Wine in the Bible
Old Testament Beverages
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Throughout the Bible, drunkenness is consistently condemned. We understand that a drunkard cannot inherit the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:9-10). Paul warned that carousing and drunkenness are improper behaviors for Christians to engage (Romans 13:13). The warnings are clear enough that few people argue that being down-and-out drunk is acceptable. Many will even admit that it is a sin.
Understanding that drunkenness is wrong is not a problem. The real problem is deciding exactly when a person is drunk. People are reluctant to give up all alcoholic beverages, so they search for a limit where they can engage in some drinking, yet not reach the state of being drunk. So where should the line be drawn? We know that you cannot ask an individual if he is drunk. Almost everyone will argue they are not drunk even as they stagger across the room. The State governments have placed legal limits on the percentage of alcohol that can be found in a person's blood. When you are above that limit, you are too drunk to drive. But can we say that a person below that limit is not drunk at all?
The difficulty really lies in the simple fact that drunkenness is a matter of degrees. It is not a true / false state, but a question of how impaired you have become by drinking. Hence, you have people arguing that a few drinks once in a while is not harmful, so long as a person doesn't become drunk regularly. Others will argue that casual drinking, such as a glass of wine with dinner, is acceptable so long as it doesn't move much beyond a few glasses. Still others take the extreme view and argue that all alcohol must be avoided. There is only one way to settle this debate and that is to see what God says about the matter.
Why does alcohol cause so many problems?
"Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, And whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise." (Proverbs 20:1). The word, here translated "intoxicated" refers to someone who is lead astray or deceived. Alcoholic drinks are not what they appear to be to those who use them. In particular, the writer warns that it causes users to be foolishly arrogant (a mocker) and it leads to violent behavior. We know that alcohol is a depressive. It slows down the reaction time of the body and the mind. It deadens the mind's ability to respond. People who drink have no idea how drunk they are because the drink is affecting their judgment. Instead, they will arrogantly claim there is nothing wrong with them. Alcohol is also deceptive because it is progressive. One drink probably doesn't wipe most people out. Many can hide the effects of a couple of drinks. But drunkenness is a matter of degree. A person who consumed one drink is more drunk than a person who abstained. A person with several drinks is more drunk than the person who only drank one drink. It is so easy to deceive yourself into thinking one more drink won't do any harm.
"And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink: The priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, They are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; They reel while having visions, They totter when rendering judgment" (Isaiah 28:7). The person under the influence of alcohol does not think clearly. His ability to coordinate his limbs is impaired (Proverbs 23:34). He sees things that are not really there (Proverbs 23:33). Is it surprising then that he also makes errors in judgment? This is why we do not permit drunk drivers, drunk pilots, or drunk judges. A person under the influence of alcohol does not make sound decisions.
"Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, Who mix in your venom even to make them drunk so as to look on their nakedness!" (Habakkuk 2:15). People will do things while drunk that they would never do when they are sober. The influence of alcohol causes errors in moral judgments. This is how Noah became the butt of one son's ridicule in Genesis 9:20-23. Though Noah was a righteous man, the influence of alcohol caused him to behave improperly. This is why it is popular to serve alcohol at parties - it breaks down inhibitions, such as shyness, and livens things up by allowing people to act foolishly without regret.
The odd thing is that alcohol is often used to escape depressing circumstances, but it is a depressant. "Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long over wine, those who go to taste mixed wine" (Proverbs 23:29-30). Alcohol causes difficulties in the world because it does not solve problems. It simply deadens the drunk to the weight of his burdens. Yet alcohol plays havoc with a drunkard's emotions. He weeps over the slight things. He becomes angry with little provocation. And rarely does the man remember what he did while drunk; the alcohol suppressed his memory. The depressing effects of alcohol also deadens a person's ability to feel pain. "They struck me, but I did not become ill; They beat me, but I did not know it." (Proverbs 23:35).
The same passage warns that alcohol is poisonous. "At the last it bites like a serpent and stings like a viper" (Proverbs 23:32). The bites of serpents, such as a rattlesnake, destroys the circulatory system. It literally dissolves red blood cells and causes blood vessels to leak. The poison of vipers affects the nervous system causing signals to be scrambled. The Bible tells us that alcohol causes both effects in the human body. I found this article many years ago which explains the effects of alcohol.
"What is Wrong with a Friendly Glass of Beer?"
I was speaking to a teenager at a high school conference and one fellow came up to me and said, "Now, Doc, I don't drink, and I don't intend to drink, but actually, what is wrong with a friendly glass of beer?"
I said, "Do you know anything about the chemistry of alcohol?"
"No," he said, "I don't."
I said, "Alcohol is one of the greatest blessing God ever gave us."
"Is it? I thought it was just a curse," he said.
"No, it is a great blessing. The two reagents on a chemist's reagents rack which he uses as solvents are alcohol and water. Alcohol dehydrates and it dissolves. It is a marvelous thing. The photographic industry, tinctures, dyes, medicines, all kinds of things make use of alcohol.
