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Book 3, Lesson 8
More About Alcohol in Paul's Letters


     Ephesians 5:17,18 says, Wherefore, be ye not unwise but
     understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk
     (methusko) with wine (oinos) in which is excess (asotia,
unsavableness), but be filled with the Spirit.

There is no question that oinos is intoxicating in Ephesians 5:18. The thought Paul gives us is “Don't be filled up with intoxicating wine in which is such dissoluteness or unrestrained moral corruption that it leads to not being saved . . . .”

Moderationists use this verse to teach that God approves of moderate drinking. Paul’s warning to the Ephesians is against drunkenness, one man writes. Getting drunk is the problem, not the wine itself. Just because Paul condemns the misuse of wine doesn't mean that he condemns “the proper use of alcoholic beverage.”1

Paul would have said, “Drink no wine at all,” if he had wanted to forbid wine drinking, says Kenneth Gentry. Instead he said, “Be not drunk on wine . . . .” Moderationists claim that the words “wherein is excess or unsavableness” connects back to the word “drunk” and not to the word “wine.” 2 This leads them to the belief that drunkenness is the problem and not the wine itself.

Dr. Bacchiocchi discusses five important points that must be taken into account when we study Ephesians 5:18. 3

a) The Way the Verse Is Written; Its Structure

Ephesians 5:18 makes two major statements. One of them, “Drunk (well filled) with wine” is the opposite of the other, “Filled with the Spirit.” The verse is not saying moderation and excess are opposites of each other, but that the two kinds of fullness are opposites.

     The fullness comes from the two different sources, alcoholic wine on
     one side and the Holy Spirit on the other. These two do not agree or
     get along with each other. They are different in their very nature and in
     the way they operate.

The alcohol spirit of wine brings forth the fruit of drunkenness, evil and moral corruption.. The Holy Spirit produces the fruit of the Spirit. We can, Paul says, choose one or the other. We cannot choose some of each; we cannot be filled with half of each.

Paul commands the Christians to be full of the Spirit. How then can his words mean that he approves adding some fullness from the wine bottle?

In verse 17, Paul has already said, “Do not be foolish . . . understand the will of the Lord.” The will of the Lord is that we be filled with His Spirit. The structure of the verse makes it plain that Paul is not recommending moderate wine drinking, but a full infilling of the Holy Spirit. A Spirit filled Christian would not crave alcohol.

Verses Like Ephesians 5:18         
Luke 1:15: Before John the Baptist was born, the angel said “And (he)
     shall drink neither wine nor strong drink and he shall be filled with the
     Holy Spirit. 
Acts 2:15, with Acts. 2:4 says, ”For these are not drunk as ye suppose
     (assume) . . . and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit."

In both these Bible passages, being filled with the Spirit is connected to abstaining from alcohol. Ephesians 5:18 teaches the same truth.

Hermann Olshausen in his comments on Luke 1:15 says,

     Man feels his need for strength beyond what he has in himself. Instead
     of seeking strength in the Holy Spirit he turns to wine. That is why
     both the Old and the New Testament recommend abstinence. The soul
     should be free from natural influences so that it can understand the
     direction of the Holy Spirit.4

Why Did Paul Not Simply Say, “Drink No Oinos At All?        
The generic term oinos means both juice and wine. Without qualifications, Paul could not say, “Drink no oinos at all.” The Christians drank grape juice. Also, Paul, like Luke, who wrote Luke and Acts, was emphasizing the opposition or exact oppositeness between the fullness of wine and the fullness of the Spirit. 5

b) Two small Connecting Words: What Do They Refer To?

     “Be not drunk with wine in which is excess.” Two small words, “in
     which,” connect “drunk with wine” with “excess.”

Older King James Versions of the Bible said “drunk with wine wherein is excess.” Newer versions say, “drunk with wine in which is excess.” The question is, do the small words, “in which” refer back to “drunk” or do they refer to “wine”?

     Does the verse mean, “drunk in which is excess?” Is getting drunk
     what is excess (moral corruption, unsavableness)? Or does the verse
     mean “wine in which is excess?” Is the wine itself excess (moral
     corruption, unsavableness)?

According to the rules of grammar, Dr. Bacchiocchi says, either one could be correct. 6

The literal translation from the Greek would read, “And do not get drunk with wine, in which is debauchery (asotia—literally unsavableness). The Revised Standard Version says “Be not drunk with wine for that is debauchery.” The two little words “for that” force the verse to mean that drunkenness, not the wine itself, is the problem. This is what the moderationists want. Many modern translations and paraphrases of the Bible support alcohol use.

