Perhaps I’m just feeling cocky after (so far) surviving the airing of my Hell series, but it has come time to address this question that appeared in the firstname.lastname@example.org pile.
Did Jesus turn water into alcoholic wine? If he did why do people have such a problem with the idea of this?
The story of Jesus turning water to wine has troubled a lot of church people over the years. I have seen people put Greek words through gymnastics in an attempt to make “wine” not mean “wine.” That sets alarm bells off in my head because I don’t like it when some people try to mess with the plain meaning of other passages… so why should we accept it here?
One of my heroes is Jim McGuiggan. He has left us a long, wonderful track record of selfless service and scholarship. While his commentaries are fun reading, my favorite books of his are The God of the Towel and If God Came. That said, I read his book on the Christian and alcohol — twice — and found it wildly complicated, far too casuistic, and full of scholasticism. If those last two words are unfamiliar to you, they mean that the logic is applied to get to a predetermined conclusion, even if it means forcing and bending the evidence to fit. Why did Jim feel the need to do that? Jim doesn’t think Christians should drink any alcohol at any time. Fair enough, drink is a major curse in Northern Ireland — his home — and through Scotland and England. In those lands it is easy to grow up either as a drunk or as someone with a strong aversion to alcohol.
A lot of other Christians have a view of this world and its pleasures that has a hard time dividing what is acceptable to God and what is not. This is not new. Paul was very upset at those in Colosse who equated self denial with Christian morality. “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules? They say “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:20-23)
Jesus climbed all over the Pharisees for the same thing: they made strict laws for themselves and then acted as if following those laws was God’s idea. So, when Jesus came along and only did what the Father wanted him to do (John 5:19; John 17), the Pharisees considered him not up to their standards! Those who try to make Jesus a teetotaler have a terrible task ahead of them. He is contrasted with John the Baptist who was a teetotaler due to his Nazarene vow. John didn’t eat and drink like others but Jesus did (Matthew 11:18,19). And Jesus made wine. Lots of wine.
I’ve written about that miracle before and what it meant to us who now live in the freedom Christ gave us, but I will go ahead and repeat here that the words of the master of the feast are ridiculous unless the substance Jesus made was true wine. He said that people start with the good stuff and then, when the people are full (the same word is used for gluttony and drunkenness), they bring out the cheap stuff. The master of the feast told the groom he had got it backwards by bringing out the best wine last. Try to substitute “grape juice” in there and it doesn’t work. Besides, the words used are those commonly used for wine. True, Jews often watered down their wine substantially and they tended to criticize the Galatians and others who drank it straight, but it was still wine.
Paul told Timothy to use a little wine for his stomach’s sake. I’ve heard preachers say that Timothy was not allowed to drink it; he was only to use an ounce or so per gallon of water as a way to purify the water he’d been drinking. Uh… no.
There is a principle here that has crippled us and our ability to reach others: fear of pleasure. God made a beautiful and awe inspiring and funny and, yes, pleasurable world (I assume you’ve seen the BBC series on Planet Earth or similar depictions of this incredible creation God bequeathed us). He filled it with things that are fun to taste, fun to touch, and fun to look at. He warned us that demons would come along to teach us doctrines of self denial and the avoidance of pleasure (1 Timothy 4:1-4). And, boy, how those demons converted Christians by the tens of thousands! There are churches that deny all pleasurable things — comfortable clothes, electricity, caffeine, alcohol, dancing (which, if you pay attention, God put into the wiring of every child), parties, secular music, etc. As in Colossians, these rules look like strict, holy rules but they are useless, ineffective, and NOT from God!
Take poor caffeine, for example. I know of just under 200 studies done on caffeine. In every case, caffeine is found to be beneficial unless you have acid reflux disease, high blood pressure, or a couple forms of mental illness. Otherwise, it is a hugely beneficial — and natural — element that brings joy and improved performance when taken in small to moderate doses. Why are people always railing against it? Because it makes life better… therefore, it must be evil!
The heroes of the faith in the early centuries lived horrible lives. Many of them were forced into those lives by persecution and poverty and others put themselves in that situation by retreating to caves, deserts, and the top of poles. People looked at these men and called them holy men but God might have a different opinion. He told us to go into all the world, not sit on a pole. He also told us not to listen to those rules about self denial that seem so Christian and yet are not.
I have friends who will not take medicine if it has alcohol in it. They think, by refusing it, they are suffering for Jesus. In a way, they are. Romans 14 indicates that if someone is doing this because they love the Lord, He will honor it — and that is good news! Still, God didn’t make the rule they have bound on themselves. If they wish to keep that rule, okay… but do not dare bind it on anyone else (Matthew 15:8,9).A drink a day is good for most people’s hearts and a drink of red wine a day has recently been proven to lower the odds of developing Alzheimer’s. Who are we to deny people access to that?
We have taken the same attitude that forbids alcohol or, well, fun and slathered it heavily over the subject of sex. Christians are known for being repressed sexually. This is an unfair characterization but I can understand how it has come to be. There are countless loveless homes where sex is never discussed, rarely engaged in, and everyone is fearful that they might actually enjoy it! God’s attitude toward sex is very different. The Song of Songs celebrates it, of course, but God also celebrates when a “man goes into his wife’s chamber” or “knows his wife” and Paul goes so far as to say that, upon marriage, your body is transferred to your mate. He strictly forbids those who want to withhold sex for any reason — even religious ones — and tells them that, if they do, they can only do so with full agreement from their partner and, even then, only if they are also fasting. That way, they have to stop their physical boycott within a few days at most! (I Corinthians 7:1-7). While Paul celebrated celibacy, he did so only as a single man. He forbade such pseudo-religious posturing to anyone with a husband or wife. If anyone is about to write saying “Didn’t Paul say it was good for a man not to touch a woman,” the answer is “no!” Paul said that is what the Corinthians said and he was writing to correct them.
Drunkenness and gluttony are always, always wrong. Drinking a glass or two of alcoholic drink is not wrong unless you are a person who has trouble with self destructive, addictive behavior. And to those who say “no one would be an alcoholic if they hadn’t taken that first drink first” I would have to ask if that standard applies to other behavior. Should we never spend money out of fear of becoming consumerist, materialist, or supporters of bad companies? Should we never have sex out of fear that we might like it too much and go beyond the barriers of marriage God put in place for us? Should we never speak out of fear that we might use our words for cursing one day? Please…
The wine in John 2 was wine. Most wine of that day had an alcohol volume a little less than most table wines today (according to the best guesses of historians and archaeologists) but it is overeating and over drinking that are issues, not merely eating and drinking, even if for pleasure. Societies that introduce table wine into family life at childhood (think France, Italy, Spain, etc.) have a tiny percentage of the alcoholism that exist in nations that forbid all alcohol to anyone until they are adults (thus making it more attractive to any child wanting to appear grown up). They have far fewer traffic accidents, domestic violence, etc. than do the “morally superior” countries such as the UK and USA that spend so much time and money making alcohol unavailable to minors. Anytime you bring this up, those Christians in those countries are shocked — shocked I say — that you would suggest loosening up the rules and re-educating the populace. Why? Because they have an appearance of holiness and, for that, they are willing to throw away so many dollars and so many people.
It is so sad. Except in the preaching demon brigade. They love it.