Use A Little Wine (1 Timothy 5:17-21)

1 Timothy 5:23

Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.

I often say that one of the reasons I love being a Christian is the fact that it doesn't expect mindless obedience to commands. Sure, there are commands in the Bible that can and should simply be applied to our lives, day by day. But God in His wisdom has also given us His word in such a way that we're also forced to think about what it says, comparing Scripture with Scripture to discern principles that we can then apply to life in the 21st century. We're not told directly how to approach issues of euthenasia or the use of medicine more generally or any number of other issues, but we can discern a godly approach by careful study of what God has said in His word.

Take for example our text for this morning – 1 Timothy 5:23. I'm sure we've all heard this verse before, but how many of us have stopped to give it any serious consideration? I certainly hadn't. And yet it provides valuable food for thought in our approach to issues of the use of alcohol and our use of medicine – issues that are very much alive in today's society.

On the face of it, our verse is simple and straight forward. Timothy is told to stop drinking only water, and instead use a little wine because of his stomach and his frequent illnesses. We might even be tempted to ask how this could possibly be relevant to us today.

But scratch the surface - consider the issues that are raised by this simple statement.

Why has Timothy been only drinking water until now?

There are a couple of possibilities.

First, we might laugh at the idea but Timothy could also potentially have been drinking only water because he had a history as an alcoholic. We can safely discount this possibility for three reasons.

First, nothing Paul writes elsewhere even hints at such an issue.

Second, Paul told Timothy just a couple of chapters earlier that a potential elder must be “not given to much wine”. If this requirement applies to the elders Timothy will work with, how much more to Timothy himself?

Thirdly, Paul actively encourages Timothy in this very verse to start drinking alcohol. People from earlier centuries are often painted as naïve and even illogical today, but we have no real reason to think that that's a true picture. Paul – and the perfectly wise God who inspired him – would have understood the problems inherent in encouraging a person with an alcohol problem to drink again.

If you therefore have a problem with alcohol consumption, you can't validly take this verse and treat it as an excuse for 'falling off the wagon', as they say. God doesn't ask people to do such things.

A second possibility is that Timothy might be drinking only water because he has been influenced by people who were at that time promoting asceticism – that is, encouraging people to seek to live a simple, uncomplicated and morally pure life with a minimum of earthly possessions. Such a lifestyle may well have included avoiding drinking wine.

Asceticism certainly has had an appeal among Christians over the centuries. It was one of the basic ideas behind the creation of monastries and many have thought that an ascetic approach to life matches well with focusing on the work of spreading the gospel and a focus on your treasure being in heaven.

If this is what was going on, Paul doesn't seem to have a problem with the younger pastor being influenced in that direction, for nothing else in Paul's letters to Timothy indicates that this was happening.

At the same time though, we need to remember other things that the Scriptures say on this topic. Paul himself reminds us elsewhere that everything God created is good, and is supposed to be received with thanksgiving, provided that it doesn't cause others to stumble. We're not supposed to make money, possessions or anything else in creation our focus in life, but neither are we called to reject God's gifts to us on this earth.

In balance then, I'd argue that it's unlikely that this is the reason for Timothy drinking only water.

The last possibility we'll consider this morning is perhaps the most likely. Timothy may have chosen to drink only water because of a concern about the image he was giving as a minister of the gospel. He may have wanted to avoid alcoholic drinks as part of a desire to do everything he could to exemplify the gospel as a positive influence on a person's life, as part of a desire to do nothing that would bring Christ into disrepute. Paul certainly encourages us to do this elsewhere, and the apostle says he himself did this, so even if it might not be Timothy's reason for drinking only water, we should pause and ask ourselves how important it is to us not to put stumbling blocks in the way of others. How concerned are we that our lives provide the best possible picture of what it is to be a Christian? What do we do in order to avoid bringing God's name into disrepute? Do we even think of these issues?

Now there certainly are other possibilities, aside from the ones we've covered. Timothy might simply not have liked the taste of wine. He might have had allergies – though that can certainly be ruled out because of the call to start drinking wine.

The point however is this: whatever Timothy's reasons for drinking only water in the past, Paul calls him to change his ways, and for good reason, as we'll see.

But notice first that Timothy isn't called to go to the other extreme. Paul says “drink a little wine”. In perfect consistency with other passages, he doesn't encourage excessive consumption of alcohol. In fact, elsewhere we're explicitly called not to get drunk on wine, but instead be filled with the Spirit. This doesn't mean we can't drink alcohol for enjoyment. Just think of the abundant and high quality provision of wine by Jesus in John 2 for one example.

