Let us be sober

“Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8).

What does it mean to be sober? Sobriety is the opposite of intoxication or drunkenness. In the New Testament, the word for ‘be sober’ means to be free from all forms of intoxication, both physical and spiritual. Someone who is intoxicated is befuddled in his thinking. He does not think straight, and he underestimates risks and dangers. There are degrees of intoxication, but being sober is absolute. Sobriety is an absence of intoxication.

“Gird up the loins of your mind, be sober” (1 Peter 1:13). The expression ‘gird up your loins’ means ‘be ready for action’. Thus, we must be ready for mental action, we must be mentally alert, which requires sobriety.

The command to be sober is part of sound doctrine. Paul wrote to Timothy: “But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things” (Titus 2:1-3).

Older men must be sober and older women may not be enslaved to much wine. Although this verse is directed to the elderly, it applies for all. To be enslaved, is to be overpowered by something. Someone who is enslaved to alcohol must have a certain amount each day. Alcohol is a habit-forming drug that depresses bodily functions and dulls the mind.

To be appointed as an elder, a man may not be addicted to wine (1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7). With addiction there is an overpowering urge to use the drug because the body has developed a chemical dependence on it, often accompanied by a psychological dependence. Painful and distressing withdrawal symptoms occur if the habitual amount is not obtained.

A habit-forming drug causes changes in body chemistry which trigger compensating reactions in an attempt to restore the degraded facilities. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system and slows down bodily functions, including heart-rate and general sensitivity. Thus, the body counteracts this by speeding up the heart and increasing sensitivity. Even after the alcohol is removed by the liver, the compensation remains for some time. This causes the person to be tense, anxious and hypersensitive. Thus, he craves alcohol to counteract the hypersensitivity.

Alcohol is also a mood-changing drug. It has a calming effect, reduces inhibitions and causes an artificial feeling of security and well-being. Because of the body’s compensation, however, one must continually have more alcohol to get the same buzz. Since the pleasant effect only occurs while the alcohol content in the blood is rising, and reverses as the alcohol level drops, the use of alcohol can easily become a vicious circle of increasing compulsive use. “Wine and new wine enslave the heart” (Hosea 4:11). Different substances have different levels of addictiveness, and different people react to addictive substances in a different way.

Christians are commanded to be sober, thus we must avoid intoxication and addiction to alcohol. Does this mean that a Christian may never drink something that contains even a small amount of alcohol?

According to the New Testament, Jesus drank wine: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33-35 // Matthew 11:18, 19). These accusations were, of course, false. Jesus was neither a glutton nor a tippler, but He did drink wine.

Wine was a staple food in Biblical times. The word ‘wine’ described both fermented and unfermented grape juice. Grape juice was preserved both by fermentation and by boiling down to half or one third its original volume to obtain an unfermented concentrated juice that would keep for years.

In our day, most wines have the alcohol content artificially increased by adding sugar during fermentation, and fortified wines (such as Port and Sherry) have extra alcohol added outright.

In Biblical times it was customary to decrease the strength of wine by adding two or three parts water to one part wine. By doing this, Jews observed Old Testament warnings against strong drink (Proverbs 20:1; Isaiah 5:11).

The wording in Revelation 14:10 relates to this practice: “He himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation.” The original has “poured out unmixed”.

The wisdom of diluting wine is substantiated by modern research. Alcohol damages the skin, brain, liver, heart and other parts of the body, and causes death when the alcohol content in the blood reaches 0.4 percent.

Mnesitheus, an Athenian medical doctor in the forth century BC, wrote of wine*: “In daily life, to those who mix and drink it moderately, it gives good cheer. But if you overstep the bounds, it brings violence. Mix it half and half, and you get madness! Unmixed, bodily collapse!” Eubulus, an Athenian writer and statesman who lived about the same time, wrote that harm comes to those who drink wine stronger than three parts wine to nine-parts water.

Thus, the wine that Jesus used had much less alcohol than most wine sold today.

They who wish to follow Jesus’ example must remember that He never sinned: “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Since we are told to be sober, and both drunkenness and addiction are condemned in Scripture, Jesus  never drank too much, not even once, and He was not addicted to wine.

Timothy, who previously drank no wine, was encouraged by Paul to use a little wine for medicinal purposes: “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities” (1 Timothy 5:23).

From this, we may conclude that it is not a sin to drink small amounts of wine as long as one remains completely sober and is not addicted.

The Scriptures also teach, however, that there are circumstances under which one should not drink at all. Priests under the Old Covenant were to drink no wine when they were on duty. “Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean, and that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by the hand of Moses” (Leviticus 10:9-11). “No priest shall drink wine when he enters the inner court” (Ezekiel 44:21).

