What, no wine?

Luke 1:15 NIV

for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.

Can only teetotallers be “great in the sight of the Lord?” Is alcohol a sin? Certainly many Christians have thought so over the ages, and this statement by the angel Gabriel would seem to support that idea. But the Bible does not consistently condemn alcohol, sometimes celebrating wine as a good thing created by God for our enjoyment (“He makes… wine that gladdens human hearts” Psalm 104:15), even though drunkenness is always seen as a bad thing in the Bible (“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery” Ephesians 5:18). What, then, are we to make of this description of John?

Bible commentaries say that this verse indicates that John was to be a Nazirite. A Nazirite was a person who had made a vow of dedication to the Lord (see Numbers 6 in the Old Testament where God says, ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink.” There are some other prohibitions too for Nazirites, but this one about alcohol is the one the angel Gabriel mentioned to Zechariah, who would have realised, as a scholar of the Jewish scriptures, that this meant that his son was to be a Nazirite. He would have known that although some became Nazirites only temporarily, his son was to be a Nazirite his whole life: “he is never to take wine…” In that moment Zechariah knew that his son would be no ordinary man.

But back to the issue of wine and other alcoholic drinks. Should we abstain if we are to be great in God’s eyes? Is that a pre-requisite, a requirement, for true greatness?

It is easy for us as humans to become pre-occupied with rules and especially prohibitions, because our natural minds think in terms of cause and effect, action and reward. We like rules, because it gives us the opportunity to justify ourselves, to think of ourselves as “good enough”. We like to be able to parade our goodness before the world, and this is one way we can do it. As doctors we are often faced with the effects of alcohol on our patients, and it is easy to become very negative about alcohol, but almost invariably it is the effects of excessive alcohol intake that lead to harm. But the Bible does not condemn alcohol outright and neither should we doctors. Nor is abstention in itself the sign of a good Christian

This passage is not really about alcohol at all, but about the marks of greatness. John would not become great by abstaining from alcohol, but by being filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the second part of the verse. And here’s the thing: true greatness comes primarily from the things that we allow to control us, not by the things we don’t allow to control us. It is not the avoidance of alcohol that is important here, it is being filled with the Spirit. The avoidance of alcohol is certainly a sign that we are not willing to be controlled by alcohol, but there are many other things apart from God that can control us too, and if we submit to them then we will be no more great in God’s eyes than a drunkard. It is not what we don’t do that makes us great, but what we do. It is the Spirit within us that will make us great, not being a teetotaller.

There is an expression sometimes used for describing drunkenness in a person – “under the influence.” We make choices every day about the things we want to influence us, the things that we allow to shape our lives.  If we choose wine, then we will never be great in God’s eyes, but if we choose the Holy Spirit we have taken the first step.

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