Perhaps you’ve heard the injunction to avoid the appearance of evil. You won’t find the phrase in most modern English Bibles, as it’s a holdover from the King James translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. The ESV commands us to “abstain from every form of evil,” and the CSB simplifies it further to “stay away from every kind of evil” (1 Thess 5:22, CSB). This verse could be called upon to support just about any set of personal prohibitions, including interacting with someone of the opposite sex, dining at a tavern, choosing one’s friends, and forming political alliances, to name a few.
But is that what the Apostle Paul had in mind?
Context matters. If we learn to read the Bible for what it is—and not as a collection of independently assembled proverbial sayings—we’ll discover that some of our most familiar passages don’t actually mean what we’ve always assumed.
A Study in Contrasts
When we read the verse in context, we ought to observe that it makes up the second half of a contrast:
“Hold on to what is good. Stay away from every kind of evil.”
1 Thess 5:21b-22
So the staying away from every kind of evil is a companion to the holding on to what is good. The “evil” in view here is the opposite to the “good” that is likewise in view. We are to “hold on to” the one and “stay away from” the other.
What further clues can we find to help us understand precisely what sort of “good” and “evil” Paul has in mind?
A More Foundational Contrast
Moving back just slightly farther, we find another contrast. This one is more concrete.
“Don’t stifle the Spirit. Don’t despise prophecies, but test all things.”
1 Thess 5:19-21a
This one is a little more complex, but still poses no problem for the astute observer. Here we have two things not to do: Don’t stifle the Spirit or despise prophecies. And one thing to do: Test all things.
We ought to see how “stifling the Spirit” is parallel to “despising prophecies.” So the spiritual stifling Paul has in mind is the despising of prophecies. And because the entire paragraph is about church life (1 Thess 5:12-22), it doesn’t seem likely that Paul is describing enscripturated (written) prophecies, but the verbal prophecies being made in the course of ancient Thessalonian church life.
And how does Paul want people to express their dependence on the Spirit? How can they show their regard for those verbal prophecies? Is it by shutting off their minds and swallowing wholesale whatever is spoken in the name of the Spirit?
No: “Test all things,” he commands. The church will express its dependence on the Spirit of God, and it’s high regard for prophecies, by testing them all. By examining them in light of the enscripturated Word. By evaluating their consistency with the rest of God’s revelation. By making distinctions between true and false prophets, true and false prophecies, things to be heeded and things to be discarded.
The Punch Line
And upon such evaluation of the prophecies made in the church, the people are commanded to “hold on to what is good” and “stay away from every kind of evil.”
So the contrast between “good” and “evil” follows directly from the “testing” of the prophecy. Not every prophecy is legitimate. Not every claim to speak on behalf of God’s Spirit is to be taken seriously. Each of them must be tested.
And those that prove to be “good” are to be held on to. Those that show themselves to be any “kind of evil” are to be stayed away from.
Paul’s command here is similar to Jesus’ instruction to “be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit” (Matt 7:15-16a).
We’ve been given an objective set of criteria by which to distinguish between true and false prophecy. We ought to cling to the first while staying away from the second. Jesus and Paul are in harmony on this matter.
And “abstain from all appearance of evil” has very little to do with how other people perceive your behavior in any given situation. It has more to do with whom we listen to and whose instruction we choose to heed. Stay away from those prophets and prophecies who are not in line with that which is good, right, and true.
Thanks to Daniel Tomlinson for the idea for this post. Click here for more examples showing why context matters.