I appreciate the good reception that was given to last week’s sermon on the Christian and Alcohol. A number of members approached me after services and asked how one can harmonize the argument of total abstinence with the fact that the Bible allows for the use of wine for medicinal purposes. This instruction is found in First Timothy 5:23 - “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities.”
The Bible does not condemn the practice or use of medicine. The inspired penman of two books of the New Testament (Luke and Acts) was a physician (Col. 4:14). The Bible also mentions a number of natural products that can be used for medicinal purposes: aloe, anise, balm of Gilead, cumin, figs, fitches, gall, mandrake, myrrh, ointment, olive oil, rue, saffron, and wine.
It cannot be denied that wine was used, and even prescribed, for medicinal purposes in the Bible. However, this fact is in no way an allowance for the social or recreational use of alcohol, which is the unfortunate application that some desire to make of First Timothy 5:23.
Medical use of a substance cannot be compared with the social or recreational use of the same substance. A patient who receives a drug to numb the pain that he feels as he recovers from a surgery is in no way comparable to the person who habitually drinks alcohol to numb his mind so that he does not have to deal with reality. The use of medicine to help the body heal from an illness or injury and the misuse of a drug to numb the mind are two completely different matters.
Since Paul’s instruction to Timothy is used as an argument for the moderate consumption of alcohol, we need to make some observations about this passage. First, it is clear that Paul’s instructions are regarding Timothy’s health. He needed relief for his stomach and his frequent infirmities. Timothy’s practice was to only drink water. Paul told him to stop this practice and to drink that which could help him. Paul was not telling Timothy that it was all right for him to drink a glass of wine with his dinner, to kick back a few beers on the weekend, or to enjoy a cocktail with his friends after work. He was told to take medicine to help with is infirmities. Paul was not ordering Timothy to drink alcohol, but advising him to use a little wine.
We know that all Scripture is given to make the man of God complete and thoroughly furnished for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17), but I cannot help but wonder if this instruction even applies to us today. Even though wine has medicinal qualities, advancements in the medical field have given us an entire section of stomach relief products in our local pharmacy. If this instruction were given today, I wonder if Paul would have told Timothy to take some Tums or drink some Pepto-Bismol before he went to meet with the elders.
While there are medicinal benefits in wine, this is not the only place where one can obtain these benefits. Some years ago doctors began telling patients to drink a glass of wine with their evening meal. I remember seeing reports on the evening news regarding the benefits of drinking a glass of wine each evening. At that time, a brother in Christ told me of his doctor giving him such advice. When he told his doctor that he did not drink alcohol, his doctor quickly replied, “Just drink a glass of grape juice. It will do the same thing for you.” The medicinal properties in “wine” are not in the alcohol. They are in the grape juice.
There are reasons for us to understand that this is the exact substance that Paul had in mind when he gave this instruction to Timothy. The word “wine” is translated from the Greek word oinos. While our English word “wine” has come to refer exclusively to an intoxicating beverage made from fermented grape juice, oinos was a generic word which was used to refer to the juice of the grape in all of its stages – both fermented and unfermented.
Historical evidence indicates that the ancients used unfermented grape juice for medical purposes. “Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) recommends the use of a sweet grape juice, called glukus in Greek, because, he says, ‘though called wine [oinos], it has not the effect of wine... and does not intoxicate like ordinary wine.’ Athenaeus, the Grammarian (A.D. 280), specifically counsels the use of a kind of grape juice, which some called “sweet wine” (glukon oinon) while others prodromos or protropos (Latin names for unfermented grape juice), for stomach disorders… (Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, p. 244). Unfermented grape juice was a known medicine for stomach disorders among the ancients, which would fit perfectly with the admonition that Paul gave to Timothy.
One last thing that demands our attention is the fact that this text indicates that Timothy did not drink wine for any reason. It was Timothy’s practice to “drink water exclusively” (NASV). Why did Timothy abstain from drinking wine? As an evangelist, Timothy was told to be careful of his example and influence (1 Tim. 4:12, 16). He knew that it was wrong for him to do anything (including drink wine) that caused another to stumble (Rom. 14:21). Elders are to be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3), and they are not to be “given to wine” (1 Tim. 3:3). Timothy was careful to set the same example. Where did Timothy get the idea that he should abstain from drinking wine? Perhaps it came from Paul himself. Paul reminded Timothy, “But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance…” (2 Tim. 3:10). Paul told the Corinthians to imitate him (1 Cor. 11:1) and told the Philippians to follow his example (Phil. 3:17). Timothy followed Paul’s “manner of life” and he abstained from all use of wine. How interesting that a passage that is misused to argue in favor of the moderate consumption of alcohol is actually a strong argument in favor of a Christian’s abstinence from alcohol.
The Bible condemns the recreational use of alcohol, even in moderation, but that is not what is under consideration in First Timothy 5:23. The only reasonable and honest conclusion that can be drawn from this text is that it is proper for a Christian to use a small quantity of wine for medicinal purposes. However, one must acknowledge the fact that the Bible uses the word “wine” in a generic manner, often referring to unfermented grape juice, which was the preferred remedy for stomach disorders during the first century. This text also indicates that Timothy did not drink any wine, which argues strongly in favor of the early church practicing abstinence when it came to the consumption of alcohol. Thus, the use of this passage as a Biblical endorsement of the moderate consumption of alcohol is a leap that no serious Bible student should be willing to make.