Is Jesus' Wedding Miracle Consistent
With Abstinence from Alcohol?
It is commonly assumed that Jesus'
miraculous changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana is an
embarrassment to Christians who totally abstain from alcoholic beverages.
To reinforce this assumption men point to the variance between Jesus' own
eating and drinking habits and those of his forerunner, John the Baptizer.
To be sure, Jesus himself highlighted the difference:
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 . . ." (Matt. 11:18-19).
There are several problems with the thesis that those
who abstain from alcohol spurn the freedom that Christ instituted by the social
pattern of his own ministry:
- It overlooks the severity of the Nazarite vow suggested
by Luke 1:15, as well as the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The Nazarite
vow which seems to have characterized John's life forbade the partaking of
the smallest traces of the fruit of the vine extending even to the grapeskins
and seeds (Num. 6:1-4). For Jesus even to drink what is by modern definition
grape juice, therefore, and to do so in the company of sinners,
would have been enough to set him apart from the ascetic John with respect
to his social life, and to evoke the slanderous criticism from the Pharisees:
"A glutton and a drunkard."
- It overlooks significance of the miracle at Cana.
The miracle at Cana was designated "the first of his signs" (John 2:11).
A sign points to something which might otherwise be overlooked. The new
covenant significance of wine in Jesus' teaching is made plain from such passages
as Matthew 9:17; 26:28; and 1 Corinthians 11:25. The New Covenant stood
in strong contrast to the Old, particularly as the Jews had "watered down"
that covenant to accommodate their own hypocrisy. Centuries earlier, Isaiah
had indicted God's covenant nation with his words, "Your silver has become
dross, your best wine mixed with water" (Isa. 1:22). As if to fulfill this
indictment, the Jewish Talmud informs us that the Passover cup consisted
of a mixture of one part wine with three parts water. In the light of Isaiah's
words and the Talmud, therefore, Jesus' changing water into
wine at Cana may well have been a spoof on Jewish hypocrisy, but much more
a pictorial statement of the nature of the New Covenant in contrast with
the Old. Most men served the good wine first, and after the guests had drunk
freely, then the poor wine, but through Jesus' gracious intervention, the
master of the feast could report to the bridegroom, "But you have kept the
good wine until now" (John 2:10). In instituting the New Covenant, God saved
the best for last--and there was no watering down! Indeed the insipid became
the sweet! Jesus superseded Moses--and, unlike the Pharisees, there is no
hypocrisy with him! But this implies nothing about the alcoholic content
of the wine.
- It overlooks the literal aspects of Jesus'
new wine metaphor. In Matthew 9:17, Jesus gave an object lesson:
"Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and
the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into
new wineskins, and so both are preserved." Here Jesus is describing the effect
of the fermentation process, and in doing so, clearly implies that "new wine"
is unfermented wine, that is, it is devoid of alcoholic content.
It was "new wine" that the onlookers of Pentecost Sunday supposed was the
cause of the effect they were witnessing with the outpouring of the Holy
Spirit (Acts 2:13). Apparently, the Feast of Pentecost involved the drinking
of "new wine," but the assumption of the Jewish onlookers was incorrect, as
Peter reminded them it was only 9:00 A.M. No one could have drunk enough
by that hour to produce any kind of inebriating effect such as the Jews imagined
they were seeing in the 120 gathered in the upper room. If there was any
trace of alcoholic content to the new wine, it would have been so minimal
that such an idea would have been preposterous! No, "these men are not drunk,
as you suppose" (Acts 2:15).
- It overlooks the fact that Jesus had not come to
abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. Anyone who would relax
one of the least of these commandments and teach men accordingly would be
regarded as least in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-19). Unlike the
Pharisees, Jesus was not in the business of lowering God's standard of righteousness.
As to what the Law and the Prophets had to say concerning the use of wine
in the sense of strong drink, one need only consider the following: Noah's
shameful end (Gen. 9:20-21); Lot's shameful end (Gen. 19:32-35); Moses's instructions
for priests (Lev. 10:8-10); Solomon's counsel for kings (Prov. 31:4-9; Solomon's
counsel to all (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35); Isaiah's warning to a backsliding
nation (Isa. 5:11-12, 22); the remarkable family tradition of the Rechabites
(Jer. 35); Ezekiel's instructions for priests (Ezek. 44:21-23); the sterling
example of Daniel and his three friends (Dan.1).
- It overlooks the fact that in all three Synoptic
Gospel accounts of the Lord's Supper, the contents of the cup is designated
"the fruit of the vine" (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). Grape juice
fulfills the meaning of our Savior's designation.
- It overlooks the concern for the weaker
brother addressed by the apostle Paul: "It is good not to eat meat or drink
wine or do anything that causes you brother to stumble" (Rom. 14:21).
- It overlooks the fact that Timothy,
Paul's associate in ministry, had been a total abstainer until, for medical
purposes only, Paul encouraged him to "no longer drink only water, but to
use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments"
(1 Tim. 5:23).
- It overlooks the bearing of cultural
changes upon the issue. A alcoholic drink or two in the modern world has
even greater consequences given the impact of the automobile and airplane,
and the mental alertness required in their operation.
- It overlooks the freedom that comes from discipline
in the Christian life. To be a disciple is to be under discipline.
Jesus said, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and
you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians, "Do you not know that in a race all
the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you
may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They
do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I
do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I
discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others
I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
For a Christian to point to
Jesus' social pattern as a pretext for drinking habits could be a subtle
self-deception. To equate the Christian
gentleman with the connoisseur of wines,
is no mark of Christian maturity. On the contrary, it may well be a mark of spiritual decadence.
Isaiah, whose prophetic writings Jesus quoted more than any other,
said as much:
- It overlooks the subtlety and deception of
sin in the life of the Christian. "Therefore, let anyone who thinks
that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12).
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
The mark of the early Christians was
not tarrying late into the evening till wines inflamed them (Isa. 5:11), but
tarrying until nine o'clock in the morning until the Holy Spirit filled
them and the tongues of fire rested upon them (Acts 1:4-5; 2:3-4). It
was the Spirit's fervency (Rom. 12:11) rather than the wine's fermentation
that was the essence of the New Covenant blessing, and in that the Kingdom
consisted rather than the other (Rom. 14:17)--indeed the blessing of the Spirit
was Christ's throne-gift to the church (Acts 2:33). We can be sure
that it was the Holy Spirit who provided the impetus for Christian living
and whose fruit defined Christian character (Gal. 5:22-23).
and valiant men in mixing strong drink (Isa. 5:22).
The New Testament sets the ministry of the Spirit, by
way of contrast, over against the inordinate consumption of alcoholic drinks:
"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled
with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual
songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks
always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus
Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:18-21).
And while we are not equating the moderate drinking of fermented
wine with drunkenness, nor condemning it in every instance, we cannot help
but recognize that, under the New Covenant, excessive "drinking" of the Spirit
is highly encouraged and always beneficial (John 7:37-39).