Thessalonians 5 v 22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.
Our sermon verse last week was
21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
We must not believe every spirit but to try every spirit.
There has been a positive injunction for us about what to do with what we hear preached – and when we hear that which is good it should be accepted. Positively we are to hold fast to the good, that one beautiful and genuine work of the Holy Spirit which makes for the building up and blessing of the Church.
But the final thought in this group of verses about worshipfully hearing God’s word is verse 22 – and now we come to the negative –
22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.
When we think about the word ABSTAIN it is usually in a very narrow and specific sense. We think about a Member of Parliament in the Commons or a peer in the House of Lords, deciding on an issue requiring a vote to neither say yes or no – Ayes to the right – Noes to the left – and he or she decides not to vote at all – it is known as abstaining from voting.
Or we could think about a person who for whatever reason has decided to become or to be teetotal – which means that he or she will never allow alcohol to pass the lips. Abstaining from alcohol means never to drink strong alcoholic drinks.
Or there is a temporary abstinence from food when someone is fasting – like when Paul was on a ship that was in danger of being wrecked – he prayed and fasted – abstained from food – Acts 27 v 21.
The words used in the original in 1 Thessalonians 5 v 22 are very informative and help us to understand what Paul is saying.
1. APECHOMAI – translated “abstain” occurs 6 times in the New Testament. It has an equivalent word in the Hebrew which is only found in the Book of Job, the oldest book in the Bible.
Job 1 v 1 There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
Job 2 v 3 And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.
Eschew is an old French word that came into our English Language centuries ago. It means to shun – to refuse – to abstain from. It means to avoid and keep clear of something. This is what Job was known for – he shunned evil – refused to have anything to do with it!
My English dictionary tells me that ‘abstain’ means to hold back from or refrain from something based as it is on a Latin word ABSTINERE meaning to hold from.
How interesting then that Paul had called the Thessalonians to HOLD FAST TO true doctrine – now we have a word that tells them to HOLD BACK FROM evil.
How else is Abstain used in the New Testament?
1. 1 Thessalonians 4.
v 1 Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more. 2 For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication:
We can recall that several months ago in March we began 1 Thessalonians 4 with these thoughts – 1. A Call to live to please the Lord God – v 1- 2. And 2. A Call to Holiness and Purity v 3 – 8.
All believers are called to holiness and purity – this is God’s desire and requirement for us. It is His stated standard. But Paul’s intention is to say that sexual immoralities of every kind are to be absolutely broken with. It should be a clean break with impurity – a total abstinence from the old ways. Keep yourselves from it at all costs is the sense here. And my friends, this is God’s standard for us all. The Christian life is to be marked by both radical restraint and utter purity in this area. How we need to pray for each other that God the Holy Spirit will help us as we pursue to achieve this standard. As we noted about sanctification – it is an ongoing process – a process that endures until we leave these sinful bodies behind. We can never say that we have arrived – there is a constant need for abstinence.
2. In Acts 15 there is the record of the Council of Jerusalem in AD 50 involving the Apostles and missionaries of the early church. Gentiles were being converted and brought into the fellowship of believers. In this Council the Holy Spirit led the Apostles to a unanimous decision that Jewish initiation rites, such as circumcision, were not needed for Gentiles. A letter was sent to Antioch insisting that Gentile Christians, who had been converted from pagan ways, should ABSTAIN from immorality and idolatry. The Apostle James said
v 19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
The end of the letter appears further down the 15th Chapter of Acts in verses 28 – 29 – again containing the word ABSTAIN -
28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
3. In a later letter Paul writes to Timothy warning him that wicked men would come to attempt to deceive the church.
1 Timothy 4 v 1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; 2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; 3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
These were false religionists insisting on all kinds of practices, and forbidding many others.
3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
God has created marriage and created food stuffs for His people to enjoy – with thankful hearts and proper use sanctified by His blessing. A celibate priesthood is not endorsed by this scripture! The Old Testament prohibition of eating certain foods is repealed by this scripture too. But there are still false prophets who seek to enslave people with regulations of their own invention. Paul challenges this kind of abstaining!
