By Rev. Mark Creech
Christian Action League
July 31, 2023
My wife, Kim, and I attend a small Baptist Church in the metropolis of Eureka, North Carolina. I’m being facetious about Eureka’s size because actually, it’s a town in Wayne County with a population of about 200. Our pastor is stupendous and the congregation of Mount Nelson Baptist Church are some of the sweetest and most faithful saints I’ve ever known. We drive 30 minutes from our home in Smithfield to be with them.
Because of my speaking schedule, I am not in attendance most of the time. However, I committed to teaching Sunday School at Mount Nelson every Fifth Sunday. I look forward to it with great anticipation, and the members of the Sunday School class always indicate they are very eager to hear me explain God’s Word to them.
Last Sunday, it was my day to teach and the passage was from Jeremiah 35: 4-19. Southern Baptist Sunday School literature titled the lesson, Worthy.
The primary point of the lesson was that God commended the faithfulness of the Recabite clan as an example for the wayward people of Judah. Despite being commanded by their ancestor Jonadab to never drink wine or build houses, the Recabites faithfully adhered to these instructions for generations (approximately 300 years). God contrasts their obedience with the disobedience of Judah, emphasizing the value of the Recabites’ faithfulness and promising them a continuing presence before him.
As I shared with the class, I explained that I thought it providential that this particular lesson had fallen to me. As the executive director of the Christian Action League, I have addressed the subject of alcohol for 23 years and have encouraged followers of Christ to abstain.
I acknowledge the complexity of the subject and admonished the class that if people want to understand the topic from a sound Christian worldview, they’ll have to do more than accept cursory arguments in favor of drinking, such as: “Well didn’t Jesus turn the water into wine.” Or, “The Bible doesn’t forbid drinking but only condemns getting drunk.” Such a shallow understanding is indicative of failing to dig deep enough to discover what the Bible actually says.
I qualified my remarks by arguing that I understood the primary point of the text had little to do with alcohol. But because there has been a significant decline in abstinence among evangelicals in recent years, Jeremiah 35, and its story about the Recabites’ vow not to drink wine, provides a great opportunity to revisit the subject of alcohol use. Something that must not escape our notice is God’s endorsement of the Recabites’ decision to follow abstinence.
It is my prayer that you will find this Sunday School lesson of help to you and your family.
Sunday School Lesson: Worthy
Text: Jeremiah 35: 4-19
By Rev. Mark Creech
I find it providential that this lesson would fall to me, seeing that much of its content speaks of wine. As executive director of the Christian Action League, a non-profit ministry that was founded during the repeal of Prohibition, when churches were still deeply concerned about the trafficking of alcoholic beverages, I have spent a significant portion of my life addressing the subject of drinking and encouraging believers to abstain. Moreover, in the past 23 years, as a registered lobbyist for the League, I have provided lawmakers with premium scientific information about alcohol, its potential harms, and what constitutes responsible alcohol policy for our state.
Make no mistake, the subject of the use and abuse of wine in the Scriptures is a complicated one, just as alcohol policy is some of the most difficult legislation, convoluted, full of twists and turns, that lawmakers ever have to deal with. I have become convinced over the years that the import of the alcohol question is grossly underestimated. For most people, unfortunately, it is as slippery as an eel in a fisherman’s hands – it can be very difficult for people to get a firm hold on it.
Let me admonish you, if you have the heart to understand the matter of alcohol use from a biblical worldview, you will need to look beyond cursory arguments in favor of drinking, such as, didn’t Jesus turn the water into wine? Or, the Christian social drinker’s mantra, which argues that the Bible doesn’t speak against drinking, it only teaches against getting drunk.
Such views leave us with many unsettling questions, many of which I will not have time to speak to today. Admittedly, I may end up raising as many questions as I answer today. What is more, this lesson is not primarily about the use of alcohol. Instead, it is about an illustration that the prophet Jeremiah used to contrast the faithfulness of the Rechabites with the unfaithfulness of God’s people, more specifically, the children of Judah.
Nevertheless, I suggest there is much wisdom to be derived from this lesson about the way something like choosing not to imbibe alcohol and distancing ourselves from places and persons where the exercise of idolatry and other cultural practices have a deleterious effect on one’s faith and Christian walk, is indeed a preferred and prudent way of living to assist us in remaining true to God.