There are about 19 kinds of commercial alcohol which brilliant chemists have developed, and we produce them by the tons. The kind of alcohol you drink is one type (ethyl), and the kind you put in your radiator is another kind (methyl). But all alcohols are poisons. In the body, they are going to cause ill effects. The reason is that they dehydrate and they dissolve.
Have you got a little imagination? Let us do a little chemical experiment here in your imagination. Let us take 16 bottles. In the first eight let us put alcohol and in the last eight let us put water. Over here we will see that alcohol dissolves, and here that it hardens.
Take, for example, some kind of fat and put it on water. It will just float around. What if we put fat in alcohol? Shake it up and it will dissolve. Take some resin, put it in alcohol, shake it up and it will dissolve. It goes to the bottom of water and stays. What happens to camphor? It floats on the water. Put it in alcohol and it will dissolve. We have fat, resin, and camphor. They will dissolve in alcohol. Put a green leaf in alcohol and it will take the color out. Now put these things in water and nothing happens. Now shift over here. Put a little bit of bread in alcohol. What will happen? It will get hard. Put a piece of meat in alcohol. What will happen? It will get hard, it dehydrates, it takes the water out of the meat.
Now this dehydrating and dissolving are the characteristics of alcohol which make it a great blessing. But, friends, when it goes down your gullet, it does not know if it is inside or outside. As soon as it gets in there it begins to work in the same wav. It is not affected by gastric juices. It is absorbed through the walls of the stomach into the bloodstream and all your nerves and your brain are bathed with it. Every nerve has fatty substance called lipoid and the moment alcohol touches it, what happens? The alcohol dissolves it. When you dissolve the covering and insulation of the nerves, it is just like a telephone exchange with the insulation off. You do not get the message through to the proper source. This is why men stagger. They call for their right leg to act and the left leg gets the message. When alcohol goes into the heart of the nerves, that happens to be like the white of an egg. Alcohol cooks it. Alcohol is a great harm to the human body and mind because of these two properties of dissolving and dehydrating. Furthermore, alcohol is a narcotic, a deterrent of normal body functions. It is poison which adversely affects our judgment and self-control. It is, we believe, a harm to our offspring because it poisons the life-giving cells."
We talked for half an hour; and finally the teenager said, "Sir, that's the first time I have ever had an intelligent answer as to why I shouldn't drink beer. Thank God you told us."
If alcohol is so bad, why did they drink it during biblical times?
All people drink, but it makes a difference when we consider what they drank. This determination is made difficult because of a strong desire by people to justify drinking. Definitions are often obscured to make a word seem more permissive of drinking. Frequently, the word "wine" is used regardless of the nature of the drink being consumed. In our society, "wine" definitely has alcoholic contents, but as we soon will see the words translated from the Hebrew do not necessarily contain alcohol in all cases.
Fortunately, we do not have to rely on biased men to define various Hebrew words. The context these words are used within will frequently give us suitable definitions.
The Hebrew word yayin is a generic term used to identify all juice from the grape, whether it is fresh, fermented, or something in between. It is used 144 times in the Old Testament, so we will only give a sampling of its use here. "Now that which was prepared for each day was one ox and six choice sheep, also birds were prepared for me; and once in ten days all sorts of wine were furnished in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the governor's food allowance, because the servitude was heavy on this people" (Nehemiah 5:18). The word "wine" here comes from the Hebrew word yayin and we see that it was applied to a variety of beverages.
It can be used to refer to the juice of grapes that is still in the fruit. "Gladness and joy are taken away from the fruitful field; In the vineyards also there will be no cries of joy or jubilant shouting, No treader treads out wine in the presses, For I have made the shouting to cease." (Isaiah 16:10, see also Jeremiah 48:33). When people step on grapes in a winepress to release the juice therein, an alcoholic beverage is not released as implied in this translation. The word yayin here obviously refers to fresh grape juice. "You shall plant and cultivate vineyards, but you will neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm will devour them" (Deuteronomy 28:39). God promised the Israelites that they would not enjoy the juice or the grapes themselves because of their disobedience.
One of the means people had to preserve grape juice was to concentrate it into a thick syrup. The high sugar content of the syrup prevented it from readily spoiling. When a person wanted to enjoy a drink, the syrup was mixed with water to reconstitute it. Yayin is sometimes used to refer to this prepared drink. "She has prepared her food, she has mixed her wine; She has also set her table ... Come, eat of my food And drink of the wine I have mixed" (Proverbs 9:2, 5). Again, this no more refers to an intoxicating drink than a jug of powdered drink mix.
Yayin doesn't always refer to non-alcoholic drinks. In a verse we referred to earlier, it says, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, And whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise." (Proverbs 20:1). Here the word translated "wine" definitely refers to an intoxicating beverage. The same word can also refer to beverages that have drugs added to it. "Those who linger long over wine, those who go to taste mixed wine" (Proverbs 23:30). "Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant men in mixing strong drink" (Isaiah 5:22). Alcohol is able dissolve a variety of chemicals, so intoxicating herbs were sometimes added to the drink to enhance its effects.