4. Peter however has a message for all when he says in 1 Peter 2 v 11
Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; 12 Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.
Peter writes pastorally – he says that improper appetites and desires are to be abstained from; it was not that the apostle Peter thought that they could eradicate them completely; for while we who are called the saints are in our bodies, our corrupt nature will continue to be in us. But these are not to be indulged, or provision to be made for them, to fulfil them; they are not to be obeyed and served, or lived for; but they are to be denied and crucified, being unsuitable to the character of strangers and pilgrims, and followers of the perfect and holy Lord Jesus Christ. Abstain from them.
But what are these things? What does our text say?
Last week we knew that we had to hold fast to that which is good – and we made a list of that which is Good – because we find that which is good in the Bible, the scriptures – the good word of God.
Is it profitable to make a list of that which is evil?
22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.
What does Paul mean by all appearance of evil?
1. What does the word used mean?
Ordinarily the Greek word EIDOS means something that the eye can see which is exposed to view. The appearance of a dove at the Baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ was an appearance of the Holy Spirit – Luke 3 v 22.
However W.E. Vine, the Bible expositor and Greek scholar, says that in this verse 22 ‘appearance’ has a somewhat different significance. From what he has studied in Greek documents EIDOS is used, depending on the context, of “every sort or every kind” of something. It shifts from the simple idea of evil that can be seen – in other words obvious evil – to a widely embracing term for every possible kind of evil thought, word or practice that can be described as EVIL – WHETHER VISIBLE OR NOT.
2. What it does NOT mean.
Some people have rendered the phrase “that which appears to be evil”. They suggest that some things might appear to be evil but they are not really so. They would support their argument by quoting Romans 14 v 16
Let not then your good be evil spoken of: 17 For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
Yet those who are going to speak evil anyway will see evil in anything. Some saw evil in the Lord Jesus Christ –
Luke 7 v 34 The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!
We are able to dismiss this meaning of “all appearance of evil”.
3. The Best meaning of “all appearance of evil”.
Every sort or kind of evil – evil that is real – evil that is apparent visibly, invisibly; mentally, spiritually, physically – anything that is evil in its effect and influence; anything that causes pain, sorrow and is malignant; anything that we would call bad or worthless; anything immoral and dishonest and wicked – all these are to be avoided – abstained from – absolutely!
Good should be accepted – evil must be avoided. THE Good (singular) should be followed – evil of every kind, with no exceptions, must be shunned and abstained from!
We as saints of God must reject every kind of evil, refusing to be ensnared by any so called prophesy or revelation which can be proved to be counterfeit. This thought flows from the theme of prophecying and not quenching the good. Evil here can include false tongues, prophecies and teachings that do not square up to the Word of God already written.
But as we have seen evil is far wider than that.
The Puritan John Owen renders the meaning of this verse in terms of recognising what a fifth column there is living in each one of us! In his masterful work on Indwelling sin in the life of the believer he says, “There is a power of sin that begets or brings to birth figments and ideas of actual evil in the heart. Keep yourselves from every figment or idea of sin in your heart.” Abstain from “all appearance of evil”.
He reminds us of this fact when he quotes from James 1
v 14 But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.
Was James only referring to non – Christians? Only the wicked whom Isaiah describes in Isaiah 57 v 20 like this –
But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
No – James was thinking about himself and us – all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have what is called our own lust inside us that tends to draw us away, and through which we are enticed. What is the metaphor that James is using?
I am no angler but I understand a little about what fishing involves. A rod, a line, hook and some bait are needed to catch fish. The fishes are enticed by the bait and are drawn out by the hook; the fish can make a choice whether or not to take a bite of the juicy bait – but discovers too late that the bait contains a sharp spike that has dug into its mouth and it is hooked! The food was disguised – there was deception in the bait – an angler intends to deceive, which is why he is successful. Yet there are some days when anglers sigh and say that “the fish are not taking the bait today!” The deception does not always work. There are reasons why the fish do not come.
