New Wine: Grape juice or the real thing?

C. Michael Patton, after sorting through some Christian nervousness about Jesus’ making wine — real wine — at the wedding in Cana, concludes he did…

The implications for all of this are important for the discussion about alcohol and the Christian. Christ, in celebration of the Kingdom, produced an alcoholic beverage that could intoxicate. Christ was a bartender! This certainly does not solve any of the problems associated with alcohol. The problems are tremendous. But to be controlled by alcohol is not a modern problem. This problem has been around since ancient times. However, this does not mean that God forbids things that have the potential to be destructive. We must be careful that we don’t legislate God. It is not unlike issues of gun control, sugar consumption, or tobacco. All of these have potential to hurt people, all of these have a history of hurting people, all of these have people who attempt to force moderation or abstinence, but none of them are forbidden by God. We must be careful in what we attempt to forbid, even if the legislation is for a good purpose. The solution for problems associated with alcohol is not a mandate for abstinence, but education concerning its dangers.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Vince

    Good stuff.

    even the Church has “…the potential to be destructive”

  • Kullervo

    Sex has the potential to be destructive too.

  • Adam Shields

    I just don’t understand how we can in good faith be having this conversation. Do I think that alcohol is an unambiguous good, no. I have worked at a rehab program during grad school. My father in law was an alcoholic. My grandmother dropped out of high school to support her family because her father was an alcoholic. My brother in law, a recovering alcoholic, has lived in my basement for the past four years.

    That being said, saying that Jesus didn’t drink wine or did not turn water into actual wine is destructive to the text. I fully support those that do not drink. I think many people should not drink. But to say you are not drinking (or even to encourage others to not drink) is something completely different than making up stories about scripture to try to suggest that drinking (at all) is condemned by scripture.

    We should not need to have this conversation.

  • Ron Newberry

    My denomination, UMC, uses grape juice out of concern for those who struggle with alcohol. Personally, I would prefer to use wine.

  • Chuck

    On the narrower question of Communion our church uses the intinction method and offers both a juice and wine cup at each station. This seems to me to both support the freedom of those who can and want to take wine as well as the concerns of those who prefer not to.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    I’ll drink to that!!

  • Dale Fincher

    The Jewish Jesus affirmed all the law and the prophets. That would include the psalm that says God made wine to make the heart glad.

    Supposing Jesus turned water into grape juice, that doesn’t negate the psalms. When we toss the Jewish history to the curb, our faith and practice gets distorted in the process.

  • Ben Thorp

    We tend to use both; wine does have the added advantage of somewhat minimising the “dangers” of a shared cup 😉

  • Rob F.

    Who is Patton talking to? or about? I am in my mid-thirties and grew up in an essentially “abstinence” tradition, went to a Christian university, and continue to worship in the same tradition… but very few my age or younger practice abstinence (even those that are fairly conservative on other issues)…and even the leadership of church (at least many of them) don’t practice or teach abstinence. Further, I witnessed and read about the “beer culture” among (at least) some of the Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd (a local, “hip”, reformed church in town hosts theology events at a bar!).

    So I am curious where the controversy is still brewing (oh, that was an unconscious pun!)

  • EricW

    I favor using wine in keeping with the Biblical tradition, but based on an informative article from the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible* it appears that wine diluted 2:1 or 3:1 with water is probably most in keeping with what was used at the Last Supper and by the early church, though mixing today’s wines with more water than a 1:1 ratio will greatly weaken the taste. Such mixed wine would still be strong enough to cause intoxication if too much was drunk (see Paul’s comment at 1 Corinthians 11:21), yet weak enough for all to drink (preferably shared from a single cup) without negative effects. While some churches allow white wine, I think the blood symbolism is lost if anything other than red or purple-colored wine or grape juice is used.

