Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday known for more than anything else as another excuse to have a beer. Not that we need any more excuses. After all, Spring Break is around the corner. Not long ago, the city of New Orleans continued to hold its annual tradition of debauchery known as “Mardi Gras,” in spite of the recent hardships they have gone through due to being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Before that, there was Christmas and New Year’s Eve. If God is willing, the United States will observe Memorial Day in a couple of months…and a little over a month after that she will celebrate the anniversary of her declaration of independence on July 4.
What do St. Patrick’s Day, Spring Break, Mardi Gras, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Memorial Day, July 4…and, let’s face it, every weekend and in some cases every day…all have in common for a lot of folks?
I wish I could tell you that all of these times are set aside by everyone in our society for good, wholesome, clean, and sober fun as a means to relax and recuperate from the stresses of work and life. I wish I could tell you that there won’t be a single parent who will hear that their son or daughter vacationing in some exotic location during Spring Break was killed, raped, humiliated, or caused someone else’s death, rape, or humiliation due to consumption of alcohol. I wish I could tell you that there won’t be a single New Orleans citizen or visitor who won’t spend the rest of their life with their sexually transmitted disease, divorce, the memory of their abortion, their illegitimate child, or the knowledge of the existence of photos somewhere out there that show them immodestly displaying themselves for the world to see, ruefully regretting the amount of alcohol they drank at Mardi Gras which caused them to drunkenly take their clothes off in public and commit adultery or some other form of fornication with either a prostitute or some young woman or man who was equally intoxicated. I wish I could tell you that this morning, the day after St. Patrick’s Day, no one will see a single vehicle wrapped around some tree while its driver’s family is told that Daddy or Mommy won’t ever be coming home again because they decided to join the rest of the world in using the Catholic feast day celebrating the life of one her “patron saints” as an excuse to drink themselves into a stupor and then climb behind the wheel.
I wish I could tell you the day on which many believe Christ was born was not also the day in which millions dishonor his memory by violating the wishes he expressed through the Holy Spirit-inspired apostle (Eph. 5:18; 1 Thess. 5:6-8; cf. 1 Cor. 14:37). I wish I could tell you that the first morning of every year is not spent by millions nursing a hangover in jail or in a ditch somewhere because of the pints of whiskey they had consumed as the previous year was ending. I wish I could tell you that driving back home after the barbeques and fireworks of Memorial Day and the Fourth of July is a much safer undertaking than it actually is due to the millions of intoxicated drivers who are also driving home after drinking three beers for every plate of food they consumed on those days.
I wish I could tell you there is not a single employer who will have to spend their Mondays either putting up with the low productivity of their hungover employees or having to look for new employees because they either had to fire their hungover employees for not being able to do their jobs correctly or, worse yet, being told that their employees won’t be coming into work ever again because during the previous weekend they were either hit by a drunk driver or were the drunk driver hitting someone else. I wish I could tell you no wife or child has ever been physically abused by a husband and father who nurses a bottle every night, no husband has ever been embarrassed by his wife drunkenly shouting humiliating things about him or herself in public while staggering on his arm, no child has ever been influenced to start drinking during their teen years because they’ve grown up watching their parents stock their liquor cabinets and store six-packs of Michelob in the refrigerator, and no family has ever been torn apart due to a loved one’s suicide which came about because of alcohol.
Most of all, I wish I could tell you that there is not a single person who calls themselves a Christian who would ever in any way, shape, or form defend the social consumption of alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Forgetting that we are called to “go out from their midst, and be separate from them…and touch no unclean thing” (2 Cor. 6:17), too many in the denominational world and even brethren in the Lord’s church, looking for a justification for their sin, point to the regular consumption of alcoholic wine by the citizens of Europe and the rest of the world as though God would accept what the majority of His creation did (Matt. 7:13-14). My wife once told me about one of her co-workers, someone who professed to be religious, who talked freely of storing six packs of beer in her automobile’s trunk. Some college friends of mine who are Christians drink with regularity and defend the practice. There are even leaders in the church, elders and preachers and Bible class teachers, who either hesitate to condemn the practice of social drinking or blatantly defend it. Brethren, it is a travesty for members of the family of God (1 Tim. 3:14-15) who are called to let their light shine before their fellow men (Matt. 5:14-16) to participate and defend the sin which is and has always been one of the leading causes of grief and heartache in the world!
