We have come now in this series on alcohol to the heart of the matter. For the next three weeks I am going to lay out for you an absolutely foundational concept, namely this – the word 'wine' in the Bible does not always mean alcoholic wine.
The first guide to answer that question and the one I will cover in today's post is the guide of context. Six statements…
First, it is clearly possible to misinterpret and thus misuse God's Word. Peter soundly establishes this. As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. (I Peter 3.16) To wrest means to twist or pervert.
Second, to guard against this we must study and we must compare God's Word to itself. Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (II Timothy 2.15) Which things also we speak, not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. (I Corinthians 2.13) For instance, when the devil tempted Jesus the devil cited scripture. The devil wrested it, so to speak. Jesus' response was also to cite scripture. Thus, in comparing scripture with scripture the wrong understanding of scripture was refuted and the proper one was established.
Third, we must begin by interpreting Scripture at the word level. That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandments of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour. (II Peter 3.2) Scripture uses some form of the word 'word' almost thirteen hundred times. Hundreds of these occasions reference the Word of God. I believe in plenary inspiration which means I believe all of the Bible is the Word of God. But I also believe in verbal inspiration which means I believe each word in the Bible is the Word of God. If you believe like I do, and it is likely that you do, we must then believe in verbal interpretation.
Fourth, to correctly interpret each word we must begin by properly defining it.
As I see it there are three primary tools at our disposal to help us with this. The first of these tools is the dictionary, just a common, ordinary, everyday English dictionary. Often in my experience what I think a word means is not actually what it means or at least not all that it means. It is no exaggeration to say that I end up using a dictionary dozens of times a week as I study the Word of God.
The second tool I use to define the words I study in the Bible is the original languages. Before some of you growl at me let me state for the record that I do not believe one must understand the original languages in order to understand the Bible. God never said we did and I dare not say it either. But that does not mean I should not study the original languages nor does it mean that there is not profit to be found in so doing. I use original language research for the same reason I use dictionaries – not to correct the Word of God but to understand it more fully. It helps me to understand which English dictionary definition applies in this case. It helps me to expand on the thought behind the word I am studying. For instance, gay clothing in James 2.3 can have several different meanings. When I examine the original language it tells me which English dictionary definition James was intending to convey.
The third tool at my disposal and perhaps the most essential one is the Word of God itself. Oftentimes the best way to define a scriptural word is to see how the scripture itself defines it. For instance, one the of most enlightening studies I have ever done was to examine all the usages in the Bible of the phrase God is. The word that followed 'is' often gave me an insight into God's character, Who God is. In this case the Bible was itself defining Who God is.
Most of the time, however, scripture does not define a word with a flat 'this is such-and-such.' Most of the time scripture instead defines a word by revealing what it means in the context surrounding the usage. It is for this reason that the single most important rule of scriptural hermeneutics is context. Ask anyone who buys and sells real estate and they will tell you there is really only one rule – location, location, location. So it is with the Word of God. There is really only one rule – context, context, context.
This is absolutely critical for a number of reasons but one is surely because the words the Bible uses often have more than one meaning or definition in scripture. Take for example the well-known phrase meat offering. When we come across that phrase in the Old Testament we automatically assume it is speaking of a bull or a goat or at least a dove. But when we examine the word meat a little more closely in the Bible we discover something fascinating: meat does not always mean animal flesh. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. (Genesis 1.29) You read that correctly. The first use of the word 'meat' in the Bible was not actually talking about meat. It was talking about fruits and vegetables. Now plug that into the phrase meat offering and you discover the meat offering did not have any actual animal flesh in it at all. And when any will offer a meat offering unto the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense thereon. (Leviticus 2.1) Of the 113 times scripture uses the phrase meat offering 36 of them specifically mean just flour and oil. Further, in the New Testament, 'meat' can mean either animal flesh, food, or spiritual understanding.
But how do we establish that one word or phrase in the Bible does not necessarily mean what we automatically assume that it means? By examining the dictionary, the original language, and the context of how it used. We absolutely must begin by properly interpreting the word. In situations where the word may well have more than one meaning we are well advised to use all three of these tools.
Fifth, in cases in which a word may mean something different in one place of the Bible than it does in another we must let the Bible define it for us.
This is precisely the case with 'wine.' Sometimes wine means the fruit of the vine. Sometimes wine means fermented, intoxicating alcohol. Sometimes wine means medicine. Sometimes wine is used symbolically for blessing. Sometimes wine refers to the opposite, God's wrath. Wine must have more than one meaning otherwise we have obvious contradictions in the Bible. For example, pastors are forbidden to drink wine in I Timothy 3.3 (this is a generally accepted interpretation) – yet two chapters later Paul instructs Timothy Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities. (I Timothy 5.23) Such an apparent contradiction is nothing of the sort. The context of the second usage plainly reveals Paul is referring to wine as medicine. The Good Samaritan likewise used the word 'wine' in the same context. And went unto him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine. (Luke 10.34) Just as there are many different types of 'oil' so there are many different types of 'wine.'
Alcoholic wine does not happen naturally or quickly. (I will speak to this in more detail next week.) And as soon as the commandment came abroad, the children of Israel brought in abundance the firstfruits of corn, wine, and oil, and honey, and of all the increase of the field; and the tithe of all things brought they in abundantly. (II Chronicles 31.5) People have used this verse to support moderate drinking saying that God blessed His people with alcohol and then they actually tithed that alcohol back to Him. Last week we saw that the original language word used here for wine means juice. But we do not even need the original language. The context alone tells us this. Notice the word firstfruits. There has been no time for the fermenting process. What the field workers harvested included wheat, grapes, and olives, which were used to produce corn, grape juice, and olive oil.
Solomon gives us a similar example in Proverbs 3. Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of all thine increase: So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine. To say that wine in the Bible always means alcoholic wine is to say that God blesses you when you tithe alcohol. Notice the phrase thy presses shall burst. Only unfermented juice can burst from a grape press. Alcohol simply cannot come out of a freshly squeezed newly plucked grape.
Isaiah 65.8 furnishes us with yet another example. Thus saith the Lord, As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one saith, Destroy it not; for a blessing is in it. Is alcoholic wine here being pronounced as having a blessing in it? The original language tells us not but so does the context. Notice the phrase in the cluster. Obviously, the juice in the grapes hanging in the cluster on the vine cannot possibly be alcoholic in nature.
Judges 9.13 furnishes another example of context revealing non-alcoholic wine. And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? Would a grapevine carry alcoholic wine within its grapes or unfermented juice? Answer that and you have answered what kind of 'wine' brings cheer to God. Would it be the kind that brings intoxication to His children or the kind that simply quenches their thirst? Taken in context this wine must be non-fermented for no vine naturally carries anything fermented.
Sixth, in cases where the Bible uses 'wine' with no particular immediate context to define it I let the context of the entire Bible define it. In other words, if it is being used as a blessing it must be non-alcoholic wine – juice. If it is being used as a curse it must be alcoholic wine. How did I arrive at this conclusion? Largely because I have let the scriptures be my guide. I have let them interpret and apply themselves to me rather than my own preconceived 21st century mental image of 'wine.'
As I said – context, context, context. It is absolutely everything.