Obviously, the type of drink referred to by yayin varies by the context of its usage. Even though it is generally translated "wine," you cannot conclude that every passage using yayin is referring to an intoxicating drink.
Where yayin is a general term, tirosh has a specific meaning. It always refers to fresh, unfermented grape juice. Generally you find tirosh translated as "new wine." "As the new wine is found in the cluster" (Isaiah 65:8). Here tirosh refers to the juice of grapes before they are squeezed. "Your vats will overflow with new wine." (Proverbs 3:10). The juice pouring freely from the presses at harvest is called tirosh. Tirosh never refers to an intoxicating beverage.
Chemer literally means the blood of the grape. In other words, it refers to the freshly squeezed juice that comes foaming from the vat. "And of the blood of grapes you drank wine." (Deuteronomy 32:14). Chemer is pure, unadulterated grape juice. It never refers to intoxicating beverages.
Juice is called dema, which literally means "tears." When fruit is squeezed, it "cries tears." It is only used once in Exodus 22:29.
Fresh juice of any fruit, including grapes, is called asis in the Hebrew. "I would give you spiced wine to drink from the juice of my pomegranates" (Song of Solomon 8:2). Here spiced pomegranate juice is referred to as a "wine." "When the mountains will drip sweet wine and all the hills will be dissolved" (Amos 9:13). Here asis is translated sweet wine or new wine. It refers to God squeezing the hills to produce juice - juice that is fresh squeezed and unfermented. Like tirosh and chemer, asis always refers to fresh juice.
The specific word for concentrated grape juice is sobe. Before it can be used as a beverage, it has to be reconstituted with water. "Your silver has become dross, Your drink diluted with water." (Isaiah 1:22). Here the beverage has had too much water added, making an unappetizing drink. Once the grape juice has been reconstituted, it is possible for it to be used as the medium to ferment an alcoholic drink. "Their liquor gone, They play the harlot continually; Their rulers dearly love shame" (Hosea 4:18). This is the only time sobe is used in the Scriptures in reference to wickedness, so it is assumed that the drink was a cheap fermented beverage made from reconstituted grape juice. Sobe refers to the thickened grape syrup or to the beverage made by reconstituting that syrup. You cannot necessarily assume the reconstituted drink has gone through the additional step of fermentation unless the context indicates it to be so.
Any fermented drink made from fruits or grains is called shekar. This would include naturally brewed beers. Hence, some translations use the word "beer" instead of "strong drink" in many verses. The reason is that today we call whiskey and vodka strong drinks. In the days of the Old Testament much milder drinks, such as beers and aged wines, were considered strong drinks.
The use of shekar as a beverage was always condemned. It was well understood that people under the influence of such drinks could become violent (Proverbs 20:1). Priests were not allowed to drink shekar while on duty (Leviticus 10:9). "Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink, Who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them!" (Isaiah 5:11).
There are only two passages where the use of shekar is not condemned. Both deal with offering shekar as a drink offering to God (Numbers 28:7-8; Deuteronomy 14:26). In Numbers 28:7-8, the offering was burnt and I suspect that shekar was used because the alcoholic content allowed it readily to burn. The passage in Deuteronomy 14:26 gives the impression that strong drink, along with whatever else was purchased, was consumed by the family making the sacrifice. However, recall that strong drink was specifically forbidden to the priests on duty and the meal was to be shared with the Levites (Deuteronomy 14:27). It seems likely that strong drink was used as a starter fluid for the sacrifice, but it was not necessarily consumed in the meal.
Were most grape drinks fermented?
A common argument for the consumption of alcoholic beverages is that the ancients did not have the means to prevent grape juice from fermenting. Therefore they conclude that only rarely did they consume non-alcoholic beverages.
Actually, without a controlled environment grape juice is much more likely to become vinegar than wine. Wine must be purposely made. Grape juice left to itself spoils into vinegar.
There were three methods of preservation used in biblical times. Boiling the juice to the consistency of syrup, filtration, and refrigeration.
"By boiling, the juice of the richest grapes loses all its aptitude for fermentation, and may afterwards be preserved for years without undergoing any further change." (1) Boiling accomplished two things. First, it destroyed any bacteria in the grape juice that might cause spoilage. Second, by increasing the concentration of sugar in the product, bacteria and molds are inhibited from growing. For similar reasons, honey, corn syrup, and maple syrup do not readily spoil even thought they are not refrigerated. Columella, a writer in the first century, said it was common in both Italy and Greece to boil wine. Pliny, who lived between 62 and 113 A.D., wrote that Opimiam wine had the consistency of honey. This particular product had been in production for more than two centuries. Virgil, a historian who lived between B.C. 70 and 19, instructed his readers to boil the juice of grapes down to ½ or 1/3 of its original volume to make wine keep.