However, blame must also be laid at the feet of the preachers, teachers, pastors, and parents who, for whatever reason, have failed to teach this generation “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) concerning sin, specifically the sinfulness of social alcoholic consumption. After all, lack of knowledge destroys (Hos. 4:6). How can brethren be expected to have the faith which comes from the words of Christ (Rom. 10:17) about the sinfulness of alcoholic beverages when they have not been taught (Acts 8:30-31; Rom. 10:14)?
So I’d like to talk about it now. In teaching on this subject, my goal is to have and encourage others to have God’s will as the highest priority in life (Col. 3:17). We know that God has given us everything we need to know in order to obtain eternal life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3), and so we must go to God’s Word and search for commands, principles, and examples to get authority for what we are to do and what we are not to do in this life. God’s Word is truth (John 17:17), and we are commanded to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), love for the souls of those who are caught up in sin, including the sin of social drinking.
So What Does The Bible Have To Say About Alcohol?
In showing what the scriptures say about alcoholic consumption, let me first say that I recognize this is a sensitive and controversial subject. Accordingly, in showing what God’s Word says on this matter, it is not my intent to be insensitive or abusive in any way. Furthermore, it is not my intent to judge or condemn anyone. Christ is our judge (Acts 17:30-31), and his words will judge us (John 12:48). This is why, in speaking and writing on the subject of alcohol, I want to lead you to what God’s Word says on the subject, since it is God’s Word that will judge us.
Anyone who watches television, reads newspapers and books, and knows how to use the Internet and its search engines can easily find the news coverage, medical journalistic facts, and statistics that show how the use and abuse of alcohol is our nation’s #1 drug problem. I recommend contacting World Video Bible School in order to purchase their course notes on CD-Rom. In addition to the innumerable amount of sound teaching provided on every book of the Bible and just about every religious topic in existence, their course notes on 1 Timothy have two appendices which contain a two-part lesson by brother F.C. DiPalma, Jr. on alcohol. The first part lists many medical and statistical facts about alcoholic consumption from sources dated mostly from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Taking those facts from years past and comparing them with the current medical facts and statistics about the dangers of alcohol only help strengthen the conviction of the honest and open-minded about the evils of alcohol. DiPalma cites several doctors and medical journals which list alcohol as a poison that is deadly in its working on the body and mind. He lists sources which warn that even extremely small amounts of alcohol (which your average social drinker would consume) damages the body and mind significantly, including the irreversible destruction of brain and liver cells, as well as the decreasing of self-control and inhibitions. He cites one expert whom brother Wayne Jackson quotes in a 1982 article for The Christian Courier as saying:
There is no guarantee of a safe level of drinking, no threshold below which alcohol fails to damage or destroy groups of cells in the brain and other vital organs.” It is very important that such a medical fact be understood, because it has great bearing on what the New Testament teaches about drunkenness.
Brethren in the church who both defend and condemn social drinking acknowledge the following passages:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I have warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21, emphasis mine).
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10, emphasis mine).
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18, emphasis mine).
Both sides acknowledge and concede that drunkenness is clearly forbidden by God in the New Testament. However, when is one drunk scripturally? That is the question the proponents of social drinking overlook. When does God consider someone to be drunk? This is an important question, and one way to answer it is to study the meaning of the Greek words in the original texts of the New Testament that are translated drunk, drunken, and drunkenness.
According to W. E. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, the word translated “drunkenness” in Gal. 5:21 is in the original Greek the noun methē, and is defined as “‘strong drink’…denotes ‘drunkenness, habitual intoxication’…” Vine also ascribes the word translated “drunkards” in 1 Cor. 6:10 to the adjective methusos, and defines it as “‘drunken’…used as a noun…in the plural…‘drunkards’…” So far the proponents of social drinking are in complete agreement, for in their minds there is a difference between sipping one margarita and being drunk.
