Many Christians have been told to abstain from the appearance of evil, quoting 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Most of the time I have seen this quoted it is a rather subjective admonition coming from a position of opinion. What does abstaining from the Appearance of Evil mean? On the surface it is quite easy to say to avoid anything that is evil, both in practice and even the appearance of being involved with something evil. While that rather ambiguous answer sounds good it comes down to the interpretation of what is evil.
Abstain from every form of evil.The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Th 5:22). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
One unfortunate outcome of ambiguity or subjective Biblical interpretations is that it can lead to both confusion and legalism. Recently I heard a pastor teaching at a church about Holiness, which to that denomination is a laundry list of clothing restrictions. This pastor was ridiculing men who jogged and rode bicycles in tights, and went on to say, “Tights are for women. Amen? If they have feet.“
This pastor then went on to say that women who wore tights that have the feet cut out (under their skirts of course) are wearing the ‘appearance of evil’. On the inverse I’ve heard preachers say that it is the appearance of evil to have any kind of stance against sin. Some have said it is the appearance of evil for women to wear pants and others who have said (myself included here) it is the appearance of evil when wild, demonstrative worship is taking place such as uncontrollable convulsions, slain in the spirit and other types of nonsensical possessions.
What does Abstain from the Appearance of Evil Mean?
To answer this question we have to skip over the ‘appearance’ aspect for now and ask the more important question; What does Scripture call Evil? Answering or understanding what God defines as evil answers for us what looking evil might be. Rather than subjectively applying opinion or even shifting cultural ideology, we can objectively answer what the Bible declares as evil.
In the case of 1 Thessalonians 5:22, the word used is the Greek ‘poneros’. This Greek word is simply defined as evil, or wicked. Strong’s Greek Concordance adds to this the definitions bad and slothful. It has been translated as evil in the New Testament (English Standard Version) 95 times, while the closest counterpart in the New Testament, ‘poneria’ appears 78 times and is defined as wickedness, or maliciousness.
Part of my research for this article was in consuming videos on YouTube by searching terms like what does abstain from the appearance of evil mean, or appearance of evil. What I found at first surprised me.
First, there are very few quality videos about this subject. Secondarily, almost every video I watched came from a very fundamental and legalistic approach. Rather than searching Scripture for what was evil, it was a ton of opinion.
An Independent Baptist preacher said it was drinking booze. Another old time Pentecostal said it was the cutting of a woman’s hair. Some said it was going to the movies while others rightly said it was having an affair with your neighbors wife.
One unknown preacher I found on YouTube went on to declare music as the appearance of evil. Tight jeans were the appearance of evil. Low neck lines and high skirt lines were the appearance of evil. Everything this guy could think of was the appearance of evil. But what, if any, aligned to Scripture’s definition?
Thus, I’m making the promise that this article will not include any opinion of mine, other than what I already expressed some paragraphs prior about demonic appearing worship as it relates to paganism.
Evil in the Old Testament
I’ve already mentioned how many times the word evil appears in the New Testament and I’ll be illuminating it’s use and meanings soon. However I wanted to turn to the much longer Old Testament for some clarify and definition.
In the Old Testament the base word evil is found 410 times in the English Standard Version and 487 times in the King James Version. I certainly can’t list every verse but I have taken the time to look at each one. When you do this, something becomes apparent.
In the Old Testament evil was by majority associated to idolatry and paganism. For instance, just the phrase, ‘evil in the sight of the lord’ is a common phrase among the Chronicles of the Kings. Each succession of leadership was defined by whether they walked in the Lord’s commandments or they did evil in the sight of the Lord. In all of those cases, that evil was turning to other gods in idolatry and pagan practices of worship.
There are about (12) Hebrew words used that have been translated as Evil in the King James Version and only (11) in the English Standard Version. Where these two version agree is on the definitions of evil.
For instance, Judges 2:11 says, ‘And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals.’ In these cases, Baal or Baals were other gods. The people did evil in the sight of God by honoring, paying tribute to and/or depending on other gods for their salvation, for harvest, fertility, healing and comfort.
Another example of evil in the Old Testament was when the people observed the pagan practices of other peoples and their cultural religions. In II Kings 21:1-6, Mannesah, the king of Judah was defined as doing evil in the sight of the Lord because he returned to practicing the ‘despicable practices of the nations‘. Verse 6 declares that King Mannesah offered his own son as a burnt offering and that he dealt with fortune tellers, practiced seances to contact the dead, witchcraft and even necromancy.
Lying and false witness or testimony was always considered evil in the Old Testament. Psalm 52:3 says, “You love evil more than good, and lying more than what is right.” (See also Isaiah 32:7, Micah 7:2 and Deuteronomy 22:19)
Murder and the shedding of innocent blood was also defined as evil in the Old Testament. Proverbs 1:16 says “For their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.“ and this is repeated in Isaiah 59:7.
The prophet Jeremiah summarized all of this in his exposition in chapter 7 where he discusses the evil in the land. More importantly, as with all of these messages, is the redemption God promises if man would turn from their evil ways.
“For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Je 7:5–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Evil in the Old Testament was pretty clearly defined as turning to other gods (idolatry), failure to care for the weak (injustice), turning to paganism and the practices of other nations (witchcraft) and the shedding innocent blood (murder).