    * “Wine” – Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (2145–2148). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

  • metanoia

    I am not an abstainer and even by principles of moderation I would be defined as moderate, but I think the bigger issue is addressed well in this excerpt. I think alcohol use fits in as well.:

    ” . . .there is a younger generation of Christians who have been liberated from the shackles of legalism and isolationism when they encounter the Reformation’s recovery of the biblical gospel. They find freedom in the Reformation’s bold assertion that vocation and cultural engagement (e.g., the arts, music, sport, etc.) are things that bring great glory to God. And yet they wind up pursuing any and all cultural endeavors with little to no critical reflection about whether the “lawfulness” of their actions overrides their “helpfulness” (1 Cor 10:23). This new-found liberty slips from its moorings in Christian gratitude and becomes a perceived liberty to neglect worship, prayer, sexual purity, humility and the like. (Andrew Compton commenting on Kevin DeYoung’s, The Hole in Our Holiness)

  • Patrick

    In John 2:10, there is some verbiage that indicates some guests were feeling it, too. With the exception of SBC types, not sure why Jesus making wine would bug anyone.

  • Adam Shields

    Rob F #9,

    SBC is the main, but there are others. A Church plant was defunded by Missouri SBC after complaints that they were holding an investigative bible study in a bar.

    Daniel Akin, President of Southeaster Baptist Seminary, had a post about why he thinks that SBC should continue to abstain. And later in the comments he says that he would prevent anyone from serving in leadership at a church if they drink alcohol at all.

    I think this is not as big as issue as it has been. But over the last few years it still pops up as a problem every few months on my radar.

  • Rob F.

    Adam @ 13,

    Thanks. I obviously don’t travel in SBC circles. With all due respect, this doesn’t surprise me. From what I read, the SBC seems to be rather extreme (fundamentalist) on several issues that I believe will ultimately diminish the witness they have, at least among the younger generations.

  • Mike

    Rob F #9,

    I attend a non-denominational Christian University in Michigan that prohibits any alcohol consumption by students (the rule on staff drinking was only lifted 2 or 3 years ago) and it’s certainly a conversation here, too…at least among students. 2 years ago, the school even fired a staff member because their spouse gave a sip of beer to a student.

    While I am very annoyed that this conversation even needs to happen (meaning I’ve never understood why a ban on drinking can be claimed biblical), the truth is, it desperately does need to take place in certain areas.

  • Andrew

    IMO, Romans 14 is the best text to use when discussing alcohol (or sugar, tobacco, etc) consumption as a Christian community.

  • Percival

    There is little doubt in my mind that in general the benefits of alcohol to society or to an individual are far outweighed by the negatives.

    OK, sure Christians are free to drink, smoke, chew, and eat whatever they want, but the freedom we pursue always comes with baggage and dangers. That’s even true for activities considered to be healthy, like exercise, reading, talking, singing, etc. Everything needs to be under control. However, if I made a list of pros and cons for alcohol in society, unlike exercise or reading (2 of my vices) the pros for alcohol would seem very paltry in the balance.

    Alcohol, in days of yore, had the benefits of being a long-lasting way to store the caloric content of crops and to avoid intestinal parasites. Neither of those benefits carry much weight today (pun intended). A closer look at American history from the earliest days reveals that drunkenness was extremely common and retarded societal development. In contrast to modern stereotypes, early temperance leaders in the 1800’s were not old fuddy-duddy killjoys; they were radical progressives who threatened a huge industry that exploited the poor and enriched themselves due to the addictive properties of their product. Nowadays, we are so sophisticated and independent that we think the image of being drinkers is going to attract non-believers to our ‘wet’ church events. Thus, we bless that which has been a curse. But at what cost to society?

    There are good reasons to keep alcohol legal and even to extend legality to other mood-altering drugs, but I can’t think of any good reasons for me to take up drinking or to encourage anyone else to.

  • Jason

    I attended a Christian University and seminary in the Midwest that has it’s roots in the Holiness movement and the school has a strong stance against alcohol consumption. The school makes all students and faculty sign a covenant stating that they will abstain from alcohol (among other things). The school just recently allowed dancing and dances to happen on campus.
    I currently work as an associate pastor at a church where the same is expected of the leadership(pastors, elders even teachers). While I personally believe it is fine for a person to consume alcohol in moderation, I feel I am bound by my word to not do so as long as I am in leadership. Sometimes the bigger issue is submission to leadership in the small things.