However, Vine also says that the verb translated “get drunk” in Eph. 5:18 is methuskō, which “signifies ‘to make drunk, or to grow drunk’…an inceptive verb, marking the process… ‘to become intoxicated’…” (emp. – J.M.). Note that Vine specifically includes in the definition of the verb “get drunk” not only what the proponents of social drinking would call the end result of several drinks, i.e., drunkenness, but also the entire process of becoming drunk! Therefore, the word which the Spirit inspired the apostle to use in this command to all would not only condemn the inebriation which comes after a six-pack is consumed, but also condemn the entire process one would undergo to reach that state of inebriation, i.e., social drinking. Accordingly, the proper translation of Eph. 5:18 should be, “And do not grow drunk with wine” rather than, “And do not get drunk with wine”.
Why would our Creator condemn what many today believe to be only the end result of a lot of beers in Gal. 5:21 and 1 Cor. 6:10 and yet also condemn the entire process of getting drunk, which would include socially drinking the first beer, in Eph. 5:18? Let us look to medical science for the answer to this question:
- DiPalma cites Leonard C. Hall’s article Facts About Alcohol and Alcoholism for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In this report, Hall writes that alcohol, unlike food, does not have to be digested slowly before reaching the blood stream, but is instead immediately absorbed into the blood through the walls of the stomach and small intestine. The blood then carries the alcohol to the brain and other major organs; once it reaches the brain, the alcohol immediately acts on the brain to slow down brain activity.
- DiPalma then cites Dr. Melvin H. Kinsley, who wrote an article entitled “Alcohol, Sludge, And Hypoxic Areas of the Nervous System, Liver, and Heart” for the Journal of Microvascular Research. Dr. Kinsley stated in his report that even small amounts of alcohol result in “a great deal of damage to the brain,” in that the alcohol destroys as many as 10,000 irreplaceable brain cells at a time!
- DiPalma then cites the writing of Haven Emmerson, M.D., Alcohol, Its Effects on Man, who reports that even the first sips of an alcoholic beverage can cause changes in mood or behavior. Dr. Emmerson cited studies of how the first measurable effects of alcohol on the brains of younger, inexperienced drinkers were detected after half a can of beer, the equivalent to half a cocktail or half a glass of wine. For adults who are occasional drinkers, Dr. Emmerson reported that the first measurable effects were detected after only one beer or cocktail.
- DiPalma also cited Dr. Herbert Moskowitz from the University of California, who said, “Even a single alcohol drink may seriously impair one’s ability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time,” and the American Automobile Association, which said, “The effects of alcohol begin with the first drink…The first effects are impairment of judgment and reasoning and weakening of self-control and normal inhibitions.”
There is much more information in DiPalma’s work found in WVBS which cites the effects of small amounts of alcohol on the brain and body, but I have reported the above to show how God, our Creator, knew what He was doing when He inspired Paul to condemn the entire process of becoming drunk in Eph. 5:18. Medical science proves that one “grows drunk” with the very first drink of alcohol; thus, all faithful Christians should abstain from social drinking.
In keeping with this, something else that condemns social alcoholic consumption by Christians is the meaning of one of the Greek words translated “sober” in the New Testament. Overall, there are two Greek words translated in English as “sober”: sōphrōn and nēphō. Vine defines sōphrōn to be “of sound mind…self-controlled, sober-minded.” For example, this word is listed among the qualifications of an elder. “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded (sōphrōn), of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach…” (1 Tim. 3:2, emphasis mine).
Nēphō, on the other hand, is defined by Vine, “to be free from the influence of intoxicants.” Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Lexicon defines it, “…to abstain from wine (keep sober)…” Thayer’s second definition of the word says, “to be temperate, dispassionate, circumspect” (emp. – J.M.). While some dictionaries define “temperate” to mean moderation with regards to the consumption of alcohol, the fact that Vine and Strong’s definitions of nēphō promote total abstinence leads one to conclude that Thayer had in mind the definition of “temperance” found in The New World Dictionary: “total abstinence from alcoholic drinks.”