Translators and Commentators See Wine as the Subject for “In Which”
     Be not drunk with wine in which is unsavableness . . . .

Since the word oino (with wine) comes immediately after “drunk” and before “in which,” translators historically have said wine and “in which is unsavableness (asotia)” go together. Robert Young, the author of Young's Analytical Concordance of the Bible correctly writes,

     And be not drunk with wine, in which is dissoluteness, but be filled in
     the Spirit.

More support for the view that Paul is condemning the wine itself comes from Proverbs 23:31. Paul may even be quoting this verse from the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint). In Hebrew the verse says, “Do not look at the wine when it is red . . .” The warning is against the wine itself. This leads us to see that Paul too is warning against the wine itself, not just the abuse of wine called drunkenness.

c) Ancient and Modern Translations Condemn the Wine Itself

Many ancient and modern translations support the teaching that Ephesians 5:18 condemns the wine itself.

Ancient Translations
Tertullian (about A.D. 160 – 225) translated Ephesians 5:18 in Latin, “And be not inebriated (intoxicated) with wine, in which is voluptuousness (sensual pleasure). In Latin the grammar shows that the ”in which" can refer only to the wine. Tertullian makes it clear that the wine is the problem because he writes, “This prohibition from drink was given also to the high priest Aaron and his sons.”7

Jerome (about 340 –420 A.D.) wrote the famous Latin translation of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate. He agreed with Tertullian. In a letter he sent to a Roman lady he said, “Let her learn even now not to drink wine, ‘wherein is excess’” Ephesians 5:18. Jerome's understanding that the wine itself was the excess is important. He is the most famous early Christian translator of the Bible.8

Modern Translations in Other Languages Than English    
Three French translations, three Spanish translations, The Good News German Bible, an Italian Protestant version, as well as a Catholic version all say “in which is excess” refers to the wine itself. In English, words like “which” have no clue in them to show us what subject they refer to. But the “in which” in other languages can fit with only a certain subject. The translators say it fits with the wine itself. The Bible, they say, is condemning the wine, not just drunkenness from wine.

d) Excess or Asotia Has a Powerful Meaning

Asotia (excess) is one of the words we have studied in another lesson. It means the absence of salvation (unsavableness), unrestrained immorality, beyond recovery, abandoned to lust. This is a picture of what alcohol is and the sin it produces.

e) The Testimonies of Rabbis

Many people think the Jews have never seen that wine itself is evil, and that they have always used it moderately. This reasoning has led Bible teachers to wrongly interpret what the Bible says in the Old Testament.

Dr. Bacchiocchi says that Strack and Billerbeck list rabbinical teaching that is the same as Ephesians 5:18. Some of the teachings of the Rabbis are as follows:

     Wine separates man from the way of life and leads him in the pathway
     of death, because wine leads to idolatry… wherever (Scripture) speaks
     of wine, there you find also dissoluteness.
     Who has a woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Those who tarry
     long over wine, Proverbs 23:29,30.
     When wine enters the body, out goes sense; where ever there is wine
     there is no understanding.9

Rabbi Isidore Koplowitz warned, “Whenever wine enters a person, his mind becomes confused.” And Rabbi Isaac said, “. . .The drinking of wine causes the evil inclinations to be awakened within a person, as it is written, And they made their father (Lot) drink wine.”10 Rabbi Eliezer wrote that the commandment of God to Aaron not to drink wine nor strong drink was for all times to come, “for wine is an omen of curse.”11

Summary of Ephesians 5:18: No Biblical Approval for Moderate Drinking

Ephesians 5:18 is a powerful verse against wine. We have seen that,

     a) the way the verse is written, being drunk with wine and being filled
         with the Spirit are opposites and cannot be mixed. You may be one
         or the other but not both. Paul said, “Be full of the Spirit.” That
         leaves no room for moderate drinking.

     b) “in which is excess” is connected to “wine” not just to “drunk with
          wine.” This is based on what the Bible says about wine.

     c) many ancient and modern translations also teach that the wine itself
         is what is “excess.”

     d) the meaning of asotia is what wine itself is.

     e) the testimony of the Rabbis is against the wine itself.

The lives of the Ephesian Christians picture the two completely opposite lifestyles of Ephesians 5:18. Before they accepted Christ, they went to the feasts of Bacchus where they were made mad by wine and seductive songs. After they were filled with the Spirit, Ephesians 5:19 says, they could sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, and make melody in their hearts to the Lord.


