commentators emphasize this point. In his Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Norval Geldenhuys says: “The point at issue here has nothing to do with the comparative merits of old and new wine, but refers to the predilection for old wine in the case of those who are accustomed to drink it.”43

The same point is emphasized by Henry Alford in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke. He says: “Observe that there is no objective comparison whatever here between old and new wine; the whole stress is on desireth and for he saith, and the import of better is subjective: in the view of him who utters it.”44 R. C. H. Lenski states the same truth most concisely: “It is not Jesus who calls the old wine ‘good enough,’ but he that drank it. A lot of old wine is decidedly bad because it has not been prepared properly; age is one thing, excellence with age quite another.”45

In a similar vein, Dr. Jack Van Impe writes: “Does not Jesus say [in Luke 5:39] that old wine is better? Not at all. He simply says that one who has been drinking old wine says it is better. This shows the Lord’s understanding of the habit-forming effect of beverage alcohol. His statement stands true today. Try to sell grape juice on skid row and you will probably have no takers. Those who drink old wine (intoxicating wine) prefer it. They are hooked on it. . . . The secondary message of the parable, then, actually argues for the superiority of new (unfermented) wine, using it as a picture of salvation.”46

The Context of the “Old Wine.”

The view that old, fermented wine is better than new wine, would be false even if everyone on earth believed it! And in the passage we are considering is contradicted by the context in which it occurs and by the whole purpose of the illustration. In the immediate context Jesus uses the same word (palaios) of old garments, which He obviously did not esteem as better than new ones. The statement about “old wine” seems to contradict the preceding one about “old garment,” but the contradiction disappears when one understands the purpose of the illustration.

In his article on “oinos” (“Wine”) in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Heinrich Seeseman notes the apparent contradiction and the significance of the context: “Luke 5:39 seems to contradict what goes before, since it favors the retention of the old. In the context of Luke, however, it is regarded as a warning against over-estimation of the old.”47

The purpose of the illustration is not to praise the superiority of old wine but to warn against an over-estimation of the old forms of religiosity promoted by the Pharisees. Such religiosity consisted, as verse 33 indicates, in the fulfillment of such external ascetic practices as frequent fasting and public prayer. To justify the fact that His disciples did not adhere to such external forms of religiosity, Christ used four illustrations: wedding guests do not fast in the presence of the bridegroom (vv. 34-35); new cloth is not used to patch an old garment (v. 36); new wine is not placed in old wineskins (vv. 37-38); new wine is not liked by those accustomed to drink the old (v. 39).

The common purpose of all the four illustrations is to help people accustomed to the old forms of religion, and unacquainted with the new form of religious life taught by Christ, to recognize that the old seems good only so long as one is not accustomed to the new, which in and of itself is better.

In this context, the old fermented wine seems good only to those who do not know the better new wine. In his book Alcohol and the Bible, Stephen Reynolds perceptively points out the broader implications of Christ’s illustration about the old wine. He says: “Christ warns against the over-estimation of Pharisaism (old wine), but the figure of speech carries with it more than the thought that the Gospel should be regarded more highly than Pharisaism. It also strongly suggests that to those who are perceptive of truth, new wine (unfermented grape juice) is preferable to old (intoxicating) wine. Only the natural man with corrupted taste thinks otherwise.”48



Importance of the Text

More than nineteen centuries ago it was said of Jesus: “Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt 11:19; cf. Luke 7:34). A particular of this accusation has been repeated until today: Jesus was a drinking man! Lovers of alcoholic beverages love to affirm that Jesus was a drinking man in order to shelter themselves under the cover of His example.

The full text of this passage reads as follows: Jesus said: “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:33-35).

Moderationists attach fundamental importance to this passage. Their reason is clear. They believe it offers an unmistakable proof that Jesus used alcoholic wine. While at the wedding of Cana Christ allegedly made fermented wine, and in His parables about the new wineskins and the old wine He commended alcoholic wine; in His description of His own lifestyle, He openly admitted to have used alcoholic wine.

Kenneth Gentry clearly states this argument, saying: “Jesus himself drank wine. As a matter of fact, in Luke 7:33-35 he makes reference to his practice of drinking wine as a vivid illustration of a distinctive difference between himself and his forerunner, John the Baptist.”49

Horace Bumstead expresses the same opinion even more emphatically, saying: “The Bible sanctions the use of wine by the example of Christ. This sanction is undeniable and emphatic. Undeniable because we have the statement of fact in Christ’s own words; emphatic because his example as a user of wine is expressly contrasted by himself with the example of his forerunner, John the Baptist, who, being a Nazarite, was an abstainer from wine.”50

Irving Raymond views Christ’s contrast to John as a “direct evidence” of His drinking habits. He writes: “Jesus Christ undoubtedly followed the usual customs of His day and drank wine at daily meals and at different kinds of celebrations. For proof of his assertion there is direct evidence both from what others said of Him and from what He Himself actually did. In contrast to St. John the Baptist, ‘The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber.’”51 This reference constitutes for Raymond “sufficient grounds . . . to assert that not only did Jesus Christ Himself use and sanction the use of wine but also that He saw nothing intrinsically evil in wine.”52

Two Different Lifestyles

The reasoning that “John drank no wine, while Christ did, therefore we may drink” ignores several crucial considerations. First of all, the phrase “eating and drinking” is used idiomatically to describe not so much the difference in their eating and drinking habits, as the difference in their social lifestyles.