Evil in the New Testament
As mentioned, the word evil can be found <100 times in the New Testament. This scales well by ratio to the Old Testament. There are significant differences however between the Old and New Testament in how the word is used in practice, in that it adds to the list we found in the Old Testament.
Lying, stealing, murder, injustice, immorality and witchcraft are still present. What gets clarified in the New Testament is two additional themes: False Doctrine or False Teachers and Pride.
Matthew 5:37 says, “Let what you say be simply yes or no, anything more than this comes from evil.” This ‘comes from evil’ could mean that anything other than ‘yes or no’ could come from deception, or lying. Honestly has always been a pillar of good, and right in Scripture.
The New Testament also works to clarify the source of evil. If you asked most Christians today “what is the source of evil?” they will likely instantaneously reply, The Devil. Yet Jesus taught that it was in fact the Heart of man that produced such evils.
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 15:18–20). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Paul, in what is typically called the Pastoral Epistles taught that false teachers are puffed up with conceit (pride) and a lover of conflict, debate, quarreling over words, evil suspicions, envying, slander and constant dissent among people. Thus, we can declare false teaching and false teachers, as evil-doers.
We also see in the New Testament that demonic forces, active forces, are defined as evil. We certainly saw evil in the Old Testament relating to witchcraft, necromancy and soothsaying. In the New Testament we see an increase in active participation with demonic possessions. For instance in Luke 7:21 we learn about a women who had been filled with evil spirits “and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities“.
What does ‘Appearance’ mean?
Following suit with our examination of Biblical context and word usage, this word form appears just five times in the New Testament and is the Greek ‘eidos‘. It was translated as form three times, as sight once and also appearance once.
In Luke 3:22, in reference to the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, Scripture says that when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus Christ, it did so in the eidos, or form of a dove.
In John 5:37 Jesus declares that the Father, who sent the Son, “His voice you have never heard, his eidos you have never seen.”
In 1 Thessalonians 5:22 we have our title passage, “Abstain from every eidos of evil.’
In Luke 9:29 it declares that while Jesus was praying the eidos, or appearance of his false was altered.
And finally, and perhaps most profoundly, 2 Corinthians 5:7 declares, “for we walk by faith, not my eidos. (sight)”
This teaches us that the meaning is quite temporal. It is very much about an outward appearance. Something that others around us may see, or experience and thereby be influenced. While our faith is not based in a form we may see, our faith is often outwardly expressed in our form that others may see.
Thus, as we explore evil in the Scriptures, we can easily see what appearances we should steer clear from. This entire article almost didn’t need a writing, or a writer, for the very heart of it was already penned by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:1-21. I will not post all 21 verses here but rather a few highlights from the passage.
Walk in Love
(v3) “But sexual immorality and all impurity of covetousness (idolatry) must not even be named among you,”
(v6) “Let no one deceive you with empty words (false teaching) for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the songs of disobedience.”
(v11) “Take no part in the unfruitful works of Darkness (witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy, soothsaying, etc., but instead expose them.”
So what does the Appearance of Evil mean? It would be quite concise to say that the appearance of evil is practicing the things Scripture calls evil, or even walking so close to the line of those evils that your neighbors may think you are in the form of evil.
A couple practical examples could be spending time at your neighbors house with their spouse while their spouse is away. Perhaps nothing immoral is taking place but the appearance is taking place. What about coming out of a bar at 2:30am with a group of stumbling friends? Perhaps you are not drinking at all, you might not have even had a sip (P.s., I’m not personally against moderate drinking)but the appearance is taking place.
We must however, make a dividing line that what is ‘evil’ is not a grab bag of inventions, ideas and opinions. In this study we’ve looked closely at what Scripture declares evil. As the late R.C. Sproul said in a video titled The Idolatry of Legalism, he succinctly said that when you add anything to God’s commandments, you are ultimately taking away from them.
It is not our right or privilege to add anything to Scripture. This was the great sin of the Pharisees. We read this play out in Mark 7:1-7 that culminates in the declaration of Christ that if we add to God’s Law with our opinion, our worship is useless to Him.
in vain do they worship me,The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mk 7:7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
We must stay as far away from the Evils of Scripture as we must stay clear from inventing our own evils. It is so easy for us to feel righteous because of our traditions, as the Pharisees did. The unfortunate outcome however is that we reduce the value of the Holy Spirit working in us, we add-in the value of our own works and before long we idolize the commandments of men. In so doing, as Jesus declared to the Pharisees, we abandon the commandments of God.
In that same message I started this article off with, about cut off tights being the appearance of evil, the pastor spent the entire message never again referring to Scripture, but went on to praise their traditions, and standards as what makes them Holy and appealing to God and the world around them.
There is no private interpretation of Scripture. If we believe Scripture to have all authority then we must shun the adding to it. We have nothing more to add, and nothing to gain by adding to it. If we call ourselves Bible Believing Christians but place our Man-Made Traditions in, around or above it, we make ourselves liars and in vain we worship God.
Father I humbly come before you asking that through your Word we might see better what it is you ask of us. While we wrestle with our own understandings I pray that you help us come to the same conclusions as your Holy Word. Let us not add to it, and let us not take away from it. But let us abide in your Spirit and be taught all things by you, through your son Jesus Christ, Amen.