“Never Read a Bible Verse!” That’s the title of a little booklet my friend and Christian radio personality, Gregory Koukl, has written to help people read the Bible well. What great advice. “That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph — at least.” But the current is flowing the other way in our popular sound-bite culture. Not to be left out (or left behind!), the Church has its own version of sound-bite culture: verse-bite culture. In verse-bite culture we take a sentence or sentence-fragment from a biblical paragraph, memorize it out of context, write it on a little card, put it on a billboard, a plaque, a rock, etc. Somehow we think that just because this little chunk of Scripture has a verse number in front of it, it was meant to be a free-standing unit of thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Apart from the fact that chapter and verse divisions weren’t added to the New Testament text until 1560 — long after the New Testament’s inspired authorship — there is a more important reason for never reading just a Bible verse, and instead reading at least the paragraph that contains it.
By nature, meaning comes from the top down, from a text’s larger units to its smaller ones. The paragraph is there because of the whole text’s thesis. The sentence (or “verse”) is there because of the paragraph’s thesis. The word is there because of the sentence’s thesis. You get the idea. The contours of the larger units of a text determine the meaning of its smaller units. This is also the way our minds work — from the big idea down to its smaller parts. The same is true of the Bible. A biblical sentence (verse) is simply a part of a paragraph and develops some aspect of the paragraph’s big idea. Therefore, the minimal unit of thought to read is the paragraph. A wise Bible reader will learn to think in terms of paragraphs and will regularly ask, “What’s the big idea of this paragraph?”
Let’s test this approach to reading the Bible by looking at a well-known verse of Scripture, 1 Thessalonians 5:22 — “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” I confess that whenever I encounter this verse, I picture old, withered saints shaking their bony fingers in younger believers’ faces and exhorting them about some questionable behavior. In this recurring scenario, the godly, mature Christians find it necessary to exhort the younger saints not because they have done something that actually is evil, but simply because they behaved in a manner that could have the appearance of being evil. I think I just had a couple of flashbacks!
This understanding of the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 can be traced back to the King James Version of 1611. The KJV chose the word “appearance” for the Greek word eidos, which means visible form, outward appearance, kind or sort. Since this translation appeared, well-intentioned Christians have focused only on the “outward appearance” aspect and concluded that we are not only to avoid evil, but we are also to avoid anything what could outwardly appear to be evil. Hence, the genesis of the widely used ethical dictum, “Avoid every appearance of evil.” However, there are multiple problems with this interpretation.
One is that it doesn’t fit into the big idea of the paragraph containing it. In fact, this understanding is totally tangential to the paragraph’s big idea. Let me briefly explain.
1 Thessalonians is the Apostle Paul’s letter to a group of new Christians being persecuted by their fellow citizens in northern Greece. It’s an adversarial context for the church, so Paul spends much of his time defending his church-planting team’s integrity and actions in chapters 1–3. In chapters 4–5 (“the moral exhortation” section), he addresses five successive threats to the life of this church body. 1 Thessalonians 5:12–22 addresses the fifth and final significant issue facing this fledgling band of Christians.
Verses 12–22 deal broadly with the concerns that arise when the church gathers for her weekly assembly. Paul gives instructions about fostering healthy church body life in this context by rightly esteeming leaders (verses 12–13), dealing sensitively with the saints’ varying needs (verses 14–15), establishing a joyful assembly (verses 16–18), and not squelching the ministry of the Holy Spirit in prophetic utterances in the assembly (verses 19–22). Note that verse 22 helps develop the exhortation about prophecy in the church. While the paragraph covers a broad range of issues, these issues coherently develop the big idea of “what our body life should look like when the church gathers.”
By briefly working our way down from the broader context of the whole letter to the paragraph (5:12–22), we’re now ready to look at the immediate context for verse 22. Notice the logical flow of the argument about prophetic utterances in verses 19–22:
“19 Do not quench the Spirit;” — This is the general exhortation of the argument.
“20 do not despise prophetic utterances.” — A specific NEGATIVE aspect of the exhortation.
“21 BUT examine everything carefully;” — A contrasting POSITIVE aspect of the exhortation.
“hold fast to that which is good;” — What we should do with GOOD prophecies after examining them.
“22 abstain from every form of evil.” — Or “abstain from every evil form of utterance.” — This is what we should do with EVIL prophetic utterances.
Note that the topic is very specific. It is about the specific topic of prophetic utterances when the church officially gathers. As is generally the case with Scripture, God and the human authors are very specific in their discussions. They seldom sprinkle broad moral sayings like “avoid every appearance of evil” in free-standing fashion. Rather, they usually speak in a closely argued style developing a big idea, especially in the New Testament letters. Such is the case with 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Paul is exhorting the young Christians at Thessalonica to stay away from every evil prophetic utterance. However, by removing verse 22 from its very specific paragraph development, we abstract the language from its tightly reasoned moorings and create a much more general, vague concept — a verse-bite. (Yes, in a nice tone, I’ve just said that we distort God’s words and thoughts!) This seems to be an enormous price to pay for not taking a few extra seconds to read the unit of thought — at least the paragraph — containing the verse in question. The Bible’s big ideas are expressed in the big ideas of its paragraphs and we should attend to them.
Moreover, if 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is a broad, moral dictum, did Jesus avoid every appearance of evil? I think not! One of His constant criticisms at the hands of religious people was that He spent time with “defiling people” like tax gatherers, swindlers, irreligious people (“sinners”), and probably even prostitutes. Though He was perfect, sinless — though He never did anything that was actually evil — by the standards of the religious, Jesus seemed regularly to have the appearance of evil. But perhaps this is the accusation we must bear along with Jesus rather than inappropriately withdrawing from the sin-scarred people in our lives. Perhaps this is also part of our rebuke at the hands of those who don’t read 1 Thessalonians 5:22 in context. Perhaps this is part of the bitter fruit of a verse-bite Christian culture.
Walt Russell is a New Testament professor at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and is author of Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (NavPress, 2000).