1 Thessalonians 5:21
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
The last clause of this verse is very commonly taken to mean, "Abstain from everything which looks like evil, from everything which a bystander would suspect to be evil." That St. Paul can never have meant his exhortation to bear the sense which we have forced upon it, a moment's thought will convince you. "Judge not," says our Lord, "according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment." That passage cannot affect the construing of our text, for the word in St. John is ὁψις, not εἶδος. But it directly affects the question, whether we are to judge of evil by the mere look or semblance; for remember the occasion which called forth the precept of Christ. He had healed a sick man on the Sabbath day. This act had the appearance of evil. It appeared evil, not only to the accidental bystanders, but to the religious guides of the Jewish people. How carefully these parts of His conduct are recorded by the Evangelists! How evidently they think that, if they were blotted out of His life, He would not have perfectly revealed His Father, or been a complete pattern to His disciples! Do you suppose he would have taught his Thessalonian disciples that these conspicuous lines in the character of Christ were not to be copied, but to be treated as dangerous? But did not St. Paul follow most strictly the steps of his Master, did he not depart altogether from the maxim which has been ascribed to himself, when he appeared in the eyes of the Jews, converted and unconverted, perhaps of apostles, to be violating sacred customs, and trampling upon the covenant of his fathers? To which doctrine did he conform, when he ate openly with the Gentiles in the presence of Peter and Barnabas, who were striving to keep up what every Jew must have considered a graceful, if not necessary, recognition of the difference between the chosen people and all others? How did he avoid the mere look of evil, when he left the impression upon the minds of his countrymen that he was overthrowing the righteousness of the Law, by preaching the righteousness of Faith? The three clauses, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from all appearance of evil," are not associated by accident. Every person who has paid the least attention to St Paul's style will perceive how clearly the relation between them is indicated by the antithetical words κατέχετε ἀπέχεσθε. "Hold on to the good, hold off from every form of evil." And it is clear that the thought which determines the force of both these clauses — the thought which is uppermost in the writer's mind — is that which is expressed by the word "prove," — δοκιμάζετε. Now that word and its cognate substantive, whether it refers to things or to persons, to the soundness of money, or to the qualifications for citizenship, always denotes a process of testing. So, then, according to the popular interpretation of the text, St. Paul would say, in the first clause; "Be not content with the mere semblance of anything you have to do with. Look into it; find out the good of it, hold to that." And he would say in a second and corresponding clause, "Be always afraid of semblances. The moment anything looks like evil, fly from it. Throw away your tests and proofs; simply hold off from that which seems evil to you or to the people about you." This is not an antithesis, but a contradiction.
I. He tells us first, to PROVE OR TEST all things. I do not know a more honourable watchword to inscribe upon our banners than this of prove all things, if only we know what it signifies, and how St. Paul used it. Assuredly he did not understand it, as some of us do, "Bring all things to the standard of your private judgment; see whether they accord with that; only hold fast that which does." If there is not that which is true absolutely — true for all men — search and inquiry are very fruitless; we had better lay them aside. If my judgment is to be the measure of all things that I see and converse with, if I am at liberty to use it as such a measure, if there is no higher measure to which I can bring it, that it may be deepened and expanded, it is certain to become narrower and feebler every day. Whereas, if I continually acknowledge the presence of a Light which is greater than any organ of mine can take in, but yet with which I am intented to hold communion, I shall desire that that Light may enter more and more into me, to purify my vision and enlarge its capacities. I shall desire to see all things in this Light. And it will so distinguish between what is fantastic and what is real, between the shows of things and their substance, that it will not be possible for me to accept one for the other, either in obedience to my own natural taste and inclination, or at the bidding of any earthly guides and authorities whatsoever.
II. Next, St. Paul tells us to prove ALL THINGS. He does not say, "Prove or test certain doctrines which are submitted to you;" though those are of course not excluded. He assumes that everything whatsoever with which we come into contact — the ordinary notions and maxims of society, the habits and traditions of the literary, or philosophical, or professional, or religious circle in which we are moving, the words we speak, the common everyday experiences of life — all need sifting and testing, that we may know what there is of good in them. Yes, believe that the good is in all things, in those that you have made little account of, in those that you have been taught by others to hate, in those which you have learnt to hate yourself. Do not shrink from confessing that there is and must be a goodness, a beauty at the bottom of them all, else they would not have continued to exist. Do not be afraid of inquiring for it lest you should fall in love with the evil and ugliness which are also in them.
III. St. Paul goes on, "HOLD FAST THE GOOD." When you have perceived it, detected it, anywhere, then cleave to it, hug it, swear that you will not let it go. Be sure that what you want is the substantial good; the beauty in which is no flaw. Having that, you are sure you have what God in His infinite love desires that you should have; you have what the Son of God took your nature and died upon the cross that you might have; you have what the Spirit of God is stirring you and all creatures to sigh and groan that you may have. Not that it is yours, in any sense which can enable you to say to a neighbour, "It is not thine." It is yours by faith; it is yours because it is God's, and He invites you to believe Him and trust Him, and so to inherit His own righteousness and truth and blessedness. It is yours because it is not in your own keeping, because you are lifted out of yourself that you may enjoy it.
IV. And so we come at last to the word with which I began, "ABSTAIN," or "KEEP YOURSELVES FROM EVERY FORM OR APPEARANCE THAT IS EVIL." You have seen the good; you have grasped it; now have nothing to do with whatever is not that, with whatever counterfeits it. There will be every variety of evil shapes, forms, appearances; but if you have learnt to look below, to try and test the heart of things, you will not be misled by this variety. You will detect the evil, the lie, under each new disguise, and you will be able to stand aloof from it; to shun the contact of it. Just so far as the truth has become precious and familiar to yon, this likeness, this double, this mockery, will be loathed and kept at a distance. But I conceive, brethren, that the peril of our being vanquished by some of its manifold forms will be infinitely increased, if we adopt that opinion which has gained such strength from the supposed authority of St. Paul. To believe that we must fly from that which people think evil, from everything which seems evil to ourselves at the first glance, is to become a prey of evil in its worst sense. All reformation, in every age, has been retarded by this doctrine, all corruptions have been sanctified by it. And yet it has not restrained a single rash reformer; it has not preserved a single truth from outrage. The conscience of men cannot he bound by a rule, which must be transgressed before a single brave act can be done, a single right principle asserted. These are instances — your own experience may supply a hundred similar — where this maxim proves utterly ineffectual to accomplish its own ends. For every vulgar worldly argument which puts on a religious dress, and affects an authority that does not belong to it, must prove feeble and worthless. The only consequence of resorting to it is, that you benumb the moral sense, that you degrade the hearts of those whom you bring under its influence. They will plead it for deserting a friend, for refusing to maintain an unpopular cause; they will forget it the moment it interferes with any passion or propensity of their own.
(F. D. Maurice, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.