This is the reason the Jewish Mishna teaches the Jews to water down their wine. It wasn't to cut the alcoholic content. The Jews of that day commonly kept their wine in syrup form. In addition to the Mishna, there are other historical records which gives instructions for reconstituting the syrup depending on the kind of wine being used. Hesiod, who lived in the eighth century B.C., said that in the summer months it was best to use one part wine to three parts water. Hippocrates, the famous doctor who lived from B.C. 460 to 377, said to use one part Thracian wine to twenty parts water. Either Hesiod liked his reconstituted wine strong or Thracian wine was thicker than other syrups. In some regions public water houses were built where citizens could get hot, cold, or lukewarm water to mix with their wine syrup, depending on the type of drink they desired. These water houses were called "thermopoliums" and several have been found in the buried city of Pompeii.
The filtration method separated the gluten (or yeast) naturally present in grape juice from the liquid. Without the gluten, fermentation could not take place. Plutarch, who lived between 46 and 120 A.D. said, "Wine is rendered feeble in strength when it is frequently filtered. The strength or spirit thus being excluded, the wine neither inflames the brain nor infests the mind and passions, and is much more pleasant to drink." Pliny, whom we mentioned before, said, "The most useful wine was all its force or strength broken by the filter." Notice that non-alcoholic beverages were valued more than the alcoholic variety.
Even though the ancients did not have modern day refrigerators, they knew that juice kept at 45 degrees or less cannot ferment. If the juice is kept cool and still for a period of time, the gluten will settle to the bottom. The liquid can then be skimmed off the top and it will not ferment, even if it is warmed again. Pliny describes a wine called Aigleuse ("Always Sweet"): "They plunge the casks, immediately after they are filled from the vat, into water, until winter has passed away and the wine has acquired the habit of being cold." Marcus Pontius Cato, who lived from B.C. 234 to 149, said, "If you wish to have 'must' all year, put grape juice in an amphora and seal the cork with pitch. Sink it in a fishpond. After 30 days, take it out. It will be grape juice for a whole year." One method employed by the Jews was to pour a small amount of olive oil on top of the juice poured into jars. The jars were then placed in caves. The oil produced an airtight seal and the cool caves allowed large quantities of juice to be stored and sold at later times of the year. It is likely that this was the type of "wine" served at the wedding feast in Cana before they ran out. Jesus' miracle produced fresh grape juice, which explains why the governor of the feast complemented its taste.
Historical records consistently indicate that the best wines were freshest, unfermented juice available. Even the Gentiles preferred the fresh taste over the stored varieties. It is a grave mistake to assume that most people drank fermented grape juice during the ancient times. Unless the context of a passage indicates whether the drink was fermented or not, you cannot make any assumption concerning its alcoholic content. One pattern that is prevalent in the Old Testament is that fermented wine is always spoken of in a negative sense when consumed by people. Unfermented juice is always spoken of in a positive or neutral sense. The very consistency of this pattern is striking, showing that used of alcoholic wines and beers was frowned upon under the Mosaical Law.
Wine in the Old Testament
Wine in the New Testament
New Testament Beverages
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
One of the greatest difficulties in studying God's stance on drinking is the bias translators have brought to the meaning of words used in the Bible in regards to drinking. The most common Greek word, which is translated "wine" is oinos which is directly equivalent to the Hebrew word yayin. (See the topic wine in the Old Testament for full details on this and other Hebrew words.) Both the Hebrew and Greek words refer to all products of grape juice. Only the context can determine whether the drink was alcoholic. In many cases, we just do not know the alcoholic content of the beverage being discussed as the context is insufficient to make a determination. There are a few other Greek words which are also translated as "wine". For example, the word sikera is equivalent to the Hebrew word shekar which refers to strong drinks made from juice or grains. It would be equivalent to our modern-day beers and non-fortified wines. It appears only in Luke 1:15 where John's parents are instructed to keep John away from wine and strong drinks. Another word is gleukos, equivalent to the Hebrew word tirosh. It literally means sweet or new, as in grape juice. It is only used in Acts 2:13 when the apostles are accused of getting drunk on grape juice (in other words, the crowd was mocking their behavior).
Was drinking implied in the New Testament?
Sometimes you will find people who claim drinking alcohol is implied in various New Testament passages. One such passage is I Corinthians 11:20-22. The argument is that the Corinthians were abusing the Lord's Supper by turning it into a common meal that wasn't being shared. Some were overeating and getting drunk, which was unacceptable behavior for Christians in a worship service, so Paul tells them to take their meals and drinking home. The implication is that Paul is saying "If you want to overindulge, do it at home." They conclude that Paul is permitting them to drink in the privacy of their own homes.
The key word is the word translated "drunk." It comes from the Greek word methuo, which literally means "filled to the full." It can mean someone who has had their fill of an alcoholic drink, but it can also mean someone who has their fill of any drink and no longer desires more. For example, in John 2:10, the governor is not saying everyone is in a drunken stupor, but that they had enough to drink before the good drink was brought out. In the Septuagint version, this Greek word is used in Psalms 23:5 to translate "My cup overflows."
