Many people contend that the Bible does not condemn the drinking of an alcoholic beverage; rather, it condemns drunkenness. To them the drink is not wrong but the quantity of alcohol consumed. In truth, the Bible does condemn the drinking of fermented beverages.
The warnings against the consumption of alcohol are found throughout the Bible. A well-known passage in Proverbs 23:31-32 states “Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper.” The command given here is not to desire any intoxicating drink! It is an admonition to abstain altogether from the use of wine. In order to avoid the harmful effects of alcohol Solomon tells those who wish to be wise (Prov. 20:1) to refrain from looking at it. Looking at it is the first step toward drinking it. This is not merely a prohibition of drunkenness, but an explicit admonition against even one drink of an alcoholic beverage. It is not only the abuse of alcohol that Solomon warns us about, but the use of it that is condemned! Wine itself is a mocker (Prov. 20:1), irrespective of the quantity consumed.
The grace of God that brings salvation teaches us to live soberly! “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:11-14). Christians are a people who deny ungodliness and worldly lusts. The lust for an alcoholic drink is certainly the kind of thing that prevents sobriety. God wants a pure and special people. He doesn’t want the kind of people that are indicative of worldliness; like those who drink alcoholic beverages.
A study of a few particular Greek words reveals that Christians are commanded not to drink alcohol.
The Greek word nepho literally means “drink no wine” (The Complete Biblical Library). Vines Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words says it means “to be free from the influence of intoxicants.” The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says it is the opposite of intoxication. Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon says it means “to be sober, to live soberly, especially to drink no wine.” Stephanus’s Thesaurus says “he who abstains from wine.” Bretschneider defines it as “I am sober, I abstain from wine.” The Greek Dictionary of Byzantius says nepho means “one who does not drink wine.” The Greek-French Lexicon says “abstinence from wine, sobriety.” Robinson’s New Testament Lexicon defines it as “to be sober, temperate, abstinent, especially in respect to wine.” Younge’s English and Greek Lexicon says it means “without wine.” Even Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries admit nepho means “to abstain from wine, keep sober.”
In a word, nepho means abstinence! However, some of the above sources are quick to point out that metaphorically nepho means to think soberly. The figurative meaning is derived from the fact that a non-intoxicated person is not mentally impaired. It is the figurative and hence a more tolerant interpretation to the moderate use of alcohol that is preferred by many translators.
There is a different Greek word that is considered synonymous to nepho that literally means to think soberly. It is the Greek word sophron which literally means “sound mind.” It is the opposite of being under the influence of alcohol. It means to be in one’s right mind. It carries the idea of chastity.
The apostle Paul uses both nepho and sophron together in two passages (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 2:2). Obviously, these two words do not have the same meaning. Nepho places the emphasis on having a sound body where sophron places the emphasis on having a sound mind. Therefore, when we consider the qualifications for Eldership where these two words are found sequentially, Paul is telling us that an Elder must be someone who drinks no wine (nepho) and has an unaltered mind (sophron) unlike those who are given to alcoholic beverages.
Not only must an Elder be abstinent from alcoholic beverages, but he is not even to be near it according to the qualification, “not given to wine” (1 Tim. 3:3; Tit. 1:7). “The Greek is mee-paroinon: mee, a negative particle, not; paroinon, compounded of para, a preposition governing the genitive (of, from, on the part of), the dative (at, by, near, with), the accusative (together, with, to, towards, by near, at, next to); and oinos, wine. Literally, not at, by, near, or with wine. [emphasis mine] This looks considerably like total abstinence. It applies equally to private habits and public conduct. Notice the careful steps of the progress. He must be neephalion, [from Vigilant, vs. 2] abstinent, sober in body, that he may be sophrona, [from Sober, vs. 2] sound in mind, and that his influence may be unimpaired, meeparoinon, not with or near wine. We find in this passage no countenance for the moderate use of intoxicating wine, but the reverse, the obligation to abstain totally”. [i]
Nepho can and should be literally translated in any passage based on the context in which the word is found. For example, four sentences later in 1 Timothy 3:11, Paul uses the same Greek word nephaleos (the adjective of nepho) again. This time it is used in reference to wives of Elders and Deacons. It likewise is in a list of qualifications. A logical consideration of the literal definition in relationship to the qualification of Elders would dictate that this word also includes in its meaning abstinence from alcoholic beverages.
The Greek word nepho is found twice in 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8. After Paul explains that the Lord will return unexpectedly, as a thief in the night, he writes, “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thes. 5:4-8, NKJV). This passage contrasts light with darkness, sleeping with awake as it does sober with drunk. Those in the light are exhorted to watch (vigilantly alert) and be sober (mentally awake). Comparatively, Christians must be sober (physically abstinent) as opposed to drunks who are wasted at night. Here we find the Greek word nepho being used both literally and figuratively.
The Greek word nepho is used in conjunction with sophron in 1 Peter 4:7. “But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer” (1 Pet. 4:7, KJV). As noted earlier, sophron means to be mentally vigilant where nepho means to be physically abstinent. Clearly, Peter is admonishing us to keep our head clear and abstain from wine (alcoholic beverages) for the sake of our prayers. Physical abstinence in prayer doesn’t make much sense until it is observed that Peter is concerned about their past life style of “lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties” (1 Pet. 4:3), etc. These vices are all associated with the inebriating effects of alcohol. Certainly, we should all go to God in prayer with a clear mind both physically and mentally especially noting the evil times in which we live.
An interesting passage where the Greek word nepho is used is in 1 Peter 5:8. Peter actually uses a play on words as he describes Satan’s desire to ruin people. Again, the Greek word that is translated “sober” literally means “drink no wine.” The literal Greek translation for the word “devour” means “to drink down.” As Adam Clarke observes, “If you swallow strong drink down, the devil will swallow you down.” In other words, Peter is telling us not to drink alcoholic beverages because Satan is looking for those he may swallow!
Given our understanding of the literal definition of the Greek word nepho, we find a discourse in 1 Peter 1:13-19 where we learn the necessity for sobriety. Peter says, “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober [“Do not drink”]…” (1 Pet. 1:13). Peter is concerned about conduct in this passage. After he tells them not to drink, he encourages them to be obedient by not conforming to their lusts (1 Pet. 1:14). He says, “you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:15); “conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear” (1 Pet. 1:17); “knowing that you were not redeemed… from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers” (1 Pet. 1:18). Drinking not only impairs one’s ability to conduct himself faithfully to the Lord but it also impairs one’s ability to be holy. Drinking alcohol will impair salvation!
The Greek word nepho seems appropriate to be figuratively applied in 2 Timothy 4:5. The Apostle Paul warns Timothy by saying, “But you be watchful [nepho] in all things…” Of course, being physically sober facilitates mental vigilance which seems to be the concern in this particular passage.
Christians are commanded to be sober (1 Thes. 5:6, 8; 1 Tim. 3:2, 11; Tit. 2:2; 1 Pet. 1:13; 4:7; 5:8). The sobriety for which the Apostles Paul and Peter refer to in their language is abstinence. Christians are forbidden from the drinking of alcohol. Beloved, “drink no wine!”
[i] As quoted in William Patton, Bible Wines (Oklahoma City), p. 92-93, from the Lexicon Graeci Testamenti Alphabeticum, 1660 edition, s. v. “Paroinos.”
By Steve A. Hamilton