Holy Spirit Filling Through Abstinence From Alcohol
Copyright 2010 by Raul E. Lopez, MD, MDiv
The passage in Ephesians states the first condition for the filling of the Holy Spirit in the form of a prohibition, that is, a negative command. Christians are commanded to refrain from drunkenness. In modern western culture the word drunkenness is usually used to refer to the advanced stages of intoxication. However, several passages clearly show that the apostles considered anything other than complete sobriety to be drunkenness. Paul says "Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober" (I Thessalonians 5:6). Peter says "Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 1:13). The reference to the second coming in these two passages seems to indicate that the importance of sobriety increases as the second coming approaches. We are to avoid being under the influence of intoxicating spirits and instead endeavor to live in a state of constant influence of the Holy Spirit.
In order to determine the proper use of alcoholic beverages it is important to analyze the product itself. We will focus on wine since that is the alcoholic beverage most frequently mentioned in the Bible, but the same analysis applies to other such products. Wine consists of two parts. One can be considered to be modified and preserved juice which contains flavor, nutrients, and water. The other part is ethyl alcohol. Contaminants, such as acetic acid, which gives vinegar its pungent taste, might also be present. Incompletely fermented wine would also contain sugar. Sweeteners of any type were a rare and valuable commodity in ancient times.
Ethyl alcohol has two properties. One is its ability to kill bacteria and other microorganisms, making it a useful preservative or antiseptic. However, it not only kills bacteria, it also slowly kills brain and liver cells leading to brain atrophy and liver cirrhosis. This mild toxic effect is a side effect of its antiseptic property. The other main property is its ability to act as a mild anesthetic, to intoxicate, to alter a normal person's mental state.
However, when a person who is suffering emotional or physical pain is given an intoxicating substance the effect is not intoxication, but analgesia. In order to understand this effect, consider mental status as a continuum. On the left extreme is pain or suffering and on the other extreme, on the right, is intoxication or a "high." In the middle lies sobriety. Intoxicating substances move the mental state towards the right. If the person starts out sober initially, taking an intoxicating substance it will make him "high." However, if the person is in pain, it will bring him closer to "sobriety." Analgesia is this latter effect.
This section will show that the Bible allows the use of alcohol as a preservative, as an antiseptic, and as an analgesic. Its use as an intoxicant is strongly discouraged, and even prohibited, because of its antagonism to Holy Spirit filling. This effect is tolerated at all only as an unavoidable side effect of its use as a preservative or antiseptic. We conclude that since we now have other means for preserving juice, have effective ways to purify water, and have more effective ways to control physical and psychological pain, there is no longer a justification for Christians to subject themselves to the intoxicating effects of alcohol, even at low levels.
The use of alcohol as a preservative in wine allowed the storage of juices for consumption through out the year. Without alcohol, juice will rot; bacteria will turn it into vinegar. Vinegar is called sour wine because the bacteria turn the sugar in juice into acetic acid, which is sour. When acetic acid concentrations become high enough, it too acts as a preservative, killing the bacteria in the juice. However, the acidity and strong taste of vinegar makes it unsuitable as a beverage. It can be used only for cooking, because the heat causes the evaporation of the acetic acid. In a hot dry climate such as that in the middle east, the refreshing properties of juice preserved in the form of wine were greatly appreciated. Old Testament passages which praise the effects of wine probably refer to its refreshing effect, not to its intoxicating effect. David says that God provides "wine that makes glad the heart of man" (Psalm 104:15). In a hot country with no air conditioning and untreated water, drink does not have to contain alcohol to lift the spirits. Anyone who has drunk some cool refreshment on a hot summer day can attest to the satisfying and brightening aspect of that refreshment. Solomon says "Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart" (Ecclesiastes 9:7). Here we see how bread is also associated with joy, in the same way that wine is associated with a merry heart. It is not the intoxicating effect which is praised but the beautiful taste, the culinary aesthetic, the ability to satisfy our hunger or thirst. Wine in ancient times was also an important source of sugar, and sugar can have a very strong positive effect on people's emotions. I have often seen my wife and children become happy if not outright gigglish after eating something sweet.
Not all cultures preserved juice by turning it into wine, some tribes, such as the Arabs, boiled the juice and preserved it as a sirup. This technique has the advantage of preserving the sugar in the juice, while fermentation into alcohol destroys some or all of the sugar. Ancient people had few sources of sugar and it was rare and valuable commodity. The disadvantage of producing syrup is the cost and effort involved in boiling or evaporating large quantities of juice. One easy way to do this is to set the grapes out in the sun and dried into raisins. The grapes could be pressed into flat strips of dried fruit which could be eaten like candy.