Notice that methuo in I Corinthians 11:21 is contrasted to the word "hungry" (peina). What is the opposite of being hungry? Why, being full. This then should have been the correct translation. Leon C. Field said, "Methuei, in this case, is plainly contrasted with peina which is correctly rendered as 'hungry.' The antithesis, therefore, requires the former to be understood in the generic sense of 'surfeited,' not in the narrow sense of 'drunken.' The overfilled man is compared to the under filled man. This is the interpretation adopted by the great body of expositors, ancient and modern." Adam Clarke said, "The people came together, and it appears brought their provisions with them; some had much, others had less; some ate to excess, others had scarcely enough to suffice nature. 'One was hungry, and the other was drunken, methuei, was filled to the full;' this is the sense of the word in many places of Scriptures."
Besides, why would Paul condemn drunkenness in I Corinthians 5:11 and 6:10 (which is the same Greek word by the way) and then in I Corinthians 11:22 tell them to do their drinking at home. The only sensible thing is to realize that the word is being used in two different senses
Finally, the admonition to eat at home in I Corinthians 11:33-34 without mentioning drinking shows that the problem Paul was addressing was overindulgence and not drunkenness
Another commonly cited verse is Ephesians 5:18. Here the argument is that Paul condemns the misuse of wine, but not the moderate use of alcohol. Markus Barth said, "The condemnation of the misuse of wine does not preclude a proper use of alcoholic beverage." Basically, the claim is that if Paul was condemning all drinking, he would have said, "Do not drink at all."
Two states are being contrasted in Ephesians 5:18, being filled with wine and being filled with the Spirit. The point of the contrast is that you cannot have both at once -- they are mutually exclusive. You cannot be partially filled with spirits and partially filled with the Spirit. Similar exclusions appear in Luke 1:15 and Acts 2:4, 15. In other words, the indwelling of the Spirit is connected with the abstinence of liquor.
The clause that literally reads "in which is debauchery" refers to wine in Ephesians 5:18. Some translations change it to "that is debauchery" meaning getting drunk is debauchery, but this is not what the original text states. The original text states that there is debauchery in wine, as in Proverbs 23:31. In a letter to Laeta, a lady who wrote asking how to bring up her infant daughter, Jerome advised, "Let her learn even now not to drink wine 'wherein is excess.'" This quote of Ephesians 5:18 shows that Jerome believed the excess referred to the wine and not that drunkenness held excess. Albert Barnes stated, "Let Christians when about to indulge in a glass of wine, think of this admonition [Ephesians 5:18]. Let them remember that their bodies should be the temple of the Holy Ghost rather than a receptacle for intoxicating drinks. Was any man ever made a better Christian by the use of wine? Was any minister ever better fitted to counsel an anxious sinner, or to pray, or to preach the gospel, by the use of intoxicating drinks? Let the history of wine-drinking and intemperate clergymen answer."
There is a reason why Paul did not say "Do not drink any wine." Wine had some proper uses, such as its medicinal properties (I Timothy 5:23). Forbidding all use of wine would eliminate its use in medicine. Since the Greek word oinis includes all grape juice products, a statement saying drink no oinis at all would eliminate grape juice from the Christian's diet, making partaking of the Lord's Supper impossible.
What the New Testament says about abstinence
The Greek words we are interested in are the adjective nephalios and the verb nepho. They are a compound word consisting of ne, which means "not", and piein, which means "drink." Of these words, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states, "The concept which underlies the verb nepho 'to be sober' and the whole word group is formally negative. It is the opposite of intoxication both in the literal sense of intoxication with wine and in the figurative sense of states of intoxication attributable to other causes." The Jewish philosopher Philo illustrates this definition when he stated, "So too soberness [nephein] and drunkenness are opposites." Liddel and Scott defines these words as "to be sober, to drink no wine." Clement of Alexandria once said, "I therefore admire those who have adopted an austere [nephalion] life, and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance, and flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire."
Now that we understand the meaning of these words, let us see how they are used. "But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation." (I Thessalonians 5:4-8). Nephomen is translated as sober in both verse 6 and 8. Notice the contrasts: light - darkness, awake - sleeping, and sober - drunk. It is apparent that Paul desires the Thessalonians to be "alert," mentally watchful, and "sober," physically abstinent. In fact, we find that alertness is often connected with abstinence from intoxicating beverages (Luke 12:45). We understand that it is a physical abstinence that is being considered since it is being contrasted with being drunk.
Another passage is I Peter 1:13, "Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober [in spirit], fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." Once again, mental vigilance is correlated to physical abstinence. You can see the translator's bias in the NASB when they added "in spirit" to this verse even though the word means the opposite of drunkenness. What is interesting in this verse is that just after nepho is the word teleios which is an adverb meaning "fully." Grammatically it can modify the "sober" before it or the "fix your hope" that comes after it. Most translators attach it to the "fix your hope" because they believe the Bible teaches moderation instead of total abstinence. Older translations, such as the Latin Vulgate, attach the word "completely" to the word "sober," causing it to read "perfectly sober" or "being wholly abstinent."
