In John 2:1-12, Jesus performed His first public recorded miracle where He turned water into wine at a wedding feast. While the emphasis of this passage is on Jesus’ deity and confirmation of that fact through a miracle (Jn. 2:11), this point often times is lost on many because of debates surrounding the “type” of wine Jesus made.
Let me say from the outset that it doesn’t matter if the wine Jesus made was fermented or not. To know the type of wine used in John 2 is not necessary in order to come to a biblical conclusion on the subject of alcohol because there is a plethora of passages about alcohol in the Bible. The Bible permits drinking in moderation and condemns drunkenness (For an in-depth study, please see article entitle: “Can a Christian Drink in Moderation?”).
However, for the sake of discussion, let’s look at some context clues that will help us in determining what kind of “wine” Jesus made.
THE GREEK WORD FOR WINE
The Greek word translated wine is “oinos.” This was the common Greek word for normal alcoholic wine. For example, the Greek word for the wine Jesus created is the same word that is used in Ephesians 5:18 where the Bible says “…do not get drunk on wine…” Obviously, getting drunk from drinking wine requires the presence of alcohol in the wine.
Some have pointed out that this Greek word “oinos” can also mean non-fermented wine or fresh squeezed juice (i.e., grape juice), as seen in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament). Passages often cited to prove this point include: Isaiah 16:10; 65:8; Jer. 48:33; Joel 1:10; 2:24; etc.
While there is linguistic validity that the term “oinos” could mean grape juice, it was not the predominant understanding of the word. However, to be fair, that wouldn’t necessary exempt it’s usage from John 2; rather, it would simply mean that there would have to be conclusive evidence to understand it in that way.
A simple study of this Greek term, especially during the first century, shows that the word was not some “generic” word for either fermented or non-fermented wine. Rather, it was a word that usually implied normal alcoholic wine and could mean non-fermented wine if the context demanded such. Therefore, linguistically speaking, if someone believes the word wine (“oinos”) should be understood as non-fermented wine (grape juice), then the burden of proof lies upon them.
CONTEXT OF JOHN 2
This event took place at a wedding. The master of the feast stated how impressed he was with the wine Jesus made. Notice the follow passage:
“When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. And he said to him, ‘Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!’” (John 2:9-10).
Due to the response of the master of the feast, it would be very difficult to understand this as just normal grape juice. No one has ever gone from drinking regular wine to grape juice only to brag about the superiority of the grape juice. Within context, that doesn’t make logical sense. There is no historical, cultural, exegetical, contextual or lexical reason to demand that this wine be simply grape juice. Such a conclusion does not seem to fit within the context.
WERE THE GUEST ALREADY DRUNK?
Some have made the argument that the guests were already drunk based upon John 2:10. Therefore, why would Jesus have made more alcoholic wine to give to those who were already drunk?
I believe this is a fair question. However, this question assumes something that cannot be proven (namely, the guests were drunk). The text in John 2:10 never says that the guests were actually drunk. The master of the feast appears to be making a statement of generality based upon the custom of the day (For parallels see: 2 Tim. 3:6; 1 Tim. 5:13; Titus 1:12; Mt. 18:17; See article entitled, “Why Generalities are Important”). He was simply noting that it was a common custom to put the worst wine out last.
The fact that they were not drunk can further be seen from the fact that the master of the feast could still distinguish the quality of the latter wine Jesus made from the former wine at the beginning. This implies that his senses were not dull and he was still sober (Jn. 2:9). Therefore, there is no reason to believe that when the master of the feast spoke in John 2:10 he meant that the guests were actually drunk. Rather, he was using a generality speaking to the custom of the day.
DID JESUS VIOLATE HIS OWN LAWS?
Some believe that Jesus couldn’t have made alcoholic wine because that would have violated the very law that He was under. Since Jesus never sinned and He fulfilled the law, then that means that the wine wasn’t alcoholic (Lk. 24:44; Heb. 4:15). As nicely as this alleged argument is framed, it lacks in substance. There is no law in the Old Testament that forbids someone giving alcoholic wine to another as a general rule. The passage that sometimes is mistakenly used to teach such is found in Habakkuk 2:15:
“Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbor, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk that you may look upon his nakedness” (Hab. 2:15)
This verse is not a law forbidding one neighbor to give another neighbor a glass of wine in order to drink in moderation. On the contrary, this verse is metaphorically referencing the wickedness of the Chaldeans (Presumably as well as Nebuchadnezzar) and speaks to those who would get their neighbors drunk in order to take advantage of them (Hab. 1:6). Such a verse could hardly be used in comparison with the events and intent in John 2 at the wedding feast.
DID JESUS ENABLE DRUNKENNESS?
Some argue that, even if the guests were not already drunk or even if Jesus didn’t violate an Old Testament law, Jesus wouldn’t have made that much wine with alcohol in it because it could enable drunkenness and drinking parties (1 Pet. 4:3).
This argument would be like condemning Jesus for making extra food when He multiplied the loaves and fishes far beyond what the people needed. The text tells us there was plenty of food left over (Mt. 14:20; 15:37; Mk. 8:19-20). Was Jesus promoting or enabling gluttony or gluttonous parties when He multiplied the fishes and loaves far beyond what the people needed? Of course not. Creating something that can be abused does not make that same person responsible when another person foolishly chooses to abuse it.
Did Jesus turn water into alcoholic wine? At the end of the day, this question doesn’t really matter because nothing is hinging upon this question. When considering this question, the belief that Jesus created alcoholic wine is certainly more in agreement with the context and the common usage of the Greek word “oinos.”
The primary reasons for interpreting the wine as grape juice in John 2 stems from a false presupposition that Jesus couldn’t have created alcoholic wine. For the aforementioned reasons, there is simply no good biblical reason to understand John 2 as anything other than Jesus turning water into real alcoholic wine. Such a conclusion does not contradict Jesus’ character or any other passages found in Scripture.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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