Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

Eph. 5:18c “. . .with wine,. . .”

These two messages on alcohol deal in depth with neither our influence on others, nor the truth that drinking offends many of the brethren. I have sought to contain my remarks to the context (5:15-17). Believers are to be wise in order to walk circumspectly, redeem the time, and understand the will of God. This requires that a Christian never be drunk. Southern Baptists, with a drinking rate much lower than other Christian groups, are rightly known as champions of teetotalism. We rarely seek to enforce it among our congregations at large, but do strongly advocate it. We generally require pastors and deacons, and sometimes other leaders, to be teetotalers.
Before 1492, drunkenness was found only in the Old World. Native Americans never discovered fermentation. Two of earth’s most harmful drugs were the Old and New Worlds’ gifts to each other. The Old donated alcohol, the New tobacco. Now both drugs scourge all parts of the planet.
In Paul’s world, drunkenness usually resulted from the abuse of wine, the fermented juice of grapes. Grape juice naturally contains glucose (sugar, C6H12O6) and bacteria (ferments). These bacteria emit enzymes which, in time, turn glucose into alcohol (C2H5OH). Fermentation is self-limiting. Once alcohol concentration reaches about 14%, the bacteria die, victims of their own alcohol production (sounds almost human), and fermentation ends.
A tonic of more than 14% alcohol requires distillation, a process not invented till the Middle Ages, at a medical school in Salerno, Italy. Nothing imbibed in Bible times compares to the 40% to 50% alcohol level found in modern distilled spirits such as brandy, gin, whiskey, vodka, rum, champagne, etc. Thus, drinking these can never be justified on Biblical grounds.

Paul’s generation drank wine for the same reasons people today drink it, but primarily for their “stomach’s sake” (1 TM 5:23). They knew that people who drank wine became sick less often than those who drank water. Alcohol was not healthy, the problem was impure water tainted by bacteria.
People who drank wine to get drunk sought undiluted wine (14% alcohol). For everyday purposes, people generally mixed one part wine with three parts water, resulting in a 3.5% alcohol content, less than is generally found in our modern day beers (4% to 7%) and wines (9% to 14%). According to the Talmud, this 3 to 1 ratio was the one observed at Passover, and thus would have probably been the one used at the Last Supper.
Drinking 3 to 1 wine could intoxicate, but required huge amounts of consumption. One had to “tarry long at the wine” (PR 23:30). To consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine mixed 3 to 1, one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses. In other words, one’s bladder would be affected long before one’s mind.
Alcohol begins its assault on the body by mildly irritating the mouth and esophagus, a small foretaste of what is to come. Within seconds it significantly irritates the wall of the stomach, which responds by secreting digestive acids strong enough to turn the toughest piece of meat into the consistency of oatmeal in one hour. As if under red alert, the stomach acts like the alcohol has to go, and dumps it undigested into the small intestine, which in turn does not like it and passes it directly into the blood stream.
The only body part willing to take time to grapple with alcohol and chemically break it down is the liver, the body’s sewage treatment plant, through which the entire blood supply circulates every four minutes. The liver, upon detecting alcohol, sounds a red alert, “Poison is present!” The liver immediately preempts its normal cleaning functions in order to concentrate on the alcohol, working fast and furiously as it can (hourly rate of 1/3 ounce of pure alcohol) on this toxic intruder. Fats build up, liver cells die in the battle with alcohol, resulting over years in scar tissue (cirrhosis).
In the meantime, while the liver desperately tries to rid the body of this poison, the alcohol travels throughout the body at will, putting electric tissues to sleep. Alcohol anesthetizes control centers, and interferes with the neurons’ ability to receive messages and impulses. The brain becomes befuddled, puzzled. Information is garbled. People begin to say and do things they would never consider when sober, a state Paul depicts as. . .

Eph. 5:18d “. . .wherein is excess;. . .”