Another verse that compares physical abstinence with mental vigilance is I Peter 5:8, "Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." The wording in this verse is very similar to that found in I Thessalonians 5:6. What is really interesting is the word devour at the end of the verse is katapino which literally means "drink down." "Not drink" at the beginning of the verse is contrasted to being "drunk down" at the end of the verse. Adam Clarke said, "It is not every one that he can swallow down. Those who are sober and vigilant are proof against him; these he may not swallow down. There is a beauty in this verse, and striking apposition between the first and last words, which I think have not been noticed; Be sober, nepsate, from ne not, and piein, to drink -- do not swallow down and the word katapien, from kata, down and piein, to drink. If you swallow strong drink down, the devil will swallow you down. Hear this, ye drunkards, topers, tipplers, or by whatsoever name ye are known in society, or among your fellow-sinners, strong drink is not only your way to the devil, but the devil's way into you. Ye are such as the devil particularly may swallow down."
What the New Testament says about sobriety
The Greek word sophron is used fifteen times in the New Testament. It literally means "safe mind". It refers to someone who is rational, in the sense of being intellectually sound. It is commonly connected with the idea of physical abstinence, as in the proverb " a sound mind in a sound body." In classical Greek writings, Aristotle wrote, "By abstaining from pleasures we become sober [sophrones]." He also stated, "He who abstains from physical pleasure, and in this very thing takes delight, is sober [sophron]." The Jewish philosopher Philo defined the opposite of sophrosune, as aphrosune a person who "inflamed by wine drowns his whole life in ceaseless and unending drunkenness."
Let us apply these definitions to the Scriptures. In I Timothy 3:2 and in Titus 2:2 the terms "temperate" [nephalion] and "prudent" or "sensible" [sophrona] are joined together. Of these verses Adam Clarke said, "He must be vigilant, nephaleos, from ne, not, and pino, to drink. Watchful; for as one who drinks is apt to sleep, so he who abstains from it is more likely to keep awake, and attend to his work and charge." Albert Barnes stated, "This word (nephalios) occurs only here and in verse 11; Titus 2:2. It means, properly, sober, temperate, abstinent, especially in respect to wine; then, sober-minded, watchful, circumspect."
Another passage is I Peter 4:3, 7, "For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. ... The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer." Sensuality or lasciviousness is a desire for sin so strong that you don't care what other people (or God) think about your sin. Lust is a desire for what is forbidden. Drunkenness is literally translated "excess of wine." In other words, a down-and-out drunk or an alcoholic. This word was used to describe Alexander the Great's drinking bout that eventually lead to his death. Reveling or carousals are people who are intoxicated, but not dead drunk. It refers to partying with heavy drinking accompanying it as typically associated with fraternity parties or the Marti Grau. Drinking parties or banqueting are social gatherings where light drinking takes place. It is a cocktail party, or "having a few drinks with the boys," or what we commonly call social drinking. Notice that all levels of drinking alcohol are condemned! Peter ends with an admonition to be sound in mind and abstinent in body so we may be able to pray. Similar warnings are also found in Galatians 5:19-21 and Romans 13:12-14.
On not being addicted to wine
Some object to a literal translation of nephalios as abstinent because they see it contradicting Paul's later enjoinder for a bishop not to be a drunkard in I Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7. They assume that by saying "not a drunkard," Paul is allowing the moderate use of wine, so long as it is not in excess. Actually, the literal translation of "not a drunkard" is "not near wine." Lees and Burns state, "The ancient paroinos was a man accustomed to attend drinking parties, and, as a consequence, to become intimately associated with strong drink." This definition fits well with I Corinthians 5:11, "But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler -- not even to eat with such a one." Albert Barnes stated, "The Greek word (paroinos) occurs in the New Testament only here [I Timothy 3:3] and in Titus 1:7. It means, properly, by wine; that is spoken of what takes place by or over wine, as revelry, drinking-songs, etc. Then it denotes, as it does here, one who sits by wine; that is, who is in the habit of drinking it ... It means that one who is in the habit of drinking wine, or who is accustomed to sit with those who indulge in it, should not be admitted to the ministry. The way in which the apostle mentions the subject here would lead us fairly to suppose that he did not mean to commend its use in any sense; that he regarded it as dangerous and that he would wish the ministers of religion to avoid it all together."
Obviously, the case for drinking cannot be made from the New Testament. Instead of supporting light, social drinking, the Scriptures give clear warning against the causal use of intoxicants. The words eliminate the use of alcohol for casual drinks and they are broad enough to warn Christians against any drug that inhibits our mental capabilities.
Hebrew and Greek Words Translated as 'Wine'
Yayin - Generic term for the "juice of the grape", either fermented or unfermented; meaning "what is pressed out".
