Inspired by an answer to one of my other questions, what is the proper meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:22?

  • KJV

    Abstain from all appearance of evil.

  • NIV:

    reject every kind of evil.

  • NKJV

    Abstain from every form of evil.

I am most familiar with the first translation, as was the poster of the answer that inspired this question. But is that an accurate translation?


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Regarding "appearance", Strong's Concordance has this defined as:

that which is seen, form

So, we need to keep away from every [blank] of evil. I think both appearance and form are appropriate here. But I think that we need to take "form" as not just "type" (as in "every type of evil") but also as "formation" ("every formation seen of evil").

Even the English definition of "form" seems to back this up a bit:

From Dictionary.com

1. external appearance of a clearly defined area, as distinguished from color or material; configuration: a triangular form.

2. the shape of a thing or person.

There's a sense of a physical formation, something seen.

However, taking this in context we can see that "appearance" is a good word choice as well. If we change "appearance" or "form" to "sighting" (strongly indicating the physical aspect of sight), then it still makes sense to use other translations:

"Flee from every sighting of evil."

I think this would be just as valid translation. It's not just that you want to avoid the appearance within yourself, but also the appearance anywhere in the world.

I suspect that's why other (more modern) translations have avoided "appearance of" in favor of "type" or "form", since the idea is that we want to avoid the external evil that we find, not that we want to avoid "appearing" evil to others.

Ultimately, this verse is about what we see, not what others see. It's a command to us to avoid things that we see that are evil -- avoid things that in our sight are evil.


My initial answer was answering the question, "Is this a good translation". However, I see that the title is "What does this mean"? Those are two very distinct questions. So, here I'll answer the other question, "What does this mean?"

It can often be difficult to understand verses that are not in context so that if you take them out of context, they tend to lose their original intention. I think it's important to look at the entire verse, in context, to get a full picture of what it's trying to say here:

1 Thess 5:19-22 (NIV)

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.

Furthermore, I encourage you to read the entire chapter of 1 Thessalonias 5 to get even a better picture.

What Paul is trying to say in this letter is to hold fast to good and reject evil--don't be like those around us.

1 Thess 5:6 (NIV)

So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.

The idea that permeates 1 Thessalonians is to stay strong in the Lord, to not turn aside towards evil ways.

In the context of this book, we can see more clearly that 1 Thess 5:22 is saying we should avoid evil in all its forms. Just before that it says we should cling to that which is good.

That's the meaning of this verse: turn away from evil; cling to what is good.

  • So is this a commandment to run from anything we perceive is evil? Or that we should abstain from anything that might be perceived as evil--such as using a word that someone else may think is evil?
    – Flimzy
    Aug 30 '11 at 10:50
  • 1
    @Flimzy Thank you! I was trying to say that, but my 6am brain wasn't working too well. I've edited to include the idea that the verse is for what we see, not what other's see. I believe that the original greek and all translations support this (although KJV does confuse things a bit because of our evolving language).
    – Richard
    Aug 30 '11 at 11:13
  • Wonderful... thanks for the excellent explanation :)
    – Flimzy
    Aug 30 '11 at 11:21
  • if we are to avoid every sighting of evil, how do we engage the lost world around us? Maybe I'm just having some trouble understanding your thrust, but it sounds like you mean to say that we cannot ever be near it - therefore, we cannot meet people where they are (as Christ did) and present the gospel to them. Did I get you wrong?
    – warren
    Aug 30 '11 at 12:11
  • @warren I've edited the answer--yet again ;)--to show the thing in context. I missed the point that he was asking for both the meaning and the translation. I've answered both questions now. Thanks for pointing this out!
    – Richard
    Aug 30 '11 at 12:36

What is the meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:22?

1 Thessalonians 5:18-23 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. Quench not the Spirit.
Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil. And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In context, Paul is ending his first letter to the Thessalonians with a quick list of exhortations.

I think that Paul is intending two things with his admonition to “abstain from all appearance of evil” comment. He desires that the Thessalonians will remain uncontaminated by evil. We can see that this is on Paul’s mind elsewhere;

1 Corinthians 5:11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.

2 Timothy 2:22 Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.

Secondly, Paul may be warning the Thessalonians about the danger to their testimony or weaker brothers if they should be associated with evil.

Romans 14:21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.

Here we have a distinction between the Old Testament and the New. The law often led people to become like Pharisees and nit pick at rules. Here Paul is appealing to their judgment that even if something is not technically “evil”, they should avoid it as it can still harm them or others.

That this should not be taken to mean complete withdrawal from the evil in the world can be seen as Paul indicates;

1 Corinthians 5:9-10 I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.

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