  • MatthewS

    In rural flyover country, there are churches who would view a bottle of beer at your house as a litmus test for you being spiritually in need of some good ostracizing. It is helpful for someone to come out and say these things once in a while.

    There is something powerful in the notion that God allows the “dangerous” and doesn’t bubble-wrap everything for safety.

  • EricW

    Evangelicals MUST drink, if for no other reason than that there wouldn’t have been a Protestant Reformation if there had been no beer or wine!!

  • Rob F.

    I appreciate the responses. My undergrad alma mater had rules against both faculty/staff and students drinking…while I was there in the late 90s they officially “decriminalized” drinking (meaning they weren’t going to chase students around town) and more recently I believe they have lifted the ban on faculty/staff drinking (off campus). As far as I know the campus is still dry.

    I respect Christians that choose not to drink (Jason @18 I respect your integrity given your situation), and I think ALL Christians (not to mention all human beings) should use discernment in regards to when, where, and how to consume alcohol (or drink or do almost anything else). My prayers for those of you that must struggle with this issue in your faith communities. I suspect the evils of alcohol are the least of your worries.

  • Scott Gay

    Yes to the wine made by Jesus. Just like coffee, there is swill in this world. And human tastes are all over the place. And may I say that those tastes- that is in coffee and in wine are somewhat analygous. That is, people who like various degrees of sweet(like many flavorings for coffee) or not(dry with wine). And there is an art to having the proper wine at a wedding celebration for the people who are going to appreciate it. And, of course, who wouldn’t be a little embarrassed if, at your daughter’s wedding, you skimped and didn’t have enough. I think Jesus provided that wine somewhat behind the scenes- not many guests knew he provided it, but it honored the father.
    You all know that Chesterton thought determinism in the Christian faith as like a bad wine. Imagine at the wedding ceremony that is to come the fruit of that vine.

  • Nathan

    I still don’t get this discussion whenever and wherever it comes up.

    I mean, are people grabbing multiple little plastic cups and doing shooters in the middle of communion or knocking back the chalice at the rail?

    If you intinct, you barely get anything on the wafer, etc.

    My real complaint is when we pass the little tiny cups and the broken crackers…it’s only enough to pretty much ensure that everyone is going to have bad breath in the lobby after worship.

  • EricW

    While churches argue about whether to use wine or grape juice, ISTM that the elephant in the room is that they have already undercut the meaning and symbolism of communion as being or representing the members’ shared partaking of Christ by using little individual crackers and individual cups instead of communing from a single shared and broken loaf and a single cup.

  • Diane S.

    From what I have been told, in Biblical times when a daughter was born to Israelite parents, wine was made and set aside that same year to be served at her future wedding reception. To run out of wine was a public disgrace to the bridal couple and the parents. The miracle Jesus did was not turning water into grape juice, but aged, fine wine! Even though the guests had drunk all the wine available and were probably hammered, Jesus cared about the embarassment the couple and parents would face, and miraculously produced better than what they first provided. The idea that the “wine” was Walmart Great Value Grape Juice, and then Jesus turned water into Welch’s is just plain ludicrous.

  • James Neely

    Percival #17 I don’t see any person could produce a net positive effect to the consumption of alcohol using the systematic evaluation you propose. I am a tee-totaler, having never drunk any alcohol – – except in church.
    I have never run into a U S congregation of the religious body of which I am a member that uses anything but grape juice. However, a congregation that I visited in Europe used wine. After tasting it, I commented to the minister, “If all wine tastes like that, I would have to try really hard to become an alcoholic”

  • Marshall

    All very well but what would be the POINT of turning water into wine? Making wine for drunken wedding guests isn’t exactly like multiplying bread for hungry followers.

  • Mike M

    We all know this: drinking alcohol or doing drugs are not prohibited in the bible (nor is dancing, wearing miniskirts, or having concubines). Yet we all know the Christian “virtues” of abstinence, monogamy, and moderation. Having first-hand experience of the destructiveness of alcohol in a culture that worships it (Wisconsin), I can rally behind the SBC’s position in many ways. I don’t agree with their confabulation of terms (e.g. “new wine”) but I do agree with their concerns about placing our trust and restoration in man-made solutions versus placing them in Jesus and the healing powers of Father God’s holy spirit instead.