Furthermore, it is quite apparent today that evangelicals, who were once the bulwark against the tide of alcohol consumption, are no longer characterized as abstainers.
Gallup says only 34% of evangelicals say they are total abstainers. And based on responses from the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals in 2019, including the CEOs of denominations and representatives of a broad array of evangelical organizations, it was determined that 2 in 5 evangelical leaders drink.
At the 2006 annual Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist pastors stood on the floor of the convention and openly spoke in favor of drinking. Although a resolution against alcohol passed that year by a wide margin, the situation demonstrates the way the belief in abstinence has eroded, even among stalwart denominations like our own SBC.
So, I think it might prove to be helpful to take a little of our time to revisit the subject of alcohol use and our lesson provides us with a prime opportunity to do so.
Read the Text, Jeremiah 35:5-11
5 I set cups and jugs of wine before them and invited them to have a drink, 6 but they refused. “No,” they said, “we don’t drink wine, because our ancestor Jehonadab[a] son of Recab gave us this command: ‘You and your descendants must never drink wine. 7 And do not build houses or plant crops or vineyards, but always live in tents. If you follow these commands, you will live long, good lives in the land.’ 8 So we have obeyed him in all these things. We have never had a drink of wine to this day, nor have our wives, our sons, or our daughters. 9 We haven’t built houses or owned vineyards or farms or planted crops. 10 We have lived in tents and have fully obeyed all the commands of Jehonadab, our ancestor. 11 But when King Nebuchadnezzar[b] of Babylon attacked this country, we were afraid of the Babylonian and Syrian[c] armies. So, we decided to move to Jerusalem. That is why we are here.”
The backdrop of our text is the reign of Judah’s wicked King Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:36-37). Jehoiakim was known for his injustice, idolatry, and disregard for God’s laws. He set up idols and encouraged idol worship throughout the kingdom, leading the people away from the true worship of God. He oppressed his own people, using his power to enrich himself at their expense. He rejected the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah. In chapter 36, we read that he burned Jeremiah’s prophetic scroll (Jer. 36 19-26). Overall, his time on the throne was characterized by a deviation from the righteous path God had ordered for his people. His rule would witness the first of Babylon’s attacks against Jerusalem.
So, the Lord instructed Jeremiah to bring the Recabites to one of the inner chambers of the Temple (35:2-4) and set the stage for a powerful object lesson.
Illustrations and object lessons are critical for good communication because they provide visual clarity. They engage the audience and often foster emotional responses. They can simplify complex ideas, accommodate different learning styles, and enhance a person’s ability to remember what was said.
Jesus was a master communicator who often used illustrations and object lessons, also known as parables, to convey the teaching of God’s Word. For example, he used common agricultural practices (sowing seeds, harvesting crops) or even household items (the leaven for making bread, the use of a lamp) to teach the most profound of truths.
I say this as an encouragement for Sunday School teachers or any of you who have the opportunity to share important truths with others. If possible, use a relatable illustration.
Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Incorporating visuals and tangible examples help break down the subject matter, engage the audience, and enhance effective teaching.
So, God commands Jeremiah to set cups and jugs of wine before his guests, the Recabites, and invites them to drink wine. Now I think it’s important to say that this invitation to drink wine was no more an authentic invitation or a genuine summons than when Abraham was called upon by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
This was a test. It was a trial to prove a point – a lesson for Judah at a time when the people were far away from God.
The Recabites’ response was a noble one. They told the prophet that they did not drink wine and they cited a command from Jonadab, son of their ancestor Recab as the reason for their abstinence.
Jonadab had lived three hundred years before this event recorded in the book of Jeremiah. The Recabites, were Kenites, a tribe, the origin of which is shrouded in mystery. It is believed that it was through their valiant leader Jonadab, the son of Recab, that they first gained some special prominence. They were known for their nomadic lifestyle.
One commentator notes at some point the Recabites probably started to forsake their nomadic lifestyle and were being seduced by the sinful practices in the cities of Palestine. Jonadab discerned their peril and required a different way of life for them. His rules for them and their descendants were the following:
“You and your descendants must never drink wine. And do not build houses or plant crops or vineyards, but always live in tents. If you follow these commands, you will live long, good lives in the land.”
