Many people like to use 1 Timothy 5:23 as justification to drink alcohol. After all, Timothy is being told to drink wine by the Apostle Paul. To those who use this line of thought, it makes no difference how much wine is being drank or the reason for its use; all that matters is the sanction being given to Timothy to drink an intoxicating beverage.
First of all, we should point out again that the word wine as used in the English versions of the Bible does not necessitate the assumption that it is alcoholic. In fact, Paul recognizes that Timothy doesn’t even consume wine. Paul tells Timothy, “No longer drink only water…” (NKJV). Timothy apparently was abstinent in regard to wine. The same was true concerning John the Baptist (Lk. 1:15). Also, the apostle James “drank neither wine nor fermented liquors.”[i]
Timothy, like all Disciples of Christ, believed in keeping oneself pure in body and spirit (1 Tim. 5:22; Rom. 8:10-13; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; 1 Thes. 5:23). Timothy, as a protégé of Paul, would have been sensitive to the conscience of other brethren. Paul instructed the Romans in this regard by saying, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.” (Rom. 14:21). Further, if Timothy has any aspirations to become an Elder one day he is well aware of the restriction placed upon those who serve in that office (1 Tim. 3:2-3; Tit. 1:7). Timothy didn’t drink wine!
It also makes little sense for Paul to instruct Timothy to violate his abstinence from fermented wine. Those of us who ardently restrain ourselves from alcohol would be highly offended at the suggestion to drink a glass of wine for some medical benefit. Paul knows Timothy well enough not to make such a blunder in his advice. Rather, Paul advices Timothy to “use a little wine for stomach sake…” (1 Tim. 5:23). Paul doesn’t say “drink” wine but to “use” or “take” a little wine. That sounds very much like a doctor’s prescription. Paul is not sanctioning the drinking of an alcoholic beverage even if it was fermented. He says to take a little wine!
It happens to be recorded in ancient history that unfermented wine was used for medicinal purposes. Pliny, a Roman historian (A.D. 24-79), in his book Natural History, reports, “Ten quarts of white must and half that quantity of water are kept boiling till a considerable amount of water is boiled away… This drink is given to invalids [from aegris meaning the sick] for whom it is feared that wine may be harmful.” Later in his book he states that fermented wine was also used for medical purposes but makes this observation, “Wines are most beneficial when all their potency has been overcome by the strainer.” Athenaeus (A.D. 280) specifically recommends the use of unfermented wine for the stomach. “Let him take sweet wine, either mixed with water or warmed, especially that kind called protropos, the sweet Lesbian glukus, as being good for the stomach; for sweet wine does not make the head heavy” (Athenaeus, Banquet, pp. 24).
Given these statements, it becomes painfully obvious that Paul was not and would not recommend an alcoholic beverage to Timothy for his frequent infirmities. Rather, Paul was recommending a little bit of unfermented wine (boiled must that is most likely mixed with water) for his stomach problems. Such a remedy for soothing heart burn or indigestion would be consistent with such a recommendation from Paul.
[i] Eusebius quoting Hegesippus, Ecclesiastical History, II, 23, 5.