Thursday, May 31, 2012

"... after all, Jesus turned water into wine!"

This week, I am dealing with John 2:1-12, the famous account of how Jesus turned water into wine. I would say, based on conversations with Christians over the last 20 years, that this must be the most beloved passage of Scripture to many people. I conclude that because I am regularly reminded of it as I discuss the issue of alcohol with fellow believers. This one is always the "trump card." No matter what I say to defend my position of abstinence, this one gets thrown on the table as if to say with grand finality, "So there! What do you make of that?" Well, I actually make quite a bit of it. And the most important thing I make of it is that to use this passage as a grounds for license to consume alcohol is perhaps the grandest exercise in missing the point that hermeneutics has ever suffered. Admittedly, it doesn't help my position. That is obvious. I can't point to this text and say, "See, you shouldn't drink alcohol!" But I am going to argue that neither can a Christian point to this text and say, "See, I can drink alcohol. After all, Jesus turned water into wine!"

Some key factors:

  1. The Greek word that is translated wine in this text is the most common one, oinas. This word can, and often is, used to refer to fermented, alcoholic wine. But the same word is also used often to refer to unfermented wine (grape juice). We see the term used to refer to both in one statement of Jesus that is recorded in Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5. There Jesus says, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well” (Mark 2:22). All three instances of the word wine in that verse are the Greek word oinas, but in each, it refers to the beverage at different stages of fermentation. First, it is unfermented when it is put into the wineskin. Then, in the midst of fermentation, as it is expanding, it bursts the skins, and the fermented wine is lost. So, it is not obvious that this word always and only means “fermented wine.” Rather it is obvious that the word alone does not give us a conclusive answer.
  2. Notice what the steward says about the wine that Jesus made compared to the wine they had been drinking in verse 10. The “good wine” was served first, but then, once people have drunk freely from it, the “poorer wine” is brought out. But now, as he drinks the wine that Jesus has made, he says that it “the good wine,” implying that it is even better than what was served in the beginning. So, I am not going to draw any inferences from this about whether or not Jesus made fermented or unfermented wine, only to say that whatever He made was qualitatively different and superior to anything they had drunk during the entire weeklong ordeal.
  3. You have to understand something about the custom of wine-drinking in ancient society. First of all, there were not so many beverage options available, and wine was one of the most easily preserved beverages so it was very common and was consumed at various stages of fermentation, including in an unfermented state. Second, when used medicinally, it must be understood that it was the most effective medicine available at that time. In response to both of these, we could argue that we have many other options for drinking and for medicinal purposes today. But also, it is a noted fact that seldom was fermented wine consumed “unmixed” or “undiluted.” It was common to mix water with wine in order to dilute it to somewhere between one-third and one-tenth of its fermented strength.[1] Diluted in this way, it was common and acceptable even for children to partake of it. Additionally, some drank wine “in which, by boiling the unfermented grape juice, the process of fermentation had been stopped and the formation of alcohol prevented.”[2]
  4. Whatever kind of wine Jesus miraculously made, we have no basis for looking at this text and saying, “Since Jesus drank wine, then we can drink it too.” The reason is simple: nowhere in this text does it say that Jesus or his disciples drank it. Maybe they did. I am not going to say that they didn’t. But neither can we assume that they did when the text is silent. Furthermore, when someone says (mistakenly) that this text implies that Jesus drank wine and therefore we can follow His example in so doing, I am tempted to respond as Warren Wiersbe does in his excellent discussion on this text. Wiersbe says, “If you use Jesus as your example for drinking, why don’t you follow His example in everything else?”[3] And Wiersbe notes that in Luke 22:18, Jesus says that He will not drink of the fruit of the vine again until the Kingdom of God comes. So, if we are going to follow Jesus’ example on drinking, we have far more to go on choosing to abstain until we are reunited with Him in glory than we do on choosing to partake because He made the wine at this wedding.

Now, I say all of that about alcohol to say at some length that this text is NOT about alcohol. To camp out on alcohol in this text is to grossly miss the point. So, I won't use this text to defend abstinence. But neither will I suffer another person to look at this passage and say that there is license here for drinking alcohol, because as I have just painstakingly demonstrated, that license isn’t there. So we’ll have to look at other texts to decide the issue of alcohol, and I would recommend 1 Corinthians 8:9, 10:23, and 10:31. 

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 169.
[2] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Tesatment; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 93.
[3] Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor, 1989), 292. 

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