In Europe and parts of the Middle East wine was used as an antibiotic to purify water by mixing the two together. Wine contains a family of substances called polyphenols which have mild antibiotic properties. It has activity against some of the bacteria responsible for causing diarrhea and ulcers, particularly Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Shigella and Helicobacter pylori. Those countries which boiled water to make tea had a lower use of alcohol. Moslem countries, where tea is common, have prohibitions against the use of alcohol. Paul commanded Timothy to use wine for its antibiotic properties, "Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities." (I Timothy 5:23). This shows that the common practice of early Christians was abstinence from alcohol. If Timothy had not been practicing abstinence, the apostle would not have needed to issue this command. If abstinence was Timothy's preferred practice, it is probable that others too followed this example.
Solomon, while prohibiting the use of alcohol by kings, allowed its use for its analgesic properties to suppress physical and emotional pain. Solomon says "It is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes intoxicating drink [probably beer]. . . Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more" (Proverbs 31:4,6-7). This passage teaches that the use of pain killers and anti-depressants is acceptable under the appropriate circumstances. However, modern medicine has developed pain killers and anti-depressants which are safer, less addictive, and more effective than alcohol. Therefore alcohol is no longer necessary for this function either.
The idea of an antagonism between intoxication and spirit filling is not found in Ephesians alone, but in the Old Testament also. In the Old Testament, those individuals or groups which had a special filling of the Holy Spirit or who were consecrated to God in a special way were forbidden from using wine in any way. One of these groups, the Nazarites were forbidden from consuming any type of grape product at all (Numbers 6:2-4). This assured absolute abstinence from alcohol. The reason for this is that in a warm climate almost any grape product would contain some alcohol because grape juice ferments with great ease. Consequently in order to avoid all alcohol the ban had to include all grape products. Two examples of Nazarites whom God used in a special way were Samson and John the Baptist. They were both given a special filling of the Holy Spirit and the use of wine or intoxicating drink was expressly forbidden to them for life, starting from their mother's womb. "But he said unto me, Behold, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and now drink no wine nor strong drink, neither eat any unclean [thing]: for the child shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death." (Judges 13:7), and "For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb." (Luke 1:15). It is implied that Samuel was also a Nazarite because his mother vowed that no razor would come upon his head and this was part of the Nazarite vow (I Samuel 1:11).
Except for the high priest and a few associates the other priests of Israel were not full time priests, but served for a period of several weeks a few times during their life. The rest of the time they carried out their regular business at their appointed cities. During the time during which they were ministering in the tabernacle or temple they were forbidden from using wine. God told Aaron "Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations" (Leviticus 10:9). Speaking of the millennial priesthood Ezekiel says "No priest shall drink wine when he enters the inner court" (Ezekiel 44:21 nkjv). The high priest, who had a special anointing indicating a special filling of the Holy Spirit ministered at the temple at all times, so, based on these passages, he would not have been allowed to drink wine during the period of his ministry.
The kings of Judah, in particular David and Solomon, also had a special filling of the Holy Spirit. They were commanded to refrain from alcohol. King Lemuel, probably Solomon, remembers the advice of his parents when he wrote "It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes intoxicating drink; Lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of all the afflicted" (Proverbs. 31:4-5). These passages seem to indicate that alcohol and the Holy Spirit have mutually exclusive effects. In order to achieve maximum spiritual strength it is wise to avoid all use of alcohol.
Others, who were not members of these specially anointed groups and who, yet, voluntarily refrained from the consumption alcohol also received a special blessing. There was a family in the times of Jeremiah called the Rechabites who voluntarily refrained from alcohol because their father had commanded them so "'We will drink no wine, for Johnadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, saying "You shall drink no wine, you nor your sons, forever"'" (Jeremiah 35:6 nkjv). This family received a special blessing and a special promise of protection during a time of turmoil in the history of Israel "'Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: "Because you have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts and done according to all he commanded you, therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: 'Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack a man to stand before Me forever'"'" (Jeremiah 35:18 nkjv).
Jonadab had given his children another commandment, to not live in houses, but to live as nomads in tents. This commandment had been disregarded because of the danger associated with that lifestyle (v. 2, 11). This shows that it was not just their obedience, but their obedience to this particular commandment, abstinence from alcohol, that was important, because that was the commandment being followed, the other one was being ignored. It was for their abstinence from alcohol that they were blessed.