  • Ann F-R

    This analogy failed for me. We must be careful that we don’t legislate God. It is not unlike issues of gun control, sugar consumption, or tobacco. All of these have potential to hurt people, all of these have a history of hurting people, all of these have people who attempt to force moderation or abstinence, but none of them are forbidden by God.

    Preston Sprinkle’s post the other day read that weapons were regulated in the OT, and in the NT they were certainly regulated by Rome. Only centurions, for instance, were allowed to carry long swords — which has direct bearing on Romans 13 in which the short sword (of tax collectors) is referenced. (That’s the exegesis I recall from the German theological work done on that passage, which Glen Stassen referenced.)

    I can relate to the analogy with sugar, and less so w/ tobacco (asthma!). But, I wonder what bias does Patton have that drives guns into the middle of this otherwise straightforward piece?

  • Ian Thomason

    When I read posts like this I drop to my knees and thank God that I’m an Australian!

    My tuppence worth on the issue is that it’s one thing to recommend abstinence from wine/beer/spirits/alcohol/whatever for Christians, and altogether another to demand it. As, for example, Daniel Akin apparently had done for potential leaders in the church he pastors. I personally will have a single glass of wine once every year or two (given that my familial antecedents apparently have a hereditary predisposition towards overdoing the stuff), but despite this I find it illuminative that: (1) Jesus was called a ‘winebibber’; and (2) that he was harshest in his condemnation of those who, by erecting “hedges around the law”, introduced commandments that God nowhere commanded.

    Abstaining from alcohol doesn’t make one any better a Christian, just as the moderate consumption of the same doesn’t make one any worse a Christian. I do feel for my tee-totalling brothers and sisters though. It’s gonna be the pits for you lot at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb!

    I pray God’s blessings youwards,


  • Diane S.

    #27: I believe the point of Jesus’ miracle was saving the hosts from what could have been years of public disgrace and shame. The cultural context surrounding that story is much different than our own, which is probably why it doesn’t make much sense at face value.

  • Rick

    The argument in the post should also apply to cannabis.

  • EricW

    @31 Diane S. says:

    #27: I believe the point of Jesus’ miracle was saving the hosts from what could have been years of public disgrace and shame. The cultural context surrounding that story is much different than our own, which is probably why it doesn’t make much sense at face value.

    But the author of GJohn makes a point of noting: “2:11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”

    11 Ταύτην ἐποίησεν ἀρχὴν τῶν σημείων ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν Κανὰ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἐφανέρωσεν τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ.

    I think His intention was more than a face-saving act, though I’m not sure exactly what type of Old Covenant fulfillment or New Covenant foreshadowing it might have pointed to.

  • Phil Miller

    I find these conversation interesting because it’s one issue that really shows the diversity of backgrounds of people. To the people saying they don’t understand why this is an issue, my experience has been that’s it’s come up in nearly every Christian group I’ve been part of in some way or another. I grew up in the AoG, and in that denomination teetotaling is kind of expected. I’m sure there are people who do drink, but they certainly don’t flaunt it. That was my experience even when I became involved in the very Baptist-leaning Campus Crusade while I was in college, too. Anyway, because of all of this, I didn’t have my first drink until I was 32. I will occasionally drink now, but it’s still not something I do all that regularly.

    In Pentecostal circles, it’s a still a pretty big deal. And that’s not just in America. If you talk to African Pentecostals about it, I think the general consensus is that they don’t drink. It’s not really a controversy because they just don’t do it.

    The one thing I will say about the positive effects of alcohol. Personally, I think using alcohol in moderation has actually helped my blood pressure. I think the science at the point shows that there is at least a small benefit in moderate red-wine consumption.

    I also think that it’s a contextual thing. When I was a campus pastor, I did not feel comfortable at drinking in that environment. Alcohol is more than a social drink on college campuses. It’s a huge problem. So I have no problem telling Christian students in that environment that they need to think long and hard about how they are going to interact with that. Saying no to partaking in something is about much more than worrying about out “personal holiness” (a term I kind of hate, btw).

