"To Gladden the Heart of Man": A Biblical Theology of Wine

Alcohol can be a controversial subject within the modern church, largely because of the influence of the temperance movement that began in the 1800s. However, the Bible has much to say about alcohol (particularly wine), and most of it is positive. Scripture teaches that wine is part of God’s good creation, a sign of God’s blessing, and one of the two elements of the Lord’s Supper.

Wine Is Part of God’s Good Creation

All foods and drinks that humans enjoy in this world are a result of God’s creative work, as recorded in Genesis 1 and 2. God made all plants, including the grapes that make wine, and He called such plants “good” (Genesis 1:11-13). The Apostle Paul affirms this goodness of creation in 1 Timothy 4:3-4, when he says that some false teachers will “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving.” Forbidding certain foods and drinks is wrong because “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”

Not everyone has to like wine or other alcoholic beverages, but Scripture teaches that Christians are free to consume such drinks in thanksgiving towards God. God allowed the Israelites to buy “wine or strong drink” that they may feast and “rejoice” in His presence (Deuteronomy 14:26). The psalmist even praises God for giving us wine:

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart (Psalm 104:14-15).

In other words, God gives humans wine to make us happy. Jesus Himself enjoyed drinking wine, which is why He was accused of being a drunkard (Luke 7:33-34). He even “manifested his glory” by turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:11). It should be noted that Jesus performed this miracle at a celebration where people “drank freely” (John 2:10). (The Greek μεθύσκω (methusko) can vary in meaning, including “to get drunk” or “to drink freely.”)

Of course, like all good gifts of God, wine can be abused. Drinking too much wine leads to drunkenness. A habitual abuse of wine makes one a “drunkard,” and drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10). The Bible therefore warns against drunkenness—“Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). Isaiah says, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them!” (Isaiah 5:11).

And the Apostle Paul commands, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Rather than filling ourselves with excessive alcohol, which leads to sin, we are to be filled with God’s Spirit, which leads to obedience.

Wine Is a Sign of God’s Blessing

Though wine can be abused, Scripture constantly presents wine as a sign of God’s blessing. Melchizedek brought out bread and wine as part of his blessing of Abraham (Genesis 14:18). Isaac’s blessing of Jacob included a petition for an abundance of grain and wine (Genesis 27:28). God gave the Levites the best of Israel’s wine as a blessing (Numbers 18:12), and He promised to give Israel wine as a blessing for obedience (Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14).

Moses described the Promised Land as a “land of grain and wine” (Deuteronomy 33:28). The men of Israel celebrated David’s kingship with wine (1 Chronicles 12:39-40), and Jesus used wine as a metaphor for the new life that disciples would enjoy in contrast to the old wineskins of Jewish religious tradition (Matthew 9:17).

Wine is a sign of God’s blessing because it is associated with feasting, as well as Sabbath rest and relaxation. Thus Noah—who his father Lamech prophesied would bring “comfort” from work and toil—planted a vineyard and drank wine after the flood (Genesis 5:29; 9:20-21). Noah is often charged with sin here, but he drank wine to relax and was sleeping in his tent. The “righteous” Noah was not a drunkard (Genesis 6:9). Rather, it was Ham who is charged with sin in uncovering Noah (Genesis 9:24-25).

It is also the case that a lack of wine is associated with cursing. Obedience to the Mosaic covenant would result in fruitful ground for the Israelites (Deuteronomy 28:4, 11), but disobedience would result in vineyards that produce no wine because worms would eat the grapes (Deuteronomy 28:39). God even warned that a foreign nation would come and leave the Israelites with no “grain, wine, or oil” (Deuteronomy 28:51).

Jesus Instituted Wine in the Lord’s Supper

Wine has direct practical significance for Christians because Jesus instituted its use in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus established this covenant meal at the Last Supper before His death, and Christians are to celebrate the Supper regularly both to commune with Christ and to remember His atoning work on the cross (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22).

It is sometimes pointed out that the word “wine” is never used for the Supper, as both Jesus and Paul refer to it as “the cup” (Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:17, 20; 1 Corinthians 10:16, 21; 11:25-28). But while this observation is correct, there should be no question what was in the cup!

There are three reasons we can be certain Jesus and Paul were speaking of wine. First, the “fruit of the vine” was a poetic way of describing wine in that day (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). Second, the Jews in the 1st century used wine at Passover, which was what Jesus was celebrating at the Last Supper (see Mishnah Pesachim 10). And third, there were some Corinthians getting drunk on the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:21), indicating that they were drinking wine of an intoxicating nature.

Jesus instituted wine, along with bread, as the proper elements of the Lord’s Supper. (It is of note to my fellow Presbyterians that the Westminster Confession of Faith identifies the proper element as “wine” and not grape juice—see WCF 29.3, 5, 6, 7.)

Some Christian teachers claim that wine in the Bible was non-alcoholic or of a limited alcohol level. This, however, is contrary to the text of Scripture. Wine in the Bible clearly had an inebriating quality (Genesis 9:21; Hosea 4:11; Joel 1:5). And if the biblical authors wanted to speak of the unfermented juice of grapes, there was another word for that (Numbers 6:3). In the instructions for a Nazirite vow, it specifically says that he “shall not drink any juice of grapes”
(וְכָל־מִשְׁרַ֤ת עֲנָבִים֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁתֶּ֔ה).

More specific to the Lord’s Supper, there were some Christians getting drunk on the wine that was used (1 Corinthians 11:21). Wine in the Bible certainly contained alcohol, and Paul was aware of the potential abuse of this substance. However, instead of changing the substance—as many churches do today—Paul condemned such “unworthy” behavior and called Christians to properly partake of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:27).[1]

The use of wine in the Lord’s Supper is significant not only because it is a sign of God’s blessing, but also because it is a reminder of God’s wrath against sin. Wine was part of the Levitical sacrifices offered to God as a drink offering (Exodus 29:40; Leviticus 23:13; Numbers 15:5; 28:14; Deuteronomy 18:14), and it was associated with God’s wrath (Jeremiah 25:15; Revelation 14:10; 16:9). This is why Jesus describes the wine of the Supper as “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that Christ propitiated the Father’s wrath against sin and thus we find forgiveness in Him.

Wine in the New Heavens and Earth

Wine is not a result of the fall but part of God’s original creation. It will also be part of re-creation in the new heavens and earth. Thus Isaiah speaks of a mountain on which Yahweh “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full or marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6; cf. Joel 3:18). In context, this passage is referring to a day when God “will swallow up death forever” and “wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).

Jesus draws on this imagery from Isaiah when He speaks of the messianic banquet— “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). Jesus may have been referring to this banquet when He said to His disciples before His death, “I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). Christians should therefore expect to drink wine in celebration at “the marriage supper of the Lamb” when Jesus returns (Revelation 19:9). Like the wedding at Cana and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus always provides wine in celebration.

Wine is a glorious thing. This is why God uses it along with food as a metaphor for the gospel— “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). May we come to the Lord in faith and thanksgiving, and may we eat—and drink—to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

[1] A common argument against using wine in the Lord’s Supper is that we should have concern for alcoholics, or what the Bible calls “drunkards.” The key question in addressing this issue is—do we have the authority to change the elements of the Lord’s Supper?