I suggest that Jonadab’s object, his purpose, was to protect them from cultural rot and to preserve their health and strong moral character. He didn’t want them to settle into houses, start planting crops and vineyards, but to always live in tents.
Just as Lot, whom the book of Jude refers to as a righteous man, left his nomadic lifestyle with Abraham and settled in the city of Sodom, and consequently he and his family were negatively influenced by the wicked Sodomites, Jonadab didn’t want his tribal clan to be negatively impacted by the intemperance and general corruption that pervaded the town populations of Israel and Judah. He thus hoped if they were true to these simple instructions then it might help ensure for them God’s favor, and as a result of both spiritual and natural laws, they would enjoy both physical longevity and tranquil living in the land.
Obviously, Jonadab, himself a man of fervent faith, had practiced these rules and found them to be tried and true. Therefore, he was desirous that the same blessings which had come to him through these disciplines should be experienced by his family through successive generations.
The Recabites had strictly obeyed Jonadab’s commands. They had followed his instructions from his days for three centuries until the country had been overrun by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. Babylonian troops had made it impossible for the Recabites to continue living away from urban areas as they previously had, out of fear for their lives. They were thus obliged to seek safety within the walled city of Jerusalem, but they would not violate the mandate forbidding them to drink wine of any kind.
Thus, for anyone who would simply take notice of them, the Recabites were a living sermon on subjection to the law.
Therefore, Jeremiah lays out the lesson for everyone, contrasting the Recabites’ principled lives and the dishonorable ways of Judah and her people.
Read the text, Jeremiah 35: 12-16
“Then the Lord gave this message to Jeremiah: 13 “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: Go and say to the people in Judah and Jerusalem, ‘Come and learn a lesson about how to obey me. 14 The Recabites do not drink wine to this day because their ancestor Jehonadab told them not to. But I have spoken to you again and again, and you refuse to obey me. 15 Time after time I sent you prophets, who told you, “Turn from your wicked ways, and start doing things right. Stop worshiping other gods so that you might live in peace here in the land I have given to you and your ancestors.” But you would not listen to me or obey me. 16 The descendants of Jehonadab son of Recab have obeyed their ancestor completely, but you have refused to listen to me.”
In his commentary on the book of Jeremiah, H.A. Ironside, the author and scholar who once pastored the Moody Church in Chicago, said that the record of the people of Judah had always been that they only knew God’s law to break it. He writes:
“From the day when they made the calf in the wilderness until the time in which Jeremiah ministered to them, their history had been a long shameful account of disobedience and willful rejection of his [God’s] Word…[It was] through Isaiah, [God] had cried, “Listen, O heavens! Pay attention, earth! This is what the LORD says: ‘The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me. Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care—but Israel doesn’t know its master. My people don’t recognize my care for them” (Isaiah 1:2,3). Less responsive than the beasts that perish, they had turned away their ears from his law and refused to walk in the way of his commandments.
“Has not this awful indictment a solemn indictment for Christians? How widespread is the willful spirit even among those who are ‘bought with a price,’ even the precious blood of Christ? How many of us act as truly knowing our owner? We are not our own, but his who sold all that he had to purchase us! What kind of bargain has he had? What is our Master’s crib but the holy Word of God, so often neglected and uncared for in Christian homes? What an abundance of good provender [food] does it contain, and all for the sheep of Christ! Yet how is it turned from, while the husks of the world are sought instead! It is to be feared that there is very little moral difference between the state of Judah in the days of her downfall and the house of God today. Let us see to it that we learn the lesson of these faithful Recabites.”
Now, since we have completed a full consideration of the primary emphasis of this text, except for the conclusion of how God elevated and rewarded the Recabites for their faithfulness, let’s look at the question of their commitment not to drink wine.
Wine is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, and while it is important to note that the interpretation can vary, there are instances where wine is associated with positive concepts and symbolism.
For instance, in the Old Testament, wine is sometimes associated with abundance and blessings from God. For example, Psalm 104:14-15 states, “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for people to use. You allow them to produce food from the earth—wine to make them glad, olive oil to soothe their skin, and bread to give them strength.”
