Abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22)

The 400 year war about “appearance of evil”

The King James translation of this verse using “appearance” has probably been responsible for more fighting among Christians during the last 400 years than any other verse in the Bible. When it is quoted in an argument about some activity, it is used to enforce one Christian’s belief, conscience, and opinion on another Christian. It is supposed to be the final slam of the door at the end of a contentious argument. If what you are doing appears to be similar to something that someone judges to be evil, then the Bible is supposed to be explicitly forbidding it. But, is that what the verse means and is that how it is supposed to be used?

“Prove all things, hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21,22 KVJ)

That single verse, pulled out of context, and misused in this way, does not mean what the Apostle Paul wrote. As Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” It is an example of sloppy cut-and-paste soundbite theology, which can be used to wrongly-divide the Bible into saying anything you want it to say. Many groups have latched onto the King James rendering of that verse as a Shibboleth to justify their works program of rules and regulations.

In verses 19-22 Paul prods them to encourage prophecy, but to test it and hold fast the good

In reality, this verse is part of a sentence, which is part of a paragraph, which is part of a letter written to the Christians in Thessalonica. If you remember, Paul was sent away from Thessalonica in the middle of the night by the brethren (Acts 17) and went to Berea (where the Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica). Now that Timothy has returned with news from these cities, Paul writes a letter of thanksgiving, encouragement, exhortation, and information for these very recent Gentile believers in Christ. Most of the letter is about Paul’s relationship with these Christians. He reminds them of things they already know: about sexual immorality, mutual love, and the return of Jesus Christ. Then he concludes with some specific exhortations.

And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves. Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men. Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.  Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.  (1 Thes 5:12-22 KJV)

 

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. (1 Thess 5:19-22 NIV)

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thes 5:19-22 NRSV)

Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. Stay away from every kind of evil. (1 Thes 5:19-22 NLT)

Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. (NASB)

Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire. Don’t despise what God has revealed. Instead, test everything. Hold on to what is good. Keep away from every kind of evil. (1 Thess 5:19-22 GWT)

Commentaries about “appearance of evil”

After reading multiple translations and seeking the Lord’s will on a subject through fervent prayer, it’s a good time to read some good commentaries to see if they shed new light on the subject.

Verse 22. Tittmann supports English Version, “from every evil appearance” or “semblance.”  The context, however, does not refer to evil appearances IN OURSELVES which we ought to abstain from, but to holding ourselves aloof from every evil appearance IN OTHERS; as for instance, in the pretenders to spirit-inspired prophesyings. In many cases the Christian should not abstain from what has the semblance (“appearance”) of evil, though really good. Jesus healed on the sabbath, and ate with publicans and sinners, acts which wore the appearance of evil, but which were not to be abstained from on that account, being really good.  I agree with Tittmann rather than with Bengel, whom Alford follows. The context favors this sense: However specious be the form or outward appearance of such would-be prophets and their prophesyings, hold yourselves aloof from every such form when it is evil, literally, “Hold yourselves aloof from every evil appearance” or “form.” Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

Verse 22. – Abstain from all appearance of evil. This verse is connected with the last, and states negatively what is there stated positively. Test the declarations of the prophets; retain the good, and reject the evil.  The word translated “appearance” has been differently rendered; it denotes form, figure, species, kind; so that the clause is to be rendered, “Abstain from all form of evil” (R.V.), or, “of the evil,” the word being an abstract substantive.  The whole exhortation is similar to that given in Romans 12:9, only there the negative statement is put first: “Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.” Some suppose that the metaphor employed is from the practice of money-changers who tested the money offered to them, rejecting what was base and retaining what was genuine. Among the Fathers we meet with the phrase, “Be ye experienced money-changers,” as a traditionary saying of our Lord; and some suppose that the apostle refers to this saying, and give the following paraphrase: “The good money keep; with every sort of bad money have nothing to do; act as experienced money-changers: all the money presented to you as good, test.” Such a supposition is fanciful and far-fetched. Pulpit Commentary

[Some scholars] find in 1 Thessalonians 5:22 the meaning: avoid all evil appearance. But (1) εἶδος never signifies appearance.  (2) A distorted thought would arise. For as the apostle has required the holding fast not that which has the appearance of good, but that which is actually good; so also in 1 Thessalonians 5:22, on account of the close reference of πονηροῦ to the preceding καλόν, the discourse must also be of an abstinence from that which is actually evil.  (3) To preserve oneself from all appearance of evil is not within the power of man. Meyer’s NT Commentary

Verse 22. Abstain from all appearance of evil — from every form of evil (R. V.).  The Apostle does not advise the Thessalonians to avoid what looks like evil; the command thus understood encourages the studying of appearances, and tends to the “doing of our works to be seen of men” which our Lord condemns (Matthew 23:5).  But in completing on the negative side the previous command, “hold fast the good (in prophesyings),” he gives to it the widest possible extension: “Keep yourselves not only from this, but from every sort of evil.” It is difficult, however, for the Greek scholar to justify the reading of evil in this sentence as a substantive, and the rendering of the governing noun by kind instead of appearance (rendered form, fashion, shape, in Luke 3:22; Luke 9:29, John 5:37). This noun St Paul uses once besides, in 2 Corinthians 5:7 : “We walk by faith, not by sight”—i.e. with no visible form, or appearance, to walk by. His meaning here may be similar: Abstain from every evil sight (or show)—from all that is evil in the outward show of things about you: ab omni specie mala (Vulgate). 

There are two words for “evil” in Greek—that used here, signifying harmful, mischievous (so designating “the Evil One,” see note on 2 Thessalonians 3:3); and that employed in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, denoting bad, base, malicious.

With this emphatic word, keep yourselves, the Apostle concludes his directions to the Thessalonians, extending from 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, as to what they must do in order to preserve and sustain the life of grace in themselves. The prayer of the next verse invokes the power of God to accomplish for them that which mere human effort can never attain. Comp. the transition of ch. 1 Thessalonians 3:11, expressed in similar language (see note), and of 2 Thessalonians 2:16; 2 Thessalonians 3:3. All that the Christian can do for his own safe-keeping, or for the service of his fellows, is merged in the greatness and completeness of that which God will do for them. Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

God is able to keep you from “appearance of evil”

Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 NLT)

 

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