     “Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.”

This verse is not talking about moderate drinking. Neither the verses around it nor the original words refer to drinking. The Greek word epieikees is found 5 times in the Bible. Three times it is translated gentle, once patient and once moderation. It always refers to the state of mind. Let your moderation of mind be known to all men. The Amplified Bible says, “Let all men see your unselfishness, your considerateness, your forbearing spirit.” Other translations of the Bible use gentleness, or gentle and kind instead of the word moderation.

Philippians 4:5 does not say, “Drink moderately. The Lord is at hand.” To the Christians at Philippi it meant, “Let your patience, gentleness, mildness, decency, be known to all men as a testimony in favor of Christianity. Knowing that the Lord is at hand is an encouragement.


     Let no man, therefore, judge you in food or in drink, or in respect of a
     feast day, or the new moon, or of a sabbath day, which are a shadow
     of things to come; but the body is of Christ. Colossians 2:16,17.

Many people mistakenly think that Colossians 2:16 gives them the right to eat or drink whatever they want. But this verse is not saying that a Christian is free to drink whatever liquor he wants and no one should judge him. It is not talking about fermented and unfermented drinks.

Colossians 2:16 is a warning against Judaizing teachers who wanted to make the new Christians obey the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. Ceremonial law included the rites, or procedures carried out in worship until the coming of Christ. The ceremonial law was a shadow of things to come, but now Christ has come. So Colossians 2:16 says you should not be condemned by anyone when you no longer carry out the old requirements of the law for eating, drinking, holy days, new moons or sabbaths. To go back to these ceremonies is like saying Christ has not come.


I Thessalonians is the first letter Paul wrote. Chapter five starts out with his great warning about the Lord's return.

     . . . the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when
     they shall say peace and safety, then sudden destruction . . .

Verses four to eight show the difference between the person who is waiting for the Lord and the person who has never trusted Christ as Savior.

     But ye, brethren are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you
     as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day:
     we are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as
     do others; but let us watch and be sober (nephomen).
     For they that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that be drunken
     (methuo) are drunken (methuo) in the night.
     But let us, who are of the day, be sober (nephomen), putting on the
     breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.

Methuo (drunken) in the context of verse 7 means filled with alcoholic wine. Nepho (sober) in verses 6 and 8 is the opposite of drunk.

Paul draws sharp contrasts in verses 5 to 8; he talks about light and darkness, day and night, waking and sleeping, being sober and being drunk. Two times he tells the Thessalonians to be sober, nephomen. Are they supposed to be mentally vigilant or physically abstinent or both?

The children of light and the day, Paul says, are sober, and those of the night are drunk. It is evident that he means that the children of the day are not only mentally alert, but physically abstinent from alcohol. Mental watchfulness in the Bible is closely connected with physical abstinence. Jesus linked the two together in a parable in Luke 12:45. He said the unfaithful servant who did not watch for his lord's coming began to “eat, drink and be drunken.”

To emphasize even more the true meaning of being sober,nephomen, Paul connects it with being awake. “Let us watch (keep awake) and be sober.” The first verb, watch, is gregoromen and refers to mental watchfulness. The second verb, nephomen, is physical abstinence. If it meant just mental alertness Paul would be saying, “Let us keep awake and be awake.” He is connecting mental watchfulness with physical abstinence because the two go together.12

Verse 8 links nephomen, abstaining from wine, with putting on the Christian armor so we are ready to stand against evil. As children of the day, our minds and bodies must be continually alert, continually abstaining from alcohol.


1. Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, Biblical Perspective, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1989, p.187. Quote taken from Markus Barth, Ephesians, 1974.
2. Ibid., Gentry wrote, The Christian and Alcoholic Beverages, 1986.
3. Ibid.
4. Dr. William Patton, Bible Wines, Sane Press, Oklahoma City, p. 108.
5 Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, p.189.
6. Ibid., p. 189, 190.
7. Ibid., p.191. From Tertullian, Against Marcion in The Ante-Nicene Fathers.
8. Ibid., From Jerome Letter 107 to Laeta, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.
9. Ibid., p.194. From Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrash.
10. Ibid., Koplowitz, Midrash Yayin Veshechor.
11. Ibid., Cited from Koplowitz.
12. Ibid., p.202.


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Woman's Christian Temperance Union
of South Dakota