Wine is frequently associated with joyous events and celebrations throughout the Bible. In the book of Esther, for instance, when King Ahasuerus throws a banquet to celebrate his reign, wine is abundant, symbolizing joy and abundance.
In the New Testament, wine is employed as an allegory for spiritual transformation and new life. Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11), is seen as a sign of the arrival of the new covenant and the transformation of the old ways. In the Communion service, wine symbolizes the blood of Jesus shed for the forgiveness of sins and signifies joyous unity and fellowship among believers.
But wine in the Bible also has very negative associations coupled with commands to avoid its use.
Wine is often associated with excess and the loss of self-control. Proverbs 20:1 warns, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” The text cautions against the way wine can make people do foolish things that they would not do otherwise had they not been drinking.
The book of Leviticus (10:8-10) commanded priests not to drink so that they could distinguish between what is holy and what is unholy. Kings are forbidden to drink, lest they pervert justice (Proverbs 31:4-5).
The Bible often mentions the appalling results of alcohol – there is a terrible story involving Noah’s drunkenness, Lot, and others.
Someone has listed 20 negative consequences of drinking which are stated in the Bible:
- It slows the thinking process (Proverbs 31:4–5).
2. It makes one dizzy (Job 12:25).
3. It is associated with self-centeredness (Hab. 2:5).
4. It causes sickness (Jer. 25:27).
5. It causes forgetfulness (Prov. 31:6–7).
6. It produces delirious dreams (Prov. 23:33).
7. It results in sleepiness (Gen. 9:20–25).
8. It produces complacency and laziness (Zeph. 1:12).
9. It numbs one’s feelings (Prov 23:31–35).
10. It leads to poverty (Prov 21:17).
11. It leads to brokenness (Jer. 23:9).
12. It results in sadness and depression (Isa. 16:9–10).
13. It causes sorrow (Prov. 23:29–30).
14. It produces blackouts (Gen. 19:33–35).
15. It leads to immorality (Joel 3:3).
16. It encourages sexual perversion (Hab. 2:15).
17. It results in guilt (Isa. 24:20).
18. It causes injuries (Prov. 23:35).
19. It can result in insanity (Jer. 51:7).
20. It makes one vulnerable to his enemies (1 Sam. 13:28)
So how do we reconcile these two seemingly different messages on wine from the Bible? In some verses, wine is saluted as something good, while in other texts it is represented as something evil and best avoided.
Allow me to share two views I hope will provide some perspective.
Although wine is sometimes associated with joy and celebration in the Bible. It helps to understand that the Hebrew word for “wine” in the Bible doesn’t always refer to an intoxicating wine. The context in Scripture determines whether it’s talking about a fermented wine or an unfermented wine. For those quick to deny that no unfermented wine could have existed in the days of the ancients, the historical evidence is quite powerful to the contrary.
Statements by Aristotle, Hippocrates, Homer, Athenaeus, Columella, Pliny, Plutarch, Virgil, and Theophrastus, show that fresh unfermented wine was common. The ancients knew how to preserve it from its intoxicating effects.
Modern-day acknowledgments of unfermented wine in ancient times include people like Dr. Lyman Abbott in the 1876 edition of A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge.
“There is no doubt that there were three principal kinds of wine known to the ancients. First, there was fermented wine. It contained what is the only objectionable element in modern wines, a percentage of alcohol. It was the least common, and the percentage of alcohol was small… Second, were the new wines. These like our cider, were wholly without alcohol and were not intoxicating. They were easily preserved in this condition for several months. Third were wines in which, by boiling or by drugs, the process of fermentation was prevented and alcohol excluded.”
Abbott was clearly stating that there is absolutely no doubt unfermented wine was common in ancient times.
Dr. Robert P. Teachout, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas, wrote a scholarly work in 1979, titled, The Use of “Wine” in the Old Testament.
“One kind of ‘wine’ (Greek oinos, Latin vinum) which was explicitly valued and drunk in the Graco-Roman world was unfermented grape juice. (Whereas this was, of course, also true of the early Egyptians and the Mesopotamian peoples, the evidence for it is not as readily available or extensive.) Not one but several different means were used to preserve the juice long after the harvest.”