It is also interesting to note that a derivative of nēphō, the Greek word nēphalios, is defined by Thayer in the same way as he, Vine, and Strong define nēphō: “abstaining from wine, either entirely or at least from its immoderate use.” (Considering how Vine and Strong define nēphō and how, as we have seen with Eph. 5:18 and will soon see again with 1 Thess. 5:6-8, Paul talks about the consumption of alcoholic beverages in the Greek, it is clear that “entirely” is the correct usage of Thayer’s definition of nēphalios.) It is also interesting to see that nēphalios is used in conjunction with sōphrōn in Paul’s list of elder qualifications, clearly showing a divine distinction between the two words: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate (nēphalios), sober-minded (sōphrōn), of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach…” (1 Tim. 3:2, emphasis mine).
Thus, the usage of nēphō with regards to defining “sober” is more along the lines of how Alcoholics Anonymous use the word when they ask their members, “Are you sober?” When AA uses the word, they do not mean, “Does your blood alcohol content meet the legal requirements to operate a vehicle?” Rather, they are asking, “Do you have total abstinence from alcoholic beverages?” That is what nēphō means in the New Testament. After all, Strong’s “to abstain from wine” clearly means nothing else, and we’ve proven medically that Vine’s “to be free from the influence of intoxicants” requires complete abstinence from said intoxicants. Words mean things, and this particular word (nēphō) is used in two apostolic commands to all Christians:
“So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober (nēphō, “to be free from the influence of intoxicants,” “to abstain from wine,” “to be temperate”). For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober (nēphō, “to be free from the influence of intoxicants,” “to abstain from wine,” “to be temperate”)…” (1 Thess. 5:6-8, emphasis mine)
“Be sober (nēphō, “to be free from the influence of intoxicants,” “to abstain from wine,” “to be temperate”), be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith…” (1 Pet. 5:8-9, emphasis mine).
It is a given that to violate these commands would be a sin which, without repentance and confession, would condemn the Christian’s soul to hell (1 John 3:4; 1:9; Acts 8:22). It is also clear that the definition of nēphō given by Vine, Strong, and Thayer fits the context of the 1 Thessalonians passage, where Paul is contrasting Christians with those of the world who get drunk at night, telling us not to be like them. Clearly, on the basis of the meaning of nēphō and the context of the passage, God’s command to be sober in 1 Thess. 5:6-8 means to drink no alcoholic wine and thereby be totally temperate and free from the influence of intoxicating beverages. Therefore, it in no way contradicts the literal meaning of methuskō in Eph. 5:18 to not grow drunk with wine, i.e., to not be involved in the process of becoming drunk. The definition of nēphō also fits the context of the 1 Peter passage also, because it would be impossible to be on the lookout for Satan’s temptations, much less to resist, when one is inebriated. In fact, the drunkenness brought about by the lack of abstinence from alcohol is the reason for the lowering of inhibitions which frequently leads to the sinful giving into the devil’s temptations.
This is also in keeping with God’s teaching on alcoholic consumption in the Old Testament. Consider the following passages:
“Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1)
“Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. ‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink’” (Prov. 23:29-35)
“Moreover, wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples…Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink – you pour out your wrath and make them drunk in order to gaze at their nakedness! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!” (Hab. 2:5, 15-16)
The Lord told Malachi, “For I the Lord do not change…” (Mal. 3:6). Can we who live under the New Testament really expect that God somehow has changed his mind and does not have a problem with us if we socially drink and prepare social alcoholic beverages for our friends? With one’s soul at stake due to obedience or disobedience of our Lord’s commands, would any faithful, obedient Christian see how close they could get to that state of methuskō condemned in Eph. 5:18…or would they choose to get as far away as possible from methuskō by choosing to remain nēphō like 1 Thess. 5:6-8 and 1 Pet. 5:8 command them to do?
Tune in tomorrow for a continuation of this study, in which some common objections to this teaching are examined. See you then, Lord willing…