I do not know those reasons – but I do know this – we who know the Lord and His love have been given a marvellous book of warnings. It is an illustrated guide to avoiding Satan’s bait and there is advice on how to resist the bait and the hook buried therein. Satan is an expert angler seeking to catch the believer out, and haul his catch into his pond to swim with all of his other fish. His bait is to be avoided, abstained from. We are to beware and to discern what is good food and what is bad; what is good for our souls and what will harm them; what will build us up, and what will pull us down; what will be to the glory of our creator, and what will be to the satisfaction of the evil one and discredit the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The angling metaphor is very apt when we consider the enticement of sin.
Another metaphor that James has in mind is that of a loose immoral woman, who meeting with a young man, entices him, and draws him away after her to commit sin with her. The Bible is ever an explicit and practical book. King Solomon was guided by God the Holy Spirit to write these words when advising his sons and warning them against the dangers of loose living – Proverbs 7 is very clear v 6 – 23.
When James speaks of “lust” he means the principle of the corrupt nature, which has its residence in our hearts; it is natural and hereditary to us, and therefore is called our own; we are conceived and shaped in it; we brings it into the world with us, and it continues in us, and is called our own heart’s lust.
Romans 1 v 24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts,
This was true of us before we were saved. And so the temptation begins. For instance, covetousness was the predominant lust in Judas Iscariot; he met with men who promised him profit, and at once he was enticed and drawn away to betray his Lord and master for the sake of it: sin so often promises pleasure, but it is an imaginary, and a short lived one.
We recall that Paul is writing to Christians at Thessalonica. Abstain from every kind of evil.
Albert Barnes says this in his commentary.
“There are few more important rules in the New Testament than the one in this passage. It shows what the true nature of Christianity is, and it is a rule whose practical value cannot but be felt constantly in our lives. Other religions require their disciples to receive everything on trust. Christianity asks us to examine everything. Error, superstition and fanaticism attempts to repress free discussion, by saying that there are certain things which are too sacred in their nature, or which have been too long held, or which are sanctioned by many great and noble people, – to permit their being subjected to the scrutiny of common eyes of the ordinary person, or to be handled with common hands! In opposition to all this Christianity asks us to examine EVERYTHING – no matter who holds to it and by what name he is known.”
Since then we have to examine everything that is good, surely it is even more important to examine and to abstain from, shun and refuse to get involved with, that which is evil!
We do come to a problem. The problem is that all of us know exactly what to avoid with regards to obvious sin and evil practices and thoughts. We have this old nature within and we are all too aware of what is against God’s law. After all it hedges us in as believers and we are glad that God has given us His law so that we know what He requires of us, having given us the new life of regeneration in order to keep His law. Obvious evil is not difficult to recognise.
But what about what we call grey areas?
What about those things that can be judged not to be positively evil, wrong or forbidden, yet they could be interpreted by others to be wrong and sinful?
There must be a myriad of examples in this area. And we do not have time to list them.
But let us take an example of television.
Some Christians will say that because of the distasteful programmes and in extreme cases utter filth that is broadcast through the box in the corner of the room then it is a sin to have a television and that no believer should have one.
Yet other equally sincere believers in the Lord Jesus Christ will say that so long as there are a set of rules and values that uses the off switch whenever necessary, and that only the wholesome and inoffensive programmes are watched, then it can be a useful tool for information and innocent leisure.
Are we to say that television is evil and therefore it must be abstained from? Actually for some months now it is possible to receive excellent sound Biblical Preaching on the television if you know where to look – is that evil?
What we as believers have to judge is this. Will we be the cause of others falling in to sin if we are not seen to be abstaining from all kinds of evil including having the capacity to receive sinful images as well as Godly ones?
