Abstain From All Appearance Of Evil

Pithy Pastoral Reminders of a Profound Theologian #7 of 7
Base on exhortation delivered at PCC prayer meeting on 20 Jan 2006

“Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).

Brevity is beautiful. Paul is profound and brief. Nowhere is this exhibited more beautifully than in his closing exhortations to the Thessalonians. It may be that he was running out of parchment space. But it can’t be merely coincidental. It was ordered by the Spirit of Christ, for Paul wrote under inspiration. Christ, more than Paul, understood the power of brevity. Just look at his sermons. So this brief concluding word of Paul is no doubt designed to meet our needs. 

These are important things, which Paul wanted the Thessalonians to be reminded of. These are things, which Christ wants us to remember. We have already studied verse 16—“Rejoice evermore”, verse 17—“Pray without ceasing”, verse 18—“In every thing give thanks…”; verse 19—“Quench not the Spirit”; verse 20—“Despise not prophesying”; verse 21—“Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good.”

In this final instalment, the Lord helping us, we want to consider briefly the 7th instruction: “Abstain from all Appearance of Evil.”

Let’s understand what the apostle is saying by asking ourselves 3 questions: (1) What does Paul mean by ‘Abstain’? (2) Why does He speak about ‘Appearance of Evil’ rather than ‘evil’? (3) What shall we do to obey this instruction?

1. What does Paul Mean
 by ‘Abstain’?

Now, the English word ‘abstain’ may give us the idea that what Paul is saying is really not very serious, for we usually use the word abstain for things that are not very harmful to us. My son does not abstain from peanuts, he totally avoids them. In fact, he shuns them. On the other hand, I abstain from peanuts on the Lord’s day. Why? Because I do not want to risk a sore-throat on the Lord’s Day!

So the word “abstain” can give us the idea that “it is better to avoid” rather than “we must avoid.”

Well, Paul certainly does not mean to minimise the seriousness of his instruction. But the word “abstain” does give us an idea of how the thing that we must abstain from has a certain attractiveness, just as peanuts are tempting and almost irresistible to many of us.

The word ‘abstain’ translates the Greek ajpevcw which means “to hold oneself off or to refrain.”

Picture a ship near some reef rocks. The wind and the waves are driving it to the rocks. And the rocks seem to be magnetic. Ask the sailors, and they will tell you this is how they feel. If the ship were to hit the rocks, there would be a shipwreck. It would sink.

So the sailors will do all they can hold the ship off from the rock and they will try to steer clear from the rocks.

Well that is the idea of “abstain.” Paul wants us to hold ourselves from all appearance of evil and to steer clear from them.

But why does he speak about “appearance of evil” rather than “evil”?

2. Why “Appearance of Evil”
Rather than “evil”?

Well, in the first place, let us understand that Paul is not saying, “Avoid evil when it appears.”

No, no; the word “appearance” translates a Greek word that literally means “sight” as in “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). So it has to do with external or outward appearance. It is elsewhere translated as ‘fashion’ as in “as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered” (Lk 9:29) and as ‘shape’ as in “the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove” (Lk 3:22).

So what is Paul saying? He is saying, “when you see or hear anything that your conscience tells you is evil, then you must avoid it and steer clear from it.

It may or may not actually be evil, but if it appears to be evil, you must abstain from it.

In the previous verse, Paul has said “Hold fast to that which is good.” When you have proven something to be good; you must hold fast to it like a limpet to the rock. But now he is saying, “if you sense danger, like when the ship is near some reef rocks, which may or may not be visible to the sailors, then flee.

We must of course flee from evil. But we must also abstain from anything that may be dangerous from its appearance.

Sailors on the sea know better than to “try their luck” if they sense that there are some reef rocks near by. If the tide is up, they can’t see the reef rock, but they see the waves breaking; or they see that the colour of the sea is different at the particular spot. It may or may not be a rock. But do they take the risk? No, no; they steer clear!

Likewise, in nature, a bird knows better than to eat a very brightly coloured insect or frog. It may or may not be poisonous, because some of them are harmless. But why take the risk? No, no; they instinctively steer clear of them.

So too for us. Sometimes, it is hard to prove that something is evil. But should you wait until you prove that it is evil before doing something about it? No, no; you must not take the risk. Learn from the sailors. Learn from the bird. Take heed to Scripture. Steer clear. Fly away.

So you hear a sermon, and the preacher says: “Christ is in me, Christ is in you. Christ fills me completely. So my little pinky is Christ!” Does that not have an appearance of evil? What should you do? Flee! Steer clear from this preacher.

Someone in the church decides to organise a food and funfair for the benefit of the poor on a certain Lord’s Day. Does that not have an appearance of evil? What should you do? Flee! Have nothing to do with this idea. Counsel the brother if necessary.

Or take a day-to-day example related to your life. Your company sends you on a work assignment. You are given the option to bring one of the company’s secretaries along because there will be a lot of secretarial work involved in the trip. The only problem is that you have to stay together in a two- bedroom apartment. Do you take up the offer? No, no; for the Word of God says, “abstain from all appearance of evil.” Even though the offer is in itself not evil, yet Paul does not say: “Abstain from evil” but “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

Need I say that unmarried couples should not live together or go on a holiday together by themselves? Abstain from all appearance of evil.

Well, finally,…

3. What Shall we do to Obey
this Instruction?

We have looked at a few examples. But what shall we do in general or as a principle?

Well, let me suggest that what we should so is to listen to our conscience.

Think of the analogy of the ship in the sea; and turn to the apostle Paul’ instruction on the use of our conscience. Turn to 1 Timothy 1:19—

“Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.”

Notice how Paul likens the Christian life to a ship sailing in the sea. The conscience of the Christian is like the rudder of the ship. Paul is saying that if we put away or cast away the rudder, then we shall make shipwreck concerning our faith.

You must steer with our ship of life with your conscience. Your conscience is that which will tell you if anything has an appearance of evil. If you choose to ignore your conscience, you would be, as it were, casting aside the rudder of your Christian life. You will head into dangerous waters and you will make shipwreck.

Just as when sailors would steer their ship away at the slightest suspicion of danger, so you must steer away at the slightest suspicion of evil or possibility of evil.

Just as sailors do not try to sail close to the reef rock to see if there are really rocks there, so you must never tempt God by drawing near to the appearance of evil in the hope that all will turn out well.

Now, of course, our conscience would only be reliable if we feed it with the Word of God. Only a conscience bounded to the whole counsel of the Word of God can be effective.

A conscience that is not fed with the word of God will simply allow too much. So someone who does not know about the 4th Commandment, for example, will have no qualms about going shopping on the Lord’s Day.

Likewise, a conscience that has an imbalanced diet of the Word of God may allow too little… Someone with a fundamentalist background, for example, may allow too little, because he does not get a balanced diet of the Scriptures. So he might consider it evil to drink wine or for women to wear pants.

What then shall we do? Well, we must seek to feed our conscience by regular use of the means of grace. But in the mean while, we must still take heed to our conscience, knowing that what it allows is not always righteous, but what it forbids is always sin—for whatever is not of faith is sin. 

Which is also why Paul teaches us to avoid all appearance of evil rather than all evil.


Let us, beloved brethren and children, take heed lest we fall. Let us seek to follow the wise instruction of the apostle Paul. For the name of Christ our Lord’s sake, let us abstain, flee from and avoid all appearance of evil. Amen..