There is one New Testament passage that seems to permit the use of alcohol. In John 2, Jesus Christ made approximately one hundred and fifty gallons of wine. However, this passage must be examined carefully. First of all, nowhere in the passage does it say that the Lord or His disciples consumed any of the wine themselves. It is probable that they did not do so since John, who was an eye witness, did not use his own testimony as to the character of the product, but, rather, that of the master of the feast. Consequently, this passage does not address the propriety of the use of alcohol among believers, but, rather, whether or not believers are allowed to serve alcohol to unbelievers.
It is unlikely that Jesus made wine which contained alcohol. The reason why this is so is that it is clear from the passage that these people were already "well drunk" (John 2:10). This can only mean one of two things, either they were approaching the point of unacceptable intoxication, or they had already passed that point. More alcohol would have made them even more "well drunk." Therefore, if the wine in this passage contained alcohol, then this passage not only allows drinking in moderation, but, also, drinking to excess. There is no question that outright drunkenness and enticement to drunkenness is strictly forbidden in the Bible because it unleashes man's sinful tendencies. Habakkuk says "Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbor, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk, that you may look on his nakedness" (Habakkuk 2:15). Since Christ was providing drink for those who were in the advanced stages of intoxication the wine must have been non-alcoholic.
The Greek word for wine is broad enough to permit this interpretation. It can refer to any liquid grape product including fermented wine, grape juice, and vinegar. The context also emphasizes the unusual nature and high quality of the wine "the master of the feast called for the bridegroom. And he said to him, 'Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then that which is inferior; but you have kept the good wine until now'" (John 2:9-10 nkjv). The master of the feast, who probably was a connoisseur of wines, was so impressed with this product that he called the bridegroom to congratulate him. Some consider aged wine to be of higher quality than fresh wine, but in a culture where there was scarcity of spices and sweeteners, sweet fresh wine would certainly have been highly prized, especially if fresh grapes were out or season. The main component which gives wine a poor taste is acetic acid, which is found in high quantities in vinegar. This acid is a by product of bacterial fermentation. If the Lord could make wine without this product of fermentation, he surely could keep out the alcohol, another product of fermentation.
Even though the wine was probably alcohol free it appears that the disciples abstained in order to not give the appearance of condoning the use of alcohol. Making the wine itself would not have compromised the Lord's testimony because no one knew the source of the wine except the disciples and the few servants who drew the water (John 2:9). The purpose of this miracle was specifically to strengthen the faith of His disciples (John 2:11). It is interesting that when Mary, His mother, informed Jesus about the lack of wine, that Jesus rebuked her. Perhaps she had suggested that He create aged wine.
In contrast to this, on an occasion when the Lord did drink a grape product it is called "the fruit of the vine." Jesus told his disciples the night before His arrest "I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom" (Matthew 26:29 nkjv, also Mark 14:25, Luke 18:18). The Bible specifically avoids the designation wine for this drink in order to show that fresh grape juice was used at the Lord's last supper. Jesus Christ emphasizes that the drink of the kingdom and of the subjects of the kingdom is new (fresh) fruit of the vine, grape juice. During Passover, all leaven was removed from the house, so it is logical to use juice that was as free from leaven as possible. However, a few hours later, when Jesus was hanging on the cross suffering of dehydration and excruciating pain, he asked for water, and when they offered Him cheap alcoholic wine He refused it (Mark 15:23).
Therefore, we see that in ancient times, wine and beer were at certain times an important and possibly an essential source of uncontaminated refreshment, providing hydration and nutrition. The alcohol itself sometimes was properly used to alleviate pain and suffering. In such times the use of alcoholic beverages may have been tolerated, and even then, most of the time alcoholic beverages were diluted for consumption. Even the ancient Greeks, who were pagan unbelievers, used large glazed clay pots called Kraters to dilute their wine. "Drinking ákratos (undiluted) wine was considered a severe faux pas in ancient Greece, enough to characterize the drinker as a drunkard and someone who lacked restraint and principle. Ancient writers prescribed that a mixing ratio of 1:3 (wine to water) was optimal for long conversation, a ratio of 1:2 when fun was to be had, and 1:1 was really only suited for orgiastic revelry, to be indulged in very rarely, if at all." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krater). Today we live in an affluent society with plenty of food, clean water, and refrigeration. We even have the technology to take the alcohol out of fermented wine and beer. Alcohol is needed neither as a preservative nor as a medicine. In light of the commands to be sober, and in view of the death and misery in our society caused by the use of alcohol, the Christian has no justifiable reason to consume alcohol. Those who do, show their immaturity and lack of wisdom. This is one of the most important differences between Fundamentalist Christians and other Evangelicals. Fundamentalists are Rechabites, they completely abstain from the use of alcoholic beverages.
top of page