This is a grey area. If you as a believer have a weakness as far as television is concerned, and you find it hard not to watch what is damaging to your soul, then you had better reconsider whether you keep your television. If the television keeps you from godly conversation; if it interrupts your time to read and meditate on the Bible, and to pray; if the schedules dominate your life so much that you are not free to minister to others should they need you – then abstain from these things – hold back – and hold fast to that which is good.
My friends – this is an example of the difficulty of applying this text of scripture. Do not go home and say that Pastor says we should not have a television! I have not said that – I simply want us all to know how to abstain from all kinds of evil for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and that our accountability is first of all to the Lord God Himself, who calls us to think about what we do in our lives – to pursue godliness and holiness, and to pursue Him – for Himself. What does God’s word say about this?
There is a grid through which everything can be passed when we try to evaluate things from which we should abstain – it is Philippians 4 v 8
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
The key phrase in this verse is the last one – think on these things. Thinking leads to action – so thinking comes first. Lust is conceived first in the heart and the mind – before sin comes out in the practice. Proper, godly, Christ-centred thinking is vital for us.
Let us ask ourselves what we are thinking about, talking about and doing?
Is it true?
Does it fit in with the Word of God and the Gospel of truth?
Or is it false, deceitful or hypocritical?
Is it honest?
Is there sincerity in our approach in thinking – or is it frothy and full of innuendo?
Is it just and fair?
Is there justice between men and men; is God receiving His fair share of us – or is there impiety, injustice or oppression involved?
Is it pure?
Is there chastity in words and deeds – or is there obscenity and foolish talking and immorality?
Is it lovely?
Is it lovely in God’s sight and will it increase love and friendship between people? Or will it lead to contention, anger, strife or hatred?
Is it of good report?
Is this that we are involved in well spoken of and liable to achieve a good name? Or is there something suspicious about our thoughts and actions – and they are perhaps those things that make us reluctant to share with others?
Brothers and sisters bring everything in life to this grid and pass everything through it.
This will enable us to know from what to abstain and hold back – and what to follow in sincerity and truth!
Are we prepared to be those who evaluate our lives?
Are we ready to abstain, to avoid, to hold back from anything that would not be good for us?
Are we ready to be like our Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ who knew exactly what it was to think and behave as a man, with desires and appetites like ours, yet never ever sinned. He was the supreme abstainer. He resisted sin at every encounter! He resisted the devil whenever he appeared. He glorified His father with a consuming energy – as a Son. We are the sons and daughters of God. We too must be like Him – the Lord Jesus Christ our elder brother.
Yes it is hard! Yes we are surrounded by oceans of worldliness and temptations to sin. Yes we are like fish who could be enticed by the bait dangling before us that Satan the angler wishes us to just take a tiny bite! Yes we are weak and have this handicap inside us all – our old nature that sinned without conscience once.
Yet my friends – we, just like those Thessalonians Christians, need to have this reminder –
22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.
Let us eschew evil, shun wickedness, resist with all of our might the assaults of the angler and the enticements of the enemy.
Let us study all we can the way that the Lord Jesus Christ resisted sin. Sometimes we are tempted to think that Jesus found it easy to resist the devil because He was God, and did not have the same sinful nature as us. My friend the truth is – it was infinitely harder for Him – Jesus was tempted, with outward poverty; with slighting and insults from his own relations, and with a general contempt and reproach among men: he was often tempted by the Jews with ensnaring questions; he was deserted by his followers, by his own disciples, and at the cross by his God and Father; all of which were great trials to him, and must be accounted as sufferings: and he also endured great pains of body, and anguish of mind, and at last death itself. At any point the God man could have exercised His divine power and ended it all!
But He died alone for you and me! He did not hold back from effecting our salvation – he did not abstain from His task of atoning for my sins and yours.
But he could not have qualified to atone unless He had perfectly abstained from all sin.
Let us look to Him – let us trust Him – let us seek to please Him and glorify Him by knowing His power within our souls to resist and abstain from all sin at all times.
And, when sin does get the better of us – and it does – let us learn how to avoid and abstain in the future – for His name’s sake!