Tirosh - "Freshly expressed grape-juice in its natural condition". Translated in the Authorized Version (A.V.) as "new wine" eleven
times; "wine" twenty-six times; "sweet wine" once; and "vintage" three times. Always translated as "new wine" in the Revised
Version (R.V.). Not used for fermented wine.
Shekar - Hebrew: "What satiates, intoxicates". A saccharine drink rendered as "strong drink" (21x), and "strong wine" (1x). Described as
a liquor made from dates, barley, etc. and always as a curse. In the Greek Old Testament (LXX) rendered as 'sikera', or sometimes
as 'methusma' or 'methé'; and once as 'oinos'. Occurs only once in the New Testament (N.T.).
Asis - "Anything pressed on or trodden out". Rendered as "juice" (1x), "new wine" (2x), and "sweet wine" (2x). Not necessarily
unfermented; not to be confused with "tirosh" (ISAIAH 49:26; JOEL 1:5; JOEL 3:18; AMOS 9:13).
Ashishah - Denotes "a cake of raisins". Rendered wrongly in A.V. as "flagons", but corrected in the Revised Versions.
Chemer - "A thick, sticky syrup; foaming juice". Indicates all kinds of wine (ISAIAH 27:2).
Chamar - The Aramaic form, used in EZRA 6:9 and DANIEL 5:1-4, literally means "foaming" and denotes fermented wine.
Sobe - "Anything sucked in or up". Probably indicated inspissated or boiled wines. Non-intoxicating beverage. 'Sobe-yayin' - lit. "soakers
Shemer - "What is preserved; the sediment". Rendered as "dregs", "lees", or "wine in the lees" (See ISAIAH 25:6).
Nasek - "Drink offering". Lit. "that which is poured out; a libation".
Mimsak - "Anything mixed". Rendered "drink-offering", or "mixed wine" (ISAIAH 65:11).
Yeqeb - Originally a vat or trough; then used as a wine-press or wine-vat. Occurs 16 times (e.g. NUMBERS 18:27).
Enab - Ripe or round grape, or grape-cake (HOSEA 3:1).
Chomets - Vinegar, sour or unripe grapes (Greek: 'oxos').
Misteh - General term for beverage, especially wine (EZRA 3:7; DANIEL 1:10).
Oinos - Generic term (used in the LXX) for all kinds of wine except 'shekar'. Also occurs in N.T. (Greek) 32 times.
Sikera - Greek: "Strong drink" (See 'shekar').
Gleukos - Used only once (ACTS 2:13), as "new wine"; corresponds to fermented.
Methuo - To be "drunk", or "filled to the full" (Greek).
References to Wines as Used in Scripture
Favourable to use: Yayin:- GENESIS 49:11, GENESIS 49:12; PROVERBS 9:2, PROVERBS 9:5; SONG OF SOLOMON 7:9; ISAIAH 55:1; HOSEA 14:7; ZECHARIAH 10:7. Chemer:- ISAIAH 27:2 (some manuscripts (M.S.S.) use 'Chemed', meaning pleasant). Tirosh:- JOEL 2:19. Oinos:- REVELATION 6:6.
Unfavourable to use or character: Yayin:- DEUTERONOMY 32:33; PSALM 60:3; PSALM 75:3; PSALM 78:65: PROVERBS 4:17; ISAIAH 29:9; ISAIAH 51:21; ZECHARIAH 9:15. Shekar:- ISAIAH 29:9. Asis:- ISAIAH 49:26; JEREMIAH 48:11; ZEPHANIAH 1:12. Shemer:- JEREMIAH 48:12; ZEPHANIAH 1:12. Oinos:- REVELATION 14:8; REVELATION 14:10; REVELATION 16:19; REVELATION 17:2; REVELATION 18:3; REVELATION 19:15.
Specifically as a blessing: Yayin:- PSALM 104:15; AMOS 9:14. Asis:- JOEL 3:18; AMOS 9:13. Chemer:- DEUTERONOMY 32:14. Shemer:- ISAIAH 25:6. Tirosh:- GENESIS 27:28; NUMBERS 18:12; DEUTERONOMY 7:13; DEUTERONOMY 11:14; PROVERBS 3:10; ISAIAH 65:8; JEREMIAH 31:12; HOSEA 2:8-9; JOEL 2:19; ZECHARIAH 9:17.
Definitely bad: Yayin:- LEVITICUS 10:9; PROVERBS 20:1. Shekar:- PROVERBS 20:1.
