“Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:21–22

Growing up in 70’s Christian culture just about every decision we made was weighed according to the way an action would appear to those around us. I am not sure if we were more afraid of the judgment of Christians or the opinions of the lost. We had a healthy fear of doing something that would mislead an unsaved person, especially the chance that they might think we were compromising the purity of the message of Christ, and take advantage of such an infraction to ignore the Gospel. We also had a parallel fear of making a choice that other Christians might frown upon. Some may call this heightened sensitivity legalism, but I would protest that label.

At least the way I understood it, the admonition served as a guardrail to keep a believer on the “straight and narrow.” It was not about smoothing the way to heaven for myself (spiritual legalism) as much as it was about smoothing the way for others to see Christ without any barriers from me (spiritual self-discipline).

The purpose of this study is not to diminish Paul’s instruction concerning the conscience of a weaker brother “…or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Romans 14:3ff), or to ignore Peter’s admonition “but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15f), or to miss a key application to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19, 22, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more…to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the Gospel’s sake….”

My concern is that the natural reading of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 suffers if it is automatically viewed as a warning to make deadly-sure the “optics” of your life cannot be in any way construed as evil. After all, the KJV translates verse 22 “abstain from the appearance of evil.” Certainly, the Bible condemns every actual sin, but be careful not to trespass into spiritual legalism by claiming that something “evil-looking” actually becomes sin merely at the whim of someone else’s judgment. Just how is a well-intended, conscientious Christian supposed to be omniscient about the reactions of others? There is actually a grander meaning that the context would have us observe and apply in our decision making.

The final chapter of 1 Thessalonians closes with pithy and memorable instruction about commitment for every Church Age believer to take to heart. In light of the imminent Rapture of the Church (1 Thessalonians chapter 4) and the coming Day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians chapter 5), believers are pressed to renew their commitment to their spiritual leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13), their fellow believers (1 Thessalonians 5:14–15), the will of God (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18), the Word of God (1 Thessalonians 5:19–22), and to the peace of God (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24).

I believe 1  hessalonians 5:19–22 speak of the discernment for living that you gain through diligent study and practical application of the Word of God. The Holy Spirit works on your heart and leads you through the Word (verse 19), you are to value the “forth-telling” of the Word in public and in private (verse 20), you are to judge all things by the Word (verse 21) and “own” what is good, and you are to shun every appearance that evil makes (verse 22).

The Bible is designed to function as a sourcebook to enable righteous judgment on the part of the believer. Everything must be tested and proved by it. All that passes the test is to be held fast. A particular word or deed once determined to be good (beautiful, worthy, honorable) and pleasing in God’s sight must be faithfully guarded and maintained. All that flunks the biblical test and is determined to be evil (bad, wicked, malicious, slothful) separate far from you (hold back, keep off, be distant).

Where the difficulty arises for us is found in our idea of what appearance, or form, means. It is the Greek word eidous, meaning “visible form, shape, figure.” The word appears five times in the New Testament (Luke 3:22, “in bodily form like a dove;” Luke 9:29, “as He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered;” John 5:37, “nor seen His form;” and 2 Corinthians 5:7, “for we walk by faith, not by sight”). Each instance refers to visible form, manifestation, or visible reality.

Webster’s Dictionary illustrates the essential distinction between Paul’s focus on evil (in and of itself) vis-à-vis “associational” evil as 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is often interpreted to mean. Our text speaks of appearance in terms of Webster’s first entry: “The act of coming into sight; the act of becoming visible to the eye; as, ‘his sudden appearance surprised me’” rather than the third entry: “Semblance; apparent likeness.”

Paul’s admonition is not to abstain from everything that can be construed to look evil, but from evil in all its actual manifestations. It is not the perception of others that is in focus (after all, doing good in the sight of God may often be thought of as “evil” in the minds of the unregenerate). Separate yourself from every manifestation of evil and hold firm to good no matter what others may think!

Do not be a “men-pleaser” (Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4) but do be a God-pleaser (Acts 5:29, 2 Corinthians 8:21). Trust and obey.