Abstain from all appearances of evil, is how some Bible versions translate this verse, while others translate it as, abstain from all forms of evil.
The original Greek word is the exact same one that is translated as sight in 2 Corinthians 5:7 when it says, “You shall live by faith and not by sight.” Interesting, isn’t it? It makes sense that God is saying, stay away from even what looks like evil – even what takes on some form of evil appearance. In other words, just run from it, and if you have to go overboard, do it. Don’t allow yourself to be teetering on the edge of sinfulness, or even an appearance of it that could cause others to fall.
So then, you may ask, why did Jesus eat and drink with prostitutes and thieves, and get heavily criticized for it? It seems like the Pharisees were better at abstaining from the appearance of evil, because they were so picky about obeying the tiniest minutiae of the law that they even tithed their herb gardens. They were all about appearances, and were criticized by Jesus for it. (Luke 11:42)
If we are to follow Jesus, we are bound to be criticized and persecuted by false (or small-minded) Christians, who are stuck on tradition and threatened by intelligent, thinking faith. A Christian who plays it safe, is not really living out their faith. If Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons, we can’t shrink back from standing up for Him, even at the risk of being accused of the most horrendous things. So what does it mean then, to abstain from the appearance of evil in light of all of that?
The criticisms leveled against Jesus, the disciples and the first century Church, were due to the way they lived out their faith evangelistically, radically, unapologetically, passionately desiring to save souls. They were unconcerned about the approval of this world and were in submission to and in love with the Kingdom of God. If you are being criticized for doing what is evil when your actions and motives are based on that level of love, then you’re doing just fine! But how many Christians today even remotely fit that category? Hardly any. What most Christians fall under is the category that Paul is warning us about in 1 Thessalonians 5.
Doug testified that he was set free from alcohol and drugs, and wanted to save all his old buddies who he used to hang out with. He was surprised at how quickly they found ways to avoid him once they knew he had given his life to God. After a few enthusiastic months of giving his testimony, praising God for his new life and helping with evangelism at church, he decided that the only way to reach those old friends was to go back into the bar and find them. “Don’t worry Pastor, I’m gonna bring them to Jesus!” No amount of warning could persuade him to wait and grow in his faith first before worrying about them, and Doug’s appearances at church started to dwindle. There was a lot more going on in Doug’s head than just a desire to save his pals. He didn’t want to admit it, but the urge to drink again was getting strong, missing the camaraderie of those late night binges was unbearable. He thought he loved God, but he really did miss that dirty old life… it felt like home, and he was sucked right back into it.
Think carefully about where you’ve come from and where you are now. Maybe things aren’t as great as you want them to be, not all your prayers have been answered, you’re a little confused and frustrated with your faith. But look back and see where you’ve come from. Do you really want to go back there? Do you feel the lure of hanging out with those old friends who used to make you laugh so much, hear that old music that reminds you of those crazy old days? Satan knows just how to present the perfect rationale to dip your toes back into those waters, because it feels so good, and he promises you all the fun without the sin, or so he says.
Many confused Christians are right on the brink, and many have already fallen over into the devil’s domain without any sense of remorse or repentance. I’ve known many who even accuse God of pushing them over the edge because He didn’t make it easier for them to obey. This is the saddest experience for me as a pastor, to see those who could be free, who willingly allow themselves to be drawn right back into the pit. Don’t teeter on the brink, run from sin today – even the appearance of it.
Abstain from all appearances of evil. May the very God of peace sanctify you completely. And I pray to God that your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, who also will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:22-24 MEV)
As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly. (Proverbs 26:11 MEV)