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Before You Take a Sip, Consider This

Posted September 24, 2012 by Steve Hafler


I’ve never seen a beer commercial featuring battered children, broken lives, fractured families, or teenage amputees.  It’s all about beautiful people, fashion, party time, and success!  Somehow that 12 ounce can of beer is presented as the secret to popularity and fulfillment.  That dark bottle is marketed as ‘liquid awsomeness.’  The commercials haven’t changed much since I was a boy, and I’m assuming from the staggering statistics of alcoholism and alcohol influenced crime that it still sells.

I was no stranger to Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, wine coolers, ice cold Corona, warm cases of Schaefer, and an impressive assortment of other alcoholic beverages.  I know the thrill of sitting around a table with friends playing drinking games.  I know the adrenalin of breaking into the liqueur cabinets of my friend’s parents for a free bottle or shot.  I know the regret of sliding down from the top of a telephone pole drunk and not feeling the one inch splinters piercing my hands (“Who has wounds without cause?”… “‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it.’” Proverbs 23:35).  I know the gut wrenching pain of being hammered by an overdose of vodka and gin.  I have vowed many times while hanging my head over a toilet that I would never touch another drink (and I meant it with full sincerity), but the next party would always prove too tempting(“When shall I awake? I must have another drink.” Proverbs 23:35).  It was the sickening hangovers that initially created my interest in drugs.  If I could get the same or better ‘high’ with less hangover then count me in!  The vortex of addiction was getting stronger.  “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine” (Proverbs 23:29-30).

My wife’s experience was different.  Her father was an alcoholic and she experienced, up close and personal, the danger and damage excess could bring into a family.  God delivered her dad from alcohol and today he is a transformed person and as a result a total abstainer.

I thank the Lord for His mercy and the free gift of grace.  I praise God for deliverance and the transforming power of the Gospel of His Son by His Spirit.  I was born again at age 21 (a month and a half after I could legally drink and get into nightclubs – a time I had eagerly anticipated).  I thank the Lord for a wife who sees the danger and desires to protect our children from a threat that holds potential to destroy. “In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things” (Proverbs 23:32-33).

Alcohol, with its effects of drunkenness and destruction, left both of us with a demystified view of it’s highly addictive nature.  I’ve tasted it, enjoyed it, abused it, have been left near dead because of it, almost killed four of my friends while driving under it’s influence, and thankfully have been delivered from its devastation.  The Proverb remains true, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).

There is a beautiful section in Mark’s narrative that has caused confusion through sloppy interpretation.  This passage has become a favorite among young people who want to quickly excuse questionable lifestyle choices.  They argue, “Jesus ate with sinners – that settles it!”  Settles what?  Let’s look at the passage in context.


Mark 2:15-17 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.  And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

It might help if we start by answering what it is that Jesus did in this passage, andwhy Jesus did what He did?  Unfortunately, the way this passage is often handled, you would think that Jesus is sitting at a bar with the dregs of society and partaking in recreational intoxicants (not drunk of course, because that is a clear prohibition).  Notice what Jesus is not doing when associating with unbelievers throughout the Gospels.

  • Jesus is not adopting the debased values of the culture.  Jesus’ mission results in transforming people and cultures not conforming to fallen people and degenerate cultures (a life He will call us to as well – Romans 12:1-2).
  • Jesus is not just going with the flow and taking it easy by hanging out with the non-religious sector of Capernaum.
  • Jesus is not trying to get in with the social elites in an effort to give traction to His reputation and ministry.

Each of these would be tragic misrepresentations of the Word become flesh and God’s written Word.  It is our responsibility to be “rightly handling the word of truth”(2 Timothy 2:15).  We must be careful that the error created by hyper-traditionalist’s unwarranted narrow ‘applications’ is not the same sloppy exegesis by ‘reformers’ who make unwarranted broad ‘applications.’  There is true freedom in Christ, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

In each passage we must understand what God’s Word is saying and then humbly submit to that truth.  Note three things about Mark 2:15-17.

First, it’s not about recreation, but about mission.  Jesus’ mission is not simply to defy established religion (Jesus chose to associate with them too), but with precision He is seeking to save the lost (Luke 19:10; 1 Timothy 1:15).  Jesus’ association with sinners is not recreational, but rather a strategic maneuver to call sinners to repentance.  To interpret Jesus’ actions at this feast in upper Galilee as a passive condoning of every aspect of this group’s culture and lifestyle choices is a poor handling of this text.  Jesus proximity to sinners does not mean He’s overlooking or partaking in questionable things.  It does mean He is establishing relationships with those outside the synagogue in order to confront unbelief with grace and truth.  It is clear that Jesus did not adopt the Fortress Mentality of Ministry that so many churches have implemented today (our coffee shop, our band, our room, our preference, our style, our way…).