  • Bill

    I can’t believe we are still having this debate. Frankly, I don’t get it. Jesus did not turn wine into water. Okay?

  • Marshall

    @33, Maybe Jesus just did miracles to impress people, but that sure doesn’t sound right to me. Was he pleasing to humans or to God? @31, likewise I don’t see him as being concerned to rescue people’s good opinion of themselves in the face of bad behavior. Particularly not by enabling continued bad behavior.

    If you want to justify a cup of wine with a meal, sacred or otherwise, go to the Last Supper. This is about getting hammered at a party.

  • Diane S.

    #33 & 36: Yes, that is what the text says. There is also quite a bit that goes unsaid as well. That’s the mystery of it all. I don’t think Jesus’ primary motivation was merely to “manifest His glory”…although that WAS the ultimate end result of it. There’s a big difference between the two. The vast majority of His miracles were the result of the compassion He had in seeing the needs of others, and I don’t think this instance was any different. His motive was never to seek His own glory, but instead to Glorify the Father and to serve others.

    I suppose that those watching Jesus assumed that since He was a friend of sinners and ate and drank with them, that he was also enabling their behavior by doing so. He came down very hard on the religious who had all their ducks in a row and never did such things, but showed only incredible, outrageous mercy and compassion to the sinners, which in today’s church culture still seems very scandalous.

    According to the standards of many modern Christians, Jesus should have been much more selective in those He chose to associate with, heal, or deliver from demon possession. Many did not show any kind of remorse or repentance. So was Jesus only enabling them, since they may have very well gone back to their former way of life? Mercy is scandalous. Grace is scandalous. Jesus chose to turn water into wine to be served to those who probably had too much to drink in the first place. Maybe this is one of those areas where Jesus is more concerned about some things we don’t see than those that we consider to be the big issues.

  • jason greene

    in the “bible belt”it is still a big issue. I think it is nonsense and the “bible belt” culture of prohibition creates a false taboo that only enourages binge drinking. The gospel is about healing, wholeness, happiness, reconciliation to God, reconciliation to others, and joy. I have also noticed that many that are tee totalers have no issue whatsoever with obesity. It is said and I am glad to be free from such foolishness

  • jason greene

    sad not said (typo)

  • Amanda B.

    The ministry I currently work for requires its staff to abstain from “social drinking” (which means things like going out to the bar with the dudes–to be distinguished from, say, having a glass of wine with one’s spouse at dinner). While we don’t believe that alcohol consumption is a sin, we deal with scores of young adults who are a bit too eager to stretch the boundaries of the way they were raised, and get carried away very easily. The social drinking policy was instated because of consistent problems which arose from *not* having it, rather than a preconceived notion that it was biblically wrong to drink.

    So with that, I think it’s important to leave room in the discussion for not just what is biblically permissible (there’s nothing wrong with having a drink or two with friends), to what is practical for any given community. For us, a whole bunch of just-turned-21’s + unchecked alcohol access = potential (and sometimes actual) disaster. For a more mature community, or one in a different culture, such a restriction might prove utterly unnecessary. But in either case, it’s important that we’re honest about what we’re doing and why, without cramming a sense of quasi-biblicism into one policy or the other.

    I personally choose not to drink because I’m not interested in testing whether or not I can handle it responsibly. But I know plenty of Christians who can, and do, and I don’t believe there’s any reason to impose teetotaling on them as if it were a holier choice. God does a few too many good things with wine in the Bible for us to claim that alcohol is evil, full-stop.

  • Alex Krause

    Americans and their “substances” (I’m American but criticize this aspect of false do-goodism, it turned me away from Christianity and it turns others away also). It really is surprising that researchers are concluding that new wine was alcoholic. Of course it was alcoholic. After more than 2000 years of scholarship in the church how can some people still prohibit Christians from drinking? I agree with a previous comment that mandated abstinence fuels immoderate behavior.
    The wedding guests when Jesus made wine were not getting hammered either. They felt good, sure, but strong social, practical, and biblical injunctions curbed their immoderation. Drinking was not a big deal and one of many aspects that required control.