So why is Paul tell Timothy to stop drinking only water? It's because of his stomach and his frequent illnesses. Nowhere else are we given more detail as to exactly what Timothy's condition was, but we don't need more detail. We can see clearly from these words what we need to know. The command was given for the sake of Timothy's health.

There is, you see brothers and sisters, a balance to be struck.

Robert Murray McCheyne was a minister in the Church of Scotland in the early 1800s. He died at the age of just 29, and is reputed to have said on his deathbed, speaking of his body: “God gave me the gospel and a horse. I have killed the horse, so I can no longer preach the gospel.”

Timothy needed to avoid that same fate. He needed to take care of himself so that he could continue to faithfully minister the gospel.

In recent years, there has been some emphasis on pastors taking care of themselves not only physically, but also mentally. About 10 years ago, Peter Brain released a book called “Going the Distance”, dealing with this topic. He quotes James Berkeley as talking about needing to find the balance between burning out and rusting out.

This is what Timothy needed to do, here in Paul's epistle. He needed to take good care of himself so that he could finish the race set before him.

And so do you and I. Our calling, like Timothy's calling, is to love and serve our glorious God above all else. You may not be serving as a minister of the gospel, like Timothy was, but this doesn't change the application. All of us are called, above all else, to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, every moment of every day. The grace of God in Christ has been shown to us purely because God loved us and desired to be gracious to us. But that is not the end of the story. We show that we are recipients of God's grace through the difference it makes in our lives. Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all and therefore all died. And He died for all so that those who live would no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again.

To do that effectively – to use every little bit of who we are to say thank you to God for His grace, we need to take care of ourselves.

You see, what Paul is effectively telling Timothy to do here is take his medicine. “Because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” clearly implies that Paul expected Timothy to somehow be healthier as a result. The apostle expected as he wrote that Timothy would be better able to glorify God from day to day if he stopped drinking only water, and started to drink a little wine.

Perhaps it was that the water in Timothy's region wasn't perfectly safe to drink – remember that water treatment the way we know it didn't exist in the first century. Perhaps Timothy had other problems that meant the wine could reasonably be expected to improve his quality of life. Whatever the case, Timothy is called to take his medicine.

There's an apocryphal story of a man caught in a flood who manages to get onto the roof of his house just in time. Along comes a jet boat and the occupants offer to take him to safety. “No thanks,” he replies. “God will take care of me.” Later, a helicopter comes and again he refuses their help. “God will take care of me”. The flood waters kept rising and the man is swept away, dying. In heaven, he asks God why he wasn't been saved. “What do you mean?”, God said. “I sent you a jet boat and a helicopter.”

Likewise here, Timothy is not called to pray harder. He is not exhorted to have more faith or to wait for some miraculous healing. He is not called to soldier on inspite of the problems he currently faces, but in a time in history when wine is used as medicine, Timothy is instead to make use of the means God has already provided to deal with the sickness he experiences - or at least alleviate the symptoms.

The principle that we're supposed to make use of the means God has already provided can be applied in all sorts of ways today.

Should we make use of technology that allows us to get the gospel out to people in new and varied ways? Absolutely! And even more so when that means reaching people who would never otherwise have the opportunity to hear of God's grace.

Should we make use of modern medicine that allows us and others to lead healthier lives, thereby giving us more time to grow in godliness on this earth, more time to enjoy God's grace and goodness, more opportunity to serve God and others while here and more time to for us to share the gospel and them to hear it? Yes!

Should we make use of heaters and air conditioning systems or radio mikes and projectors or hearing aid loops in our worship, in ways that enable us to concentrate better, understand better what is being said and thus glorify God more and more faithfully? Absolutely.

There are, of course, limits. Like the Scriptures themselves, technology has to be used thoughtfully. There comes a point where technology can distract from the worship of God instead of aiding it. There comes a point where it is better to depart and be with the Lord instead of continuing to live on this earth. We always need to be careful to keep the ultimate purpose to all that we do in mind.

But the general principle espoused here in 1 Timothy 5 is timeless. God in His goodness and grace has provided us with various tools that can aid us in our service of Him. We can and should use them as we prayerfully and thoughtfully seek to glorify God in every aspect of life, and especially as we seek to proclaim to all and sundry that there is no other name under heaven by which people must be saved apart from the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Timothy was called to stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of his stomach and his frequent illnesses. Are there things you and I can do that will enable us to better serve the Lord?

Let's pray.