Second, it’s not about what’s on the table, but who’s at the table.  The text reveals that the scandal has to do with association.  According to the scribes Jesus took the low road, the slippery slope, and compromised His associations.  “And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:15).  The scandal has to do with who is at the table. The focus of this passage is: (1) sin and forgiveness, (2) exclusion and acceptance. To eat the wrong food, at the wrong place, with the wrong people is (according to the scribes of the Pharisees) ‘unclean.’

It is this issue of “eating” that will be at the center of another controversy which helps explain the tension in this context (see Mark 7:1-5).

The issue is ‘sharing a table’ with sinful people.  This is what earned Him the magnificent title of “friend of tax collectors and sinners” in a parallel passage (Matthew 11:19).  It’s important to note that in the following verse, Jesus “began to denounce the cities because they did not repent” (Matthew 11:20).  Jesus is on a mission to infiltrate groups of sinners to preach repentance and belief in the gospel (Mark 1:15).  He is a friend who calls them to repentance and faith.  His mission has not lost it’s edge.

Third, it’s not about social liberties, but about needy people.  Jesus’ response indicates that He is focused on people (not social liberties nor man-made restrictions).  The term tax collectors and sinners is a phrase used 3x in two verses (vv.15-16).  They represent a section of Jewish society which Jesus could not connect with in the synagogue.  Note that it was the Pharisees traditions and their narrow applications that Jesus disregarded, not Scripture.  Jesus was keenly aware and concerned about the disease that gripped those who sat with Him at the table, and He was seeking to carry out His mission as their Savior, their Physician of the soul.  “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

To help sinners you must expose yourself to sinners, much like a doctor who exposes himself to sick people in order to help them.

To take from this that Jesus is sitting at a bar recreationally with a can of beer or a shot of Jack while watching a ball game with a few friends is a gross misrepresentation of who Jesus is and what He is doing.

This passage isn’t about beer, pizza, video games, and a few ‘Buds’ at Bible study.  This passage is about life on life with lost people who will probably never be reached at the synagogue (or in our case – in the church building).

Paul will actually warn Christians of a faulty application of “freedom” in a letter to believers in Galatia:  “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).  The dual truths of total freedom and total responsibility are held in tension and will provide a healthy “push and pull” between two complimentary truths.

If we’re not careful we’ll end up disguising rebellion as grace and packaging our independence as freedom.

Jesus is God in the flesh, and He showed us what holiness looks like “lived out.”  It comes as a surprise to new believers that God calls us to be holy as well.  1 Peter 1:15-16 states,“but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”  Peter, who walked with the Lord and saw what holiness lived out looks like (God in the flesh), makes a connection between holiness and conduct.  This is not mere “behaviorism” or “legalism.”  Peter, who was probably at the meal in Matthew’s home, saw Jesus’ holiness in the synagogue, on the shore, in his own home, and now at a feast with Matthew.  It is Peter who talks of holiness in conduct for He saw it lived out in front of him.  Jesus is holiness lived out, distinctiveness displayed, perfection personified, and unique sinlessness walking on the shore of Galilee and resting in Peter’s home.  Now He sits with sinners.  Peter saw the Lord confront real legalism, yet notice the careful application Peter makes, we should “be holy in all our conduct” (1 Peter 1:15).  God asks us to display distinctiveness and uniqueness in our conduct (our lifestyle choices), which is really a reflection of His uniqueness, His distinctiveness, and His holiness.

With any perceived freedom it helps to ask four questions (from 1 Corinthians chapters 6 and 10):

  1. Am I motivated by the glory of God?
  2. Is it helpful for me and others?
  3. Does it have a high probability of dominating me or others in a negative way?
  4. Will it build up or tear down me and others?

Christians are not arguing that their freedom includes drunkenness.  What they do argue for, however, is that if drunkenness is not the issue then its their liberty.  In other words, people argue that it’s lawful.  But this still does not settle the matter, because Scripture ‘qualifies’ lawful things – ‘things we are free to do.’

1 Corinthians 6:12 “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.”

What about alcohol in light of being helpful, dominating, and building up?

  • What does history say?
  • What do police records say?
  • What do inmates say?
  • What do abused wives by alcoholic husbands say?
  • What do insurance companies say?
  • What do children of alcoholic moms say?
  • What do parents who have lost a child because of a drunk driver say?

The issue we need to address goes beyond the simple question of whether or not alcohol is forbidden by the Bible (which entails what kind of wine, alcoholic content, natural fermentation compared to modern methods, etc.).  The larger issue is what people do with the freedom they perceive is theirs?

Romans 14:21 “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”  If this was an issue two thousand years ago, how much more is this the case with the quantity and variety that is accessible to us and with much higher levels of alcohol?

Here is a good start.  Ask yourself a few questions from God’s Word:

  1. Are your choices motivated by the glory of God (1 Corinthians 6:20; 10:31)?
  2. Are your choices helpful for you and others (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23)?
  3. Do your choices have a high risk of dominating you or others in a negative way (1 Corinthians 6:12)?
  4. Do your choices build up or tear down others (1 Corinthians 10:23)?

Remember, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,  for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Grace and Peace

You can listen to the entire sermon here.


[This article originally posted at:]