1 Thessalonians 5:22 “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”
“And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15, 16). Sometimes people distort the Scriptures because they are ignorant of God’s Word or they’re spiritually unstable. We’ve all seen people who twist scriptures so they can justify the sin in their life.
1 Thessalonians 5:22 is among the most twisted passages in the New Testament. Some people claim this verse means that if something “appears” to be evil we must abstain from it. Naturally, the person explaining the scripture gets to determine if a thing appears evil or not.
Most anything can appear evil to someone! The Jews consider our reference to Jesus Christ as the Messiah as being evil. Worshipping God on the first day of the week appears to be evil to the Seventh Day Adventists. Catholics think it’s evil when people don’t recognize the authority of the Pope. Saluting the flag appears to be evil to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The word translated as “appearance” in the King James Version literally means “form.” In his Word Studies in The New Testament, Marvin Vincent made these comments, “As commonly explained, abstain from everything that even looks like evil. But the word signifies form or kind. It never has the sense of semblance. Moreover, it is impossible to abstain from everything that looks like evil.”
Various translations of the Bible render this verse in a variety of ways. The New King James, Revised Standard, American Standard, New Revised Standard and New American Standard translate this verse as “abstain from every form of evil.” The New International Version says, “avoid every kind of evil.” Weymouth translates it more formally with, “hold yourselves aloof from every form of evil.” Moffat says, “abstaining from whatever kind is evil.”
The actual meaning of this verse is that, having tested what is true and false, the Christian should hang onto the true and abstain from the false. That idea is rampant throughout the gospel.
By now we can see that in 1 Thessalonians 5:22 Paul is talking about us abstaining from every manifestation and form of evil — he was not telling us to avoid things that simply look like evil to someone else. That’s an arbitrary standard. Since this is the case, why do so many Christians twist this passage into meaning something Paul never intended? I think it’s due to laziness or Bible ignorance. Some Christians don’t know why they believe what they believe and still others are too lazy to go into detail to explain what they believe. This verse is an easy “catch all” type of verse when it’s misused.
When a teenager asks what is wrong with going to the school dance, what do you tell them? You could tell them this practice “appears” evil in the sight of some and therefore they can’t go. However, parading around a dance floor is not wrong simply because it “appears” evil to someone else. It is wrong because of what the Lord taught on lasciviousness in Galatians 5:19, and elsewhere. “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness.” It takes more time to explain what lasciviousness is and how it is possible for a man who “looks at a woman to lust for her (he) has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Sometimes parents are too embarrassed to explain these things. So instead of explaining lasciviousness and lust to their teenager children, they will talk about the “appearance” of evil. It usually does not take a teenager long to see through the diversion — they quickly see that the “appearance of evil” standard is arbitrary at best.
If your neighbor wants to know why you don’t buy a lottery ticket you could reply, “I know it looks evil to a lot of people so I can’t purchase one.” Have you ever considered that the purchase of that same ticket might look like a good thing to some people. The state government tells us how the lottery raises enough money to improve our schools, roads and other public services. You might easily lose an argument on the evils or virtues of the lottery based solely on the argument of “evil appearance.” Instead of discussing the lottery (a topic the Bible doesn’t even mention), we need to discuss covetousness (a topic the Bible has a great deal to say about). Paul tells us to “put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). What is it that motivates people to buy a lottery ticket? If they really wanted to help the schools they could give the money directly. If they want to try and get something for nothing they’ll gamble on a lottery ticket. This is harder though. It requires a longer conversation about covetousness.
I think it’s appropriate to conclude with some discussion about influence because there is truth to the notion that God’s people have to be aware of their influence. In that regard, the appearance of a thing matters greatly. Does this mean the world or other people dictate our standard of conduct? No, we cannot afford to let anything other than God’s Word to set our standard.
The word influence is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “a power indirectly or intangibly affecting a person or course of events.” The idea of influence is on every page of the New Testament.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples that they are the “salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13-16). There are many interesting things you can say about this analogy. Salt is totally worthless unless it’s applied. Salt can also loose its “saltiness.” When it looses its power to flavor or preserve, it’s good for nothing. That’s how Jesus describes salt that has lost its power. “It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”
Paul told the brethren at Corinth they were an “epistle of Christ known and read by all men” (2 Cor. 3:1-3). Whether we like it or not, every Christian is an advertisement for Christ and His Church. The honor of Christ is in the hands of God’s people. Men of the world will judge Christ and the Church by how we live our lives.
As God’s people we judge each other by our actions. “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16) “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matthew 7:20) We correctly judge people by the lives they lead. They also judge us by our lives.
Have you ever considered what type of an advertisement you are? We’ve sung many songs through the years about being the only Bible some folks may read, or about how God has no hands on earth, but our hands.
Our lives and our actions speak louder than our words. It’s important for us to live pure lives and remain unspotted from the world. It’s equally important for us to know what we believe, why we believe it and to remain true to the gospel unto death. We must stand ready to give an answer for what we believe. 1 Peter 3:15, “but sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord: being ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear:”