Christ’s lifestyle was eminently social; therefore, in the common parlance of that time, He came “eating and drinking,” even though He was dependent for food and drink upon the gracious hospitality of friends. John’s lifestyle was fundamentally eremitic—away from society in the solitude of the wilderness; therefore, in common parlance, he came “neither eating bread nor drinking wine” (NIV). The two phrases serve to emphasize the contrast between John’s lifestyle of full social isolation and Christ’s lifestyle of free social association. The emphasis is not on alcohol but on social lifestyle.

Ernest Gordon accurately describes the contrast implied by Christ’s statement, saying: “It contrasts the isolation of John’s life with the social character of Christ’s. John was a wilderness prophet. He neither ate nor drank with others and avoided human companionship. Into the wilderness were driven the insane and devil-possessed. Hence the suggestion that he himself was of this class. Our Lord associated freely with others at meals and elsewhere. He too was slandered, called a glutton, and charged with being oinopotes, a drinker of (intoxicating) wine. There is no proof that he was either.”53

Two Different Missions

The difference in lifestyle between Jesus and John is indicative of their different missions. John was called to prepare the way for Christ’s ministry by preaching a message of repentance and reformation. In order to fulfill this mission he was called to rebuke the excesses of his time by living an abstemious life in the wilderness, away from the haunts of people. Jesus was anointed to another mission, which included proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. In order to fulfill this mission Jesus did not withdraw into the wilderness, but reached the people in their homes, towns and villages.

As the austerity of John’s lifestyle led his slanderers to charge him with being demon-possessed, so the sociability of Jesus’ lifestyle led the same critics to charge Him with indulgence in sensuous delights, with being “a glutton and a drunkard.” Both charges were groundless, because both Jesus and John lived exemplary lives of self-denial. They followed different lifestyles because they had their different mission.

John, a Nazirite

An important reason for Jesus’ saying of John the Baptist that he came “drinking no wine” (Luke 7:33), is the fact that John was a Nazirite from his mother’s womb. This is the way most commentators interpret Luke 1:15, where the angel instructs Zechariah regarding John, saying: “He shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” Nazirites were people who showed their total consecration to God by abstaining not only from “wine and strong drink” but also from grape juice and grapes (Num 6:1-4).

Jesus, not being a Nazirite, was not under the obligation to abstain from drinking grape juice, made from the fruit of the vine. We know He drank at the Last Supper. It is not necessary to assume that because Jesus, contrary to John, “came drinking,” that He drank all kinds of wine, both fermented and unfermented. If that were true for drinking, the same would be true for eating. Yet, no one is arguing that Jesus ate all kinds of food, both good and bad, clean and unclean.

Of whatever food or drink the Lord consumed, it was healthful designed to provide for His physical needs and not to gratify self-indulgence. “My food,” Jesus said, “is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34). It is hard to believe that Jesus would have fulfilled His Father’s will by partaking of intoxicating wine which the Scripture clearly condemns. Thus, it is unwarranted to assume that the kind of food and drink Jesus consumed was calculated to gratify an intemperate appetite robbing Him of clear mental perception and spiritual affection.

No Mention of “Wine.”

Another significant point often overlooked is that Jesus did not mention “wine” in describing His own lifestyle. While of John the Baptist Jesus said that he came “eating no bread and drinking no wine,” of Himself He simply said: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking.” Some argue that the antithetic parallelism, in which the thought of the first statement is contrasted with the opposite in the second statement, “demands that ‘wine’ be understood to be assumed in the second part of the statement.”54

The argument seems plausible but the fact remains that if Jesus had wanted it known that, contrary to John the Baptist He was a wine-drinker, then He could have repeated the word “wine” for the sake of emphasis and clarity. By refusing to specify what kinds of food or drink He consumed, Christ may well have wished to deprive His critics of any basis for their charge of gluttony and drunkenness. The omission of “bread” and “wine” in the second statement (Matthew omits them in both statements) could well have been intended to expose the senselessness of the charge. In other words, Jesus appears to have said, “My critics accuse me of being a glutton and drunkard, just because I do not take meals alone but eat often in the presence of other people. I eat socially. But my critics actually do not know what I eat.”

Drunk with Grape Juice?

Some argue, “Were it the case that Jesus did not drink wine, how could it be alleged that he was a drunkard?”55 The assumption is that Christ could have never been accused of being a drunkard unless He drank alcoholic wine, for the simple reason that grape juice does not make a person drunk.

The weakness of this assumption is its failure to realize that the charge is a lie, based not on factual observations but on a fiction fabricated by unscrupulous critics. Assuming that His critics actually saw Jesus drinking something, they would have readily accused Him of being a drunkard, even if they saw Him drinking grape juice, or water, for that matter. On the day of Pentecost, as we shall see in Chapter 6, critics charged the apostles with being drunk on grape-juice (gleukos—Acts 2:13). This goes to

You may also like...