Alcohol begins to take effect on the brain about ten minutes after ingestion. Its first effect is sedation and tranquility, a thrill based on the perception one’s troubles are left behind. Thought becomes more vivid. The colors of imagination become more brilliant. The river of life, which had become slow and sluggish, suddenly rises, becomes a rushing flood, and overflows its banks (Dale, in BI). This euphoric, first effect of alcohol creates an almost irresistible desire to increase use as soon as one starts to drink. A Japanese proverb says, first the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man. The result “is excess.”
One in ten who take a first drink of alcohol will become addicted to it. If told you have cancer, you have better than a 50-50 chance of recovery. If told you are an alcoholic, your chances of dying with a problem caused or worsened by alcohol is 96%. One reason for this is that a major paradox of alcohol is that those who have trouble with it vehemently deny it. If you have a loved one who drinks too much, video-tape that one while he or she is drunk. Get their attention. Reveal to them their true self.
Drunkenness leads to “excess.” This sin rarely travels alone. “This master vice carries all other vices in its pocket” (Maclaren). Drunkenness, John Trapp said, is not listed in the ten commandments because it is not the single breach of any, but in essence the violation of all.
When a teen, I preached at a church in Chicago and denounced alcohol. Afterwards, the church treasurer handed me my honorarium, saying, “Someday you will learn there are things worse than drinking.” A quarter of a century later, his words still have not been confirmed.
Due to its being socially acceptable, alcohol is our number one drug of abuse, by far more damaging than all other illicit drugs combined. We excuse behavior which results from drunkenness. In our efforts to support moderation, we sometimes have to put our stamp of approval on certain acts of “excess.” If we mean to support moderation only, then let our society act like it and punish “excess” with as much vigor as it berates abstinence.
Alcohol fertilizes every other social ill. Only heart disease, cancer, and abortion kill more people in the USA than alcohol does. About 65,000 lives a year are lost to alcohol. My own cousin, out drinking with some friends at a lake, downed a six-pack of beer, and then drowned. Our largest cause of death among ages 15-24 is alcohol-related auto accidents. Half the car deaths and half the murders in this country are alcohol-related.
Alcohol suppresses the holy bonds of conscience, and throws off restraint, modesty, and shame. Alcohol has never been a friend of chastity and purity of life. It transports people into gross sensuality. Three of every five college women with sexually transmitted diseases were drunk when infected. Some 95% of violent campus crime, as well as 90% of campus rapes, involves alcohol. To crusade on these matters, plus spouse and child abuse, suicide, and almost every other social ill, without dealing with alcohol is to miss the point. It empties homes by filling hospitals and jails. Mahomet said, in every grape dwells a devil. Paul saw “excess” in drunkenness.

Eph. 5:18e “. . .but. . .”

With a master-stroke of contrast, Paul in essence says that everything people seek in emptying a wine glass can be found in the filling of God’s Spirit. Analyze with me, brothers and sisters. Why do people drink?
Some claim to drink alcoholic beverages for the taste. I had in my St. Louis congregation professional tasters who worked for the 7-Up Corporation. They told me that essentially every taste inherent in alcoholic drinks can be duplicated without the alcohol. People drink alcohol for its kick.
Many just want a night-cap, something to help them relax, take the edge off, lift them above their cares a while. Is our relationship with God so shallow that wine can do this for us better than the Good Shepherd can?
Some drink alcohol as an opiate, to drown sorrows, to lessen pains of distressing memories or fears. A material substance may help one through an extremely bad time of crisis. If you need this kind of help, consult a doctor. Using a prescribed substance allows an objective, neutral person to oversee and monitor your drug use. This is in essence what happened when Paul told Timothy to drink wine. Paul was a neutral onlooker.
Some drink alcohol to interrupt the monotony of life. We hate to be bored, and seek an exhilarating rush. Desiring enthusiasm and excitement, we want to feel alive. It is okay to want to be happy. What we have to be careful about is the method of inducing it. We must seek it only in what is good. Mature spiritually. “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord” (2 P 3:18). Ask God to make us delight “in approaching to God” (IS 58:2), “in the Lord” (PS 37:4), “in the law of the Lord” (PS 1:2).
Some drink alcohol to escape themselves. They do not like their own natural personality. They in essence say, “I want to be someone other than myself.” Thus, they drink, and the quiet become boisterous–alcohol frees the tongue, sets it a-going and soon makes it run too fast. The bashful become bolder, convivial, more gregarious. The wall-flower becomes Marilyn Monroe. The 75-pound-weakling becomes macho man. God’s way of changing us is to re-make us spiritually, to conform us to the image of His Son. Instead of seeking joy in spirits, find it in being filled with the Spirit.


For these two messages, I have done my usual study in commentaries. Several other sources were also used. The following were especially helpful.

“Alcohol, the Legal Drug,” by Boyd Gibbons, in National Geographic, February 1992, pp 3ff.

“Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times,” by Robert Stein, in Christianity Today, June 20, 1975, pp. 9ff.

A report from Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, published in part in U.S. News and World Report, June 20, 1994, p.21.

Highlights of several technical articles researched and collected by Dr. Tom Cheyne (M.D.) from professional journals.