There is no need to stumble over this, we use the word “drink” in the same way today. If someone says, “Let’s stop at the store and get a drink.” The expression could be taken two ways. One might mean to stop and get an alcoholic beverage, or one might mean to stop and purchase a soda. The context is what determines the meaning of the word. So, it is in the Bible’s use of the word, “wine.”
The incomparable Christian apologist, Norman Geisler, however, did not fully agree with this understanding of alcohol use. And, he took a different position, but one that is, I believe, worthy of consideration.
Geisler believed and taught in his book, To Drink or Not to Drink: A Sober Look at the Question, that the Bible clearly condemns strong drink as a beverage.
Geisler contended that by biblical standards beer and wine, which were characteristically consumed moderately in Bible times were likely to have been fermented but significantly diluted with water and didn’t cause intoxication in normal usage. Therefore, he concluded modern alcoholic beverages, the typical wine, beer, and spirits which are heavy in alcohol content, cannot be compared to the “wine” unforbidden in Bible times. Instead, today’s forms of alcohol, beer, wine, and spirits, would fall under the category of “strong drink” and, thus patently prohibited.
The point here is that whatever position one takes, social drinking as it’s practiced today is not supported by the Scriptures. While unfermented wine may be associated with refreshment and celebration, fermented wine represents sin and decay. Although diluted wine, with very low alcohol content, can be related to joy and healing, strong drink is associated with drunkenness, impaired judgment, temptation, and moral stumbling. This explains the seeming contradiction of Scripture on the subject of alcohol.
It’s not simply that alcoholic wine or beverages is something one must be careful not to drink in excess, Geisler contends, the bottom line is that the beverage itself is tricky and indicative of danger and destruction for those who drink.
Dr. James Merritt, once the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, made an astute observation from Proverbs 20:1 in his book, Friends, Foes and Fools. Let me read the passage from Proverbs again:
“Wine is a mocker, Strong drink is a brawler, And, whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”
“Note the warning that the one who imbibes can be ‘led astray,’” writes Merritt. “Solomon was not only saying that drunkenness leads one astray – that is a truism. He was making the observation that wine and strong drink have an inherent tendency to ‘lead one astray.’”
In other words, it’s a given that drunkenness is wrong and should be guarded against. Nevertheless, equally important to recognize is that alcohol itself is inherently problematic. Because of its nature to create problems, both big and small, those who would be wise in life will avoid the use of intoxicants.
It is difficult to understand why some seem so willing to go out of their way to defend the use of alcohol when it is so closely related to incalculable depravity, debauchery, and disgusting behavior. It’s especially difficult to understand why Christians would be rather glib about its use.
Read the text, Jeremiah 35:17-19
17 “Therefore, this is what the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘Because you refuse to listen or answer when I call, I will send upon Judah and Jerusalem all the disasters I have threatened.’”
18 Then Jeremiah turned to the Recabites and said, “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘You have obeyed your ancestor Jehonadab in every respect, following all his instructions.’ 19 Therefore, this is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘Jehonadab son of Recab will always have descendants who serve me.’”
In closing, God promises to bless Jonadab’s line for their faithfulness. The Lord would judge the people of Judah for their persistent unbelief and impious acts, but he would bless and reward the Recabites. Their family line would always be honored and have a place of service before him.
One of my favorite movies is Sergeant York, played by Gary Cooper. The real Sergeant York once said, “I used to drink; drank for 10 years, drank until it broke the hearts of those who loved me and prayed for me. And then one night in 1914, I knelt at the altar in a little mountain church in East Tennessee and confessed and repented of my sins. I arose from that altar a new man in Christ Jesus, and broke with alcohol forever.” As you know, Sergeant York went on to become a tremendous American hero of World War I.
Can you imagine the incredible good that would follow if every Christian decided to give up alcohol? Could you imagine what strength of character would likely be present, how much success would be achieved, how many tragedies would be averted for families, how many billions of dollars would be saved in social costs, and how much better healthcare would be if people chose not to drink? Could you imagine how many souls might not be currently in hell if they had only chosen to avoid the alcohol that lead them away from God?
God will honor and reward those who are serious about their faith. Only by a life of holy discipline can we expect to prosper in all that he intends for his children.