For Stomach Sake

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.

Water into Wine

Many well-meaning people will point to the miracle where Jesus turns water into wine as their justification to drink alcoholic beverages (Jn. 2:1-11).   They correctly conclude that Christ would not have made wine if He did not approve of its consumption.  However, they err by assuming the wine which Jesus made was fermented.

The generic Greek word for wine (oinos) does not imply either a fermented nor unfermented beverage.  We have already covered this point in many passages in others articles on wine.  We have also emphasized the necessity to determine the meaning of the word wine by considering the context in which the word is found.  The key to determining the inebriating effects of the wine Jesus made from water is found in this manner.

The master of the wedding feast makes an observation that the wine made by Jesus was “good” as compared to the wine being drank which he describes as inferior (Jn. 2:10).  In order to appreciate his statement, we need to know what people in the first century consider good wine versus inferior wine.  Albert Barnes in his New Testament commentary has an excellent discourse on the nature of the good wine.

“We should not be deceived by the phrase “good wine.” We often use the phrase to denote that it is good in proportion to its strength and its power to intoxicate; but no such sense is to be attached to the word here.  Pliny, Plutarch, and Horace describe wine as good, or mention that as the best wine, which was harmless or innocent–poculo vini innocentis. The most useful wine — utilissimum vinum— was that which had little strength; and the most wholesome wine– saluberrimum vinum— was that which had not been adulterated by “the addition of anything to the must or juice.” Pliny expressly says that a “good wine” was one that was destitute of spirit (lib. iv. c. 13). It should not be assumed, therefore, that the “good wine” was stronger than the other: it is rather to be presumed that it was milder. The wine referred to here was doubtless such as was commonly drunk in Palestine. That was the pure juice of the grape. It was not brandied wine, nor drugged wine, nor wine compounded of various substances, such as we drink in this land. The common wine drunk in Palestine was that which was the simple juice of the grape. We use the word wine now to denote the kind of liquid which passes under that name in this country–always containing a considerable portion of alcohol –not only the alcohol produced by fermentation, but alcohol added to keep it or make it stronger. But we have no right to take that sense of the word, and go with it to the interpretation of the Scriptures. We should endeavor to place ourselves in the exact circumstances of those times, ascertain precisely what idea the word would convey to those who used it then, and apply that sense to the word in the interpretation of the Bible; and there is not the slightest evidence that the word so used would have conveyed any idea but that of the pure juice of the grape, nor the slightest circumstance mentioned in this account that would not be fully met by such a supposition.”[i]

The wine that Jesus made was good because it did not ferment.  The fermentation process converts the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol.  If there is no sugar, the flavor is not good.  It is believed that this wedding feast took place months after the vintage.  Fresh grape juice would not be available during this season.  It appears the inferior wine was likely grape juice that was reconstituted with water from must.  However, the wine Jesus provides must have been fresh grape juice.

The Greek word that was used to describe the goodness of the wine that Jesus made is quite revealing.  The common Greek word for good is agathos.  However, the word used by the master of the feast was kalosKalos carries the idea of moral goodness.  The master of the feast was not only talking about the good flavor of the wine; he was also stating the moral goodness of the beverage.  He is implying the wine is non-intoxicating.

Further, it is ludicrous to think that Jesus would in any way encourage or facilitate the means by which people could sin.  Jesus was well aware of the condemnation given to the drinking of intoxicating wine in the Old Law (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35).  He would tempt no one with sin (Jas. 1:13; Matt. 6:13).  However, He made enough wine to get the whole wedding party drunk if it were fermented.  Nor should we overlook the fact that wedding parties had many small children that also drank from the same wine.

[i] Albert Barnes’ Commentary on the Bible.
 
By Steve A. Hamilton
shamilton@rap.midco.net