Associated with food: Yayin:- GENESIS 14:18; GENESIS 27:25; JUDGES 19:19; 1 SAMUEL 10:3; 1 SAMUEL 16:20; 1 SAMUEL 25:18; 2 SAMUEL 16:1-2; 1 CHRONICLES 12:40; 2 CHRONICLES 2:10; 2 CHRONICLES 2:15; 2 CHRONICLES 11:11; NEHEMIAH 5:15; NEHEMIAH 13:15; JOB 1:13, JOB 1:18; ECCLESIASTES 9:7; ISAIAH 22:13; JEREMIAH 40:10, JEREMIAH 40:12; DANIEL 1:5, DANIEL 1:8, DANIEL 1:16; DANIEL 10:3. Yeqev:- DEUTERONOMY 16:13; DEUTERONOMY 15:14; NUMBERS 18:27, NUMBERS 18:30. Tirosh:- GENESIS 27:28, GENESIS 27:37; NUMBERS 18:12; DEUTERONOMY 7:13; DEUTERONOMY 11:14; DEUTERONOMY 12:17; DEUTERONOMY 14:23; DEUTERONOMY 18:4; DEUTERONOMY 28:51; DEUTERONOMY 33:28; 2 KINGS 18:32; 2 CHRONICLES 31:5; 2 CHRONICLES 32:28; NEHEMIAH 5:11; NEHEMIAH 10:37, NEHEMIAH 10:39; NEHEMIAH 13:5, NEHEMIAH 13:12; PSALM 4:7; ISAIAH 36:17; ISAIAH 62:8; JEREMIAH 31:12; HOSEA 2:8-9; HOSEA 2:22; HOSEA 7:14; JOEL 2:19, JOEL 2:24; ZECHARIAH 9:17; MICAH 6:15; HAGGAI 1:11; JOEL 1:10.
Consequences bad: Yayin:- GENESIS 19:32-35; 1 SAMUEL 1:14-15; 1 SAMUEL 25:37; 2 SAMUEL 13:28; ESTHER 1:7, ESTHER 1:10; PROVERBS 23:30; PROVERBS 31:4, PROVERBS 31:6; ISAIAH 5:11-12; ISAIAH 5:22. Oinos:- 1 PETER 4:3.
Exhortation to drink: Yayin:- SONG OF SOLOMON 5:1. Shekar:- SONG OF SOLOMON 5:1 (LXX translates here as 'methuo'). Oinos:- 1 TIMOTHY 5:23.
Wine forbidden: Yayin:- PROVERBS 20:1; PROVERBS 23:31; NUMBERS 6:3-4; JUDGES 13:4, JUDGES 13:7, JUDGES 13:14. Shekar:- NUMBERS 6:3; JUDGES 13:4; JUDGES 13:7; LUKE 1:15 (sikera). Oinos:- 1 TIMOTHY 3:3; EPHESIANS 5:18.
Forbidden to Priests: Yayin:- LEVITICUS 10:9; JEREMIAH 35:6, JEREMIAH 35:8, JEREMIAH 35:14; PROVERBS 23:20; EZEKIEL 44:21. Shekar:- LEVITICUS 10:9. Oinos:- TITUS 1:7.
Inferences of different kinds of wine: Be-kahl yayin:- NEHEMIAH 5:18; SONG OF SOLOMON 8:2.
Used for a drink-offering: Yayin:- EXODUS 29:40; LEVITICUS 23:13; NUMBERS 15:5, NUMBERS 15:7, NUMBERS 15:10; NUMBERS 28:14; DEUTERONOMY 32:38; 1 SAMUEL 1:24; HOSEA 9:4. Shekar:- NUMBERS 28:7. Chamar:- EZRA 6:9; EZRA 7:22.
Unspecified nature: Yayin:- DEUTERONOMY 29:6; JOSHUA 9:4, JOSHUA 9:13; 1 CHRONICLES 27:27; NEHEMIAH 2:1; ESTHER 5:6; ESTHER 7:2, ESTHER 7:7-8; JOB 32:19; PROVERBS 21:17; ECCLESIASTES 2:3; ECCLESIASTES 10:19; SONG OF SOLOMON 1:2, SONG OF SOLOMON 1:4; SONG OF SOLOMON 4:10; ISAIAH 56:12; JEREMIAH 35:2, JEREMIAH 35:5; EZEKIEL 27:18; AMOS 2:8, AMOS 2:12; AMOS 6:6; HOSEA 4:11; MICAH 2:11; HAGGAI 2:12. Shekar:- DEUTERONOMY 29:6; ISAIAH 56:12; MICAH 2:11. Yeqeb - NUMBERS 18:27; NUMBERS 18:30; DEUTERONOMY 15:14; JUDGES 7:25; 2 KINGS 6:27; JOB 24:11; ISAIAH 5:2; JEREMIAH 48:33; HOSEA 9:2; ZECHARIAH 14:10. Ashishah:- HOSEA 3:1. Asis:- ISAIAH 49:26. Sobe:- HOSEA 4:18; ISAIAH 1:22. Tirosh:- HOSEA 4:11. Oinos:- MATTHEW 9:17; MARK 2:22; LUKE 5:37-38; LUKE 7:33; LUKE 10:34; JOHN 2:3, JOHN 2:9-10; JOHN 4:46; ROMANS 14:21; 1 TIMOTHY 5:23.