Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation
"Abstain From All Appearance of Evil"
God chose to employ human language—words—to communicate His will to people. Even though this medium of conveyance is quite adequate to achieve such an objective, misunderstanding sometimes can occur. One example of confusion is seen in Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonian Christians: “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). This verse frequently is used to assert that Christians should avoid engaging in actions that appear to be improper or sinful—even though those actions may not actually be sinful. However, the 1611 translators of the King James Version were attempting to convey the idea that one should abstain from evil in whatever form it may appear. Newer translations help to clarify the underlying Greek text by translating the verse, “Abstain from every form of evil” (NKJV). The verse is banning the practice of sin/evil in whatever form it occurs—whether lying, stealing, murdering, etc.
Contextually, verses 19-22 of chapter five form a pericope that warned first-century Christians to refrain from stifling the expression of miraculous gifts—charismata (vss. 19-20). Christians were admonished to test the gifts of the Spirit for their authenticity so that they would hold to what was correct (vs. 21). As such, these verses are parallel to Ephesians 3:1-5, 4:30, Isaiah 63:10-12, and Psalm 78:40. These passages demonstrate that when individuals opposed or withstood God’s miraculously endowed representatives—by rejecting the word that those emissaries presented—they grieved or quenched the Holy Spirit in the sense that they rejected His instructions, refusing to accept the teaching that would enable them to gain God’s approval. The word “quench” (sbennumi) is used in the New Testament to refer to the act of extinguishing a literal fire. However, in 1 Thessalonians 5:19 it is used metaphorically, and spotlights the idea of suppression. One does not literally suppress or quench the Spirit. Rather, one suppresses the influence of the Spirit on one’s own life by resisting the Spirit’s teaching via Scripture. Specifically, in context, when Paul said to abstain from the appearance of evil, he was referring to abstaining from inauthentic admonitions from those who claimed to possess miraculous gifts.