Although this no longer applies as law, we should consider the extent to which the reasoning and principles behind this Old-Testament restriction might still apply to church leaders under the New Covenant.

People in important positions should not drink. “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for princes intoxicating drink; lest they drink and forget the law, and pervert the justice of all the afflicted” (Proverbs 31:4, 5).

In our age, this applies to anyone who operates a vehicle. Even worldly people encourage drivers not to drink at all with the slogan: “If you’ve had a drink, let someone else drive.”

There are also health considerations. The American Medical Association advises expectant mothers not to drink alcoholic beverages at all because even small amounts of alcohol in the mother’s blood can cause brain damage to an unborn child. It must also be taken into consideration that because of the lower blood volume, women are more sensitive to alcohol than men. On average, half a glass of wine puts the same percentage of alcohol into a woman’s blood as a whole glass for a man. Some studies indicate that alcohol-use by a father can cause brain damage to his children.

Because their brains are still developing, alcohol can also cause brain-damage to children and adolescents. Thus, the American Medical Association recommends that no one under 21 should drink alcohol at all.

Certain medications, including many pain killers, may not be combined with alcohol. Even small amounts of alcohol trigger migraines and panic attacks in some people, after the alcohol wears off.

An alcoholic may not drink alcohol at all. Anyone can become addicted to alcohol. Certain people, however, are extremely susceptible to alcohol addiction. This incurable condition is called alcoholism. It is estimated that from 5 to 7% of the population are active alcoholics. The percentage that are latent alcoholics is difficult to estimate, but it is believed to also be from 5 to 7%. Although latent alcoholics have never used alcohol, because of their make-up, they would become enslaved if they did.

It has been discovered that an alcoholic’s body quickly compensates for alcohol, which means that he can drink alcohol without appearing drunk. But precisely because his body adjusts to alcohol so fast, he also becomes quickly dependent and enslaved, and cannot get along without alcohol once he starts drinking. He gradually needs more and more to keep from having distressing withdrawal symptoms. Thus he is locked into a vicious circle, and alcohol eventually destroys his health and ruins his life unless he can accept the reality that for him the only solution is not to drink at all.

Alcoholism manifests itself in different ways. Compulsive use of alcohol can be either continuous or periodic.

Some alcoholics start by drinking a small amount of alcohol every day, and although they never appear drunk at first, the amount they need daily gradually increases until the alcohol in their blood finally starts disrupting their personal, family, social and professional activities.

Other alcoholics do not drink every day, but are unable to stop after one drink: one drink leads to another, and another. After drinking too much, the bad consequences can cause them to refrain from drinking for a while. But the next time they have an alcoholic beverage, the same thing happens.

The causes of alcoholism are complex. The various underlying factors include a genetic element. Studies have shown that (whereas in the general population the chance of being an alcoholic is between 10 and 15%) the child of an alcoholic has a 25% chance of being highly susceptible to alcohol addiction. It is not dishonorable to have this hereditary susceptibility, but someone who does, must be able to accept the fact that he must avoid alcohol entirely to keep from becoming enslaved.

Some of the early warning signs of alcoholism are: needing a certain amount of alcohol every day; planning to take just one drink but ending up taking several; having a craving and enthusiasm for alcoholic beverages; having a drink before stressful situations; having a drink to calm one’s nerves; drinking alone; having a drink in the morning; neglecting responsibilities to buy alcohol; becoming more accident prone; hiding the amount drunk from family and friends; denying that there is a problem when others suggest that too much is being drunk.

Denial is common even in extremely advanced stages of alcoholism! The addict does not think straight about his use of alcohol. Even close family members can also be in denial and make excuses for the alcoholic!

Christians must be sober. We may not befuddle our minds with alcohol or be addicted to alcohol.

“Thus be alert in your thinking, be sober” (1 Peter 1:13 RD).

Avoidance of alcohol-abuse is a matter of life and death, both physically and spiritually. Through alcohol, Satan destroys many lives, and turns many homes into hell on earth. In addition to the thousands of deaths each year from alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related illnesses such as liver failure, alcohol is involved in 50% of arrests, in 40% of traffic fatalities, in 30% of fire fatalities, in 30% of drownings and in 20% of suicides. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

Let us be sober. “Let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8). Amen.

Roy Davison

The Scripture quotations in this article are from
The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982,
Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers unless indicated otherwise.
Permission for reference use has been granted.

Published in The Old Paths Archive


* Quoted by Athenaeus in The Deipnosophists or The Banquet of the Learned. The original, in a different translation, can be found on page 59 at this web address of the University of Wisconsin, followed by a quotation from Eubulus with similar content: