The appearance of evil.

Don’t worry about how things look. Worry about obeying God.

1 Thessalonians 5.22.

1 Thessalonians 5.22 KJV
Abstain from all appearance of evil.

I’ve said many times before: The King James Version is a very good bible translation. Problem is, it’s a 407-year-old bible translation. Therefore it uses the English of William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson… and arguably William Tyndale, who translated the first popular English bible translation 482 years ago, and whose version was still fairly well-known.

Four-century-old English is not the American English we use today. ’Cause language evolves. If you have kids of your own, you’ve heard it happen with your very ears: People redefine words to suit themselves, and if their redefinition catches on, that’s the new definition. Oh, you might hate it, like when literally grew to mean “well, not literally.” But that’s a recent one. Plenty of other transformations happened long before you had any say about it.

Hence many of the words in the KJV have the same meaning as they did in 1536, when Tyndale first used ’em. But many don’t.

Appearance is one of them. When the KJV used it, it meant the act of becoming visible: When you make an appearance at a social function, you’ve shown up and people can see you. Well, in this verse the apostles instruct the Thessalonians that whenever evil shows up and people can see it, stay away.

Simple, right? But in the present day appearance has another, more common definition, and that’s the one people assume the KJV was using. It means the act of looking like something else, of seeming.

And that’s why plenty of Christians read this verse, and claim, “Stay away from anything which seems evil.” It might not actually be evil; it might be benign; it might even be good—but because it looks evil, because the public believes it to be evil, stay away. Have nothing to do with it. Keep your reputation intact.

One is holiness. The other, hypocrisy.

Temptation and immaturity.

I grew up getting taught the hypocrisy. Whenever someone in my youth group talked about doing something which looked remotely suspect, like watching an R-rated movie, we were rebuked. For those of you outside the United States, an R rating means you gotta be 17 to watch it without parents’ supervision. Not that every parent cares. Most don’t. Christians tend to.

Properly, the concern is these movies contain inappropriate language and behavior, and should certain weak-willed Christians expose ourselves to such things? But the hypocrites’ concern was should we be seen watching such things—because what will fellow Christians think? What will pagans think?—shouldn’t we express disapproval of such things, instead of watching and endorsing them? And yeah—though kinda as an afterthought—what about the weak-willed? New Christians might figure, “Hey, Leslie watched Violent Sexual Gorefest at the theater, so why can’t I?” and do, and come away severely tempted to commit atrocities.

Okay, lemme address the whole “They did it; why can’t I?” argument. You do realize this reasoning is entirely childish. You’ve seen children use it. Particularly when an older sibling got a privilege they’re not old enough to share, or when a neighbor kid’s permissive parents let them do something your sane (or impoverished, or law-abiding, or God-fearing) parents wouldn’t. Teens and adults might still use the argument, but it never stopped being childish: People are different. They did it, but maybe they shouldn’t’ve done it. And even so, maybe you shouldn’t. Depends on the circumstances. Depends on your personal context.

So I might watch Violent Sexual Gorefest and come away thinking, “Didn’t scare me at all, and the blood looked totally fake.” And you might watch it and come away with post-traumatic stress. What tempts one to sin won’t always tempt another, and vice-versa. Now if I am tempted by such films, I have no business going, and you have every right to call me on it.

Still, that misinterpretation of 1 Thessalonians has led many a Christian to wonder: If an activity looks evil, a less-mature Christian might imagine it actually is evil. And aren’t we supposed to take their immaturity into consideration? Ro 14.13-18/vs>

I’ll come back to that. Let’s go back to the fact the 1 Thessalonians passage isn’t about what looks evil, but what truly is evil.

The context.

In wrapping up their letter to Thessaloniki, Paul, Silas, and Timothy threw in a few instructions about how the Christians oughta behave with one another. Which really apply to every Christian.

1 Thessalonians 5.12-24 KWL
12 Christians, we ask you to think about those among you who work hard,
who stand up for you before the Master, who set you straight—
13 and because of the work they do, to outpace them in love. Keep peace with one another.
14 Christians, we encourage you to set the irreligious straight:
Share your testimonies with newbies. Hold onto the weak. Be patient with everyone.
15 Watch out lest anyone pay back evil for evil.
Instead, always pursue good for one another, and everyone.
16 Always rejoice. 17 Pray without slacking.
18 Give thanks for everything. For this is God’s will, in Christ Jesus, for you all.
19 Don’t quiet the Spirit: 20 Don’t dismiss prophecy, 21 and put everything to the test.
Hold tight to what’s good. 22 Stay far away when evil appears.
23 May God peacefully, fully, and blamelessly make all of you holy,
sound in spirit, life, and body.
May he watch over you till the coming of our Master, Christ Jesus.
24 His call upon you, which he’ll do, is trustworthy.

Since the instructions are a bit of “Do this, not that,” we’d call this Hebrew poetry, which repeats ideas: “Hold tight to what’s good. Stay far away from what seems bad.

This is the apostles’ list of instructions to the Thessalonians about how Christians ought to behave with one another. Really, they apply to every Christian.

Often the “Hold tight to what’s good” bit is lumped together with “Put everything to the test,” because the KJV’s translators did make ’em part of the same verse. But let’s pull individual clauses out of context. These ideas are all part of a much larger whole. Stay away when evil appears of any sort, be it fake prophecy or revenge.

Obviously “appearance of evil” from the KJV refers to every sort of evil. Whenever evil legitimately appears, reject it. Because if we fled from anything which seemed evil, or might be evil, it’d be ridiculously easy to drive Christians away, or manipulate us into never doing good deeds: Insert something iffy-looking and watch it spook us.

(And in fact we see this happening all the time.)

I remind you Jesus used to hang out with drinkers, traitors, and sinners, regardless of how it looked to the Pharisees, who immediately objected to the outward appearance. Mk 2.15-16 We always manage to remember the Pharisees were in the wrong; we just never notice how we’re in the wrong for complaining when our fellow Christians hang out with the “wrong people.” Like drinkers, traitors, and sinners. Like people in the opposition party. Like the common rabble instead of “decent people.”

Well, Jesus came to save the rabble, and turn us into decent people. And most of the so-called “decent people” ain’t all that decent. They’re not evading sin because they worry about falling into temptation: They’ve found it a handy way to avoid people, activities, and ministries they don’t feel like doing. They don’t wanna minister to the lost. They don’t wanna share time with the poor, with lost souls, with lifestyles they don’t personally like. They want to stay within their comfort zones, and throw darts outside. “Appearance of evil” is as good an excuse to do so as any.

That’s hypocrisy too. So’s the worry when people would love to hang out with pagans, but worry what the “decent people” might think.

Well look. Sometimes we gotta go where we’re not comfortable, and certainly others aren’t comfortable, because the Holy Spirit tells us to go. Simon Peter getting sent to Cornelius, obviously. Ac 10 He quickly got hassled by “decent people” among the Christians upon his return.

Acts 11.1-4 KWL
1 The apostles and Christians, who were living like Jews, heard the gentiles also received God’s word.
2 When Simon Peter returned to Jerusalem, the circumcised Christians criticized him.
3 They said this: “You visited men who have foreskins, and ate with them!”
4 Simon Peter began to expound on what happened to them.

No seriously: They brought up the fact these guys had foreskins. Jewish Christians were kinda fixated on the idea back then. Which I get; foreskins are icky. But anyway.

Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) didn’t know, nor follow, the Law. Particularly the ritual cleanliness parts. So nothing in a gentile house would be ritually clean. Mildew, black mold, bedbugs, lice, parasites, salmonella, and bodily fluids everywhere. I’m not exaggerating; the past was a pretty unsanitary place. The Jews were one of the few cultures who bathed regularly, and even though Peter had taken many baths since, the Jewish Christians were still hung up on the idea of a person voluntarily going into a nasty gentile house.

Heck, Peter was hung up on it. That is, till the Holy Spirit pointed out he never declared gentiles to be unclean. Ac 10.15 And had Peter never got over himself, he’d have never shared Jesus with the Romans. Some other, obedient Christian would’ve been sent to do it instead.

Ritual uncleanliness is the very definition of something which looks good, or looks evil, but isn’t necessarily. If we stay hung up about the appearance of evil, God may be obligated to bypass us, and use more obedient Christians to achieve his kingdom: Christians who love people more than their own paper-thin reputations.